Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Masters of Doom: a very short review

Once again, I'm late to the party, in this case an entire decade late, having only recently stumbled across Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.

Masters of Doom is the well-written and engaging story of two guys named John (John Carmack and John Romero), who came together and in a few brief and intense months completely re-invented the entire computer gaming world, inspiring all sorts of critical innovations along the way, and then burst apart, in a collision event that captivated the (relatively) large world centered around them.

I knew much of the outlines of the story of Carmack and Romero, but there were just oodles and oodles of details that I had never been aware of, and Masters of Doom was full of surprises and things that fascinated me:

  • I had absolutely no idea that Carmack and Romero first met and started working together in Shreveport, Louisiana. Masters of Doom is polite and generous about this, but, really: Shreveport? Even in 1989 there were identifiable centers of software activity: Boston; San Francisco; North Carolina's Research Triangle; Redmond, Washington. But Shreveport? How unlikely it was that even one of the Johns would end up in Shreveport, and how spectacularly unlikely it was that the two of them ended up there at the same time. The description of this completely accidental happenstance was, by itself, worth reading the book for. Of course, once they all got together, it wasn't long before they created the classic hacker's house, in a way that could happen anywhere, whether it was in Shreveport, Louisiana or on the face of the moon:
    Carmack, Lane, Jay, and an Apple II programmer at Softdisk named Jason Blochowiak had scored an enviable coup not long before when they found a four-bedroom house for rent right along these shores. Jay had bought a cheap boat, which they docked there and used for frequent outings of kneeboarding and skiing. In the large backyard was a swimming pool and a barbecue, with which Jay, a cooking enthusiast, grilled up Flintstonian slabs of ribs. The house itself had plenty of windows looking out on the scene, a large living room, even a big tiled bathroom with a deep earth-tone-tiled Jacuzzi tub. Jay had installed a beer keg in the fridge. It was a perfect place to make games.
  • I never knew the origin of the name "id Software". I thought it was some sort of psychology reference, but in fact it was a shortened and merged amalgam of the company originally formed by John Romero and Lane Roathe:
    While in New Hampshire, the two even decided to merge their one-man-band companies -- Romero's Capitol Ideas and Lane's Blue Mountain Micro -- under one roof as Ideas from the Deep.


    When the guys christened their company, they shortened the Ideas from the Deep initialism and simply called themselves id, for "in demand". They also didn't mind that, as Tom pointed out, id has another meaning: "the part of the brain that behaves by the pleasure principle."

  • I was fascinated by the description of the special synergy that Romero and Carmack found, each one's strengths complementing the other's. You can't plan for this sort of thing; you can't cause it to be; it just happens, or it doesn't.
    Romero and Carmack were now in a perfect groove, with Carmack improving the new Keen engine -- the code that made the graphics -- while Romero worked on the editor and tools -- the software used to create the game elements. Nothing could distract them.


    Carmack and Romero had developed another aspect of their collaboration. Though Carmack was gifted at creating game graphics, he had little interest in keeping up with the gaming world. He was never a player, really, he only made the games, just as he was the Dungeon Master but not a player of D&D. Romero, by contrast, kept up with everything, all the new games and developers.


    Romero immediately saw the potential in Carmack's technology, potential that Carmack was, by his own admission, not capable of envisioning himself. And because Romero was a programmer, he could speak to Carmack in a language he understood, translating his own artistic vision ino the code Carmack would employ to help bring it to life.


    He played around with rooms that flashed strobe light, with walls that soared and receded at different heights. Every decision he made was based on how he could best show off Carmack's technology. Carmack couldn't have been happier; what more could someone want, after all, than to be both appreciated and celebrated? Romero was just as energized; with Carmack's innovations, he too could reach new heights.

  • I loved the bit of back-story about how Carmack and Romero found themselves inventing the approach of having an extensible gaming engine, with level editing tools that allowed others to create new levels and build entire new games:
    The Right Thing was programming Doom in such a way that willing players could more easily create something like this: StarDoom, a modification, or mod, of their original game.


    For Doom, Carmack organized the data so players could replace sound and graphics in a nondestructive manner. He created a subsystem that separated the media data, called WADs (an acronym suggested by Tom Hall, it stood for Where's All the Data?), from the main program. Every time someone booted up the game, the program would look for the WAD file of sounds and images to load in. This way, someone could simply point the main program to a different WAD without damaging the original contents. Carmack would also upload the source code for the Doom level-editing and utilities program so that the hackers could have the proper tools with which to create new stuff for the game.

  • The best, and most important, part of the book, in my opinion, is the long and detailed retelling of the split of the Johns, as the intense worldwide pressure to follow-up Doom with Quake drove immense tension between them, culminating in the days following the release of Quake to the world.
    The chasm between Carmack and Romero was too wide. Both of them had their veiws of what it meant to make games and how games should be made. Carmack thought Romero had lost touch with being a programmer. Romero thought Carmack had lost touch as a gamer. Carmack wanted to stay small, Romero wanted to get big. The two visions that had once forged this company were irreparably tearing it apart.

There are many other fine parts to this book. I was amazed how the hours just flew by, reading about all the vivid personalities, wild escapades, and spurts of undeniably brilliant creativity.

Perhaps surprisingly, the world of software engineering has been fairly free from the "celebrity biography" genre of reporting. Most of the external coverage of the software industry has focused on the CEOs and entrepeneurs (Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, etc.). I suppose these people are interestnig, although to me their stories always feel dull and uninteresting.

And when there is a book about the people in the trenches, it often involves coverage of an entire project, built by a team, like Tracy Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine, or Katie Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet, or Pascal Zachary's Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft, or Andy Hertzfeld's Revolution in The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made, or any of a number of Steven Levy's books.

I think there is an important reason for this: nearly all world-changing software isn't written by a single person, it's written by a team of people, working together, bringing all sorts of different talents, personalities, and approaches to the project.

Things were different 50 years ago, when you could be Tony Hoare, and with a single burst of inspiration completely alter an entire area of the industry; nowadays, however, things are rather different: GTA 5 dev team size more than 1000, manpower dependent on game detail.

They were casually talking about how a large team is required in the range of 1000 to create games with minute details, and when the question popped up about GTA 5 team’s size, Benzies revealed that it’s much, much more than 1000.

Yes, you read that right: more than 1000 people worked together on GTA V. According to Masters of Doom, the Wolfenstein 3D team was rather smaller:

They had finally fired Jason, narrowing the group to Carmack, Romero, Adrian, and Tom.

Perhaps there's no going back to the days when Carmack and Romero could sit side-by-side in a single room, building breakthrough games and tools like never before.

But just because things are different now, doesn't mean they are worse. I wasn't programming computers in Tony Hoare's day, but after 3 1/2 decades of programming, I've seen lots of approaches, lots of techniques, and lots of personalities.

I've been part of small teams, and part of immense efforts. I've seen solitary geniuses, and engaging, extroverted, and inspirational team builders.

And it's all great.

May there be many more years of programming ahead of us all.

And may there be more books like Masters of Doom, to share the excitement, thrills, and drama with us all.

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