Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
Book Review #01
Doom and Quake are some of the greatest video games ever made, or so I’m told. I never got around to playing them in my childhood because I was too busy either kicking around in FIFA or shooting and running people over in GTA, often running someone over before shooting them.
John Carmack appeared on Lex Fridman’s podcast earlier this year for a five hour conversation about game development and programming and whatnot. Carmack was the co-founder of id Software, the company behind Quake and Doom, and is generally considered a god among coders and gamers alike. As Lex repeatedly called him “the greatest programmer ever”, I Googled around and learned about Masters of Doom, a popular book that chronicles the rise of id throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
In a short 300 pages, Masters of Doom narrates the story of id Software, the making of their most popular releases, and the subsequent fallout of the company and the people within. While it goes into considerable detail on how id was formed and how it managed to become a giant in gaming, at the very core of the book is a story of two people.
Along with Carmack, John Romero is the other co-founder of id who also became a messianic figure among American gamers. (A running joke in the book is how whenever Romero would go to a gaming convention, other game enthusiasts would fake-bow to him and chant “We’re not worthy.”) Opposite in temperament to Carmack but equally passionate about building great games, he became id’s chief level designer and the public face of the company.
The tale of the “two Johns” follows a similar arc to that of Lennon & McCartney or Jobs & Wozniak: it’s the story of two hugely talented and passionate weirdos with complimentary skillsets, who become friends and propel each other to greatness in their field, but whose success inevitably drives them apart.
The two Johns meet by coincidence in their early twenties and immediately see the same flame burning within the other. While they’re colleagues working for a software company, they decide to start their own gaming venture by stealing their employer’s computers at night and working on company time. In a bizarre twist the employer finds out, but instead of firing them he offers them a deal to finance their startup, such is their potential.
Carmack is portrayed as a stone cold, possibly-autistic genius who happily worked 16 hour days and designed the engines for each game, while Romero is portrayed as the louder, more extroverted gaming enthusiast who designed the levels and gameplay on top of Carmack’s engines.
In the process of describing the rise and fall of id the book frequently goes into the various idiosyncrasies of tech, startup, and gaming cultures. There are frequent descriptions of id’s office being littered with empty pizza boxes and Diet Coke cans, as well as broken monitors and keyboards being strewn everywhere after intense coding sessions. These guys would work 80 hour weeks in a company with no formal management, lacking any sense of hygiene or decorum, functioning purely on passion. It’s every startup founder’s wet dream. A scene that sticks out is when Carmack is programming alone one night amidst an intense thunderstorm. The neighborhood has been flooded. And still, Romero shows up at the office soon after, drenched from head to toe, having waded through the waters just to get to the office and work all night.
Apart from the main story the book also goes into the video game industry’s battle with legislation and censorship, its distribution methods, other popular releases of that era, and the various people who populated id throughout its tenure - but there’s too many to keep track of, or even care about.
And that’s pretty much it. One major flaw of Doom is that it’s impossible to be interested in it if you’re not into video games. It does have the general spirit of an entrepreneurial story, but goes into myriad details about how Carmack wrote an engine to perform a new technological miracle or how Romero came up with another brilliant concept. Which is a good thing, but they could make the book tedious for someone who’s never played an FPS (or doesn’t even know what an FPS is). There’s lots of drama as well, but it won’t be interesting enough if the games around which the drama takes place aren’t interesting to you in the first place.
I also don’t think it’s written from a neutral perspective. The author in the acknowledgements thanks the two Johns for letting him spend time with them, so it’s no surprise that Doom paints an extremely sympathetic picture of both. But there are unflattering facades underneath: Romero seems like a terrible husband and an absent father with major anger issues. In a chilling scene Carmack gives away his own cat to the local shelter simply because it becomes too much of a nuisance and distracts him from work.
That the book is short is both a boon and a bane: since a huge span of time has to be covered, we get only a surface level understanding of every character, even the two Johns. And because so much happens, beyond a certain point it’s hard to care about person x getting fired or game y not doing well. Thankfully, by the time you’re done being bombarded with so many details, the book is over.
Overall, I think Masters of Doom is quite overrated. The lessons it teaches about software engineering are obvious ones. I think tech folks love it because it’s one of the few books that not just bothers to delve deep into the kind of startup culture Silicon Valley admires, but then portrays it in a favourable light.
But generally it doesn’t leave too deep of a mark. I can’t imagine I’ll remember a single detail about it except for the general high-agency spirit embodied by its protagonists. (This is something I got from The Social Network as well, coincidentally, but that film is a better work of art in just about every other aspect.) It’s a spirit of weirdos ignoring all conventional rules and working very hard to accomplish great things, everything-else-be-damned. It’s a spirit best surmised by Carmack himself:
“In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”