These highlights are from the Kindle version of “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner.
For a new generation, Carmack and Romero personified an American dream: they were self-made individuals who had transformed their personal passions into a big business, a new art form, and a cultural phenomenon. Their story made them the unlikeliest of antiheroes, esteemed by both Fortune 500 executives and computer hackers alike, and heralded as the Lennon and McCartney of video games (though they probably preferred being compared to Metallica).
For a kid working with an Apple II, there were two ways to get published in the nascent industry. The big publishers, like Sierra and Electronic Arts, Romero found, were fairly inaccessible. More within his reach were the enthusiast magazines, which, to save costs, printed games as code on their pages. To play, the reader would have to type the program laboriously into a computer.
He arrived at a naming convention: every game title was a two-word alliteration, like Alien Attack or Cavern Crusader.
Shreveport was renowned in the art of simulation long before the gamers arrived. In 1864, Confederate soldiers at Fort Turnbull duped invaders by positioning charred tree trunks on mounted wagons, as if they were cannons. Spotting the apparent artillery, Union soldiers fled in fear.
One hundred and twenty-seven years later, there were new simulated weapons in town–inside the computer games of Softdisk.
Carmack was most interested in programming the guts of the game–what was called the engine. This integral code told the computer how to display graphics on the screen. Romero enjoyed making the software tools–essentially the palette they would use to create characters and environments or “maps” of the game–as well as the game design–how the game play would unfold, what action would take place, what would make it fun. It was like yin and yang.
In computers, information is represented in bits. A bit can be either on or off. Tom called Romero’s mood swings the bit flip.
That fateful morning of September 20, 1990, Romero’s bit flipped right on. It was a date he seared into his memory and Carmack would soon forget, but it was equally important to both. Carmack had used his laser focus to solve an immediate challenge: how to get a PC game to scroll. Romero used Carmack’s solution, Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, to envision what would come. Carmack had created a palette that Romero used to paint the future.
Shareware. Romero was familiar with the concept. It dated back to a guy named Andrew Fluegelman, founding editor of PC World magazine. In 1980, Fluegelman wrote a program called PC-Talk and released it online with a note saying that anyone who liked the wares should feel free to send him some “appreciation” money. Soon enough he had to hire a staff to count all the checks. Fluegelman called the practice “shareware,” “an experiment in economics.”
Romero was making perfect shareware games and he didn’t even know it, Scott said. An ideal shareware game had to have a few ingredients: short action titles that were broken up in levels. Because the shareware games were being distributed over BBSs, they had to be small enough for people to download them over modems. Large, graphically intensive games, like those being published by Sierra On-Line, were simply too big for BBS-based distribution. Games had to be small but fun and fast, something adrenal and arcade-style enough to hook a player into buying more.
The bond between Carmack and Romero was becoming stronger by the day. It was like two tennis players who, after years of destroying their competition, finally had a chance to play equals. Romero pushed Carmack to be a better programmer. Carmack pushed Romero to be a better designer. What they shared equally was their passion.
When the guys christened their company, they shortened the Ideas from the Deep initialism and simply called themselves id, for “in demand.” They also didn’t mind that, as Tom pointed out, id had another meaning: “the part of the brain that behaves by the pleasure principle.”
Violent fantasy, of course, had an ancient history. Readers had been fascinated by the gore of Beowulf for over a thousand years (“The demon clutched a sleeping thane in his swift assault, tore him in pieces, bit through the bones, gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh”).
In 1932, Aldous Huxley described a futuristic kind of movie experience called feelies in his novel Brave New World. Combining three-dimensional imagery as well as olfactory and tactile effects, the feelies, he wrote, were “dazzling and incomparably more solid looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality.” Ray Bradbury imagined a similar experience in his 1950 short story “The Veldt,” which presented, essentially, a view of the first virtual reality room. A family has a special room that can project any scene they imagine on the surrounding walls.
The Reagan-Bush era was finally coming to a close and a new spirit rising. It began in Seattle, where a sloppily dressed grunge rock trio called Nirvana ousted Michael Jackson from the top of the pop charts with their album Nevermind. Soon, grunge and hip-hop were dominating the world with more brutal and honest views. Id was braced to do for games what those artists had done for music: overthrow the status quo. Games until this point had been ruled by their own equivalent of pop, in the form of Mario and Pac-Man. Unlike music, the software industry had never experienced anything as rebellious as Wolfenstein 3-D.
