The game that kicked off a video game revolution turns 25 today

The game that kicked off a video game revolution turns 25 today
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This story was adapted from an Obsession email sent February 12, 2018. Subscribe here and receive a daily deep dive into the overlooked crannies of the global economy.

The video game Doom officially turns 25 years old today. It was released in its entirety on December 10, 1993, and quickly became the game to put first-person shooters (FPS) on the map. Today, these video games are big business.

Last year, Blizzard announced its first-person shooter Overwatch had earned $1 billion in revenue in its first year. This game—along with Call of Duty, HaloGoldenEye 007 and nearly every other cash-cow title that gamers have sacrificed sleep and sanity to conquer—traces its lineage back to one major progenitor: Doom.

The game’s idea was simple: You’re a space marine stationed at a scientific research facility on Mars. Demons have attacked, and you’re one of the last four people standing. Your mission: Kill demons, save Earth. Instead of popular games before it, where you watched characters like Mario jump through an 8-bit world, you were the character. There was suddenly a three-dimensional world where you could run around and explore, and you saw the muzzle of your gun flare as you blasted away hellspawn. (Doom was also revolutionary when it was released for free in 1992, a blueprint followed by games like Fortnite, because its accessibility made the first-person shooter popular.)

“Gore, guns and braggadocio,” is how Simon Parkin summed it up for the Guardian. “This trio of male power fantasies helped to define and, arguably, tar, an entire medium.”

There’s no denying Doom’s impact ripples well beyond the gaming industry. But even now, decades after its launch, it has begun to manifest powers that may shape our world to come: The game has become a teaching tool for artificial intelligence algorithms.

By the digits

2.39 MB: File size of the original Doom game. Today, the average web page is 3.5 MB.

30: Seconds in the “loop of play” game design pioneered by Doom—“a sequence of actions so pleasurable that a player would not tire of its repetition over the course of a game.”

22.9: Percent of US households that owned a computer in 1993.

$100,000: The amount of money id Software was reportedly making per day from Doom.

$5,500,000,000: The current net worth of Gabe Newell, the Microsoft coder who suggested porting Doom to Windows before starting his own game company.

18.8 million: Cumulative number of hours spent watching FPS game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on the video game streaming site Twitch, in December 2017 alone.

The dawn of Doom

The concept for Doom was originally created while id Software developers were playing Dungeons & Dragons with co-founder John Carmack, who now is the chief technical officer at the VR company Oculus. A developer failed a quest for a magic sword and accidentally caused the world to be overrun by demons. Then, explained designer John Romero, “Something just clicked.”

“We all loved sci-fi, especially Aliens: [It] was a fast-action movie and [id Software] wanted fast-action games. So what if—instead of finding aliens, like in every movie in the world—a player opened up a portal to hell?”

Doom wasn’t the first game in the first-person shooter genre—id Software already made games called Hovertank 3D, Catacomb 3-D, and the critically acclaimed Wolfenstein 3D—but none entered the public eye like Doom would.

Microsoft’s big win

When it was unveiled, Doom was unlike anything most people had ever seen, and that included the wizard coders at Microsoft.

The maps were built in 2D, but id Software had figured out a bunch of tricks to make them look like they were in three dimensions. The game was described as a “religious phenomenon” inside Microsoft, and at one point founder Bill Gates even considered buying the development studio.

It’s not that Gates was a gamer himself per se. Microsoft’s CEO was reportedly perplexed at the game’s popularity, but saw in it an opportunity to get more people to use the latest version of Windows.

So, Microsoft built a version of the game called WinDoom, unveiled by Gates himself in March 1995. This moment, chronicled in a video of Gates—with rifle and trenchcoat—blasting away imps can be seen as the dawn of the PC gaming era.

To get the game running on Windows 95, regardless of the computer where the operating system was installed, Microsoft had to build software they called DirectX, which makes it possible for complex sequences of interactive video and audio to run in order and is currently on its twelfth iteration. If you’ve ever wondered why your gamer friends insist on PCs over Apple, this is the answer.

Homer’s Rampage

Hacker types love tinkering with Doom’s code, making the game harder, bloodier (there are 21 versions of this), or swapping out demons for Ned Flanders. (Yes, there is a Simpsons version of Doom, and it is terrifying. RIP Ned.)

The pastime, known as “modding,” is still incredibly popular. So far in 2018, 22 new versions of Doom have been uploaded to one popular site. 

And modding isn’t dead, especially in the heart of the game’s co-creator, John Romero. The game developer announced today that nine new levels that can be added onto the original 1993 game to pick up where the story left off, a “megawad” called Sigil. (Files that modify the original Doom game are .wad files.) It will be released in February 2019.

Timeline of the game

April 1991: Hovertank 3D, the first 3D game made by id Software co-founder John Carmack, is released. Months later in November, it would be followed by Catacomb 3-D.

December 1, 1992: The first levels of Doom are released, with the announcement that the full game would be released in 1993.

December 10, 1993: Doom is released in its entirety.

September 30, 1994: Doom II: Hell on Earth is released. An estimated 15–20 million people have already played the original Doom game.

November 9, 1995: Nurse Carol Hathaway plays Doom on the TV show ER.

November 16, 1995: Friends’ Chandler asks Joey and Ross if they want to play Doom.

May 13, 2016: A reboot of the Doom franchise from id Software is released for the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. It sells more than 2 million copies.

It runs Doom!

Everything is a computer in 2018, which means that for hackers and tinkerers, a game that takes up 2.39 MB is a delightful challenge.

People have gotten Doom to run on everything from ultrasound machines to graphing calculators to Canon printers—even the new MacBook’s Touch Bar.

Doom and AI

When the first robots powered by artificial intelligence begin to walk around, they’ll have Doom to thank for it.

Since the game is so lightweight and simple, AI researchers from companies like Facebook (which owns Oculus) and Intel use it to teach their algorithms how to navigate 3D spaces. The AI learns to move forward, backwards, and side-to-side by pressing virtual keys just like a human would.

Some AIs have been taught to fire weapons and kill demons, which is either a preview of our dystopian future, or a handy skill to enhance human-machine camaraderie.

But don’t worry about AI learning to kill humans from playing the game. As far the software’s concerned, it’s just reacting to a blob of pixels.