Ask someone to name the greatest video games of all time, and odds are that DOOM will be among the titles they come back with. The blood-soaked first-person shooter is widely considered one of the most influential games ever made, and designer John Romero was one of its chief architects.
Romero’s role in the creation of DOOM is covered in fascinating detail in DOOM Guy: Life in First Person, his new autobiography from Abrams Books. DOOM Guy also dives into the often-challenging circumstances of Romero’s early life, as well as the highs and lows of a career that spans almost four decades.
Cultured Vultures recently caught up with Romero to talk about DOOM Guy’s biggest revelations, including his reflections on the making of DOOM, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, and more.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOOM Guy starts with you recalling a talk you gave at a conference held by a game company based in eastern Canada. Was the reaction to that talk, which revealed a lot about your experiences growing up that wasn’t widely known, what prompted you to write the book? Yeah, actually, it was. It was from that talk that I gave and how surprised people were after I gave the talk because they didn’t really know that information, like where I came from and how I grew up and everything. And another reason for writing the book is just for game history. There’s so much info out there and some of it’s kind of muddy and this account I’d say is the authoritative account. And [id Software co-founder] John Carmack read it and he provided feedback on some technical details, and so did [other id co-founders] Tom [Hall] and Adrian [Carmack]. So, you know it, it’s an unlikely tale. I come from a distinctly disadvantaged background, but if I can do it, anyone can.
At the same time, readers going into DOOM Guy expecting you to rain down fire on your supposed enemies are in for a shock, since your recollections are infused with an overwhelming amount of optimism and gratitude. Similarly, you put a positive spin on your failures with the video game-inspired mantra “Load your save and try again”. How much of your success would you chalk up to this positive mindset?
Geez, I guess that there would be a lot chalked up to positivity. Being positive is a tremendous asset. Why would someone want to do something new if it wasn’t positive and interesting and fun and cool? That’s what positivity is and getting other people excited about it and getting them to work with you to make it. It all feeds into a team – a special team culture to create something really interesting. And that is what I’ve always liked to do, is to work with other people and to try and do something really great and see if we can pull it off.
Earlier you mentioned John Carmack, who was one of your id Software co-founders. You met Carmack during your stint at Softdisk quite early in your career, and in DOOM Guy, you describe him as one of the first people to really get you. What made you and Carmack such kindred spirits?
I think a lot of it had to do with the singular focus on programming that we had in game development [and] that, luckily, we started back in the day, pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-notifications, pre-cell phone. There was nothing to disturb us. You know, when we were in the room working, there was nothing but someone walking in the door that would stop us from doing what we were doing.
But the level of knowledge of a computer [Carmack and I had] was great. Like, we had that same level [of knowledge]. The knowledge of the language we used, the amount of focus and time we would dedicate to doing our craft was equal and I never met anyone else that was as dedicated as I was, you know?
And so, we really did hit it off, as the first thing we had to do was kind of a trial by fire. We had to make two games in one month and ship it and that was using all the hours to do that. But we really did learn, like, “Wow, this is someone to work with. This is somebody dedicated and they did a great job, did what they needed to do, no complaints, all just positive stuff every single day.” It was amazing.
You also met id’s other co-founders, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack, at Softdisk, and you formed quite a strong bond with them as well. What was it about Tom and Adrian that impressed you so much?
Well, Tom is hilarious for one and I love humor, and so we both understood humor together. And Tom also was a really accomplished programmer. He was an assembly language programmer, just like John and me. So, we had a shared knowledge of what it took to know what we knew and to be dedicated to making games. Tom had made dozens of games before we got together, so that was just a great team.
And Adrian was an intern at the company when I found him there and he was learning how to put a pixel on the screen. He’d never made art on the computer but on paper. Oh my God, his art was incredible. So, he was already a really great artist, but on the computer, he was just learning how to do that right then.
So, it was great that I could pull him into my department and really teach him, like, “This is what we need. And this is these are the dimensions, and this is how it works.” It was just the best, you know? And I never had a dedicated artist up until that point in my career, so I loved that.
