Originally I’d hoped to write up a big piece celebrating Doom on the day of its twenty-fifth anniversary. That may yet happen, but after a month-long bacterial sinus infection and twenty consecutive days on antibiotics I’m going to keep my ambitions a little more humble. I’d like to talk about Sigil.
One of the entertainment news items making the rounds yesterday was the creation of the new level set Sigil by id Software co-founder John Romero. He’s a man with a complex legacy, integrally part of id’s early to mid-90s titles and their perception as a fun and rowdy indie studio. After Quake shipped in 1996 he was asked to leave – a story discussed at length in the excellent Masters of Doom – and jumped ship to start the studio Ion Storm, where his professional name was dragged down like a boat anchor by the high profile failure of Daikatana. This was not helped by a pre-release ad campaign that was embarrassing at the time, is genuinely offensive twenty years later, and was enthusiastically approved by Romero:
…Yeah. Even if the game had been glorious this would have been an eye roller. Daikatana’s comprehensive failure would not be known again until Duke Nukem Forever’s release eleven years later.
Despite Ion Storm Austin’s success with Deus Ex, Daikatana’s failure doomed the Dallas studio. Romero spent years wandering the game development wilderness, and some pretty unsavory things came to be known. But in 2016 he remade two of Doom’s shareware episode levels to some acclaim from the Doom community. And I’ll vouch for them: they’re fast, entertaining, and don’t pull their punches. So while I don’t know what happened with the Blackroom Kickstarter more than anyone else does, I’m not surprised to find that Romero has been keeping this under his hat.
And… it sounds fine. A pair of free episodes for the original Doom – nine levels for single player gaming, nine for multiplayer – set to arrive in February isn’t bad news. But the promise that it picks up where Doom’s fourth episode leaves off rings a little alarm bell in my mind.
For perspective: Doom is one of the earliest examples of internet word of mouth as effective marketing. Its first episode was released as shareware on December 10th, 1993, and was infamous for creating so much demand that file servers of the time crashed from the sheer number of people trying to download it. That taste of the finished game served as enticement for customers to purchase the next two episodes direct from id. This enabled id to rake in nearly pure profit, and gave them a ton of leverage when they entered into a publishing agreement with GT Interactive afterward. But after Doom II’s success the following year they needed a hook to justify a new retail release for the original Doom. Thus the episode Thy Flesh Consumed for Ultimate Doom was born: it featured no new graphical resources, no new monsters, no new music, and merciless difficulty.
Whether Sigil will follow in these footsteps is an unanswered question. It won’t be fully possible to know until we can experience it ourselves. But based on the trailer below, nothing in-game looks fundamentally fresh. The spirit of “Doom with new levels and also punishingly harder” lives on, buried in a deluge of Buckethead’s frenetic guitar work.
As for the retail options, Romero isn’t wrong for wanting compensation for what was probably a lot of hard work. But $40 for the Standard Edition physical copy of a free mod is pretty steep even if it comes with a soundtrack by Buckethead, the most prolific guitarist in the observable universe. $166 for the Beast Box is inconceivable unless you’re spending the money as a statement of philosophy. You could literally buy a secondhand computer capable of playing Doom for that kind of money, never mind how far it would stretch on Steam or your digital storefront of choice. And I have a feeling that without that $40 minimum buy-in, it’s going to use Doom’s stock music from a quarter of a century ago.
So I’ll play Sigil, and probably write about it again here. As a gesture of goodwill for the community that gave Romero what fame he has, it’s kind enough. But like a lot of these exercises I have a feeling it will ultimately say more about where Doom was than where it’s going.