Masters of Doom is the story of John Carmack and John Romero, the forces behind some of the most notoriously successful video game franchises in history. The duo played a large role in shaping the modern-day gaming landscape. Carmack’s technological innovation combined with Romero’s ambition was a winning combination until eventually, like all great things, it came to an end.
It’s been a while since a book has kept me up until 4am because I couldn’t stop reading it, but that was the case with Masters of Doom. David Kushner’s novel is just flat-out entertaining to read, but there are also some really interesting takeaways that I thought were worth sharing with you.
Games Create Novel Worlds
Humans have been using techniques to create and participate in new worlds for a long time. Past civilizations did this through illustrations and written words. As children, we use our imagination to transport ourselves into these stories.
We grow up, but our primal desire to explore new worlds never goes away. I don’t think it ever will. This is why video games are so important.
Gamers overlooked the crudeness for what the games implied: a novelistic and participatory experience, a world.
Though Carmack was not aware of it, he was joining a pursuit that had begun thousands of years before. The dream of a realistic, immersive, interactive experience had consumed humankind for millennia. Some believed it to be a primal desire. Dating from 15,000 b.c.e., cave paintings in Lascaux, in the south of France, were considered to be among the first “immersive environments,” with images that would give the inhabitant the feeling of entering another world.
This belief has existed since ancient Greece, when Plato said, “Every man and woman should play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present.
Don’t Wait for the Muse
If you want to create something, it’s best not to wait around for inspiration to strike. If you don’t have anything original to contribute, that’s okay. Use other people’s ideas and you will eventually form your own.
The reality is that everything is built on previous work from others. Nothing is truly original. Once you come to terms with that, everything gets a whole lot easier.
Carmack didn’t believe in waiting for the muse. He decided it was more efficient to use other people’s ideas.
All of science and technology and culture and learning and academics is built upon using the work that others have done before, Carmack thought. But to take a patenting approach and say it’s like, well, this idea is my idea, you cannot extend this idea in any way, because I own this idea — it just seems so fundamentally wrong. Patents were jeopardizing the very thing that was central to his life: writing code to solve problems. If the world became a place in which he couldn’t solve a problem without infringing on someone’s patents, he would be very unhappy living there.
Create What You Know
When I’m writing, I often feel a temptation to play to the crowd or ride some trend that’s getting a lot of attention. I always come back to the idea that the best art comes from people creating things they would want to consume themselves. When you are closer to the problem space, you produce better output.
Carmack and Romero didn’t set out to build mainstream games. They built games that they wanted to play together.
Mario, this was not. As a hero, an eight-year-old misfit who steals his dad’s Everclear for rocket fuel was more identifiable than a middle-aged Italian plumber. It was as if the gamers had followed that golden rule of writing about what they knew.
Start with Research
Carmack began each project by reading as much research material as he could. He didn’t brainstorm ideas for games. He didn’t whiteboard out innovative systems. He read a ton of academic textbooks and papers.
I like to think of this stage of projects as building out your mental model. It’s the gathering and synthesizing of subject material that sets you up for success later on.
Carmack began the project as he often did, by reading as much research material as he could gather. He paid thousands of dollars for textbooks and papers, but everything was purely academic.
I will likely make week long research excursions a fairly regular thing during non-crunch time. Once a quarter sounds about right.
Learn to Love the Process
This is something I think about every day. The best people in their craft have taught themselves to love the daily grind of getting better. Game developers are no different. Carmack was motivated by the development process rather than shipping a great product. The memories all happened along the way to achievement.
Many game developers are in it only for the final product, and the process is just what they have to go through to get there. I respect that, but my motivation is a bit different. For me, while I do take a lot of pride in shipping a great product, the achievements along the way are more memorable.
Barriers Just Aren’t There
We are incredibly privileged to be living in the information age. With the internet at our fingertips and technology at affordable prices, you can do just about anything you want.
You don’t need status, money, or people on your side to build something amazing. This part of Carmack and Romero’s story had me ready to run through a brick wall. How can you not be grateful?
In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.
Small Teams Win
At a certain point, adding additional team members actually ends up hurting productivity. Communication overhead and project management play more and more of a role. You get further from working on the output itself. Stay small if you can.
For any given project,” he posted in his .plan file online, “there is some team size beyond which adding more people will actually cause things to take longer. This is due to loss of efficiency from chopping up problems, communication overhead, and just plain entropy. It’s even easier to reduce quality by adding people. I contend that the max programming team size for id is very small.
The Metaverse is Coming
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Metaverse, the term of choice for an immersive online shared space. A lot of smart people think this is where we are heading. After reading Masters of Doom, I’m more bullish than ever.
Video games are the natural bridge into the Metaverse. You already see Fortnite working on projects around this idea. Stay tuned for more exciting stuff to come. Personally, I can’t wait…
The end effect, Fisher wrote in 1989, is a “kind of electronic persona. For interactive theater or interactive fantasy applications, these styles might range from fantasy figures to inanimate objects, or different figures to different people. Eventually, telecommunication networks may develop that will be configured with virtual environment servers for users to dial into remotely in order to interact with each other’s virtual proxies. . . . The possibilities of virtual realities, it appears, are as limitless as the possibilities of reality. They can provide a human interface that disappears — as a doorway to other worlds.”