• Masters of Doom Book Review

    Masters of Doom by David Kushner is a thorough and detailed account of Id Software's history from their early days writing titles for the periodical Softdisk, through their formation and early distribution partnership with Apogee Software, right up to the pinnacle of Quake's heydey with the release of Q3: Arena. Along the way the writer takes you on the roller-coaster journey that was the first person shooter genre in the 90s, including everything from the start of the competitive scene, early companies who sparked the online revolution with innovative services, to the press and media controversies that dogged the developers. It's an incredibly detailed and well rounded account, based on over 6 years of work, during which time the author conducted hundreds of interviews with meticulous attention to detail and fact checking. Written in a prose style narrative that is delivered in continuing chronological order, the writer avoids dry interview style pieces, instead interspersing relevant quotes and information that he has garnered in the appropriate places.
    Masters of Doom screenshot.

    Primarily the book is billed as focusing on the two Johns – Romero and Carmack, arguably two of gaming's biggest superstars to this day. Picking up early in their childhoods, the writer devotes significant time to their upbringing and the work of themselves, and other early collaborators, prior to the formation of Id with their breakout title Commander Keen. Rather than coming across as the standard biographical template, these sections go a long way to putting into context the business actions of both parties later on in their lives and gives a fascinating insight into the early years of computer game development.

    One of the single most standout elements of this book is the way it handles both characters. Over the years the media has been quick to deliver a caricaturist view of both sides, portraying Romero as the over-aggrandising, under-delivering hack and Carmack as the technical genius who single handedly pushes the boundaries of technology. Ever since those infamous Daikatana adverts, one side has been demonized and the other held in reverence and awe; it makes for easy journalism and snappy one liners. Masters of Doom does a lot to rectify this inaccurate and unjust characterisation. It's a testament to the time and effort devoted to the creation of this book that the pre-existing academic research which made the likes of the Doom engine possible is mentioned and the roles of all the other parties who contributed to Id's success are highlighted.
    Masters of Doom screenshot.

    The reader is given a no holds barred view of what went on behind the scenes, both during development and at some rather uncomfortable meetings, that will change many people's pre-existing assumptions. A lot of people outside the technology industry may be surprised what really goes on behind closed doors; things are never as clear cut as how the PR teams try to push in the media, and it's this which makes the revelations found within this tome quite so striking. The candidness and openness are rather unprecedented; there's not a hint of false representation or spin here, and that's only been made possible thanks to the huge number of people willing to be interviewed as part of the project, in itself a surprising feat.

    It's this fairness and level headedness which makes the book such compelling reading, you get a real sense of feeling for the time. Despite the titular focus on the two Johns, the writer has also spent plenty of time focusing on all the other important members of the team, following their lives as they enter and leave the phenomenon that was Id. It's often the insights and feelings of these people that provide some of the most interesting snippets to the book and make for a far richer read than the title's tagline might otherwise imply.
    Masters of Doom screenshot.

    The reader is treated to discussion of all manner of business dealings, from Jaguar ports to the cadre of Texan developers licensing Id's engines, and from Ion Storm to MonkeyStone. By stepping outside of Id and looking at external impacts on the company, the reader is ensured a wealth of varied material with a much wider scope. With a book of this ilk, it would be wrong to ignore the technical aspects of Id's titles and Kushner walks that fine line between giving just enough information and outline to keep a layman informed, and give some background to what Id were up to for those with a working knowledge, without straying into dry, textbook territories. Thanks to his smooth prose style and the fascinating series of events you could market this book in a non-biographical context and it would stand strong.
    Masters of Doom screenshot.

    Masters of Doom makes for a standout read, arguably one of the finest, most even handed biographies out there, regardless of the video game genre. For anyone with even a vague interest in 90s games it makes for an engaging and informative read. At times inspiring, at others offering valuable lessons in running your own software developments, it's easily approachable irrespective of the reader's technical background. Even if you followed the PC scene avidly at the time, there are bound to be some interesting new bits and pieces for you. Kushner is to be commended for treating the work and lives of these people with the respect and deference that they deserve; a thoroughly recommended read.
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