Masters of Doom
Author: David Kushner
Release: Reprint May 11, 2004
Tagline: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Genre: Business, Video Games, Technology, Computing
Main Character(s): John Carmack and John Romero
Synopsis: Masters of Doom is the amazing true story of the Lennon and McCartney of video games: John Carmack and John Romero. Together, they ruled big business. They transformed popular culture. And they provoked a national controversy. More than anything, they lived a unique and rollicking American Dream, escaping the broken homes of their youth to produce the most notoriously successful game franchises in history—Doom and Quake— until the games they made tore them apart. This is a story of friendship and betrayal, commerce and artistry—a powerful and compassionate account of what it’s like to be young, driven, and wildly creative.
Declassified by Agent Palmer: A Book Report on Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner
Quotes and Lines
An early and apparent difference between the Two Johns’ internal human engines was the way they processed time. It was the kind of difference that made them perfect compliments and the kind that would cause irreparable conflict. Carmack was of the moment. His ruling force was focus… Romero, by contrast, was immersed in all moments: past, future, and present.
“The environments,” he [Myron Krueger] wrote, “suggest a new art medium based on a commitment to real-time interaction between men and machines. . . . This context is an artificial reality within which the artist has complete control of the laws of cause and effect. . . . Response is the medium!”
Carmack stepped into the local bank and requested a cashier’s check for $11,000. The money was for a NeXT computer, the latest machine from Steve Jobs, cocreater of Apple. The NeXT, a stealth black cube, surpassed the promise of Jobs’s earlier machines by incorporating NeXTSTEP, a powerful system tailor-made for custom software development. The market for PCs and games was exploding, and this was the perfect tool to create more dynamic titles for the increasingly viable platform. It was the ultimate Christmas present for the ultimate in young graphics programmers, Carmack.
…the software industry had never experienced anything as rebellious as Wolfenstein 3-D. The title came after much brainstorming. At first they assumed they had to use something other than the Wolfenstein name, which had been created by Silas Warner at Muse Software. Tom banged out a list of options form the strained–The Fourth Reich or Deep in Germany–to the absurd–Castle Hasselhoff or Luger Me Now. He even played around with some German titles–Dolchteufel (Devil Dagger), Gersuchschlecht (Bad Smell). To their surprise and relief, they discovered that Muse had gone bankrupt in the mid-1980s and let the trademark on the Wolfenstein name lapse. It would be Wolfenstein 3-D.
As their success grew, Carmack’s and Romero’s personalities came into even sharper contrast. Carmack sank deeper into his technology; Romero, deeper into game play. Tome documented their differences in a hint manual he wrote for Wolfenstein 3-D. He characterized Romero as the ultimate player and Carmack the ultimate technician–or, as he put it, the Surgeon and Engine John.
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.”
“We will truly be independent,” he [Jay Wilbur] said. “We’ll rely on nobody. We need to create our own opportunities. We don’t wait for them to knock. We open the door. We grab opportunity by the scruff of the neck and pull it through.”
Carmack shrugged it off and returned to work. The same rule applied to a cat, a computer program or, for that matter, a person. When something becomes a problem, let it go or, if necessary, have it surgically removed.
Computer Gaming World published a glowing preview: “We don’t know what nasty sludge is seeping into the Texas water table,” it read, “but whatever it is has given these boys some strange visions, and what’s worse, the programming sorcery to carry it out. Doom is the name of their next creation, and unbelievable graphics technology is their game.”
A few thousand miles away, 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.
Scenes like this had spread around the world since the game crashed the University of Wisconsin’s network on December 10. Without an ad campaign, without marketing or advance hype from the mainstream media, Doom became an overnight phenomenon in an online domain that, as fate would have it, was simultaneously beginning to explode.
Schools, corporations, and government facilities blessed with fast computers, high-speed modems and, most important, people familiar enough to make them work were overtaken by the game–sometimes literally. Over the first weekend of Doom’s release, computer networks slowed to a crawl from all the people playing and downloading the game. Eager gamers flooded America Online. “It was a mob scene the night Doom came out,” said Debbie Rogers, forum leader of AOL’s game section. “If we weren’t on the other side of a phone line, there would have been bodily harm”
It was also a cash cow. The day after Doom’s release; id saw profit. Even though only an estimated 1 percent of the people who downloaded shareware bought the remaining game, $100,000 worth of orders were rolling in every day. Id had once joked in a press release that they expected Doom to be “the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world.” The prophecy was true everywhere, it seemed, including their own.
