How do game developers hack it?

All-nighters, 18-hour days, sleeping at the office -- John Romero's posse keeps up a "death schedule" to get Daikatana out of beta.

Published March 7, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Ogre is seeing white flashes again. It'd be nice if he could just blame fatigue. Unfortunately, the real culprit is an unidentified bug that's causing his screen to go blank every time he eviscerates a beast. For Ogre and the others on the front lines at game maker Ion Storm, this means another bloodshot night of testing what they promise will be among the most beautiful and sophisticated shooters ever made: Daikatana.

A hulking 29-year-old Texan who got his nickname after chugging four pitchers of beer one spring break, Chad "Ogre" Barron reaches for the industrial-size bottle of Tums above his convulsing PC and considers the situation. After numerous delays, Ion Storm is supposed to burn a demo of Daikatana for its eager publisher, Eidos Interactive, in minutes.

This tense moment hit during one of several all-nighters I pulled with Daikatana's 31-person development team over several months last fall. The team was hustling to stuff stockings for Christmas 1999 -- two years after the game's original release date. As it turns out, they didn't make it; Daikatana has yet to hit shelves as this article appears in early March. Yet again, the perceived impotence of their boss, gaming demigod John Romero, will be almost pornographically devoured by pundits, nonbelievers, even avid gamers who desperately want to get their fingers on Daikatana. It comes with the territory for Romero, who co-created two of the genre's bestsellers to date, Doom and Quake. But the fetish surrounding Ion Storm's growing pains has obscured a deeper mystery: Why do people like these young developers turn over their lives to a computer game?

Since Daikatana's inception, elite and obsessive gamers have road-tripped from around the world to work with their hero, Romero. They've quit school, left relationships and literally built beds under their desks to live and breathe nearly every breath in the house Romero built. Their commitment to a self-described "death schedule" -- the final, endless rush to perfect their game -- isn't just some start-up novelty, it's a way of life.

And life for Ogre since last October is an exploding bug. As he munches a handful of cherry antacids under his Katie Holmes poster, he tries to zero in on what's causing his screen to orgasm every time his on-screen dude runs out of ammo. Making the ultimate computer game, Ogre knows, is all about focus. To succeed, this son of a small-town nurse and truck driver has to do precisely what Romero, the archetypal gamer, has always done: Shut out the rest of the world. Ignore the press and the other missed deadlines. Sacrifice everything. Exist to escape.

One reason games -- with $6.2 billion in sales according to the Interactive Digital Software Association -- are giving movies a run for their money is because they offer the ultimate release: role-playing, power, adrenalin. This remains the only medium that can literally make you sweat. Though incessantly shrugged off as kid's play, it has become something far more compelling, an artistic business and culture of inhabitable, alternate realities. As Ogre and the other hardcore gamers at Ion Storm know, to live these fantasies you can't let the forces against you get in your way.

Eye of Zeus

"You are so dead!" It's deep into another endless day at Ion Storm and John Romero is truly in his element: trash-talking in a spontaneous death match, a head-to-head computer game showdown where the player with the most kills wins.

Romero swivels in front of his computer with jet black headphones perched above his speed-metal coif. On-screen, he races through Daikatana's shadowed corridors wielding the Eye of Zeus -- a Grecian staff with a grapefruit-size eyeball jammed on the end. As my character haplessly peeks out from behind a nearby column, Romero flicks his wrist and unleashes a lethal blast of iris lightning. "Eww," he says, as I burst into human gravy, "that hurt!"

This pain is precisely what millions of tragically limited mortals around the world are counting on Romero to deliver. In real life, gamers -- mainly guys between 18 and 34 -- are students, bankers, lawyers and drummers, but in Doom or Quake or Daikatana they're warriors, ruthless, immortal and totally in control. The rush is so good, so pure, so visceral, they eagerly cash in their paychecks every time a new Romero game hits the shelves.

They've cashed in so much, in fact, that their Man is now encased 54 floors into heaven (in what has become a rather famous downtown Dallas skyscraper). Downstairs from Romero's office, the workers' rec room brims with vintage arcade games, a pool table, ping-pong, foosball. Nearby, there's a bullpen of high-octane PCs customized specifically for death matches. The alpine lounge upstairs, designed for 24/7 action, has cushy recessed beds, shelves of sugared cereal and a big-screen TV with premium channels and video game consoles thrown in. Everything down to the employees' maze of corrugated steel cubes feels like the inside of a game.

