"This is where it really starts getting scary," he says upon entering a new level of "Doom 3" where massive hell knights lob deadly balls of energy against a backdrop of shimmering lava pools and torches made of corpses. "I don't know how many times I've been through hell but it just freaks me out."
Four years after setting out to remake one of the most popular and violent video games ever, Stratton and the rest of the crew at id Software, Inc. are finally done with their latest vision of hell.
"We're a bit nervous. It's like raising a child and you send them out into the world," said Tim Willits, one of the game's designers.
"Doom 3" hits store shelves Tuesday, though there were reports of some retailers breaking a midnight sales embargo and of pirated copies already being distributed for free on the Internet.
The $55 sequel typifies the first person shooter genre id pioneered in the early 1990s with the original "Doom," "Quake" and "Wolfenstein 3D": gamers run and gun through hordes of monsters or other enemies in three dimensions.
With each release, the visuals, sound and other effects have improved. "Doom 3" is by far the most realistic and looks nearly equal to animated films like "Shrek 2."
In "Doom 3" you are a marine on a Martian outpost that becomes a gateway to hell after a series of top secret experiments involving ancient alien artifacts. With shotguns, rocket launchers, lasers and grenades, you alone must fend off a menagerie of beasts and possessed base workers.
It's a familiar formula that's served the tiny developer well. While some have decried id's games as overly violent, the company has sold millions of copies of one gory hit after another.
In turn, the games have spawned legions of loyal fans. By the thousands, gamers of all ages flock to "QuakeCon," an annual Texas gathering paid for by id where like-minded players meet and fight each other online.
Along with "Half-Life 2," "Doom 3" is one of the most anticipated games this year, said Greg Kasavin, executive editor of the review Web site GameSpot.com.
"It represents the next technological leap by id Software - a developer that's remained on the forefront of computer graphics and computer game technology for more than a decade," he said.
Analyst Michael Goodman with the Yankee Group said "Doom 3" could boost the sagging market for personal computer games. Sales of CD-ROM-based PC games dropped from $1.4 billion two years ago to an estimated $1 billion this year, largely due to the growing popularity of consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation 2, he said.
The success has turned co-owner and technical director John Carmack into one of the game industry's most revered gurus, renowned for his skill at creating game "engines," the underlying foundation of a game which makes everything from graphics to sound possible.
Carmack said there was some internal debate about what the next project would be after its last game, the online shooter "Quake 3" and the "Team Arena" expansion pack in 2000.
Eventually they decided to remake Doom using new software tools created by Carmack.
"We've always been a small company of prima donnas," Carmack, sporting baggy shorts and a white T-shirt, said as he swiveled his bespectacled gaze from a flat screen computer monitor glowing with lines of computer code. "But we've really matured as a development team. Lots of things took longer than we expected, but we're really pleased with how it all turned out."
Id's sleek offices in a nondescript professional building in suburban Dallas have been a home away from home for its two dozen employees.
Led by Carmack, they've been in "crunch mode" since January, clocking 80-hour work weeks in a rush to wrap things up.
Dress is casual: Employees stroll the dim hallways wearing shorts and T-shirts. There's a kitchen stacked with boxes of Krispy-Kreme doughnuts, bags of beef jerky and a row of arcade machines.
Many workers said an obsessive streak got them through the long hours. Lead artist Kenneth Scott said he was worn out after working 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. for months on end, but admitted to suffering from a bit of postpartum depression when it was finished.
"We're pretty up to our chins in what we do," he said. "You get used to that groove. Your mind drifts and you feel guilty when you're sitting down relaxing."
It's only been a few weeks since "Doom 3" was declared done. Already, the office is abuzz with renewed activity.
With window blinds pulled, programmers and artists are again hunched over their keyboards, working on an Xbox version of "Doom 3," as well as a new game. All anyone will say for now is that it will be a completely new game, not a sequel.
"We're not like a rock band where you take four months off," Stratton said. "Although, that would be nice."
Another Carmack project, meanwhile, has nothing to do with computer games. Between his time finishing up the game and developing rockets with his Armadillo Aerospace company, he and his wife, Anna, are expecting their first child, Christopher Ryan Carmack, in mid-August.
By Matt Slagle