All they needed was a title. Carmack had the idea. It was taken from The Color of Money, the 1986 Martin Scorsese film in which Tom Cruise played a brash young pool hustler. In one scene Cruise saunters into a billiards hall carrying his favorite pool cue in a stealth black case. “What you got in there?” another player asks. Cruise smiles devilishly, because he knows what fate he is about to spring upon this player, just as, Carmack thought, id had once sprung upon Softdisk and as, with this next game, they might spring upon the world. “In here?” Cruise replies, flipping open the case. “Doom.”
In the company’s brief history, a pattern was emerging that emulated Carmack’s programming ideology: innovate, optimize, then jettison anything that gets in the way.
It began in a room with a low gray ceiling but angled walls. Walking to the front right, they came to a wall with slats in it, open spaces that revealed an outdoor vista, a sky, but no apparent way to get out. Two large lights stripped the opening of a hallway. It seemed like the way to go. As one walked down the hall, the rooms opened up to a plank leading outdoors. There was a gray sky overhead. Mountains off in the distance. But as one moved, the path only led back inside, now into a room with higher walls than the first. Lights flashed from overhead as a flurry of Former Humans–zombie soldiers possessed by demons–unleashed rounds of fire, emerging from the shadows with bloodstained chests. When Romero was through, everyone agreed. Tom’s banal levels were out. Romero’s were in. This was the design. This was Doom.
id hated Myst. It had none of the elements they liked: no real-time interaction, no pace, no fear, no action. If Myst was like Shakespeare, Doom was going to be Stephen King.
Romero’s levels were deliberately paced. As level designer, he was responsible for not only designing the architecture of the environments but also choosing where to put monsters, weapons, bonus items, and objects; it was like being a theater director and haunted-mansion creator all in one.
He made his way down the hall, the yelps and screams coming from inside the rooms. There was Adrian, twitching and convulsing as he played against Kevin and Carmack and Jay. What was this? Romero thought. It was like a match, like a boxing match, but the object wasn’t just to knock the other guy out or some wimpy shit like that. This was, like, kill the guy! This was a match to the death. He stopped cold. “This,” he said, “is deathmatch.”
This wasn’t the first time that America’s political and moral establishment had tried to save youth from their own burgeoning culture. Shortly after the Civil War, religious leaders assailed pulp novels as “Satan’s efficient agents to advance his kingdom by destroying the young.” In the twenties, motion pictures were viewed as the new corrupter of children, inspiring sensational media-effects research that would be cited for decades. In the fifties, Elvis was shown only from the waist up on television; MAD magazine’s publisher, William Gaines, was brought before Congress. In the seventies, Dungeons and Dragons, with all its demons and sorcery, became associated with Satanism, particularly after a player enacting the game disappeared under the steam tunnels of a Michigan university. In the eighties, heavy metal artists like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were sued for allegedly invoking young listeners to commit suicide. In the nineties, video games were the new rock’n’roll–dangerous and uncontrolled.
The roots were in the thirties, when pinball arcades were thought to be havens for hoodlums and gamblers. New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia placed a ban on pinball that lasted until the mid-seventies.
Nine Inch Nails’ rock star Trent Reznor sauntered off a concert stage as the crowd roared. Security guards rushed to his side. Screaming groupies pushed backstage. Trent nodded and waved, heading back through the crowd. He didn’t have time for this. There were more important things waiting. He stepped onto his tour bus. Forsaking the drugs, the beer, the women, for the computer awaiting him. It was time again for Doom.
“This game is so intense, and so genuinely frightening that the deeper you venture into these shadowy chambers the closer your nose gets to the screen–an indication, I believe, of how much you, the player, enter this adventure game’s other reality.” Despite the pleas of his wife, the reviewer couldn’t keep himself away; Doom was, he confessed, a “cyberopiate.”
The mainstream media picked up the ball, The New York Times, USA Today, and Variety–the movie industry’s trade magazine–published articles about the business and cultural breakthroughs of Doom. Journalists came to Dallas to see who was behind the phenomenon and reveled in the idiosyncratic world of long-haired gamers and souped-up $200,000 Ferraris. Id wasn’t just a company that made a killer game. It was the portent of something new, something unseen: rich, young, creative guys who were bucking all the sensible routes of traditional business for this strange amorphous thing that, at the time, was not even widely known as the Internet. “Everyone is talking about the power of the information superhighway,” Jay boasted to The Dallas Morning News. “We’re the living proof.” The industry needed a rock star, he realized; id was it.
By the time he showed up in Austin for the Doom deathmatch in the summer of 1994, Romero was exuding white-hot game-god heat. With the fans bowing, a reporter descended on him and asked why he had come to this tournament. Romero puffed out his chest and said, “So we can beat everybody!”
