Video Gaming Books

The moment I had been waiting for. Carmack finally meets Romero in Masters of Doom. Beautiful.

Cool stuff. My memory is always suspect, but I do have two memories of “meeting” Romero. I don’t recall meeting Carmack, though I might have? Eh. The first time I saw Romero we were both at a party at E3 in Atlanta, though I’m sure he was an invited guest as opposed to me, who was there as journalist and thus part of the woodwork :). IIRC this was still in the glory phase of his career, as he came with what certainly appeared to be two attractive women, one on each arm, and like Warren Beatty in “Your So Vain” strolled in like he was walking on to his yacht.

The next time was at a GDC, in some back room where folks were eating those nice box lunches they had. This Romero was older, wiser, and damn interesting. Working on mobile stuff I think, and very down to earth and friendly. He was also less stressed and seemed a lot happier.

The arcs of our lives are impossible to predict, but sometimes they work out.

Last night I got to the part of the book about the development of Quake, and I ended up staying up half the night instead of going to sleep. Holy shit, it’s like watching a car wreck, I can’t help but stare and can’t look away. Quite the difference from the days of Wolf 3D and Doom, when the core team of John and John were just perfectly in sync with each other. For Quake it was painful reading about the rift between the two. I can’t believe how much everyone at id sided with Carmack in scaling back the ambitions of Quake and essentially agreed to make it more like a Doom 3 so they could ship it quickly.

I have no problems believing it, given that Romero has designed essentially zero games post-id that are well-reviewed, and none that I’d be interesting in playing, and moreover, none that even vaguely approach his ambition for the original RPG Quake in 1996. His only really positively received game in the past twenty-seven years is Sigil, an OG DOOM map pack. Romero was always a great level designer. Game designer, not so much.

And before you say it, Anachronox was Tom Hall.

Yeah, it was pretty well presented in the book how it was both their faults really. Carmack was really taking his time with the engine. Romero was saying each time when the technology comes together, they make a great game to take advantage of it. But he was slacking himself as a project manager, not giving the team guidance while Carmack was having trouble with his blue seams appearing the ceilings and floors for a long time. Carmack kept having trouble with the technology side, and Romero kept putting off the design side until the tech was ready. Which had worked in the Commander Keen, Wolf3d and Doom days, but was probably not a good idea anymore.

I don’t know, it was interesting to read all the dysfunction, including Carmack’s during that time.

Edit: A telling passage, for example, was the bit about how Carmack started coming in one hour later every day until he found his perfect time of 4pm to 4am. And then later in his more paranoid stage he started accusing others of not working enough. He said to Sandy Peterson that he was leaving early and Sandy said, no, I came in at 7am and leaving at 7pm, you just weren’t here.

Hah, I don’t remember that bit, it was in Masters of Doom? Anyway I don’t have a hard time imagining Carmack as a terrible people manager.

One detail I wasn’t aware of is that during a lot of the time when the rest of id was waiting for Carmack to finish the tech, Romero was working a lot with Raven to finish Hexen and Heretic, and had a third game planned as part of the trilogy. I forgot the name this morning, but it clearly never happened. But I’d like to have read more details about that. I had no idea Romero had worked extensively with Raven to help them with those games. I’ve only briefly played both games, but this makes me want to check them out.

Heretic was just a fantasy DOOM reskin but Hexen and particularly Hexen 2 innovated quite a bit in the genre. Still not narratively-focused games with scripting, Half-Life they weren’t, but not bald DOOM clones either.

Hexen and its sequel gave us the Hub world for moving between different FPS levels.

There was a bunch of stuff, this is 25 years ago now so it’s a bit hazy but as I recall you could look up and down, it had multiple character classes with different stats and weapons, destructible walls, monsters would try to avoid your attacks, and I believe was the first DOOM clone to offer scripting more elaborate than “hidden door opens, imps pour out”. And the hub levels, definitely.

If I was looking to experience first person shooters’ progression over time I would probably start out with Wolf3d → DOOM → ROTT → Duke3D → Hexen 2 → Quake → Half-Life. HL was Quake’s very own Hexen 2 or Duke3D, where you take base gameplay and layer and layer and layer on top of it.

I finished Masters of Doom last night. I just couldn’t put it down.

A few random thoughts.

Mentioning Descent as a Doom Clone bothered me a bit. It was the first fully 3D game like the kind Carmack was trying to build with Quake, not a Doom clone!

I was really tickled by the story of Tom Hall. He felt like an outcast at id software because he was the only one with a normal childhood and normal parents who were still together, and he actually went to university and graduated. It’s also interesting that the others felt like he was putting too much story in his games, and kept wanting to go back to Commander Keen. His levels and story for Doom made Romero and Carmack and the others finally fire him because his levels were too boring and realistic looking. Apparently a boring military base. So they went with Romero’s more abstract levels for Doom instead once Tom Hall was gone. And even after he was fired Tom felt it was because he wasn’t from a dysfunctional family like the others so he didn’t fit in. He comes into the story again as having been hired by Scott Miller at Apogee to do ROTT and work on Duke3D, and then he reunited with his friend Romero at Ion Storm where he did Anachronox. I wonder what he’s been up to since then? His emphasis on story and realism and instead of the more abstract aspects of Doom would probably have appealed to me even back then.