The ultimate gaming company where the ultimate gamers could build the ultimate games is the culmination of Romero's lifelong dream. As a misfit kid enraptured with arcade fantasia, he spent so much time playing Atari's Asteroids that his stepfather once smashed his face into the front of the machine. Eventually, at id Software, he reinvented the industry with the most popular and controversial ultraviolent games in history, Doom and Quake.

But his obsession with gaming would take its toll on his personal life. By his early 20s, Romero was divorced from his wife (with whom he had two sons) because in part, he says, she didn't share his passion for games. By the time Quake came out in 1996, his romance with id was also over. Romero left to start his own full-blown entertainment company, Ion Storm. Bolstered by $20 million from Eidos, the British gaming company that published Tomb Raider, Romero set to work on the greatest game he could imagine, Daikatana.

"I wanted to elevate shooters," he says. "Up until then they had been pretty mindless." He decided to put something even more radical than a rocket launcher into his game: a story. In Daikatana, the player becomes Hiro Miyamoto, a Japanese biochemical student in 25th century Kyoto who must save the world from Kage Mishima, an evil scientist who has stolen the daikatana (Japanese for "big sword"), a magical blade invented by Hiro's ancestors. Using the sword's time-traveling powers, Kage is altering history for his own corrupt ends, such as hijacking the cure for an AIDS-like disease. Faced with Hiro's threat, Kage sends the young warrior on a wild, time-traveling goose chase around Kyoto, ancient Greece, Dark Ages Norway and post-apocalyptic San Francisco.

For added drama, Hiro is teamed with two sidekicks, the "Shaft"-like Superfly Johnson and the beautiful, brainy Mikiko. In other shooters, players can be completely self-absorbed, only worrying about their own hide getting incinerated by a rocket launcher. But in Daikatana, a gamer must command and protect his artificially intelligent sidekicks. And thus comes the second radical notion in the game, empathy. If Superfly or Mikiko dies, Hiro dies too.

From the get-go, Daikatana was, to say the least, ambitious. Every polygon of these grandiose worlds would have to be coded from scratch, to interact seamlessly with the characters and the action. In addition to the complex nuances of the A.I. bots, the game -- with its 100 unique levels and monsters spread throughout -- had to be built, essentially, as four different games.

Romero, an admitted perfectionist, had spent years making games almost completely on his own. But for Daikatana, there was no way humanly possible to do everything himself, as he would have preferred. Instead, he would have to deal with the most complicated software of all, people. And as he soon learned, he says, "the number one rule in gaming is [that] people break."

The first 14 hours are always the easiest

"Aaaaarrggggggggh!" Shawn Green screams as he thrashes his computer keyboard against the ground. It's midnight in the coders cove of Ion Storm and the cubes are as dark as the city below outside. Green, a stocky, long-haired programmer in a paunchy black T-shirt, hunches like an ape at the beginning of "2001" and whacks keys across the floor like loose teeth.

A skinny programmer stretches his neck out of a nearby cube to observe the tantrum, then nonchalantly returns to his work. Green brushes the hair from his face as a smile creeps across it. "Nothing like a little stress relief," he says, tossing the battered keyboard down the hall.

Green, the 28-year-old lead coder on Daikatana and a veteran of id Software, is 14 hours into one more 18-hour day. In a few minutes, he'll take his first and only break, heading off to an abandoned abortion clinic to practice with his doom-metal band, Last Chapter. After staring at lines of code all day and sucking down half a case of Mountain Dew, Green is always looking for new ways to blow off the steam and caffeine. "John [Romero] and I have talked about making a life-size porcelain doll that holds a baseball bat," Green tells me. "You know," he adds, snickering, "it holds its own demise."

So, it could be said, do he and Daikatana's other coders, artists, level designers, beta testers and producers. Everyone teeters on the brink of self-destruction during crunch mode, the ruthless death schedule that comes during these final months of production. Creating this elaborate virtual world is inherently deep, with hundreds of thousands of lines of code and, worse, the potentially cataclysmic ripple effect of a bug. The sheer relentlessness of crunch mode, Romero insists, is the only way to make sure everything gets covered.

To hack it, survivors like Green have transformed crunch into their high-tech frat's equivalent of hazing -- the upperclassmen being the machines, and the pledges, the humans who serve them. Crunch is the quintessential test of stamina, a test that can take on an almost euphoric masochism. Brian Eiserloh, a bushy, 29-year-old coder who goes by the nickname Squirrel, set the office record for spending 85 out of 90 days without going home. "You can get an amazing amount of work done," he enthuses via e-mail. "I thrive under [short bursts] of pressure." The thing is, Daikatana turned out to be a long burst.

