John Romero to Doom: 80s Game Dev

It is well known that John Romero is the game designer of Doom and Quake . But they know far less about what he did before these big hits. Which path led to such successful games? How did it all begin, how did you switch from amateur to professional, which served as sources of inspiration?

Of course, Romero's early games cannot boast of the power of Doom. But since his career is more than three decades old, following this from the very beginning is a whole digression into history, showing how game development in the 80s was different from today. In what conditions did people create classic games that are still in demand? How are today's conditions different?

Romero will tell about how work on Doom was going on at our TechTrain festival in St. Petersburg. In the meantime, we will talk about what preceded this.

John Romero was born in 1967, and his school years saw a period when video games were added to the usual pinball in the halls of slot machines. News such as Space Invaders, where the authors' imagination was not constrained by the previous framework of physical objects, impressed him: “I wonder how many other such pieces will appear?” If you have never seen Space Invaders, it looked like this:

And in 1979, he heard that at a local college you can "play for free on the computer." The games themselves, available there on the terminal, were primitive, but John first saw the process of creating them and became interested. If the slot machine for the student was a “black box” (you can’t influence it in any way, just use it), then you could personally become an author. As a result, he first molested others with questions, and then tried to create his first game using the mainframe in college, saving the result on punched cards. But once, having jumped on a bicycle on a bump and dropping the whole stack of punch cards with his game in a puddle, he acutely felt the need for a personal computer.

In 1980, Romero turned 13 years old, and before Doom left, there were still 13. And then, in the middle of the way, two momentous events happened at once. The first was Pac-Man, which made him think carefully about game design: "Many games were made simply on the basis of the" shoot aliens "principle, but this one was completely different - not only in color, but with a completely different game design." Throwing one coin after another into the machine, he spent a breakthrough of money on Pac-Man, learning to play almost with his eyes closed.

The second event: his father bought John an Apple II computer, and his whole life was divided into "before" and "after". On this computer, Romero himself coded a lot, and with great interest tried other people's games. His idol was Nasir Jebeli, thanks to whom Apple II appeared fast-paced gameplay (before that it was considered the lot of slot machines). Looking at the names of the developers in the screensavers, Romero realized that he wanted to see his name there, so the question of choosing a profession did not even arise.

Of course, years went by before hobby became a profession. In 1984, he first earned something as a game dev: inCider magazine, dedicated to the Apple II ecosystem, published his game Scout Search. She looked like this:

In those days, magazines published code directly on paper pages, and then readers manually typed it on their keyboard, trying not to make a mistake. Since the scans of the inCider number have been preserved, now you can read the introductory text from Romero himself and look into his code.

Later, another edition of UpTime published his Jumpster game, written back in 1983 - so this is Romero's earliest work, which became public. It came down to a single screen on which the character had to jump over the flying cannonballs. YouTube even has a modern recording of the Russian streamer that launched Jumpster, so it's easy to see the gameplay with your own eyes:

In those days, there was the concept of “disk magazine” (a periodical distributed on floppy disks as an executable file), and UpTime was just that. So here readers didn’t have to type the code on their own, the game could simply be launched.

After his 20th birthday, Romero first "hit the cover": Nibble magazine in December 1987 not only published his new game, Major Mayhem, but also dedicated the cover of the issue to her. Here, as in Jumpster, it was required to climb up several “floors”, but progress was obvious: for example, the level began to occupy three screens in width. The gameplay in this case can also be seen on YouTube:

In the same 1987, another important event occurred: Romero first got a permanent job in the gaming industry, working in Origin Systems and starting working on strangers instead of his own games. He contributed to the development of Space Rogue , and also ported 2400 AD from Apple II to Commodore 64, but this project was canceled due to poor sales of the original version of the game.

He did not work there for a long time, soon founding his own company Inside-Out Software. Her fate also turned out to be short-lived (the only completed project was the port of Might and Magic II on Commodore 64), but Romero at least got experience.

In his free time, he continued to collaborate with UpTime's “diskette magazine,” making friends with its editor, Jay Wilbur. In 1988, they agreed on a series of publications on the GraBASIC graphics library: Romero had to not only describe how to use it, but also create games using it as an example. One of these games was Dangerous Dave - almost a clone of Super Mario, the source of inspiration was not particularly hidden.

It would seem that there was no point in inventing something original, since this is just a demonstration project, which everyone will forget about in a month. But there it was: the game was so fond of people that in the following years it acquired a whole series of sequels.

In 1989, Romero again became a hired worker, joining Softdisk, the main product of which were just magazines on floppy disks. The following year, with his submission, the game edition of Gamer's Edge appeared there. Thanks to his work at Softdisk, John met John Carmack, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack - and this determined his future fate. Now Softdisk is mainly remembered as "the place where the founders of id Software met."

