Letters

Id Software is NOT the Dokken of computer gaming! Readers respond to Wagner James Au's "Masters of 'Doom.'"


Salon Staff
May 8, 2003 11:29PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

I am the original author of the texture-mapping code in "Ultima Underworld." I feel that Wagner James Au's review of David Kushner's book "Masters of Doom" unfairly paints John Carmack and Id Software's graphical innovations in their early games as merely derivative of what Blue Sky Software was doing with creating virtual worlds for "Underworld."

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The truth of the matter is that texture mapping for 3-D computer graphics was not invented by any computer game programmer. It was invented in the middle 1970's by Ed Catmull and was widely used for non-real-time 3-D rendering and in expensive real-time flight simulators before it made its way to computer games. Game programmers of the time were fully aware of this, and the realization that the amount of processing power and the amount of memory that were becoming available for PCs was enough to make this technique a practical one for mainstream computer games was inevitable.

"Ultima Underworld" and "Wolfenstein 3D" were in different game genres with different goals. In both cases, the computers of the day required making trade-offs in their texture mapping. "Underworld," being a role-playing game, wanted a game engine with as much versatility as possible in order to allow a wide variety of scenarios for the player to experience and puzzle out. So, "UW" needed a texture-mapping routine allowing arbitrary angles and rotations and a 3-D engine allowing a great deal of variety in world topology. In order to provide the distance-based darkening seen in non-real-time role-playing games such as "Dungeon Master," it also needed to be able to do some primitive lighting. The price it paid for this was having a smaller view of the world (because of the slower rendering speed) and some nontrivial distortion in the mapping. "Wolfenstein 3D" was a high-speed action game and its designers wisely decided that having a large 3-D window and the fastest possible frame rate were more important for a game in this genre. This wasn't a case of "ruining" the 3-D game genre, but a smart design decision for the game they were trying to make.

Faster computers and better techniques were able to reduce the impact of these trade-offs in later games (for instance, Parallax Software's 1994 game "Descent" had arbitrary rotation, dynamic lighting, 3-D-modeled enemies instead of sprites, and a very versatile world topology), and the rise of 3-D accelerator cards has made most of the early trade-offs irrelevant.

Id Software continues its innovations in the game graphics realm to this day. To whatever extent some of their early efforts were inspired by what Blue Sky was developing for "Ultima Underworld" (which drew on many other games for inspiration), I don't think this detracts from those efforts at all.

-- Chris Green

Wagner Au's use of pop music as analogy to the development of video games is as off-base as his transparent use of an ostensible book review as a platform to launch his sour-grapes missive against id Software and "Doom."

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What Kushner understands that Au does not is that marketing, speed and attitude (things that "Doom" had in spades and his pet failure "Ultima Underworld" didn't) matter as much or more than actual innovation or even total sales. Nirvana is exactly the right analogy for id Software: They took the musical and stylistic approach of bands that couldn't be bothered (if you want a band analogous to Blue Sky, try Hüsker Dü or even Mudhoney), added studio gloss, and marketed the hell out of them. Both Nirvana and id had a sick genius at the helm, and both tapped into the same vein of anger and powerlessness.

Au's going on about market share further misses the point -- you can't both dismiss first-person shooters as occupying an insignificant niche genre and simultaneously decry the innovators in that genre as "wrecking the (gaming) industry" and corrupting teens.

I share many of Au's underlying concerns about the psychology of FPS games, but wishful thinking about what might have been won't lessen the impact that "Doom" has had on a generation of kids.

-- Jim McLean

Wagner James Au writes: "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."

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Apparently, Mr. Au hasn't suffered through "Black & White" recently, and somehow managed to miss, while perusing the top-ten sales figures, the astounding popularity of the "Sims" franchise.

There's a strong and deep consensus among many of the aficionados of the gaming industry in general, and the FPS genre in particular, that good, clueful and elegant AI is the next "killer app" as far as gaming is concerned. Witness the proliferation of online gaming, especially among the FPS titles, and you'll see why. Going up against a thinking enemy, and not one that simply shoots more accurately, but is tougher to kill, and/or moves faster than the last one, is what holds and drives gamers' interest.

Mr. Au again: "[Kushner's] 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."

