Masters of Doom is the amazing true story of the Lennon and McCartney of video games: John Carmack and John Romero. Together, they ruled big business. They transformed popular culture. And they provoked a national controversy. More than anything, they lived a unique and rollicking American Dream, escaping the broken homes of their youth to produce the most notoriously successful game franchises in history - Doom and Quake - until the games they made tore them apart. This is a story of friendship and betrayal, commerce and artistry - a powerful and compassionate account of what it's like to be young, driven, and wildly creative.
"Compelling . . . Masters of Doom succeeds on several levels. It's just great storytelling, with perfect pacing, drama and characterization. It's also an excellent business book, a cautionary tale with the kind of insider detail that other writers working in the genre should envy." (Houston Chronicle) “Kushner’s mesmerizing tale of the Two Johns moves at a rapid clip . . . describing the twists and turns of fate that led them to team up in creating the most powerful video games of their generation. . . . An exciting combination of biography and technology.” (USA Today) “Meticulously researched . . . as a ticktock of the creative process and as insight into a powerful medium too often dismissed as kids’ stuff, Masters of Doom blasts its way to a high score.” (Entertainment Weekly)
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While I wasn’t at Id Software or any of its spin-offs, I was part of the videogame industry from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, working at one small company that created a blockbuster hit, as well as several studios that didn’t make it. Much in this book speaks to my personal experience. Learning to program on the Apple II and IBM PC. Getting in touch with the hacker and homebrew community via BBS’s (the real predecessor to the web). Being an eager 20-something for whom coding and life were the same thing. The huge rush of making a game that connects with fans. The politics, ego battles, and emotional burnout that inevitably come with fame, high expectations, and endless project crunch. Kushner seems to have done a thorough job with his research and interviews, and the result is a very honest account of how things were during the last cowboy days of the videogame industry, when a handful of basement coders and artists with no real professional experience could still create a technologically-impressive smash hit game. (Nowadays, you need dozens of developers and tens of millions of dollars -- at least.)
The history of Id Software itself is a definitive story for gamers and gaming. John Romero, John Carmack, and their various partners were basically just passionate young hobbyists with a dream and a lot of faith in themselves. I grew up playing their games years before DOOM came out, and it was a pleasure seeing the crew’s design and programming skills mature with each title. By the time they hit their peak of fame, they had helped push the once clunky PC into a viable gaming platform; invented the first-person shooter and online deathmatching; and opened game development up to casual hobbyists, by making their products relatively easy to customize with mods, tools, and add-ons.
The yin-yang partnership between Carmack and Romero is the central drama here. Romero was a gamer’s gamer, a brash, trash-talking, heavy metal-loving guy bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Carmack, meanwhile, was an introverted, Aspergian whiz kid with a drive and knack for understanding technology. I can tell you that the games business wouldn’t exist without both types of people (tempered by others), and Masters of Doom casts the two of them as friends who drove each other to greater heights, until their differences became too great for them to get along, and the partnership collapsed. In my opinion, this breakdown was probably inevitable -- fame had given Romero an inflated sense of his own prowess as a game designer, and Carmack was never that interested in game design to begin with (just coding). Both were overtaken by the industry their work had fueled, as pioneers often are. Kushner gives us all the sordid details, though. There’s Romero’s hubris and humiliating downfall post-Id, after the failure of Ion Storm proved that being a rock star doesn’t equate with knowing how to run a company. There’s Carmack’s inability to manage and easily relate to other people, not an uncommon fault in technical geniuses -- though he seems to have since softened around the edges and remains an important innovator.
Being so specific to an era and a subculture, and full of dated technology and game references, this book will speak to some readers more than others, but I think it’s at least skim-worthy for anyone with an interest in gaming or game development. If you don’t tire of the immature antics of young geeks, there are some funny anecdotes, such as the moment when Romero hires a designer who’s a Mormon and keeps putting his foot in his mouth (“At least you’re not one of those crazy Mormons with a ton of kids.” “No, I have five children.” “Okay, well, at least it’s not ten kids and you’re not one of the ones that wears the magic underwear.” “No, I’ve got it on right here”. Etc...) And the tale of Carmack’s commitment to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, to the point of destroying his own labored-over world after Romero acquires and unleashes a world-ending weapon, is telling.
As a former game developer, I urge anyone aspiring to that field to absorb the lessons here. Between them, the members of Id had many instructive successes, disappointments, and failures.
I should mention that Will Wheaton is brilliant as an audiobook narrator, his boyish enthusiasm a perfect fit for the subject matter. Sometimes he gets so carried away in his excitement, his voice actually cracks. He also does some amusing vocal affectations, from the nasally, “concerned parent” voice of an organization opposed to videogame violence, but not having much of a clue about how gamers really think or act, to a suitably cheesy “dungeon master” intonement of the bad writing in the introduction to one of Carmack’s early games.
A riveting read for the right audience. I was tripping on memories all the way through.