I can still remember buying—as a child of 7 or 8—Doom at the local grocery store; it was $5, and came in the form of two 3.5″ floppy disks. At the time, I had no real inclination what it was, other than than package promised a first-person shooter video game that involve monsters and machine guns. What’s not to like? At the time, I could not have known than I was only one of many tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—discovering the same phenomenon. Of course, I had only bought the shareware version, which comprised the first of three episodes, and lacked the finances to pay $40 or $50 for the full version, but I played those 9 levels over and over again, and my new obsession also caused me to pluck the first of four novelizations from my dad’s bookshelf. Eventually, I would get the full, expanded Final Doom version of the game, and its followup, Doom II.
I could not have known at the time that one of the most popular games of its era, and a game which launched the first-person shooter genre1, was made by a couple of mid-twenties misfits on a houseboat. That John Carmack was a child prodigy of programming. Nor was I quite old enough to understand the shareware phenomenon, or BBSs2. Hell, I’m not even sure I heard or appreciated the name “John Carmack” until Doom 3 came out in 2004. I certainly heard of John Romero, the glossy-locked rockstar whose company, Ion Storm, flopped hard with Daikatana in 2000.
David Kushner, publishing in 2003, knew this. It’s fitting, then, that Masters of Doom, a retrospective of the preamble and first decade of id Software, begins with the dual appearance of John Carmack and John Romero at a Quake 3 Tournament in Dallas, the former apparent to preside over his company latest (wildly successful) creation, and the latter to talk about the three-year-late Daikatana. Though Kushner doesn’t reveal it within the introduction, those of us who followed video games know by way of history that Quake 3 was wildly successful and Daitakana fizzled and its creating studio ultimately closed. The two wildly-divergent personalities of “The Two Johns”, now the locus of our attention, will come to inform the entire narrative.
Kushner begins at the beginning, as befits a biographer, and shows us young John Romero, a wild child, who skips out on school to dominate the high score lists at the local arcade, to the increasing consternation of his martial stepfather. And John Carmack, a quiet but brilliant young mind whose thirst for computers and knowledge leads him into trouble—and his frank, contemplative manner leads him to a year in juvenile detention. The two Johns meet at Softdisk, a Shreveport, Louisiana, ISP trying to break into the burgeoning and lucrative computer software market, where they become the stars of the company as they switch from Apple II programming to the novel IBM-PC market. When Romero, ever the über-gamer, finds that Carmack has—in his spare time—recreated Super Mario Bros., smooth-scrolling and all3—he immediately decides that he, Carmack, and a few of the best and brightest from Softdisk need to form their own software company, eventually known as id Software.
Enter Commander Keen, the company’s first shareware title, which made them bucketfuls of money after a deal with Apogee Software—later the now-semi-defunct 3D Realms—and later the wildly successful Wolfenstein 3-D, the paradigm-shattering Doom, and the eponymous first entry in the long-lived Quake franchise. It’s important to remember, of course, that John Carmack was all of 23 years old when Doom was released in 1993; these were, after all, just college dropouts, surviving on diet coke and pizza and living together on a houseboat. Carmack was, in technical terms, the center of the group, as he quietly—robotically, even—churned out game engines of increasing—hell, groundbreaking—sophistication. Romero and an amorphous crew of artists and designs worked up the models, graphics, and content for the games, and then become the testers and cheerleaders for the upcoming release. The pattern that Kushner makes clear is that Romero spent an increasing amount of time dicking around with deathmatches4 and a lot less time contributing salable content for the company. By the time Quake was released, Carmack had kicked him out.
There are a couple of important points to take away from Masters of Doom:
id Software—and therefore Doom—probably would never have happened without John Romero. After the disaster of Daikatana and Ion Storm and the “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch” magazine ads, it’s easy to think that Romero’s the Skreech of the video game world… perpetually loud, obnoxious, and useless. It’s true that his programming skills probably didn’t advance much beyond the Apple II, after which Carmack did all the hard work, and it’s true that he preferred to spend his time as the dilettante of id Software instead of a productive employee, and its true that his oversexed rockstar mannerisms weren’t even particularly appropriate in the Golden Age of first person shooters. But it’s also true that it was Romero’s enthusiasm—his recognition that Carmack was a bona fide genius—that caused id Software to happen. Without Romero, Carmack may have plugged away at Softdisk for many more years—who’s to say where the state of the art would be without that impetus?
John Carmack is smart. But not very savvy. It’s easy to think of Carmack as the “head” of id Software. And I suppose he is, in the sense that he’s one of the few remaining owners and officially the “technical lead”; but Carmack’s always been in charge of the engine, pushing the limits of current PC hardware to create the most advanced, immersive, realistic environments possible. He’s never been the HR director5. But like a lot of technical geniuses, social interaction was never Carmack’s strong suit, and for many years of id’s existence, he simply plugged away at his latest engine, irrespective of the social problems that plagued the company (dark, creative types tend to have personality problems—who knew?), and largely oblivious to the content of the game itself, which was usually left to Romero and the other designers. In other words, Carmack makes the “id Tech” series of game engines as advanced as is possible6, and the other stuff simply happens. Or at least that’s the way it used to be; I assume that Carmack has blossomed in the last decade and assumed a more general leadership role in the meantime.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Doom. It seems dated now—though there are still actively-maintained ports of the original Doom engine—but Doom really did launch an entire generation of games and gamers. Hair-pulling and knee-jerking from Joe Leiberman and other Maude Flanders types aside, the reaction to Doom and the gaming industry it set in motion has been positive and fruitful. One interesting thing to note is Carmack’s attitude toward software patents; supposedly, when advised to patent some particular algorithm or piece of code, he’s pulled the nuclear option, threatening to quit if forced to file for patents. He’s also released the source code for each id Tech engine as GPL a predetermined span after its initial release, essentially giving both the game (absent the copyrighted textures and models) and his algorithms to the developer community. The book doesn’t mention this, even though the original Doom engine was open-sourced7 as far back as 1997, though it does emphasize Carmack’s desire to make his engines extensible and modifiable by fans.
Masters of Doom is written as a third-person narrative, though it ostensibly draws on a lot of interviews with those involved. This is always a dangerous ground to travel, since one risks attributing thoughts and words to people who never thought or spoke them. Still, Kushner tends to stay away from sensationalism, despite writing the book for the lay person, and though its 2003 publication date already dates it8, it serves as an interesting look at the history of one of the most important and innovative software companies in gaming and the strong, strange personalities that made it happen.
- That distinction could be given to Doom’s predecessor, Wolfenstein 3-D, by the same company.[↩]
- One of the earliest applications of the internet[↩]
- This is, I’m surprised to learn, a monumental feat on the PC, which was graphically and computationally underpowered compared to the specialized chipset of the Nintendo Entertainment System.[↩]
- Multiplayer gaming, in first-person-shooter parlance[↩]
- Except when he fired Romero, natch.[↩]
- The initial Half-Life licensed the Quake engine, before its sequel and most other Valve games switched to the internally-developed Source engine.[↩]
- At the end of the book, Carmack is just beginning his Doom 3 engine, but as I write, Doom 3 has been out, its engine open-sourced, and its successor scheduled for the end of this year[↩]