25 Years of DOOM

25 years ago, in late 1993, something happened which changed the world – Doom was released by Id Software. Here I’ll explain why I feel this was a really important step for the PC industry.

Wolfenstein 3D (Wolf-3D to its many friends) had exploded on the scene in early 1992. I was at university at the time – it now seems incredible but I was the only one in my Computing Science course year with my own PC from the start – a proud beast of a 386sx-16 with 1MB RAM. PCs up til then had been slightly looked down on – the dull beige-box workhorses with nothing exciting. Windows 3.1 sitting on top of MS-DOS made it feel clunky, and the shiny Amigas with their steadily-improving processors, powerful graphics, advanced sound, and built-in graphical multitasking multimedia desktop were a compelling sell to the young geeks of the day.

Until, that is, Wolf-3D showed just how impressive a PC could be. Some very clever programming and even cleverer maths simply made everything else look 2D. The fast pace of it, the Nazi-killing, the sound effects – they all added to the joy. I was hooked. Some people I knew saw the light, selling their almost-new 68040-based Amigas and going over to the PC world. By the end of 1995, it was PCs all the way. Windows NT 3.5 and Windows 95 made sure of that.

Back to 1993 though – it was already an important year in the development of PCs – Windows NT 3.1 was released in spring, sowing the seeds of a grown-up 32-bit Windows away from the old-school MS-DOS roots. It also made the provision of networks connecting many PCs together simpler, mainly for the first time. Then along came Doom.

Suddenly here was a game that looked incredible, with its “2.5D” presentation of things from more than one angle. With the right sound card (Sound Blaster Pro, if you could afford it), it sounded incredible. It was fast – you really had to focus and react in a way that was rare in games of the day. The first time you heard the rasp of a cacodemon and saw this huge ball of death blocking the corridor – it was heart-pounding!

And then, on top of all this, was the multiplayer. You could connect two PCs through their serial ports using a null-modem cable, and play against each other! You could even network your PCs and play four players in the same map! This was incredible. This was a game-changer.

To get this working though, there was a lot needed. Here are the original system requirements from the README of the Shareware version:

DOOM(TM) requires an IBM compatible 386 or better with 4 megs of
RAM, a VGA graphics card, and a hard disk drive. A 486 or
better, a Sound Blaster Pro(TM) or 100% compatible sound card
is recommended. A network that uses the IPX protocol is
required for network gameplay.

DOOM v1.8 Shareware README.TXT

I had to do bar work for a while to save up enough to upgrade – the previous summer I’d slaved to upgrade from 1MB RAM to 2MB, and here I was needing to double it again!

Memory-balancing utilities that loaded mouse, network, sound and other drivers were suddenly much more important. Juggling those drivers in the various areas of memory (up to 640KB, 640KB-1MB, and above 1MB) while leaving enough space for your actual game to run was a quagmire of obscure detail. Acronyms like TSR, UMA, UMB, HMA, EMS, and XMS were important to understand. Memmaker was part of MS-DOS 6.0 but before that QEMM386 was extremely useful, along with hand-editing of CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT. Windows 3.1 got upgraded to 3.11 that same month Doom was released, but apart from slightly better networking it wasn’t the focus at the time…

A million careers in IT and networking were launched figuring this stuff out, including mine. After starting my computing life on a Dragon 32, I had progressed in the late 1980s to building PCs, and had even done some simple networking, and dial-up BBS access, but demand suddenly exploded. The complexities of add-in ISA network cards, configuring IPX/SPX, were introduced to a large number of game-playing geeks. IPX/SPX was widely used for a while for Netware based systems, until the combination of corporate networks and the Internet made TCP/IP the only game in network town.

These early-days problems needed a lot of actual knowledge, and people to apply it. There wasn’t Google to search forums, or YouTube videos showing you how to do stuff. You figured it out yourself, or you talked directly with people who knew. There was USENET, and BBS forums, but you were lucky to be able to dial up, and it was usually a case of asking your question and coming back the next day to the hope that someone helpful had seen it and replied.

