Book Review: Masters of Doom by David Kushner
It’s hard to imagine that PC games were once made in the bedrooms of teens. One person controlled all aspects of the game, from the paper-thin storyline to the gameplay. Once it was finished, they mailed the game out to a publisher. In return, they received a modest check. That is exactly how John Carmack and John Romero, the geniuses behind Wolfenstein 3D and Doom got their start. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture is another version of the American Dream, but instead of gangsters, athletes and cutthroat businessmen, the dreamers here are a bunch of nerds with a penchant for playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to Metallica.
Author David Kushner weaves a wealth of knowledge and interviews into a compelling read that breezes by as if it was a novel. At the core of the story are the two Johns behind a number of groundbreaking games: Carmack and Romero. Things begin with their childhoods. As a kid, Romero had a dream of becoming wealthy. He signed one of his school papers as “Ace Programmer and Future Rich Person.” As anyone who was around to see the Daikatana hype machine (suck it down) in full-force can tell you, Romero is bold.
Carmack may have purchased a Ferrari at the age of 22 and then had it tricked out to go even faster, but he was the less flashy of the two. All he wanted to do was program. Anything that got in the way was eliminated, and that included lazy colleagues and even his cat. Like many geniuses, Carmack is shown as socially inept. He has no ability to empathize with people. People were foreign and complex while programming was malleable to his own liking. Developing new graphics engines took precedence over everything else.
Through the details of the Johns’ early careers, Masters of Doom also serves as a historical look at early PC gaming. Before the two ever met, Carmack and Romero both began as freelance game developers. These games were then sold to stores in person, usually in plastic bags with no proper packaging. The days of multi-million budgets with huge developments staffs were not going to be a reality for a long time. Later on, shareware became an effective way to make money. By cutting out the retailer and distributing trial versions of the game online, nearly half of all proceeds went directly to the developers. If the gamer that downloaded the game and liked it enough, he paid for the full version. With the advent of digital distribution, this method developed in the 80s is still relevant today.
The two Johns met in Louisiana when they started work at Softdisk. Their job was to make games on a monthly basis that were shipped out to subscribers. The two instantly took a liking to each other. Their differing ideologies benefited one another. Carmack was constantly pushing the envelope of technology and Romero would find the best ways to implement it into games. It was the perfect working relationship. They made respectable money in the modest offices, but certainly not enough to live like kings. Carmack, and particularly Romero, were much more ambitious than their surroundings at Softdisk. The sky was the limit for them with Romero’s expertise in games and Carmack’s incredible programming skills.
Their stint at Softdisk was at the time of Nintendo and the popularity of Super Mario Bros. 3. No PC game had ever been able to replicate the console’s ability to make seamlessly scrolling games, which make each stage in Mario into one large area. Carmack cracked that riddle and their first mega-hit, Commander Keen, was born. At this point Softdisk was far beneath them, so they left. Their preference for quality games over meaningful relationships could be seen as they grew cockier. When the Johns and their small team were secretly working on their first hit, the boss asked the awkward Carmack why Romero had been acted so suspiciously. “Romero was just being friendly,” Carmack said. “When you turn your back he hates your guts.”
With their new company, id, Carmack developed more new technology with Wolfenstein 3D. This game popularized first person shooters as we know them today. The money was rolling in at this point. The two Johns then collaborated once again for the game that defined their careers. In 1993, Doom swept the nation and deathmatch became an addictive endemic. The sequel, Doom II, made about $100 million in retail and shareware sales. By their mid 20s, the two Johns were millionaires. Gaming, once an obscure hobby only for geeks, finally obtained some legitimacy.
The best parts of the Masters of Doom are many segments that show the developers in crunch time. Working seven days a week and at least twelve hours a day can take its toll on anyone, so their forms of relief are appropriately extreme. An ungodly amount of pizza and soda was ingested, while many keyboards were smashed. There are deathmatch breaks, and then it’s back to more work. At the start of the two Johns’ careers, crunch time almost felt like a schoolyard recess break. The work was brutal, but there was a great sense of satisfaction and fun. As relationships started to sour, crunch time became almost unbearable.
Like most versions of the American dream, there is the inevitable collapse from the top. Romero had become too much of a public figure and wasn’t getting any work on Quake done. In Romero’s mind, Carmack forgot what it was like to be a gamer. Tensions grew with the new hires at id, including a young American McGee. Many faces come and go at this point, which makes it difficult to remember who is who. Romero split ways with id and neither seemed to have the happiness and adrenaline they had in the early days. One needed the other, despite the fundamental disagreements that drove them apart.
Every year, most gamers play dozens of games without giving some of them a second thought. Masters of Doom shows just what it was like behind the scenes. Teams are substantially larger and the days when just a few guys can make a landmark game outside of the casual genre seems to be at an end. Most games seem to lack a personality due to the amount of hands working on the product. That’s the sacrifice for life-like graphics, bump mapping and other fancy features. At least that independent spirit of the ‘80s and early ‘90s still lives on in the mod and homebrew community.