John Romero has the shooter genre in his sights once again

By Rick Lane, Contributor
When I sit down to chat with John Romero on a warm Wednesday evening over Google Meet, I'm expecting the famously enthusiastic father of the FPS I've seen and read about in books and magazines over the last thirty years. When Romero joins the chat, however, it takes a moment for that enthusiasm to show. He seems a little tired, a little distracted. I ask him whether he's had a good day.

"Super busy, yeah," he says, glancing to one side. Then he smiles and laughs wearily. "Really busy."

It's interesting to hear Romero say this. From an outside perspective, it seems like he's rarely not busy. The veteran programmer and designer may be best known for the pioneering work he did in the ‘90s on first-person shooters: co-founding id Software, co-designing Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, then founding and running Ion Storm between 1996 and 2001. But the following years saw him embark upon a raft of more experimental projects, exploring mobile gaming with Monkeystone Games, MMO design with Slipgate Ironworks (now a developer of first-person shooters in its own right) and social network gaming in Ravenwood Fair. Some of these projects were very successful; others less so. But they highlight Romero's constant pursuit of new design challenges, exploring popular and emerging fields of game design alike.

Now Romero is back working in the genre he was instrumental in popularizing, as first-person shooters undergo a revival through retro-inspired games like Prodeus, Amid Evil, and Turbo Overkill. Since 2019, Romero has made his own contributions to this wave, releasing two new episodes for the original Doom that expand upon the game's central ideas, with further retro-minded projects in the pipeline. This is all in addition to his day job at his studio Romero Games, where he's currently building an unnamed FPS in Unreal Engine 5.
John Romero Has The Shooter Genre In His Sights Once Again Baron
"It's like the 30-year cycle. The 30-year cycle of things that goes around," Romero says. "Right now, there's a big resurgence of that PS1, 1995-era aesthetic in horror games. People are playing lots of horror games that have that aesthetic, because there's a lot of jankiness in there that's scary." Romero cites the resurgence in vaporwave music as another example. "Vaporwave is really big, and that feeds in that whole retro aesthetic."

With retro first-person shooters (also known as boomer shooters), it isn't just their primordial 3D aesthetic players are rediscovering. It's their underlying game design—fast, frenetic, and deceptively complex.

 "That's why you're seeing a whole lot of people making boomer shooter type stuff—because it was really fun, and why don't we do it again?" Romero says. "Especially when you're talking about pure level design. That kind of level design has not been seen in a long time."

Citing specific examples, Romero praises the design of Prodeus, a shooter that riffs heavily on Doom's setting and monsters. He's also interested in Selaco, a new shooter built on GZDoom, a popular variant ("source port") of Doom's original engine. "It takes the Doom engine to the max," he says. "Everything in it is completely changed. And it feels like a new game, but you can tell it's got the familiar Doom feel."

As for Romero's own journey back into shooters, it began with a desire to return to the style of level design Doom and Quake popularized. "I did E1M8B and E1M4B, which were replacements for levels that I didn't 100% make in the original," he says. "People really liked them and they were super fun to make." This spurred Romero on to make a full episode of nine levels (18 if you include their multiplayer versions) in celebration of Doom's 25th anniversary.

"I always tweet about my games on their birthday," he says. "And I was like 'instead of just doing a tweet, or putting up a graphic that people will get pissed off about, because it's some graphic from 1993 that was not put in Doom but we drew it, why don't I just make a whole episode of levels and release that?"

This became Sigil, Doom's unofficial (insofar as a level pack made by one of the game's own creators can be unofficial) fifth episode, taking place between the end of Doom expansion episode "Thy Flesh Consumed" and Doom 2. "The story is that Baphomet has basically rigged the teleporter [at the end of Doom] to take you to a worse place in hell where he can take care of you."

Romero wanted to give players a "more Satanic" conclusion to the original game. "Doom isn't really Satanic," he explains. "It's got monsters that aren't classical [demon] enemies except for the Baron of Hell, which looks like a classic demon," he says. "I decided I was going to use the visual language of E1M8B, which had the cracks in the floor, because that was a really cool motif."
John Romero Has The Shooter Genre In His Sights Once Again Lava
Crucially, Romero wanted Sigil to be an exercise in pure Doom level design, without adding any new features or game-altering mechanics. "So many WADs [Doom mods] add new weapons, and that changes the feel. Add a new enemy, it changes the feel. I didn't want to change the feel," he says. "It was a really fun challenge to take this thing that has not changed and try to do new stuff with it."

Romero's approach to level design hasn't changed since his days at id Software, typically starting with a seed of an idea and then building it out through extensive iteration and testing. He also works through the episode backwards. "I basically build levels to where the first level is the last one I make, because I've evolved all the ways I'm communicating things to the player," he says. "As I'm developing things that go in the level, ways I'm tricking the player or cool visual things I've come up with, I can actually put those in the first level as a kind of foreshadowing."

