RANDOM ENCOUNTER #3: In Which the UW System’s Connection to Doom is Revealed

Earlier this month, id Software released Doom: Eternal, the latest entry in the wildly popular Doom franchise. While the latest version adds a tremendous amount of new story concepts, gameplay mechanics, and impressive visuals to the game, the core concept of the franchise is simple – an unnamed space marine (though some versions of the game refer to him as “Doom Slayer” or, if you want to use his proper given name, “Doomguy”) kills as many demons as possible across outer space and in the depths of Hell.

 Yet this simple concept has yielded millions of copies of games sold across countless platforms both digital and analog, two (not great) films and no less than four novels, popularized the first-person shooter genre, introduced the concept of “deathmatch” to the gaming world and was the subject of genuine controversy. It’s also one of the most widely-ported games in history, with enthusiasts finding ways to make it run on everything from a McDonald’s cash register to an inkjet printer and beyond

Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom-dy-Doom. Credit: N/A

There’s no question the Doom series is a cultural touchstone – heck, statistically speaking you’ve probably played it at least once. But did you know that our very own University of Wisconsin system has a significant part to play in the development of this mega-franchise?  

Doom was the product of id Software, a Dallas-based company founded by programmers John Carmack and John Romero as well as artist Adrian Carmack and designer Tom Hall. A Wisconsin native, Hall had studied Computer Science at UW-Madison, utilizing his interdisciplinary interest in subjects like physics and language and applying those skills and ideas to his games. Shortly after graduating, Hall met up with the rest of the id team and worked on popular titles like Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. The company was known for pushing the limits of what computer hardware could do, as well as allowing for player modifications of the game and exploring the potential of selling games without the need for traditional retail channels (more on that in a moment).

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Tom Hall, co-creator of Doom, co-founder of id Software, UW-Madison grad. Source: Twitter

Doom, however, was the company’s most ambitious project to date and their first self-published title. Work started on the game in 1992, with the team utilizing a then-brand new engine with more ambitious 3D graphics technology than their previous games. Tensions over the direction of the gameplay and the story – or whether there should even be a story – gripped the team early on. Hall was eventually fired over creative differences, and went on to work for 3D Realms on games like Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem.

A whirlwind of development followed over the next two years, but it was in December of 1993 that Doom would live to its name for the UW System.

In December of 1993, as development on the game was nearing its end, id decided to make good on its shareware model and release the game on a large-scale public network to allow as many players to download it as possible. The shareware model, which id had used previously with their other games and was common outside of the gaming industry as well, was simple. The first “episode” or set of levels of a game is given away either for free or sold by a retailer for a low cost. The player, having completed that first set of levels, could then send away for a disk that contained the rest of the game, paying id directly and skipping the need for major production overhead.

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Yes, kids, at one point this was as impressive and horrific as video games got. Credit: EuroGamer

Working with David Datta, then the computer network administrator at UW-Parkside, id uploaded the Doom files to a file transfer site hosted on the school’s network. As David Kushner writes in his indispensable history of the game Masters of Doom (currently in development as a television series by the USA Network), the logic was simple: rather than spend the money to get Doom distributed through normal means, the users would simply download it and share it around the world. UW-Parkside, like most campuses at that time, had the bandwidth and speed necessary to host such an in-demand file. More gamers meant more copies distributed, which meant more money. What could go wrong?

At midnight on December 10th, the file was uploaded to the server – or at least, the attempt was made. Scores of gamers, frothing with anticipation for Doom, had already descended on the FTP site, exceeding the 125 the server could actually accommodate. The developers couldn’t actually get on to upload the file! As Kushner writes, a quick call was placed to Datta, who planned to increase the number of possible users – but it still wasn’t enough. After a polite-but-stern order delivered via Internet Relay Chat to the fans to vacate or be kicked off the server, Doom was finally uploaded to the UW-Parkside network – only to have ten thousand gamers immediately swamp the network, crashing it to the ground. Datta’s response was gobsmacked, according to Kushner:

“Oh my God […] I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It would be far from the last time Doom threatened the uptime of a major computer network – many companies like Intel and other universities went so far as to ban multiplayer Doom matches to keep the network up and running – due primarily to a flaw in the game’s initial network connection setup that was later patched out. Regardless, Doom was an undeniable success, netting id Software $100,000 a day and reaching millions of players; at one point it was allegedly installed on more computers than the Windows operating system.

Amazing what kind of glow-up nearly 30 years can make. Credit: Playstation.com

Now, in 2020, Doom: Eternal is on track to be one of the year’s biggest video game releases, and the University of Wisconsin System has its own small part of that legacy.

Until next time, blink periodically.

By Dr. Bryan Carr

Bryan Carr is an Associate Professor in the CommunicationInformation Science, and Women’s & Gender Studies departments. Among other things, he is the host and producer of “Serious Fun”, a podcast taking an academic look at popular culture on the Phoenix Studios podcast network. He was able to finish the original Doom thanks to help from his friends IDDQD and IDKFA.

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