John Romero is perhaps the ideal person to record the early history of first-person shooters, the genre of hardcore gaming with tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year. Not only was he there at the beginning at id Software with games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, but he also has an interesting brain condition known as hyperthymesia. It’s what makes his autobiography, Doom Guy: Life in First Person, into one of the must-read books about gaming history.
Hyperthymesia means he doesn’t forget things, even events that happened in his childhood or during his young adult days decades ago. He can even recall dialogue of critical meetings, like when his small team of id owners — John Carmack, Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud — made big decisions like firing Romero back in 1996, the year that I started covering games on a daily basis. Those memories are burned into his mind, and he can recount them like it was yesterday, Romero told me in an in-depth interview.
My first thought on hearing that Romero was writing a book about the Doom days was that I had already read that. David Kushner wrote Masters of Doom in 2003, and there were many long articles about the rise and fall of Romero’s time at id Software and his subsequent big gaming start Ion Storm. I did a long interview with him at Doom’s 20th anniversary — and now it’s at its 30th anniversary.
But I remembered Romero’s near-perfect memory and thought about that. In reporting my own books on the making of the Xbox and Xbox 360, I recall how tough a time people had remembering particular meetings because there were so many of them. It is very rare for anyone to recount the dialogue in a meeting years afterward.
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It doesn’t read like Romero had a lot of scores to settle. He notes how, despite having falling outs with people in the industry like Carmack and his former colleagues, that he doesn’t hold grudges so many years later. And he checked with them to see if his account of things was right. This means that Doom Guy contributes to the canon of lore around gaming’s early days.
It also turns out that Romero lived a harrowing life that was never included in previous tales. He survived a childhood that — while warm and loving much of the time — included traumatic events like the murders of two cousins, drug dealing by uncles and other members of his family, and a father and stepfather who were abusive in different ways.
His father once abandoned John and his brother Ralph in the Sonoran Desert, and yet Romero recalls his dad with a lot of fondness as well. Romero’s stepfather also struck him and kicked him out of the house, and yet he remembers that stepfather encouraged his obsession with computers at an early age. He never really told these stories until he gave a speech about his life many years later at Ubisoft. Those who listened to it were stunned at the honesty, and they told him he should write a book.
He did it, with help from his wife game developer Brenda Romero and many others. And Doom Guy is a riveting reading throughout its 364 pages of memories of a monumental time in gaming history. So much is packed into this book that it feels like Romero lived his life at 100 miles per hour. At the time the id founders were in their creative maelstrom in the 1990s, they were just young adults trying to survive in a cutthroat gaming industry. Yet they delivered so many firsts — first-person shooter games, deathmatch multiplayer play, free-to-play games, modding, esports and memorable games like Doom and Quake — that it seems like id Software is one of the most under-appreciated companies in gaming.
The book dispenses with stereotypes, like that Carmack was the tech genius and Romero was only focused on game design — and when they split up, it spelled the end of Romero’s excellence. It’s an honest book, where Romero admits making big mistakes — particularly at the ill-fated Ion Storm — but he is also relatively free of ego and able to analyze his life with maturity many years later. As he repeatedly says, it’s important to examine your failures close, learn from them and realize that they are really only a small part of your journey through life. The book has some first-time revelations with his efforts on Doom Sigil as well as the unpublished Blackroom game that he worked on.
Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with The Doom Guy.
GamesBeat: I liked how you shocked the game devs at the beginning of the book with your life story, and reading their faces when you said two first cousins were murdered, two uncles ran drugs for a cartel, your father and one uncle died from their addictions and somehow you still became extremely successful from game development. Why did you succeed?
John Romero: When I went through all of that stuff, I decided I’d spend more time in my mind. The things that happened didn’t happen on a constant, daily basis. Overall, my family was great. They’re all hard workers. Mexican families are just full of love and food. That was why we had such a great time. But lots of other stuff happened. I guess because I tried to stay away from anything that could potentially happen, I just got used to being self-sufficient and making my own fun. I got used to inventing and creating things. It made me believe in myself more.
