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Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture [Paperback]

David Kushner
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Doom, the video game in which you navigate a dungeon in the first person and messily lay waste to everything that crosses your path, represented a milestone in many areas. It was a technical landmark, in that its graphics engine delivered brilliant performance on ordinary PC hardware. It was a social phenomenon, with individuals and companies hooking up networks specifically for Doom tournaments and staying up for days to blast away on them (well before the Internet went big-time). The game's publisher, id Software, used an unusual shareware marketing strategy (give away the first levels, charge for the more advanced ones) that worked very well. On top of it all, the gore-filled game raised serious questions about decency in products meant for use by school-age kids. Masters of Doom explores the Doom phenomenon, as well as the lives and personalities of the two men behind it: John Carmack and John Romero.

This book manages, for the most part, to keep clear of the breathless techno-hagiography style that characterizes many books with similar subjects. He tells the story of Carmack, Romero, and id--which includes far more than Doom and its successors--in novel style, and he's done a good job of keeping the action flowing and the characters' motivations clear. Some of the quoted passages of dialog sound like idealized reconstructions that probably never came from the lips of real people, but this is an entertaining and informative book, of interest to anyone who's let rip with a nail gun. --David Wall

Topics covered: The biographies of John Carmack and John Romero, and of their company, id Software. The development and marketing of all major id games (including Wolfenstein, Doom, Doom II, and Quake) get lavish attention. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Long before Grand Theft Auto swept the video gaming world, whiz kids John Romero and John Carmack were shaking things up with their influential-and sometimes controversial-video game creations. The two post-adolescents meet at a small Louisiana tech company in the mid-1980s and begin honing their gaming skills. Carmack is the obsessive and antisocial genius with the programming chops; Romero the goofy and idea-inspired gamer. They and their company, id, innovate both technologically and financially, finding ways to give a PC game "side-scrolling," which allows players to feel like action is happening beyond the screen, and deciding to release games as shareware, giving some levels away gratis and enticing gamers to pay for the rest. All-nighters filled with pizza, slavish work and scatological humor eventually add up to a cultural sea change, where the games obsess the players almost as much as they obsess their creators. Fortunately, journalist Kushner glosses over Carmack and Romero's fame, preferring to describe the particulars of video game creation. There are the high-tech improvements-e.g., "diminished lighting" and "texture-mapping"-and pop cultural challenges, as when the two create an update of the Nazi-themed shooter Castle Wolfenstein. The author gives his subjects much leeway on the violence question, and his thoroughness results in some superfluous details. But if the narration is sometimes dry, the story rarely is; readers can almost feel Carmack and Romero's thrill as they create, particularly when they're working on their magnum opus, Doom. After finishing the book, readers may come away feeling like they've just played a round of Doom themselves, as, squinting and light-headed, they attempt to re-enter the world.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-John Romero and John Carmack started programming games as teens. After they met, they became the first to make a video game on the PC that scrolled smoothly. In their 20s, they went on to create the hugely popular and controversial video games Doom, Wolfenstein 3-D, and Quake. But the passions that drove them to stay up late night after night, living on pizza and Cokes, drove them apart, causing Romero to leave to form his own company. The book traces their successes and failures, giving some insight into what it means to be a video-game designer, and is liberally sprinkled with humor, much of it from the twisted minds of the programmer/gamers themselves. Readers may not find the individuals likable, but they will be fascinated by watching what happens to them. While much of the story takes place in the '90s, the book continues on into the 21st century, where Carmack's Quake 3 is still heavily played and Romero's Daikatana has become one of the most hyped failures in video-game history. The company the young men founded, id Software, continues to be a force in gaming. Both video-game players and budding venture capitalists will find something entertaining and educational here.
Paul Brink, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Kushner has cracked open the dark world of John Carmack and John Romero, the authors of the blockbuster computer games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Reading this fascinating underground tale is as addictive as the games themselves. It is the ultimate revenge of the nerds: two obsessed gamers who were told that their interests had no redeeming value, their hacker ethic dismissed as borderline delinquent, forged their driven creative genius in programming and design to create the most wildly innovative and popular computer games of the 1990s. Using low-cost shareware distribution, they grew so big so fast that these 20-something renegades soon found themselves courted by the likes of Bill Gates. Unfortunately, Gates was not the only one who noticed. The games' bizarre violence finally got them caught up in controversy involving Columbine and the U.S. Senate, and they unwittingly found themselves victims of their own success. This is a true antihero story of our time, complete with the infamous all-night programming sessions saturated in pizza and Diet Coke, computer geeks turned rock stars spawning an entire cyberculture. "We are not worthy." David Siegfried
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"To my taste, the greatest American myth of cosmogenesis features the maladjusted, antisocial, genius teenage boy who, in the insular laboratory of his own bedroom, invents the universe from scratch. Masters of Doom is a particularly inspired rendition. Dave Kushner chronicles the saga of video game virtuosi Carmack and Romero with terrific brio. This is a page-turning, mythopoeic cyber-soap opera about two glamorous geek geniuses - and it should be read while scarfing down pepperoni pizza and swilling Diet Coke, with Queens of the Stone Age cranked up all the way."
Mark Leyner, author of I Smell Esther Williams

