#21 Masters of Doom How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Summary Notes


The book "Masters of Doom" by David Kushner chronicles the rise and eventual split of video game developers John Carmack and John Romero, co-founders of id Software. Romero, a brash designer with a rock star persona, and Carmack, a disciplined programming genius, created iconic games like Doom, transforming the industry and pop culture. Despite their early success, philosophical differences about business direction led to a rift; Carmack favored a lean operation focused on technological innovation, while Romero aspired to a grandiose empire. This divergence resulted in Romero's departure and the downfall of his ambitious yet ill-fated company, Ion Storm, contrasting sharply with Carmack's continued success through a minimalist approach. The story encapsulates the power of digital innovation and the pitfalls of overexpansion in the rapidly evolving video game landscape.

Summary Notes

Introduction to "Masters of Doom"

  • "Masters of Doom" is a book by David Kushner about John Romero and John Carmack.
  • The book details their partnership and eventual fallout.
  • It explores their business philosophies and impact on pop culture through video games.
  • The introduction sets the stage for their story, highlighting their contrasting personalities and achievements.

"For a new generation, Carmack and Romero personified an american dream. They were self made individuals who had transformed their personal passions into a big business, a new art form and a cultural phenomenon."

This quote establishes the significance of Carmack and Romero's achievements in the context of the American Dream, emphasizing their influence on business and culture.

Early Years and Passion for Video Games

  • John Romero's early experiences with video games are described.
  • Despite strict parental disapproval, Romero's passion for gaming persisted.
  • The book illustrates the escapism video games provided for him.

"Eleven year old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again... That was where the games were... Fun like this was worth risking everything... Because no matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into games."

This quote depicts Romero's early dedication to video games, which provided a means of escape from his difficult home life.

Parental Disapproval and Escapism

  • Romero's stepfather disapproved of arcades and video games, associating them with delinquency.
  • Despite a violent punishment, Romero's love for video games was undeterred.
  • The book highlights the theme of video games as a form of escapism for those unhappy with their lives.

"What he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping... Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and life."

This quote reflects the stepfather's misguided belief that video games lead to negative outcomes, a view that contrasts sharply with Romero's eventual success in the industry.

Resilience and Determination

  • Despite physical abuse and grounding, Romero returned to the arcade, showing his dedication to gaming.
  • The book criticizes the stepfather's violent behavior and questions its effectiveness in teaching children.

"The next day, he snuck back to the arcade... And went back to the arcade. That's how much he loved him."

This quote demonstrates Romero's resilience and unwavering passion for video games, even in the face of severe consequences.

John Romero's Upbringing

  • Romero's difficult childhood included abandonment by his biological father and financial struggles.
  • His stepfather, John Schneuneman, initially tried to befriend him but later became abusive.
  • The book explores the impact of family dynamics on Romero's life and career.

"One afternoon, his father... left to pick up groceries. Romero wouldn't see him again for two years."

This quote highlights the instability and abandonment Romero faced in his childhood, which played a role in shaping his character and ambitions.

Early Entrepreneurship and Video Game Industry

  • The book discusses the early entrepreneurial spirit in the video game industry.
  • Successful individuals like Richard Garriott and the Williams couple began by distributing games in Ziploc bags.
  • Romero's stepfather's skepticism about the viability of video games as a career is contrasted with the industry's actual potential.

"You'll never make any money making games... You need to make something people really need, like business applications."

This quote captures the stepfather's lack of vision and understanding of the burgeoning video game industry, which Romero would later prove to be a significant business opportunity.

John Carmack's Early Life and Genius

  • John Carmack is introduced as a child prodigy with a passion for reading, fantasy, and creating his own worlds.
  • He disliked school structure and questioned religious beliefs, showing his analytical and independent nature.
  • Carmack's fascination with computers and programming is detailed.

"Carmack quickly distinguished himself in second grade... He proved himself to be a unique and formidable inventor."

