Over the past two pandemic-laden years, I’ve been away from SmashPad. I’ve had a few reasons for this. The most notable was that I was just feeling burned out. I’d taken up a lot of responsibilities here, and they’d just taken their toll.
Over the course of 2020, I got Microsoft certified, only to have that certificate become useless two weeks after I’d earned it. I still applied for job after job, though, with no results. This, naturally, does take a mental toll, and I was left dealing with depression and self-esteem issues.
With the support of my best friend, I came to realize I needed to find my passion again. That passion is and always will be gaming. Though the focus may have changed from modern to classic gaming, that spark is still in me. I’ve been feeling like I need to create again, and so, I’m back. This time, though, I’m not going to try to take on too much at once.
That is a long preamble to get to something that I, and that same friend have been working on for the past couple of years. It’s a project we’re proud of, and it’s done a lot for me in terms of realizing what I am actually capable of.
That project is Dragon Sector (The Remake). It is a mod for Doom II played on the GZDoom source port. We are big fans of the Project Brutality gameplay mod, and Dragon Sector is built with this mod in mind. Though it doesn’t specifically require Project Brutality and can work with other gameplay mods, it really is best played with Project Brutality.
A Bit About Project Brutality
Project Brutality is a gameplay mod for Doom II that runs using the GZDoom source port. It began life as an addon for Brutal Doom, but has evolved into a standalone mod. The changes it makes to the gameplay are as sweeping as they are intense. Monsters are meaner and more varied. The Weapons are numerous and pack a punch. Plus many weapons have alternate ammo types or alternate firing modes. On top of that, you have a variety of tools, like Grenades and Proximity Mines, giving you even more tactical options.
It also allows you to move and attack in different ways. Your character can double-jump, dash, throw out a quick knife attack, kick, grab ledges, and a lot more. It means that when you are playing Dragon Sector you have a lot more freedom of movement than you would if you played without it.
Project Brutality also allows you to tailor your experience when it comes to what monsters you come across, the progression of weapons, and how gory you want the game to be. It’s feature-packed, but as a result, it can have a few bugs. It is in constant development, so you may want to bookmark this GitHub repository, where you can download the latest build. There is also a Wiki which goes over the mod’s features and settings. It’s worth having a browse through this, as there’s a lot of functionality in the mod that you may wish to either modify or turn off. That’s one of the nice things about it–the mod lets you tailor it to be more in line with how you prefer to play.
For Dragon Sector in particular, I’d recommend turning off the Barrel randomization, so that all barrels are the explosive type.
Welcome to Dragon Sector
In order to get you up to speed on the setting, here is the very 90’s inspired introductory text that we use to set the scene. My friend, James (BarefootMapMaker), was aiming to emulate the writing style that Doom tended to employ for its flavor text.
Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, had long since been terraformed. TTT, or Tidus Titan Triumvirate, a multinational and now multi-planetary conglomerate, of which the Union Aerospace Corporation became a part, began an overarching project to move the human populous to as many of the solar system’s outer planets and moons as could be achieved. Titan was to be chief amongst these new seats for the human race.
But old tales get retold. Or so it seems.
Contact with the base on Titan, Dragon Sector – Phase Two, or “Remade”, as it was coined by insiders, was lost.
You are one member of a combat team with a cohort of evaluators and investigators, sent to find out what happened. Upon final approach to the Executive Complex landing pad, your ship experiences a sudden malaise and crashes. You are the lone survivor, the only one who managed to bail out to safety.
But there? That is where your adventure only begins.
I sat down with James while he was driving and we put together a Q&A. What follows is an edited and cleaned-up transcript, which should give you much more insight into the project and the thinking that goes into it.
Filippo: Before we get to Dragon Sector, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
James: I’ve always been a creative person. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different things. I’ve done some work on the radio, tried my hand at drawing, even made a few online forums over the years. I consider myself a bit of an artisan, as I will put a lot of effort and focus into what I make. More than that, though, I take a lot of pride in what I do. I don’t put anything out unless I feel it’s the very best that I can make it. Building maps for Doom is a great outlet for that creativity. Plus, I get to make something that people will get to play and enjoy.
Filippo: Everyone remembers the first time they played it, what was your first exposure to Doom?
James: It was the shareware version of Doom. That was back in ’94. A friend of mine from work as a security guard, invited me to his house and showed me Doom on his 386 computer. It was really interesting because he had to play it directly from the 3.5” floppy drive. The game would have to stop for about 15 seconds to load the next part in. It wasn’t the ideal way to play, but even still, it was the most fascinating and immersive experience that I’d ever had in a video game up to that point.
Filippo: So, what made you go from just playing the game to wanting to make maps for it?