"Masters of Doom is an excellent archetypal tale of hard work and genius being corrupted by fame too young and fortune too fast. I rooted for these guys, was inspired by them, then was disturbed by them, and was fascinated from beginning to end."
Po Bronson, author of The Nudist on the Late Shift

"Like Hackers, David Kushner's Masters of Doom paints a fascinating portrait of visionary coders transforming a previously marginal hobby into a kind of 21st-century art form -- and enraging an entire generation of parents along the way. Kushner tells the story with intelligence and a great sense of pacing. Masters of Doom is as riveting as the games themselves."
Steven Johnson, author of Emergence

"Masters of Doom tells the compelling story of the decade-long showdown between gaming's own real-life dynamic duo, played high above the corridors of Doom in the meta-game of industry and innovation. With the narrative passion of a true aficionado, Kushner reminds us that the Internet was not created to manage stock portfolios but to serve as the ultimate networked entertainment platform. It's all just a game."
Douglas Rushkoff, author of Coercion, Ecstasy Club, and Nothing Sacred

"Are you brainy? Gifted? Deeply alienated? Ever wanted to be a multimillionaire who transformed a major industry? Then Masters of Doom is the book for you!"
Bruce Sterling, author of Tomorrow Now

“Kushner’s mesmerizing tale of the Two Johns moves at a rapid clip . . . describing the twists and turns of fate that led them to team up in creating the most powerful video games of their generation. . . . An exciting combination of biography and technology.”
—USA Today

“Meticulously researched . . . as a ticktock of the creative process and as insight into a powerful medium too often dismissed as kids’ stuff, Masters of Doom blasts its way to a high score.”
—Entertainment Weekly

“[An] extraordinary journey . . . an exhilarating time capsule of a moment in time where anything could happen—and often did. Kushner’s take on this geek uprising is like a breakneck-paced comic book that you can’t put down.”
Newsday

“Kushner’s portrait of Carmack is lustrous and gripping. . . . An impressive and adroit social history.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Terrifically told . . . The storytelling is so fluid, so addictive, that your twitching thumbs keep working the pages.”
—The Washington Post Book World

From the Inside Flap

?To my taste, the greatest American myth of cosmogenesis features the maladjusted, antisocial, genius teenage boy who, in the insular laboratory of his own bedroom, invents the universe from scratch. Masters of Doom is a particularly inspired rendition. Dave Kushner chronicles the saga of video game virtuosi Carmack and Romero with terrific brio. This is a page-turning, mythopoeic cyber-soap opera about two glamorous geek geniuses?and it should be read while scarfing down pepperoni pizza and swilling Diet Coke, with Queens of the Stone Age cranked up all the way.? ?Mark Leyner, author of I Smell Esther Williams

Masters of Doom is the amazing true story of the Lennon and McCartney of video games: John Carmack and John Romero. Together, they ruled big business. They transformed popular culture. And they provoked a national controversy. More than anything, they lived a unique and rollicking American Dream, escaping the broken homes of their youth to co-create the most notoriously successful game franchises in history?Doom and Quake?until the games they made tore them apart.

Americans spend more money on video games than on movie tickets. Masters of Doom is the first book to chronicle this industry?s greatest story, written by one of the medium?s leading observers. David Kushner takes readers inside the rags-to-riches adventure of two rebellious entrepreneurs who came of age to shape a generation. The vivid portrait reveals why their games are so violent and why their immersion in their brilliantly designed fantasy worlds offered them solace. And it shows how they channeled their fury and imagination into products that are a formative influence on our culture, from MTV to the Internet to Columbine. This is a story of friendship and betrayal, commerce and artistry?a powerful and compassionate account of what it?s like to be young, driven, and wildly creative.


From the Hardcover edition.

