There have been many "Game Gods" in the industry. Notable notables ranging from Warren Spector and Wil Wright to Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto pepper the history of videogames. We love (or loathe) iconic individuals like Steve Jobs (former Atari employee) and Bill Gates, and it is often through notable individuals that we tell history. Indeed, the elevation of exemplary individuals fits nicely into "great men" model of historical documentation, and it carries with it all the baggage associated with that practice. And if two heads are better than one, then why not elevate the dynamic duos as well? Jobs and Gates are still well-known, but what about Steve Wozniak (who actually designed the Apple personal computer) or Paul Allen (often credited for writing MSDOS)? These two former techno-whiz-kid sidekicks now mainly pursue charitable endeavours and have all but faded into the pages of history. And thus, we have the first axiom of the superstar programming pair: They are all doomed.
Once again, in David Kushner's latest biography, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, we explore the twisted relationship that forms between two guys with good ideas. The book is a surprisingly quick read, written in smooth, transparent prose, and well-paced. For fans of gaming, it is even gripping (throughout the book, I found myself worrying about just when Daikatana would be brought up). There is no doubt that Kushner picked a worthy subject, and Masters of Doom rises to the challenge.
For those not in the know, the "masters" referred to in the title are John Romero and John Carmack. Romero and Carmack are poetically opposing entities whose synergy led to some of the biggest breakthroughs in game technology and truly did transform the cultural landscape. As Kushner reminds us, sometimes to the point of annoyance, Romero is the "rockstar" and Carmack is the "rocket scientist". Both come from broken homes, rocky parental relationships, and childhoods filled with want. Romero was the hotshot gamer on the block, owning the high scores in pizza parlors around Rocklin, California, and sneaking into the computer lab at the local Sierra College to gain a "street-smart" education in programming. Carmack was the archetypical smart kid, complete with odd speech patterns and demanding parents who fostered his love of computers but not necessarily his love of games. His personality is sparse at best, but he doesn't need it; he makes up for a lack of charm with a surplus of intelligence.
It's easy to see how these two fit together. When they met at the Softdisk offices in Shreveport, LA they immediately gelled. Kushner is sure to point out that Carmack creates the code and Romero figures out the flashiest way to show it off. Carmack's semi-autistic tendencies (apparently he ends many of his sentences with a mechanical hum) were more than compensated for by Romero's over-the-top enthusiasm and showmanship. At the start, this is a match on par with Yin and Yang. However, the differences eventually manifest themselves in tendencies that tear the two apart.
The story Kushner tells covers the initial experiments of Romero and Carmack's team at Softdisk. Carmack eventually creates a game engine that allows sophisticated seamless scrolling on the PC, and that engine first leads to a PC port of Super Mario Bros., which Nintendo squashes. The group scores their first hit with Commander Keen, published by Scott Miller's visionary shareware company, Apogee. Eventually we witness the development of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Doom II, Quake, Quake II, Quake III Arena, and Daikatana, in addition to the formation of id Software and Ion Storm. Listing the games is easy, and most readers will be familiar with all of these titles. But the stories behind how the games got made are truly entertaining and fairly fascinating.
Of course, to reduce these games down to Carmack and Romero is to ignore the string of other gaming notables who worked insane hours to create them. Along the way we're introduced to people like Tom Hall, Adrian Carmack (no relation to John), American McGee, Scott Miller, and Mike Wilson. Trace the connections to those names and you'll see the tangled web that visionary development houses weave: id, Ion Storm, Gathering of Devleopers-it's all there.
The business and history sides of the story are interesting, but Kushner's real hook is his talent for delivering nuggets of reality that define these characters. We know that although Carmack, Romero, and their teams re-invented the first person perspective in gaming and delivered to the world a whole new array of technology for rendering 3D environments, at the heart of it all is a fairly uninformed, unplanned, and just plain juvenile attitude. At first, this style and mode of operations doesn't hurt, but as time goes on, people get older, the same old frathouse rules don't apply.
As I read the book, the fall begins almost before the rise. When creating Doom, Tom Hall had a brilliant idea for a story driven game focusing on a research center beset with intruders from another dimension (sounds more than a little bit like Half-Life, doesn't it?). However, the team squelched that notion, which may not have been a bad idea, given the technology available back in 1992. But it illustrates the direction id will take, developing games based mainly on technology rather than concept or story. Certainly this led to a whole new style of gameplay, but it also insured that id would remain primarily an inventor of engines. The number of games developed from Quake- and Doom-based engines is staggering, and many of these games are better than Quake or Doom if a gamer wants more than twitch and run action.
Eventually, Carmack's intense focus on technology and demanding nature forces Romero out of id. He was fired. And it's Romero's post-id antics that really illustrate his own weaknesses (and provide some of the most compelling and entertaining passages in the book).
Of course, after Romero leaves id he begins work on that great icon of gaming disaster: Daikatana. Kushner uses Daikatana as a leitmotif throughout the book. The story goes like this: Carmack and company had engaged in a long-running Dungeons and Dragons adventure for years. Carmack was, of course, the DM, and had created a huge world governed by various rules and legends. Romero played the leader of the group, and eventually led his fellow adventurers (including Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack) to steal a powerful book of the dead. Of course, the evil demons that inhabited the nether realms of Carmack's fantasy world approached Romero and offered him the all-powerful Daikatana, a weapon of extraordinary capabilities, in exchange for the book which would allow them to take control of the human realm. Romero gave it all up in exchange for the Daikatana, the demons rushed into the human realm, and with a few rolls of Carmack's dice the game was over for good. Years and years of gaming went down the tubes.
This anecdote leads to some trademark dramatic prose from Kushner:
Romero outlined his ultimate title ever, an epic first-person shooter that would take its name form the mystical sword Carmack had tantalized him with in their Dungeons and Dragons game long ago. It was the weapon for which Romero had risked everything-the dreams of his partners, the fate of Carmack's game; he had made a deal with the demons to get the sword Daikatana. That time, it led to the end of the world. This time, it would lead to his conquering it. (232)
So it's no surprise to the reader when Romero begins work on Daikatana. He's at the height of his rockstar phase, posing in advertisements with captions like "John Romero's about to make you his bitch" (239). He even began giving grooming tips for keeping long hair straight and smooth: "I always flip my hair over in front of my face and look at the floor while using a brush and hair dryer to slowly dry all my hair. Brushing downward while drying will help straighten your hair and completely drying it will make sure it doesn't kink up or curl up" (238).
In many ways Masters of Doom teaches us that in order to be successful we must be ruthless and dedicated to one thing above all else. For Carmack that one thing is his technology. For Romero, that one thing is being the king of all gamers. In a weird way, the book feels like reading a Brett Easton Ellis novel, all guts, tainted glory, and very little emotion. But maybe the way to look at this is not as a revival of 1980s greed culture; maybe this book really shows us that great progress comes at great costs. No, wait, that is part of the justification of 1980s greed culture. So I guess the moral of the story is: Keep your friends close until they begin to get in the way or don't pull their weight, and trash talk your enemies on their discussion boards.
There's no doubt that Carmack and Romero have made a lasting impression on gaming. Whether or not they've burned out remains to be seen. Romero is currently heading up his Monkeystone development studio with his wife, Stevie Case, former Playboy model and gamer extraordinaire. Carmack has said that Doom 3 will be his last game-he seems to have one eye toward rocketry, and Kushner implies that the X-Prize might be his next big project (although how he'll beat Burt Rataan's team to the punch is beyond me). This story is far from over.