.: DooMster Unveiled: Inside the BossBrain

Spotlight on James "Phobus" Cresswell: June 1, 2012

In the Seventeenth Century the British Empire gave us Oliver Cromwell, First Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In the Eighteenth Century it was Benjamin Caldwell, Admiral of the Royal Navy & Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. The Twentieth Century spawned (sic) James Creswell, Keeper of the Privy Seal of Deimos & Grand Poobah of the Barony of Phobos; Chamberlain (not to be mistaken for chamberpot; but I jest) of the Hinterland of Mars. He's an accomplished mapper, a frequent contributor to Doomworld's the /Newstuff Chronicles, and an all-around nice guy. But you both already knew that, didn't you?

DN: Your public record of involvement with DooM is relatively recent. When did you first play DooM, and when did you get into mapping & modding?
Phobus: I’d have been 4, maybe 5 when I first played Doom – I don’t remember my first experiences, as this was back in ’94. First experience with mapping was probably within a couple of years, when my Dad introduced me to the idea of user-made levels and DEU. I did get hold of NWT and make a sprite replacement for the Lost Soul at some point not long after that, although this was MSPaint simplicity at its most simple!

DN: What inspired you to begin making maps and mods of your own?
Phobus: There were three main inspirations. The first was seeing games like Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D, which made me want to make my own FPS – this idea resulted in a lot of brightly coloured drawings in felt-tip pen and pencil of rather platformer-styled level layouts, along with a few dead trees worth of enemy “concept art”. This stuff did get pretty advanced in the end, as did my sketching skills. I remember having a purple folder stuffed full of art work for a dream game imaginative titled “Hell City”. Got rid of all of that now, but have considered trying to make a ZDoom mod from some of the ideas on occasion. The creative outlet that lasted longer was making maps for Doom, something I’ve been doing for around 16 years, I’d guess.

The second inspiration was Hank Leukart’s “Hacker’s Guide to Doom”, which taught me a lot about how to use DEU II v5.21 and showed me .WADs like UAC_DEAD.WAD – this honed my mapping, turning it into something that people may recognise from the early levels of Scourge.

The final spark was ZDCMP#1. Seeing that and all that it implied ZDoom was capable of pushed me on to my current path and its probably still my favourite .WAD to date.

DN: You seem to have gotten started with DooM modding with a bang, releasing several projects in your debut year (2006). Were you involved with creating maps and mods before that, or did you have a flurry of inspiration at around that time
Phobus: Scourge had been in-the-making for at least 2 years before I found the ZDoom forums and realised there was a whole world of people out there that shared my hobby and had indeed progressed it a lot further than I’d thought possible! I do still have a collection of 10 or so pre-Scourge maps that made up the inspiration for “Coils of the Twisted Tale” (ph_quik2.zip on the /idgames archive) too, although they won’t be seeing the light of day.

I think the main drive behind all of the map-making and -releasing I did then was just knowing that there were so many people out there that did that sort of thing too. Outside of my family I don’t think many people had ever seen my maps before. All of the new possibilities of ZDoom 2.0.63a certainly helped fuel that fire too. It’s like I was a child who’d just been introduced to the concept of a sweet shop, I just had to try everything!

DN: Your first release was an ambitious one (Scourge), with 22 playable maps and new graphics; a departure from a newbie's traditional release. What prompted you to begin such an undertaking?
Phobus: Up until I made Scourge MAP01, I’d always been making maps that were either completely abstract or just stood alone. So I decided I was going to make a level-set with a story; one where the maps lead into each other and had a continuous narrative. MAPINFO was a big help in this, although it wasn’t added in until quite late in the project's production time. Things like the additional enemy and the scripted CREDMAP were added because I was so taken with everything ZDoom had to offer and the custom artwork (although poorly done) were added to try and add to the sense of story I was trying to instil the .WAD with. Likewise, 21 maps in the main trunk, with an additional secret map, were just because that’s where the “story” ended. I’d have probably gone for a whole megaWAD if I’d have been limited to DEU II 5.21 the whole time – however the introduction to Doom Builder and the concept of having no limits meant that MAP18-21 and MAP31 could all be bigger and more complex, so I could do more in the space of one map. I think, if I hadn’t have found the community and all of the new stuff on offer in the middle of making my first big project, I’d have done the more traditional thing of making something smaller and more understated.

