Doom was the beginning of so many things. When it debuted December 1993, it cemented the appeal of the first-person shooter computer game and spawned a genre that is now a multibillion-dollar business. John Romero, who still has rock star-length hair, was a big part of its success as a co-founder of id Software, the Dallas-area company that is now owned by Bethesda Softworks.
Romero, now the creative director of the University of California at Santa Cruz’s game design program, celebrated the game’s 20th anniversary at an event at the university’s Digital Arts Research Center. He and his wife, Brenda Romero (the program director at USSC), marked the anniversary with multiplayer “deathmatch” sessions, a little bit of trash talk, and some academic chatter about the violent and bloody game.
It seemed so strange to see Romero and his fellow game creators — including former id developers Tom Hall (pictured top, left) and Dave Taylor (pictured at top, right)– being honored at a university for creating a game that caught so much criticism for its shotgun-chainsaw-big-f**ing-gun violence, Satanic imagery, and, worst of all, its assassination of productivity around the world in offices that had networked computers.
Henry Lowood, a professor at Stanford University, said that it gets credit for so many innovations — from multiplayer play to modding — that Doom should be known as the “beginning of the modern digital game.” Minecraft creator Markus Persson praised Doom for getting him into games.
He said that the 1993 press release announcing Doom was the first time that anyone mentioned the phrase “Doom engine.” John Carmack, id co-founder and its top technologist, had coined the term to separate the underlying technology from the game. It turned out to be a lasting legacy, as companies like id and Epic Games licensed their reusable technology so that game designers could focus on their games, not tech. Id Software and Doom also galvanized the community of indie gamers, as the team supported a more open and less greedy approach toward community.
Romero left id Software to start his own company, Ion Storm, which imploded after raising high expectations. Romero hasn’t always succeeded, but he has always been at the forefront of innovation in the industry, working on massively multiplayer online games, mobile titles, and Facebook games.
I caught up with him at the anniversary event. We played Doom and Doom II on networked computers, and we caught up with the old timers who came to honor the anniversary. Romero proved that he’s still brutal in multiplayer combat.
Here’s a transcript of our interview with Romero.
GamesBeat: This must bring back some interesting memories. What’s at the forefront of your mind, having this kind of evening here?
John Romero: The funny thing is, I remember everything, all the time. I have hyperthymesia [a condition that gives a person an almost autobiographical memory of their life], so I know all this stuff like I know yesterday. I put together this video that’s about an hour-long. It took like five hours to build the video. But putting together the video wasn’t like, “Oh, I forgot about all this stuff.” It’s, “I remember exactly where that happened. I know exactly where that’s from.”
GamesBeat: What do you say when people ask you for the quick “What’s the legacy of Doom? What’s the cultural impact of Doom?” It would make my head hurt.
Romero: Geez. The first-person shooter genre. Video game violence. Multiplayer. Maybe e-sports. The game engine. Modifying games. The mod community, which is where Portal and Team Fortress and Counter-Strike and all these other huge franchises came from.
GamesBeat: Maybe even Call of Duty or Minecraft.
Romero: Yeah. In fact, Markus Persson got into games was because of Doom. It’s funny. I’m obviously not going to take credit for it, but basically Doom led to DirectX, which is what every game that runs on Windows uses now. At Microsoft, they saw Doom, and they immediately said, “We need to make something so every developer can do that. We need to create an API for everyone.” That’s when the DirectX 1.0 project was started.
GamesBeat: What’s some of your favorite Doom trivia?
Romero: I’ve been putting a bunch of trivia up here on the screen, like the original names of characters. The Baron of Hell was originally called Bruiser. We had two of them at the end of episode one. We called them the Bruiser Brothers. The Cacodemon was taken from the Manual of the Planes, the cover of the old D&D sourcebook. The sky in episode one was taken from a photo book of some really nice scenes from China, when it was overcast. The Arch-Vile in Doom II was a character that resurrected all the dead demons that you killed. We called him the Medic originally.
