Never Played DOOM Multiplayer against John Romero!

 The enticing event poster
The enticing event poster

So an event matching the characteristics (exactly) described in the above poster occurred in Galway. I was at it. It was very entertaining so let’s talk about that.

Three weeks ago I’d never played the game Doom, and two weeks ago I wrote this blog post on the topic. It was after that that this charity deathmatch was announced in Galway, so it’s entirely a coincidence that I have a very suitable follow up to that blog so soon, but it’s a happy coincidence.

I live in Co.Wicklow, just south of Dublin on Ireland’s East Coat. Galway is Ireland’s cultural Mecca and is to be found on the West coast so going to the event would mean driving clear across the country. In Ireland that amounts to roughly a two hour drive, though. When I learned that I would be able to show my game Sons of Sol in the indie demo room next door to the tournament, I was sold. Dan (from the team making Onikira, who lives close to me) and I packed up the car and drove over on Saturday morning to Pulse College in Galway, who were kindly hosting the event and providing equipment. On the way we discussed how boned we were, in my case because I’d never played multiplayer in Doom, and in Dan’s because he hadn’t played in years. 

 Indie gamers show their wares, with Onikira on the big screen, and Goblin's Grotto, Darkside Detective and Trench visible in the background.
Indie gamers show their wares, with Onikira on the big screen, and Goblin’s Grotto, Darkside Detective and Trench visible in the background.

We arrived to Pulse early to set up our own games and spent the hours before the tournament playing the games from the other developers, as organised by the Galway Game Dev group. There were also Street Fighter and Hearthstone tournaments on, as organised by Galway Gaming Tribes, but the big draw was definitely the Doom tournament, which offered a chance to take on John “The Surgeon” Romero, the game’s creator, whose deathmatch skills are legendary.

John and Brenda Romero arrived to the college in the early afternoon and while the machines were being set up, had an interview with Hit Start Now. At time of writing the interview isn’t up yet, but it will be available at that link. They also have one with the Romeros from 2014 while you’re waiting.

The excitement really started to rise as the seeds were drawn up for the tournament. It would be a 1 vs 1 deathmatch, first to 20 kills, played on Doom 2 maps, with the games running through Zandornum. To my horror, this happened..

 First game of the tournament: me vs John Romero. I tweeted this photo with the caption
First game of the tournament: me vs John Romero. I tweeted this photo with the caption “I’m DOOMed”. 😛

So I’d be knocked out in the first game. Ah well. At least I’d get to play vs John. I realised I was quite lucky, really, since in a knock out tournament, not everybody would. I’d also be playing him in his first game of the day, so maybe I’d even get a couple of kills while he warmed up, I thought. That said, this game would also be the first time I had ever (EVER) played a multiplayer Doom game, and I don’t know where the secrets and weapons are on any levels, so I didn’t have much chance even of that. I haven’t even played an arena-style shooter since Unreal Tournament 1 as far as I can remember. Not even so much as Call of Duty’s multiplayer. Battlefield or Planetside 2 were more my thing for multiplayer, and if you’re a shooter fan, you’ll know that’s of no help. The only thing I had going for me was that I had at least played Doom 1 and 2 to completion in the two weeks prior, and so had a slight idea of the level layouts, even if I couldn’t find the weapons I wanted on them.

I thought some intimidation might boost my chances. Some smack talk, and false-confidence. I tweeted this after the picture of those seeds (not believing my own caption for a second).

“He looks nervous” 😛
 The first map,
The first map, “Entryway” is very small, flat, easy to learn quickly, and with very few secrets or ambush points. This was to my advantage.. a bit.

We sat at our computers, John’s one hooked up to a projector so that the gathered spectators could watch the pro in action. The servers were set up, loading the first level of Doom 2, “Entryway”. While observing the setup, John made a comment “Oh, no monsters”. Seeing an opportunity to intimidate my opponent I said “Just wait John. One’s coming”. Ask me if it worked… It didn’t. But it got a couple of laughs.

We both spawned into the level and just ran around to make sure all the settings were working and that we were comfortable with how our controls were set up. The first time I ever saw John Romero in-game, so, we simply ran past each other in the corridor, almost waving genially. While he was just testing, I was frantically searching every corner, trying to mentally mark out where I’d find the best weapons and armour. In such a small level, I actually learned this fairly quickly and so wouldn’t be at as big a disadvantage when we would start the map proper. John fired the first shot in the practice run, and so I fired back. The crowd gathered, most of them unable to see my screen but watching the action through John’s eyes on the projector screen. We traded a bit of damage, and even a kill or two, before all was ready to go and it was announced that the tournament would start when we reset the level. 

The whistle was blown (edit: there was no whistle) and we both spawned into the level. I spawned right next to the BFG 9000, the best gun in the game, and smiled. Leaving the first room and heading down the corridor towards the armour I spotted John heading into the armour room too and opened fire. I believe I missed. I won’t exaggerate and pretend to remember every detail of the match, but I believe that in this first encounter, John ran and allowed me to waste my shots, then returned with a rocket launcher. We were stuck in the tight corridors where any fired rocket would, if it didn’t hit you directly, be sure to hit a wall and deal you a heavy amount of damage regardless. My tactic was, if I only had the pistol, I’d run, and if I’d anything better I’d move in close so John would risk hurting himself if he fired the rocket at me, while I chipped away with his health with a pulse rifle or shotgun.

