How a Book About Doom Inspired the Oculus Rift
Last month, id Software released Doom, a high-octane remake of the genre-defining classic. It’s been more than 20 years since the original, which means that many young gamers are coming to the series without much sense of its history. Fortunately for them, the birth of Doom was extensively documented by David Kushner in his 2003 book Masters of Doom, for which Kushner spent months living in Dallas and hanging out with the creators of the game.
“It was just this incredible moment in time that I was fortunate enough to be able to be there and capture,” Kushner says in Episode 207 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
The original Doom featured an impressive array of innovations. Its multiplayer abilities laid the groundwork for the eSports boom, its easily hacked data files popularized modding, and its novel shareware distribution model allowed it to reach an unprecedented number of computers. And in an era dominated by Nintendo’s family-friendly approach, id was defiantly transgressive.
“They were these guys who wanted to have heavy metal gaming,” Kushner says. “Heavy metal, science fiction, blood and guts gaming. So that’s what they made.”
But by far Doom’s most striking feature was its graphics engine, developed by genius coder John Carmack, which was able to render moody full-screen environments at breakneck speed.
“Carmack was the guy who was creating this incredibly powerful, robust computer engine that could run this, and display graphics that no one had ever seen before,” says Kushner.
Among Carmack’s many fans is Palmer Luckey, developer of Oculus Rift, who got interested in virtual reality after reading Masters of Doom. The admiration goes both ways—Carmack was so impressed with Luckey’s work that he left id Software in 2013 in order to take a job as CTO at Oculus. The move surprised many, but it makes perfect sense in light of Carmack’s lifelong interest in the transformative power of virtual reality.
“In a virtual world there are unlimited resources,” says Kushner. “Someone who’s living in squalor could live in a mansion in virtual reality.”
Listen to our complete interview with David Kushner in Episode 207 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and read some highlights from the discussion below. For more of Kushner’s videogame journalism, check out his new audiobook Prepare to Meet Thy Doom.
David Kushner on John Carmack:
“His mother didn’t think that pursuing a career in gaming was really viable. This was a different era, keep in mind, so maybe parents had a reason to think that. I don’t know that he even really was thinking so much about his career, he just wanted to make cool games and cool programs. He really wanted an Apple II, and his parents wouldn’t get it for him, so he decided to make some homemade thermite, which is an explosive, and he went to the school with some friends, and put some thermite on a window, and was able to burn a hole through the window. They got in and stole computers, and he ended up getting busted and sent to a juvenile home. So as I said in the book, the other kids were in there for drugs, and he was in there for an Apple II.”
David Kushner on John Carmack’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign:
“‘Quake‘ was a character in their D&D campaign, the ‘Daikatana‘ — which was a game that Romero later put out—was a weapon in their game, so yes, they did kind of live out their fantasies and conflicts in their Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. … The campaign is something that has its own rules, and in a way it’s like a virtual world that just exists in everybody’s heads, and maybe on paper, and Romero did violate a rule that Carmack had set up, which was basically that he summoned the demons from hell, who then destroyed the world. So it was interesting, because it did foreshadow a lot. It foreshadowed games that they made, it foreshadowed conflicts that they had, so it was an interesting part of their story.”
David Kushner on Ion Storm:
“Romero got this 20,000 square foot penthouse office on the top of the Chase Banking Building in Dallas. … It actually had a glass ceiling, and it looked cool, but when you realize that you’re 50 stories up toward the Dallas sun, that’s not a great thing. They had to spend tons of money trying to keep the sun out, because not only is it hot, but when you’re making games, the worst thing you can have is the sun glaring onto your screen. … I was actually there when this was going on, and it was hysterical because one day one guy just said ‘screw it,’ and he went to Home Depot and came back with this thick black tarp, and they rolled it over all the cubicles, so that when you walked in all you saw were these big black mounds.”
David Kushner on the controversy surrounding Doom:
“Doom got blamed for an early school shooting, and then of course for Columbine. … There was a bit of a generation gap, where you had people who’d never played it, and didn’t really know anything about it other than it was called Doom and there were demons in it. Doom, just like D&D and just like Judas Priest, got a lot of the blame for destroying the fabric of youth culture, but now that all seems pretty silly. … They used to worry about Elvis Presley, that showing him from the waist down on TV dancing would destroy people’s minds. … This is a pattern that repeats itself—something that’s new, something that’s coming out of youth culture, people don’t understand it, they’re afraid of it, and then it becomes normalized.”
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