Mar 202013

I don’t know of anyone from my generation who did not at least hear of Doom.  This one game – first released in 1993 – was the single most eagerly awaited offering of any software company to that time, was a landmark event that crashed the servers of the hosting BBS one minute after the midnight “opening”, and was reputedly the second most common reason quoted for the loss of productivity in offices worldwide (solitaire being the first).

As a working pro who corrupted every team of auditors for three years into playing deathmatch games after hours in our darkened offices, I can testify to that game’s addiction, adrenaline pumping action and (for its time) absolutely stunning graphics in a fully realized, spatially coherent 3d world.  It went beyond the trials of its zany predecessor Wolfenstein, made shareware common, game software respectable and launched a thousand coders into the gameworld. Even its terms have entered the common speech: Deathmatch, BFG, frag, First Person Shooter…Doom started a tidal wave in popular techno-culture that is with us still.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture seeks to go behind the scenes and trace the origins and development of the geniuses behind the game:  John Romero and John Carmack .  They were two guys barely out of their teens, but had already amassed experience coding games, and were the first (together) to create games that scrolled smoothly from side to side.  The success they had with one of these – Commander Keene – led to another game which I obsessively played, Wolfenstein (long range thanks to John, who provided the 1.44mb diskettes which loaded it onto my computers all those years ago), that also enjoyed considerable popularity.

While Romero was the ideas man, it was Carmack who was the programmer who created the realistic 3d modelling engine that gave the games their realism and quasi-3d feel.

And then of course, there came Doom.

The book is a relatively short read at 300 pages, and while it covers the history of the founders, it also is a sort of introduction to the programming subculture made famous years later by the Google corporate ethos. A bunch of guys simply got together with some great ideas, programmed like crazy for weeks on end, living like hermits on pop and pizza and in the process created not only fantastic games but charted a course which all first person shooters subsequently followed. MoD discusses the role of the two egocentric and driven founders of id Software, the way they came up with ideas, the programming of the 3d engine that underlay Doom, and intersperses the lot with witty anecdotes about matters as varied as the reason for naming WAD files as such, what a BFG is, how the shareware concept evolved and the origin of the word Deathmatch.

As with all supernovas, things had to come to an end. Creative differences led to a dissolution of the friendship and business association between the two men and the team they had built up: MoD discusses this frankly and in surprising detail. In fact, the book could be seen as a sort of primer not only of programmers’ secret lives, but on how tech startups start great, develop some kind of killer-app, and then either fly high or flame out. It doesn’t stop with Doom either, but continues into the new century and gives weight to subsequent events like the development of Quake, and where the founders are now (well…then: it was published in 2003).

The reason I post this review is because I not only loved the game and am a bona fide trivia- and history nut, but because it is a remarkably tense, tight and interesting read (especially if the subject matter appeals to you). The chapters on how they posted the first shareware version on the University of Wisconsin – Madison server in December 1993, opened the file up for download at midnight and crashed one minute later due to overload; the section on how amazing the reception was, both by the gaming community and average office Joes the world over;  and the popularity of Deathmatch…they are well written, well paced and a wonderfully fun read.

In comparison with the white-hot writing style portrayed in this short book, I found “The Ultimate History of Video Games” which should have been a great piece of work, simply plodding, pedestrian and  plain boring. No such problems afflict Masters of Doom, and if you have an affinity and sneaking affection for behind-the-scenes work of software (games!) publication, then this book describing the early years of the industry will not disappoint.

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