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Masters of Doom by David Kushner

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The author calls them the “Lennon and McCartney of video games.” Masters of Doom is about John Carmack and John Romero, the founders of id Software.

If their names, or the names of the company, don’t ring a bell for you, it means you are probably not a gamer, or more specifically, a fan of the first-person shoot-em-up games they pioneered, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake.

Author David Kushner quickly takes us through the troubled adolescence of the two Johns, both products of broken homes who were enthralled by computers and computer games. The two met when they both went to work for the shareware publishing company SoftDisk, in Shreveport, Louisiana, but their talents soon outgrew that company. The strengths of their talents meshed together ideally. Carmack was the technical wiz who was able to create the software engine that enabled the scrolling movement, and later the 3-D effects that powered their games. Romero was the creative designer who came up with the ideas.

The book is going to interest many people. (Whether they will tear themselves away from their games to read it is another question.) As far as I know, it is the only history of the computer gaming industry, going back to the Pong era, the shareware era of the Apple II and Atari, buying games in ziplock bags, or downloading them from electronic BBSes. While the story focuses on the fast-twitch action games of id, you also see the other big names of gaming in passing, such as Will Wright of Sim City fame, or Sid Meier of Civilization.

People looking at the history of the PC may also like it. It’s interesting for the way it recalls the huge jumps in technology, such as when you could get a computer that could display 16 colors, or 256! Or the excitement the two Johns show when they get their “state of the art” 386 computers.

Author David Kushner points out the enormous size of the video and computer game market by pointing out in 2001, Americans spent $10.8 billion on video games, video game hardware, and computer game software. That same year a smaller amount, $8.4 billion, was spent at the movie box office.

The book also looks at the reactions to the games, and the gamer’s subculture, culminating in the outcry after Columbine. Since it was guns and violence that was the threat here (rather than sex) it was the Democrats who took the lead in trying to regulate the games, although many Republicans were willing to help.

Like Lennon and McCartney, the team of Carmack and Romero eventually split up. You can’t blame this split on Yoko. In this case, their viewpoints and lifestyles split them up. This quote from John Carmack finishes the book, and shows his view of the hacker’s or programmer’s lifestyle:

In the information age, the barriers [to entry] just aren’t there. The barriers are self imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”

The more flamboyent Romero aimed for a rock star image, and he was eventually pushed out of id Software. He formed his own free-spending company, Ion Storm, which was not successful. As for id, they are putting the finishing touches on Doom III.

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About Bruce Kratofil

  • Nice review.

    Another good book on the history of the video game industry from a console perspective is Game Over… by David Scheff. Its mostly about Nintendo but does touch on Atari and other early influences on the industry.

  • Right after posting the review, I started reading an article on developing games in Flash — and the article cites “The Illustrated History of Electronic Games” from McGraw-Hill, which I added to the list. So there are a number of game histories

  • I read this book about the same time but didn’t dare to put another review on it online.

    I found it a thrilling ride through the origins of today’s gaming industry. While reading I had so many memories of playing Doom and tracing the makings of all sequels (John Carmack’s plan files were once my bread and butter).

    I know it could be all creative imagination, but this book gives you a quite decent background on HOW all those games were done and even the WHY.

    A must read for any gamer.

  • Dirk –
    You should add a review too. Different viewpoints are good – especially a review from someone who was an avid Doom player.

    I never really got into the shoot’em up games myself — so I approached the book more like a business school prof (I was one of those in another life)