First-person shooters owe a lot to DOOM, but you probably don’t need another lecture on how it revolutionized gaming, entertained millions of players around the world, and is still being modded to oblivion after well over two decades. When its level editor was distributed to fans in 1994, one company decided to cash in on the craze by scamming the fanbase, thus inspiring countless others to follow in their seedy footsteps.
The D!ZONE map pack series was the brainchild of Simply Silly Software. Retro FPS fans may recognize the developers as the creators of the mediocre holiday-themed expansion pack Duke Nuclear Winter. D!ZONE had 75 levels for both DOOM games slapped onto one disc, and was sold for $15 in the USA. Minnesota-based company WizardWorks published the first map pack in 1995, a year after DOOM II: Hell on Earth.
Thing is, downloading was a slow process back in the day. Fans were eager to post their levels online, but it was quite the wait. So, having a disc full of levels seemed like a no-brainer. What the packaging never told anyone was the fact that not only was it not authorized by DOOM’s creators at id Software, thereby making it illegal to sell, the maps were stolen without permission from the internet! Then again, Simply Silly Software never said they made it all themselves; all of the original creators’ documents can be found inside.
Those who were suckered into buying these quickly discovered the maps on offer were absolute rubbish. There was no quality control whatsoever when D!ZONE was being made as these maps were just tossed onto a disc and immediately sent off for publishing. Some were little more than altered versions of the original levels. The rest suffered from amateurish level design: misaligned or missing textures, uninspired designs, ridiculous amounts of power-ups, unfair amounts of enemies, missing exits, and more.
In spite of all this, D!ZONE was still quite popular, and Simply Silly Software kept attempting to scam as many players as possible with additional releases. Later entries even featured fake screenshots on the box art, fooling people into thinking the graphics were more detailed than ever before. Disclaimers were included, yet these were so small that no one would’ve noticed at first glance.
D!ZONE’s level launcher allowed players to choose which ones they wanted to play, in whatever order they wished. Future editions even included additional other customizable tools like appearance swaps for guns and enemies (some of which look like they were done in Microsoft Paint), new sounds, and even changing how often or rare you want to make things appear. Later copies of D!ZONE were given extravagant tiles like “D!ZONE Gold”, and “D!ZONE Collector’s Edition”. While the box art promised hundreds upon thousands of levels, these figures were usually rounded up. For instance, the first Collector’s Edition, yet the box exclaimed there were over 900, when in reality there was 751.
D!ZONE inspired other no-name companies to release their own shovelware CDs. Some of them only loosely hinted what game they were compatible with, e.g. “Demon’s Gate 666”. id Software decided to get their own back in late-1995 with DOOM II: The Master Levels, which offered 21 quality maps pulled from the internet with permission from some of the best mappers around at the time. They were professionally made, pretty challenging to play, and most certainly a welcome change from the trash that found its way into the shops. Compiled with these great levels was the Maximum DOOM disc, which was made up of 3,201 awful fan-made maps from the interwebs.
Yet Simply Silly Software didn’t just stick with DOOM. They compiled map packs for other popular shooters like Duke Nukem 3D (Duke!ZONE), Heretic (H!ZONE), and Quake (Q!ZONE). Some had the company’s own maps thrown into the mix, though, most of the time, they were hardly better than the levels they stole from online.
Many game companies these days have tried to squeeze out as much cash as possible with DLCs, loot boxes, microtransactions, and other shady deals, but no one these days would even dream of stealing fan creations to pass off as their own. How times have changed, eh? Gamers have become more vocal and perceptive than ever, and company image is important. Lawsuits and controversy will no doubt taint sales as a result. Unofficial map packs like D!ZONE were undoubtedly a product of their decade, but mercifully nothing of the sort was to be found in the new millenium onward. Quality prevailed over quantity, and the games industry learned that sleazy tactics like this one would no longer go unnoticed any more.