Masters of “Doom”

David Kushner's new book about id Software calls the company the "Nirvana" of computer gaming. But did John Romero and John Carmack revolutionize the genre, or ruin it?

Topics: Gaming, Video Games,

Masters of "Doom"

On May 5, 1992, at 4 a.m., two misfits uploaded an 836k file online, and proceeded to bung up the game industry so badly, we’re only now beginning to recover.

That is not, of course, the story David Kushner is trying to tell us in “Masters of Doom,” his biography of John Carmack and John Romero, founders of the game studio id Software, and co-creators of its renowned shoot-em-up games, “Doom” and “Quake.” His through-line is pretty much the archetypal, digital age morality tale: one more history of two dropouts who turned their obsession with computers into software that netted them millions, only to let their outsized personality conflicts tear up their partnership and crater their dreams — until the smoke finally cleared, and they were able to gain something like wisdom.

When it sticks to that arc, “Masters” is excellent, ripe with vivid, you-are-there details tracking the rise of id Software, and the games that fueled its ascent. It begins in a flood-prone lake house in Shreveport, La., where Carmack and Romero start their company with PCs “borrowed” from their day job employer. From there, Kushner takes us with them to a shitty, crime-ridden neighborhood in Madison, Wis., where they create Wolfenstein 3-D, their first substantial hit, and then over to Mesquite, Texas, where id relocates after the runaway success of their early shareware games.

We follow them onto the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., where in order to promote the Windows 95 version of “Doom,” id commissions a display booth featuring an 8-foot vagina encrusted with dildos; we go with them into the boisterous multiplayer death matches held in cavernous auditoriums, where they’re hailed as royalty by thousands of gamers. There are midnight highway rides in tricked-out Ferraris, the toys they acquire with their mountainous game earnings — or what they liked to call “pizza money.” On the way, they keep careening over human factor speed bumps, with partnerships dissolving and staff mutinying. (Inevitable, really: Romero, the overheated hype piston, and Carmack, the cold-as-Freon engineer, never had much in common, besides games.) So near the end, we’re in Dallas’ highest office tower, where Romero, having severed his relationship with id and his friendship with Carmack, struggles to hold onto Ion Storm, his new dream game studio where design would be “law.”

Throughout, Kushner captures the recklessness of young men convulsing on adrenaline and creative energy, at a time when the personal computer suddenly became a popular entertainment medium, ably explaining not only what made their games addictive, but the complex programming mechanics that made them work. Taken together, all this makes for a book to enthrall hardcore players and technically minded non-gamers alike.

But there’s a meta tale Kushner also wants to put across, about how id’s games took us into a new era of virtual world innovation, and in the process, altered all popular culture.

And the trouble is, that story just isn’t true.

In the book’s wankiest overreach, Kushner goes so far as to compare id to Nirvana. Like the legendary alt-rock band, he suggests, the company was integral to the anarchic spirit of the 1990′s unleashed by the end of the Reagan-Bush era, doing in their video games what Cobain/Grohl/Novaselic did with their music: “overthrow the status quo,” infusing pop culture with “more brutal and honest views.”

But this is hyperbole on crack. If anything, id Software was more like the Dokken of computer games: in content and attitude an ’80s holdover, spitting out unoriginal product for its teen boy fan base, who were the largest market for its bogus, fist-pumping badass.

No: while gamers were scraping the floor with “Wayne’s World” bleats of “We’re not worthy!” whenever Romero swaggered by them at game conventions, the industry’s real Nirvana, Blue Sky Studios (which later became Looking Glass) was holed up in a New England studio, quietly putting out its genuinely innovative games in relative obscurity. Blue Sky could have overthrown the status quo. But for many reasons, most of which have little to do with talent, id would always overshadow its betters. Instead of advancing the medium, id’s Texas smack talking rude boys obscured and impeded gaming’s potential by spawning needless controversy and inspiring an oncoming slew of mediocre imitators.

And now, with “Masters of Doom”, it looks like they’ll get to help rewrite history, too.

The first sign of trouble comes when Kushner attempts to nail down the beginning of what we now call the first-person shooter. By his lights, it starts somewhere in late 1991, when id gets word of a game being made by a New Hampshire-based studio called Blue Sky Productions:

“When [Romero] hung up the phone, he spun his chair to Carmack and said, ‘Paul said he’s doing a game using texture mapping.’”

Paul Neurath, president of Blue Sky Productions — which was later re-dubbed Looking Glass Studios — was here referring to a technique in which the computer depicts a three-dimensional world with patterned textures (brick walls, mossy tunnels, and so on). Up until then, 3D computer graphics were usually rendered with abstract, geometric lines. Real-time texture mapping would be the next, giant leap forward towards the creation of a virtual world that felt like a real physical place you could interact in — a quality that came to be known as “immersiveness.”

