Against the Gods

Against the Gods
John Romero: The Escapist Interview

Russ Pitts | 25 Jul 2006 12:00
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Romero.

Perhaps it's something about the name itself that brings to mind great things. Some combination of etymological triggers, perhaps; a heady mental mixture that's part romance, part Camaro - sex in a Z28.

The man himself evokes a similarly visceral response. Meeting him, speaking with him and tracking his movements across nearly three decades of life in the game game, one can hardly imagine John Romero as anything other than a smashing success. Which is why, perhaps, so many take such pleasure in pointing out his one great failure.

Romero has developed, or been involved in developing nearly 100 games, at least half a dozen of which have sold more than 100,000 copies. Having cut his teeth in the game industry coding games for the Apple II, Romero worked for Origin and Softdisk (founding a few of his own companies along the way) before co-founding id Software in 1991 with John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation) and Tom Hall.

In the five years he worked with id Software, John Romero contributed heavily to developing a number of innovative PC games, including id's breakout hit Wolfenstein 3D and one of the most widely recognized and controversial games of all time, Doom; the game that has been accused of inspiring the Columbine High School shootings, made its designers multi-millionaires and ushered in the era of the "rockstar game developer." Yet inside the game industry, Romero is even better known for the one that got away.

In 1996, following a widely-publicized feud with John Carmack - centered around the belief among key id staffers that Romero talked too much to the press and worked too little on the games - Romero founded his own company, Ion Storm, with fellow designers Tom Hall and Todd Porter and artist Jerry O'Flaherty. The men leased the penthouse of a prestigious Dallas, Texas office building, deep in the heart of oil country, for the company's headquarters. A monument to excess, the Ion Storm offices featured a movie screening room (complete with leather furniture), arcade machines, a bank of computers devoted to Doom and Quake "deathmatches," 60-foot glass ceilings (which prompted the company's programmers to erect felt tents over their workspaces to reduce the glare of the daytime sun), oak furniture, steel cubicles, and a pool table. It was an office fit for the man who had once referred to himself as "God," and it would be within this 54th floor glass cage that John Romero's Icarian flight would come (at least temporarily) to an end.

Ion Storm, backed by publisher Eidos, planned initially to ship three games, each designed by one of the company's three co-founders. Romero's long-time friend (and Softdisk and id Software colleague), Tom Hall, planned to develop a science-fiction roleplaying game called Anachronox, which was eventually released in 2001 to poor reviews and lackluster sales. Todd Porter, former ministry student, exotic dancer and Origin employee, was to develop a game called Doppleganger, which was eventually cancelled. Romero's game was Daikatana. It was intended to be larger and grander in scale than any videogame ever made, and was heavily advertised as the game that would make you, the player, John Romero's "bitch."

That Daikatana eventually sold 200,000 copies - a smashing success by some standards - is irrelevant. Costing more than $10 million and taking three years to develop, Daikatana would have had to do far more than make you its bitch to have been considered a success. Since day one at Ion Storm, Romero and Co. had set their sights on Doom-like sales figures, and in what was certainly the greatest example of star-driven, game industry hubris, had been completely surprised by their failure.

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