Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

by David Kushner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812972153
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/11/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 257,994
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Wired, New York, Worth, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Village Voice, Details, Mondo 2000, and Salon. He is the digital-music columnist for Rolling Stone online, and a contributing editor for Spin and IEEE Spectrum. He has also worked as a senior producer and writer for the music website SonicNet. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s in creative writing from City University of New York. He can be reached at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Rock Star

Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again. A scrawny kid with thick glasses, he pedaled past the modest homes of Rocklin, California, to the Roundtable Pizza Parlor. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be going there this summer afternoon in 1979, but he couldn’t help himself. That was where the games were.

Specifically, what was there was Asteroids, or, as Romero put it, “the coolest game planet Earth has ever seen!” There was nothing else like the feeling he got tapping the control buttons as the rocks hurled toward his triangular ship and the Jaws-style theme music blipped in suspense, dum dum dum dum dum dum; Romero mimicked these video game sounds the way other kids did celebrities. Fun like this was worth risking everything: the crush of the meteors, the theft of the paper route money, the wrath of his stepfather. Because no matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into the games.

At the moment, what he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping. His stepfather, John Schuneman—a former drill sergeant—had commanded Romero to steer clear of arcades. Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and in life. As his stepfather was fond of reminding him, his mother had enough problems trying to provide for Romero and his younger brother, Ralph, since her first husband left the family five years earlier. His stepfather was under stress of his own with a top-secret government job retrieving black boxes of classified information from downed U.S. spy planes across the world. “Hey, little man,” he had said just a few days before, “consider yourself warned.”

Romero did heed the warning—sort of. He usually played games at Timothy’s, a little pizza joint in town; this time he and his friends headed into a less traveled spot, the Roundtable. He still had his initials, AJR for his full name, Alfonso John Romero, next to the high score here, just like he did on all the Asteroids machines in town. He didn’t have only the number-one score, he owned the entire top ten. “Watch this,” Romero told his friends, as he slipped in the quarter and started to play.

The action didn’t last long. As he was about to complete a round, he felt a heavy palm grip his shoulder. “What the fuck, dude?” he said, assuming one of his friends was trying to spoil his game. Then his face smashed into the machines.

Romero’s stepfather dragged him past his friends to his pickup truck, throwing the dirt bike in the back. Romero had done a poor job of hiding his bike, and his stepfather had seen it while driving home from work. “You really screwed up this time, little man,” his stepfather said. He led Romero into the house, where Romero’s mother and his visiting grandmother stood in the kitchen. “Johnny was at the arcade again,” his stepfather said. “You know what that’s like? That’s like telling your mother ‘Fuck you.’ ”

He beat Romero until the boy had a fat lip and a black eye. Romero was grounded for two weeks. The next day he snuck back to the arcade.

Romero was born resilient, his mother, Ginny, said, a four-and-one-half-pound baby delivered on October 28, 1967, six weeks premature. His parents, married only a few months before, had been living long in hard times. Ginny, good-humored and easygoing, met Alfonso Antonio Romero when they were teenagers in Tucson, Arizona. Alfonso, a first-generation Mexican American, was a maintenance man at an air force base, spending his days fixing air conditioners and heating systems. After Alfonso and Ginny got married, they headed in a 1948 Chrysler with three hundred dollars to Colorado, hoping their interracial relationship would thrive in more tolerant surroundings.

Though the situation improved there, the couple returned to Tucson after Romero was born so his dad could take a job in the copper mines. The work was hard, the effect sour. Alfonso would frequently come home drunk if he came home at all. There was soon a second child, Ralph. John Romero savored the good times: the barbecues, the horsing around. Once his dad stumbled in at 10:00 p.m. and woke him. “Come on,” he slurred, “we’re going camping.” They drove into the hills of saguaro cacti to sleep under the stars. One afternoon his father left to pick up groceries. Romero wouldn’t see him again for two years.

Within that time his mother remarried. John Schuneman, fourteen years her senior, tried to befriend him. One afternoon he found the six-year-old boy sketching a Lamborghini sports car at the kitchen table. The drawing was so good that his stepfather assumed it had been traced. As a test, he put a Hot Wheels toy car on the table and watched as Romero drew. This sketch too was perfect. Schuneman asked Johnny what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said, “A rich bachelor.”

For a while, this relationship flourished. Recognizing Romero’s love of arcade games, his stepfather would drive him to local competitions—all of which Romero won. Romero was so good at Pac-Man that he could maneuver the round yellow character through a maze of fruit and dots with his eyes shut. But soon his stepfather noticed that Romero’s hobby was taking a more obsessive turn.

It started one summer day in 1979, when Romero’s brother, Ralph, and a friend came rushing through the front door. They had just biked up to Sierra College, they told him, and made a discovery. “There are games up there!” they said. “Games that you don’t have to pay for!” Games that some sympathetic students let them play. Games on these strange big computers.