From the Back Cover

"To my taste, the greatest American myth of cosmogenesis features the maladjusted, antisocial, genius teenage boy who, in the insular laboratory of his own bedroom, invents the universe from scratch. Masters of Doom is a particularly inspired rendition. Dave Kushner chronicles the saga of video game virtuosi Carmack and Romero with terrific brio. This is a page-turning, mythopoeic cyber-soap opera about two glamorous geek geniuses - and it should be read while scarfing down pepperoni pizza and swilling Diet Coke, with Queens of the Stone Age cranked up all the way." -Mark Leyner, author of I Smell Esther Williams

"Masters of Doom is an excellent archetypal tale of hard work and genius being corrupted by fame too young and fortune too fast. I rooted for these guys, was inspired by them, then was disturbed by them, and was fascinated from beginning to end." -Po Bronson, author of The Nudist on the Late Shift

"Like Hackers, David Kushner's Masters of Doom paints a fascinating portrait of visionary coders transforming a previously marginal hobby into a kind of 21st-century art form -- and enraging an entire generation of parents along the way. Kushner tells the story with intelligence and a great sense of pacing. Masters of Doom is as riveting as the games themselves." -Steven Johnson, author of Emergence

"Masters of Doom tells the compelling story of the decade-long showdown between gaming's own real-life dynamic duo, played high above the corridors of Doom in the meta-game of industry and innovation. With the narrative passion of a true aficionado, Kushner reminds us that the Internet was not created to manage stock portfolios but to serve as the ultimate networked entertainment platform. It's all just a game." -Douglas Rushkoff, author of Coercion, Ecstasy Club, and Nothing Sacred

"Are you brainy? Gifted? Deeply alienated? Ever wanted to be a multimillionaire who transformed a major industry? Then Masters of Doom is the book for you!"-Bruce Sterling, author of Tomorrow Now
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Wired, New York, Worth, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Village Voice, Details, Mondo 2000, and Salon. He is the digital-music columnist for Rolling Stone online, and a contributing editor for Spin and IEEE Spectrum. He has also worked as a senior producer and writer for the music website SonicNet. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s in creative writing from City University of New York. He can be reached at www.davidkushner.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

The Rock Star

Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again. A scrawny kid with thick glasses, he pedaled past the modest homes of Rocklin, California, to the Roundtable Pizza Parlor. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be going there this summer afternoon in 1979, but he couldn’t help himself. That was where the games were.

Specifically, what was there was Asteroids, or, as Romero put it, “the coolest game planet Earth has ever seen!” There was nothing else like the feeling he got tapping the control buttons as the rocks hurled toward his triangular ship and the Jaws-style theme music blipped in suspense, dum dum dum dum dum dum; Romero mimicked these video game sounds the way other kids did celebrities. Fun like this was worth risking everything: the crush of the meteors, the theft of the paper route money, the wrath of his stepfather. Because no matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into the games.

At the moment, what he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping. His stepfather, John Schuneman—a former drill sergeant—had commanded Romero to steer clear of arcades. Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and in life. As his stepfather was fond of reminding him, his mother had enough problems trying to provide for Romero and his younger brother, Ralph, since her first husband left the family five years earlier. His stepfather was under stress of his own with a top-secret government job retrieving black boxes of classified information from downed U.S. spy planes across the world. “Hey, little man,” he had said just a few days before, “consider yourself warned.”

Romero did heed the warning—sort of. He usually played games at Timothy’s, a little pizza joint in town; this time he and his friends headed into a less traveled spot, the Roundtable. He still had his initials, AJR for his full name, Alfonso John Romero, next to the high score here, just like he did on all the Asteroids machines in town. He didn’t have only the number-one score, he owned the entire top ten. “Watch this,” Romero told his friends, as he slipped in the quarter and started to play.

The action didn’t last long. As he was about to complete a round, he felt a heavy palm grip his shoulder. “What the fuck, dude?” he said, assuming one of his friends was trying to spoil his game. Then his face smashed into the machines.

Romero’s stepfather dragged him past his friends to his pickup truck, throwing the dirt bike in the back. Romero had done a poor job of hiding his bike, and his stepfather had seen it while driving home from work. “You really screwed up this time, little man,” his stepfather said. He led Romero into the house, where Romero’s mother and his visiting grandmother stood in the kitchen. “Johnny was at the arcade again,” his stepfather said. “You know what that’s like? That’s like telling your mother ‘Fuck you.’ ”

He beat Romero until the boy had a fat lip and a black eye. Romero was grounded for two weeks. The next day he snuck back to the arcade.