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This reads like so much "my favorite game got dissed" whining, and detracts from an otherwise informative read. Mr. Au, if you're so hung up on the short shrift apparently accorded "Ultima Underworld," take up the gauntlet [if you'll pardon the pun] and write a book on its place in digital history.

-- Rafe Brox

Salon's review of "Masters of Doom" seems like little more that a postmodern hatchet job done as a springboard to bemoan the lack of creativity and artistry in the gaming industry.

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Mr. Au's opinions unfortunately sound like the ranting of a hardcore fan lamenting the fact that superior works get passed up in favor of the sensationalistic. I would know, because I'm a hardcore fan, and the state of the gaming industry, its emphasis on violence and cheap tricks instead of real interactivity, dismays me. But this is the plight of anyone deeply involved in pretty much any entertainment medium: the deep, quality titles always get upstaged by the flashier big-budget productions. While "Ultima Underworld" was truly a revolutionary title from a technical and design standpoint, it wasn't a game you could sell to the masses. "Doom" was a game that was marketable -- it had a simple interface, simple rules and instant gratification. "Ultima Underworld" was a slow, time-consuming game that more or less appealed only to hardcore gamers. It wasn't a title that would have launched the type of frenzy that "Doom" did. It could be argued that no title other than "Doom" could have forced gaming into the public's consciousness.

I'm not a big fan of what happened after "Doom" was released, and the direction the industry took as a result -- violence is abused as a tool to draw the player in, and most gamers' gut instinct when faced with an interactive world is to try to kill its inhabitants. Games like "Grand Theft Auto III" convince me that this trend will get worse before it gets better. But that's like a movie buff lamenting the trend of blockbuster movies being light on script and long on action. "Doom" was "Star Wars" for the interactive medium, and the impact of that is undeniable.

-- Matt Smith

Let's see ... John Carmack and John Romero ruined computer games? Carmack really wasn't that smart? "Doom" didn't cause Columbine but, well ...

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What the heck is this story about? "Doom" was successful because Carmack famously gave the tools to users to make their own levels in the game, and innovated modem Deathmatch play. They also innovated game shareware. Carmack's engines are still the gold standard for game designers. He's the D.W Griffith of 3-D games. The Looking Glass Guys, especially Warren Spector and Doug Church, are the Sergei Eisensteins, making worthier games that appeal to a more limited audience. Still, when has "worthiness" had anything to do with popularity? Carmack and Romero made the game they wanted to play.

The thing that is most disturbing about the story is the Columbine connection. The author sounds like the earnest cultural critics of the early '70s, looking at the Manson murders and saying, "Of course the Beatles aren't responsible, but there is a connection ... I mean, their lyrics were written in blood on the refrigerator." Give me a break. If "Doom" didn't cause Columbine, then don't try to implicate it by association.

-- Nick Henderson

Wagner James Au in his article on id Software seems just as guilty of "rewriting history" as the book he is reviewing. Although I agree that first-person shooters are technically a niche market, to call id the Dokken of computer games is a severe mischaracterization. Id's games have always been about frantic, fast-paced action and they excelled at delivering exactly that. As great as games like "Thief," "System Shock" and "Deus Ex" (the descendants of "Ultima Underworld") are, they do not deliver anything like the same adrenaline-pumping rush that you get from playing Quake or Doom online with real human opponents. Another point that Au misses is that id really brought forth the era of online gaming. I think that id's great strength is in making technology that allows people to create immersive worlds. They were always the technical leaders if not necessarily the innovators of new types of gameplay. Some of the games, like "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault" and "Half-Life," that Au mentions as "defined by how much they aren't like id games" were actually built on id's game engines! To call id's games mediocre is just ridiculous, and is more indicative of Au's obvious bias toward single-player plot-based games than any statement of quality of "Doom" or "Quake." And to accuse id of ruining the game industry is even more ridiculous; all genres have their share of copycats and bad games. But if you look at id's catalog of games, they were all technically groundbreaking, fun, addictive and influential. If I feel like a good story or stealthy gameplay, I might turn to a Looking Glass game, but if I want a fast-paced thrill ride experience, I'll turn to id Software.