James: At first, I didn’t even know it was possible to make maps for Doom until I ran across a program called DoomEd on the Internet back in ’96 or ’97. I started using it, or tried to, anyway. It was frustrating because I couldn’t get my head around how to create maps with it. It wasn’t an easy to use program. I was able to edit the existing maps, though. So, I made a backup copy of the Doom 2 WAD and started editing. I did the first seven of them, all the way up to “Tricks and Traps”, trying to improve them, to make them larger and more fun. Tweaking the gameplay, monster and weapon placement, those sorts of things. I did that for a good couple of years. I never did publish them, though, as I figured that just publishing modifications of the existing Doom maps wouldn’t go over very well. I did keep them around on my PC, and I played them pretty extensively. I kept constantly tinkering on them, just for fun.
It wasn’t until I got introduced to Doom Builder 2 that I started to make my own maps from scratch. I think that was about seven or eight years ago that I started getting back into it again. Doom Builder 2 was a lot easier to use. It’s interface was a lot more straightforward, so I was able to start a new map and actually sculpt something myself. It made building and editing maps much more intuitive, allowing me to take the ideas I had in my head and turn them into something I could play. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was very empowering.
Filippo: How did you come across Project Brutality? What was it that stuck out at you about it?
James: I think that was about two years ago. My first experience with gameplay mods was Brutal Doom, which was kind of fun. At the same time, I was still playing the same old Doom maps back then. I didn’t know how to use a launcher, where you can load various maps and mods. I was just launching its pk3 file by double-clicking it. So, I kind of lost interest for a while, until you showed me how to use ZDL. I stumbled onto Project Brutality one day from a YouTube video, and I really liked how it played. It was like Brutal Doom, but everything was much more intense. The weapons felt really good, the monsters behaved a lot differently, too. I started to feel like I wanted to make some maps to play with it. That’s when we started talking about doing a map pack together, but the idea for Dragon Sector’s remake hadn’t come to me, yet.
Filippo: Let’s actually talk about Dragon Sector, now. What was the idea behind it? I know we went through a few false-starts before we settled on this path.
James: From the very beginning, after I played through the shareware version of Doom many, many times and later got into its sequels, my thought was always, “Man, it would be amazing to see the original Doom with better graphics, and better monsters.” I was constantly wishing that these shareware maps that I was playing looked more like a real place. Like you were actually in a real place as opposed to just a kind of metaphor of one. That’s what the original Doom shareware felt like to me. You got the sense that you were playing an impressionist piece of art. I wanted to make something that looked more refined, like you were really there. My first attempt at it was the original Dragon Sector. I used Risen3D as the platform because it was the first port that we came across that allowed us to use high resolution textures. I have some skill with Photoshop, and I was getting better with Doom Builder. So, I was able to meld the two together to make the maps and textures. I was actually able to start making a set of new maps that felt more like you were in a real place. The original Dragon Sector is still floating around on the Doomworld forums if anyone wants to give it a go.
Switching to GZDoom opened up a lot more options. For one, it’s got a lot more of a following than Risen3D had, so more people might find our maps. Ultimate Doom Builder is awesome, too, allowing me to sculpt and see a preview of what things will look like before I load the map in GZDoom. Being able to see the 3D floors, slopes, and models in the editor is a big time-saver. It’s given me motivation to try to make really good maps for those two reasons.
Filippo: You have a distinct design philosophy for maps. Could you tell us about it?
James: I wanted players to be immersed and feel as if they were on a real remote moon, in a far future base on Titan. The original Dragon Sector was set on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. I built the Skybox to have Jupiter looming huge in the sky. It gave you a sense of scale, like you were tiny in the scope of the galaxy. With this remake set on Titan, Saturn is all you see in the sky. That sense of feeling small is important to set the mood, and it gives you a feeling of isolation. Like you really are stuck on this very remote base on your own, and you’re fighting these hordes of monsters all by yourself, just like the original Doom.
With the shareware version of Doom, I thought one of the things that was lacking was a cohesive theme and sense of scale. Everything felt so claustrophobic, and the base felt small to me. The first map, The Hanger, doesn’t really feel like a hanger at all. Why was it even named The Hanger? So, I wanted to make my maps look and feel more like what the names imply they are.
Dragon Sector’s first map, the Executive Complex, for instance. When you first come into the base, you see suites with golden doors to your right, where high-ranking officials would be boarded for their stay there. In the entryway, it’s all refined and polished. The floors shine. You have a medical center there, a security post there, it all fits in that map’s context. It gives you the sense that a lot of energy and money was spent to make this a place that people would want to work and live in for a long time.