Carmack would also upload the source code for the Doom level-editing and utilities program so that the hackers could have the proper tools with which to create new stuff for the game. This was a radical idea not only for games but for any media. It was as if a Nirvana CD came with tools to let listeners dub their own voices for Kurt Cobain’s or a Rocky video let viewers excise every cranny of Philadelphia for ancient Rome. Though there had been some level-editing programs released in the past, no programmer–let alone owner–of a company had released the guts of what made his proprietary program tick. Gamers would not have access to Carmack’s graphical engine, but the stuff he was making available was more than just subtly giving them the keys. It was not only a gracious move but an ideological one–a leftist gesture that empowered the people and, in turn, loosened the grip of corporations. Carmack was no longer a boy dreaming of computers in his Kansas City bedroom; he was the twenty-three year-old owner if a multimillion-dollar company, and he could do whatever the fuck he wanted. He could live the Hacker Ethic big time.
Soon, however, many began to marvel at how id might make companies like Microsoft or IBM look obsolete. Id had taken the shareware phenomenon and transformed it into a recipe for addiction. Doom was so compelling that people just had to have the full dose. Some dubbed it “heroineware.” Forbes magazine published a gushing article titled “Profits from the Underground” about how id, in fact, was making companies like Microsoft obsolete. “Privately held id Software doesn’t release financials,” it read, “but from what I can flush out about the company’s profit margin, it makes Microsoft look like a second-rate cement company.” The write calculated that id’s estimated $10 million in revenues would give them a profit margin that would rival Microsoft’s. “What happens to this kind of business when the data superhighway arrives? …No sales force, no inventory costs, no royalties to Nintendo or Sega, no marketing costs, no advertising costs, no executive parking spaces. This is a new and exciting business model, not just for games, and not even just for software, but for a host of products and services that can be sold or delivered via an electronic underground.”
Everyone has unfulfilled dreams. Maybe the dreams are too costly or time-consuming: fly a plane, drive a race car. Maybe they’re too far-out: fight an alien space war, stalk a vampire. Or maybe they’re illegal: streak through the suburbs, hunt down the boss with a sawed-off shotgun. But the dreams are there, nonetheless, animating minds every day. This is why there is a multibillion-dollar industry that lets people explore these fantasies the best way technology allows. This is why there are video games.
Of course, video games don’t let people really live their dreams. They let gamers live in developer’s simulation of a dream. The action is digital. It’s confined to a computer or a television or a handheld device. Players experience it through their eyes, ears, and fingertips. But when they’re done careening down the Daytona Speedway or storming an interstellar military base, they feel as if they’ve really been somewhere, as if they’ve momentarily transcended their sac of fat and bones, their office politics, their mounting bills. Games let them escape, learn, recharge. Games are necessary.
This belief has existed since ancient Greece, when Plato said, “Everyman 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 automation…Games are popular art, collection, social reactions to thee main drive or actions of any culture…The games of a people reveal a great deal about them…[They] are a sort of artificial paradise like Disneyland or some Utopian vision by which we interpret and complete the meaning of our daily lives.”
Entertainment Weekly said, “Quake delivers the most carnage you can revel in without having to deal with actual jail time. No wonder bored office workers across the country love it.”
Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought of 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.”
“It really comes down to work ethic,” he said. “If you’ve got two equally talented people and one works twice as hard as the other, that person is going to run away from the other person.”
This wasn’t just a game, this was a world–a relatively (and alluringly) undocumented world–filled with characters and stories and dreams and rivalries. That world led me to the Two Johns.
I spent the next six years exploring and chronicling the lives and industry of gamers. It was both amazing and frustrating to me that this multibillion-dollar business and culture remained such a mystery to so many people, and that mystery was breeding confusion and misperceptions everywhere I turned. To me, the story of John Carmack and John Romero was a classic American adventure that captured the birth of a new medium and the coming of age of two compelling and gifted young people. By telling it, I hoped to give gamers the respect and understanding they deserved. And I wanted the reader to have a good time.