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John Romero

What happened in the world in 1993? Czechoslovakia separated in a peaceful process into two countries. Bill Clinton became the 42nd president of the USA. A bomb detonated in the basement of the World Trade Center. Janet Reno became the first female Attorney General of the USA. Jiang Zemin became President of the People’s Republic of China. The WHO declared tuberculosis a global emergency. A “fan” stabbed Monica Seles in the back. Crowds were protesting against Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade. Andrew Miles solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France. The Maastricht Treaty took effect, creating the European Union. And finally, the Hubble Space Telescope took pictures without suffering from myopia.

1993 was also the year when a small team in a cube-shaped office in Mesquite, Texas, created one of the most influential games ever released: Doom. They were John & Adrian Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall, Kevin Cloud, Sandy Petersen, Shawn Green, Dave Taylor, Jay Wilbur, American McGee, and Donna Jackson. Of them, John Carmack was already a celebrity, having invented the “adaptive tile refresh” algorithm that made scrolling platform games blazingly fast on old clunky IBM PCs, a trick that not even Nintendo had been able to pull out of their hat.

Fast forward 25 years, in the Vidéothèque movie of this month, John Romero told the story of how Doom was made at the stage of the WeAreDevelopers conference.

This is a tale of a very cocky team that boasted and delivered outstandingly. You have been warned; do not try this on your team. They started in January of 1993 by sending a press release telling the world about the game, even though not a single line had been written yet. Talk about being arrogant confident.

They were not on their first try, by far; id Software had already released top-rated games and was very well-known in the gaming world. They had hits such as Commander Keen (1990) and Wolfenstein 3D, the latter inspired by a classic Apple II game from 1981. They were so well-known that the 20th Century Fox movie studio contacted them to create a game for… the Aliens franchise. That is celebrity status.

The video tells the story of the game’s development, from its announcement in January to its final upload to the University of Wisconsin FTP server on December 10th, 1993. It starts with John Carmack buying an eleven-thousand (“cash on delivery”) dollar NeXT computer, learning Objective-C, and using it to create parts of the game. This story would increase the legend around the magnesium cube-shaped computer through the years.

A cube-shaped computer in a cube-shaped building.

During his speech, John Romero provided helpful insight into their game development methodology. These are all important and valuable ideas that would benefit most teams today.

  • Tom Hall wrote “The Doom Bible,” an entire book (essentially, a spec document) specifying every single detail of the game: character backgrounds, location, situations, etc.
  • They bought guns… in a toy store… and scanned and incorporated them into the game. The chainsaw was a real one, although it leaked oil.
  • After trying clay models, they hired a sculptor to create latex models of their main characters.
  • Work on the game involved coding it… and lots of less glamorous tasks: logo and box cover design; menus; installation scripts; text files; serial code number generation; game maps; and much more.
  • Inspired by a paper about Binary Space Partitioning, John Carmack created an even better 3D engine. Said 3D engine would become another best-selling byproduct in its own right, bringing even more fame and cash to id Software.
  • They released quite a few “alpha” and “beta” versions, gathering early feedback from users.
  • When asked about the 2005 movie inspired by the game (starring Rosamund Pike, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Karl Urban,) John Romero responds: “No.”
  • And finally, what about version control? “Didn’t happen.”

Doom was released to the world on Friday, December 19th, 1993. The day before, the US Congress held a much-publicized debate about the morality of video games and their influence in the youth. The timing of the release could not have been more perfect. In his 2003 book “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture” (an ideal complement to this month’s video,) David Kushner wrote about that day:

Finally, the clock struck midnight. They would have to wait no more. Jay hit the button to upload it to the world. Everyone in the office cheered. But Jay was silent. He sat wrinkling his forehead and tapping his keyboard. There was a problem. The University of Wisconsin FTP site could accommodate only 125 people at any given moment. Apparently, 125 gamers were waiting online. Id couldn’t get on.

Oh, and John Carmack solved one last deal-breaking bug in just five minutes shortly before the final uploading.

To say that Doom was a success is an understatement. As reported by NBC News,

“Doom” soon found its way onto record numbers of computers, and the company was raking in $100,000 per day from $9 shareware purchases — and the free first episode was installed on millions of computers. It was so popular that Microsoft commissioned a port of the game for Windows 95, with then-CEO Bill Gates even appearing in a video promoting the game and Microsoft’s new operating system.

Doom has since been ported to almost every CPU architecture, operating system, and hardware combo released in the past 30 years, including WebAssembly (which makes it possible to play the game on your browser) and more. In the words of Romero, it pioneered all of the elements of modern video games: 3D, FPS or “first-person shooter,” modding, multiplayer, and the shareware free-to-play business model. In particular, adding modding as a feature made Doom a complete platform upon which generations of fans created and shared countless extensions.

Learn more about Doom and id Software by watching this month’s Vidéothèque movie, “DOOM’s Development: A Year of Madness” on YouTube. And subscribe to the WeAreDevelopers channel, which contains material of excellent quality.

Cover snapshot by the author.

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