Only a handful of computer games have broken out of the gamer community and into the collective consciousness. I think it’s fair to count Doom among them. It was created, in no small part, by the two Johns of Id Software.
Although there’s a huge cast of characters, Masters of Doom focuses on these two as it charts their personal and collective stories, a narrative intertwined with the rise of the computer games industry as it moved from coloured blocks to environments rendered in 3D.
The book’s quite light on technical detail, which isn’t a bad thing, instead focusing on the chaos, outlandish-prank-filled, pizza-powered, caffeine-fueled journey from bedroom coders to multimillionaires that the two industry titans followed.
At times it veers towards Wolf of Wall Street territory in terms of insanity, albeit with less drugs, sex and booze. Young guys earning big bucks is a recipe for over-the-top antics it seems. Even the stoic Carmack gets in on the act with a love of Ferraris that seems out of character.
To a lesser extent it’s a handbook for tech businesses and an insight into the modern startup world, with Id operating a hacker house long before the term existed. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway: the tech may change but the path to success is paved by crazed devotees working long hours on things they love.
Although the small software shop still exists, and still works, most big titles now are long, costly affairs that employ a team of people more akin to a Hollywood production. It’s far removed from those early days. This book shows how, when an industry is still young, individuals can cast big shadows by forging a path through the unknown.
While it delivers on the promise of journaling the days up to even the later versions of Doom and Quake, the story kind of fizzles out without an ending. The two protagonists are still working (this was written in 2003), let alone still alive. Some sort of interview with them, looking back, might have been a fitting conclusion.
That said, it’s a fascinating look at a formative time for an industry that still sails under the radar, but which is the highest grossing entertainment sector in the world.