The four of you together co-founded id Software, and your first franchise was 90s side-scroller series, Commander Keen. Those games were critically and commercially successful, however, as you point out in DOOM Guy, they’re now effectively a “footnote” in id’s history. What aspects of the Commander Keen games’ legacy would you like to hear talked about more?
Jeez, I’d say first of all, most importantly, Commander Keen made it possible for the PC to have smooth side-scrolling like an Atari 800 or a Commodore 64 or an NES, or a Super Nintendo. It made the PC a console, really, because now the ability to make games just like those other platforms [on the PC] just happened at that time. We were the ones to unlock that potential, and it was actually huge.
The reviews back then were just mind-blowing reviews because no one had ever seen this before, and they felt so happy that the PC was now a contender for a game console. So [Commander Keen] is a footnote, but for us, it was a really important one, because that’s what got us started. It’s what got the company started and it got us really focused on, “What do we do? What do we do next?”
And that’s when we basically decided to go 3D. It took a while to get there. Over the course of a year, we made a couple of games to get us to 3D, but then Wolfenstein was the full pivot.
Speaking of Wolfenstein 3D, in DOOM Guy, you reveal that the game initially hewed more closely to the proto-stealth template of Muse Software’s original Castle Wolfenstein games on the Apple II. Do you ever regret jettisoning mechanics like dragging around dead Nazi bodies, or is focusing Wolfenstein 3D on fast-paced FPS gameplay something you’ve never second-guessed?
Yeah, absolutely. It was the best decision [to drop the stealth elements]. There was no game like it, you know? There was no game that fast on anything that was 3D. It had never happened before on any platform that anyone’s ever played a game on.
So, making and focusing on Wolfenstein’s speed was critical for us to have a distinct advantage, and also to point the direction forward, like, “This is where 3D is going.” It’s for speed. It’s for making games at a high frame rate. Whether you move through them fast or not is kind of up to the design, but the fact that the frame rate could be so high on a computer that’s just a 386 it was, it was really a shift in the industry at that time because no one was focusing on being able to do that.
We jumped right into it, and the reason why the game is the way it is is because when you’re making a game, you’re listening to it as you’re developing it. And the game is going to reveal itself at some point, as you’re putting stuff in and taking stuff out, and it’s taking shape, and that game’s shape was all about pure speed. It wasn’t about blood. It wasn’t about guts. It wasn’t about humor, even. It was about about playing in 3D at a high speed and that’s what we focused everything on.
So, it was it was the right decision. There’s no way we could – we would never go, “You know what? We should have kept on dragging those bodies to slow the game down.” It’s confusing to a player if they’re playing a high-speed game and now, they have to stop. “Wait a minute. Should I not be running?” There should not be any kind of pause there. It should be full-on do it.
The speed of Wolfenstein 3D’s gameplay was well-received at the time, but as you alluded to just now, so too was the game’s level of immersion. What do you think was the secret to that immersion? Was it just the 3D graphics? Or did other elements play a part as well?
Well, the first-person viewpoint really helped, because it felt like it was you there. But also the digital sound – for the first time, people could hear digital audio. You can hear characters talking and saying things, and that was not a thing that people had heard in a game in a long time.
The original Wolfenstein in 1981 actually did have digital audio, and that was one of the few games back then that did it because it used so much memory to make that audio happen. But with our with Wolfenstein, we could do a lot of that because, remember, it had been 10 years of development and digital audio technology [since the original game came out].
So, we were able to record our voices at 11 kHz, which is a pretty low bit rate, but it still sounded good, and we could put a lot of those [recordings] in there and just make the game feel like that’s natural. Hearing the sound of an enemy or the sound of something digitally shouldn’t feel like a special treat – it should just be the way it is. And that’s what we tried to do with Wolfenstein, to make that as natural as possible, so people playing it would go, “This is the new way games are now. This is what we are expecting.”