My grandfather on my mom’s side had a great piece of advice. “Stay away from bad company.” I remember the very first time I had a friend who was bad company. He gave me advice and I stopped being friends with that kid. That’s something I tell my kids as well. Stay away from bad company. I tried to do that. I spent most of my time just creating and coming up with stuff.
I think I escaped a life of who-knows-what by getting out of Arizona, getting out of Tucson, and getting into a completely different environment in California. Rocklin, California. That got me out of a potential life of doing, I don’t know, not what I’m doing now. My environment was completely changed. Your environment really does matter. Just going to this college, being exposed to computers, being interested in them, and then sticking with it. Kids don’t really stick with stuff. Sticking with it and trying to get better was really lucky. And also, just meeting the great people that I worked with over the years, like John Carmack and Tom Hall and Adrian. That was lucky too. There were several lucky things that happened over time that mattered.
GamesBeat: There was that interesting observation, almost very analytical, that you had about where your imagination came from. It seemed like if the real world was very difficult and you faced that kind of abuse, one way to escape that was to just foster your imagination.
Romero: And read. To think of other things that are interesting to me. Another part of it was just that I was lucky to be around entertainment that was, to me, really exciting and new, like pinball games and the emergence of video games, all at the same time. It was easy to divert my attention over to something new like that. I could spend my time thinking about that and sinking a lot of experience into it, which led me down the video game road.
GamesBeat: I saw that your stepfather was also a difficult person, but you saw something good in what he did with his support for your computer education early on. That seemed pivotal for you, but also generous of you to say that he did something good for you.
Romero: It was absolutely pivotal. First of all, my mom choosing to marry him was a huge change. His job got us moved to Northern California. There’s no way that would happen if it wasn’t for him and what he did. That was critical. Me being interested in the Apple II was great, but he listened to me. When I used to talk to him about all the things I was learning at the college, he listened. That was important, that he bought a computer because it was the one I was talking about the most.
He died before the book was released. But before I left him for the last time, I looked at him and I said goodbye. He knew he was in his last days. I said, “Thank you for everything.” He said, “We really gave them hell, didn’t we?” Which was a reference to how we both succeeded in our lives. He was very successful in his career as a recording specialist with a top-secret clearance and all that. I just cried and said I loved him. I hugged him. I’d never told him that before, that I loved him, because it was a really hard time that I had. But we were at peace with one another. It was just a few months ago.
GamesBeat: It does seem like you have a knack for getting something positive out of a crucible. I don’t know if that’s relatable for a lot of people. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Romero: There’s also multiple viewpoints for everything. As you can tell in the book, when somebody did something that was a problem for me or whatever, they had their own reasons for doing that. In telling that story, I was looking at their viewpoint. It’s too bad that I didn’t support them in doing this thing, because probably things would have ended up differently if we had talked about it. Twenty-plus years later we can look back at things and know that we were really young. We could have done things better.
GamesBeat: This whole hyperthymesia ability, I can see how it’s useful in remembering things and recalling them. Even getting the nature of the dialogue, the conversations that happened. I don’t know exactly how sharp it is. Do you consider it to be as precise as a recording? Are there some limits to it that other people don’t know about?
Romero: It’s different for everyone who might have it. Some people have every second of their life, they will remember it. But mine is not that. Mine’s not perfect or near to it. The things I really care about, it’s burned in. Sometimes it is, for important things, as close to it being recorded as possible. But lots of limitations, yeah. There are times where I might not take in things I don’t care about. If I don’t care about something I probably won’t remember it. But if it has something to do with what I care about and what I think of, I will remember that. It’s variable. But I memorize so much. There’s so much stuff that’s not in the book that I have memorized.
I’ll remember the weather on certain days when I did something. Or I’ll be listening to music, and it’ll make me remember some code I was writing. I remember a piece of a song because maybe it’s the first time I heard it. Or sometimes I’ll look at code and remember what I was listening to at the time. It’s interesting how all of that stuff is tied together.