Back to Kushner:

“‘Texture mapping?’ Carmack replied, then took a few seconds to spin the concept around in his head. ‘I can do that.’”

And just like that, as “Masters of Doom” would have it, Carmack sits there and grasps the technology on the spot, and is able to whip up Catacomb 3-D, a simple action game, and get it out six months before the release of “Ultima Underworld,” the game Blue Sky was working on at the time, set in the fantasy world created by Richard “Lord British” Garriott. Paul Neurath and his team were trudging toward the goal of real-time 3D, Kushner clearly means us to think, but the more nimble Carmack just leaped ahead and planted his flag there first.

Neurath recalls that phone conversation, but when presented with that excerpt from “Masters,” recounts the chronology quite differently. In the summer of ’90, he says — at least a full year before that call — Blue Sky was showing off a working demo of what would become Ultima Underworld at a software convention. They had two visitors:

“Romero and Carmack swung by to take a look,” Neurath e-mails me. “I recall Carmack’s great interest at seeing the demo, and then turning to me to say that he knew a way to do faster texture mapping. He was just 19 at the time, and seemed like a cocky kid to me.”

Over 12 months later, Carmack finally did succeed at speedier texture mapping, but only at a huge hit to realism. In “Catacomb 3-D,” as in “Wolfenstein 3-D” — the Nazi-killing follow-up they put out in May 1992, which really made their reputation — you could move forward, backward, or laterally, but you couldn’t go or look up or down. These shortcuts enabled id to create fast-paced action games with the limited PC power of the time. But it also meant these games were, at best, 2.5D.

By contrast, in “Ultima Underworld,” you had a fully three-dimensional world, with textures on all sides. Not only could you go and look up and down, you could swim in streams, and fly through caverns. There were rudimentary lighting effects which furthered the illusion of distance and mystery within a living world. There were bursts of first-person combat, too, but just as compelling, there were foreboding spaces to explore, personal traits to improve, tools to use, characters to talk with. The immersiveness extended into its unfolding story, with mysteries to piece out and complex quests to accomplish. It is all this, in addition to its technical innovations, which makes the game so beloved, even now.

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Nothing like these features were extant in either of id’s debut first-person games, but Kushner just splits the difference between Blue Sky’s game and “Catacomb 3-D”:

“Though ‘Ultima Underworld,’ a role-playing adventure, received more attention because of the Garriott connection, together the games took the 3-D gaming experience to a new, immersive place.”

On a purely technological metric, this is flimflam. It’s like comparing the graphic-user interface of Macintosh and Windows, circa 1992, and saying, “Together, both operating systems took the home computing experience to a new, user-friendly place.”

To anyone who played “Ultima Underworld,” the comparison reeks of travesty. For everyone else, no doubt, the distinction must seem academic. Even many Blue Sky veterans don’t seem all that exercised about claiming their rightful credit, as the first and best. “I’m sure that if we or id had not started to play around with the technology,” Neurath tells me, “some other developer would have figured it out soon enough.”

So why should we care?

Well, it’s like this: if Kushner just wanted to write about the history of first-person shooters, and how id helped invent them, that would be one thing. No one is apt to dis id’s contribution to the genre, or even the relative quality of what they put out — for what they were, well-made, if unaccountably morbid shoot-fests, they weren’t horrible. And John Carmack’s graphic engines — that is, the software he created to render their 3-D worlds in ever more granulated detail — are still fairly important software tools. Even more laudable is Carmack’s willingness to publicly release the code to id’s games, which enabled anyone to customize and radically change them, launching the mod subculture that keeps the industry vital to this day.

But Kushner also wants to situate id in a much bigger cultural context, and to do so, he cites writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, and before them, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley. All of them imagined a near future where virtual worlds would become so realistic and varied, they’d evolve into our play space for freeform imagination and social experiment. By Kushner’s lights, this is the ideal that id supposedly brought us much closer to, to what he calls an “utopian vision of a game.”

But this is precisely what they did not do. Their games were allowed to be 3D worlds only insofar as you were moving fast and killing stuff in them — and you were allowed to be interactive in them only insofar as you were moving fast and killing stuff.

This was a conscious choice from very early on, Kushner suggests. (And here, as elsewhere, his first-rate journalism doesn’t jibe with the larger thematic framework he keeps trying to jam over it.) During development of “Wolfenstein,” he says, id considered adding a feature which would let the player hide the Nazis you killed, to prevent their discovery by other guards. That element would have added a level of strategic thinking, and more meaningful (if simple) world interaction beyond mere gunplay.

But Romero, Kushner reports, would have none of that: “[I]t’s slowing the game down,” he moans. “Anything that’s going to stop us from mowing shit down — get rid of it!”

