If you’re a seasoned gaming fan, you’ve probably enjoyed a multiplayer title or two that withered on the vine before it could attract a sizable playerbase, like Lawbreakers or Battleborn. On the other extreme side of the spectrum, however, there are some games that attract a hardcore, raucous audience that hold on for years—or even decades. Such is the case with id Software’s Doom, the brutal, blood-soaked granddaddy of the first-person shooter. Over its decades-long reign as the most modded game of all time, legions of intrepid player-creators have molded the game in accordance to their own aesthetic whims. In a sense, they have clawed the mantle of authorship away from id Software entirely—even if they don’t always agree in what direction to go next.
While the 1993 classic is usually celebrated for its many, many contributions to what became the single-player FPS genre—including gibs, the concept of verticality, and its often-imitated arsenal of weapons—it also pioneered in the multiplayer space as well. Developer John Romero famously coined the term “deathmatch” to describe the game’s intense clashes between multihued “Doomguys,” each racing to grab the map’s gnarly weapons so that they could dominate their opponents. However, while Doom certainly earns points for innovation, it’s important to emphasize just how primitive these early efforts look today.
By default, early versions of vanilla Doom only offered two multiplayer modes: cooperative play and deathmatch. Today, Doom’s deathmatch mode would be better classified as “free-for-all,” since it lacked options for teams, a time limit, or even respawning items. Hope you’re the one that was smart enough to pick up the BFG, because it’s not coming back. (This turned out to be a bug that was later squashed.) You couldn’t even end the match if a player reached a certain score; competitors had to manually press the level’s exit switch in order to go to the next map.
While community fragsters specifically crafted deathmatch WADS (community mods for Doom, named after their file extension, itself an acronym for “Where’s All the Data?”) to fix some of these design issues, the chief problem for multiplayer Doom was accessibility. These were very early days for the internet, let alone any concept of “online play”; as such, if you wanted to play with your friends, you had to manually dial into their modem for a peer-to-peer experience that was prone to lag, desyncs, and dropped connections. Remember, this was before the concept of lag compensation even existed. Rather than the warping and shuddering that you see in laggy matches today, peer-to-peer Doom matches were synched up frame by frame, but latency would sometimes delay a player’s actions by a short instant. That’s why old-school Doomers preferred low-latency LAN play for their competitions.
Some limited matching services did exist for the game—particularly DWANGO, which also standardized the deathmatch maps that enthusiasts use to this day—but many were pay-to-play, and not every player knew about them. With the release of id’s seminal 3D shooter Quake only two years after Doom II, many players moved onto the more online-friendly game and didn’t look back. (The “Quakeworld” update introduced anti-lag measures in 1998, and they were widely adapted by the nascent FPS genre.)
According to the 22-year community veteran “Ralphis”—among others—the real turning point for the multiplayer Doom community came in 2000, when a developer named Sergey Makovkin introduced a source port for the game called csDoom. (Source ports are programs created by fans that allow the game to run on more modern systems, and they often support more advanced features. Popular examples include Chocolate Doom, Boom, and GZDoom.) Based on an existing port called ZDoom, csDoom implemented client/server code from Quakeworld into Doom, creating the first stable servers for the game. Still, it was when another Doomer named “NightFang” created a fork of the project called ZDaemon that the community really started to flourish, thanks in large part to its modern UI and server browser. For the first time, the game was approachable to newbies, including me: ZDaemon is where I honed my own deathmatch skills.
“What made ZDaemon become even more popular than csDoom was that NightFang understood that a community built around the engine would help continue to drive things forward,” Ralphis said. “He set up some simple internet forums and an IRC channel and they were quickly filled with contributors. This resulted in a ‘multiplayer’ renaissance of sorts. For the first time in a long time, new deathmatch maps were being built and promoted. There was also a fledgling ‘clan’ scene that started to form around competitions.”