The cheat codes in the game were created by Dave Taylor. There’s one called “IDDQD,” which is invulnerability. “DQD” stands for Delta Q Delta, which was the name of a fake fraternity that he and his buddies had created. They would play so many games and spend so much time programming that they would fail classes, but before they failed out they would quit first so they didn’t ruin their GPA. So you get “Delta Quit Delta.”
GamesBeat: I wanted to divide things up into something like the intentional legacy and the accidental one. Intentional, there are things like making the game violent, making it bloody, so that it stood out from other games. And the Satanic stuff, that’s all very intentional. What were you thinking when you said, “Hey, let’s throw this into Doom.”
Romero: Basically, after Wolfenstein, we had to make something that was even more out there. We had to one-up ourselves. I’ve been showing videos of Brutal Doom, which is way over-the-top violence, but if you play the original, it really wasn’t crazy over the top, blood all over the walls. There was enough blood that you knew that you hurt something, but it wasn’t way over-the-top gratuitous.
We were trying to be a little realistic with how much violence we put on the screen, but it was still—at the time it felt like it was extreme. But we knew that when we put it in there, it wasn’t too over the top. It wasn’t too crazy. We were just trying to be more realistic, even if it did go further than, say, Wolfenstein.
We weren’t trying to do that to shock people. It was just like, “This is what happens when you shoot a rocket at something.” I want to get that feedback as a player.
GamesBeat: Did you know you would offend people? Was it a countercultural thing?
Romero: No. We never made our games to offend people or shock people. We made games for ourselves. When we started Doom, it was really the first time that we knew we could make something great, after Wolfenstein. At the beginning of Doom, we said, “We need to make the greatest game that we could ever play.” Whatever we could imagine that would be the best thing we could play, we wanted to make that game.
It was the only time we had that kind of statement of what we would do. Everything else was, “Yeah, let’s make this game and see what it turns into. Oh, that’s cool. Right, game’s done.” But with Doom, this was what we were going to try to do. We had a goal around that. It was about making the best game we’d ever played in our lives. All of our focus was on that. It had nothing to do with anything outside the company.
We didn’t care what other people thought, because we felt like our prior successes told us that if we made whatever we felt was really cool, there would probably be a lot of people that would like what we thought was cool. We weren’t worried about anything else. We weren’t worried about offensive stuff, because that would stop us from making what we were trying to make. As artists, we’re trying to be true to our vision.
Because, in the game, you were killing demons, and demons are really a religious thing—everyone in the company was an atheist. We didn’t believe in hell or heaven or any of that stuff. Putting demons in there was just, “This is what people believe in.” We thought that the juxtaposition of future science—a space marine on a moon of Mars with all these experiments happening, it’s very scientific and futuristic—and then all of a sudden this religious thing happens, demons coming through a portal, versus aliens—
GamesBeat: I think Tom Hall mentioned there was a comic book that gave you guys some ideas?
Romero: For weapons, yeah, the Mage comic book. That gave us some weapon ideas. But the whole, “It’s not aliens, it’s actually hell coming,” we just tried to be true to that. What would hell have in it? Probably pentagrams and people shredded in half hanging from the ceiling. Beating hearts and crazy stuff like that. So that’s what we made – the things that people think would be in hell. Not that we believe in hell. We just made the things that everyone imagines would be there. We tried to be true to that vision for the game.
GamesBeat: There are all these other things that have become part of gaming culture—the BFG, deathmatches, gibs.
Romero: Yeah, all these words—frag, gibs, deathmatch—these were all things that–Because of what the game was and what we were doing, we had to give names to things. In Wolfenstein, you couldn’t gib somebody, but in Doom we put that ability in, and it got even better in Quake. Adrian came up with “gibs” from “giblets,” the innards. You pronounce it with a “J.” [Laughs] And then “frag” was from Kevin Cloud, from fragmentation grenades in Vietnam—frag the sarge because he’s taking you into the most dangerous part of the jungle.
I came up with “deathmatch.” What are we doing? We’re playing a match to the death. So that’s a cool word, a nice compound thing. I’m always combining words. It came naturally.
GamesBeat: Dave Taylor credited you for some very original trash-talk as well.