To get to map two, you have to go through an underwater maintenance door because the bridge to the next section of the base has collapsed. By this point, you’ve just gone through a really tough fight, and you’re wondering what’s going to be on the other side of that next door. You find yourself down in the Resources Reclamation facility, and everything is large and industrial. You have plug doors that take a while to open and can crush you if you’re in the way when they close. There are massive flood doors that seal off parts of the facility and warn you when they’re about to close, because again, they’ll flatten you if you’re in the way of them closing. Then when you get to the final parts of the map, you have underground tunnels that house electrical conduits. You can hear the electrical hum running through them. And then, finally, there are those huge doors that open to the reservoir. Inside, you see this massive water filtration tower. You’ve now seen the two sides of the base. The human-facing side of the Executive Complex, and the Industrial side that most don’t think about, but it’s there and working, making sure people have clean water to drink and take showers with.
When you emerge from the filtration tower, you’re back to where normal base-goers would be traveling through the Skyway to get to the next part of the base. But it’s all been destroyed. There is this sense of devastation as you look around. The Skyway is broken in several places. Did the monsters destroy it, or did the people do it as a last-ditch effort to stop the rest of the base from being overrun? You have to fight through hordes of monsters, as if they all decided to take up residance there. You go through the park, and you again see that this was supposed to be a place people would’ve sat, had meals, and socialized. The park even has a name. When you get to the end of the map, you have to go through an engineering access door, since the main path has again been destroyed.
Next is the Fuel Refinery, another big industrial map. When you enter, you get the feeling that you’ve just arrived at a place that performs a vital function for the base. You’re back in the Industrial side of things. There are big, heavy doors, some of which can crush you. The lighting is very dark because half of the lights are not working. You have yellow rotating beacons on the ceilings, warning people in the area that an emergency is in progress. It’s a visual sensation as much as it is a game playing one. It all serves a purpose, though. The visual details set the mood, but they also show you where you are.
Also in map four, I decided to pay homage to The Focus from Doom II. When you walk into it, you see those shutters slamming up and down. You have this big red door to your right as you come in. There is an upper area where you have a switch that lowers the blue key, just like in The Focus. I tried to give it some inferred narrative, rather than just “Okay, you have to lower the key and go get it.” Somebody stuck that key on top of the lightning rod and raised it to keep it out of reach of the monsters, to prevent them from getting into the blue area of the Refinery. You have to retrieve it to progress through the base. Once you get it, you go back into the main Refinery, and that’s where the map gets more challenging
I’m trying to have players feel a sense of foreboding. I did that quite a bit in map two. What’s going to be behind this next plug door? You’ll be walking down an empty corridor and you’re not encountering any monsters at all, but then suddenly, all the nearby doors open and monsters come pouring out to try to kill you! I did something similar with map four. Once you get to the control room, there is this huge staircase going up and then bending off to the left , so you can’t see what’s at the top. That makes players think, “Damn, I gotta go up there? Am I going to get a BFG in the face?” It sets up a tingle of fear. What might be coming next? You just never know what to expect. So first time playthroughs of maps like this are just incredibly chilling.
I also wanted the challenges a player will face to make sense in the context of the map. That’s why hazards like the acid pool in the lower section of map one, or the huge doors that can crush you in the industrial areas are there. They’re hazards, but they make sense to be there. We also have friendly assets that the player can find and activate that helps them out. A real top level base would have security hardware. In this case, the people on the base didn’t have the chance to activate it, or they might’ve fended the monsters off, but you can use them. You just have to find them.
Filippo: When you start on a map, do you make it up on the fly, or do you have a plan in mind for what you want to accomplish on the map?
James: I do have a pretty good idea before I begin. As I start building the map, I have an image in my mind of what I think this map is going to be, and I work towards that image. Of course, while I’m building it, ideas come to me, “You know what? This area should have a catwalk over the fuel reservoir.” Then as I play through the map I’ll think, “Okay, you know what, I think this section needs a second way of getting to it.” As I sculpt, one or more ideas are occurring to me, like that huge catwalk in map four. And so, I’m adding stuff as it made sense as the construction of the map progresses. While the rooms are taking shape, my mental image gets more detailed, and I bring those details to the map.
Filippo: Dragon Sector is built for GZDoom. What would you say is the one feature that makes the kind of maps you make possible?
James: There’s more than one feature in GZDoom that I use extensively. You have the ability to make, stack, and move 3D floors. You can use multiple tags on sectors, so I am able to very easily do things like build bridges over deep water. I was easily able to make spiral staircases, too. There’s one in map three, but there’s a much more complex one in map four. In addition to that, at the end of map four, there’s a huge multi-story staircase that goes up, one set of steps over the other. Some of those steps have dozens of tags on them. It took me about a day and a half just to make that staircase alone. It was very meticulous work. But that’s one of the things that I really enjoy about GZDoom. It empowers a map maker to be able to do stuff like that. There’s also the Dynamic and Colored lighting that I use everywhere. Playing with light and shadow is a great way of building tension in a map.