“Romero wins”. We got used to seeing that.

I believe John got the first kill, but to my great surprise, I managed to claw back a kill or two for every few he’d get on me and the crowd would cheer (in my head they would anyway). This semblance of parity was largely thanks to the level, I think. In a corridor there’s nowhere to run from a pulse rifle, rocket, or BFG, which all deal the heaviest damage but are difficult to use well at range or in the open. This basically meant that I could deal as much damage as John could, and do it as accurately. Both of us knew where each weapon was, and if you see the other player on this map, you know he can’t get behind you as it’s so linear. I was unlucky a few times as I would die and spawn back in the very same room with only my pistol and John’s pulse rifle for company. I believe I got a bit predictable as well as I went for the pulse rifle a lot, and John’s skill allowed him to shoot a rocket into my path to deflect my jump and so I’d miss the rifle and land with an inferior weapon again. The real difference was in experience, though. Many times I’d chase John around a corner just to run into a perfectly timed rocket coming back at me. These cunning traps and near-omniscient predictions are what separate champions from the lay men. I endeavoured to be less predictable. To let him escape when he ran, or to just close the distance and keep firing when he might have expected me to run. It wasn’t enough, but I was more than happy with my performance. Final score on my first even multiplayer game of Doom: John Romero 20 – 8 Kevin. Maybe my intimidation tactics actually had an effect.

I now believed myself to have been knocked out, but we were actually playing Double Elimination Tournament as it turned out. This meant that I went into a loser’s group and would still get to play until I lost again. In the mean time, others paired off and played their first rounds. Dan (who I came with, remember?) won his first and continued in the winner’s group. This meant we wouldn’t play each other. After the first round, some people had disappeared, including my opponent for round 2. Losing their first match I think they’d thought (like me) that they were out and went home. In fairness to the organisers, they did explain the rules clearly at the start, I just didn’t quite follow because I’m a big thicko, apparently. I advanced by default. Dan won his 2nd and 3rd matches fair and square, on the other hand.

The time between my first match and my second (in the third round) was actually about three hours. I spent a lot of this time watching the projector and seeing how John played. No matter how complex for labyrinthine the level (each round had a different level) John knew exactly where to go to find the super-armour, health packs, BFG or night vision goggles. I watched. I memorised the locations as best I could. After all, I’d be playing on one of these maps next, with no idea whether my opponent would be a first timer, or a hardcore Doom guy.

 The tournament proceeded
The tournament proceeded

When setting up for my second match, neither I nor my opponent could get our sound working, so we agreed to just fight deaf, in a very dark and confusing level. This game lasted a long long time since we couldn’t follow the sounds of opening and closing doors that hint at your enemy’s position. This level (the Waste Tunnels) featured a pitch-black sewer area where the rocket launcher could be found. I had memorised the route John Romero took to find the IR goggles to see in the dark, and so every time I engaged my opponent in the unlit parts of the map, I had a real advantage. Even elsewhere, I still usually had a rocket launcher and he didn’t. I didn’t know that he didn’t have the IR goggles until after the match. Because we played for so long, I also got used to where to go to find the BFG and its replacement ammo; before my opponent did it, seemed. These two things gave me the clear advantage and I won the match by a wide margin. It was hilarious though when we’d engage in long gun duels in total silence. It reminded me of interpretive dance.

If I have this right, Dan then won his 4th round and advanced to the semi-final. John Romero was, of course, winning every match, though a few guys clearly knew the maps very well and fared a lot better against him than I would have. My fourth round opponent had also left early it seemed, and so I advanced by default to the semi-final with only one actual win under my belt.

John and Dan then met in the semi-final. No offence at all to Dan, but it was a slaughter. 20-0. The map was a nightmare. “‘O’ of Destruction”. It featured a huge acid pit in the middle, and many many side rooms, dark sections, hidden areas, a lot of teleporters, a lot of long sight lines, and a LOT of verticality. This means your opponent can be above or below you, but Doom is odd in that everything is technically on the same level as far as the engine is concerned. If you shoot in front of you and your target is in front of you (no matter how high or low they are) you’ll hit them if there’s no wall in the way. Add to this the fact that the BFG can damage you through walls. Add to this the fact that John Romero knows where the BFG is and Dan didn’t (I think, anyway). Dan got a hold of the pulse rifle quite often, but its shots move slowly and in the open, John had plenty of room to run away, teleport around to flank Dan, then shoot a BFG shot at the most unlikely-looking of targets, then hit Dan twenty metres above and behind a wall. That’s hard to watch. That’s knowing a game inside out. That’s pro level gaming. This kind of level shows that you can’t play Doom like a modern shooter and expect to beat a pro, or even stand a chance. You have to know all the tricks. I was lucky in that the first level I played John in didn’t really have any of those tricks. “O’ of Destruction” has them all.

