Sunday, June 18, 2017

Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
2004 David Kushner,
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton, runtime 12 hours & 43 minutes
334 pages

I wasn’t playing PC games  in the early nineties when Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, and Quake revolutionized both the industry and the hobby, but  they were legends I never stopped hearing about after I subscribed to PC Gamer in 2000.  I was conscious of playing in their shadow:  one of my favorite games,  Star Trek Elite Force, used the Quake III engine.  When I learned that Wil Wheaton, a geek gamer’s gaming geek,  narrated an audiobook about  the formation of id software, I couldn’t pass it by.  Masters of Doom chronicles the coming-together of two programming geniuses – John Carmack and John Romero, their overnight transformation from pizza cooks into millionaires, and the pressures that broke their team apart.

This book’s main lure for me was the voice of Wil Wheaton, and I’m happy to say he delivered. Wheaton’s acting experience  serves him well here; his reading is flawless and even,   giving slightly difference voices to different people.   On several occasions he uses an accent, or gives a ‘dramatic reading’, as he does when he imitates one game developer announcing his game in the imitative style of Walter Winchell. The effect is utterly hilarious --  and ditto when he does a reading of Bill Clinton’s accusations against Doom in the wake of the Columbine bombing attempt.

I’d previously heard id described as innovative, but never appreciated how far back their innovations went. John Carmack, for instance, introduced side-scrolling to the PC at a time when it  was regarded as impossible given the hardware limitations of computers themselves. His test project inserted an id character, Commander Keene, into the first level of Mario.  Several other major breakthroughs are mentioned here; dynamic lighting, for instance, and tweaks that forced the Apple II to create colors  beyond its original pallet.   At this time, id was creating relatively innocent games like Commander Keene, which set a young boy against an alien invasion.  Elements that would become id hallmarks (the retention of slain enemies), were already present.  More importantly,  multiplayer itself was an id creation, at least as far as LAN connections went. The software that allowed multiple computers to dial a remote server – creating gamerooms to meet other gamers and play matches against them in – was created by a fan, but quickly purchased and integrated into the core gaming experience. From Doom and Quake came  gaming clans, still a staple of gaming competitions.

Throughout the book, id grows from two guys doing all of the work – designing, programming, art-crafting – into a team of men with different ideas and different directions. Although their success  -- and their garages of Ferraris – had been made by working together, their wealth also enabled the two senior owners the resources to go their own way once their personal differences had become too much to bear. Carmack, for instance, is seen here as deeply serious coder who likes the challenge of it more than anything else.  Romero,  initially no less dedicated a programmer (and initially the engineering strength of the two-man team), later grew to relish the attention and moolah id’s success had given him.    The last quarter of the book details Romero’s departure from id,  the creation of his Ion Storm design firm, and the projects both men pursued throughout the 2000s. As of the book's publication, and the audiobook's presentation, both were still involved in gaming -- Romero was then branching out into the un-exploited terrain of pocket pc/smartphone games, and  Carmack was still finishing Doom 3 despite nursing another hobby in rocketry.  (According to Wikipedia, he's now involved in some VR project that Facebook bought out.)

Masters of Doom proved a fun bit of computer and gaming history, and my first look inside the gaming industry. My favorite designers are guys like Sid Meier (Civilization)  and Will Wright (SimCity /The Sims), both Carmack and Romero were fun guys to get to 'know' through these thirteen hours spent listening to Wil Wheaton.  There's more than a little nostalgic appeal here,  too.

Doom 2 Easter Egg:  John Romero's Head hidden inside final boss
IGN Plays Doom with John Romero


  1. I confess. I lost interest in games with PacMan. I don't understand that escapism fascination. But as a reader of fiction, I understand the irony of my bias.

