Tuesday, 12 April 2011

"John Romero's about to make you his bitch”

In videogames, the view on the screen through which the player sees the action is euphemistically called the camera.

A first person game is where the player is the camera.

A first person shooter is when the camera has a gun attached.

While the elements of the first person shooter had been floating around for years, it wasn’t until 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D that the style became named, recognisable and popular.

Wolfenstein 3D pitted a lone American soldier (the player character) against the Nazis in a nightmare bunker shaped like a cluster of swastikas. The player is up against Hitler, but the Fuhrer, despite at one point being encased in armour, is not even the final boss. It was infamous for being bloody, for using the Horst-Wessel-Lied as a theme tune, for the aforementioned swastikas and for making dogs killable enemies. It was a huge hit.

Wolfenstein’s developer, id Software, capitalised on the success of the game by releasing a sequel called Spear of Destiny. The sequel didn’t require a new game engine to be built, so during development of the game Wolfenstein’s programmer John Carmack had an opportunity to experiment. Carmack, an introverted loner with little time for socialising, ensconced himself away from the rest of the small team at id to focus solely on his work. He came up with an engine that allowed for new levels of realism. Whereas Wolfenstein took place on one level plain, the new engine allowed for multiple platforms at different heights. Lighting and texture effects were also improved, allowing for more atmospheric environments.

The game that eventually used this new engine was called Doom. The designers had taken inspiration from the movies Aliens and Evil Dead II and from a session of Dungeons & Dragons they had played that had ended with a demonic planetary take over. Doom was bloodier and more relentless than Wolfenstein and while today it looks almost like a cartoon, at the time it seemed incredibly realistic.

One of the leading designers on Doom was John Romero. Romero had worked as a designer on Wolfenstein and was the opposite of the brusque Carmack. Romero had long hair, tucked his shirt into his jeans and drove a Ferrari. He looked like a cross between a metalhead and an asshole yuppie bad guy straight out of any number of late eighties/early nineties popcorn movies. Romero wanted Doom to be about the action and dismissed his fellow Wolfenstein designer Tom Hall’s attempts to create a detailed story for Doom by saying, "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important."

Like porn, Doom appeals to realism while being extremely unrealistic. The world of Doom is strangely abstract: the architecture is Byzantine in layout; the player character moves impossibly fast for a human; the demons are numerous and varied and exist only to kill you. During development Tom Hall had built a number of levels based on military facilities. These were on one floor and had low ceilings in the Wolfenstein style, but the other designers preferred Romero’s spacious and alien levels. Hall was pushed out in ‘93.

Wolfenstein level map

Doom level map

Both Wolfenstein and Doom were released as shareware, meaning that part of the game was available for free. If the player wanted to play the rest of the game, she had to buy it. This distribution model was very successful, but another key element to the success of Doom was the modding community. Id enabled players to modify Doom and make their own levels and a vast modding community sprang up, with players designing and swapping levels, some of which were later commercially released. Finally, there was the multiplayer function. Christened “deathmatch” by Romero, players fought each other to the death in Doom levels via ethernet. Romero was particularly fond of deathmatches, claiming that the winner of a match won the right to humiliate the loser.

John Romero and Noel Stevens in the aftermath of a deathmatch

Doom was immensely popular – the game was estimated to be installed on more computers than Windows 95. Just like the change in nineties porn, Doom was a watershed moment in videogames for repetitive, stripped-down brutality. Fittingly, fans of FPSs like Doom (along with sports, racing and fighting games) called themselves hard-core gamers.

Id followed up Doom with a sequel, and a new FPS called Quake. Romero’s vision for Quake was of a Lovecraftian “dark fantasy”, a labyrinth of stone dungeons like a medieval hell. But John Carmack and the other designers wanted to continue Doom’s mixture of demons with futuristic technology. The game was a struggle to make. Romero grew frustrated with working at the company and longed to branch out and start his own game developer. Soon after Quake was finished he got the perfect opportunity – he was fired from id.

Before being let go, Romero had contacted Tom Hall and invited him to form a new developer with him. After being joined by Jerry O'Flaherty and Todd Porter, the resulting company, ION Storm, was founded in 1996 and quickly signed a licensing deal with Eidos. Romero and Hall’s vision for ION Storm was summed up by their new motto, "Design is Law". At id they worked on one game at a time, but Romero didn’t want to do things that way. He wanted ION Storm to be a hub of creativity where many games could be worked on at once, where he and Hall could work on their own games separately without interference. He also wanted it to have a plush office. The utilitarian John Carmack may have had his own Ferrari, but he kept the id offices modestly furnished. The way he saw it, “an office is just a place to hold our stuff”.

The ION Storm offices in Dallas were in the top two floors of one of the tallest buildings in the city, the Chase Tower. The interiors were made by the Russ Berger Design Group and featured a motion capture stage, a recording studio for voiceovers, a small cinema fitted with leather seats and a $50,000 projector, pool tables, arcade cabinets, a bank of 12 TVs for deathmatches, and a lobby fitted with elevators panelled in green dye-coated metal sheets and a matching company logo embedded into the terrazzo floor. The large skylights caused the offices to get very hot and the light made working on computers difficult.

The ION Storm lobby

The fancy new offices wouldn’t be ready until 1998, but Romero was eager to start work on his ambitious new game that would run on the Quake engine. Influenced by the JRPG Chrono Trigger, Daikatana was to be a time-travelling FPS with a vast array of enemies, worlds and weapons as well as sidekicks that would accompany the player character. He gave this enormous project a seven month deadline.

