October 25, 2021

Profile: Retro Interview: John Romero

A truly detailed epic profile of John Romero. In this extremely well-written profile, the profiler Copilevitz begins with an entertaining anecdote about a twelve year old Pac-Man-playing Romero. Copilevitz interviews Romero’s relatives who reveal various facets of Romero’s life as a young man. The profile details what Romero was like in elementary school and continues to trace his career as a programmer. It follows Romero from air bases in England to burger kings in California to the founding of id software. The profile passes through Keen, Wolfenstein, Doom, and finally Quake. Copilevitz conveys Romero’s sense of detail and revolutionary sense of style in this fascinating read.

Andrew “Kolinahr” Wu

By Todd Copilevitz / The Dallas Morning News

“Doomed” to transform the computer game industry

He should have heard his friends as they gasped in unison. He probably should have seen the reflection in the glass of the Pac-Man screen. But 12-year-old John Romero didn’t, so the sudden whack to the back of his head came as a total shock.

The shock of his face hitting the screen was bad enough, but he was on pace to capture the top score. This was war. He still remembers whipping around ready to pound whomever attacked him, inasmuch as a slight preteen could land a fierce blow.

Then he saw his stepfather’s face.

“I was in for a legendary whipping,” John recalls.

“He dragged me out the door, threw my bike in the back of the truck and took me home.”

But his parents knew he would keep sneaking out of their Northern California home until he conquered Pac-Man. Then there would always be another game he had to master.

“It wasn’t just that we’d told him not to go down there to play video games, or that he was paying for them by stealing money from his paper route,” says Ginny Schuneman, John’s mother. “You just worry as a parent when your kid is so singularly focused on video games.”

As John got older, “I told him lots of times that if he was ever going to make money with this stuff he’d need to be the head of a computing department,” says John Schuneman, John’s stepfather. “I kept telling him to get into the scientific uses for computers.”

John, now age 29, never did. He never finished college, or worked for a big company. But he kept his singular focus on games. And for the last five years his stepfather has been eating those words, with pride.

* * *

From John’s imagination has come a string of games that have revolutionized the computer gaming industry. First there was Wolfenstein 3D, then the mega-hits Doom and Doom II, and most recently Quake, which is still spreading across the Internet like a nuclear blast.

There are all sorts of names for the genre that he created – 3-D action adventures, first person shooter and even “twitch games,” for the reflexes players need. But when all else fails, players describe a game by its similarities to Doom.

Within the gaming industry and the legions of trade magazines that cater to players, John has achieved rock-star status.

The analogy certainly fits. From the flowing long hair to the multimillion-dollar mansion in Frisco, John’s lifestyle is legendary among gamers.

Visitors to his home are greeted by a half-dozen bronze gargoyles. The English Tudor-style house could jump out of one of his games. The four garages belie his other fascination, cars. At the moment his collection includes a pair of BMWs, Ferrari Testerossa, and his second Hummer.

It was John’s vision that helped take a handful of programmers, who started “id software,” from shared apartments in North Dallas to mansions and sports cars. That’s id, as in Sigmund Freud’s name for the portion of the psyche that contains all basic drives.

His friends and family say that with fame has come a growing sense of generosity. He buys cars for his family, his wife’s friends, the manager of his favorite Mexican restaurant. He’s buying a house and moving his ex-wife and children to Texas. His friends carry $3,000 laptop computers he gave as presents.

Now his second company, Ion Storm, is setting up shop in the top two floors of the Texas Commerce Bank building, the one with the hole in it, overlooking downtown. John Romero’s reputation is enough to bring investors to Dallas from around the world with millions of dollars in hand, hoping for a piece of his next title.

There are already 50 employees and several dozen more to hire. All this, and the company’s first game won’t be out for at least six months.

“There’s certainly an attitude that John exudes: ‘I’ve got a dream, I’m going to do it. Don’t get in my way,’ ” says Jay Wilbur, former CEO of id software.

“It’s not that John is an arrogant person. But he is the most intense gamer you’ll ever know. It’s a sport for him. He builds muscles playing games.”

Running imagination

As a child John was always an introvert. His parents divorced and his mother remarried while he was in elementary school. But if John didn’t engage much with the rest of the world, he made up for it with his imagination.

Along with his friend, Christian Divine, 8-year-old John would spend hours creating comic strips, such as his Melvin series.

“You could always tell John’s comics,” Mr. Divine now says. “They were always violent and over the top. Melvin was this blond, crew-cut kid who was always in trouble. The retribution was always swift and excessively violent.”

It sounds suspiciously like Doom, in which the character, known only as Our Hero, is a blond gung-ho Marine who always seems to be in a ridiculous amount of trouble.

In class they were the kids at the back of the room drawing elaborate scenes that had lots of things blowing up and people screaming in agony. They never talked about what they were going to do when they grew up. “This was it,” says Mr. Divine.

