How DOOM’s Shotgun Leveled a Punishing Playing Field

In the days when most games existed to punish their audience, the DOOM shotgun blasted its way through enemies to save the day.

As a gamer in the 80s, I knew one indisputable truth. I was weak, and the game was strong.

This crisis of confidence was a direct result of the popular game design of that era. At the risk of launching into a “back in my day” tangent, I feel comfortable saying that the average title from that era was more difficult than the average game today. This wasn’t because developers thought that gamers back then were more capable of completing greater challenges, but rather because the arcade had established a game design philosophy built around great difficulty (and lots of extra quarters) that carried over to personal computers and consoles.

Arcade games were designed to deprive you of your quarters through any means necessary. Though the exact method on how to accomplish this varied, the general rule was to make the game as difficult as possible in order to ensure that players continued to feed quarters into the machine. If this sounds defaming to developers of that era, let me assure you that it is not. Though there were always instances of games that simply tried to exploit the player through extreme difficulty, the best arcade games, like Pac-Man or Galaga, achieved much of their brilliance through a perfectly implemented “easy to learn, tough to master” system that turned persistence into a reward.

Still, it was discouraging to see how popular this style of game design remained throughout the ‘80s. Though gaming eventually moved away from the quarter-driven economy of arcades, many games were still designed to cover up their general content deficiencies by making things as difficult as possible. Though exceptions to this rule were numerous and came in the form of some of the greatest games of all-time (Metroid, SimCity, Final Fantasy, and too many others to count), they were still exceptions.

This is especially true of the action genre. Titles like Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Mega Man were built to bury the player under the weight of an army of capable foes. Though the occasional power-up or exploitative tactic would offer the player a momentary reprieve from the chaos, the greatest weapon available to action fans of that era was persistence. It was the player’s ability to make an infinite amount of attempts that ensured victory was possible. We may have bragged about beating these games once upon a time, but the truth of the matter is that we merely survived them.

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Though it presented the action genre from a perspective that few others games at the time did, 1993’s DOOM began much like its 2D action predecessors. You were a nameless soldier thrust into a seemingly impossible situation. The armies of hell were descending upon you, and your only real means of defense were a pair of clenched fists and a pistol that seemed to annoy your enemies more than damage them. Indeed, the early moments of DOOM suggest that persistence would again be the strongest weapon of all.

That is until you stumbled upon a wood stock, pump-action shotgun lying innocently in a corridor. Though you did not know it in that moment, this weapon was about to blast open the doors of your perception.

Here are some facts about the DOOM shotgun: it’s 3D design is modeled after Remington’s classic 870 model, while the one you see in first-person view is made to resemble a toy shotgun made by the Stormbecker Corporation known as the TootsieToy Dakota. The motivation behind its implementation in DOOM is believed to be inspired by Corporal Dwayne Hick’s use of a similar weapon in the 1986 film Aliens.

The shotgun’s pellets do an estimated 5-15 damage based on accuracy, which is the same damage as your pistol’s bullets. However, as the DOOM shotgun fires seven pellets at once in a spread formation, the actual total damage output is 35-105 points. Seven of DOOM’s 20 original enemies can be bested with a single, accurate shot of this weapon. 11 can be taken down in less than five such shots, and all but three of DOOM’s foes will fall to less than 10. In certain situations, multiple enemies could fall to a single shot.

While these numbers can tell us a lot about the DOOM shotgun, what they can’t convey is the feeling of using it. Firing DOOM’s shotgun for the first time was nothing short of a revelation. Its booming sound effect was capable of destroying computer speakers as easily as the gun itself could destroy enemies, and watching a previously dangerous foe fall to your feet before the ringing in your ears even subsided dropped your jaw just as sure as the blast dropped that flame imp.

Indeed, the auditory satisfaction that came from using DOOM’s shotgun may be its most important design characteristic. It’s very easy to take sound design in modern gaming for granted, but in 1993, gamers were still getting used to the idea of video game sounds going beyond bleeps and bloops. The explosive thunderclap that emitted from DOOM’s shotgun each time you pulled the trigger was a sound that nobody expected to hear, even if it was designed to resemble the forceful impact its real-life counterpart made.

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Yet, the weapon’s firing sounds could not compare to the joy of its reload audio. Reloading a weapon in games should make you feel vulnerable. This should have been especially true of DOOM, which was one of the few games available at the time that even bothered with the idea of needing to reload your gun in the first place. The reason that was not the case was because of the oh-so-satisfying “click, click” effect that followed every powerful blast the shotgun emitted. That sound wasn’t a warning that you were potentially open to attacks, it was a declaration to your foes that their destruction was imminent.

No other weapon in gaming history until this point had managed to convey the same feeling of dominance. Stars in Super Mario Bros. would offer temporary invincibility and Contra’s spreadgun could wipe out a screen full of foes at the press of a button, but these items were ultimately temporary advancements to your damage capabilities.

This was not the case with DOOM’s shotgun. This was a weapon seven times more powerful than any you have known, and it was yours to use so long as you could continue to feed it with the ample ammunition that developer id Software placed around the game’s levels. Whereas previous power-ups of such strength provided you with a fleeting feeling of invincibility that quickly faded into false confidence, DOOM’s shotgun was one of the very first in-game items that offered a genuine sense of empowerment. It made you feel that the playing field was level.

Given that the years that followed DOOM’s release were riddled with games that mimicked its design as closely as possible, it wasn’t long before gaming was filled with variations on the game’s digital, buckshot death dealer. Marathon’s combat shotgun was built to resemble the iconic one used Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, while Duke Nukem 3D favored a stubbier version with a far greater blast radius. The survival horror genre was also quick to join the shotgun party, as Resident Evil’s pump-action hero introduced players to the concept of the shotgun’s great power being tempered by its limited ammunition. Even DOOM II would try to one up its own creation with a sawed-off variation of the original DOOM shotgun lovingly dubbed the “Super Shotgun.”

Regardless of the ways they may have differentiated themselves, all shotguns that would follow DOOM’s still retained its most important characteristics. Each used the weapon’s spread damage effect as a defining characteristic from all other weapons in the game, and each made sure that the act of acquiring a shotgun represented the moment that the player became truly capable of defending himself.

It is that feeling of empowerment that would have the biggest impact on the future of action game design. Developers began to realize that for as much value as there was in throwing a seemingly impossible amount of obstacles at a player simply to test who was persistent enough to climb through the gauntlet, there was a far greater value in creating action games that allowed the player to feel like a true badass. It’s not that DOOM wasn’t challenging or that it led to games becoming easier, but rather that it found a way to present players with a challenge that never forgot it was the player who wielded the power over a game and not the other way around.

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That was the way of the shotgun.

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Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.