This quote underscores Carmack's early intellectual capabilities and his drive to innovate beyond the conventional boundaries of gameplay and storytelling.

Hacker Ethic and Influence

  • The book "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" had a profound impact on Carmack.
  • It chronicled the rise of computer enthusiasts who became influential figures in the tech industry.
  • Carmack identified with the hacker ethic and aspired to be part of that revolutionary group.

"When Carmack finished the book one night in bed, he had one thought, I'm supposed to be in there."

This quote conveys Carmack's realization of his potential and his desire to join the ranks of influential hackers and game developers.

Juvenile Delinquency and Ambition

  • Carmack's juvenile delinquent act of breaking into a school to access computers is recounted.
  • His psychiatric evaluation described him as a "walking brain with legs," highlighting his intelligence and lack of empathy.
  • The event illustrates Carmack's determination to engage with computers and programming despite obstacles.

"Late one night, Carmack and his friends snuck up to a nearby school where they knew there were Apple II machines."

This quote shows Carmack's early rebelliousness and willingness to take risks to pursue his passion for computing, foreshadowing his future success in the industry.

Juvenile Detention and Early Life of Carmack

  • John Carmack was caught and sentenced to a year in juvenile detention for a minor offense.
  • Most inmates were in for drug-related crimes, while Carmack's crime involved an Apple computer.
  • Carmack's blunt honesty about repeating his crime if not caught raised concerns with a psychiatrist.

"I hadn't been caught? Carmack replied, honestly, yes. I probably would have done that again."

This quote reflects Carmack's candidness about his actions and highlights a lack of remorse at the time, which is a significant aspect of his early character development.

College Experience and Dropout

  • John Carmack enrolled at the University of Kansas but found the experience unfulfilling.
  • He disliked the social scene and the lack of creativity in the curriculum.
  • Carmack believed practical projects were more beneficial than memorizing textbook information.
  • After two semesters, he dropped out due to dissatisfaction.

"It was a miserable time he couldn't relate to."

This quote emphasizes Carmack's disconnect with the traditional educational system and his desire for more hands-on, creative work.

Early Career and Video Game Development

  • Carmack worked at a pizza place while nurturing his passion for video games.
  • He began creating his own games and selling them to publishing houses.
  • Carmack valued simplicity and had a focused approach to life, eliminating distractions.

"Carmack relished the freelance lifestyle."

This quote captures Carmack's appreciation for the freedom and control he had as a freelancer, which allowed him to pursue his interests in programming and game development.

Transition to PC Game Development

  • Carmack discovered a new way to make money by converting Apple II games for the IBM PC.
  • He taught himself a new programming language and began porting games to multiple platforms.
  • Softdisk, a publishing house, took notice of his talent and offered him opportunities.

"Within a month, he sent Softdisk... a version converted or ported for a PC as well."

The quote signifies Carmack's rapid adaptation to new technology and his capability to learn and apply new skills swiftly, which contributed to his early success.

Meeting John Romero

  • Carmack's skills led him to Softdisk, where he met John Romero.
  • Both recognized each other's programming talents and decided to collaborate.
  • They formed a small group within Softdisk, which functioned like an independent startup.

"John Carmack to meet John Romero, because John Romero is working at soft disk."

This quote sets the stage for the pivotal meeting between Carmack and Romero, which would lead to a significant partnership in the gaming industry.

Creation of id Software

  • The partnership between Carmack and Romero led to the formation of id Software.
  • Carmack developed a new technique called adaptive tile refresh, which improved game graphics.
  • They successfully replicated the first level of Super Mario Bros. for PC, which was a groundbreaking achievement at the time.

"On the strength of Mario, Nintendo was on the way to knocking down Toyota as Japan's most successful company."

This quote highlights the impact of their work, as they were able to replicate the success of a console game on PC, challenging the dominance of established companies like Nintendo.