GamesBeat: How useful is it in writing the book? Does it make the book harder in some ways? Like you say, you’d probably wind up with way too much material for the purposes of a 364-page book.
Romero: Yeah, yeah. We cut 30,000 words. The whole book is 192,000, something like that. There are so many stories, so much stuff I remember. There are only so many pages. Goodbye photographs. Determining the importance of different stories was really one of the biggest editing tasks. Making sure that the most important ones were in there. With hyperthymesia I think every single thing is critical, because I know how everything is a thread into the next thing, how it connects. I feel like it’s really critical. But editing-wise, it’s not.
GamesBeat: I did feel like there were things cut out, because it was really terse editing for things that seemed to have a lot of gravity. You handled so many stories in just one or two pages, but it seemed like those conversations must have gone on and on. When you guys had to fire Tom Hall [from id Software], or when you got fired [from id Software]. Those are relatively short sections.
Romero: What’s funny is that those things happened pretty quickly. What was in the book was what was said during those meetings. There wasn’t a lot more stuff around it. There was more setup, probably, that could have been written about. But there are limits around what we could publish. If I had 10 more sentences around Tom, or 10 more sentences around me, that’s cutting some stories out somewhere else. It’s a balancing act. It’s important for people to know that happened, and there can be some detail around it, but other stories are important too.
There’s a bunch of compression around the post-Ion Storm era up to, say, Blackroom. There’s a good chunk of Blackroom, because a lot of people have been asking that question for a long time now, seven years. I got that in there. Abrams was excellent in terms of making sure there was an accurate reflection of everything. There was a lot of focus on editing.
GamesBeat: I was also interested that you supplemented this with a lot of your own reporting. I don’t know if you asked everybody, 10 or 20 years later, what was their point of view on these different things that you didn’t know about. But it feels like a lot of that completeness is there in some of these stories.
Romero: Yeah, just making sure, showing people what I was writing. Were they okay with that? Because that’s what happened. Making sure there wasn’t another story or side. I’ve kept in touch with everyone. All of us have kept in touch with each other over the years. I talk to Tom and Adrian regularly. I’m in touch with John Carmack every once in a while. We’ll do Zooms. Especially the proofing of stories in here, it was important to get his memory of what he remembers compared to what I remember.
It’s really important for me that as many viewpoints as possible converge on a truth that can be put in the book. When people want to get definitive answers about something that has to do with id Software, I hope that my book has those answers.
Seeing your life as others do
GamesBeat: Having written two books as well, I can appreciate the challenge of the sort of Rashomon viewpoints on the same event that happened. Everybody has a different view of big moments that happen. They often can’t remember the way that you remember things. Memory also just tells you lies over time. You think you remember, but it turns out to be wrong a fair amount of the time, [at least for other people].
Romero: If I don’t remember something correctly, I’m going to research it. I’ll start asking questions. For me there were some things I just couldn’t know. I would have to ask about it, just to check with other people what their recollection was. I want to make sure I have as much information in there as possible.
I’m always interested in learning more about any aspect of something that I went through or was a part of. I was very excited to do that, just double-checking with multiple sources and making sure that everything was presented well so there wouldn’t be some sort of post-publishing–articles coming out about how it was all wrong, you know? I’m fortunate to be in touch with everybody. Jay Wilbur, Kevin Cloud, you name it. I’m in touch with everyone.
GamesBeat: What’s interesting is that even people that, at the time, could have been your worst enemies, it seems like you’ve stayed in touch with them. The velocity of your life was very interesting to me. People came into your life, both on the personal side and the professional side. They were critical people in your life. But then they would also leave your life fairly quickly. That, to me, is so different from the kind of life I or most people lead, I think. Did you feel that as well? That you were moving at 100 miles an hour through this life?
