“Masters of Doom” by David Kushner

There was a nice paragraph in this book where the author, David Kushner, walked through the last few decades and discussed what amounted to teenage rebellion through the media of the times.  The obvious one being rock-and-roll in the 1960s and the point was made that in the 1990s, video games were rock-n-roll.

Kushner later wrote the definitive book on Rockstar Games, arguably the powerhouse videogame publisher of the past twenty years. After enjoying that book, it seemed to make perfect sense to read Kushner’s look at Rockstar’s analogue in the 1990s:  id Software.

Strangely enough, the id story fit almost perfectly into the decade that was the 1990s, with the early 1990s being when gamers took to first-person shooters such as “Doom” and its predecessor “Wolfenstein 3-D.” In April of 1999, the Columbine shooting put a spotlight on ‘videogame violence’ – a festering topic for much of the decade.  By then, id software was a shell itself though and much of the debate focused on games that were by then several years old.

So, what happened in-between?

A number of trends were coming together in the 1990s.  You had the increased power of PCs and them becoming more common in homes.  The internet and the concept of online cooperative or competitive play.  And publishers pushing out increasingly ‘mature’ content.

Keep in mind that the video game industry had already put a self-policing ratings system into effect in 1994.  The 1990s was a weird time for videogames in that the introduction of ratings arguably had the opposite effect that was intended… it legitimized releasing ‘mature’ stuff, taking what were some outlier examples in the early 1990s and making that kind of content more of a norm.  A focus on ‘mature’ productions became so big that Nintendo even got into ‘mature’ a little bit because they were in such a dogfight with Sega’s Genesis, a system that branded itself as being the cooler (i.e., more ‘mature’) console.  As a teen male, all of this ‘naughty’ and ‘forbidden’ content was heaven.  Hence, the rebellion angle, videogames as rock and roll, etc., even if it was still composed of the same kinds of nerds as the “Dungeons & Dragons” types of the 1970s and 1980s.

The evolving availability of PCs in the 1990s meant that most of society was perhaps more familiar with later console-based incarnations of first-person shooters (FPS).  In fact, I’ve had friends make the mistake of assuming that “Goldeneye” was a watershed moment for that genre of first-person shooter games – and while it was for the ‘mainstream’/non-PC gamer – in reality, that genre was already several iterations deep in the PC gaming world before “Goldeneye” even came out.

By 1997, “Goldeneye” took FPS ‘mainstream’ and was probably the way a lot of people experienced that genre for the first time. Prior to that, you needed a then-very-expensive PC to play FPS games and you have to keep in mind that not everyone had PCs at their house in this era.

“Wolfenstein 3-D” was id’s first FPS and it was a PC phenomenon due to it being available as a ‘demo version’ with the first few levels given away for free via ‘shareware.’  It was a well-crafted game that seemed like something completely new for the time and it still holds up as a pretty fun game to modern gamers.

“Doom” was next and was a mega, mega hit, taking the “Wolfenstein” concepts a technological step further and introducing an even more immerse world.

When “Quake” came out in July of 1996, the first-person shooter hit another technological and gameplay level.

Besides cool visuals/sound and engaging solo gamer play, FPS were a key genre in the popularization of the concept of multi-player games.  While “Goldeneye” was multi-player locally on the Nintendo 64 and that was really popular (I was in college at the time and it was a popular game in the dorm)…. people with PCs had been doing online multi-player with “Doom” since 1993! So, by 1997 when people with N64s were getting into FPS on “Goldeneye,” there was a whole other culture that was on another level with players holding huge “Quake” parties on the LAN at colleges in the computer labs or in dorms.  “Quake” was very mature in this regard, with over a year’s worth of community contributions to it well before “Goldeneye” hit stores and fans of “Quake” took another leap forward with “Quake 2” coming out in December 1997 (just in time for Christmas), a few months after “Goldeneye” was released.