Differences in Time Processing

  • Carmack and Romero had different approaches to time and memory.
  • Carmack focused on the present, discarding past possessions and memories.
  • Romero embraced all moments and preserved memories, planning for the future.

"Carmack was of the moment. His ruling force was focus."

The quote reflects Carmack's philosophy of living in the present and concentrating on current tasks, which contrasts with Romero's more comprehensive view of time.

Introduction to Shareware

  • Scott Miller introduced Carmack and Romero to the shareware business model.
  • Shareware allowed developers to release part of a game for free and sell the full version directly to players.
  • Scott's innovative approach to shareware distribution was a game-changer for independent developers.

"Instead of giving away the entire game, why not give away only the first portion, then make the player buy the rest of the game directly from him."

This quote explains the essence of the shareware model that Scott proposed, which became a successful strategy for selling games and marked a shift in the gaming industry.

Success and Growth of id Software

  • id Software's games became top sellers in the shareware market.
  • The company's revenue allowed them to invest in better equipment and grow their business.
  • id Software's unique games and business model attracted attention from established industry figures.

"The first Keen trilogy was now bringing in $15 to $20,000 per month on shareware."

This quote demonstrates the financial success id Software achieved through shareware, which was significant for a small independent company at the time.

Scott Miller's Shareware Model and Apogee

  • Scott Miller's publishing house introduced a lucrative shareware model for games.
  • Shareware allowed Apigee, Scott's company, to retain $0.95 for every dollar.
  • John Romero proclaimed Apigee's success in shareware was due to their quality products.

"They explained the shareware model let Apigee keep $0.95 for every dollar that came in." "We make the best stuff in shareware, Romero proclaimed."

The quote explains the shareware business model's profitability and the reason behind Apigee's success according to Romero's proclamation of their product quality.

Introduction of Wolfenstein 3D and Sierra's Offer

  • Wolfenstein 3D was a game developed by John Romero and his team.
  • Sierra Online's Williams played Wolfenstein 3D and made a $2.5 million offer to the developers.
  • The developers wanted upfront cash instead of just stock and asked for $100,000 down.
  • Williams balked at the upfront cash request, and the deal fell through.

"Wolfenstein came on the screen." "Do you mind removing the question mark? Williams said. Then he offered them $2.5 million."

The first quote introduces the game Wolfenstein 3D, while the second quote details Williams's offer and the developers' counteroffer, leading to the deal's collapse due to disagreement on upfront payment.

Financial Success and Shareware Distribution Model

  • Shareware distribution model led to significant earnings without traditional advertising.
  • Wolfenstein 3D made $100,000 in the first month, far exceeding expectations.
  • Shareware's success was driven by word of mouth and online discussions.
  • Id Software maintained low overhead costs and focused on product quality.

"The check was for $100,000, and this reflected only the first month." "By releasing the first episode as shareware, they instantly hooked the gamers."

These quotes highlight the unexpected financial success of Wolfenstein 3D and the effectiveness of the shareware model in attracting gamers and generating revenue.

Frugality and Business Model

  • Id Software's founders emphasized frugality, operating from a home office with minimal expenses.
  • They focused on essential needs like food and computers, maximizing their financial upside.
  • The company's strategy was to keep expenses low while selling digital products, which have high upside potential.

"They had to buy food, computers and diet Cokes. And they turn that into software that they sell."

This quote summarizes the frugal and focused approach of Id Software's founders, which allowed them to turn minimal investments into profitable software products.

Development of Doom and Company Dynamics

  • Doom was conceptualized as a game about demons versus technology.
  • John Carmack and John Romero had differing visions, with Carmack focusing on technological innovation and Romero on building an empire.
  • Carmack's minimalist approach to business influenced the company's direction, prioritizing programming over expansion.

"Demons. Carmack, of course, had a long history with demons." "Carmack expressed a minimalist point of view with regard to running their business."

The first quote introduces the theme of Doom, while the second quote reflects Carmack's minimalist business philosophy and its influence on the company's operations.