Romero: It’s funny. I’ve always looked back from when I started learning how to code, started making stuff and submitting stuff, and all of it was at high speed. I’ve always felt, from when I started programming, started getting my stuff published, that I was on a rocket. I just kept on doing better and better. Getting to go to Origin, working at Origin, taking off and going to SoftDisk.
GamesBeat: It was just a short time, a number of months.
Romero: Some people might think that’s not a big boost, but for me it was a massive boost. I got a chance to learn how to code for the PC. A job where I don’t know anything about the computer. I was given a job to learn something I knew nothing about on a computer. Who gets hired for something they don’t know?
Anyway, everybody has a purpose. People go in and out of my life, like Lane Roathe. People like that. Everyone has a purpose, and they help us to grow in one way or another. For me, that’s something I always look for when I’m spending time with people. There’s always some kind of important connection I’m making, something I’m learning. But that’s something I can see clearly. I’m really lucky. If something happens that seems terrible, it’s probably because there’s going to be something great afterward.
In the book, I talk about how the 8-bit era died. I spent so many years trying to make a great 8-bit game, and it was all over. I needed to start all over. I spent 10 years. Then, within a year and a half, the best game I ever made. We started rocketing with Commander Keen. Something bad happened, but a really great thing happened after that.
GamesBeat: Was there a search for something more permanent for you, as opposed to viewing life in these ways where, this is a moment in time, this is the time where it makes sense for me to be with these people?
Romero: I never thought about it that way. I was always whatever is happening now is the focus. For me, the permanent thing is just making games for the rest of my life. That’s my number one permanent thing. Whatever my focus is, if it’s Monkeystone, it’s about learning mobile games. It’s about learning how to program these things, because I believe the future is going to be handheld entertainment. How can I do better at that?
It was too early. Tech was constantly changing. Didn’t know the iPhone was coming. I knew, even at that point, nothing is permanent. Nothing is ever permanent. Tech changes. People change. Relationships change. Everything changes. Being in a technology world like I have been since ‘79, I’m used to things always changing. I have to always adapt to the next thing that’s coming out. Learn the next thing that’s happening. I’m used to change. I’m used to things changing all the time. Sticking with and learning about the latest stuff to me is always important.
Sometimes people won’t change. They won’t be interested in the next thing. If I am, then I’m going to spend my time on the next thing. If they don’t want to come along, then that’s obviously their choice.
Failure is an option
GamesBeat: The book closes with some comments you have about failure. I remembered Paul Saffo, the futurist and Stanford engineering professor, always said that in Silicon Valley, failure means something different from what it does in other places. In other places it means disgrace. In the Valley, he says, the spires of success are built on the rubble of failure. It amazes me that you’ve had so many towering moments of success in your life, but there are so many more incidents of failure. It’s very sobering in that way. I did wonder, how do you look at that with some maturity, some distance from any given failure?
Romero: Well, I’m always trying something new. New things, a lot of times they don’t work. For me failure is completely okay. I’m human. We’re all human. We make mistakes. What matters is that we keep trying and we keep learning. I started an MMO company. I learned something very valuable from the failure of the tech in that company. I’ll know next time what I’m not going to do that I did before.
At the same time, I’m moving into a new sector. Moving from that right into doing Ravenwood. You remember. The hot thing was social games. I wanted to know what they were about. I wanted to make something in a very short time – it was about two months and 19 days to do that – and hoped that it was going to be cool, that it would be a new thing. It did really well. I started a company right off of that in the same sector to see what we could do. We went on several years with that company until we finally decided to move to Ireland and start our new company. It’s a continuation of that company because we really just shut it down and started up over here. Brenda and I have been at this for 13 years.
GamesBeat: You don’t go into as much detail with Brenda as I might have expected. I don’t know if there was a particular reason for that approach. Is that too close to what’s happening now? Or did you agree, maybe, to let Brenda tell her story?
Romero: No, there wasn’t a particular reason. I was spending a lot of time talking about games and career-type stuff. People could see that we met each other in 1987. They could tell that we had a great relationship and a strong connection. We’re still together. We’ve been together for quite a while now. But with her story, she’s working on her own memoir anyway. That’ll be pretty cool.