While these fan efforts began to bear fruit around the early 2000s, they also suffered from some institutional disadvantages. As competitors to ZDaemon began to crop up—including Skulltag (today known as Zandronum), which sought to “modernize” the game by adding new weapons and gamemodes—the community began to fragment among the various source ports. As veteran Doomer “DevastatioN” recalls, initially players who had cut their teeth on vanilla Doom II (or doom2.exe, as he refers to it) were turned off by ZDaemon’s wonky physics and heterodox gamemodes, including capture the flag and team deathmatch. As continued development fixed many of these irregularities throughout the early 2000s, these die-hards started to warm to the port. However, when NightFang passed the reins of ZDaemon to a different developer, who decided to stop releasing the public source code for the port, the community forked yet again. A group led by Ralphis began to develop its own multiplayer port of the game, which was soon christened Odamex.
Over the next decade or so, the community remained fractured over these three different source ports: the modern Zandronum, which focused on up-to-date presentation and well-balanced competitive modes; ZDaemon, with its barrage of wild gameplay mods and massive playerbase; and Odamex, the conservative option designed from the ground up to emulate the vanilla game as much as possible. Each of these ports offer distinct physics and gamefeel that experienced Doomers can easily detect or exploit, and different factions within the community each have their own preferred port.
As the years have gone by, however, those differences have begun to fall by the wayside as the hardcore community moves to wherever the action is, using Discord as a staging ground for these events. “Almost all Quake source ports can connect to the same servers, but the same isn’t true with Doom,” Ralphis said. “[The source ports] are all incompatible and have their own physics and netcode… competitive players are much more likely to crossplay [compete in multiple ports] than casual players.”
Though scenes do exist for the different Doom multiplayer modes—especially capture the flag, which Ralphis ran as a league for several dozen seasons—many of the hardcore players view duelling as the core of the Doom competitive experience. In a classic duel, two champions duke it out in the arena, and the first to notch 50 frags wins. Unlike many competitive games, there is no time limit, which allows the players to be as aggressive or as conservative as their playstyle will allow. Much of the strategy of the game comes from knowing the peculiarities of each map—as several veteran Doomers attest, the pool of “acceptable” competitive levels has remained very small throughout the game’s lifespan, perhaps a dozen maps in total, in part due to its storied history. Today, those standards have been somewhat relaxed, but only barely.
“Back in the day, [Dwango5] Map1 was the only real serious map,” DevastatioN said. “If you lost in Map1, it didn’t matter, you were a worse player. Even if you could beat the guy in every other map, Map1 was the ‘test of giants’ for Doom players.”
If you’re not familiar with the particulars of Doom, watching competitive matches is a blistering experience. Both players move at blinding speeds, and the level of play/counter-play might astound you at first. At the recent Take the Crown duel tournament hosted by noted Doom speedrunner KingDime, there was a high degree of skill on display. In general, players tend to stick to the super shotgun and the BFG as their most reliable weapons, since both can one-shot an opponent at close-to-midrange, but each of the weapons has its uses. The rocket launcher and plasma rifle serve as area denial tools, while the chaingun deals chip damage to a fleeing opponent. Since the game lacks any respawn protection, sitting in the middle of the map and carpet-bombing spawn points with shotgun shells or rockets is a dominant strategy.
Many players who come to Doom from more modern games often express a desire to “fix” what they view as some of the game’s competitive failings, such as its “unbalanced” weapons, the high variability of damage (due to randomization), and its lack of a time limit. But for veteran Doomers, these sharp corners are part of the game’s continued appeal. “People often bemoan the nightmarish RNG plaguing every shot in Doom, but that’s simply how the game works, and that’s why we play to seemingly incredibly long 50 frags,” said “dewsome,” another longtime Doomer. “On average, the lucky streaks should even out. Oftentimes we’re tweaking game behavior in minor ways. For example, the Take The Crown tournament used old-school rules with a few exceptions, like no weapon switch on pickup, or forced respawn after 3 seconds. Attempts to rebalance Doom do exist, but they always run parallel with the classic.”
With the success of the recent community tournaments like Take the Crown, and a renewed push by QuakeCon organizers to embrace the Doom competitive scene, it seems like these veterans will continue to duel for as long as they can find someone to blast. As the most modded game of all time, there’s more than enough room in the world for vanilla Doom and its more wild incarnations to coexist peacefully—a lesson the community has learned well over the years.
Steven T. Wright is a reporter and novelist living in the Twin Cities. He is the former independent games columnist for Variety, and he has written for Rolling Stone, Polygon, Vice, and many others. He almost named his novel after a city in Final Fantasy, but his friends talked him out of it.