Carmack's Business Philosophy and "Carmack-isms"

  • John Carmack's business philosophy was to focus on programming and product quality, avoiding unnecessary business responsibilities.
  • "Carmack-isms" were aphorisms that reflected his approach to innovation and optimization.
  • Carmack advocated for cutting out anything that hindered the company's focus on making great games.

"The same rule applied to a cat, a computer program, or for that matter, a person. When something becomes a problem, let it go, or if necessary, have it surgically removed."

This quote is an example of a "Carmack-ism," demonstrating his ruthless efficiency in maintaining focus and eliminating distractions.

Doom's Innovative Business Model

  • Doom's distribution strategy involved giving shareware to retailers for free, allowing them to keep profits from sales.
  • Id Software aimed for widespread distribution of Doom shareware to maximize potential customer reach.
  • The strategy was unprecedented, with retailers not required to pay royalties, incentivizing them to promote the game.

"Give the Doom shareware to retailers for free, no fee, no royalty, and let them keep all the profits from the sale."

This quote outlines the innovative business model for Doom's distribution, which prioritized product reach over immediate profits from retailers.

Online Multiplayer Gaming and Doom's Impact

  • Doom introduced online multiplayer gaming, allowing multiple players to compete simultaneously.
  • The multiplayer component was a significant innovation, providing a new level of interactivity and competition in gaming.
  • The success of Doom's multiplayer feature set the stage for the future of online gaming.

"If we can get this done, Romero said, this is going to be the fucking coolest game that planet Earth has ever seen in its entire history."

This quote captures the excitement and significance of the multiplayer innovation that Doom brought to the gaming industry.

Doom's Retail Strategy and GTI Partnership

  • Doom's success in shareware led to a retail strategy with Good Times Interactive (GTI).
  • Id Software demanded creative control, intellectual property ownership, and prominent branding in the retail partnership.
  • GTI agreed to the terms, committing to a significant marketing budget for Doom II, aiming to take the game mainstream.

"Take Doom for nothing. Keep the profit. My goal is distribution."

This quote emphasizes the strategic decision to prioritize distribution over immediate profits, aiming for a broader market reach and long-term success.

The Rise and Challenges of Id Software

  • Id Software's rapid success led to internal challenges and differing visions among the founders.
  • The company's focus on innovation and product quality sometimes conflicted with ambitions to expand and build an empire.
  • The dynamic between Carmack's programming focus and Romero's broader ambitions shaped the company's trajectory.

"Carmack thinks that's a stupid idea and he just wants to build the best games."

This quote highlights the internal conflict within Id Software, with Carmack's desire to focus on game quality clashing with Romero's expansionist aspirations.

Early Success and the Beginning of the End

  • John Romero and John Carmack experienced significant success with their games.
  • Romero enjoyed the fruits of his labor, driving a Ferrari and mending relationships with his parents.
  • Romero shared his feelings of success with Carmack, who was more focused on side projects.
  • Carmack's side projects included programming conversions or ports of Doom for other game platforms.
  • The difference in priorities between Romero and Carmack began to sow the seeds of their eventual split.

"Their games were insanely successful. And this is the beginning of the end." "One night back at the office, Romero decided to share his feelings of success."

These quotes highlight the peak of their success and foreshadow the issues that would arise due to their differing priorities and interests.

Diverging Paths and Philosophies

  • Romero and Carmack had very different aspirations from a young age.
  • Carmack was primarily interested in programming and the intellectual challenge it presented.
  • Romero, on the other hand, wanted to enjoy the accomplishments and live a more relaxed lifestyle.
  • Carmack appreciated the fame and fortune but remained more dedicated to his work and less interested in the celebrity aspect.
  • The two had reconciled with their parents, who now supported their careers.

"Six year old drawing Lamborghini, saying he wants to be a rich bachelor." "Carmack grew up just wanting to write programs, and we're going to see, they're basically sowing the seed of their divorce here."