DN: You appear to have jumped head-first into modding for ZDooM. Did you first learn the basics of vanilla DooM mapping, or did you tackle the challenges of ZDooM mapping right from the get-go?
Phobus: By the time I found the online Doom community I’d learnt most of what there was to learn about Vanilla mapping, from a technical POV, thanks to Hank Leukart’s book and all of the example .WADs I’d seen (like Final Doom). So, when shown this strange new world of scripting and (gasp!) sloped floors, I instantly started to try and make as much use of it all as I could. It’s kind of funny looking back to when I first saw the ZDoom v1.22 demo .WAD. I was literally astounded at all of the things it demonstrated, only to then have exactly the same level of sheer amazement at seeing ZDCMP#1 a few years later. Guess that’s what happens when you’ve been living under the metaphorical rock for years at a time...

DN: A lot of your work involves the, for want of a better word, "experimental". Is this you testing the boundaries, or simply having fun?
Phobus: A combination of the two, I think. It feels like nothing should be impossible with modern source ports, so if I think of anything that seems cool, or see something in a game that I’d like to see done in Doom, I’ll certainly not hesitate to try. I realise that a lot of the resulting products aren’t for everybody, but I’m in it for the art myself – I enjoy what I do too much to worry about winning a majority vote or anything!

DN: You've been involved in a couple of high-profile "retro" projects (1994 Tune-up Community Project, DTWiD). Did your mind-set need to change to go back in time?
Phobus: The 1994 Tune-up was an interesting challenge, as we were trying to reach into the past and pull it through to the present. Getting my head into the mindset of a ’94 mapper was certainly a different experience for me, as I was seeing all of these wonderful ideas that just couldn’t be translated to a map properly at the time. I did my best to realise what I thought his plans were and garnish it all with visuals too. No idea if I succeeded though – guess the only way to know for sure would be to see what Darrel Bircsak says if ever he sees it!

As for DTWiD... well, that was easy for me. I tried to kid myself that I was “channelling Petersen”, but really it was just me making a Vanilla Doom map with the original E3 (and particularly “Pandemonium”) as a vague guideline.

DN: You were a part of the successful DooM The Way id Did, contributing Map E3M6. What was it like, working in a Team and constrained by a clearly defined set of parameters (as opposed to your own mods, with freedom to take any direction you wish)?
Phobus: The enthusiasm that this project received, along with the very solid quality control, was a fantastic thing to see. The clearly defined parameters were great for me, as they gave me something to be creative within. I think I wimped out a bit by taking an E3 slot, but I severely doubt I’ve got the discipline to make an E1 map that looks remotely like it would fit in with the originals. I’ll also give a shout out to 40oz and his purple prose about maps like House of Pain – they were great inspirations.

This project did surprise me a bit though. Particularly with how so many people seemed to have such a hard time not making homage’s to the original maps, but also with how such a simple and “pure” scope to a project resulted in people like Sodaholic talking about new skies, new textures and nearly turning the project into an Alpha-revival at one point. I was similarly dumbfounded by the amount of focus E4 got too – surely the project description was simple enough to stick to? Did it really have to be more ambitious? That kind of over-ambition and refusal to just work within a project's guidelines really bothers me. Fortunately the team leaders clamped down on all of that nonsense and drove us toward a fantastic outcome that actually stuck to the original script.

