Doom's campaign was a wonderful surprise, and a progressive and worthy follow-up to a true classic. The multiplayer? Not so much. Sure, it's fun enough, and as Jon Denton said the other day, it features some smart design. But few would argue that Doom's multiplayer holds a candle to its campaign, despite it being a major focus in promotion on the run-up to release.
A month after the game's release, players of Doom's online aren't happy, pointing serious criticism at the multiplayer for lacking various standards, such as provision for custom settings, choosing or voting on maps, and private matches. Their argument is that these are the kinds of features that help a healthy social and competitive community to build up around a game. Inevitably, these issues are a particular bugbear for PC players, for whom flexibility is an expectation.
Worse, on PC there's rampant cheating. Assists are easily available online ("You won't get banned using our Doom cheats; we haven't had one ban on any game in over a year; our coders are that good!" boasts the website for one of them), and I've found myself at their mercy over and over. Without the ability to browse private matches, or for players to run them on private servers, you have no chance of avoiding cheating players, other than to leave games and return to matchmaking. PC players argue that without private servers and admins with ban tools, Doom also doesn't profit from the community helping to police the game.
And here's the rub: some of these features were present in the PC version of Doom's alpha test if it was launched with special commands. It was possible to set up private matches with custom game options including modes, maps, number of rounds, items, weapon damage levels and many other settings. You could even include SnapMaps. It had a browser for private matches. And it also featured bots, a staple of classic deathmatch games, particularly id's, because they're useful for practising against, or filling a map when playing with just a few friends.
Ultimately, Doom's players seem to worry most that the lack of all these features points to an uncertain future for Doom, and that the fact its multiplayer was farmed out to a separate studio, Certain Affinity, suggests its multiplayer is a bolt-on afterthought that won't continue to be developed. Looking at it philosophically, Doom's multiplayer should be right up there with Counter-Strike and Call of Duty as one of the principal competitive FPSes, right?
So it's time to put it to id. I asked Marty Stratton, Doom's executive producer and game director about what the future holds, and he was quick to put concerns at rest. "There's certainly no lack of commitment to Doom as a multiplayer game on our side," he says. "We are already working on private matches with custom game settings and expect to include that in a free update this summer."
Stratton acknowledges the missing features from the alpha, though he notes the fact that players weren't meant to access them. "There were a few developer tools discovered in the alpha that we knew we would need to improve before releasing to consumers and as mentioned, we are working on most of those updates now."
Later he expects bots to be added to the game. "Our bot system was actually written by one of our long-time senior programmers, John Dean, known online as 'Maleficus', who also wrote the Return to Castle Wolfenstein Fritz bot and the bots in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, so he does great work with bots. But John also just happens to be our internal lead programmer on SnapMap, so he's very busy."
The goal is to make bots available across both standard multiplayer and SnapMap, but it's likely that they'll be rolled out in phases, based on supporting where players want them most first, then improving them so they're flexible enough to work elsewhere. SnapMap will also be getting new features to develop it as a multiplayer environment.
But with Doom being run on dedicated servers, privately hosted servers seem unlikely. "Our goal for players at launch was to give them a variety of playlists to choose from so that they could have flexibility in choosing the type of play that they prefer while still keeping the player population coalesced," Stratton says. "With that, the matchmaking system can quickly get them into a lobby with other players and then into a dedicated server that provides the best and most fair experience for all."
But browsing private matches held on Doom's dedicated servers seems more hopeful. At first, private matches will be supported by invites. "We feel like this will meet the greatest immediate needs of most players, like those wanting to use private matches to avoid cheaters, play exclusively with friends or setup competitive options. However, we are also still considering the features and benefits of a more traditional match browser."
These certainly address the principal concerns of Doom's players, though the cheating situation is less clear. Stratton says that id is actively punishing and banning known cheaters, but won't go into detail for fear it might undermine his team's efforts. "We are continuing to look at ways to improve our capabilities. We understand the frustration."
And in terms of content, free and paid-for DLC for multiplayer is on the way. Expect to see some more on that at Bethesda's E3 Showcase on Sunday. What's interesting, however, is that Certain Affinity is no longer working on it. "We worked with Certain Affinity through the launch of the game and really appreciate their contributions and effort on the game," says Stratton. He explains that these updates are the work of id's teams now freed up from shipping the initial release and with also some support from other ZeniMax internal studios.
The bottom line is that id seems to have comprehensive plans for developing Doom as a multiplayer game. "We know that talk will only go so far with players and hope that our actions this year continue to give players across every component of the game - multiplayer, singleplayer and SnapMap - more and more reasons to continue playing and enjoying the game in whatever way they choose," Stratton says. Timing will be critical, however. Can id entice Doom's frustrated players back in, before they've turned their back on hell for good?