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BOOK REVIEW by J.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner

In the early to mid 1980s, computers were just becoming mainstream in America. The Apple II and the Commodore 64 were the machines in everyone's living room, and the 3D graphics that are so commonplace today were only done on huge mainframe computers that took up a building's worth of space and air-conditioning. Games were the "killer app" though, and anyone who could program on those systems could literally strike it rich with one good game.

John Carmack and John Romero epitomized those early pioneers of video gaming.  Their story is told in Masters of Doom, which details the evolution of iD software and Carmack and Romeroís influence on what has become one of the most compelling forms of entertainment ever created.

Before the Pentium was even a gleam in Intel's eye, the two Johns were cranking out games at an incredible rate and selling them through something called "shareware". The concept: you bought a portion of the game for a low price (or received it as a gift). If you liked it, you could then buy the rest of the game.

Back then you either bought the game at the store or mail-ordered it. Some of the big sellers of the time, such as Commander Keen, were sold this way. Although the evolution of the computer and the internet would soon make the concept obsolete, it propelled the two Johns to millionaire status and beyond.

The two Johns started in a ramshackle building in Shreveport LA, and went on to occupy the top floor of one of the tallest office buildings in Dallas.  Eventually they were buying Ferraris out of the royalties from classic games such as Doom and Quake. Their rise and fall is told in an easy to read narrative of the history of games that are still having an impact today.

In the late 1980s, games were strictly 2-D affairs. But Wolfenstein 3-D brought players into a new dimension. That continued through the evolution of one of the biggest games of all time Doom, and then reached even greater heights in Quake and Quake II.

John Carmack was the brains behind iD software, and his programming would forever change the way we interact with the PC. John Romero was the consummate gamer, the industry's first rock star, and his spectacular flame-out while building Ion Storm and his ultimate game Daikatana is both a fascinating story and a cautionary tale.

The book doesn't delve into any technical discussions on how the games were created, which makes it an easy read for anyone with an interest in the history of computer gaming. Instead, it goes into detail as to what drives people obsessed with creating something that hasn't been seen before, and how those creations can be both inspiring and destructive.

Carmack would get so involved in programming he'd subsist for weeks at a time on pizza and soda, alone in a room with his computer. Romero, on the other hand, would be utterly focused on design, on making the game so compelling that no one who'd seen it would be able to take their eyes from it. For many years that worked, until their differences drove them apart in a split that rocked the gaming world.

Masters of Doom is an excellent read for anyone who's interested in the history of computer gaming as well as someone who would like to get into the business. Times have changed since the days when Doom and Quake first came out, and games now cost tens of millions of dollars to make and even more to promote. But if you'd like to go back to the time when programmers in their garage could make millions on one great idea, you'll flip over Masters of Doom

 

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