Another interesting character was American McGee. I know it’s sacrilege to admit this, but I didn’t really connect with Wolf3d and Doom, even though I finished the three episodes of Doom at the time. The game that truly made me a fan of first person shooters was Doom II. I really felt that the level design was so much better, as was the enemy design, and the super shotgun, of course. And out of the 36 levels of Doom II, apparently only 6 were from Romero. The rest were from Sandy Peterson and American McGee. So that was an interesting factoid to learn for me, who is a much bigger fan of Doom II than any of the other id software games. There’s a hilarious passage in the book about how during the development of Quake, Carmack became distant from Romero and instead went and hired Michael Abrash from Microsoft who became his programming buddy, and American McGee, who became his car mechanic/tinkering buddy. And Carmack was resentful of Romero spending his time overseeing Raven’s Doom clones instead of working on Quake. But the moment he was saying that to McGee, McGee wanted to be empathetic so he agreed, bad mouthing Romero, and Carmack immediately turned on him, thinking, who the hell does this kid think he is? And their relationship seemed to be more antagonistic from that moment on, at least in the book. American lasted through Quake 2, but got fired during the development of Quake 3.

It was also interesting reading about Diakatana again. At the time when that whole drama was happening, it seemed like such an eternally late game that would never ever come out. But reading about it now, it was under development for about 4 years. Under today’s standards, that doesn’t seem like that long a time, but back then it sure did. They started development in 1997, and showed off a demo in a Norwegian village at E3 in Atlanta that year, and that’s where Romero got his glimpse at the id booth of Quake 2 with its colored lighting, and he said we have to switch to the Quake 2 engine, which is what caused the first big problems with Diakatana. They couldn’t get access to the Quake 2 source code until Quake 2 actually came out, so they had to wait. And then when it did come out, Romero discovered just how much Carmack had changed the engine from Quake 1 to Quake 2, and that it was going to be a lot more difficult to switch than he expected.

At the end of the book in 2002, Carmack was working on Doom 3, with the rest of id software still miserable at having to go back to that well one more time, doing the same thing again because Carmack insisted. i have to admit, with id software ascendant again with Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, I had kind of forgotten about the phase of post-Romero id software just repeating themselves over and over. Quake 2, then Quake 3, then Doom 3, and being internally miserable. Looking it up, it looks like Doom 3 finally came out in 2004, and it wasn’t Carmack’s last game, since he stayed on and worked on Rage after that. I guess Rage was the bridge between miserable id software and the more creatively happy id software that emerged with Doom 2016 without Carmack.

I remember Quake 3 being a huge break because it had no single-player mission set, right? It was all multiplayer focused, and the levels were built purely for flow and not to be storytelling spaces. I forget–did Unreal Tournament do it first? That put me off both series a lot (although I wasn’t a super-fan of any shooters other than System Shock). But I also think it was clearly a smart move. Supporting single-player and multiplayer was like making two different games.

Yes, the book was a good refresher on that, but I remember this bit from memory as well. Unreal Tournament did beat them to release. And UT had excellent bots, and internally id software was freaking out because their bots basically didn’t work and were terrible. But they hired some modder from the Netherlands who was excellent at doing bots to come in at the last minute and saved the day for them.

Basically Carmack’s idea was that since everyone at id software was so antagonistic towards one another and didn’t get along, they could each go into their offices and not interact and make their own levels for Quake 3. It was his solution to the egos and the antagonism.

Regarding Tom Hall, according to MobyGames unfortunately all he’s done for the past 10 years is a Gordon Ramsay mobile game for PlayFirst. Pretty grim waste of talent there. So it goes.

Personally I played a great deal of Quake 3 Arena at release, but it always felt less compelling than Quakeworld had. I never played Quake 2 online. Anyway after that I skipped around to UT2004 and then basically never played competitive shooters online again, I pretty much had my fill.

The Romero/Carmack dynamic is so fascinating. It’s such a classic case of differing skills and personalities working to deliver something so utterly groundbreaking, but inevitably leading to a messy breakup later. Maybe slightly reductive, but it’s probably gaming’s closest situation to Lennon & McCartney.

Masters of Doom sounds really good and I’m certainly going to pick it up.

Does the book go into much (or any?) detail about modern id? I wonder how many people still there go back as far as Doom 3 (or earlier).

I have increasingly mixed feelings on nuDoom, but I do find it interesting that id remain such a tech powerhouse beyond Romero and Carmack. That legacy hasn’t ever really gone away, or even if it faded a bit, it’s back now even without them. id Tech is a marvel and in the context of modern shooters, I still think 2016 and Eternal top the pile.

No modern id in the book. The book ends in 2002, with Romero and Tom Hall happily working on mobile games, with Romero having really short hair. And Carmack mostly working on his new hobby in Rocketry.

You’re right, it is pretty interesting that id software is still a tech powerhouse even after Carmack. I hope they continue to do well and we get another memoir of their post-2002 years. I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting stories about the Call-of-Duty-like Doom 4 they were working on that was cancelled, as well as how Carmack got more and more interested in VR tech. And then how the new design and tech crew clearly took over at id that worked on the Doom Reboot.

This looks very tempting. Looking back at the history of Text games. The hardcover pre-order is almost sold out, less than 50 copies left, apparently.

I’ll probably get the $25 digital edition when it comes out. Though I bet the maps and flow charts will be hard to read in the digital edition.

This is coming out in February 2024. Could be tempting if I end up loving Nightdive’s version of System Shock.

When we lost Author Martin Amis this week, we lost the author of this classic!


I didn’t know Romero was writing an autobiography. Looking forward to this.