We really did try to do several cool things in Wolfenstein, like digital audio and feed and texture mapping and VGA, and the World War II theme itself was hugely inspirational. Call of Duty, Battlefield, you name it – all those games [released post-Wolfenstein 3D] were still honing that original design of the weapons and everything.
Wolfenstein 3D encouraged the id Software team to forge ahead both with the FPS genre and 3D games, resulting in 1993’s DOOM. In DOOM Guy, you highlight DOOM’s many innovations, including superior graphics and level designs, co-op and multiplayer deathmatches, and dedicated modding support. However, you also acknowledge that DOOM had essentially the same storytelling-lite approach as Wolfenstein 3D. Later entries in the DOOM franchise – particularly those published by Bethesda Softworks – have made story and lore elements a much bigger part of the gameplay experience. What’s your reaction to that? Well, it’s kind of the natural order of things, you know? Like, there are so many games that have a lot of narrative in them now because people are kind of expecting it. Some games don’t have any and it’s on purpose, but when you have a game that has an intellectual property that has a history, that has characters, the evolution to telling those stories is a natural one.
Getting Wolfenstein to a point where [its story] could be developed, some of those ideas could be developed – some more about Hitler looking for more occult objects, or even [protagonist] B.J. having a family, and having those family members have a story – it was a great development of that intellectual property [by id Software and Bethesda Softworks].
So, I’m really happy to see it and I totally expected it would happen. I’m happy because we would have done that if we kept on making Wolfenstein games.
After DOOM came DOOM II in 1994, which had the challenge of refining and expanding upon a game many pundits and players already thought of as perfect. Fortunately, you managed to pull it off, and DOOM II also enjoyed strong reviews and even stronger sales. What single aspect of DOOM II do you think is most responsible for elevating it above the original game?
There was more than one thing, but number one was we did not change the formula for the game. It was critical that we retained everything that we already put in the original DOOM, because that worked really well, so we didn’t want to break it or change it. We wanted to add to it. So, the [big] addition to DOOM II was the double-barrel shotgun. We already had a lot of weapons, but the double-barrel shotgun we knew was the missing weapon that we really wanted.
We added that weapon and then we felt that our palette was a little small with the amount of creatures that we could put in there, the enemies that the player had [to fight], we needed to really expand that. And we did, we put a lot of extra enemies in the game, and that made the combat interactions way more interesting. We had a lot more of a palette there to build our combat interactions. So, it was the extra characters, it was the double-barrel shotgun, and it was “Do not fix what’s not broken.”
And we had been making levels for at least half a year, just because the very beginning of the development of DOOM was a lot of level editor creation and experimentation. Somewhere near the middle of the year [on DOOM], we really started making levels, but DOOM II was a way for us to really focus on just making really great levels based on what we knew already.
We already had a whole game full of examples of how to make levels. Now we could go beyond that, and that was really exciting, to make better levels.
It’s interesting you mentioned not wanting to change the formula because that was actually the mindset going into Quake initially, which followed DOOM II. John Carmack set to work on a new, fully 3D engine and you began to map out a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired action RPG with an emphasis on melee combat, which you describe in detail in DOOM Guy. Yet when Quake finally dropped in 1996, it was an FPS in the same mold as DOOM. Do you think there’s an alternate reality in which the action RPG version of Quake happens?
Yeah, I think so. John and I had talked about this recently: what could have been a couple of different outcomes for the team to not be burned out at the point where we needed to start working on the design [of Quake]?
One of them was that we could have worked on less of a jump in technology and just did a mini jump in tech to add internet multiplayer and mouse look and make a new game using that. That would be enough of a huge tech jump that a lot of players would have to learn this new method of looking around an environment, and also just playing over the internet, so that would’ve been really great.
Then the next thing we could have done was full 3D for Quake and then we would experiment with the new game design. So, we could have split it up into two game releases instead of trying to put it all in one game release. That would have been easier on the team because we would have been making something using the DOOM II engine before and extending that. And then we would have shifted to a new engine but without all of the other work that we had to do before. We would have been really used to that kind of movement and we would have known how to develop the next engine even better.