GamesBeat: I figured something like that had to be one reason. But even, say, the Empire of Sin story — it seemed like that would have been interesting to bring in. There were touches in that game, I think, that seemed to reach back to your past. The Mexican backgrounds.
Romero: Yeah, Reyna and Elvira.
GamesBeat: Maybe in book two?
Romero: At the very end of the book, several people have told me that it seems like there must be a sequel. “It doesn’t sound like you’re closing the door there.”
Sorting out conflicting memories
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that your life had already been covered so much before. Masters of Doom and lots of other things. Did it feel important to set some of the record straight or tell the real story of some of these events?
Romero: There have been so many articles, multiple books. There have been a lot of things written about a lot of things that happened. I’ve seen articles say that I’m from Guatemala and I was raised by my grandmother and a single parent. All kinds of stuff. But for me, I just wanted to write my story. I’m not addressing anything that’s ever been published. I’m just writing what I know and how things happened. It’s adding more information out there, but if people consider the source, then maybe they’ll believe that what’s in this book. It’s my viewpoint, it’s my history. Some of the things I addressed were suggested by early readers.
GamesBeat: I wonder whether journalists were doing their jobs in asking you about your life story or what your childhood was like. These stories never seem to have been told. Maybe there was a point where you also decided that you were going to tell these stories, rather than never answering those questions.
Romero: People didn’t know. I think people assumed that I was a white kid who grew up with money. Because there wasn’t really anything that talked about how I came from a poor background. We had food stamps. Violence. All kinds of things happening in our neighborhood. Being homeless for a while. After giving the presentation at that one Canadian conference, when people were shocked, some people said, “That needs to be in a book.” That was interesting. People don’t know that part of me that might be an interesting thing to explain. Probably some of this is why I make these games.
But also, just the fact that I can relate to kids who come from backgrounds like mine. I speak to kids at schools, disadvantaged kids in different schools. People always want to see someone that’s like them. There might be a road to success for them. I want people to feel, after reading the book, that there are a lot of relatable stories and feelings and thoughts. If I can do it, they can do it. There’s no reason why they can’t. There’s nothing in the book that says, “I’m a genius. You can’t touch this.” It’s all just, “I’m a normal person who decided to do something. Here’s where it got me. Here’s where it came from.” Hopefully people feel like there’s a lot of relatable information.
The Doom story
GamesBeat: I think my favorite part of the book was how Doom came together. I don’t know if you consider that to be one of the best times of your life.
Romero: It was great. You could see the culmination, up until Doom. We were getting better and better at what we did. The pivot into 3D with Wolfenstein, we knew we needed to spend time doing this. “This is where everything is.” Doing two more games, Wolf and Spear of Destiny, and then by the time it was time to make Doom, we knew what it was going to be. We knew it would be the best game. It was almost like we just knew it was going to happen.
It was also amazing to work with Carmack. We worked exceptionally well together. We were so far ahead of everyone tech-wise and design-wise. We could push each other. We felt like there was no limit to what we could make. We didn’t have a timeline on how long it would take. We could put as much into it as we wanted. That’s when we said, “We need to make the best game we can imagine playing.” That’s what we worked on. That’s what we did. I wanted to talk about that because it was such a unique situation making that game.
GamesBeat: You did well in the description there. It helped someone like me understand the part where you were contributing. The stereotype is that Carmack is the technologist and you’re the game designer, and you weren’t a big part of the technology. The translation of the technology to game design is more like what I saw you contributing there. Creating the editor so that the other designers could make their levels.
Romero: Exactly. I was the glue between design and John. There was so much going on, so quickly. But that engine was such a well-designed part of that game. It was so understandable to use that for me it was important that I wrote the editor, so Tom and I could make levels. Later it was Sandy [Petersen]. Anything that I needed in the game or Sandy needed, I would code that into the game.
