It almost seems like founder couples have a special success in the computer industry. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and the two Steves founded Apple. To that rockstar list can be added John Carmack and John Romero, the founders of id Software and the heroes of the book Masters of Doom. Much like a classic rockband, each John brought a special something to their group, the pair looked invincible at one time in the PC gaming revolution and then fell out due to mutual differences. But in their brief era of hits, they pushed the envelope of what could be rendered and experienced on the personal computer and had a lasting effect on hackers later.
The story of the two Johns begins in the mid-80s, with the boys spending their pocket money hooked on arcade games. Soon the Apple II arrived and invited them to program games on it using Basic. Soon the kids graduated to Assembly and to squeezing out every bit of performance from these early personal computers. Both the Johns were head strong, exceptional at programming and game design. They arrived at that special stage in the PC revolution when a single person could create a new game in a matter of weeks and make money by selling it as shareware. Shareware was a short-lived phenomenon which enabled software creators to cut out the middle men of distributors, publishers and retailers and get a large part of the dollar to themselves. The engrossing games the two Johns were churning out soon brought them together at SoftDisk.
At SoftDisk the two Johns found they had complimentary characteristics that worked well as a team. Carmack by this time was growing hugely interested in the core of the game, the engine, which was getting increasingly sophisticated as games grew complicated and specialized graphics hardware began to appear. Romero turned out to be a good fit as the lead, loud, flashy with his long hair, and was getting to be extremely talented at game design and level design. The dynamic duo would churn out a lot of games at SoftDisk for Apple II and later the PC. The two Johns soon had an exceptionally talented team with Adrian Carmack (no relation to John Carmack) on art and Tom Hall as game designer.
This rock band soon found that they could have way more independence and profit by working on their own. They were contacted by Apogee, a shareware company, and they agreed to develop a series of games for it using a ground breaking technique that Carmack had managed to squeeze out from the simple hardware of that time: smooth scrolling. Working after hours on this secret project at a lake house, this team which called themselves as Ideas from the Deep, would create the iconic Commander Keen series of games. With the success of Keen, the team resigned from SoftDisk and Romero convinced them to move to Dallas. It was at id Software, which was their new shortened name, that they would set out to create a series of hits that set the computer gaming world on fire.
For each game at id, Carmack would create a new game engine that enabled 3D visualizations and gameplay that was impossible before it. Romero and the team would create a game around the engine. It was id that also figured out a new business model of licensing their game engine to other developers. id would go on to create and dominate the first person shooter (FPS) genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Though Carmack was an exceptional hacker, the dream team would finally splinter due to differences in how to run the company, Romero’s increasing flamboyance, Carmack’s impersonal and aloof working style, and the conflict between Romero’s vision for game design and Carmack’s vision for game engine technology. Romero was the public face of id and was able to found a flashy new company called Ion Storm. But the games he envisioned there, especially the fabled Daikatana, would take too long to deliver and ultimately flop. Carmack too found that games were growing to have a diverse audience and his games, which were all pretty much the same marine shooting up monsters, was having lesser success. Towards the end of the book we see Carmack get interested in rocketry, while Romero settles down to a smaller game studio, much like aging rockstars.
This book by David Kushner is one of the few about the history of the computer industry that I loved. His telling of the two Johns is detailed, rich and meticulously well researched. The two Johns, in just their early-20s, revolutionized PC games, computer graphics and game engines. With its in-depth telling of the burnout of id, the book also holds some important lessons in how not to do software engineering, management and running of a startup. It also gets into the hacker spirit of Carmack, which enabled modding of his games and also the public outcry about the supposed connection between games and violence. Kushner also gets into quite a bit of detail of the masochistic work hours, the non-existent family life and eventual burnout of these game programmers. Even if you knew a lot about id, like I did, this book is still bound to be a very engrossing and satisfying read.