"Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis
When I was dead broke, man I couldn’t picture this"
Notorious BIG, Juicy
David Kushner’s Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture was released in 2003 and reading it now was a blast from the past. The book chronicles John Romero and John Carmack, two brash young programming superstars who would create Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. These were 3 of the most iconic games of all time (and a large part of my early childhood).
The most fascinating part of the book was the scale of company the two John’s built. They created a gaming empire with essentially 5 programmers and a few business and administrative helpers. That’s it. 5 guys, gallons of diet cokes, and stacks of pizza boxes created a massive business in the mid-90s. This was one of the first “holy shit the internet can do incredible things moments.”
The book is a quasi-business history, quasi-biography (of the two Johns), and quasi-cultural discussion of violent video games. I absolutely loved it. Here are my takeaways.
1.The internet reinvented distribution.
“The write calculated that [the two John's company] estimated $10 million in revenue would give them a profit margin that would rival Microsoft’s. ‘What happens to this kind of business when the data superhighway arrives?...No sales force, no inventory costs, no royalties to Nintendo or Sega, no marketing costs, no advertising costs, no executive parking spaces.”
Kushner is quoting a Forbes article from May 9th, 1994 entitled Profits from the Underground. This sentence encapsulates the beauty of the internet. Not only were these guys building a massive company with almost no people, but they were printing money. This wasn’t an Instagram/Twitter getting bought for eyeballs, this was an honest-to-god profit printing enterprise.
The internet created a distribution channel for Doom/Quake unlike any before. This was word-of-mouth virality mixed with instant access. Before this, software sales was a chain of middleman – licenses, wholesalers, distributors - the works. This meant physically packing, shipping, shelving and selling. Doom was posted online for people to download directly anywhere in the world. This must have been an awesome time.
New products can shake up an industry, but changing distribution can cripple an industry.
2. Scaremongering will never go out of style
“Senator Lieberman took it as a call to arms. ‘After watching these violent video games,’ he said, ‘I personally believe it is irresponsible for some in the video game industry to produce them. I wish we could ban them.”
First, fuck you Joe Lieberman and that high horse you rode in on.
Second, anytime there is something new or different, politicians/lobbies/press immediately seek to ban it, restrict it, or smother it. They live for the status quo.
This is particularly true if they can make something about “instigating teenagers.” It doesn’t matter if it's Elvis Presley being condemned by the Parent-Teacher Association for dancing suggestively on TV and harming the minds of our young or rock and roll destroying our social fabric, there is always dismay that this "new thing" will ruin this generation of children. Guess what? It won’t. Kushner does a great job dispelling a lot of the scaremongering, but the two John’s were treated by many groups as evil people for creating these games.
Third, the book touches on the Columbine school shooting and how politicians and the press made a big deal about the shooters having played Doom. They don’t mention the 15 million other people who played Doom who seemed able to not shoot people or the bigger fucking issue of teenagers being able to buy bags of shotguns and other weapons.
3. Making it social, the secret weapon.
“Oh my God, he thought, no one has ever seen that in a game. Sure, it was fun to shoot monsters, but ultimately these were soulless creatures controlled by a computer. Now gamers could play against spontaneous human beings – opponents who could think and strategize and scream. We can kill each other.”
One of the most critical things about Doom was that it was one of, if not the first, PC games to allow players to try to kill each other by connecting their comptuers. This, as one of the two John’s put it, made it the coolest game ever.
The significance of this cannot be understated as that is essentially the entire premise of 99% of action games today. This was the video games creating network effects that would further drive distribution. You would start to beg your friends to buy the games you played online so you could play together. I know I did this for many games – Diablo II, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies (side note – I was not cool and remain uncool). I’ve stopped playing video games now but seeing the success of Fortnite drives home this point (concept of Fortnite – kill 99 people before they kill you).
In closing, thank you John Carmack and John Romero, you provided the guide book for addictive online games and the foundation for the thousands of hours of my youth playing video games.