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-- Howie Wang

The gaming articles from Wagner James Au frequently strike me with their pompous absurdity, but the recent "review" of "Masters of Doom" really manages to stand out. The article's point appears to be that id's products hindered the entry of computer games into the mainstream because "Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom" appealed to a smaller audience of hardcore gamers who liked games that involve mindless shooting. Instead we're supposed to believe that computer games would have entered the mainstream faster if "Ultima Underworld," a game that appealed to a smaller audience of hardcore gamers who liked games that involve stat-crunching and magic spells, had seen the same amount of success. Au bemoans the introduction of 3-D graphics cards as a limiting factor as well, disregarding the fact that the stunningly rendered 3-D graphics of "Myst" were a major reason that game was the first one for computers that had truly mass market appeal, despite the fantastic gameplay available in so many games before it.

Au takes a point from a book that he disagrees with and turns it into the wild assertion that if only the gaming public had been more like him games would be much better and more popular nowadays. His only evidence is ... well, he doesn't have any evidence. Just a "what if" paragraph. I suspect that if Au were to turn his attention to early text adventures he would assert that those games' failure to be more like their graphical successors was a terrible blow to gaming that prevented mainstream acceptance for years to come.

-- Jered Heeschen

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Wagner James Au completely misses the real reason why "Doom" had such an impact on PC gaming: multiplayer. "Doom" was the first game to allow two players on separate computers, through a LAN or the Internet, to play together as a team. Programming fast multiplayer action with a world-class graphics engine is a very noteworthy feat that needs to be addressed. To this day, id's game engines are the pinnacle of multiplayer technology. Looking Glass games never had multiplayer interaction, which was the reason for their downfall.

-- Dave Dunniway

While I share Wagner James Au's sympathy for Looking Glass Studios, his comments are unfair to John Carmack and (to a lesser degree) John Romero. Carmack and Romero are merely guilty of giving the people what they want, and not what Wagner James Au wants.

That initial teen fan base, myself included, grew up to desire more sophisticated games. Id Software didn't kill this possibility, they enabled it. Id started the practice of engine licensing. Wagner James Au mentions "Half-Life" as a quality story-driven shooter. Indeed, it garnered both critical and immense popular acclaim, which none of the Looking Glass games did, sadly. (Perhaps this was aided by their release of a demo, like id's shareware levels.) He fails to mention it was based on a licensed engine developed by Carmack. He did mention that id Software started the mod scene, but failed to mention that the most popular tactical shooter, "Counter-Strike," is in fact a mod of "Half-Life."

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The other scene id Software started, of course, was the multiplayer scene itself. "Doom" brought multiplayer first-person shooters to the masses. "Quake" added a client server model. However, despite the ongoing popularity, Wagner James Au may consider "Deathmatch" part of the problem and not an accomplishment.

Id Software did not ruin anything. They provided technology, marketing ideas, and began the multiplayer and mod scenes. Id Software was not the enemy of Looking Glass; in fact, they could have been best friends. When I first played "Thief" years ago, I was intrigued by the concept, but disappointed in the graphics. How I wished it were running on the "Quake 2" engine.

-- Eshan Shah-Jahan

Mr. Au's review is biased in favor of what seems to be a personal favorite game of his, "Ultima Underworld." If Au liked that game better than "Doom," then good for him. But his technical criticisms of id's games are misguided, and deriding id's work based on its admittedly unimaginative blood and gore aesthetic is missing the point entirely.

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"Ultima Underworld" may indeed have had a more sophisticated lighting model than "Wolfenstein 3D" and done texture mapping first. So what? Id might not have developed these techniques first, but neither did Looking Glass. Games aren't where these sorts of techniques are first developed. Au would do well to visit SIGGRAPH's site and read some of the papers available there to gain an understanding of how advances happen in the industry. Generally speaking, CG techniques start out as theory, reach their first commercial application in prerendered graphics (e.g., feature film special effects) and finally move to real-time games. The technical advances made by id Software are not, generally speaking, related to how to render the world more realistically, but how to render it realistically enough, fast enough. Id was the first firm to develop technology that could reach the level of quality and speed sufficient to call the experience immersive. "Ultima Underworld" may have been more technologically advanced than "Wolfenstein 3D," but it certainly wasn't as immersive.

His point about the limited market share of first-person shooters is also misleading: Sure, "MS Flight Simulator" might sell a lot of copies, but how much of an effect on popular culture do you think it really had? Celine Dion sells more CDs than Tupac Shakur ever did.