  2. I've been gaming since around 1974 so freely describe myself as a 'Gamer'. I *loved* Doom. It was one of my formative experiences. I could easily imagine walking down a badly lit corridor with pump action shot gun in one hand and a chainsaw in the other.... [lol]


  3. @CyberKitten: What were you playing in 1974? Text games on the computer, or something like D&D on paper?
    Elite Force on the Quake engine was the first game to actually scare me. The demo level took place on a Borg cube, and after agitating the drones I hid behind a corner. I was used to enemies losing interest, so imagine my surprise and horror when I peaked around a corner to see them whirring and shambling toward me!

    That was a fun game. One level included navigating across a force-field bridge with a maze of invisible steps...players had to use their phaser to locate tiles to jump on to!

    1. In 1974 I was on a school holiday - skiing trip - in the French Alps. In the hotel they had a games room with an electronic box set up to play 'Pong'. I spent almost every penny I had on it! I've never been the same since.... [lol]

      I really must dig out my history of gaming book. It's massive though so I'll need to wait until I have a week off work or have built up a substantial review backlog.

      My game of choice @ Uni was the arcade version of X-Wing (where you destroyed the Death Star). Loved that game & spent a goodly portion of my grant money on it rather than buying books & stuff.

    2. I've played Pong! of course, the experience wasn't quite the uncle of mine retained his Atari system and introduced me to his library of games one summer when I visited him in Biloxi.

      What games do you play these days? Don't you play a shooter online? Lately I've been exploring Bioshock and Cities in Motion. One is a SF-themed shooter, the other is a city transport simulator.

    3. I've played lots of things over the years. The last FPSs I played were Call of Duty (4 I think) and Borderlands 2. These days I'm pretty much exclusively a World of Warcraft person.

    4. Was that Modern Warfare? I've explored a bit of its single player campaign, but I think I am still somewhere on the outskirts of Chernobyl.

    5. 'Modern Warfare' sounds right. Had serious fun with about 4-5 other guys most nights shooting the breeze and anyone else who stood still long enough. Our motto was 'If it Flies it Dies'.

    6. I did something similar...I used to be in a Trek gaming clan called StarFleet, and played both Armada and Elite Force. I sucked at Elite Force (56k modem vs guys on cable and DSL? Hah!) , but enjoyed hanging out all night with strangers making each other explode. A couple of friends and I were much better at Armada, which was a real-time strategy game. I can still remember some of the tricks we pulled on people we fighting against. (Once, for instance, my buddy picked a fight with a Borg cube, then ran way into a mutara nebula where I was waiting. The mutara disables shields and senors, but not weapons. So, this enormous Borg cube, which could defeat ANY of the other ships out there, and survive a dogfight with as many as three of them at once, heads into the nebula....where I, my finger on the trigger, unloaded every weapon I had on them the instant their shields fell.

      It was glorious.

    7. I remember times like that, the blood flowed, the screams reverberated, the arrows flew..... Bliss.... [grin] I used to LOVE out thinking people in COD. They hated me with a passion. That'll teach 'em never to look behind them or never to look up! [rotflmao]

    8. Did you play strictly deathmatch, or stuff like capture the flag? CTF was my favorite -- although my connection speed made it impossible for me to do much. Elite Force did have an explosives speciality, though, so I could run into an area, set and detonate, respawn, and go at it again.

    9. I think I just tried to kill as many of the enemy as possible and piss off anyone else I hadn't managed to kill yet. I was notorious for driving a Humvee into an enemy base, bailing out, and stealing their tanks (that was Battlefield 2). The clan motto was 'Don't spawn on Cyberkitten' because I'd probably get you insta-killed on one of my exploits. I did give good artillery cover and medical drops though - except occasionally I dropped the medical supplies so close to people I actually killed them. 10/10 for pinpoint accuracy though....!

  4. @Tim These days games can be an outlet for creativity, even more than escapism. The Sims 2 and SimCity 3000, for instance, are 'building' games...players construct homes and cities. (Or rather, players 'plan' cities by establishing infrastructure, service, and zones...the sims themselves do the 'building', creating different buildings according to demand, land value, etc.)

  5. an amazing world i never got a chance to enter... although i do remember playing a game on the trailer tv when working on a remote southern oregon drilling location... don't know what it was, tho... this would have been about 1981...


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