LAN parties were born, and how great they were. I spent happy evenings in barns and people’s homes, with many power splitters supporting desktop PCs, CRT monitors, powered speakers and more, helping new joiners get their ISA network cards installed, jumpers set, drivers installed, splicing coax Ethernet cables with T-junctions and terminators, crimping 10BaseT Ethernet cables and installing hubs…. all to get it to the point where they could see and join the Doom games. The debates of the merits of various hardware – 3COM vs other NICs, Sound Blaster Pro (better in DOS) vs Sound Blaster 16 (better in Windows), and so on – all forerunners of today’s Android/iOS, AMD/Intel and AMD/Nvidia holy wars…

This LAN party boom lasted through the Doom II, Quake and all the way through to the glory days of Unreal Tournament, with UT 2004 and Battlefield: Vietnam being the pinnacles for me personally. But by then, networking was easy – PCI, even integrated network cards, Windows XP with its simple-to-install drivers, built-in TCP/IP support had simplified many things, and almost-ubiquitous Internet access meant you could simply search for how to do things.

Office PCs were not immune – people stayed behind after work to play Doom on their work PCs, using the work-provided network. Unfortunately the way that networks were configured and the early versions of Doom used it (broadcasts and multicasts in huge quantities), this frequently caused problems – new concepts like broadcast storms, network segmentation, and routing were all suddenly important to understand – along with policies and systems to restrict and control what users could install and run on their PCs.

Later versions of Doom fixed some of these issues, and Doom II in 1995 made it all better again – but the need for someone to actually think about the network structure and traffic management is something that has stayed with us since.

One additional effect: up until that point people didn’t really get on the upgrade train. PCs came out, maybe you’d upgrade the RAM, maybe you’d add a bit more storage, but nothing much else. Doom’s release catalysed the change, I believe. Suddenly it was important to have a sound card beyond the very basic ones. Real Sound Blasters were the expensive preference, but there were others around such as AdLib, and ones which were varying degrees of compatible..

VGA graphics went from being an expensive luxury to the basic entry requirement. Other standards such as EGA and Hercules disappeared very quickly, as SVGA took over at the high end. Later as 3D cards took off, that changed again with names like Rage3D, S3 ViRGE, Rendition Vérité. A small company called Nvidia got it right – they powered the Diamond Edge 3D card which did it all.

Monitors, until then were for a particular mode or standard, became a lot more flexible. The standard VGA plug still seen today enabled VGA, SVGA and onwards – a plethora of resolutions, refresh rates, colour depths – monitors became open to a very wide range of signals. I personally had a CRT monitor (Compaq P900) with a lovely Trinitron tube that went up to from 320×200 CGA all the way to 2048*1536, still well above average now in 2018.

Network cards went from being something only seen in expensive corporate PCs to a standard feature too. Later in the 1990s the standard good card was the 3COM 3C509B-C which had good drivers, both connector types (and AUI for the weirder networks out there), before then the Novell NE1000 and NE2000 worked well. You could choose to have either a co-ax chain of computers, or the more modern way of connecting RJ45s to a central hub.

There was of course a lot more innovation going on around then, but I personally and many people I knew explicitly spent a lot of money to upgrade PCs they’d never spent before, upgrading them to be able to join in with the Doom multiplayer revolution.

I loved those days. I loved the moment you finally got someone’s PC to be able to see the ongoing network game for the first time, and that visceral joy of shooting someone in the game and seeing/hearing their expletive-ridden response from across the room… it was wonderful and exciting and stuck with me. It’s not the same now, sat alone on a sofa getting abuse from some kid across the world in GTA Online…

It also gave me and many others a career. I’m now a crusty old Head of IT, so I do owe, along with all the others who ended up learning and loving this technical stuff, a big thanks to Id Software, especially the original four John CarmackJohn Romero, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack. I thank you guys, not only for the many happy hours blasting away in your games, but the camaraderie, satisfaction and knowledge that getting your games to work gave me.

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