David Kushner on Masters of Doom
An in-depth interview with Masters of Doom author, David Kushner.
By Tom Chick | April 28, 2003

Masters of Doom
Masters of Doom is the amazing true story of the Lennon and McCartney of video games: John Carmack and John Romero.

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  • David Kushner has been a contributor to Rolling Stone, Wired, The New York Times, Salon, and Village Voice. His new book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, chronicles the story of John Carmack and John Romero from their childhood, through their meeting, the creation of DOOM, their split, and their recent work. Masters of Doom will be published by Random House in May. It will be available in hardcover or as an ebook. GameSpy: How did this book come about?
    David Kushner: I'm a gamer myself. I've been covering the game industry for a long time, mainly writing for consumer magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone, for more of a mainstream audience. And I just saw an opportunity to do a book about the industry. Carmack and Romero was just a great story waiting to be told. Obviously, it's a story gamers are familiar with and have been following since the early '90s. It gave me a good way to tell the story of how the industry evolved, how the culture evolved, how the technology evolved, but also the story of these two guys.

    But on a more general level, what interested me is that this could appeal to someone who doesn't know anything about games. There are so many misconceptions. The country, and society in general, just hasn't come to terms with video games yet. There are misconceptions about who's playing them and the effects of games. It seems like a good time to have a book that takes people into that world.

    But more than anything it was the story.
    GameSpy: On Random House's website, on the blurb for the book, you refer to Carmack and Romero as the Lennon and McCartney of video games. Can you elaborate?
    David Kushner: That's actually not my term, but it has been bandied about. There have been references to them like that, particularly during the DOOM and Quake days. They were the front men for the company, they were the guys driving the Ferraris and the people everyone came to associate with id. As I say in my book, they'd probably prefer being compared to Metallica.

    But for someone who doesn't know anything about the game industry, it's a sensible sound bite. Like Lennon and McCartney, they innovated, they had a real impact on their peers, they had a real impact on their audience, and they were two very different people who had a dynamic relationship. Each brought his own unique skills and point of view.

    David Kushner
    GameSpy: Can you elaborate on these unique skills and points of view? They've both come to very different places. Can you sketch out the differences between them that brought them to their respective fates?
    David Kushner: Well, it took me 330 pages to capture that. They're real people. They're complex. A lot of the image portrayed by the media over the years hasn't been accurate. The first chapter of the book is about Romero's childhood and the second chapter is about Carmack's. Romero's chapter is called "The Rock Star" and Carmack's is called "The Rocket Scientist." In a way, that articulates a lot of the difference.

    What they had in common, and the reason they came together, is that they were really hard-working and they really loved making games, but for different reasons. Carmack is the quintessential programmer, drawn by the technical challenges, but also the love of the games. Sometimes people portray him as more focused on the technology, but he still loves games and that's the reason he's doing that. By the same token, Romero started out as a kid as a programmer. He made dozens of games, he programmed them, he did the art, he did everything.

    So when they met as this small company called Softdisk, the meeting of the minds was based on programming more than anything else. They hit it off based on their interest in programming for computers. In the gaming world, what they wanted to do -- fast action arcade-like games -- was still a new thing. It hadn't really been exploited at that time, in the late '80s and early '90s.
    And what happened was they got a lot of fame and fortune early on. At id software, they were in their early 20s. They went through these really huge experiences and changes together, at quite a young age. With every game, they each got entrenched in their own interests, in what they wanted to do. I think by the time Quake started happening, they had different ambitions. There's a quote in the book from Carmack that dates back to right after he and Romero split up, where Carmack said, "I just want to make good programs and Romero wants to build an empire." I think there was some truth in that. Romero had ambitions to have a big entertainment company putting out multiple games with different designers, whereas Carmack was more focused on doing one game at a time and keeping everything smaller and simple.

    I think that's where they diverged and that's what led them to where they are now. Carmack is still at id churning out the bleeding-edge rendering engines and Romero has gone back to his roots with Monkeystone where he's doing a lot of programming again. They're releasing smaller games and looking at a new burgeoning platform with mobile games.
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