Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book review: Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner, is a history of Id Software, famous for Doom and Quake as well as many other games, and its founders John Carmack and John Romero.  This is history written in a very personal form, as though it was a novel, and it is written very well.  The author had extensive access to almost all of the major characters, and even then there is much dialogue that had to be invented by the author because no one who was there was going to remember all of those details – and these guys don’t seem like the types who would be recording almost everything they said, though Romero has an extensive archive.

In fact, the guys as a group seem to be the opposite of meticulous, except where programming is concerned.   For years they worked in an apartment amidst pizza boxes and soda pop cans and wild and crazy nights of game playing and programming.  It’s a quintessential story of misfit kids rising through video games to become the equivalent of “rock stars”.

The story of the two Johns is told in great and fascinating detail.  It’s like the kind of novel that you have a hard time putting down.  This is true even for me, long past the young adult stage and not at all inclined to worship anybody, especially “rock stars” – though I grew up with the beginning of Rock I never wanted to be a rock star. 

This book certainly gives youngsters a story to wish for and heroes to emulate.  Unfortunately, the software industry has passed the stage where innovation alone has value: it has matured.  Games must appeal to a broader market, and designers often must design for other people, not for themselves.  The Id Software guys designed games that they wanted to play, and had a great deal to do with the invention of first-person shooters and the fascination of hard-core players with realism in blood and gore, but what really made it go was the genius of John Carmack, who programmed the game engines used in the software. 

I remember when Doom first came out (as shareware, mind you).  I played it for 15 minutes, said “that’s nice”, and had no desire to play again.  I’ve never been a fan of shooters beyond something very basic like Space Invaders.  Yet a 20-something friend of mine who only had a laptop (which couldn’t keep up with Doom’s demands) came over and played it on my desktop, with the speakers turned way up, cackling and laughing as he slaughtered the enemy, and I really enjoyed watching him having so much fun.  Though after a while I left him to it!   My friend was representative of how Doom was received by experienced video game players. I am still fascinated to watch people play shooters, perhaps because I don’t find them interesting to play.

The early history of Id shows the advantages of teamwork when the skills of the team members complement each other.  Workaholic Carmack really does seem to be a genius, someone who found ways to go beyond the evident constraints of early PCs and make them do more than anyone thought possible.   Romero provided the game design, some of the marketing, the tools programming, and the hype, but ultimately Carmack was the linchpin, and when they fell out Romero was forced to leave.  He formed ill-fated Ion Storm and created the even more ill-fated Daikatana, while Ion Storm owed whatever success it had to Will Spector and his game Deus Ex.  In the end Eidos bought Ion Storm and fired Romero and his people, keeping the Deus Ex gang.

In contrast to the late 80s and early 90s, nowadays the technology is not usually a limiting factor.  Any game designer operates under a variety of constraints, and in the past the technology limitations of the platforms was one of the biggest constraints. Where in the past video games have often been as much about technology as about games, now we’re at a stage where most people aren’t interested in the technology, they just want to play games.  While platforms are still a constraint they are much less so than 20 years ago.  And I think this relative independence from technology (along with the costs of the best technology) limits pretty strongly the possibility that a small group of people can take the gaming world by storm because they’ve solved technological problems the way Id Software did.  Games that are big overnight successes like Angry Birds or Draw Something, or games with vast numbers of players like Farmville and Mafia Wars, do not begin to push the technology envelope.

The book is so obviously based on interviews with most of the participants that I was almost surprised to find a list of sources at the end.  The biggest source was extensive interviews with dozens of people, and especially the two John’s themselves. There are end notes and a bibliography as well.

I have a 2004 paperback edition (original was issued in 2003) with an  afterword by the author.  You can carry the story further through Wikipedia.  Kushner, a video game journalist, has recently published another book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto.  He didn’t get quite the full access to participants that he did for Masters of Doom, but I expect it will be similarly riveting reading.

(It’s often interesting to see which names are recognized by Dragon NaturallySpeaking, my voice recognition software.  It appears that some of the more well-known people in the contemporary world are embedded in the software.  At any rate it had no trouble with either of the Johns’ last names.)

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