And that became the model for what most of us came to assume, incorrectly, wrong-headedly, shortsightedly, a first-person game was supposed to be. So it’s important to see the near-simultaneous release of “Wolfenstein 3-D” and “Ultima Underworld” as a crucial turning point in how later technology would come to shape our lives — much the same way, in the same time frame, Apple’s Macintosh still had a chance to become the dominant personal computer system, competing as it was against the far inferior (but far less expensive) DOS/Windows PC clones.

Similarly, “Wolf 3-D’s” dominance was more a matter of market timing and revenue model, over quality: When id’s game came out, most PC owners didn’t have computers that were powerful enough to run “Underworld.” (Which also was, it must be said, difficult to learn, and indifferently marketed.) Meanwhile, “Wolfenstein” was easy to play, fun for what it was, and best of all, free. While many paid for the full registered version of the game, far more were happy just to enjoy the shareware version that was downloadable everywhere. “Ultima Underworld” and its 1993 sequel together sold almost half a million copies — more, as it turns out, than “Wolfenstein 3-D” (150,000) and “Spear of Destiny” (135,000), the expanded retail version sold in stores. Despite this, the ubiquity of the shareware version helped foster the illusion that id’s game was the real blockbuster.

This misperception was also true for “Doom”: id sold just under 1.5 million copies of the registered version, but it’s estimated that over 15 million copies of the shareware version were downloaded. In other words, id’s games didn’t seem so phenomenally popular because they were great — rather, they seemed popular because they were pretty good games that were basically free.

But the game industry went ahead and gleaned the wrong lesson from it, dumping the market with derivative first-person shooters. From “Wolfenstein 3-D” in 1992 to now, an online game database counts over 500 FPS titles — on average, a joyless churn rate of one per week, almost all of them irredeemably wack. Despite this deluge, total market share for the genre never exceeded 10 percent or so. (Wondering if they’d enjoyed an aggregate post-Doom surge in popularity, in the ’90s, I double-checked with Douglas Lowenstein, president of the IDSA, the game industry’s lead advocacy group. “Through the mid and late 1990s,” he e-mails me, “first-person shooters were a small portion of the total PC game market and they remain a niche market today.”) And even id’s games were significantly outsold in the mid-90′s by crossover titles “Myst” and “Microsoft Flight Simulator.” All of which groin-kicks Kushner’s fanciful notion that id somehow transformed popular culture in the ’90s: Not only were their games interactive knock-offs of 80′s movies like “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” and not only did their games’ influence not cross over into other mediums, what influence they did have was mostly confined to a very nichey genre of computer game.

But when id hit, publishers seemed to largely ignore their mainstream market, for a vain pursuit of the hardcore dude demo which comprised the Mesquite company’s main audience. Meanwhile, as Kushner reports, id’s games helped create the market for 3D graphics cards. While an expensive, superfluous expansion for most computer owners, the peripheral improved the performance of 3D games. (And after Carmack implemented the code to make “Quake” compatible with a new line of cards, Kushner writes, the industry’s path was set: developers of action games would follow Carmack’s lead, and make their titles 3D card-optimal.)

For the most part, though, only committed gamers are willing to keep pace with the latest graphics cards, by upgrading their PCs every year or two. Even now, 3D graphics are no guarantor of a blockbuster: last December, for example, well over half of the top 20 bestselling PC games do not require a powerful 3D card, to run — and none of those, unsurprisingly, would be considered a hardcore gamer title. And among them all, only one is an FPS. The ultimate end result: in a market of over 100 million U.S. home PC owners, few crossover hits that have sold to even 5 percent of that massive audience. While other factors were involved, games catering to 3D card owners must surely be blamed for driving this demographic wedge between hardcore gamers and casual players, and the balkanized market we’re left with now.

If you count the hundreds of millions of dollars spent developing these mediocre games, and the tens of millions more spent making them compatible with all the 3D cards on the market, all for the relatively small, fickle audience that id created, the industry’s opportunity cost is staggering. The most ironic casualty on this ledger is surely Looking Glass Studios, the original creator of “Ultima Underworld” and the first-person game; many blame the company’s death on John Romero himself, and the lucre-soaked failure of “Daikatana,” his first, post-id project. But that’s another story.

Just as id’s games helped veer the industry into questionable developmental territory, it was their manic goriness, free from consequence, or story, or empathy, or even much humor, that nudged the whole enterprise on a collision course with the aftermath of the Columbine massacre in June 1999, when many blamed “Doom” for pushing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into their homicidal fit.