It ended up that everything you experience when you’re in the game, if it’s not a monster – if it’s the flashing light, the lava burning, doors opening, switches flipping, everything – I did all of that. I programmed all of that part. But that’s thanks to John’s engine. It let me manipulate sectors and do those things. It’s in the book. But it was me being able to work with John and his engine really well, and with the design team. The team was really small. It was five of us up until Tom left. Then we got two more people to make it six.
GamesBeat: There was this creative maelstrom happening, just coming up with things like fragging, deathmatch, speedrunning, mods and free-to-play. All of these things are underappreciated, it feels like.
Romero: I know that there are some articles saying that now. Obviously, looking back, it’s incredible. We were so fortunate to be able to put all this stuff in one game. A lot of places over the years, different articles have highlighted all of those things that were done at one time. But now articles are coming out saying things like, “This game’s importance can’t be overestimated, because of all the things it did all presented.”
I think my programming ability is really why Carmack and I worked so well together. I could talk to him in his world, and I could also talk to design.
GamesBeat: The development cycle was interesting. It was 10 months or so, and in the last months you said, “Oh, let’s do multiplayer.”
Romero: I know! That was in October. Hey, we forgot to do multiplayer. No one in game dev today would believe that you could fit multiplayer in a game within two months of shipping and have everything balanced. It was great. Nothing is crazy for Carmack. Greatest programmer the game industry has ever seen.
Ion Storm days
GamesBeat: I did think it was interesting that there were a couple of times in your career where not having Carmack around, the engine guy, put you behind on projects. You had to wait for the Quake II engine to come. You had to wait for an engine at Ion Storm as well. I’m sure it occurred to you. “I should go get an engine guy, someone like Carmack, and build it ourselves so we won’t be so far behind.” But I assume that was not a realistic option. There are not too many Carmacks out there.
Romero: First of all, there aren’t. Second, that’s what the engine does. You need a Carmack to build that kind of an engine. You just need a good enough programmer to be able to use it well. The problem is that if you change your game’s entire engine halfway through a game — this was the first time I had ever done that. I had no idea that he changed it so much, and that became a big time sink for us, to port our game from Quake to Quake II. It was really a whole new deal. I had never done that before. It was another learning moment. Well, don’t change your engine in the middle. It would have been smarter to add colored lighting to Quake, which is what Valve did. That was a smart move.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if you felt like this in some ways, but there are some big moments where there wasn’t as much emotion as I thought there would be. Tom gets fired from id, and then you get fired from id. It feels like a karma moment. But you don’t necessarily dwell on that. You called up Tom pretty soon after that to say, “Do you want to work together?” But the weirdness of that, that you were in the same position he was before, you don’t dwell on that in the book.
Romero: What happened was, obviously with Tom that was really sad that it didn’t work out. It was just Tom didn’t match the game. He’s such a positive person. We were making a gory splatterfest. But working with Tom, after the big meeting in November of ‘95, that’s when I decided that after Quake I was going to leave and start another company. In January of ‘96 is when I called Tom and told him, “After I finish Quake I’m gonna leave. Are you interested in starting another company?” He said, “Hell yeah.”
I talked to him seven months before I left about doing it. He said yes. We were planning to work together for seven months before I left id and then immediately started Ion Storm.
GamesBeat: It wasn’t as sudden or surprising to Tom, then, that you were taking off.
Romero: No, no. He knew that when Quake was released, we would be starting together. I was already looking at publishers just before the resignation thing. It was sad that they didn’t want to work with me anymore, but I wasn’t going to work with them either. That whole situation.
In general, I don’t know that I dwell on difficult things. I can’t. I have to accept it and move on. That’s maybe where you don’t see me having a lot of emotional response. It was kind of planned. But also, I was really young, and I was ready to move on.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing about the brain, too, is that a lot of people push difficult events out of their minds. They don’t remember them. If you have hyperthemesia I wonder if you have the ability to do that. It can be very painful to remember some of these difficult times.