DN: You seem to thrive on community projects (Community Chest 3, ZPack, 32in24-11, etc.) What do you like about team projects and what don't you like about them?
Phobus: I think I probably have the “wrong” approach to these things, as I tend to just swing by, drop a map or two into the pot, hang around for some criticism and iterative development, then go away again, assuming things will progress smoothly. When they (almost inevitably) don’t, I come back and nag people to try and get on with things. Every now and then, when the project is more “open”, I join in with the testing and make sure people get my honest opinion in order to help them get the best from their work. That can lead to a few bruised egos, but it is the internet, so “oh well”!

I participate in so many of these projects because I like being part of the community. These things attract a lot of enthusiasm (particularly on Doomworld) and are a great way to achieve more ambitious goals. They’re also a great way to get your maps out there for everybody to see – particularly as, from a player perspective, these “mixed bags” tend to have something for everybody!

The downside to these things is that they tend to peter out or slump at some point. An extreme example of this (from my own experience) would be CC4. My first map for that was submitted in November 2008! As mentioned earlier, I also take issue with people all wanting to be prima-donnas and drive the project in their own direction. I actually sign up to these things to go with the initial aim for a quick and easy creative burst within whatever that project's parameters are. I think that sort of focus is probably also what causes stagnation, as everybody seems to want create the next magnum opus that stands out from the crowd, resulting in nobody actually finishing anything! I could probably vent my spleen about the focus on mass-market-pleasing vanilla and limit-removing projects for a while too, but I appreciate that “community” efforts are both by, and for, the community. Still bothers me when you get projects like Panophobia that are forced into not being ZDoom by popular vote though, particularly as that one just screams “scripting” to me!

DN: You've been involved in some key maps for vanilla (or limit-removing, non-port-specific) DooM. How do you compare mapping/modding for (G)ZDooM vs. vanilla DooM?
Phobus: I look at them as two different approaches to a common goal. Advanced source ports require you to reign [sic] in your ambition and pare down your plans to something achievable. With vanilla or limit-removing mapping, you have to push at the boundaries and limitations to realise your dreams.

DN: You have hinted at a couple of projects on which you are hard at work. Would you care to give us a sneak preview?
Phobus: The major one to look out for will definitely be Back to Saturn X. The wealth of talent there is unbelievable and I think we’ve all been in “prima-donna” mode a bit there. Some very impressive maps being made and my second submission, if it works out properly, may well be one of them. Also surprisingly close to being finished already! Also keep an eye out for CC4, which TGH has managed to pull through to the final stages at last – my third submission there will be pretty familiar to people who’ve played Virus and 32in24-11.

As for my solo stuff, I’m thinking of getting a demo of the Tiny Double Pack out soon, and even if I don’t, that can’t be more than a month or two away from release. That’s about all I can promise for now though!

DN: You've "dipped your wick" into reviewing DooM mods, and you bring an intelligent & analytical perspective to your reviews. How much do you draw on your own experience with modding when evaluating someone else's mod?
Phobus: Thanks for the positive words! I reckon my modding experience makes up the smaller half of my reviewing style – it provides the objective details and also allows me to appreciate the kind of work and effort that has gone into the subject of review. However, a review is (for me at least) ultimately a way of seeing if the subject is something people want to play or not, so I tend to do my reviewing with my player hat on. The hardest part for me is definitely remembering to take screenshots – particularly interesting ones. It’s even harder to do it without compromising my playing experience, but I think no-monsters shots lack half of the visual evidence to back up the review, so I’d not do it any other way.

DN: At this point feel free to go hog-wild and add anything you'd like your two adoring fans to know about.
Phobus: I have fans?! Well, for those who are interested (and have made it through so much text already!) I do have a large Word document full of project ideas to try and bring to completion one day. One of those involves Virus, so that might be pretty major when I get round to it. Also, I doubt printz’ prediction of me collecting silverware at this years’ Cacowards is likely to come true, but I’ll be getting some releases out on my own this year certainly.

Finally, to the overall community, I’m glad to be a part of your ranks – we do some pretty amazing things with such an old game!

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