Against the Gods

John Romero: The Escapist Interview



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.

Ion Storm’s Dallas office, rocked by political in-fighting (which led to a near-complete walk-out of Romero’s Daikatana team) was closed in 2001 by Eidos following a bail-out deal in which the publisher had acquired a controlling interest in the hemorrhaging game company. The company flag was then moved to Austin, Texas, where industry veteran Warren Spector had been hired in 1997 to create a small arm of Ion Storm away from the tumult to the north. Spector’s team had succeeded where Ion Storm’s other designers had failed, creating the critically acclaimed, best-selling science-fiction action/adventure game, Deus Ex. Spector then presided over a sequel to Deus Ex and a long-awaited follow up to Looking Glass Studios’ Thief games, before parting ways with the company to pursue other interests. Ion Storm was closed for good in 2005.

After leaving Ion Storm, John Romero founded his own company, Monkeystone, with former girlfriend and game industry icon, Stevie Case. There, the pair, with Tom Hall, produced games for the mobile phone market, until Romero joined San Diego-based Midway, long-time maker of arcade games such Spy Hunter and Mortal Kombat. For Midway, Romero developed a follow-up to the successful arcade game Gauntlet and a PS2 remake of Area 51. Romero has since left Midway to found a new company, tentatively called Slipgate Ironworks, which has recently begun hiring programmers and artists to work on a new, super secret massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), which the man himself has called “super stealth,” and which he promises will be bigger than anything he’s ever made. Looking back over his resume, one has to wonder how such a thing is even possible.

The Escapist recently spoke with John Romero about his past, his present and his mysterious future.


The Escapist: So, let’s start off by going back to the heady days of Castle Wolfenstein 3D and Doom shareware releases. There’s a lot of ink being sacrificed right now on the topic of “indie” or “scratchware” development, and comparisons to id’s success story have been made more than once. Back in those days, just before the entire universe became your playground, did you guys see yourselves as “indie” game developers?

John Romero: Yeah, we definitely saw ourselves as indies, but it wasn’t something we focused on – we were just doing our own thing. We developed our games in a pretty non-disciplined and non-organized way because so much of it was R&D. We were lucky that our first game trilogy sold well enough to afford us indeterminate [development] cycles on our games, which then fed the next game’s dev cycle; it’s not something many indies can do. We were also very active in trying to help other small game dev teams make great games (Raven, Rogue, Ritual, Valve).

TE: All of the id guys, but especially you, pretty much defined the role of “Rockstar Game Designer.” A lot of us who’ve been playing games (including yours) for most of our lives have thought at one time or another that it would be nice to be John Romero. Who does John Romero want to be?

JR: I like being me, actually. I want to continue doing things I consider fun. As do we all. I still love developing games and as a daily job it just cannot be beat. No matter how much bitching you hear from overworked game employees, the work definitely beats just about any other job for the kind of work you do and the salary and benefits you can get. I’ve worked beyond insane hours and have loved every minute of it. You have to really love game development to go through that. Especially for 27 years.

TE: Touching again on the subject of fame, for better or worse you became remarkably famous in a relatively short time, and consequently became a sort of lightning rod for criticism of the industry in general and the products of your company(s) specifically. How much of what is written about “John Romero” do you take in, and how much of it do you put away in a special place never to see or hear from again?

JR: After 10-plus years of reading about yourself, all the good and bad, it all just becomes irrelevant after awhile. I know what I’m capable of doing and the people I work with are united in our mission, and they treat me just like they treat each other. The whole fame thing doesn’t come into play when we’re in development, because we’re all a team. I know some of my guys read a lot of forums and sometimes they’ll see some remark that someone clueless made and show it to me, chuckling because they know the truth of who I am and how I work. The media personification of John Romero is not who John Romero is.

TE: One thing that I and I believe our readers are keenly interested in hearing from you about is Ion Storm. What can you tell me about that time, now that you’ve had some distance from it?

