Doom: Eternal knows what it’s about. The opening is short and sweet, with a buildup of Mick Gordon’s fantastic soundtrack that ends with the Doom Slayer cocking his shotgun and walking into the fray. Within four minutes of hitting “play,” you’re shotgunning demons and tearing them apart with your bare hands.
Doom: Eternal is all about getting your heart pumping. It’s about throwing you at increasingly intense, fast-paced challenges that leave you breathless and force you into a “flow” state if you want to have any hope of survival. It is one of the game’s biggest strengths.
It is also one of its biggest weaknesses… albeit one the developer has learned to manage.
The downside of this high-octane thrill ride is that it is exhausting. As much fun as Doom: Eternal is, it can drain you, every bit as much as dancing or martial arts might. The big difference is that gamers may be less likely to be looking for that. Players often gravitate to games because they can be done conveniently in the comfort of one’s own home. Even the biggest adrenaline junkies can be turned off by a game that causes too much stress. And Doom isn’t just fast-paced: it’s challenging. One slip-up can mean a quick death and a start at the beginning of the combat sequence you thought you’d completed.
There’s a fine line to walk when you create a game like Doom: Eternal. The goal is that thrill ride and the “flow” state, but risk scaring gamers away or leaving them too exhausted to keep playing your game. As such, you have to find ways to balance the intensity. In the same way a comedian spreads his punchlines around and a good drama needs moments of happiness, high-octane games need something to balance the stress.
Here, we’re going to analyze the game design of Doom: Eternal to see how it balanced its intensity and turned itself into a sequel that outdid the original in every way. There are three major tools used by the developer that designers could learn from: it gives you well-placed breaks and delineates combat encounters (which provides manageable pacing), and it understands its core combat loop well enough to help you achieve the “flow” state. All of this is founded on the idea that it’s control that separates stress from excitement.
While combat sequences in Doom: Eternal are as intense as you can find, they aren’t omnipresent. Rather, the game is split into four scene types, each of which has its own level of intensity: “home base,” “platforming,” “puzzle/exploration,” and “combat.” Home base scenes place you in the Fortress of Doom, where you can get upgrades and explore the base with no tension or rush. Puzzle/exploration scenes allow you to use the game’s stellar movement mechanics to enjoy the terrain, solve puzzles, and search for secrets, usually with a very low risk of death. The platforming sequences are more risky. While you’ll rarely die from them, they can be challenging enough to require several tries.
If you were to place the game’s intensity levels on a scale of 1-10, the combat sequences, with their increasingly rapid pace and low margin of error, would run between an 8 and a 10 once you’ve left the first level behind. Meanwhile, the other three kinds of scenes max out at a 3 or 4. Note, also, that “home base” scenes don’t occur after every level. They occur every few levels. In either case, three out of the four kinds of “scenes” in the game are low-intensity breaks from the high-octane action, which give players a chance to destress and process what they just learned in the last fight.
This variety is helped by the fact that combat scenes are limited and delineated. They’re listed as “encounters” on the map. Depending upon your upgrades and exploration efficiency, you might even see when they’re coming. The combat isn’t spread through the entire level, it’s limited to those encounters (with maybe a bit of cannon fodder in platforming areas that you can use to refill your health). As a result, players know they have a chance to breathe before and after encounters.
These factors—the breaks and the delineated combat—combine to create pacing that functions a bit like a good playlist. You’ll start with low-intensity exploration and a puzzle or two. Then, you’ll do some platforming and light combat. Eventually, a combat encounter dawns, and you wind yourself up for it. You fight through it, and then it ends and you get to cool off while you explore the room and do some platforming. This tension slopes up over the course of a few levels before culminating in a crazy boss fight. After, you go back to the Fortress of Doom, where you can relax, spend some collectibles to upgrade your character, and reassess.
This pacing provides predictability alongside moments of relaxation. You start out cold, warm up and begin to focus through some platforming, then dive into combat. Players get a sense of control over what’s going on. That control—illusory or otherwise—is often a major part of what separates excitement from stress.
Chaos and Control: The “Flow” State
“Flow” is defined as “the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity… characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.” While “flow” is frequently discussed in respect to sports and the arts, it also is an extremely important part of the design of action games.
A “good” action game should seek to press players into this flow state: where they forget the world around them and “meld” with the game, all of their cognitive faculties dedicated to the task at hand. While not empirically proven, it is claimed that “enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful. Flow experiences are predicted to lead to positive affect as well as to better performance. For example, delinquent behavior was reduced in adolescents after two years of enhancing flow through activities.” Regardless, flow, like happiness, is an innately positive experience, and one of the best parts of playing action games.
A key part of achieving flow in games comes from creating a design that players can learn and master. After all, a huge part of flow is finding the balance point between boredom (where players’ skill levels exceed the challenge and their minds drift) and anxiety (where the challenge is too great and the player’s mind is scattered). While the first problem is more common, the second is also worth noting, as it can sometimes occur not because the challenge is too great, but by the game’s “combat loop” failing to sync properly with the challenges they face and the desires of the game’s target audience.
Think of it like being suddenly forced, in chess, to roll dice to decide whose piece gets taken. The introduction of luck into a game whose core appeal is “pure strategy” would frustrate players. A similar phenomenon occurs when a developer inserts a challenge that is not rooted in the core appeal or “mood” of the game, by adding tools a player only uses once, or including an enemy type that requires a really specific trick to overcome.
However it’s done, the result is the same; something breaks into the flow of the game’s combat loop and distracts the player. The predictability of the game is broken and they fall into a state of anxiety, making the game turn from exciting to stressful.
Doom’s greatest strength is the fact that it builds nearly every enemy encounter around its combat loop. They knew the core appeal of the game, designed a gameplay loop that elicited that emotion, and stuck to it when designing challenges that the player faced.
For the most part, there aren’t any curveballs. Players are expected to rush into combat and keep moving, to use their tertiary arsenal to recover health and ammo and use their primary weapons to do the bulk of the killing. You run and gun—shoot ‘til you’re low on ammo or health, chainsaw and flamethrower yourself back to full, then go back to shooting. No tricks, and only one exception. Luckily for us, this exception also gives us a case study through which to prove our point.
The “marauder” is the sole enemy in the game which breaks this loop. Why? Because the marauder interrupts the “run and gun” loop of the game by being invincible except in specific moments. This means you have two options—run away from the marauder until you’ve killed almost everyone else, or put the entirety of your focus on the marauder, waiting for him to attack so you can whip out the shotgun.
The marauder, while providing a change of pace, goes against the core gameplay loop. You can’t keep running and gunning while dealing with him. Your flow is shattered, and the game goes from exciting to stressful.
With the exception of the marauder, the game’s pacing and combat loop create an environment where players know that, with enough skill, they are in control. This sense of control is key to making something exciting, rather than stressful. After all, skydiving by choice is a lot more fun than being forced to jump out of an airplane because it’s crashing.
For aspiring designers, the lesson is to pay less attention to quirks and tricks, and more to creating a core design that you stick to, and to the subtleties of good pacing. So long as you achieve that, you can make your game more fun than it is stressful.