Romero: Oh, yeah. The trash-talk was pretty harsh when we were playing. We were basically acting like the id, what’s coming straight from the darkest parts of your brain. That’s what came out of our mouths. [Laughs] It was me and Shawn Green. Tom was always really funny when he said anything deathmatch-ey. American McGee was almost at the same level. But really, Shawn and I would say the worst things to each other. It got intense when we would play. It was really fun.
GamesBeat: When you play it today, what do you feel? There are some things people will notice, like the way your gun doesn’t go up or down.
Romero: That’s one of the reasons why it was successful. You didn’t have that extra dimension of worrying about aim. If someone was up above or below you, it would automatically shoot at them anyway. It makes the game easy to play, so you can focus on what’s in front of you. More people can get into it because of that.
GamesBeat: Games really have slowed down, by comparison.
Romero: I know. It’s so sad. Even Quake was slower. You can calculate it, how fast you move in Doom. You’re going 50 miles an hour running or some craziness. But I don’t care what the calculation is. Does it feel good to me? That’s all I care about as a game player.
With Quake, we had Quake going pretty much at Doom speed while we were making it. But we slowed it down because it took so long to build the levels in Quake. It was full 3D, and we had to light stuff and do a lot of programming for doors and everything. It was so much more complex that we couldn’t make levels that were really huge. If the player moved slower through the levels, then, it would take them longer to get through. That’s why it was slowed down. It also helped with networking. You didn’t have players moving so fast that you would glitch out on latency or a missed packet and go through a wall.
GamesBeat: Doom had some limitations as well. It was multiplayer, but it was only over LAN. Some people might think it was an online game, but—
Romero: It was a modem game between two people, and then it was also a LAN game. In 1994, right after Doom was launched, people were launching things like APCi Doom, where you could dial in and connect with other people using your modem. Then Dwango was another one. It was pre-Internet, but people were finding ways of connecting to each other as best they could to play this game, without having to call your friends up.
Because of the way we programmed it, over the LAN, we could only get four players playing at the same time. It was using peer-to-peer networking. It wasn’t a client-server architecture. It was sending so much data, the way it was originally programmed, that you could only deal with four players at once. Now it’s been rearchitected. Everything is so much faster.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the first-person shooter genre today?
Romero: Well, it looks better than ever. [Laughs] I don’t like the linearity of gameplay that we’ve come to. There’s a balance between how much you spend on art production versus how much you spend on level design and QA. The more you have to explore, the more you have to draw and model, and the more you have to test.
Someone at EA or Activision did some analysis – when a space gets this big, the costs go up by this many millions, so it’s a lot easier if you have a corridor with some big collision brushes that the player just goes down. It’s much easier for QA to worry about the look of those areas that you can’t get into. The economics of how much shooters cost is what’s dictated the linearity of design. Then everyone’s trying to figure out how to make it so the player feels like they have agency and exploration ability, even though they really don’t.
GamesBeat: The choice of going one way or another—
Romero: Yeah. Where there isn’t really any choice. But now, people are pushing forward with things like FPS MMOs. They’re doing more open-world games, which allow way more exploration. I’m very much a fan of that.
GamesBeat: Do you like an open world better than a more story-based game? What do you think of those different directions?
Romero: Games are all about mechanics. That’s what games are, at the heart. You can put a story on top of any mechanics, to string something together, but the game is about the mechanics. To me, one of the most powerful things about games is the story the player can put into the game. The more story you put into a game, the less ownership of the story you give to the player. The less story you put in a game, the more the player feels they can create their own story.
When you play deathmatch, you’re creating a whole story that you can talk about when you’re done, as opposed to something like—You play The Last of Us and you’re told the whole thing through the scripting. You know the outcome because you can go to the next segment of the game when you’ve finished the interactive portion. I’m not a fan of games that are really just stories with some limited interactive sequences in them. I’m about pure mechanics with a story stringing it together. That’s the essence of the medium.
GamesBeat: As far as the direction you took after Doom, what do you think about that? Why didn’t you keep making first-person shooters for the rest of your career?
