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Doom Eternal’s next-gen upgrade has Id thinking about the future

Doom Eternal is the gift that keeps on giving. The first-person shooter launched  in March 2020, just as the pandemic lockdown left people looking for something to do with their unexpected free time. It offered a bit of a cathartic release at a time when we needed it most. Developed Id Software didn’t stop there. Since then, the game has gotten two DLC expansions and a whole bunch of updates, giving players more reasons to rip and tear.

That’s culminated in the game’s newly released next-gen upgrade, which gives players one more excuse to revisit the shooter. Those who enjoyed the game on past-gen consoles can now see it in a whole new light — literally — thanks to ray tracing, boosted graphics options, and more.

I spoke to Doom Eternal executive producer Marty Stratton and lead engine programmer Billy Khan about the creative process that comes with upgrading a game for new consoles. Both emphasized that technology and art have to go hand in hand.

Balancing tech and art

For gamers who love boosting games to the max, there’s plenty to get excited about in Doom Eternal’s new update. The game can run a ray tracing graphics mode at 1800p/60 frames per second (fps) on new consoles. It can hit HDR 10 in any graphics mode and reach 120 fps when playing at 1800p on an Xbox Series X. It’s all incredibly impressive, but Khan notes that high settings aren’t enough to make a great experience.

“It doesn’t matter how good your tech is if it’s not being pushed by the art and design teams,” Khan tells Digital Trends.

A massive demon hovers in Doom Eternal.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The intersection between art and tech was at the forefront of the conversation. For the Doom Eternal team, making the jump to next-gen wasn’t about arbitrarily maxing out graphics; it was about giving designers and artists more freedom to strengthen their creative vision.

“We feel the game looks amazing as is,” says Khan. “We just wanted to enhance the sections where the artists felt like they wanted to do something, but couldn’t. If you play the game, you can see the experience now is enhanced. You can look at the glass in Sam’s base or see a Mancubus around the corner. It wasn’t like we wanted to make a technological change and crank everything up; we always want to make sure what we’re working on is meaningful to the player.”

That’s an important distinction for Stratton, who’s been with Id Software since 1997, and has gotten to watch the Doom series evolve from generation to generation. A lot has changed in that time, including Id’s entire design philosophy when it comes to chasing new technology.

“The design used to follow the technology in Id’s way-back history,” says Stratton. “I would say it’s a little bit more balanced now. The designers, artists, and technologists all elevate each other along the way.”

Designing for ray tracing

Out of all the technological boosts present in the new update, ray tracing was especially significant for the team. The rapidly evolving tech significantly buffs lighting effects in games, allowing for better reflections. It may sound like a minute change, but it opens up a world of possibility for artists.

“The art was made for the capabilities we had before,” says Khan. “If you look at the ray tracing build, the artists were tweaking their assets for the capabilities we have now. Ray tracing gives you more lighting options and reflectivity on surfaces that we weren’t able to do. When we talked to the artists, they said that ‘there are some spots in these levels where I toned it down, but I wanted to go back and tweak those!’”

The Doom Slayer shoots demons in Doom Eternal.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Getting to revisit the game’s lighting in that way had Doom Eternal’s designers thinking about what they could have done differently when initially building the game.

“There were cases where combat designers were saying, ‘Oh man, if I had this beforehand, I would have placed this character in this spot so I could see them in the reflection!’” says Khan. “That situational awareness is another skill level we could have had. Seeing those things evolve as we go further and having those technologies from the beginning is going to let us make the games better.”

“I think you always feel like you could do something different with new technology, whether it’s faster load times or ray tracing,” says Stratton. “We might have done materials slightly differently if it were built from ray tracing from the ground up. From a design perspective, there’s probably things you would do a little differently.”

There’s still more work to be done on Doom Eternal. The studio just canceled the game’s planned multiplayer Invasion mode, but will be creating a new single-player mode to replace it. There’s also a current pain point with the PlayStation 5 version, as players aren’t able to carry their PS4 saves over at the moment. Stratton says that Id is “going to do what we can” to address the issue.

The surface of an alien planet in Doom Eternal.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

For the time being, continued Doom Eternal support is still a main focus for Id, but Khan acknowledges that it’ll have to pick a stopping point eventually and start looking forward. When asked if all the work on next-gen consoles has the team excited about Doom’s future, Khan laughs and teases, “I think he’s asking us if we’re working on a new game… .” (Alright, you got me.) While there was no news to share on the studio’s next project, Khan did offer a bit of wisdom about making games in today’s day and age.

“There’s a famous quote: ‘Art is never finished, it’s abandoned,’” says Khan. “It’s the same thing here. You have to be comfortable saying there’s always more we can do. All the knowledge and lessons we learned will transfer to allow us to make better games in the future. And it doesn’t stop on the technology side.”

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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