The quotes reflect the early indications of their differing life goals and how these differences would eventually lead to a split in their partnership.

The Strain of Success on Work and Relationships

  • Romero was engaging in activities like deathmatching and interviews, which Carmack felt were distracting from their work.
  • Doom II was falling behind schedule, and Romero was not delivering on his level design promises.
  • Romero acted as executive producer on a game by Raven, further dividing his focus.
  • Carmack was concerned that the company's success and Romero's activities were impacting the quality and progress of their work.

"Romero was losing his focus. In addition to the interviews and the death matching, Romero was now acting as executive producer on an upcoming game by Raven." "Of the 32 levels of Doom two, Carmack noted, only six were shaping up to be Romero's."

These quotes demonstrate how Romero's attention was divided among various activities, leading to a lack of focus on the core work that had brought them success, and Carmack's growing concern about the direction in which things were heading.

The Contrast in Work Ethic and Lifestyle

  • Carmack adjusted his schedule to work from late afternoon to early morning, which allowed him to focus on programming without distractions.
  • He was preparing for the development of Quake, the next big game following Doom.
  • Romero, on the other hand, was enjoying the celebrity lifestyle associated with their success.

"He began by pushing himself to stay up 1 hour later every evening, and then come in 1 hour later the next day." "Romero had his explanation. The levels he made simply took more time."

Carmack's quote illustrates his dedication to his work and his methodical approach to creating an optimal work environment, while Romero's quote shows his justification for the slower pace of his contributions.

The Inevitable Split and Aftermath

  • The gaming community was shocked by the split between Carmack and Romero.
  • Carmack believed a small, focused team could still create the best games.
  • Romero sought to build an empire, while Carmack wanted to focus on creating good programs.
  • The split was due to fundamental differences in their business philosophies and work ethics.

"Romero was pushed out of ID because he wasn't working hard enough." "He wants an empire. I just want to create good programs."

Carmack's quotes explain the reasoning behind Romero's departure from ID Software and highlight the core differences in their visions for the company and their careers.

Romero's New Venture and Excess

  • After leaving ID Software, Romero founded Ion Storm and pursued a grand vision for a game company.
  • He leased a large and expensive penthouse for his new company, which was extravagant compared to the frugal beginnings of ID Software.
  • Ion Storm was envisioned as an entertainment company, not just a game developer.
  • Romero's approach to his new company was the antithesis of the frugality and focus that had previously brought him success.

"Romero had been called here abruptly late one night by his real estate agent, who said he had to see this amazing penthouse that had become available." "It wouldn't just be a game company, it would be an entertainment company."

These quotes illustrate Romero's ambition and his desire to create a lavish and impressive company image, which was in stark contrast to the modest and focused approach of his past successes.

Consequences of Overexpansion and Mismanagement

  • Ion Storm faced significant challenges due to the high costs associated with Romero's vision.
  • The company's flagship title, Daikatana, was delayed and the team was discontent with the direction of the project.
  • The large staff and high expenses put a strain on the company's finances.
  • Romero's company ultimately failed, with the game flopping and the company closing.

"The office renovations had cost over $2.5 million." "The original $13 million was gone, and Edios was now sending in cash on a monthly run rate."

These quotes reveal the financial mismanagement and the unsustainable nature of Ion Storm's business model, leading to its downfall.

Reflections and Lessons Learned

  • After his failure with Ion Storm, Romero returned to a more modest and focused approach to game development.
  • Carmack continued to adhere to his philosophy of a small, dedicated team producing quality work.
  • The story of Romero and Carmack serves as a lesson in the importance of focus, dedication, and frugality in business.

"It shouldn't have been this big. This was too many people, too much money. It should have just been me and Tom and a small team of people with a common goal." "We slept on floors. We waited across rivers."

These quotes reflect Romero's realization of his mistakes and the importance of a lean operation, while Carmack's quote encapsulates the ethos of hard work and simplicity that drove their initial success.

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