At the beginning, there was no reason to suspect tremors. Romero's partners were all industry veterans: Game designer Tom Hall (who would head up his own dream game at Ion Storm, Anachronox) and marketing guru Mike Wilson were from id; business-minded CEO and game designer Todd Porter and art director Jerry O'Flaherty were pals from another Texas game developer, 7th Level. With Eidos' cash, Romero was ready to build the ultimate gaming company; all he had to do was find the ultimate gamers. So he let the word out in the ultimate gamers' hive, the Internet.

Quake freaks swamped Ion Storm's e-mail server with demos of games they had designed using id's DIY wares. Romero handpicked his favorites, figuring that anbody who could wow him with a fresh character or monster or level had a place in the Daikatana posse. Romero, after all, was once just like them: flipping burgers and eschewing sleep, school and relationships to make and play games. So what if all these young dudes had never actually worked in the business before -- if they had the passion, the predisposition, for crunch, that was qualification enough.

By 1997, hardcore gamers filled the cubes alongside their mentor, Romero. Will Loconto gave up his gig as a keyboard player in the band Information Society to be Daikatana's sound designer. Sverre Kvernmo left his home country of Norway to became Daikatana's lead level designer. These weren't hard sacrifices for them to make. "We were all star-struck by the Romero phenomenon," Kvernmo says.

With Daikatana steamrolling for a Christmas 1997 release, everything seemed to be on target except, as it turned out, the technology. At the heart of any computer game is what's called an engine; this piece of code essentially dictates the game's power -- how fast characters respond, how quickly a polygon environment is rendered. Romero, who says he split from id because he had grown weary of id co-founder John Carmack's engine fetish, didn't want to run into the same trap at Ion Storm. Instead he simply licensed the Quake engine and decided to build Daikatana around that. Daikatana, he maintained, was not about the technology. "Design," as his motto went, "is law."

The technology bit back. When Romero booted up the engine for id's next game, Quake II, it was more radically improved than he expected. Though he didn't suspect id of purposefully sabotaging his efforts, he knew that Ion would look pretty damned stupid to put out a game using the old wares. It would be like pulling up to the Indy 500 in skates. "I took one look at it and said, 'That's it,'" he recalls. They had to start over.

Romero coolly shifted gears, informing the team that they would be rebuilding Daikatana around the Quake II engine. Though veterans like Green were disappointed at the news, they weren't deterred. The newbies, on the other hand, were floored. Loconto says he felt "the project was out of control with no direction." Kvernmo, too, says he "couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Factions within the Daikatana team began breaking apart. Loconto, Kvernmo and about half a dozen others took a turn toward the clandestine, opting out of rambunctious death matches and keeping to themselves. Others began lashing out, like one employee who was found alone at his desk, screaming from burnout. Romero grew impatient with the outbursts. "My lead designer was crying every day," he says, "and finally I just fired his ass."

It didn't take long for the inferno to spread. CEO Mike Wilson and Chief Operating Officer Bob Wright were gone after repeated run-ins with the other owners. One November afternoon, Kvernmo, Loconto and 10 others left to launch their own company, Third Law Interactive. A few months later, two more of the original owners, Porter and O'Flaherty, were out the door.

Feeling that Romero had botched Daikatana for his own egomaniacal pursuits, gamers lashed out online. "Gamers can only salivate for so long," says Chris Charla, editor of gaming magazine Next Generation. "Why support a company," one posted, "that cares more about hype and ego and trying to impress the industry blowhards than putting together a good game?" In reality, Romero and his remaining staff were trying to put out a great game. From their point of view, the defections were the unfortunate consequences of growing pains.

Romero blames himself for hiring too many people who didn't have experience with the delays and challenges that, in this industry, are fairly par for the course. Kelly Hoerner, Daikatana's producer, says the problems are unavoidable in a business that's still so young. "People think that [working at a company like this] is going to be fun and not a job," he says. "It's like, 'We're making games, how could that possibly suck?'"

What hurt most was that the bad vibes came about despite the fact that no one outside the company had even played Daikatana. Surely if someone actually sat down behind the controls and fired the Eye of Zeus into the beautifully horrific swamp of robotic frogs, all the garbage would float out the window. Ultimately, it is all about the game. And the game is about power. And the power is about experiencing something so absorbing, so cool, that you have no choice but to forget all the accumulated bullshit of life -- your boring job, your abusive parents, your dismal sex life or even your really bad P.R.

It's like game designer Tom Hall tells me half-jokingly outside his office one night: People don't become gamers for fun, "we do it to work out our pain."

By David Kushner

David Kushner writes about digital culture as a contributing editor to Spin and a frequent contributor to other publications, including the New York Times, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone.

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