Romero: Before Wolfenstein, even, we’d made all those little experimental games, in between standard platform stuff. Through the ‘80s, there were no FPS at all. It was just lots of Apple II stuff. So after Quake—Quake didn’t turn out the way I really wanted it to. The gameplay wasn’t what I was hoping to achieve. I thought, “Well, with the next game, I’m going to see if I can do more of what I think an FPS should have in it,” without the big experimental thing that Quake was going to be.
The original idea of Quake was something that was much more experimental. I thought I was going to have backup to do that. But the company was so drained, after all the engine development, that we had to do the thing that got the game out. So we did that. Starting Daikatana, then, was, “Well, I can’t take a big risk with the company that’s going to finance this. I need to make something that they expect.” So Daikatana was an expected shooter design.
I saw the potential in mobile. I went over to handheld stuff. Pocket PC was the first one, and then the GBA and all that. I did that for a few years, and then went to Midway to do Gauntlet. I’d never actually worked on a console game, so that was my chance to run a console game. After that was–
GamesBeat: You tried MMOs for a while, right?
Romero: Yeah. 2005 was the year of World of Warcraft. I’d played Ultima Online, but it was like, “Holy crap, this is unbelievable.” So we started an MMO company, and I was there for five years, working on my own MMO. I’d never done that before, where I’ve had five years working on one thing, and then it doesn’t work out. There’s five years of several games I could have made, instead of trying to make this one. But it was a noble quest. I was trying to make a really great educational MMO for kids, teaching math concepts. Because of technology that was kind of unfixable, and the situation that we were in, we had to stop making the game.
Then I went into Facebook, because Facebook had just blown up. All the big games had come out. Zynga was rising. I made Ravenwood Fair as my first game on social. I stayed in social, and I’ve started to movie toward indie. Brenda and I are doing this whole indie thing. We love Santa Cruz, because we have several indie friends down here that have done really well with indie. Working with UCSC helps us work with students who we hope can become successful indie developers. And if they don’t become successful indie developers, since they can code and design, they can still be successful working for EA or any number of other companies.
GamesBeat: Do you have any thoughts on id today? It’s in an interesting place after John Carmack left.
Romero: With John gone—it’s a tough situation. The company was defined by its technology. Now it can’t really be defined that way anymore, because the technology is dictated by the video card manufacturers. Everyone has to go through an API. There’s no way around it. That DirectX API is what you go through. It’s a company that’s on a timer, I think.
GamesBeat: Does Doom have something to teach the younger generation here about game development?
Romero: I think so. The team was really small. I think that when people look at Doom, they don’t know the technology that was behind it, because if they were brought up with what’s taught today, they think, “Well, I’ll just use OpenGL and generate the polygons and textures. It’s no problem.” It’s all about levels and design, instead of understanding that this technology didn’t exist. There were no APIs. There were no video cards that did polygons. You did a 320 by 200 bitmap with 256 colors and you had to try to make it go fast on slow machines. It was very hard to make this game.
Even with the technology situation solved today, though, just getting this feel out of a game — the solidity of that feel — is pretty difficult.
GamesBeat: Do you have any tips for young developers today?
Romero: I have some classic tips about what people should do. I get e-mail from people all the time – “I want to get into programming, into game development. How do I do it?” My answer is always, “You need to code.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a sound guy or whatever. You need to learn how to code. That’s the currency today, the basic currency – coding. If you have an idea, you need to be able to make the idea, and not wait for someone else to do it for you or watch them not finish it.
Do it at home, on your own computer. When you know how to code, then start your own little game at home—after work or school or whatever it is. Don’t try to raise VC money or any of that. Just do it at home, so you own it all. You have your own timeline.
Focus, time, and hard work are what it takes. You talk to any of the 3 Michelin-star chefs out there, or anybody who’s been successful—most people that are successful are not there because they’re crazy geniuses. It’s because they worked really hard for a long time and stayed focused, trying to do better than they did before. People can stay in an industry for 20, 30, 40 years at a low level, because they never push forward. You have to keep pushing yourself to do something that you’ve never done before.