Doom was a legendarily great game that will be remembered until the MayanNazis initiate the Obamocalpyse of 2023 and at last exterminate humanity, but you don’t need me to repeat the praises that have been heralded for two decades already. This is a review of a book.
Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (link uses my Amazon affiliate) is a 2003 nonfiction book about the formation of id Software, its eventual decline, and the creation of the magnificent Doom. The author gets his information not from rumors or “common knowledge” but from multiple interviews with the two Johns themselves. Both video game superstars were candid and honest about their actions in the mid 90s, even the really embarrassing stuff. The end result is not a hagiography but a refreshingly frank account of the creation of one of the wonders of the world.
Masters of Doom differs from the more recent Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation, which is primarily exaggeration and speculation told in a Hollywood-friendly style. Masters of Doom won’t be made into a movie, but the true story it tells is more captivating than any fictional take could be.
The book begins with a few short chapters telling of the very different childhoods of Romero and Carmack, how they both got into computers by different means. This sets the stage for the rest of the book: two men with dissimilar histories and personalities with the same vision.
Game creators starting out in the 2010s generally have to learn the trade with generic iPhone games and/or daily grind detritus. But in the 80s, 90s, and 2010s, you had to make retail games for one of several computer platforms. id had worked on the platformer Commander Keen and a slew of sequels, but their breakout hit was Wolfenstein 3D, an early first-person shooter that to this day is still banned in Germany.
But the Johns weren’t satisfied with a mere handful of hits. They wanted to make a shooter even bigger, even faster, even gorier than Wolfenstein 3D. They tooled around a couple of ideas (including an eventually discarded storyline) before settling on a cheesy yet horrifying sci-fi setting. They understood that gameplay was always more important than the plot or the “message” as today’s hipsters call it. They basically fired a guy early on trying to put a ton of story into the game, but nowadays he’d be the pop star and guys like Romero and Carmack would be relegated to being considered engineers.
id was one of the first companies to use the internet to not only advertise but distribute their wares. Doom didn’t even get a retail release at first; it was available only through BBS despite the slow speeds and lack of mainstream appreciation of the primitive internet. But for a small group of computer-savvy visionaries, it was an obvious choice; the overhead was cut significantly and the digital format meant that it could be distributed infinitely.
Doom was released as a free demo with several levels and an option to purchase the full game. This proved a remarkably successful business model and I wish more game companies today still used it. It certainly gets more money out of me. Masters of Doom takes you through not only the creative process behind the magnificent game but id’s surprisingly sound business practices as well.
Doom was released on December 10, 1993 to near-universal praise from game media; only puritans concerned with the game’s hypnotic effect on children had anything bad to say about it, though Masters of Doom does not go into much detail on the subject. Doom was targeted by both accusations of Satanism and parents who thought video games were bad for kids, either by discouraging exercise or by encouraging real-life violence. The fact that the Mormon guy who worked on the game had no problem with the content should speak for its level of actual offensiveness.
If I could work for a video game company, it would be like id Software from 1994, not id Software from 1996. They were slave drivers, but they brought out the potential in their employees like a professor who gives a heavy workload for a course knowing that it’s the best way for students to improve. And how can you complain about how hard the work is when your bosses put in more hours and produce even better work than you?
The Doom engine was the basis of several other successful games as well as several more expansions and a sequel for Doom itself. It had a colossal impact on pop culture that is difficult to articulate even 20 years later. Carmack worked on other successful games after Doom–including the excellent Quake III Arena–but the 1993 game is undoubtedly both Johns’ pinnacle.
This book could have easily been a dry, encyclopedic account of the events, but the author has a talent for crafting an engaging story using the facts he uncovered. You know that feeling when you finish reading a great novel and you’re hungry for a sequel? This book does that, which is unusual because it is nonfiction. From the first page you understand and love the two Johns as if they were fictional characters created by a master wordsmith. Yet they are real people, and the world is better for their inclusion.
Unfortunately, the two Johns have no more work together. Depending on who’s telling the story, Romero quit/was fired from id Software in 1996 while working on Quake and is now working on small iPhone games. Carmack quit id Software in 2013 is now working on the big-budget virtual reality machine Oculus Rift. There will be no continuation to their story unless Romero tries to make a game for that system. (There has been a definite animosity between the two over their intellectual breakup, but both have mellowed out since then.) id Software itself now kind of sucks. But what did happen was magnificent. A series of events both positive and negative led to the creation of a video game company unlike any other, and led to its game that changed everything.
The two Johns are remembered fondly today (ok, maybe not Romero so much, not since Daikatana) and still frequent the lists of the greatest game creators in history. The 2011 novel Ready Player One features a pair of genius game designers reminiscent of the two Johns. One of them even uses technology similar to the Oculus Rift in order to create a virtual-reality version of cyberspace that everyone was imagining in the 80s and 90s. Carmack and Romero have left a gigantic footprint on the world of video gamedom, one that has arguably not since been filled.
For further reading, check out the impressive tale of the hubris of Ion Storm: https://archive.today/RecfE. And hopefully the Oculus Rift will be more impressive than either of their efforts of the past two decades.