In September 1990, John Carmack was working on a new engine that provided smooth scrolling on a PC, which no one had succeeded in before: while the game consoles already had such platformers, computers were lagging behind. When it was possible to achieve a result, Carmack and Tom Hall decided to build something as quickly as possible, clearly demonstrating this result.

Therefore, they recreated the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, using ready-made graphics from Dangerous Dave. So the game Dangerous Dave in “Copyright Infringement” appeared: it clearly violated copyrights (which is reflected directly in the title), but they were not going to publish it, it was needed only for internal purposes. It took her one night - and in the morning, going to bed, Carmack and Hall left a floppy disk on the Romero’s table with the note “launch me”. As he recalls , “at that second, when the screen began to scroll smoothly, all my reality shattered. I was absolutely shocked. "

It is unlikely that today it will blow someone’s brain, but you can personally look at scrolling (and compare this with the original Dangerous Dave above):

Romero immediately realized that he had the opportunity to become a truly successful independent company, and the team began to engage in their own projects in their free time (although using Softdisk equipment, work computers were even taken to Carmack's home).

The initial idea was to make the official port of Super Mario Bros. 3 on PC, but Nintendo rejected this offer. But Scott Miller from Apogee Software got in touch, and in an original way: since he had no direct contact, and Softdisk could check incoming letters, he sent messages disguised as letters from different fans (when it turned out that all these fans were actually does not exist, Romero was somewhat disappointed). Knocking on the team, Miller offered her the services of Apogee as a game publisher.

For three months of evening vigils, the first full-fledged game was created, using new features - Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons:

She immediately became very successful, giving rise to a franchise that still exists: in June at E3 2019, the new Commander Keen for Android / iOS was announced .

A month after the release of the game, for the first time received deductions from sales, its creators realized that they no longer need to work in Softdisk. This is how id Software came about (by the way, “id” is not pronounced “ay-di” here, but “id”, like Freud’s ). However, breaking up with Softdisk quickly and decisively did not work. It became known about the use of the company's equipment for third-party projects, and the matter ended with Softdisk publishing several games developed in id Software.

Probably, the new company could still be successful for a long time with the help of platformers. But soon John Carmack became interested in the next frontier - three-dimensional worlds. At that time, it seemed that computers were not powerful enough for fast action games in three-dimensional space, but Carmack decided to make this possible by cutting off some corners.

The first test of the pen was the game Hovertank 3D. Here everything looks simple, there are not even textures on the walls - but there is already recognizable gameplay:

And when the contractual obligations to Softdisk came to an end, and id Software was about to make “their big game”, the company wondered what surroundings would suit the new gameplay well. Then Romero proposed making a 3D version of the game Castle Wolfenstein (1981). The idea found support: the team was pleased to move from the "children's" graphics of Commander Keen to a tougher world with blood and skeletons. Romero took up the levels of the game - and although here we are talking about a three-dimensional world, Pac-Man's enthusiasm to some extent affected the level design.

The development of Wolfenstein 3D took about six months, and ultimately ended in 1992 with a triumph. The game, which was different from everything else on the market (both by the capabilities of its engine and bloodthirstiness), immediately became a super hit, and over time it received the status of "ancestor of all 3D shooters."

Although after 1992 the company did not return to this topic, other developers of the Wolfenstein franchise released (and continue to release). And in id Software after Wolfenstein, work on Doom began - and Romero will personally tell you about it in full detail at TechTrain (St. Petersburg, August 24-25).

What can all be said about the differences between the game dev of the 80s and the current one? On the one hand, it would seem that since then much has become easier: everyone already has home computers, the Internet is also ubiquitous. Now any student can start to do something by googling all the necessary information, and then also share the result with the whole world (no intermediaries like magazines are needed, take it and spread it out).

But on the other hand, the changed scale of the projects is striking. Once, playing a popular game, one could say “I also want to do this” - and practically “on my knee” do something that magazines publish and what other people play. Today, a student who is a fan of GTA, in principle, can not make a game that is even remotely reminiscent of GTA. As Romero himself previously noted, when we interviewed him, “expectations from games have increased, and everyone needs to meet these expectations.” Of course, the student can now put any crafts on the Internet, but it is unlikely to attract anyone's attention there.

You can invest a lot of energy in your development in order to one day get into the team working on the next GTA - but do the students want to do something based on “this is useful in the future ten years” and not “it will be cool right tomorrow”? And would you like to try so hard in order to then work on someone else's project, and not embody your own ideas?

Modern games look much more spectacular than the old ones - but are we not losing many talented game developers today due to the fact that in their youth they are not in the conditions that Romero and his peers were once in?


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