“Masters of Doom”, or the obligatory extended title “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture”, tells the story of two game industry legends, taking the reader from the childhood of John Romero and John Carmack to the founding of id Software all the way through to the departure of Romero and the launch of the infamous Daikatana. The meat of the book takes place over a 7-year period that includes the development and release of Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Author David Kushner delivers a first in class video game novel that blends non-fiction with narrative retelling and will appeal to developers, players, journalist and basically anyone with a passing interest in the crazy world of game development.

Overview

“Masters of Doom” follows the story of the two Johns, John Romero and John Carmack, from their meeting at Softdisk to their split deep into id Software’s success.

The book blurs the line between a fiction and non-fiction through it’s compelling narrative. Sometimes it feels like you are reading a gossip column reporting on a quarrel between two game developers and other times it feels like the punk rock story of how id Software gave the middle finger to the family friendly video game industry. Author David Kushner crafted the narrative through hundreds of interviews he conducted over a 6-year period.

Major moments that stick in my mind are

  • Carmack getting a PC game to side-scroll as smoothly as the revolutionary Super Mario Bros series
  • Starting id Software after the success of Commander Keen
  • The choice to pivot from the wacky, childish world of Commander Keen to the darker Nazi slaying world of Wolfenstein 3D
  • The creation of Doom
  • Dealing with the business side of the industry: multiple publishers, business deals, getting shelf space in retail stores, etc.
  • Development of Quake, departure of John Romero
  • Ion Storm and the legendary Daikatana
  • Quake 2 and the emergence of eSports

It is very complimentary to “Console Wars”, which I did a book review of (Link), as they both cover generally the same years from completely different perspectives.

Why You Should Read It

This is the penultimate Game Industry book in my opinion. It both realistically covers game development, gives a glimpse into one of the most important events in the industry, has interesting characters you care about and is written with an engaging narrative.

So much history is crammed into one novel it’s amazing to reflect on everything that is covered. Remember when PC games were sold via share-ware? What about buying games that come in conspicuous white envelopes in the mail? Ion Storm and Daikatana alone could be a cautionary book upon itself. I worry younger generations won’t understand the importance of “John Romero’s About To Make You His Bitch”.

“Masters of Doom” covers how id Software changed the perception of what games can be. Mature games are commonplace thanks to Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake pushing games from being viewed as toys for kids to becoming a cocaine fulled entertainment experience with a thrash metal soundtrack. Remember this is the time when Sonic was the “edgy” alternative for older brothers to the younger brother’s Mario. Doom was Sonic and Mario’s aggressive uncle that aged them 5 years after spending one afternoon with him.

Thanks to an amazing narrative, “Masters of Doom” never feels disjointed as it takes readers from the early childhoods of the two Johns well into their adulthood. I am weary of books whose authors write dialog for actual conversations that happened; it’s like documentaries that have re-enactment scenes, they always feel like an aid in pushing a specific narrative. However, researching this book I see that no party involved filed lawsuits or objected heavily to the contents of the book, so I have to assume the dialog was as close to the real thing as possible.

Why You Shouldn’t Read It

You hate the video game industry? And if that’s the case, why are you reading a blog called Game Design After Hours?

Final Verdict

In all honesty this is as close to required reading as it gets for game developers. Think of the names that passed through id Software during this time: John Romero, John Carmack, Tom Hall, Mike Wilson, American McGee, Bobby Prince and more. These guys lived the indie developer dream of making games so awesome and unique that the world couldn’t ignore them.

When it comes to the famous fracture between the two leads, it doesn’t paint either as the good guy or the bad guy; the two Johns come off as revolutionary developers that may not have been ready for the success they achieved. Both are humans with real flaws but together, for a few years, they changed the landscape of gaming and not from corporate offices in California or Tokyo, but from all night programming sessions fueled by pizza and Metallica.