Today I wanted to share some thoughts about the latest book I have been through, called “Masters of Doom”. No, this is not some kind of fantasy story, it’s rather a retelling of how the game “Doom” came to be, through the lives of their creators, John Carmack and John Romero.
I did learn a lot by going through this book. While I was never really a Doom Fan, I did enjoy the game very much when it came out, and that is probably when I saw that PCs were going to be the future for gaming – Doom was something that my beloved Amiga 500 could not do. Of course there were other games on PC that were fairly impressive, like Wing Commander 2, and Ultima 7, but Doom was really a step forward in 3D action.
The books delves a lot on the personal lives of Carmack and Romero. Both were from broken homes and divorced parents, and found pleasure in games and computing. They had both published numerous games on their own before joining a company called Softdisk, where they were both hired to make games for a living, through a magazine where these games would be published once every 2 months. Romero was older and more experienced than Carmack, and came to Softdisk first. Carmack was unsure if he would take the job, but after being interviewed with Romero he felt that he had a lot to learn from him as a programmer. So he accepted the job.
While at Softdisk, Carmack was developing new game engines to enable smooth scrolling on PCs, a thing which was very hard to achieve at the time. He ended up finding the way and Romero was impressed by his pal. They started to feel that they had something very big in their hands, and that they should not leave it up to Softdisk to manage. Since they had no computers at home (PCs were extremely expensive at the time), they “borrowed” the PCs from work every night and carried them to a lake house they have been renting to code and design their new games all night, along with Adrian Carmack (not related) and Tom Hall. They were working on the Commander Keen series, which would be then released as shareware through a company called Apogee software (they will later take the name of 3D Realms).
After release, they started to make money off Commander Keen, and continued working every night on new games in the series. Until the boss at Softdisk grew suspicious, and asked Carmack what was really happening. Carmack was incapable of lying, and explained what they had been doing. He thought they were going to be fired and sued, but the boss decided to give them a chance and proposed to create a new company just for them and their games, where they would share the earnings. On the spot, they accepted, but they boasted too much about it internally and the other colleagues, not part of the games division, complained about this “special treatment” and the deal was off.
Romero, Hall and the two Carmack’s were off to form id software. And their next title would be something called… Wolfenstein 3D.
This book, by David Kushner, reads very easily. Chapters are quite short and straight to the point. It feels like the story is well interlaced between the different characters at hand, and provides a lot of points of view throughout the events and struggles. We see the partnership between Carmack and Romero going up and down, peaking with Doom and crashing with Quake until Romero leaves id software. Carmack had clearly become the “king in the house”, as nobody else was capable of doing what he could do. Romero had become a PR person/rock star, and lived for gaming and spending time with the community. Sooner or later their personalities would clash and Romero was not to have the upper hand.
But this is not only about Doom. This book comes back on the debates related to video game violence, gives insight on what was happening on the market at that time and provides a lot of details on the community of Doom fans who helped expand the success of the original game. The Hacker ethics from Carmack are also clearly captures, with Carmack quoted several times to oppose software patents because it was against his philosophy.
While I consider it a pretty good book, I have some criticism to make:
- The author tries to go into technical details to explain how Carmack was able to deliver breakthrough performance on several occasions, but fails to do so very clearly. Without knowing the author, I cannot say for sure, but my guess is that this guy has never programmed in his life and does not really understand the technoloy part, and therefore is not capable of explaining it properly.
- The author completely missed to mention that the Amiga was a computer capable of making smooth scrolling in games well before the PC and what Carmack did with it. And the Amiga is only mentioned once and described as “the Amiga game console”. For real? You didn’t know about the Amiga computer?
- There’s a lot of introspective moments in the book, with the author describing feelings and opinions from different viewpoints. It makes it easy to read and imagine, but it departs from being a factual book and tends to become more like a fiction. How much does the author know how the guys could have ever felt at the time, 10 years after the events happened?
- Though the author gives some information about the video game landscape, it’s clear that down the road, for younger audiences who have never lived through the 80s and 90s, such a book will be alien to them: they will lack all the historical background of the time to clearly understand the background of the story.
All in all, this book is clearly a better source about the indie games movement than “indie game: the movie” could even hope to be. Of course, both have different objectives and different scales, but id software was clearly a company which started from a couple of guys working in a lakehouse at night. You can’t really get more much indie than that. They made it big and their stories are inspiring. I can’t say the same after watching the said movie telling the stories of “Super Meat Boy” creators or the ultimate douchebag developer behind “Fez”. A different class of creators, for sure.
All in all, I recommend two things:
- Get and read this book. It’s worth the dozen bucks you will put inside. It’s not perfect, but you’ll see many names of famous people today who were just starting in the 90s. It makes everything “come together” in your head in new ways.
- Replay Doom and Doom II on your Pandora. They are both still excellent games and you have a lot of versions available to play with. I’ll have to review them all one of these days, by the way… you can play Quake as well, but in my opinion this was an inferior game. Doom was clearly WAY more fun and fast-paced.
That’s it. I’m out. Your comments are always welcome, especially if you have already read the book yourself.