Design by Cloning

A note from April 2005: Rosai Richo sent me an email pointing out two errors in this essay. The first is that Marathon was built at the same time Doom was, so it couldn’t have been a Doom clone. That surprises me, but my memory is so flawed that I won’t contest the observation. The more telling observation is that my dismissive comments about the disjunction between the aiming and motion controls turned out to be dead wrong. The system used in Marathon that I found counter-intuitive is now standard practice in the world of shooters. I tip my hat to Rosai Richo and then take a few bites from it.

I’ve already devoted two articles to design discussions of Doom, but now it appears that I have the opportunity for a third in the form of a discussion of the Doom-clones. It would seem that just about everybody has been putting these things out, and I think it instructive to consider the process of cloning (and, one would hope, improving) on the standard.

I have no intention of wading through mountains of such clones; I don’t have that kind of time to waste. I just kept my eyes open and finally decided on Marathon as the Doom-clone to try a design review on. Why do I pick on this game? First, because it has garnered good reviews. Second, because it’s for the Macintosh; I was curious to see what could be done on the different platform. And third, because it seemed the "clone-iest". Other clones have tried to emphasize some special license or capability, but Marathon had no such distorting factors in its design. It’s a clone, pure and simple. I was waiting for somebody to release a product called Boom or Room or Zoom, (or maybe even Loom!) but no such luck.

There are two basic questions that you ask about a clone and one question that you don’t ask. The question you don’t ask is, how original is it? The point and purpose of a clone is not to show off massive creativity. Thus, we can overlook Marathon’s use of the aliens-loose-on-the-spaceship theme that we have seen so many times before. Sure it’s dumb, but that’s not what we’re looking at here.

The two questions that you do ask are, 1) how well did they replicate the good things in the original; and 2) how well did they improve on those good things?

The obvious place to start is the 3D engine. After all, that’s the only thing that matters, right? (that’s a joke, son...) Lo and behold, I can affirm that the Marathon 3D engine is certainly a good one. It seems just as good as the Doom engine. When you walk, your line of sight bobs up and down "just like Doom". Frame rates are pretty good, "just like Doom". The monsters look OK and move around about as well as they do in Doom.

Sound is another story entirely. Yes, there are sound effects in Marathon, but they differ in several ways from those of Doom. First, they’re just not as informative as Doom’s sounds. There are some generic monster sounds, and door opening and closing sounds, and so forth, but they just don’t tell you as much. You can tell from the sounds in Doom how many bad guys you’re up against and whether they’re shooting. You can tell whether you’ve hit them or killed them. In Doom, you pay close attention to the sounds, because they are critical to success. Marathon’s sounds aren’t as useful.

More important, Marathon’s sounds aren’t as visceral as Doom’s. Marathon’s pistol has none of the punch that Doom’s has. And Marathon’s machine gun can’t come close to Doom’s chaingun in terms of aural power. Their monsters squeak and chirp where Doom’s monsters growl and roar. My hunch is that the Marathon designers just didn’t appreciate how important really good sound is, and so they put in some nice, but not fabulous, sounds.

There’s a very important point here: Marathon’s sounds are technically every bit as good as Doom’s, but artistically, they just can’t match the original. Remember that!

So how did the Marathon designers go beyond the Doom design? There were several improvements. One of these is the use of computer terminals to give you information, objectives for each level, and something like a storyline to tie everything together. This adds depth to the game.

Another nice touch is the motion detector. It’s a kind of radar display that shows you any bad guys moving around in your vicinity. This has a great many advantages. It warns you of bad guys just around the corner. In a messy fight, you’re not reduced to randomly twisting and turning to see where the bad guys are; you know immediately from your motion detector. That’s a big improvement over Doom’s sideways-glancing head.

But there are interesting consequences of this feature. The motion detector only detects moving objects, so if a monster isn’t moving, you won’t know it’s there. The designers take advantage of this by keeping some of their monsters stationary until you shoot them. Thus, you can walk into a room and not look behind you, and a monster could be right there, standing quietly. When you turn around, Yikes! what a shock! Unfortunately, once you learn the trick, you also realize that the monster may have fooled you, but he’s gonna stand there like an idiot while you carefully take aim with your pistol. Not very impressive.

