Hands on with Doom 3: BFG, and the terrible secret behind the original game’s flashlight
“You need to take a few steps back, and kind of relax your eyes. Is that comfortable?” the Bethesda rep asked me. I was playing Doom 3: BFG Edition in 3D, on the Xbox 360, and the settings were tweaked for viewers who stood a few feet back. The poor man had to talk to me and watch me play while I wore the 3D glasses. His day must have been one long headache. This version of Doom 3 has been optimized for modern consoles and PCs, with updated graphics, textures, and new content. I’m a big fan of Doom 3. I love the way the game looked, the feeling of never being safe—even though I understood the improbability of the monster closets—and I thought the decision to make you choose between your weapon and flashlight was inspired. It was certainly divisive, but I’ve long defended the decisions behind the game’s design. Until I was told that everything I had believed was a lie.
The tech behind the update
So the game runs at 60 frames per second, even in the 3D? “Well, mostly,” Tim Willits, creative director at id Software, admitted. So how the hell do you make a game look this good, on the 360, in 3D, at such a high frame rate? “We have John Carmack,” he explained. Now, dear reader, let’s take a moment to step back, because he said this in such a way that I recalled Tony Stark reminding Loki of the existence of the Hulk. Having John Carmack trying to solve your technical problems must be a sizable advantage indeed. “It looks better in 3D than many games do in 2D, between me and you… and the recorder,” he said, leaning into the iPhone I was using to record the interview. “It does more than most people realize. The engine is very robust. The art is so good it looks better than some modern games do.” Willits is up front about the reasoning behind the existence of the project. “It was a good opportunity for us, we got Rage out the door, we’re working on something else, we had the resources, and the 360 and PS3 market is ridiculously huge, I think there are about 100 million [systems] between the two.” Many of those people have never played a Doom game, especially if they’re PlayStation gamers. This is a way to deliver all the Doom 3 content, with some new stuff, to an fresh new audience. It took 12 people at id working since around the launch of Rage to update the game and create the new content. For many on the team, it was a return to a game they loved. “The level designers that worked on the new content, the Lost Mission? They’re the team that worked on the original. No one on that team is under 40. Isn’t that crazy? One guy has grandkids,” Willits said. I pressed for technical details about how the game was updated, but Willits deferred to Carmack's team and claimed I'd have to speak with them on the specifics. “They did some deep surgery on the engine,” he said when I asked if this was just a matter of new textures. “The programmers analyzed the code, they found things that ran slow, and made them fast. Plus, we brought over some parts of id Tech 5, which powered Rage, and integrated that into [Doom 3].” The work done on this game, and the tech created or updated for it, will be used in future projects.
There was controversy over the flashlight in Doom 3 when the game was originally launched. You couldn’t have the flashlight on while you had your gun out, and the player had to choose which one to use, and flip between them quickly. I thought it was inspired, other people wondered if the future existed without duct tape. The flashlight is mounted to your body armor in Doom 3: BFG, so you can finally use it while a gun is in your hands, although the battery life is limited. My thought on the matter? id sold out. “Do you know what? I got e-mails bitching about…,” Willits began. At this point, I’m ashamed to say, I interrupted my interview subject. Bad form, I know. “I feel like you bowed down, man!” I said. I loved having to choose between my weapon and the flashlight, and having it be something that can always be on, excluding the battery life, felt like a betrayal. After the public outcry in the other direction, Willits seemed amused by the outpouring of support for the old way of doing things. “I got e-mails from people saying you’re going to ruin the game by letting me turn the flash on. Can you believe that?” he asked. I told him I thought the original approach worked well for the game. “It did work for the game, but I’ll be honest with you. It was a technology limitation that we designed into the game. This,” he said, gesturing to the new version of the game, “is very powerful. It’s just better. It always would have been better.” The truth has come out, I feel silly, and now we all know: even Tim Willits prefers the version of the game with the flashlight always available.