Romero was born resilient, his mother, Ginny, said, a four-and-one-half-pound baby delivered on October 28, 1967, six weeks premature. His parents, married only a few months before, had been living long in hard times. Ginny, good-humored and easygoing, met Alfonso Antonio Romero when they were teenagers in Tucson, Arizona. Alfonso, a first-generation Mexican American, was a maintenance man at an air force base, spending his days fixing air conditioners and heating systems. After Alfonso and Ginny got married, they headed in a 1948 Chrysler with three hundred dollars to Colorado, hoping their interracial relationship would thrive in more tolerant surroundings.

Though the situation improved there, the couple returned to Tucson after Romero was born so his dad could take a job in the copper mines. The work was hard, the effect sour. Alfonso would frequently come home drunk if he came home at all. There was soon a second child, Ralph. John Romero savored the good times: the barbecues, the horsing around. Once his dad stumbled in at 10:00 p.m. and woke him. “Come on,” he slurred, “we’re going camping.” They drove into the hills of saguaro cacti to sleep under the stars. One afternoon his father left to pick up groceries. Romero wouldn’t see him again for two years.

Within that time his mother remarried. John Schuneman, fourteen years her senior, tried to befriend him. One afternoon he found the six-year-old boy sketching a Lamborghini sports car at the kitchen table. The drawing was so good that his stepfather assumed it had been traced. As a test, he put a Hot Wheels toy car on the table and watched as Romero drew. This sketch too was perfect. Schuneman asked Johnny what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said, “A rich bachelor.”

For a while, this relationship flourished. Recognizing Romero’s love of arcade games, his stepfather would drive him to local competitions—all of which Romero won. Romero was so good at Pac-Man that he could maneuver the round yellow character through a maze of fruit and dots with his eyes shut. But soon his stepfather noticed that Romero’s hobby was taking a more obsessive turn.

It started one summer day in 1979, when Romero’s brother, Ralph, and a friend came rushing through the front door. They had just biked up to Sierra College, they told him, and made a discovery. “There are games up there!” they said. “Games that you don’t have to pay for!” Games that some sympathetic students let them play. Games on these strange big computers.

Romero grabbed his bike and raced with them to the college’s computer lab. There was no problem for them to hang out at the lab. This was not uncommon at the time. The computer underground did not discriminate by age; a geek was a geek was a geek. And since the students often held the keys to the labs, there weren’t professors to tell the kids to scram. Romero had never seen anything like what he found inside. Cold air gushed from the air-conditioning vents as students milled around computer terminals. Everyone was playing a game that consisted only of words on the terminal screen: “You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building towards a gully. In the distance there is a gleaming white tower.”

This was Colossal Cave Adventure, the hottest thing going. Romero knew why: it was like a computer-game version of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, as it was commonly known, was a pen-and-paper role-playing game that cast players in a Lord of the Rings–like adventure of imagination. Many adults lazily dismissed it as geekish escapism. But to understand a boy like Romero, an avid D&D player, was to understand the game.

Created in 1972 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two friends in their early twenties, Dungeons and Dragons was an underground phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, thanks to word of mouth and controversy. It achieved urban legend status when a student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared in the steam tunnels underneath Michigan State University while reportedly reenacting the game; a Tom Hanks movie called Mazes and Monsters was loosely based on the event. D&D would grow into an international cottage industry, accounting for $25 million in annual sales from novels, games, T-shirts, and rule books.

The appeal was primal. “In Dungeons and Dragons,” Gygax said, “the average person gets a call to glory and becomes a hero and undergoes change. In the real world, children, especially, have no power; they must answer to everyone, they don’t direct their own lives, but in this game, they become super powerful and affect everything.” In D&D, there was no winning in the traditional sense. It was more akin to interactive fiction. The participants consisted of at least two or three players and a Dungeon Master, the person who would invent and direct the adventures. All they needed was the D&D rule book, some special polyhedral dice, and a pencil and paper. To begin, players chose and developed characters they would become in the game, from dwarves to elves, gnomes to humans.

Gathered around a table, they would listen as the Dungeon Master cracked open the D&D rule book—which contained descriptions of monsters, magic, and characters—and fabricated a scene: down by a river, perhaps, a castle shrouded in mist, the distant growl of a beast. Which way shall you go? If the players chose to pursue the screams, the Dungeon Master would select just what ogre or chimera they would face. His roll of the die determined how they fared; no matter how wild the imaginings, a random burst of data ruled one’s fate. It was not surprising that computer programmers liked the game or that one of the first games they created, Colossal Cave Adventure, was inspired by D&D.