When people think of id Software, they naturally think of the ‘two Johns’ – John Romero and John Carmack.  Romero had programming experience but Carmack became Id’s technologist genius. Romero settled into a role as lead designer and company mouthpiece.  On the surface, this would seem to be a complimentary fit with Romero being the ‘front man’ and John Carmack as tech guru who was finding ingenious ways of making stuff seem really impressive graphics-wise on the tech of the era.  There’s a temptation to try to compare the two Johns to the early days of Apple, casting Romero into the Steve Jobs role and Carmack into the Steve Wozniak role but it wasn’t necessarily the same dynamic even if one could find certain parallels.

Per Kushner’s book, one could argue that id’s high point was during the “Doom” days. The relationship between Romero and Carmack started to deteriorate just as id was experiencing its biggest success. Of course, it would take a few years for the pair to formally break up.

I never got into “Quake” back in the day, even though it was such a talker of that era and, in hindsight, I think that I never jumped to it because it just seemed like Doom but with better graphics.  It’s funny how when you know the story-behind-the-story, that’s basically what happened.

The original vision for “Quake” by Romero was a sort of hand-to-hand combat approach (surely an idea that took some influence from Carmack being into ju-jitsu?). Romero pushed hard to stick to that vision but Carmack seemed to hit a wall with the game engine.  He couldn’t get it to do what they needed it to do and feel back to what seemed like more of a re-tread of “Doom.”  So, Romero’s ambitious idea with Carmack got sidelined instead of the duo having yet-another-breakthrough and the relationship between the two Johns was effectively over.

John Romero was pushed out of id by the time “Quake 2” came out and one could argue that neither Romero nor Carmack have been the better for it since then. Carmack took control of the company during the later “Quake” days and Kushner related stories from that time that made him sound like a boss that created a poor work environment.  Carmack has gotten a pass over the years given his technical genius at the time but a re-assessment regarding how he worked with others takes some shine off of his stature.  Further complicating matters was id facing increased competition in the aftermath of the success of “Doom.”  They were no longer the only company putting out first-person shooters and, while the competition perhaps didn’t have Carmack’s technical prowess, gamers were drifting to other products that offered them other draws.

If one had any familiarity with Romero, it wouldn’t be a surprise that he was cast as a flamboyant rock-star type who many criticized as getting too distracted in his own hype.  The argument was made that he let the success of id go to his head and got distracted while Carmack was the legit tech genius, the so-called engine powering id.  The truth was somewhat more complicated, as Romero grew dissatisfied that his design ideas weren’t getting realized by Carmack.  When Romero left id, he started Ion Storm as a new game studio with the motto ‘design is law’ but that firm had a laundry list of troubles and struggled simply getting games out the door.  Romero actually contracted Carmack’s “Quake” game engine for use in Ion Storm’s centerpiece release “Daikatana” and the history of that troubled game would require its own write-up.

“Masters of Doom” did a decent job of leaving the reader with the impression that the differences between the two Johns – at least initially – ended up being complementary strengths that led to success.  The facts of the careers of both men after their breakup, neither never quite reaching the same highs independently, speaks to the notion that they could have benefited from future work together.  Unlike rock bands that reunite after years of feuding, that doesn’t seem like something one would expect an aged Romero and Carmack to do – one could speculate that Romero might be up for such a reunion but it would be hard to see Carmack having an interest.  The book painted a picture of Romero wanting to take over the world, thinking about big scale and empire ambitions while Carmack seemed happiest just taking a retreat and focusing on his inner world of technical challenges.  Gamers benefited for a little under a decade when their ships happened to pass in the night, but like the night, that time was fleeting.

Random Asides:

As if to add to the book’s Geek Cred, the audio version was read by Wil Wheaton, who did a solid job.  One note for Wil though?  He’d sometimes slip into impersonations that, well, didn’t quite work.  But that only happened a couple of times…

As of late 2020, this book was apparently being adapted by USA Network; the end result could either be awesome or kind of dorky… not sure. Here’s hoping for something good…

D.S. Christensen
Latest posts by D.S. Christensen (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.