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Doom Eternal: Made for Speed... but Speedrunning?

To a certain extent, Doom (1993) has always been about speed. And Quake (1996). Players are timed and scored on how fast they can go. Now the technology and demand for a game that fits the practice has finally come about in the "widely marketable" Doom Eternal (2020). Videogames have never been developed for a larger speedrunning audience; Doom Eternal was made for Twitch, and for speed, but was it made for speedrunning?

Doom Eternal isn't bleak, but bright and colorful (akin to Diablo 3 infamously "having color"). Its metal-loving pastiche riffs off early '90s Doom and Quake II (1998), but also muscle-bound fantasy heroes like He-man and Conan the Barbarian. Personally I prefer the darker, spookier PSOne port (1995), but I'm in the minority—an active minority given that Doom 64 (1996) comes with purchasing Doom Eternal

Regarding demons and heavy metal, the "correct" way to present them has always been in flux. This includes artistic presentation, and color schemes. Eternal's brightened palate is more than cosmetic; the speed of the gameplay requires a vivid scheme. Flashy colors help the player see, thus navigate, the fights while moving as fast as possible, and in multiple directions. Doom Eternal feels less like Quake than its 2016 counterpart because it wears Doom's trademark "Metal!" on its sleeve, while simultaneously expanding it into a true-3D world.

Sight is more than just looking at the screen, though. It's about the game communicating information to the player. This concept holds true with older games like Super Mario Bros. (1985) or Metroid (1986). If you knew what to look for, you could see it and take advantage. The difference with a game like Doom Eternal is its visuals are built for lightning-quick, first-person movement. It's designed to be played fast from a limited perspective, and the visuals reflect that.

All of this occurs while including non-Doom elements into Doomguy's complex movement scheme. Doom Eternal marries older forms of gameplay like platforming and puzzle-solving to Doom's horizontal action formula. It's hardly classic Doom, in and of itself. However, the game also presents itself nakedly as a game. The health pick-ups and 1-ups glow bright colors, but also look like the assortment of collectibles seen on CRT monitors, back in 1993. Nostalgia as a marketable concept butts heads with player immersion— a more recent game design convention.

The game's developers have embraced the idea of gaming viewership. In other words, it's entirely possible to experience the game without playing it yourself, and arguably the best experiences are provided by the best players. Speedrunning has always offered "sweaty gameplay" to smaller audiences, albeit by clever players who revinvent gameplay. Doom Eternal is aimed at Twitch, a larger platform where FPS are commonplace. The problem is, speedrunning is performed historically through single-player games. Doom Eternal  boasts an impressive single player campaign; I'm still not sure it can offer speedrunning as it currently exists.

Many FPS videogames are multi-player by design: Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Apex Legends (2019). In them, you compete against other players, not the game. This means camping and patience, a tortoise race to get the highest score, or kill all of your foes. Time can be a factor, but these contests occur under timers that must count down to zero. Conversely speedrunning is a race by the player against the game, itself. It operates under the notion that levels do not have set timers; the player can beat them by achieving various win conditionsan event that triggers the end of the game. This can be the killing of a boss, crossing a finish line or collecting an item. "It’s the game's job to tell us when it's over," Mitch Flower Power explains; it's the player's job to make that happen.

Professional gaming invokes rules that can't be broken; i.e., cheating in multiplayer is bad. Consider this recent video for Overwatch, where the developers removed Echo's "tech" to make the playing field more even. Speedrunning encourages cheating as a practice. However, from a developer's standpoint, it's also about leaving a game open for bugs or manipulation, intentionally or otherwise (as was historically the case). For example, Doom 2016 had tight, claustrophobic levels. This allowed speedrunners to "clip" through areas, skipping most of their content. This might seem odd, but is actually normal for speedrunners to do.

With its larger, open worlds, Doom Eternal dramatically reduces the player's ability to clip through walls. To compensate, it puts the player in control of a hero who is much faster and mobile than his 2016 counterpart. It's a bit of a trade-off, placing the speed-element less on glitches (for now) and more on playing the game as it was intended. This honeymoon phase can't last, but it can provide a more "robust" speedrunning experience, with a game that's less easy to break because it lets the player go fast by design. Metroid, a speedrunning bastion, operates under the same principle; why incorporate major glitches when you can already run fast, jump high and smash through walls and doors?

It's this conscious blend of classic game design that leads me to believe Doom Eternal will yield a sturdier breed of speedrunning gameplay. And Id Software's "Raze Hell" week for sponsored speedrunners like The Spud Hunter indicates a prolonged interest in grooming players. But speedrunning isn't chosen by companies; it's made by players with private interests, who approach a videogame from multiple angles. This includes respecting the developer's work, but also breaking that work down to achieve faster times.

The problem is, professional speedrunning implies preemptive organization. Speedrunning is glacial; the techniques used are formed in communities over time. They're meta, with a lot of trial, error and repetition (this Quake record took 70,000 tries; at roughly 30 seconds per try this clocks in at nearly 25 days, in-game). As flashy as Doom Eternal is, its explosive combat may not carry through into speedrunning records—that, or new categories will include glitches that move speedrunners away from the game's biggest selling point.