Au has a point about the content of id's games -- they don't tell great stories. But of the examples he cites of superior games, half were written using graphics technology licensed from id. It's fine by me if Au wants to take id to task over its games' clumsy story lines. But that's missing the point. Id's contribution has always been technology, not art. They were the first ones to make a 3-D world that worked quickly enough to be called immersive and then sell it to millions. Au seems to have completely discounted this central fact in favor of tired carping over all the simple-minded mayhem.

-- Tom Lee

Just over one year ago, my boyfriend stumbled onto a PC game called "Outcast," from 1999. I began to realize that this was a great game when I would pull up a chair just to watch my boyfriend play it. "Outcast" is the story of an ex-Navy SEAL with a sly sense of humor named Cutter Slade, and his adventures in a parallel universe on a world called Adelpha (Greek for twin). This world has different regions rendered beautifully (snow, mountains, swamps, forests, water, villages and a city filled with merchants), the inhabitants have their own culture that you discover throughout the game, and the music is stunning (specifically composed for the game by Lennie Moore and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra; the main theme of "Outcast" actually includes lines from the Aeneid).

Even though the rendering is a little clunky, you get so caught up in the game that it doesn't matter -- you see past the pixels. And Cutter can jump, swim, ride a Twon-Ha (a beast of burden that looks like a bird without feathers), and crawl. And, just as important, it is made very clear to Cutter/you at the beginning of the game that the ethical choices that Cutter makes will have a direct effect on whether he can complete his tasks. Most of what Cutter does in Adelpha is predicated on communicating with Adelpha's inhabitants, the "Talan." If he just runs around shooting everyone, not only will the Talan be too frightened to talk to him, but they will sometimes be too angry at him to answer his simplest questions.

As I said, this was over a year ago, and we've gone back to the game several times. In fact, I'm in my own version of the game now and my choices have made the game different. While part of the reason that we've stayed with this game is due to its quality, the other reason is due to the dearth of good games out there. The first person shoot-'em-ups are just as boring as hell. You can stand in front of some monster, right in his line of sight, and he just bobs back and forth, grunting. In "Outcast," the enemy can see you and sometimes surprises you while you're talking to someone (although the music changes, so you'll be standing there with this intense music going on, saying, "Get on with it, enemies coming!" at the guy you're talking to). In the typical FPS, the same guns and ammo are in the same place, always. In "Outcast," the characters who have what you want move around. So this has left us scratching our heads -- if this is a 4-year-old game, why can't we have more games like this? With puzzles, and interesting characters, and AI technology, and laugh-out-loud humor, and beautiful scenery (as well as some ass kicking)? Well, it is interesting to note, from what we have figured out, that "Outcast" wasn't really marketed very well in the U.S. Its marketing was concentrated in Europe. Too bad.

So I was really excited after I read "Masters of Doom." My interest was piqued when Wagner James Au mentioned Looking Glass Studios. It represents an avenue in which to search for the kind of game we'd like. I just wish that whoever takes up the charge, brings Lennie Moore along for the ride. I don't know how many games I can play now without a full symphony orchestra as my soundtrack to ass-whomping.

-- Keiran Murphy

Oh please.

Wagner James Au's article is essentially little more than a three-page diatribe about how he doesn't really like first-person shooters because they take away public attention from role-playing games, which he likes. To say that id destroyed "the genre" of first-person games is to lump very different beasts together: slower, more immersive interactive role-playing games (almost universally Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy settings), and faster adrenaline-fueled shooters that focus more on action than story. They're pretty different products, and appeal to pretty different types of personalities. People who like and value one will not necessarily ever appreciate the other.

It's essentially the same argument that says that Hollywood has ruined the art of filmmaking as evidenced by the take of the latest summer blockbuster, or that McDonald's has ruined restaurants because more people eat there than at Chez Panisse. And all those arguments essentially boil down to one thing: The critic is in the minority as far as tastes go, as evidenced by where people spend their money, and he wishes more people agreed with him.

Lambast McDonald's, Starbucks, X-Men, and FPS games all you want, but realize that in doing so, you are ignoring the fact that they wouldn't exist if there weren't a market for them. Taking a stand against a popular product because it's too popular or because you like something else better is little more than saying you think the people who buy it are wrong for doing so and lack the highly refined taste that you do. It makes you feel special and superior, but it lacks much weight in the real world.

-- Aaron Loutsch


Salon Staff

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