At the time, Carmack dismissed the criticisms outright — since, after all, they had just made an innocuous computer version of “cowboys and Indians with better special effects.” But judging from Kushner’s early biographies of the id team, they were already well-inclined to aim for something quite different. Beginning as a preteen, Romero entertained himself with gory cartoons where a dog or a boy (himself, actually) is slaughtered in creatively sadistic ways. After Carmack is caught trying to use an explosive paste to break into his high school, to swipe its Apple IIs, his court-appointed psychiatric evaluation reads: “Boy behaves like a walking brain with legs … no empathy for other human beings.” In college, id artist Adrian Carmack (no relation to John) earns money by photocopying pictures of emergency room patients for a local hospital. Many are lurid images of real suffering: gunshot wounds, rotting flesh, severed limbs. Carmack keeps copies of those, so he can trade them with his friends. Details like these leave the sense that “Doom” was actually some kind of twisted purging that had been struggling to get out for some time.

It was their laser beam focus on darkness that also sealed the fate of Tom Hall, a college-educated programmer with a childlike sense of humor, who joined the boys in Shreveport. As Kushner tells it, Hall seems like the only id member interested in making their early games something more than elaborate adrenaline dispensers. (He sometimes references Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents” as an inspiration for game characters.) Hall balks at their games’ endless viscera, rebels when his detailed story line for “Doom” is trashed, and at Carmack’s behest, eventually gets booted from id. He was an impediment that stopped them from mowing shit down, in other words, so they got rid of him.

No one could reasonably suggest a causal link between “Doom” and Columbine. But there was undisputedly a connection between id’s games and the massacre. As Kushner mentions, the connection was made by Eric Harris himself, who shot a video where he promised into the camera that his upcoming slaughter was “going to be like fucking ‘Doom.’” (Without pausing to really consider the implications of this statement, Kushner sidles quickly onward.) Harris’ words give the lie to the evasions of the gaming press, as it does Carmack’s own robotic sophistry on the matter: “It was just the odds,” he wrote online then. “This life event, like every other, could be broken down to mathematics.” If so, Harris factored “Doom” into his own bloody calculus. In any case, the practical outcome was the worst controversy ever to shudder through the game industry, as anti-media violence crusader Sen. Joe Lieberman and other politicians descended.

Despite all this, Kushner makes it hard for you not to feel some affection for them. As the book brings us up to date, we find Romero selling his Ferrari on eBay and donating his rock god hair to a children’s chemotherapy charity. He’s gone back to building the kind of modest, non-aggressive games he started with, once again collaborating with his friend Tom Hall, the designer who was too cerebral for id’s tastes. For Carmack’s part, he can now freely admit to being “an amoral little jerk” as a kid, and sometimes makes noises about quitting the game industry altogether, to devote more time to his new passion of amateur space travel. (But first, he’s devoting his considerable talents to finishing a remake of “Doom,” a project Kushner portrays Carmack pursuing with highly limited enthusiasm.)

And maybe it’s a bit unfair to fix too much blame for the kinds of games they made, so young, or the unintended consequences they wreaked, on the industry. At any rate, even the first-person shooter has finally moved out of id’s shadow, in recent years. The shooters that usually sell well now are best defined by how much they aren’t like id games — story-free kill fests set in an undefined world, where you frag anything that moves with implausibly gargantuan firepower. Instead, there are first-person tactical shooters, which depend just as much on teamwork and strategy as they do on twitch reflexes, and realistic shooters like “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault” and “Battlefield: 1942,” both of which succeed due to their World War II historical verisimilitude. To that group, add story-driven shooters like “Half Life” and “Deus Ex,” a “first-person simulation” created by several lead alumni from Looking Glass Studios, who now carry on as Ion Storm Austin. (Before his financing publisher ejected him from his own company, John Romero set them up as a satellite studio — another of his redeeming acts.)

Still, it doesn’t hurt to yearn for the games that might have been. It’s easy to imagine an alternate timeline, had John Romero not hauled his first wife to Shreveport, where he met John Carmack. “Ultima Underworld” would have been alone to set the standard for first-person games, and to define their potential. With the bar raised so high, other studios would not only try to surpass “Underworld’s” graphics, but also the possibilities it opened, for building a truly interactive world. At some point, sure, someone would figure out how to put a handheld pistol in the center of the screen — there’d still be first-person shooters. But because the genre would have already come so far, no one would be cheesy enough to turn big dick gunplay into the be-all end-all. (For this same reason, there’d be more incentive to make them appeal to a more mainstream, casual-gamer audience, which would in turn curtail the escalating arms race of competing graphics cards.) With more interactivity would come more demand for intelligent AI — creatures, people, supporting characters — to populate these games. They’d get smarter, become more eerily human-like, and allow ever-widening breadth of player expression. And right about now, we’d be a lot closer to the medium-as-utopian vision Kushner speaks too loosely of.

But it’s not David Kushner’s place to piece out how many missed opportunities were blown away by the crossfire of hype and free downloads. His key fault, in an otherwise excellent book, is giving far too much credit to games which consistently fell way short of the medium’s full potential — while failing to recognize the one game which did show, so early on, the kind of world-changing promise he professes to want. Before its example was lost, that is, in all the gathering gun clouds.

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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