ION Storm's motion capture stage

Romero didn’t want to poach talent from other developers, so many of the people he hired were from the modding subculture. Most had no professional experience. They were thrown into a large group and had to meet a tight schedule that would be punishing for seasoned pros. Some of the artists were hired form the comic book world and had no idea how to make images of a suitable size for nineties videogames. Romero would never settle for second best and the game was delayed as they struggled to update the code to fit the new spectacular Quake II engine turned out by Carmack.

Romero spent a lot of time on marketing. Despite ION Storm not having released a single game, he gave many interviews to magazines like Rolling Stone, Wired, Newsweek and Time. He was hyping ION Storm and Daikatana before the company had moved into it’s offices and while development of the game had barely begun. Press photos were sent out of Romero sitting in a $9,000 antique chair. One of the early magazine adverts for Daikatana had no information or screenshots of the game. It merely read, "John Romero's about to make you his bitch. Suck it down.”

The advert became infamous overnight and turned gamers against Diakatana and Romero in particular. Romero claimed that he only agreed to the slogan reluctantly, insisting that he would “never say that to anybody” because “that is gay”. The ad does illustrate the strangely homoerotic nature of misogyny, especially as it was taken for granted back then that gamers – and especially players of Doom – were men. Or rather, boys. Suck it down.

The development of Diakatana was fraught with problems. The programmers didn’t trust the artists, the game code was mangled from frequent engine changes, morale was low, there was no proper direction from Romero, and no one knew what was going on. Workers began leaving en masse and gossip about the company proliferated on the internet.

Todd Porter’s management style in particular caused trouble. He would rage at and needle stressed workers to get the job done, while giving last-minute design changes that contradicted Romero’s instructions. Days before the high profile trade show E3, Porter ordered changes to the demo of Daikatana while the team were struggling to finish it on time. During the chaos to get the changes implemented and the demo completed, an error went unnoticed and the demo performed badly at E3.

While Daikatana was frequently delayed, the popularity of Doom only increased. By now the graphics looked out-of-date, but the modding and deathmatch communities saved it from being tossed down the memory-hole at the usual pace of accelerated obsolescence in videogames. This longevity made Doom stick out among bloody shooters and it was repeatedly blamed throughout the nineties – along with gangsta rap – for glorifying and causing real violence. In particular the apparent realism of the game led it to be seen as a kind of virtual reality, giving credence to ludicrous claims that it was a “mass murder simulator”. After the Columbine massacre it was discovered that Klebold and Harris had made their own Doom levels that Harris had uploaded to his website. Doom became one of many pop cultural scapegoats in the frantic rush to find someone other than teenage boys to blame for the killings. It was claimed that Harris had made Doom levels that were based on Columbine High School, but this was a myth.

Daikatana finally came out in 2000. It flopped. After Tom Hall’s game Anachronox was released to good reviews but commercial indifference in 2001, he and Romero left the company and the Dallas office was closed. In 1997 a second ION Storm office had been founded in Austin at the request of Eidos. Away from the chaos of the Chase Tower penthouse, the Austin office produced a number of critically and commercially successful games, including Deus Ex and the third instalment of the Theif series. But it wasn’t enough – ION Storm finally shut it’s doors in 2005. All in all, Eidos had spent more than $30m on the company.

On release, Daikatana was vigorously panned. Now that the dust has settled, the general consensus is that Daikatana – while flawed – is not that bad. There were two products on sale, as Romero put it, “One was [the] marketing and hype and the other was the game.” It was a case of the marketing tail wagging the videogame dog. He apologised unreservedly for the advert in 2010. While id remains stuck in the FPS mire (Doom 4, coming soon!), Romero has continued to evolve, making games in different genres for numerous platforms. But he never recovered his former lustre.

Doom changed games in more ways than one. There was the revolutionary programming and design – “the sound and the violence and the speed” (Romero). But there was also the macho, tough-guy posturing. Videogames today – and especially FPSs – are infested with trash-talking nerds. You don’t have to look hard to find that particular mixture of misogyny, racism and social Darwinism espoused by geeks who grew up to become bullies. Dylan Harris had written in his diary that, “everyone should be put to a test. an ULTIMATE DOOM test, see who can survive in an environtment using only smarts and military skills.” But Doom was merely the window dressing for ideas that go back long before bloody videogames or Marilyn Manson, ideas that Harris was convinced were true. On the day of the Columbine massacre he wore a white t-shirt with a slogan written on the back: “NATURAL SELECTION”.

One of the most pervading myths of videogames (and computer culture in general) is that it is a somehow “outlaw” industry. That videogames don’t have to worry about the guys in suits – as a Wired article on id put it – because “there are no guys in suits”. When John Romero was trying to get extra funding for ION Storm, every company he spoke to was enthusiastic about his vaguely structured and enormously ambitious (non)plan. With one exception: Virgin Interactive. Romero said, "Virgin was the only company that immediately said, 'You can't do that, it would fall apart!’”. He didn’t heed their warning, didn't need to. Why take the advice of a company where the guys in suits acted like guys in suits?

1 comment:

W. Kasper said...

May be a bit 'Darwinist' to say, but whenever I look at photos of these wannabe Alpha Killing Machines, I'm tempted to show up at their office, wearing animal fur, wielding a club with a nail in it: "OK guys - let's take it back to basics".