Sandy Petersen: An interview about DOOM, Quake, and AoE

Sandy Petersen. You may know him as the level designer behind such games as DOOM, DOOM 2, and Quake. Or maybe you’re more familiar with his role as a game designer for many of the Age of Empires games. Perhaps though, you’re instead a fan of his Call of Cthulu role playing game? Whatever it is, I got a chance to ask Mr. Petersen some questions on his varied, and influential, career.
quake1
Jason:  I recently read that you were hired 10 weeks before the release of DOOM, and yet managed to create 19 levels for the game within that time. Was this simply the working culture of ID at the time, or is this simply how fast a worker you are?

Mr. Petersen himself

Mr. Petersen himself

Sandy: Four factors went into the speed with which I was able to create the levels. (Incidentally, I did 20 levels, not 19.)

First, my work was significantly enhanced, thanks to the terrific editing tool (DoomED) created by John Romero.

Second, I was trying really hard to impress, and also since my family was not with me during the first few weeks, I had nowhere to go except the office.

Third, about half of the levels I created were actually modifications of levels originally architecture by Tom Hall. All I had to do was place monsters, retexture parts of them, and place triggers and traps.

Fourth, in most game companies, you need to complete levels & art at least 6-8 weeks before the game is released. Since DOOM was released as a mail-order game, we didn’t have to “publish” thousands of copies before we could ship it, and I was able to keep working on levels until literally the day before we declared completion.

Jason:   I have heard talks of dismay from John Romero regarding the weapons included in Quake, and how they were ultimately disappointing. Could you elaborate on this, and perhaps weapons that were cut from the final game?

Sandy: Originally Quake was going to be a fantasy game, where we were wielding swords, the fabled quake hammer (hence the odd name), magic cubes o’ destruction that orbited your head, etc. However, the game’s early

Level 1 of DOOM 2

Level 1 of DOOM 2

development was so slow (by ID standards) that we basically dumped all those in favor of a Doom-esque shooter. The only traces remaining of the original fantasy concept are the ogres and knights. The quake hammer you would swing overhead and hit the ground, and then a crack emitting dust rocketed from your feet to the target knocking him up into the air. It was really powerful, but of course couldn’t hit airborne foes. The Cube o’ Destruction looked kind of like a spiky dice that simply went around and around you and when it hit enemies it hurt them and sometimes knocked them back. I don’t think the Cube was a very good idea, since you didn’t have to target it and about half the time it was hitting enemies out of your line of sight, which I don’t think is fun. We also wanted to have magic spells, where you’d be casting lightning bolts and shooting fireballs. As you can tell, the final game was very different.

Jason:  There has been a noted interest in your love of Dungeons and Dragons and H.P. Lovecraft. How have these interests influenced your level design?

Sandy: A lot of my levels are based off Lovecraftian concepts and also RPG levels that I designed and played on. Because of my love of horror stories, one of my favorite things to do in levels was to have areas which looked safe (but were ominous) so you’d walk into the room and then know that there were monsters waiting somewhere … nearby … to jump at you.

Jason:   After you left ID, you took a job at Ensemble Studios and worked on the popular Age of Empires series. What was the cultural difference between your time at ID and at Ensemble Studios?

Age of Emires

Age of Emires

Sandy: Working at ID software was a lot like watching a nature documentary about jackals eating a dead zebra. They snarl and snap at each other, and it’s not a pleasant process. BUT the zebra gets eaten pretty fast, so it’s efficient. Working at Ensemble was like a band of brothers. Everyone liked everyone else, and everyone got along, and everyone was friends and we worked hard on our projects because we didn’t want to let each other down. As opposed to ID where the work was based on fear and envy and pride. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but there were more dark emotions at ID than Ensemble, and that’s for sure.

Jason:  I’ve noticed a trend from many game developers in the 1990′s (John Romero, John Passfield, etc.), where they’ve shifted from making large “blockbuster” games to making smaller mobile games. Do you think this can be attributed to wanting to return to their roots (ala smaller teams), or something else?

Sandy: Well some of us are simply working for smaller companies so the blockbusters are out of our reach. Also, having worked for both large and small companies I can say that it is certainly not more fun or productive in a large company. Of course a blockbuster makes more money, but it gets divvied up among more people, and a lot of it goes to folks at the top, instead of to the actual developers. Like me. Finally, the appearance of mobile games means we can make small games profitably again which is highly attractive to us all.

Jason:   And last but not least, what’s your favourite game of all time?
culdcept saga
Sandy: My favorite digital game is Culdcept Saga, which has the most depth and strategy of any game I’ve ever played. My favorite tabletop game is the fabled card game Bridge. Yeah I know it’s old fashioned but it has stood the test of time. My favorite roleplaying game is Call of Cthulhu, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, since I designed it myself but hell there you go.


As of this moment, Sandy Petersen is busy working away at a board game with the working title: Great Cthulhu. The game is about the conquest of the earth by Cthulhu and pals, and will feature plastic figures of the monsters, alien gods, and cultists, as well as a large map of the earth.You should see the game  up on Kickstarter near the end of February, so keep a lookout for it  there. If you want to learn more about the man himself, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you gave him a  follow on Twitter @SandyofCthulhu.

First draft of the game

First draft of the game