And maybe 3D cards would have been coming out, and it would have made our life easier. Not having to write a full software rasterizer, because that was really one of the biggest problems: the rasterization of those textures on the screen at high speed and in correct perspective. So, yeah, a couple of smaller jumps would have probably helped.
Quake’s difficult development cycle also caused a rift between you and John Carmack, culminating in your resignation from id soon after the game shipped. While you make it clear in DOOM Guy that you and Carmack are on good terms today, you also suggest the conflict could’ve been avoided entirely. How would 2023 John Romero have handled the situation with Carmack?
I think that we would have had a discussion before going into what we would have been working on next and talked about the ideas for what we want to do next – say it’s Quake – and assessed the timeline that it might take to get that technology developed. If it’s an R&D task that has no real estimates for how long some of these things would take, we would decide to break it up.
We would decide that maybe he wants to go ahead and put it all in one game and if we were going to do that, then I would say, “I’ll get the artists and the level designers and we will make another game using the DOOM II engine – maybe we’ll call it ‘DOOM III’ or something – and you go ahead and make that that [new] game, so we don’t have a team that’s burned out. Instead, we have a team that’s running and making new things.”
And when it was time to actually start working on Quake, we would have been shipping another game and we would be ready to develop the next one. There would be nobody burnt out or tired or just not wanting to go into R&D mode again, you know? That’s what we would have done. We would have actually done a lot better planning and guesstimating that thing.
That’s hindsight, but also the benefit of age, isn’t it? Because you were both quite young during the development of Quake.
Absolutely. I was 26 when DOOM was released.
After leaving id Software, you founded a new studio, Ion Storm, with Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty. In DOOM Guy, you take responsibility for both Ion Storm’s failure and the poor critical and commercial response to its flagship title, Daikatana. What were the key lessons you learned from both Daikatana’s troubled development and Ion Storm’s subsequent demise?
Well, first you need to know your founders really well – it’s critical. Before we started id, John and I worked intensely together, and we knew that we could depend on each other. Like, we spent every minute for so long, every day for months, for half a year at least [working together]. And so that really did get us used to, “Who am I? Who am I joining forces with?” And I think that that is something that you really need to understand: that you need to spend time with people that you might found a company with to make the possibility of it succeeding higher.
So, that would have been a better idea. Now, I say everything kind of stemmed from that, you know? Making sure that the right people are there at the very beginning and that you are responding immediately to any concerns that anybody has on the [development] team – that’s really important and I didn’t do that. And that caused a lot of people to just lose faith in the fact that I’m standing up for them or that I’m interested in getting the game done.
But true to form, in DOOM Guy, you also highlight the positives to come out of Ion Storm, particularly the output of the studio’s Austin, Texas branch. Of the games Ion Storm developed, which are you proudest of?
Well, definitely Deus Ex [laughs]. It’s such a great game. It was so great because you hope that when you give somebody the right environment to make a game, that it will happen, and it totally did.
My faith in [Deus Ex director] Warren [Spector] was really well founded. He took advantage of the opportunity in the best way possible and made something that people had never seen before, and it was just incredible. He did such a great job, and the team was amazing down there in Austin, and we’re really proud of it. When you look at the timeline of Ion Storm, the company was around for, I think, about 10 years before it got shut down fully. And that’s a long time for a company.
Speaking of companies, you and your wife Brenda have now established Romero Games in Ireland. As you note in DOOM Guy, one of the first games you published under that banner was 2017’s Gunman Taco Truck, a rogue-like conceived and co-created by your son Donovan. One of the key themes in the book is your love for your children and your relationships with them, so you must be especially thrilled to see some of them starting to enter the same field as you?
Yeah, almost everybody in the family has been part of game creation at one point or another.
It was really great to see Donovan doing an interview with The Wall Street Journal. That was awesome. Or seeing Michael, when he first started programming, just seeing his focus and intensity and his willingness to do the right thing, to learn things the right way. I would give him advice and he would absolutely follow it and it was just amazing. And it’s been 14 years since he got in the industry, and he’s still doing it, doing really well.