Romero: Yeah. I can remember them. They don’t go away. It’s funny, because my brother and I were talking about this recently. He read the book. He has a different view of our dad and our stepfather. He has the opposite view, basically. It was interesting for him to recall that he had really great times with our stepdad. I’m happy that he did. It was great for him to connect with our stepdad. He developed a lot of coping mechanisms to forget things that were negative. The book brought a lot of memories back to him. Memories that were difficult for him, that he had pushed out of his mind. The book brought them back because I remember everything. But it was a good discussion. I don’t begrudge him having a great time with our stepdad. That’s amazing for him.
GamesBeat: I guess you can think of Doom and Quake as a peak time for you, doing so many great things. When you come down from that, how do you cope with that? For someone like me, publishing a couple of books was a big moment, but I haven’t done that in many years now. I have to cope with that. I’ve gotten past some of the biggest parts of my life already. I wonder how you think about that.
Romero: People may think that I have a big ego, but I really don’t. I just love the fact that I can make games. To me, that has been the only real goal I’ve had. I just want to keep on making games. Working on Doom and working on Quake, that was amazing. But I don’t ever look back and think, “Gosh, I had a great time then, but I feel like I’m not having a great time now.” Things change all the time. I’m used to change and doing new things. It’s always exciting.
At that time, we were doing new things and it was exciting. But also, it would be very difficult for anyone, for me, even, to make something better than Doom. I’m lucky to have made that game, to have made Wolfenstein and Quake. It’s super lucky that we were together and able to do that. I was lucky. It was great. But I had a lot of fun making other games too. They just didn’t have the same impact. I’m just grateful for what I’ve been able to do.
Beating what you’ve done before
GamesBeat: People who do struggle with that – “How do I beat what I’ve done before?” – is there something that has, say, made your mental health pretty strong in light of these kinds of things? You seem to bounce back in positive ways quite often.
Romero: I don’t really think about needing to beat the previous game. I don’t think that way. I just think about how I want to make the best game I can for what I’m doing. And also, growing up the way I did, you always expect something bad to happen. When something good happens it’s like, “Yeah! That’s great!” I accept the happiness that I get.
Always trying to beat the previous thing — a lot of times, when you start making a game, there’s a time and a reason why you’re making that game. It could be a business model you’re trying. It could be a technology that you’re trying to explore. It could be an opportunity that just came up. For almost every game I made, there’s the question of why I decided to make that game. It’s all about that experimentation. Being creative is all about experimenting. Some experiments will fail. I just keep on trying and experimenting.
Some things will fail catastrophically. That’s part of success. Failure is part of success. I’ll learn something from it and keep on going. We were just lucky when we were making those games that we didn’t have a lot of failures at that point. But in games, failure is kind of something that we design for.
GamesBeat: With Ion Storm, maybe some of the problems with it came from trying to learn from the previous experience. Even the equal shares for every partner. That was one problem that turned into a big problem. But trying to beat what you had done before five times over, that five games at once thing –how do you look at some of those business lessons in hindsight?
Romero: With that company, the big picture was that I wanted to make multiple games at a time and have different teams for those games. That was the overall thing. That was what I focused on. There was a lot of luck in what we did at id, and a lot of assumptions on my side I would be able to continue doing the same kinds of things at Ion Storm that I had done at id.
The whole formula was completely different and changed, and I didn’t change my approach from the people we had at id, the things we did, the decisions we made. I didn’t change that, and a lot of things really did need to change. I don’t even know if I felt that I had captured lightning at id. There are lessons you learn when you leave an environment and start in a new environment. There were a lot of things I didn’t know that I needed to learn. I’m so lucky to have found Warren Spector and Harvey Smith and have that team make Deus Ex. That was the big redeeming part of Ion Storm, having that great team do what they did.
More candor, not less, over time
GamesBeat: I was surprised to see so much candor in that section regarding things like firing Mike Wilson, Todd Porter and Bob Wright. They seem so important that you had to talk about these things. How did you approach being that candid? Most memoirs really aren’t, even about something that failed.