JR: For me, the end of Ion Storm came exactly five years ago, and for the world Ion Storm ended in February [of] last year, after eight and a half years. There were four of us co-founders, and I convinced Warren Spector to join us almost a year after starting the company, and what a great decision that was. I fought hard to keep two of the co-founders from trying to shut down the Austin studio every few months – that’s just a taste of the pure insanity that prevailed in the Dallas office.

It was hard to concentrate on making a game when someone was always trying to disrupt everything every day. And it showed in our first two games. Luckily, Anachronox, Tom’s game, had an extra year of development without the negative influences affecting his team, and it shows; his game is a work of art and passion by a young dev team trying to prove something. Of course, with the Austin office far away and Warren at the helm, Deus Ex turned out to be a masterpiece.

All I wanted was a big, fun game company where everyone was united in the purpose to make great games. I never imagined that someone would ever want to screw that up, but they did and it happened. I’ve learned a lot from that experience.

TE: What were your aspirations for Monkeystone, as a company, and how well do you think you achieved them?

JR: My main aspiration for Monkeystone was to get back to a small game company and work directly with Tom again and my girlfriend Stevie. To get back into programming 24/7 and learn as much as I could. I wanted to explore the emerging mobile world and see what it was all about. We had a blast with Monkeystone, and so much happened during the short time we ran the company – an incredible amount happened. It deserves its own book.

TE: In 2003, you and Tom Hall joined Midway. I suppose the two questions that immediately come to mind are: Why would such an independent, creative guy join a company like Midway; and: Why did you leave?

JR: The reason I left Monkeystone was that Stevie Case and I broke up and a major part of creating Monkeystone was to have a company with her. The breakup was more like a supernova explosion that we tried to contain and keep away from the media (it worked). Truly, all the turmoil of Ion Storm was dwarfed by this event; it was the worst experience of my life.

I finished off the Red Faction N-Gage project with the team and told Tom that I needed to get out of Dallas and do something else for a while. I was devastated. But Tom wanted to join me, so we put Lucas Davis in charge of the Monkeystone office while Tom and I looked around for other opportunities. The best [opportunity] we found was working at Midway in beautiful San Diego. In the meantime, we had Monkeystone working on an N-Gage version of Chronicles of Riddick (eventually canceled), and then we moved the company down to Austin to complete the multiplayer part of Area 51. I was working on Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows and Tom was Creative Director in third-party over several games.

I joined Midway because of two reasons. Reason number one was that I wanted to see what working for a big company was like. So, I was only talking to big companies, and Midway seemed like the best place, because revitalizing Gauntlet felt like it could be really fun, and because San Diego is awesome. My second reason for joining Midway was to do original console development as opposed to the majority of my career which had been focused primarily on home computers. It was something new for me, in a way.

Tom and I eventually hired our Monkeystone guys when we decided to shut down the company. Tom then left Midway to be Creative Director of two MMOGs at Kingsisle Entertainment in Austin, and I left to co-found my new game company in the Bay Area to do an innovative [MMOG] on the PC.

TE: What can you tell us about that?

JR: I can’t say anything until the summer of 2007! What a difference it makes being quiet about my projects.

TE: To wrap up, a lot has been said about this, so I don’t want to belabor it, but I do have to ask: If you were to believe in a Bizarro World (and who doesn’t), what do you think a Bizarro World in which Daikatana had actually made gamers your bitches would look like?

JR: It would have been some kind of crazy world without game magazines and online media. Just kidding. It would probably have been a world where people all love to baby-sit their sidekicks and watch them die while doors close on them 1,000 times in 10 seconds. A world where people love to hear sidekicks talk to each other and the player, where air control and speed in deathmatch is something taken for granted and where cooperative gameplay left out of a multi-player game is unthinkable.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor at The Escapist, who was formerly head writer and producer of TechTV’s The Screen Savers and has been writing on the web since it was invented. He will soon be producing and hosting a bi-weekly podcast for The Escapist called Escape Radio, which will undoubtedly make you its bitch.

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