However, even if this does happen, there are "glitchless" categories. Doom 2016 features these, and at some point Doom Eternal will, too. The point is, these categories were made by players; having developers make them instead would require too much foresight. For example, Super Metroid (1994) was seemingly designed to be speedrun; these movement strategies were still fleshed-out by runners who took the developers' game and ran with it. It's why so many developers watch speedruns and laugh; they designed the game, but can't imagine how players know what to do!

A game is an assortment of moving parts, the latter which can be manipulated by new "tech" aimed towards a common goal: beating the game. Speedrunners simply do this by playing the game in ways developers didn't expect. Or see; most tech is invisible, and requires "insider knowledge" exclusive to speedrunners, which developers aren't privy to. Developers can influence what categories are created by designing the game in question; the players ultimately decide which categories are created. It's chaotic and unpredictable per game. This fact alone makes it tricky to streamline speedrunning into a professional venue unless more games were designed with similar categories in mind. However, this would arguably homogenize the practice, depleting its old-school charm.

Speedrunner-conscious developers isn't wholly a bad thing. A byproduct of games being unintentionally speedrun is having to deal with things speedrunners hate. One such annoyance is Random Number Generation. Speedrunners hate RNG, in general; in Doom, they've had to work around RNG for decades. The original Doom games feature random weapon damage—a dice roll with every shot. Doom Eternal is less random, its variability provided by enemy placement and distance. That's enough to keep things unpredictable, but also fun and challenging for the player.

This theoretically owes itself to the game being designed with speedrunners in mindBut players themselves should be free to make their own categories. That's part of the fun—the unpredictability in how a game is gradually played faster and faster. However, a company that pre-determines what categories players will make can reduce the experience to speedrun-by-numbers. Avoiding the temptation to tamper with a game to steer its speedrunners in a particular direction is advisable.

Purses are one alternative. Cash prizes could bolster competition; they would still fall outside the traditional professional sphere. Professional sports are generally watched live. In the same sense, speedrunning is watched live on Twitch. So much of it isn't seen by most people, however. It's not planned in that fashion. Professional gaming involves stages—for the players to game on, and crowds to watch them live. It has to be organized, and predictable to the extent that exciting things will occur. It's one thing to have a race between speedrunners for fun; it's quite another to expect runners to take a world record live. There's no way to predict when this will occur, but as Cheese demonstrates, a big purse can inspire miracles.

A large purse can make players practice harder. Expecting them to do it predictably as a reliable draw is foolish. Most of the time, world records are a grind. Unless the game is relatively new or isn't speedrun often, it will become optimized, allowing little room for error. The less room there is, the lower the odds that a record will occur. Easy records will occur quickly and get expensive; attempting difficult records is repetitive and will get boring. And if a record seems imminent, so is the possibility of failure. Reliable disappointment can turn all but the most dedicated away.
This highlights another issue: Most records are not viewed "live" because they can't be predicted to occur live. This means that unless you saw it when it actually transpired, it's a pre-recorded video. This runs against the idea of professional sports, which need a "live draw" to reel in the crowd. If classic speedrunning can't do it in its current state, then something needs to change.

And here, Doom Eternal presents a curious solution. Make a fast, brutal game that's fun to watch, but can also be speedrun using classic movement strategies while also being a Doom game. Doom Eternal checks a lot of boxes, and it certainly will give players something to watch on Twitch. I just don't think its biggest moneymakers will be speedrunners. This being said, I'm hoping Doom Eternal encourages more single-player games to be made for all players. Any game can be speedrun, but certain games are more easily speedrun as part of the experience. Doom Eternal seems to be that kind of game.

However, I'm not sure how much Twitch gameplay will involve speedrunning versus battle mode or casual play. The game is incredibly hard as is, and speedrunning only make things harder for players. Watching speedrunners try their luck at Ultra Nightmare might be fun for us; it could also burn runners out. A steady paycheck might keep them coming back, but will the crowds turn out each and every time? The game will need to be constantly bloody and exciting for this to happen.

Of course, speedrunners might skip the big fights in favor of sheer speed, but money behind popular categories can still persuade them to put on a show. The problem is, speedrunning is largely amateur in practice. A world record has always been about bragging rights. Certain categories in Doom Eternal will reliably entertain, but not all of them may valorize the speedrunning practice. For one, they might "cap out," becoming over-saturated with players who have no hope of winning and merely kill demons fast for the crowd. At some indistinct point, Doomguy isn't a speedrunner at all; he's a killer-for-hire.

I'm not saying the two activities are mutually exclusive, but given the chance to go fast by skipping a fight, the speedrunner will do so every time. It's a constellation of nerdy tricks and meta nods, and definitely isn't for everyone. Not everyone in the crowd is going to care if you damage-skipped off of a frame-perfect execution while manipulating RNG; a large number turn out for the fireworks. Speedrunning is about what occurs under the hood, the metaplay. It's an incredibly skillful profession, as illustrated by this recent Summoning Salt video. However, much of this effort is invisible to the naked eye—an eye that will be fixed on Doomguy doing tricks that look far fancier than they actually are to perform.

It's a very rare game that can translate flashy visuals into speedrunning magic. Super Metroid did. Only time will tell if Doom Eternal can do the same.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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