Romero: Those stories were told elsewhere anyway. There were a lot of things published online during the Ion Storm era, really long pieces that went into a lot of detail. I was trying to just get the high points in there. Ultimately, I see my failure in the things that happened there at Ion. Those things I put in there. Mike obviously wanted to start a publisher. You can see he’s been ridiculously successful doing that. That’s what he was made to do. It was just bad timing on our part when that happened. It would have been smarter to support him in doing that.
There were a lot of things to learn. It’s important for people to see the things that happened, how they turned out, and how I reflected on those things later. People will always think, “Does he hate the Ion Eight guys that left?” Absolutely not. Those people are still in the industry. They’re still doing great work. I’ve spoken to several of those people. That was their response to my inactivity around what they needed to do. I learned a lot from that experience.
GamesBeat: You did own up to one particularly bad decision there, about the “bitch” campaign. Authorizing that in almost a “just let it happen” kind of way, as opposed to realizing that there are all these dimensions to it that could go wrong. It’s interesting to see you acknowledge that particular decision was the wrong one.
Romero: Definitely. That was a huge mistake that I’ll be learning from for years to come, I imagine.
GamesBeat: A lot of people go through life without realizing things were mistakes or admitting they were mistakes. There’s an interesting maturity it feels like you’ve reached here.
Romero: If people showed that they’re more human, it would help their perception of others. It helps all of us, really. It was important to put all of that in there, because people don’t talk about failure that often, what they’ve learned from it. I’m not ashamed of it, which is great. I can talk about it. I’ve learned from it, grown from it. I won’t make those mistakes again. I’m sorry for the things I did. The book reflects, 20 years on, my thinking on all the things that happened.
GamesBeat: It looks like you’ve done a lot of reconciliation over the years, too. Things that happened in the past and the way things are now. Crunch was the norm for you guys back then. “We relished the enormous pressure.” Today people look at it in a much different way.
Romero: Oh, absolutely. I’m at peace with everything.
GamesBeat: I do wonder how you think about the modern game business, with so many billions of dollars being thrown around. You guys were instigators of so much of this. You’re not necessarily coming out as the biggest beneficiaries of it.
Romero: It’s incredible to have a hand in helping to build a foundation to build this genre that’s given the industry such a lift. But if it wasn’t for Woz, I wouldn’t know how to code, or Nasir, or Bill Budge, with their examples of what you could do on a computer with games. Everybody is standing on someone else’s shoulders. The people who make games nowadays, they’ve learned from the games that they were affected by and the people who made them. It’s just history. Everybody builds on everything. That’s the way it is. People making games today are the people who show the way for the next wave.
I’m glad to have been a part of helping people see how these first-person perspective games could be really great. It brings an immediacy and an immersion to the experience on a computer that we never had before. Getting that framerate up was critical to hitting that immersion level. Nowadays the computers and the engines that people use deliver that by default. You get that speed. Now the focus is on the design, not so much the technology. I’ve always known that at some point, it’s always the design. The technology needs to be there, but if you don’t have a great design — I know that the battlefield is design.
GamesBeat: It’s good to see a story retold in a way that feels more accurate. It feels like that aspect got better over time, rather than foggier over time.
Romero: I’m just lucky that I had the ability to be able to remember so much. Research in this age on the internet is a lot easier than it would have been if I was trying to do this in the ‘80s. It was a lot of work to make sure that there was good material in there. If people want to know that the game is called Hovertank One and not Hovertank 3D, those things are all in there. Thanks a lot for reading it.
GamesBeat: You communicate more understanding of the things that happened, as opposed to just recounting the things that happened.
Romero: That was another important part of the book. Not just putting the data of the history of things that happened out there, but also reflecting on what happened and what I think about it now. How things could have been different or better. That’s something people think about. After 20 or 30 years, what do you think? Putting those reflections in there — it was good for people to know what I think now.
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