At around the same time, my semi-final was played against another guy on that same map. Having watched people play earlier, I knew where to find the BFG and pulse rifle, and while I played I also learned where to find the normal and super-heavy armours. Again, I was lucky in that my opponent didn’t. He knew where to find the pulse rifle and kept going there. This allowed me to ambush him here many times. If he’d hurt me, I knew where to find the nearby armour and he didn’t. If there’s one secret to success at Doom, it’s knowing the levels. I’ve always been competitive, and as I started the day at, in my estimation, a knowledge disadvantage, I was sure to watch the games on the projector as much as possible and study up. This paid off! Stay in school, kids! Each of us actually made the mistake of pressing the ‘use’ key on the big skull in the level. In single player this advances you to the next level. In multiplayer it kills you and gives you -1 point. This match ended 20 to -1. I actually did feel bad as without the other guy knowing what I then knew about the level, I felt unsportsmanlike, but the whole room was waiting for the match to finish to see who’d play in the final. The match lasted probably twenty five minutes and that’s with me trying my hardest so I powered through mercilessly, though still bantering and trying to explain where the BFG could be found.

 Romero's screen broadcasting for all to see. This photo might have been him killing me, actually.
Romero’s screen broadcasting for all to see. This photo might have been him killing me, actually.

So, I was through to the final. It had been a long day. I’d only played three matches but I’d been standing for hours and was wrecked. John had played all his games plus a number of friendlies. I joked that maybe he was tired and that I had a chance. Since he’d already beaten me on the easiest level, and just beaten Dan 20-0 (Dan had been killing it against normal folk, by the way) everyone knew I didn’t. I decided I’d be happy with a few kills though.

I’ve explained how having a flat level with nowhere to hide levels the playing field and gives the newcomer a better chance against the pro who knows every map. John had selected “Dead Simple” for the final level, which is, once again, a flat and simple level. The choice was possibly because it was getting late and nobody wanted to watch another 30 minute game of hide and seek. Everyone had gathered to watch some fast action in the final. It’s also just a very fair and symmetrical map, though, and so this also makes it a good choice for a final match.

We shook hands, we took our seats, and the game began.

 The map for the final.
The map for the final. “Dead Simple”

About three seconds in, I caught a BFG to the face and died. I then respawned next to the BFG and attempted to return the favour. John declined my generosity however but offered in return a barrage of rockets. The score quickly climbed against me. The map features a central courtyard and an outer wall section. If you’re in the back corner of the map (like where the BFG is, at the top left corner) you can see your opponent coming from a distance. This makes the pulse rifle, rockets, or BFG easier to avoid here, and favours your use of bullet weapons like the shotgun or minigun. I shied away from the central area both because you’re easier to spot, and because I knew that it wasn’t where to find the BFG. I never did find armour on the map though, and so in every engagement I dropped quickly.

When it came to banter, we were both on top form, though. I remember John said “bye bye” and fired a hail of rockets. I dodged them and closed in with a shotgun saying “don’t say goodbye if you don’t mean it”. I was going to lose, but I was going to give the best fight I could first, smack talk and all. I said that if I could get enough sick burns I might claim the moral victory. I didn’t dare cast my eyes up to the projector that the crowd were watching but several times I heard the crowd yelling for me to “chase him down”, and realised that I’d almost killed John but he was running for more health and/or armour. I’d follow but he’d have disappeared. Fearing an ambush I’d retreat back the way I came. If John fired a BFG I’d run out around the walls. He’d fire ahead of me, hoping to damage me through the wall, but unseen I’d have doubled back and fired a shotgun blast at him. So went the match, but John was on top form, and I was out of my depth. I was immensely satisfied with a final score of 20 to 2. I got him with the super shotgun and a BFG I believe, and the crowd did cheer to see Romero die, but in each case I was quickly hunted down and repaid with interest.

After a hearty handshake and a couple of photos (below) I was given some prizes. This was unexpected as I had lost, but apparently second place was considered the “non-John-Romero winner”. I’d like to thank Sub-City Comics and Logitech  very much for the prizes, in this case.

All proceeds from the event went to Cancer Care West. As I’ve been writing I was checking facts with (and getting some photos from) Paul Conway of Doomcube, who along with Chris Colston organised the event. Joe Neary from Galway Gaming Tribes was also instrumental along with volunteers Mike Gilmartin, Shane Marks, Niall O’Reilly and Eoin Butler Thornton. Many thanks to all of them for putting on a great event, and for allowing myself and other indie developers to show our own games off.

Lastly, many thanks to John Romero for his time at the event and for an education in what real Deathmatch is, was, and should always continue to be. Having now seen both the single and multiplayer sides of Doom, I can see why it became the instant phenomenon that it did back in 1993 and why that popularity has persisted to this day with a myriad pale imitations of Doom, the original and best!

 Good sport was had, though this picture sums up the nature of it.
Good sport was had, though this picture sums up the nature of it.

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