Dane. Designer.

Old Blog

Masters of Doom

Essentially I missed out on the part of the ‘joystick’ generation that hung out around arcades, playing Pong and Pacman until their hands bled. I did some of it, but all in all I thought those games were pretty tame. I did play later games, such as the premium Aliens arcade game (you can download the ROM, usable with MAME from here), where you could play multiplayer, which was our incentive to throw all our shrapnel at that sucker for days at a time, until we finally completed it and subsequently lost all interest in it.

I played a lot of games though, I can remember that much. But I have a hard time remembering exactly what they were. I spent a good deal of time with SimCity and F-15 III – where we would actually seat ourselves in such a way that one of us had the keyboard, he was the co-pilot, and the other had the joystick. And we would then proceed to bomb the shit out of things. Very amusing.

There are other titles – Gunship 2000 and various adventure games of course – but to be honest I don’t really consider myself a ‘gamer’ until after Wolfenstein 3D hit.

Wolfenstein 3D Screenshot

Summer-holidays were designed for being squandered away by teenagers who generally perceived school as some sort of government conspiracy meant to keep us away from our computers! True to form most of that summer, in the early 90’s, was spent playing computers & roleplaying and every once in a while watching a batch of movies, the likes of Tremors. We weren’t picky…

Some times I would just stay for days at a time at my friends parents summerhouse, where they lived during the summer-months. This was where we had the most freedom, and besides his computer was better than mine, so all in all we spent most of our time there. Every once in a while my mom would ‘force’ me to come home to eat with the family, which I then did, only to go back down there again after dinner.

Good times.

Anyway, one day, in what would become something of a tradition, while I was home eating, my friend called me and started splurting (so a word!) out “Nazi this”, “Nazi that”, “Running around in castles” and “It’s like being there!”... I was to tell you the truth rather confused, but hurried down there to find him in his room, curtains drawn, the tiny speakers squeezers turned all the way to ‘distort’.

And that, right then and there, was a major turning point of my life.

We played Wolfenstein 3D like there was no tomorrow. And when we finished it, we started over only to see who could get 100% secrets, 100% gold or simply who could burst through the game the fastest. We spent the entire summer yelling Mein Leben! and Mutti! while we dreamt about how cool games were.

Wolfenstein 3D of course wasn’t id Software’s debut first person shooter if you want to be specific. In 1991 they released both Hovertank 3D and Catacombs 3D. But, having played both those games (as recently as last week), I think it’s safe to say that Wolf3D took the concept up a notch, both technically and graphically. This was suddenly something we could relate to.

Regardlessly of which game you count as the initial first person shooter, there is no denying the influence id Software’s games had on the games industry and young impressionable teenagers such as myself. We wanted more! And while we waited around for DooM to arrive, we got our hands on a level editing tool for Wolf3D.

And there’s the hook, line and sinker.

My friend – who in case you were wondering, had a dad who had a modem. Almost unheard of at the time, but essential in getting us all these great titles – got his hands on the Doom shareware demo. Again he called me, babbling frenetically. I understood immediately that something was up and – strangely enough, once again – hurried over there after dinner.

The sun was setting and the room was pretty dark, when I walked in to find him pounding the keyboard, eyes wide open and with an insane twitch, concentrated fully on the game in front of him.

If Wolfenstein ate up our time, Doom obliterated every single minute not used for eating, sleeping and school-going. Again we found a level editor to play around with, and I kid you not when I tell you that we thought the sky was the limit. This was full 3D. Not like Wolf3D which was a plane with cardboard walls. Hell no, Doom allowed you to do anything you wanted.

I’ll stop here and let you imagine what happened next. Suffice to say that since I work at a computer game company as a level designer today, my gratitude toward id Software runs deep. Especially since id Software managed to be not only the frontrunner for cool games, but at the same time a very prolific company. In the book ‘Master of Doom’, which this entry is really about, believe it or not, id is often referred to as a rock-star company of sorts. And that’s exactly what they were.

They managed to build the first true modding community, working under the belief that as long as people behave respectably, why not have them play around with the technology and share it with other gamers? And this alone has spawned, God knows how many game developer wannabe’s, myself included.

Thanks to id Software, we got to not only play the most outrageous games we had ever seen, we also got to rebuild them from the ground up if we wanted! Some guy made an Aliens Total Conversion (available and working to this day) that we spent days having fun with (it still beets the crap out of most officially endorsed Aliens games out there, except of course the arcade version…)

Thanks to id Software, these communities in turn took the tools made by id on continually bettered them, rereleasing them back into the community for everyone to use. And at the same time graciously spending their time supporting them!

Thanks to id Software, I became a death-matching machine to be reckoned with!

The crux of the matter is: These weren’t just games as such, these were a way for us to truly exersize our creativity and share the results with the world. We were in our early to mid teens, who would have thought we could hold such power?!

My admiration for id Software, and I must admit, in particular John Carmack, persists today. Not only has id managed to retain the independence all these years, but Carmack has vehemently defended any attempts to close and protect the engines that their games run on. In fact he has actively done just the opposite, by releasing the source code for engines once the are out of their prime, allowing for such projects as Tenebrae Quake and Legacy Doom as well as the rise of one of the most powerful level editors in the world, Radiant.

And while there is no doubting the skill (and monetary backing) of Valve, their continued success is all due to them adapting the community building methods of id Software; and doing a damn fine job of it I might add.

The games industry can be, ironically, a somewhat cold and austere place to be. Large sums of money exchange hands and the line between success is bankruptcy is paper-thin, slanting towards the latter for many companies. But thanks to the way id has been run through the years, and the exposure that they have given themselves, among other things, through their .plan updates, I managed to figure out many years ago how it can work.

I guess most of us need idols of some sort to look up to, and it is somewhat ironic that I – as a graphic designer – look up to Carmack as one of the great pillars of the gaming industry, but I do. To put it bluntly, we became the masters of Doom!

But what about the book then? That is after all what this entry should be about isn’t it?

The book is amazing. It really is. I loved ever page of it, and ripped through it in a matter of days, something which is literally unheard of. If Chins Could Kill is lying next to the bed feeling somewhat neglected, but once I picked up Masters of Doom, I just couldn’t put it down again.

First of all, there’s a certain kind of magic nostalgia associated with reading about something, which I have spent so much time with. And having followed the company through it’s many trials and tribulations (the firing of Paul Steed might ring a bell with you, if you’ve frequented the same gaming sites as me). From the early start at disksoft to Romero turning the key on his dream project Ion Storm and his moving on to found Monkeystone.

But the brilliance of this ‘real-events’ tale, isn’t just that it’s an in-depth look at how id Software came into existence. Rather it’s the fact that it really manages to flesh out the major players in the book, in particular John Romero and John Carmack. While there is certainly plenty of room to paint them both as ‘bad guys’, rather Kushner has a very human approach, which delivers everyone involved as what they are: human beings.

Also, having spent a good deal of my own life following the escapades of the participants in this story, it was a great relief to see that the book really does stick close to reality. A strange thing to say perhaps, for someone who’s never met any of the participants in the story, but having both followed the gaming industry for many years now and also read the only other ‘book’ on id (the id Anthology box set), I feel confident when I say that Masters of Doom is a ‘how it happened’ book, which delivers on all accounts, and truly earns the subtitle: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.

PS: To celebrate old times, we broke out Doom down at the office the other day, and continued to beat the living crap out of demons for hours on end in cooperative multiplayer. Most fun I’ve had playing computer in a long time.