It bothers author David Kushner that two of the most influential figures in what is now a $10.8 billion segment of the entertainment industry are all but unknown to mainstream America. And so, in hopes of remedying that situation, he has written Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.
The two guys are video game programmers John Romero and John Carmack, creators of the game sensation “Doom,” among other games, and pioneers in – like it or not – bringing gouged-out eyes, chopped flesh, ripped-open skulls, spurting blood and realistic dying screams to video game play.
Kushner points out that today “Americans spend more money on video games than on movie tickets.” And yet movie-maker Steven Spielberg (a known “Doom” fan) has gotten more mentions in the mainstream press in just the last two months than Romero and Carmack together have gotten in their entire careers.
“Doom,” for those who have never taken aim at its demon-possessed zombie attackers, is what’s called a “first-person shooter” video game. It’s designed so that its players, rather than a hero like Superman, are the ones racing through abandoned nuclear plants and such. The goal is to get the bad guys, using shotgun, pistol, chainsaw or whatever the situation demands, before the bad guys get you. It’s also designed so that two to four players can, while dealing with demonic zombies, attack each other in kill-or-be-kill combat called “deathmatches.”
In chronicling the careers of the Doom duo, Kushner is also describing the evolution of video gaming. He explains how increases in computer power and leaps in computer graphics technology enabled games to move from simply batting a ball back and forth, to Pac-Man (in which one computer icon eats others) to today’s incredibly detailed 3D scenarios that move from one scene to the next with amazing speed.
All is told from the definitely-not-buttoned-down perspective of Romero and Carmack, known to gaming fans as “the two Johns.”
As a kid in Rocklin, Calif., John Romero was an enthusiast of the fantasy box game “Dungeons and Dragons” and a frequent visitor to video arcades – the successors to pinball arcades. He picked up a knowledge of programming from students at nearby Sierra College, and, at age 16, sold a game to a computer magazine for $100. (In those days, the games were published as printed codes that the reader could type into a computer.)
John Carmack, three years younger than Romero, grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Carmack was also a fan of “Dungeons and Dragons” and video arcades. After getting hooked on an Apple II computer in elementary school, he took a course in computing at his local Radio Shack, studied books on programming, and began reprogramming computer games to give his favorite characters extra capabilities.
John Romero’s stepfather felt his obsession with games was detrimental to his future. “You’ll never make any money making games,” he said. “You need to make something people really need, like business applications.” John Carmack’s mother told him: “If you are interested in computers, you don’t sit around playing ‘Ultima.’ You get good grades, go to MIT, and get a job with IBM.”
But what do parents know?
Romero and Carmack met in Shreveport, La., in 1989 where both had been hired to create games for Softdisk, a company selling utility and entertainment programs to subscribers who received a new diskette of software each month.
In 1989, Romero was 22 years old; Carmack was 19. They were totally different personalities: Carmack, a quiet, unemotional guy who only wanted to be left alone to program; Romero an enthusiastic type who made noises when he wasn’t making obscenity-laced conversation. Author Kushner describes Romero as a “human exclamation point.” But both were equally passionate about creating games and recognized each other’s special talents. Carmack’s interest was in developing the game’s “engine” – the way the graphics are displayed on the screen. Romero enjoyed making “software tools” to create characters and determine how a game unfolds.
By 1990, they decided to launch their own game company while keeping their day jobs to pay the bills. They not only moonlighted, they borrowed Softdisk’s computers to do it. They and pals from Softdisk, also in on the plan, snuck their computers home each night and brought them back in the morning.
They called their company Id software (short for ideas from the deep). Fueled by diet Coke and pizza, they created a game called “Commander Keen” in which an eight-year-old creates a spaceship from old soup cans and goes off to fight aliens from the Planet Vorticon VI. To sell it, they linked up with Scott Miller, owner of a company named Apogee that specialized in computer shareware.
Shareware involves giving a program away free with a request that if you find it useful, you will mail back a modest sum. Not everybody sends money, but enough people do to keep many shareware companies profitable.
In December 1990, when “Commander Keen” was finished, Scott Miller posted notices on computer bulletin boards (a predecessor of today’s “chat rooms”) that slightly altered the shareware formula. The first episodes of “Commander Keen” would be totally free, but if you wanted two more episodes of the game, it would cost $30. In no time, the offer was earning Miller more than $20,000 a month, which was split with Id.
More and more money came in. In February 1991, Romero and Carmack quit their Softdisk jobs (after settling with its owner to avoid a lawsuit) and went on to create “Wolfenstein-3D,” in which players could shoot Nazis and German shepherds and watch them twitch in pain. That was followed, in 1993, by “Doom,” written to be downloaded to a PC (first three episodes free, additional ones for a fee). According to Kushner, so many gamers downloaded “Doom” that Carnegie-Mellon University had to post a notice “Do not play Doom in network mode” when the campus computer network came close to crashing. Intel banned the game entirely because its network was swamped.
Success brought Id multi-millions but also multiple crises. Id partners viewed as no longer necessary were canned without benefit of golden handshakes. Said Romero of one erstwhile colleague: “That’s it. Boom. He’s gone.” (At least nobody gouged his eyes out.) Id and “Doom” got unwanted attention (from Senator Joe Lieberman, among others) when it turned out that the Columbine High School killers were fans. Finally, Romero and Carmack ended up so at odds over how the ultimately successful game “Quake” was being developed, they split up. Carmack stayed at Id. Romero went off to start a business of his own. Carmack was more successful but neither did as well apart as they had done together.
The book ends in 2000. Romero at 32 is designing games for cell phones and pocket computers. Carmack, at 29, is still at Id but spending more time building space rockets. Both have enough money to do whatever they want.
In recounting the careers of the Masters of Doom, Kushner provides a fast-paced ride through the world of super video game creators. And, happily, it is one you don’t have to know how to use a joystick to enjoy.
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