The object of Colossal Cave was to fight battles while trying to retrieve treasures within a magical cave. By typing in a direction, say “north” or “south,” or a command, “hit” or “attack,” Romero could explore what felt like a novel in which he was the protagonist. As he chose his actions, he’d go deeper into the woods until the walls of the lab seemed to become trees, the air-conditioning flow a river. It was another world. Imbued with his imagination, it was real.

Even more impressively, it was an alternate reality that he could create. Since the seventies, the electronic gaming industry had been dominated by arcade machines like Asteroids and home consoles like the Atari 2600. Writing software for these platforms required expensive development systems and corporate backing. But computer games were different. They were accessible. They came with their own tools, their own portals—a way inside. And the people who had the keys were not authoritarian monsters, they were dudes. Romero was young, but he was a dude in the making, he figured. The Wizard of this Oz could be him.

Every Saturday at 7:30 a.m., Romero would bike to the college, where the students—charmed by his gumption—showed him how to program on refrigerator-size Hewlett-Packard mainframe computers. Developed in the fifties, these were the early giants of the computer industry, monolithic machines that were programmed by inserting series of hole-punched cards that fed the code. IBM, which produced both the computers and the punch card machines, dominated the market, with sales reaching over $7 billion in the 1960s. By the seventies, mainframes and their smaller cousins, the minicomputers, had infiltrated corporations, government offices, and universities. But they were not yet in homes.

For this reason, budding computer enthusiasts like Romero trolled university computer labs, where they could have hands-on access to the machines. Late at night, after the professors went home, students gathered to explore, play, and hack. The computer felt like a revolutionary tool: a means of self-empowerment and fantasy fulfillment. Programmers skipped classes, dates, baths. And as soon as they had the knowledge, they made games.

The first one came in 1958 from the most unlikely of places: a U.S. government nuclear research lab. The head of the Brookhaven Nation Laboratory’s instrumentation division, Willy Higinbotham, was planning a public relations tour of the facility for some concerned local farmers, and needed something to win them over. So, with the help of his colleagues, he programmed a rudimentary tennis simulation using a computer and a small, round oscilloscope screen. The game, which he called “Tennis for 2,” consisted merely of a white dot ball hopping back and forth over a small white line. It thrilled the crowds. Then it was dismantled and put away.

Three years later, in 1961, Steve “Slug” Russell and a group of other students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created Spacewar, on the first minicomputer, the PDP-1. In this game, two players shot up each other’s rocket ships while drifting around a black hole. Ten years later, a programmer and amateur cave explorer in Boston, Will Crowther, created text-based spelunking simulation. When a hacker at Stanford named Don Woods saw the game, he contacted Crowther to see if it was okay for him to modify the game to include more fantasy elements. The result was Colossal Cave Adventure. This gave rise to the text-adventure craze, as students and hackers in computer labs across the country began playing and modifying games of their own—often based on Dungeons and Dragons or Star Trek.

Romero was growing up in the eighties as a fourth-generation game hacker: the first having been the students who worked on the minicomputers in the fifties and sixties at MIT; the second, the ones who picked up the ball in Silicon Valley and at Stanford University in the seventies; the third being the dawning game companies of the early eighties. To belong, Romero just had to learn the language of the priests, the game developers: a programming language called HP-BASIC. He was a swift and persistent student, cornering anyone who could answer his increasingly complex questions.

His parents were less than impressed by his new passion. At issue were Romero’s grades, which had plummeted from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s. He was bright but too easily distracted, they thought, too consumed by games and computers. Despite this being the golden age of video games—with arcade games bringing in $5 billion a year and even home systems earning $1 billion—his stepfather did not believe game development to be a proper vocation. “You’ll never make any money making games,” he often said. “You need to make something people really need, like business applications.”

As the fights with his stepfather escalated, so did Romero’s imagination. He began exorcising the backwash of emotional and physical violence through his illustrations. For years he had been raised on comics—the B-movie horror of E.C. Comics, the scatological satire of MAD, the heroic adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. By age eleven, he churned out his own. In one, a dog named Chewy was invited to play ball with his owner. With a strong throw, the owner hurled the ball into Chewy’s eye, causing the dog’s head to split open and spill out green brains. “The End,” Romero scrawled at the bottom, adding the epitaph “Poor Ol’ Chewy.”


From the Hardcover edition.
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