Romero grabbed his bike and raced with them to the college’s computer lab. There was no problem for them to hang out at the lab. This was not uncommon at the time. The computer underground did not discriminate by age; a geek was a geek was a geek. And since the students often held the keys to the labs, there weren’t professors to tell the kids to scram. Romero had never seen anything like what he found inside. Cold air gushed from the air-conditioning vents as students milled around computer terminals. Everyone was playing a game that consisted only of words on the terminal screen: “You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building towards a gully. In the distance there is a gleaming white tower.”

This was Colossal Cave Adventure, the hottest thing going. Romero knew why: it was like a computer-game version of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, as it was commonly known, was a pen-and-paper role-playing game that cast players in a Lord of the Rings–like adventure of imagination. Many adults lazily dismissed it as geekish escapism. But to understand a boy like Romero, an avid D&D player, was to understand the game.

Created in 1972 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two friends in their early twenties, Dungeons and Dragons was an underground phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, thanks to word of mouth and controversy. It achieved urban legend status when a student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared in the steam tunnels underneath Michigan State University while reportedly reenacting the game; a Tom Hanks movie called Mazes and Monsters was loosely based on the event. D&D would grow into an international cottage industry, accounting for $25 million in annual sales from novels, games, T-shirts, and rule books.

The appeal was primal. “In Dungeons and Dragons,” Gygax said, “the average person gets a call to glory and becomes a hero and undergoes change. In the real world, children, especially, have no power; they must answer to everyone, they don’t direct their own lives, but in this game, they become super powerful and affect everything.” In D&D, there was no winning in the traditional sense. It was more akin to interactive fiction. The participants consisted of at least two or three players and a Dungeon Master, the person who would invent and direct the adventures. All they needed was the D&D rule book, some special polyhedral dice, and a pencil and paper. To begin, players chose and developed characters they would become in the game, from dwarves to elves, gnomes to humans.

Gathered around a table, they would listen as the Dungeon Master cracked open the D&D rule book—which contained descriptions of monsters, magic, and characters—and fabricated a scene: down by a river, perhaps, a castle shrouded in mist, the distant growl of a beast. Which way shall you go? If the players chose to pursue the screams, the Dungeon Master would select just what ogre or chimera they would face. His roll of the die determined how they fared; no matter how wild the imaginings, a random burst of data ruled one’s fate. It was not surprising that computer programmers liked the game or that one of the first games they created, Colossal Cave Adventure, was inspired by D&D.

The object of Colossal Cave was to fight battles while trying to retrieve treasures within a magical cave. By typing in a direction, say “north” or “south,” or a command, “hit” or “attack,” Romero could explore what felt like a novel in which he was the protagonist. As he chose his actions, he’d go deeper into the woods until the walls of the lab seemed to become trees, the air-conditioning flow a river. It was another world. Imbued with his imagination, it was real.

Even more impressively, it was an alternate reality that he could create. Since the seventies, the electronic gaming industry had been dominated by arcade machines like Asteroids and home consoles like the Atari 2600. Writing software for these platforms required expensive development systems and corporate backing. But computer games were different. They were accessible. They came with their own tools, their own portals—a way inside. And the people who had the keys were not authoritarian monsters, they were dudes. Romero was young, but he was a dude in the making, he figured. The Wizard of this Oz could be him.

Every Saturday at 7:30 a.m., Romero would bike to the college, where the students—charmed by his gumption—showed him how to program on refrigerator-size Hewlett-Packard mainframe computers. Developed in the fifties, these were the early giants of the computer industry, monolithic machines that were programmed by inserting series of hole-punched cards that fed the code. IBM, which produced both the computers and the punch card machines, dominated the market, with sales reaching over $7 billion in the 1960s. By the seventies, mainframes and their smaller cousins, the minicomputers, had infiltrated corporations, government offices, and universities. But they were not yet in homes.

For this reason, budding computer enthusiasts like Romero trolled university computer labs, where they could have hands-on access to the machines. Late at night, after the professors went home, students gathered to explore, play, and hack. The computer felt like a revolutionary tool: a means of self-empowerment and fantasy fulfillment. Programmers skipped classes, dates, baths. And as soon as they had the knowledge, they made games.

The first one came in 1958 from the most unlikely of places: a U.S. government nuclear research lab. The head of the Brookhaven Nation Laboratory’s instrumentation division, Willy Higinbotham, was planning a public relations tour of the facility for some concerned local farmers, and needed something to win them over. So, with the help of his colleagues, he programmed a rudimentary tennis simulation using a computer and a small, round oscilloscope screen. The game, which he called “Tennis for 2,” consisted merely of a white dot ball hopping back and forth over a small white line. It thrilled the crowds. Then it was dismantled and put away.

