[2013-04-18] “Masters Of Doom”

I must confess that having spent a significant portion of my youth playing First-Person Shooter (FPS) computer games, particularly those developed by id Software, I was predisposed to read “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I was also a budding games-programmer with a strong interest in PC-based 3D graphics, so John Carmack was (and still is) a natural hero for me. After all, he created several pioneering FPS games at id Software, including Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake and is very generous about making their source-code available. I was obviously excited to read about his life and how he got together with John Romero to create id Software and its ground-breaking games. This book didn't disappoint me.

The book tells the story of the “Two Johns” - as John Carmack and John Romero were called - the former being a self-taught genius of a computer programmer with an incredible ability to focus on his work for several hours, the latter a Jack of all trades who was good at computer programming, art and level-design. It traces their troubled childhood, their unwavering passion for programming computer games and their getting together while working for Softdisk. They hit it off very well with each other and moved on to start their own company. Eventually though they had a massive clash of egos and went their separate ways. While they were together they created the aforementioned superhit games (and many others), defining a genre of computer games and expanding the industry.

If you have ever played Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, etc., this book will tell you how they were created, including the missteps, the struggles and the fights behind the scenes. If you are a game-programmer or a graphics-programmer though, the book is very light on the technical details, so don't go looking for them here. Several predecessors of our protagonists in the games-industry (e.g. Richard Garriott or “Lord British” of Ultima fame, Ken and Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line, etc.), as well as their contemporaries (e.g. Tim Sweeny of Unreal Engine fame) make an appearance here, but some notably don't (e.g. Ken Silverman of Build Engine fame). If you are a gamer from that period, you'll surely recognize the names of several people and the titles of several games.

If you are looking forward to becoming a game-programmer though, this book should give you a pause and tell you just how unhealthy things regularly get at such companies - developers and designers spending almost all the time in “crunch mode” with 80-hour work-weeks and very little time for sleep; several days spent surviving on just pizzas and Diet Coke, people constantly cursing each other, etc. - a recent Penny Arcade article shows that things still don't seem to have improved much in this industry.

The book tells the story till around the time Doom 3 was in early development. Considering that the protagonists are still very much active, a book such as this is bound to be incomplete. For the timeline that it does cover though, it does an excellent job of documenting it - the specific story of the origins and early success of id Software as well as the general story of the maturing of the computer-games industry. From the times when a high-school kid could design and implement an entire game on their home-computer, send a demo-disk to a publisher and actually had a chance of being published, to the current era of multi-million dollar, multi-man-year games, this industry has sure come a long way.

I wish there were something like this book chronicling the evolution of games, but with much more technical details. Until such a time, your best bet is to read the PC Game Programmer's Encyclopedia, the Graphics Programming Black Book, Fabien Sanglard's game-engine code-reviews, etc.

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