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 Kushners 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 doesnt need it; he makes up for a lack of charm with a
surplus of intelligence.
Its 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. Carmacks semi-autistic tendencies
(apparently he ends many of his sentences with a mechanical hum) were
more than compensated for by Romeros 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
Carmacks 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
Millers 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 were 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 youll see the
tangled web that visionary development houses weave: id, Ion Storm,
Gathering of Devleopersits all there.
The business and history sides of the story are interesting, but
Kushners 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 doesnt hurt, but as time goes on, people get older, the same
old frathouse rules dont 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, doesnt 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, Carmacks intense focus on technology and demanding
nature forces Romero out of id. He was fired. And its Romeros 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 Carmacks 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 Carmacks 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 everythingthe dreams of
his partners, the fate of Carmacks 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 its no surprise to the reader when Romero begins work on
Daikatana. Hes at the height of his rockstar phase, posing in
advertisements with captions like "John Romeros 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 doesnt kink up or curl up"
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
Theres no doubt that Carmack and Romero have made a lasting
impression on gaming. Whether or not theyve 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 gamehe
seems to have one eye toward rocketry, and Kushner implies that the
X-Prize might be his next big project (although how hell beat Burt
Rataans team to the punch is beyond me). This story is far from over.