Avalon has been working with our shop for a long time. She knows everything about it, she tests our games. Maezza designs games, she writes narrative, she handles our community management. She just does all kinds of stuff. So yeah, they’ve gotten to do a lot of different things, so it’s really cool.
One of the more touching moments late in DOOM Guy is when you get a call from your former id Software colleague Kevin Cloud telling you that Bethesda wants to feature Sigil – nine new missions you made that collectively serve as DOOM’s unofficial-official fifth episode – as part of the official DOOM console re-releases in 2020. How did it feel to be welcomed back into the fold after nearly 25 years?
It was great, and the nice thing was [Sigil] was free. Like, “It’s free, you guys just take it.” I guess one of the reasons why that choice was made also is that most people when they make levels for DOOM, they make them for DOOM II. Most levels are made for DOOM II because the palette is so much wider. But there’s not as many people making DOOM mods. So, the fact that I chose DOOM [as the basis for Sigil] made it pretty unique – that was an additional helpful part of the decision process. But it was also really fun. [Bethesda] saw that people were reviewing it positively and thinking that it was really cool to see levels again like that because that design style isn’t really around nowadays.
You originally intended to follow up Sigil with Blackroom: a VR-themed FPS spearheaded by you and Adrian Carmack. Blackroom’s Kickstarter campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, which you attribute in large part to the decision to launch without a demo. Had you and Adrian ignored your consultants’ advice and launched with a demo, are you still confident Blackroom could’ve happened?
I don’t know. The game design I’d say was a little too conceptual versus very straightforward – like DOOM is a very straightforward design. Blackroom was definitely more of a stretch for people conceptually to understand what it is that you’re trying to do [in the game].
It’s like not every game designer when they have a design idea – not everybody’s interested in that game design idea. So, we did make a really cool video and I think the video was interesting, but ultimately that video was shown to a lot of companies, and they decided that it was probably too abstract or too conceptual to get.
For every 20 game ideas that are floated, maybe one will get to market. It could even be 100 game ideas. There’s a lot of ideas people have. But it’s fine because I came up with another idea that I think is really great and that’s what we’re making right now.
I’ll jump on that in a minute, but first I have to ask: have you ever considered making an actual VR game? Or was playing with the concept in Blackroom as far as your interest in VR gaming goes? The funny thing is Blackroom wasn’t a VR game – it was a game about VR. So, making a VR game, I haven’t wanted to jump in there because I have seen the struggles of VR as a development platform and it’s people trying to make it do things that other platforms do well, but it’s different in VR because it’s a different console. It’s got a different type of input and it has a different kind of stress on players and on our expectations.
I do love doing things in VR if they’re designed well for VR. But I haven’t played enough VR stuff to see if the solution to going through in a shooter [in VR] has been done really well because what I’ve seen is a lot of teleporting, and to me that is not the solution to movement through a space that is expected to have you running through it with a gun, shooting stuff. Teleportation, to me, is not the solution.
I’m waiting for a solution to come out and for people to really get it, but VR is such a small segment [of the market]. It’s kind of too small for a lot of big developers to jump into just cause the money isn’t there. You can’t throw an AAA team on it. But it’s still out there, it’s still going, and I think people are still gonna try and someone’s gonna solve it.
So finally, as you alluded to before, DOOM Guy ends with you teasing an upcoming FPS project, which will bring together “modern tech with a combination of old-school and contemporary design sensibilities.” Can I wheedle any additional details about the game out of you?
I can’t talk about the game design, but we are using Unreal 5. And it’s amazing what you can do with Unreal 5. Some of that technology is just great. It’s fast, it’s professional. It’s an engine that ships games and that’s important: for your tech risk to be really low, to have an engine that’s proven it ships games. This engine, you can trust it. So, we’re really happy with it and we’re really happy with the progress we’ve made on the game.
DOOM Guy: Life in First Person is available from July 20th, 2023. An advance copy was provided for the purposes of this feature.
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