Book notes: Doom guy, by John Romero
I'm an avid reader of computer history books, so when John Romero's autobiography "Doom Guy - Life in first person" came out, I had to get it right away. I ordered it from romero.com and got it autographed! Later I got the audio book as well, read by Romero himself, and it was great.
The book starts with Romero's childhood. The stories from this time to his early programming years are touching. The fact that he grew up in near-poverty puts things in a new perspective when thinking about his later successes. His laser-focused will to become a game programmer is admirable. Reading about his early programming exploits I realized the he really was an "ace programmer", as he signed himself, and not "just" a game designer as I always thought. He mentions his admiration for legendary Apple II game programmers Bill budge and Nasir Gebelli, of whom I knew nothing.
The id Software years are pretty much a retelling of the stories found in Masters of Doom. I re-read Masters of Doom right after Doom Guy and realized that they are so close that I wonder if Romero just reworked what was already in that book. He must at least have used it as a reference since In some cases he downright quotes from it. One big difference is the number of girlfirends named in each book (more in MoD). Maybe he didn't want to piss off his wife.
Occasionally Romero dispels some of the rumors about him and id, for example the fact that Carmack wasn't a nice guy. He highlights the things they invented that are still in use today, and unlike MoD he does so wih the perspective of 2022: first person shooters, the WASD keys, mouse look, deathmatch, online play, speed running, modding, real 3D FPS, lan parties, e-sports it all started there. It’s amazing to think how much of modern gaming was influenced by “the two Johns”.
Some of the things Romero talks about will resonate with anyone working in the software industry:
- The importance of fast iterations and constant feedback, as it was between Carmack developing his engine, and Romero taking new versions in use every day
- On the flipside, the tensions at id while Carmack develops the Quake engine in isolation, which takes longer than expected, and the rest of the team is stuck waiting
- The crazy work hours. I can't help being excited when I read about the all-nighters and wish I had been part of something like that. Compare it with "It doesn't have to be crazy at work", which I just read, and you can't help wondering if Doom could have been created in any other way. I imagine the cuckoo clock speech in The Third Man rephrased as: "at id Software they had all nighters, no holidays, broken families, but they produced Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. At 37 signals they had unlimited holidays and easy working hours and and what did that produce? A time tracking app".
It's easy to forget that Romero was 26 and Carmack 23 when they released Doom. They had to figure out a lot of stuff as they went along and the mistakes they made appear negligible when looked at from that perspective.
The Ion Storm years are covered in greater detail than in MoD. You can tell how it was going to end from the way it started: finally design wouldn't need to be a slave of technology! Romero humbly offers some self-reflection about what went wrong with Daikatana and the company in general. What emerges from it is that Romero shied away from confronations and did not address head-on the leadership problems at Ion Storm, also a classic management problem.
The years after Ion Storm until today were interesting and new. I thought that Romero disappeared after Ion Storm closed, and lived off the money he made with id, but actually he continued developing games, at least one of which (Ravenwood Fair, a Facebook game) was quite successful. And of course he consults for other game companies, imagine the thrill of having John Romero sitting in your project meeting. He also made new Doom levels (the unofficial/official episode 5) and returned to FPS games with a kickstarter.
Reading Romero's story brought back some memories. I first experienced Doom at a friend's place in Pisa. I was stopping by to get some study notes and he insisted that I had to see this new game he just got (pirated, of course - everything was "shareware" in Italy in those days). I saw a dimly lit room, heard unsettling noises in the background (the friend had a Soundblaster) and suddenly a monster came out of the dark (in my memory that monster is actually a pig man from Duke Nukem so I wonder if I'm remembering this right). I never experienced deathmatch, but later I laid a cable between mine and my neighbour's house so that we could play Duke Nukem over the network There were also some references to Finland: Romero mentions "the legendary finnish magazine Pelit" and his company ported Red Faction to the Nokia N-Gage.
All in all it was a great read, and the personal touch added a lot to it. I warmly recommend the audio book!