Book Review: David Kushner’s “Masters of Doom”

Posted by on March 19, 2011 at 10:00 am

Long before Bulletstorm and Gears of War, long before Unreal Tournament and Halo, before deathmatches, WAD files, and the ESRB rating system, there was id. I’ve wanted to pick this book up for a while, even though I never really played Doom or Quake growing up, but it was my obligation as a PC gamer in the late 90s to know who these guys from Mesquite, Texas were. id Software was a champion of industry in my youth and even if they’re no longer the Kings Of The World they were back then, and their engines are no longer being licensed left and right, the journey of id Software and the birth of the first-person shooter is an incredible read.

Masters of Doom is really about two Johns – Carmack and Romero. Both grew up in broken homes and had an undying passion for making games. Carmack was an anti-social, impersonal robot that wanted to lock himself into an office and develop the best game engines, Romero was an extrovert who was interested in making the best games, having a huge fan base and, most of all, get rich doing it. Carmack the tinkerer, Romero the lover. It just so happens that in 1990, they managed to find the same employer in Softdisk, who published magazines on floppy disks. Romero being the more charismatic, influential, and (believe it or not) better programmer, lead them to split from Softdisk when Carmack developed a side-scrolling engine for the underpowered hardware of the PC. Their first task? Covertly make a port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for the fledgling home computer market – using computers “borrowed” from work – and sell it to Nintendo. (They weren’t interested.)

What follows is history. Did you ever play a demo of a game, then immediately go out and buy it? Did you ever download a user-made mod or level for your favorite shooter? Have you ever played a first-person shooter at all? All of these came because of the bright minds at id Software. And while success bought them Ferraris, it also brought about internal strife. I’ve read Geoff Keighley’s excellent report on Ion Storm’s descent from John Romero’s post-id game/ego vehicle to industry embarrassment several times, but it blew my mind that such a struggle existed at id that almost undid the company.

The book is its strongest when it’s detailing the human drama that played out between the makers of Doom and Quake, but falls a little flat as Kushner is obligated to explain many of the technical details that many potential readers are probably well aware of. Published before Doom 3‘s release in 2004 when Carmack was considering a departure from game programming altogether in favor of his rocket science endeavors, it remains compelling without feeling outdated. If you’ve ever wanted to experience an incredible origin story in the gaming industry, you can’t do much better than Masters of Doom.

9/10 FleshEatingZipper

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