Plato said, “Every man and woman should play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present.” In the fifties, the anthropologist Johan Huizinga wrote that “play … is a significant function… which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something.” He suggested a new name for the human species: “Homo Ludens,” Man the Player. Marshall McLuhan wrote in the sixties that “a society without games is one sunk in the zombie trance of the automaton…
Launching Doom II brought a whole new vernacular to the PR industry, words like deathmatch and frag and mods.
Doom imitations were flooding the shelves and topping the sales charts: Dark Forces, a Star Wars-themed shooter from Lucas Arts; Descent, a free-flying shooter from Interplay; Marathon, a Macintosh game from a small company called Bungie. Even Tom Hall, who had always wanted to do deeper games at id, had been corralled into doing a shooter called Rise of the Triad for Scott Miller’s company, Apogee.
Though Carmack rarely felt–let alone cracked from–pressure, Quake was beginning to break him. He started lashing out at his employees.
Carmack didn’t relent. He began firing off disciplinary e-mails. First, he banned deathmatching in the office. Then he sent out grades. Everyone in the company was given a letter grade based on his performance: Sandy got a D, Romero a C.
Carmack wasn’t through. One night he dragged his desk outside his office and planted himself to work in the hallway–the better to keep an eye on everyone around him. Employees began living in fear of their jobs and staying later and later, trying to keep up with Carmacks relentless pace.
The fun, they felt, was being sucked out of the company. The tension was so thick that people started to complain about Carmack too. Romero wasn’t the only one with the ego; Carmack was off in his own world, refusing to come down.
The company was in perpetual crunch mode, trying to get the Doom-style shooter done by March. Carmack, feeling like he was the only one running the ship, decided it was time to turn up the heat. For weeks he had been working out in the hallway to keep an eye on everyone else. But now he suggested they tear the walls down.
Without the privacy of personal space, the tension began to mount. They worked eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. They had to listen to their music on headphones.
Romero had taken a liking to instrumental video game soundtracks–available as Japanese imports. He popped one in and bitterly slipped on his headphones. This is not the id of the past, he thought, the id of “let’s make a great game together and have fun.” This is the id of “shut up and work.”
Long enamored of Romero’s rock-star lifestyle, American started living the life himself. This came after id struck a deal with Trent Reznor of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, a die-hard Doom fan, to provide the music and sound effects for Quake.
“I’m going to leave after Quake.” he concluded. “What do you think about starting another company? It’ll be a company where any kind of design we want to do, that’s what we make. Technology has to work with our design, not the other way around. How would you like to have a company where design is law?”
American McGee felt Romero’s absence from the moment he walked by his old office and saw the empty chair. Romero, even with his problems, had always bridged the gap between the owners and the employees. And there was no one who could even remotely take his place. Carmack didn’t take into account that he had let go more than just John Romero, American thought. He had let go the soul of any video game company: the fun.
Ion painted itself as the place of freedom and dreams, while id was the out-of-touch oppressor. It was about not just two companies but two visions: design versus technology, art versus science, Dionysus versus Apollo.
By the summer of 1997, Dallas had become to gamers what Seattle was to musicians in the early 1990s; id was Nirvana.
One of the main sources of distrust among the employees was id’s competitive bonus structure. Every quarter or so the owners would meet to assign a dollar amount to each employee. They would then split up a bonus payment based on those decisions. One quarter someone might get $100,000; the next $20,000. The owners admitted that it was an arbitrary and imperfect plan, but it was the only one they could surmise. As a result, the employees realized that the easiest way to get the higher bonuses was to outwit, outplay, and outsmart each other. It was a business deathmatch.
“Romero is chaos and Carmack is order,” he said. “Together they made the ultimate mix. But when you take them away from each other, what’s left?”
In video games, no one really got hurt. But when it came to violent play, people had a history of linking fantasy with reality, as the author Gerard Jones explored in his book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.
“Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden… is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.”
Researchers since the 1980s had been finding positive effects of video games; a report in the Journal of American Academic Child Psychiatry argued that games not only didn’t inspire aggression, they released it.
Murderers, after all, had proven that they could find inspiration in any-thing–the White Album, Taxi Driver, Catcher in the Rye. How many acts of violence had the Bible inspired?
They all still believed in their original vision: that design, that the games could be law. The problem, as Romero said, was that the design didn’t take into account technology and it didn’t take into account that the designer doesn’t necessarily know how to manage.
Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought on his own. “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”