Three years later, in 1961, Steve “Slug” Russell and a group of other students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created Spacewar, on the first minicomputer, the PDP-1. In this game, two players shot up each other’s rocket ships while drifting around a black hole. Ten years later, a programmer and amateur cave explorer in Boston, Will Crowther, created text-based spelunking simulation. When a hacker at Stanford named Don Woods saw the game, he contacted Crowther to see if it was okay for him to modify the game to include more fantasy elements. The result was Colossal Cave Adventure. This gave rise to the text-adventure craze, as students and hackers in computer labs across the country began playing and modifying games of their own—often based on Dungeons and Dragons or Star Trek.

Romero was growing up in the eighties as a fourth-generation game hacker: the first having been the students who worked on the minicomputers in the fifties and sixties at MIT; the second, the ones who picked up the ball in Silicon Valley and at Stanford University in the seventies; the third being the dawning game companies of the early eighties. To belong, Romero just had to learn the language of the priests, the game developers: a programming language called HP-BASIC. He was a swift and persistent student, cornering anyone who could answer his increasingly complex questions.

His parents were less than impressed by his new passion. At issue were Romero’s grades, which had plummeted from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s. He was bright but too easily distracted, they thought, too consumed by games and computers. Despite this being the golden age of video games—with arcade games bringing in $5 billion a year and even home systems earning $1 billion—his stepfather did not believe game development to be a proper vocation. “You’ll never make any money making games,” he often said. “You need to make something people really need, like business applications.”

As the fights with his stepfather escalated, so did Romero’s imagination. He began exorcising the backwash of emotional and physical violence through his illustrations. For years he had been raised on comics—the B-movie horror of E.C. Comics, the scatological satire of MAD, the heroic adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. By age eleven, he churned out his own. In one, a dog named Chewy was invited to play ball with his owner. With a strong throw, the owner hurled the ball into Chewy’s eye, causing the dog’s head to split open and spill out green brains. “The End,” Romero scrawled at the bottom, adding the epitaph “Poor Ol’ Chewy.”

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

Mark Leyner

To my taste, the greatest American myth of cosmogenesis features the maladjusted, antisocial, genius teenage boy who, in the insular laboratory of his own bedroom, invents the universe from scratch. Masters of Doom is a particularly inspired rendition. Dave Kushner chronicles the saga of video game virtuosi Carmack and Romero with terrific brio. This is a page-turning, mythopoeic cyber-soap opera about two glamorous geek geniuses - and it should be read while scarfing down pepperoni pizza and swilling Diet Coke, with Queens of the Stone Age cranked up all the way.

Po Bronson

Masters of Doom is an excellent archetypal tale of hard work and genius being corrupted by fame too young and fortune too fast. I rooted for these guys, was inspired by them, then was disturbed by them, and was fascinated from beginning to end.

Douglas Rushkoff

Masters of Doom tells the compelling story of the decade-long showdown between gaming's own real-life dynamic duo, played high above the corridors of Doom in the meta-game of industry and innovation. With the narrative passion of a true aficionado, Kushner reminds us that the Internet was not created to manage stock portfolios but to serve as the ultimate networked entertainment platform. It's all just a game.

Bruce Sterling

Are you brainy? Gifted? Deeply alienated? Ever wanted to be a multimillionaire who transformed a major industry? Then Masters of Doom is the book for you!

Steven Johnson

Like Hackers, David Kushner's Masters of Doom paints a fascinating portrait of visionary coders transforming a previously marginal hobby into a kind of 21st-century art form -- and enraging an entire generation of parents along the way. Kushner tells the story with intelligence and a great sense of pacing. Masters of Doom is as riveting as the games themselves.


A Talk with David Kushner

What made you delve into the subject of video games?
As a writer, there's nothing quite like exploring an uncharted world. And the world of gamers–despite its cultural, economic, and artistic impact–is still a mystery to most people. That’s why I wrote MASTERS OF DOOM. I grew up reading all the New Journalism books and I saw an opportunity to do for gamers what Tom Wolfe did for astronauts–recreate their definitive story and make them human.

What do video games say about American culture?
You have to be careful not to overanalyze video games because, ultimately, they’re just about having fun. But, on another level, they do say a lot about Americans desires and dreams: dreams of power, escape, fantasy, and violence. What makes this unique from any other medium is the interactivity. Games let players try on different roles–wizards, warriors, athletes, and hip-hop stars. This is one reason why Americans spend roughly $11 billion annually on computer and video games, which is more than they spend on movie tickets.

