Bookshelf

Masters of Doom

How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

by David Kushner, 368 pages

Finished on 21st of October, 2022, buy here.
Listen to these book notes on the Teesche Podcast.

John Romero and John Carmack created the video games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake together. It made them millions and left a huge cultural footprint. The two and their small team were hugely driven and passionate, but in the end exactly that led to the split.

πŸš€ The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The story of the game development company id Software is about a Lennon & McCartney type of partnership between John Carmack and John Romero, two very differently talented people who brought out the best in each other.
  2. A recipe for a great and successful company is when it’s driven by passion and the need to create something which the creators themselves would desperately want to use.
  3. Every partnership evolves with time as the people change and evolve, sometimes in a bad direction. Romero and Carmack didn’t see the signs and couldn’t work on it, so unfortunately the partnership dissolved.

🎨 Impressions

John Romero and John Carmack created a few of the most significant video games of all time. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. All of these were groundbreaking not only in their new technology uses, but also as commercial successes. They had a tremendous cultural impact as well. And all this mainly happened by accident. They just wanted to play better games themselves – and with Carmack a genius programmer and Romero an enthusiastic game designer and also a programmer, the duo fed off each other and pushed each other to new heights.

The book follows through their core history of the 1980s and 90s chronologically and explains all the circumstances of the times. It’s hard to put down, especially if you have a history with the games yourself. Quake, for example, laid the technical foundation for all First Person Shooter games which are successful today – while Wolfenstein 3D invented the genre. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, Call of Duty all just happened because of Romero and Carmack.

The interpersonal stories between the two Johns and the dozens of others who were surrounding them during the most interesting times enrich the book a lot. There is much to learn for running a successful company and also which developments in the ways the team members cooperate are important to notice early. There were big problems which led to many of the key people leaving the company, and in the end, the split between Carmack and Romero. Romero couldn’t find a new calling afterwards, while Carmack, being a driven genius, went on to start the VR goggle company Oculus, which was then acquired by Facebook for two billion dollars.

πŸ€ How the Book Changed Me

  • From the perspective of a company founder, there is a lot to learn. The positives include that the goal of a successful company should be to create something you will love to use – as opposed to something which you think others might use. The negative examples are the way they handled relationships in the company and the insane work hours which were unsustainable in the later years.
  • The development of their games are a great example for an unusual way to create – here, it started with the idea for new technologies, which then spawned the ideas on how to use them afterwards. It’s good to remember this and look at the possibilities in other areas with that same lens the game designers looked at Carmack’s new technological inventions.
  • At the height of their success and during the few years right before it, they were in an enviable situation, which is they loved their work to the fullest – every bit of it. They were on a mission, together. With a clear vision in all of their heads, they just went for it. This is what all new companies should aim for, in my opinion. Easy to say, though.

πŸ“” Highlights & Notes

The development of every id game began with Carmack telling the other guys what his next graphic engine would be capable of doing.

He [Carmack] would see things on television about drunken spring break beach weekends, and none of it would compute. A lot of people didn’t seem to enjoy their work.

Rather than blame violent media, Jones argued, adults needed to understand the role make-believe violence plays in human development: “Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden… is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. [..]”

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