Another nice idea is the "glance" feature. A single keypress can give you a quick glance to one side or the other. This can be particularly handy when walking down a corridor with openings on either side. Unfortunately, it has two problems. First, if you do find something, like a monster, you’re not in position to react. Second, it’s another damned keystroke to memorize, and an action game should not require the player to memorize so many keys. I found myself making little use of the feature.

Another nice idea is grenade self-propulsion. Supposedly, you can point your grenade launcher at the floor, fire off a grenade, and the blast will bounce you up to otherwise unreachable levels. It sounds terribly clever, but I haven’t been able to get it to work yet. And I have to wonder, isn’t this a little, er, counterintuitive? I wouldn’t expect to get ahead in the world by blowing my foot off.

The designers also made weapons procurement not quite so easy as in Doom. It doesn’t take long for the Doomster to set himself up with a powerful armory. The weapons in Marathon are harder to come by and thus more highly appreciated.

The savegame feature was designed badly. Any other Macintosh application allows you to save the state of the system at any time you want. Doom allows the same thing. So do most games. But the people at Bungie couldn’t seem to figure out how to make a general-purpose save routine. Instead, you have to find a special location in the spaceship from which you may save the game. These things are scattered around the game at irregular intervals. Thus, there are plenty of situations where you must fight your way through gaggles of monsters, run, jump, and navigate your way through all sorts of complex mazes, and survive several near-death situations before you reach the next savegame station.

There is absolutely no excuse for this blunder. It detracts from the game, and there is simply no technical reason why it couldn’t be done.

I was also disturbed by keystroke lag. I noticed that, in some cases, I could get a lag between keystroke and screen action of up to perhaps half a second. This may not sound like much, but it can be intensely frustrating when you’re trying to line up a shot on a monster and your gun keeps oscillating around the bad guy because of keystroke lag. This should be an important lesson for all designers: make sure that the game runs fast enough on all supported systems. My machine was in the middle of the range of acceptable machines.

Another blunder was the utilization of the mouse. The designers apparently intended that the game be played from the keyboard. This in itself is surprising; the Macintosh audience is quite mouse-comfortable and in fact prefers to use the mouse. There can be no question that a mouse will work for a Doom-clone after all, Doom itself works magnificently with a mouse.

What really astounded me was their mapping of mouse functions. In Doom, left-right motions of the mouse rotate the player, while forward-backward motions move the player forwards or backwards. All absolutely intuitive. But for some unfathomable reason, the designers of Marathon chose to make the forward-backward motions of the mouse move the player’s aim up and down! The result is one of the most insanely counterintuitive interfaces I have seen on any piece of commercial software. You swing right or left with the mouse, but move forward or backward with the keyboard. Thus, any kind of maneuvering requires your hand to jump frenetically from mouse to keyboard and back.

What’s really ironic about this is that it’s on a Mac! One always thinks of the PC as the bastion of keyboard-only interfaces, and the Mac as the sanctuary of clean interface design, but in fact the interface design on the PC-based Doom is much superior to that of the Mac-based Marathon.

This is a good example of how an innocent feature improvement can come back to haunt you late in the design. My hunch is, the designers started off with the good idea of allowing you to aim your weapon vertically, but they probably thought about it first in terms of the graphics engine and gave little thought to the user-interface issues raised by the feature. Once they had the feature operational, they were too committed to rip it out, and so they ended up with a UI disaster.

Lastly, I will fault the designers of Marathon for poor level design. The levels in Doom are clever and interesting; the basic components of the game system are assembled in patterns that continue to surprise. The Marathon levels are uninspired; they have all the panache of a dungeon crawl. In Doom, there are many ways to dispatch a monster. Sometimes it’s best to get them mad and let them all kill each other. I remember another case where the only way to survive was to cower in a corner, with fireballs exploding all around me, darting out to get a quick shot every now and then. But Marathon has none of this elegance; you just wade in and blast away.

My overall conclusion is that Marathon is an excellent example of what’s wrong with the games biz: too much programming, not enough design. From a technical standpoint, Marathon is certainly the equal of Doom. But from a design standpoint, Marathon is much inferior to Doom. All of its flaws are design flaws, not technical flaws. And the saddest thing is, they could all have been remedied so easily.

When I studied Latin in high school, one of our favorite Latin quotes was "Philosophum non facit barba": Just because you have a beard, that doesn’t make you a philosopher. Accordingly, I think that a nice Latin quotation to post on your wall would be "Doomum non facit 3D Engine": Just because you have a 3D engine, that doesn’t mean you’ve got Doom