Sigil's levels embody Romero's "malicious Dungeon Master" mapping style. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than Paths of Wretchedness, the fourth level, which players choose from three pathways to complete in any order. "My thought was, I'm not going to take you on a long journey that's linear, the way that the next level is," Romero says. "I'm going to let the player make three choices as soon as they start."

Whichever choice you make, you're guaranteed to run into a nasty surprise. These include a path of lava with sinking islands that encourage players to race past all the monsters, only to run headlong into a huge door that takes forever to open. "It was hilarious, because people expect it to open like every other door," Romero says. "This one's not doing that."

Paths of Wretchedness also includes the most infamous moment in the entire episode, a room filled with crushing ceilings that all move at different speeds. "There's a section in that maze where you can turn off the crush area that you can run into, if you want to be daring," Romero says. "[But] then it's like, can you even navigate through that area when they've stopped? As they may have blocked off that area. So you have to turn it back on by walking on something else."

Sigil's taut, thrilling levels were well received by critics and the community alike, convincing Romero to make a sequel episode for Doom's recent 30th anniversary. For Sigil 2, Romero's decided to make it substantially more challenging. "The rule for Sigil was I'm gonna make it [for] Ultra-Violence. That's the standard difficulty, and I need to be able to finish every level from pistol start," Romero says. "Some people [complained] that it was too easy, and I'm like 'okay, well if people think that it's too easy, my design goal for [Sigil 2] Ultra-Violence is that I can't finish the level unless I save the game and load it. It has to be so hard that I can't just pistol start to the end."  

To state his intent, Romero designed the first level of Sigil 2 to end with an encounter with a cyberdemon, one of the Doom's toughest enemies. On Ultra-Violence difficulty, this cyberdemon cannot be killed with the available ammo in the level. "You have to kill it by crushing it. And to crush it, you have to figure out how to activate the crusher," Romero says. "It's got so many tricks."
John Romero Has The Shooter Genre In His Sights Once Again Caco
When it released late last year, Sigil 2 was similarly praised for its elevated, fiercely challenging take on Doom mapping. Does this mean that Romero will do a third episode? "I've been getting Sigil 3 requests," Romero says. "People are writing and saying 'please do Sigil 3.' I told them Sigil 3 is not off the table, but there are other projects that I want to do first."

Indeed, Romero has two other map packs that riff on his earlier work he wants to try before doing yet another hypothetical follow-up to Sigil. The first of these is Hellion, a new episode for Doom 2. Like Sigil, Hellion emerged from Romero doing a single Doom 2 level—titled One Humanity and released as a purchasable download, with funds going to the Irish Red Cross in support of their humanitarian efforts in the Ukraine. "I had not made any Doom 2 levels beyond when Doom 2 came out, which was in 1994," he says. "It was 28 years."

One Humanity will eventually join 31 other levels in the final version of Hellion, making this project almost twice the size of both Sigil and Sigil 2 combined. "It's gonna take a while. There's not really a due date on it," Romero says. "I'll probably, this year, do maybe a little sneak peek for Doom 2's [30th] birthday, just saying I'm working on it."

When Hellion gets finished, Romero then wants to do a new episode for Quake. I was surprised to hear this. Quake was a much more difficult project than Doom for id Software, ultimately leading to the fracturing of the studio, with Romero departing to found Ion Storm. I wondered if that might affect Romero's feelings about returning to the game that essentially shattered that incarnation of id, but he is unambiguous in his excitement for the idea.

"I love making Quake levels," he says. "And it sucked making Quake levels because the tool that I wrote was so [bad], because I had to make it really fast. We needed to be making levels. And I can't make a 3D Studio or a Maya back in the day."

Today, however, mapping for Quake is made considerably easier thanks to modern level editors like TrenchBroom. It's to a point where Romero reckons he could put out Quake levels at a similar pace to his Doom level design. "Making Doom levels with modern tools is unbelievably fast," he says. "Now with Quake, it'll be interesting to see what it feels like, because TrenchBroom is amazing. There's a lot of technical data that's involved in Doom level making. With Quake level making, that's far less of an issue. So it might take the same amount of time to make a Quake level as a Doom level nowadays, trying to be as technically correct as possible."

None of this, of course, is to mention the real occupant of Romero's time right now: that unnamed Unreal Engine 5 FPS project that'll see Romero bring his shooter talents back to AAA game design for the first time since 2001's ill-fated Daikatana. Nothing else is known about this project, and we didn't discuss it. But it's clearly heavily in production, with Romero reiterating that he is "super busy" with it right now.

Nonetheless, as we wrap up our discussion, I'm interested to know Romero's thoughts on what a first-person shooter needs to do to break out beyond the indie, retro level. The few big first-person shooters around today are either heavily multiplayer-oriented, like Call of Duty or Apex Legends, or are derived from a classic series, such as Doom Eternal or Wolfenstein: The New Order. "The way that you played, say, Sigil or Sigil 2 is a level of design that is more of a puzzle-box situation with combat, and a lot of the environments in newer games, they're not puzzle-boxes," he says. "So I think that's it, unique level design. Even though it's classic. It's new to a lot of people today."