The two Johns have been called “the Lennon and McCartney of video games.” Why is that?
Every medium has its rock stars. For video games, which are still a relatively new art form, they’re Carmack and Romero. Along with their exceptionally talented colleagues, they innovated games that still impact business, technology, and pop culture. They’re also completely self-made, rising from their basements to rule a multibillion dollar business. And, like any good rock stars, they’re controversial.

Inmany ways, MASTERS OF DOOM is a classic business parable. Do you agree with this assessment?
Sure, I think Johns’ success story is important to anyone in business. These guys never took no for an answer. And they always thought outside of the box–so much so that, at one point, a journalist said they made Microsoft look like a cement company. Even if you don’t care about or play video games, you've got to admire their passion and dedication. That's one reason I wrote this book as a reconstruction of the past. I wanted readers to feel like they were right there with them, riding that incredible ride and smashing through the obstacles along the way.

Video games are a multi-billion dollar a year industry, but they appear to be underneath a lot of people's radar. Why do you think that is?
It’s easy to forget this business is still so young. Though it's been a multibillion dollar industry for years, it’s just now gaining mainstream recognition. One reason I wrote this book was because people still had all the wrong ideas: mainly, that games are the domain of teenage boys. In fact, the most popular computer game on the planet is probably Solitaire–and the players are parents and grandparents. While he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush admitted to playing computer Solitaire almost every day. Now that the Pong generation is coming into power, the industry won't be underneath the radar much longer.

Violence in videogames often comes under a lot of scrutiny in the media. How did the two Johns answer these criticisms? How would you answer these critics?
For various reasons, the Johns didn’t speak much to the press after the Columbine tragedy, when certain people were suggesting that Doom inspired the killers. I’m glad they had a chance to finally tell their side of the story in my book. Both of them felt that their games were being unduly blamed for a terrible crime that defies an easy explanation. I agree. The reason people keep criticizing games is because they don't understand them or, for that matter, play them. When I showed Doom to my mother-in-law for the first time, she said, “I can't believe that everyone’s making such a fuss over this.” Also, a lot of people don’t realize that the gamers playing–and making–the more violent titles are adults. And for those who are concerned about kids’ exposure to violent content, all they have to do is pick up a game and look at the rating on the box before buying it for their children. Even Senator Lieberman, one of the industry’s harshest critics, has lauded game publishers for voluntarily rating their products.

What's next for Romero and Carmack?
Romero has returned to his roots, programming games with a small team. He’s designing games for a new platform–cell phones and handheld devices–just as he pursued the new medium of PC games over a decade ago.
Carmack and the guys at id Software are getting ready to release Doom III, the first new Doom game in nearly a decade. It’s already been voted game of the year by the industry, and it hasn’t even come out yet. He’s also building a rocket which he hopes to launch into outer space. Knowing him, he’s got a decent shot.

What's next for David Kushner?
Another book. But first, lunch.

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Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Doom is my favorite game of all time. No question. Quake is no far behind. So naturally, I wanted to learn about their creators, Carmack and Romero. Masters of Doom is the very best source for any information about Id Software and its games, so I very much enjoyed it. Even though is it sort of a biography, it seems like a novel, and is very interesting. I loved how the author gave detailed summaries of the two John's lives, from childhood till Romero left Id. It was a non-stop adventure, and I loved every bit of it. It has influenced me to take up programming. Anyone interested in Doom, Quake, Commander Keen, John Carmack, or John Romero, should read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great book. I picked it up in the store and couldn't put it down till I was done. A must buy if you have ever played any of id's games or for any pc gamer. It was a thrill thinking about some of the old games that were mentioned recognising them as stuff I had played at that time. And finding out about what went on behind the scenes was thrilling
Guardian105 More than 1 year ago
For anyone who ever played DOOM, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Half-Life, Unreal, Shadow Warrior, Dark Forces, this book must be a part of your collection. David Kushner takes readers on a tour of the beginning of the PC gaming industry itself, parting the curtain on the lives of the 'Two Johns,' Carmack and Romero. Learn what made these guys tick, relive the glory days of Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. Take a trip down memory lane; you will not regret it.
daneshere on LibraryThing 5 months ago
As a student studying games programming, this book was an awesome inspiration for me. Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down and felt myself there with the crew coding and creating their butts off while making games history. It is a great insight into the history of the much admired id software.
Kade on LibraryThing 5 months ago
A so-so biography of the "two Johns" from iD software. In terms of gaming-related print media it's the best of the best solely because it's not in the G4-mold of schlock associated with gamers that prioritizes pictures and color-laden graphs over substance. Gamers, this is the ONLY gaming-related book you can put on your coffee table and actually be admired for having a scrap of culture so far.
Jamie638 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is the fascinating story of the brilliant programmers of Id Software, who revolutionized computer gaming with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. You must read it if you have even the slightest interest in computer games and how they're developed.
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