Filippo: If you had to calculate man hours spent making the maps, how long would you say each map has taken to make?
James: Oh God, map four alone took well over a month to make. I was working on it at least two or three hours every day for an entire month, at least. There’s probably at least 100 hours or more of work in each map, if not more.
Filippo: We have four maps done, now. What are the plans going forward? Any idea how many you want to make?
James: I want to make a total of nine. A full map pack, just like you got with the shareware version. Eight regular maps and a secret map. Right now, I’ve got map five about halfway done. I’m taking a sabbatical from it, because I can feel my creativity slipping. I was having to trudge through working on it. So, I just need to step away from it for a bit and recharge. When I feel inspired to start building again, I know that I’ll be able to come back with the same kind of quality that I was able to put into my other maps. I don’t want to make something just to get it done. I don’t want Dragon Sector to suffer from that kind of lack of attention to detail and love, with the end result being lack of quality,
Note: Since this conversation, we’ve started actively working on the mod again. Map 5 is coming along nicely!
Filippo: Have you got any closing thoughts before I let you get back to work?
James: Dragon Sector Remake has been a labor of love on my part. Being able to sit down with a blank grid and draw a square in it, and then just start sculpting and watching a base become what I want it to be–It’s just an amazing feeling. Map two was probably my absolute favorite to sculpt because I had a very clear picture in my mind of what I wanted that map to be and what I wanted the visuals to look like. So, as I was sculpting it, particularly that huge area in the center of the map, at first that was just a big, featureless square. I kept coming back to that area in my mind – “That’s going to be a huge reservoir. It’s going to have very deep water. There’s going to be this huge filtration tower in the middle of it with water running off of it.” That area was clear in my mind. As I’m driving truck, especially when I’m out in the rural parts of the United States, you come upon these huge refineries and factories. All you see of them as when you drive by are silhouettes against the night sky with lights all over them. That’s what I wanted that tower to look like. In that big, dark area you see a silhouette of a tower, sparkling with lights. It looks like a real industrial area. It’s not just a Doom map, “I’m on a base!” And that’s, more than anything else, what gets me the most excited about making Doom maps. Building things that let you suspend your disbelief, and while you’re playing these maps, you feel like you’re there.
As I touched on above, this is a two person project. James made the maps, and is also responsible for textures and initial play testing and balancing. My contribution is a good deal of scripting, including some new friendly security drones and bots, configuring of special effects, as well as some audio editing and a bit of testing and fine tuning.
It’s been a good pairing, as our skills are complementary. Thus far, I’ve been able to bring to fruition almost all of his wishlist features, with two that I’m still working on. The end result being a set of maps that don’t look or play quite like anything out there.
Getting into the Doom Community
As I started to get deeper into GZDoom’s inner workings, I needed to get my head around its three (yes three) scripting languages. DECORATE is the scripting language used for defining and controlling Doom’s Actors, which is the term for objects in the game. Monsters, Trees, NPCs, those are all Actors. This language has been around for years, and is starting to show its age as people start to want to do more advanced things with the engine. This brings us to Zscript, which is an object-oriented language that allows far more flexibility and power over Actors, but at the cost of being a bit trickier to use effectively. I went from knowing nothing about either of them, to being able to make some cool stuff happen, and that’s been quite rewarding. The third language is ACS, Action Code Script. This originally appeared in Hexen, but has been greatly built on top of by Zdoom over the years. While it can be used to control Actors to some degree, it’s much better suited to controlling map elements, like moving floors, ceilings, checking whether a player is in a particular part of the map, etc.
When I inevitably ran into issues, because I didn’t quite understand something or the information on the GZDoom wiki was missing examples, I turned to the GZDoom Discord. There, I was usually able to find the answers I needed. A lot of folks there were willing to help and share their knowledge. I also never felt as if I was being talked down to. When I posted snippets of my code, someone (usually Agent_Ash) would tell me what was wrong. Not just the what, but the why. This has been very valuable, as it’s helped me avoid those mistakes going forward.
The Zdoom forums have also been valuable for the wealth of archived posts that are there to search through. You can still get answers there, too, but things just go quicker on the Discord.
All of that is to say that I’ve genuinely enjoyed interacting with the folks over there, and the atmosphere is usually pretty congenial.
Okay, where do I get Dragon Sector?
I’m so glad you want to give this mod a try. The link to the ModDB page will be below. If you’ve tried a bunch of retro-inspired shooters, and none of them have really quite hit the mark for you, maybe Dragon Sector will scratch that itch. When you start with the daddy of FPS games and build on it, you’re in for a good time.