Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom

Hewlett and Packard. Jobs and Wozniak. Gates and Ballmer. High-tech success stories often revolve around a notable duo, and in the computer game industry, there is no more better-known story than that of id Software, creator of the Doom and Quake series of first-person shooters, and id’s original two principals, John Carmack and John Romero.

In Masters of Doom: The True Story of How Two Guys Created a Video Game Empire, Transformed Pop Culture, and Unleashed Doom, David Kushner chronicles the rise and pitfalls of the Two John’s, starting from their disturbingly dysfunctional childhoods to the pinnacle of their Ferrari-buying and Playboy-centerfold dating days. Carmack is considered by many to be the best game programmer around and perhaps the best programmer, period. Romero, perhaps best remembered for his hubris-filled pronouncements to gamers, was considered a game design god by rabid game fans, before he was ousted from id and foundered at his next game venture, Ion Storm.

Kushner’s history of id mirrors the development of the PC game industry. id brought console-quality game performance to the PC, pioneered 3D graphics in games, popularized the first-person shooting genre, encouraged “modding” (customization of the game, to the extent of creating new levels and characters) and was at the center of the still-ongoing controversy over violence in games.

After reading Kushner’s description of Carmack’s childhood isolation and run-ins with the law, and Romero’s abusive treatment at the hands of his stepfather, it seems that violence in video games is the result of youth violence rather than the cause. The success of the two in transcending their unhappy upbringing is gratifying, but the feeling is tempered by their immature and sometimes amoral behavior on their way up. Kushner’s depiction of id’s rowdy atmosphere, extended crunch times and political infighting brings to mind a combination of Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House and Lord of the Flies.

Irony abounds in this story. Romero, the visionary who first understood the implications of Carmack’s innovations and persuaded Carmack and their team members at SoftDisk to jump ship and start id, had ambitious plans for turning id into a vast gaming empire, but it was Carmack the introverted and ascetic programmer who ended up controlling the direction of the company. Just as the id group had abrubtly abandoned SoftDisk, so did Romero’s team at Ion Storm walk out on him. And while the split between Carmack and Romero was partly fueled by their technlogy-centric versus design-centric debate, eventually Romero turned to developing games on technologically constrained cell phones and PDA’s, while Carmack’s ultimate goal of approximating a Star Trek holodeck experience was stymied by his game designers.

As with many successful game titles, Kushner’s work is thoroughly entertaining, but not without some minor distracting glitches. Some of the technical history is not quite right, e.g. Carmack did not convert Quake 2 to run on the OpenGL graphics library so that it would run on graphics cards from 3dfx, as the book states. On the contrary, 3dfx had inadequate OpenGL support at the time, so Carmack implemented a subset of OpenGL called “QuakeGL” for 3dfx in order to get the game running on that hardware. This effort and his strongly-state preference for OpenGL over other graphics libraries at the time attests to Carmack’s programming prowess and also his sense of hacker purity, which the author does convey clearly.

The reader might not obtain a correct sense of proportion from this book. The “video game” business really encompasses arcades, PC games and console games. id is primarily in the PC game business with incidental ports to the console business, and the PC game business, while influential, is currently dwarfed by the console business. Other first-person shooters come off as imitations of Doom and Quake, but many of them were innovative in their own right. For example, Descent featured a floating ship with lateral and vertical 360 degree movement, and I would argue that Marathon, which was released just a year after Doom, was a more interesting game than Doom but limited by it’s Macintosh-only status.

There is a printing error resulting in at least one missing line, and some of the grammar is a bit loose, which detracts from the flow of this otherwise absorbing read. But as game reviewers often note, the game play is what counts, and this book plays well from beginning to end.

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