A few years later John glimpsed his first video game. Then came Pac-Man – the little yellow munching happy-face arcade game. He was hooked. When he found out he could make games on the computers at the junior college in Rocklin, Calif., his career was set.

“By the time we were in high school I was drawing better comics, but John was filling up tablets with computer code for his games,” says Mr. Divine, who is now a Hollywood screenwriter.

“I would name every game I wrote with a letter of the alphabet, like Alien Attack and Dangerous Dave,” John says. Somewhere the notepads of coding are still bundled neatly in order. By the time he was done John had run through the alphabet, twice.

Game of intrigue

John taught himself the computer language necessary to write games. It came easily to him. School did not. When he graduated high school his grade point average was 1.3. He couldn’t even get accepted at the state university.

His sophomore and junior years of high school were spent in England. His stepfather worked with U.S. spy planes in a highly classified job during the mid ’80s. The job meant traveling all over the world. A relocation to the Royal Air Force base in Aclonbury (in central England) put the family closer to his destinations. All John cared about was that the base high school had just gotten its first personal computers.

“It was cool because I was showing them how to do things with the computers, and they let me do it,” he recalls. The faculty more than just let him do it, his stepfather remembers. Word about John’s skill raced around the base.

“Most of what happened at that base was, and still is, top secret,” Mr. Schuneman says. “One day the guys working on one of the most classified projects asked if they could borrow John. I remember being stunned.”

John recalls a group of pilots from the Aggressor Squadron showing him some cool simulation software. And, he says, he showed them a few things to tweak the graphics.

What he didn’t see were the walls of top secret computers, documents, maps and other materials plotting Cold War strategy, Mr. Schuneman says. All those were screened off behind curtains, security guards and nervous officers.

“To this day I don’t think John realizes that he was advancing a very important simulation program,” he says. “As far as he was concerned, he got to do something neato and earned $500. But what he really did was worth tons more than that. I wish I could tell you, but it’s still classified.”

Programming master

John came back to California from England a new person, more rounded, interested in dating but more determined than ever to write games.

After school he worked at a Burger King, a job he proudly boasts was the best place ever for meeting women. That gave way to a series of assignments for a temporary agency.

But in his spare time John had been writing his Apple II games and sending them off to specialty magazines that offered amateur programmers hints, tips and even programs.

Jay Wilbur, the editor of Uptime magazine, bought John’s programs. Uptime was part of a new generation of ‘zines that published on a floppy disk, loaded with stories, free software and trial offers for personal computer hobbyists.

“I [had] never met him or knew how young John was,” Mr. Wilbur says. “But he figured out what we wanted and kept a steady stream of programs coming. I think you can find his work on just about every edition.”

It turned out to be a friendship that would span a decade and four companies. Eventually Mr. Wilbur would help guide John’s creations to mega-hit status and, in the process, shove John into the spotlight.

He was gaining a reputation among developers for his prowess, had gotten married, gotten a job and was able to support himself, but John still wasn’t “in” the industry. So when he heard about a huge Apple II convention in San Francisco, he loaded an old briefcase borrowed from his father and headed west from Rocklin.

“One way or another, I wasn’t leaving until I got a job. I really wanted to work for Origin, who was making the coolest games around, but it didn’t matter, just so long as I got paid to make games.”

He walked out with five job offers. A few days later he left for Origin Software’s offices in New Hampshire without a dime to his name.

“He was so broke that he was writing hot checks at toll booths,” his mother says. She worked at the local bank and often had to cover her son’s transgressions.

As first jobs go, it was pretty much low-end work, John says. His big thrill was finding out he didn’t have to pay for soft drinks.

Among the people he knew working there was Jay Wilbur. After less than a year there the pair, along with another programmer, left for a company in Shreveport named Soft Disk, which published a software magazine on disk for the new personal computer market.

Shreveport was a pivotal time for John, both personally and professionally. He and his wife, Kelly, separated and eventually divorced. She headed back to California with his two young sons. And John poured himself into work.

It was there that he met John Carmack and Tom Hall, two more of id’s founding partners. During the week they were writing utility programs for Soft Disk. But on the weekend they’d “borrow” the company’s computers and head for the lakefront house Mr. Carmack shared with Mr. Wilbur.

Working through the summer, with only occasional breaks for boogie boarding on the lake and food runs, they created Commander Keen, the first game for id Software.

At Soft Disk John also met Beth McCall, a former New Orleans debutante who was working in the shipping department. They married in 1993.

“The first time I saw him, John was this nerdish guy,” she says. “But then he took off those big, black glasses and it was, wow, like the transformation from Clark Kent to Superman.”

Commander Keen was all the success id needed to launch on its own. After a short stay in Madison, Wis., the group, including Beth, landed in Dallas. They chose Dallas in part because their distributor was here and mostly because it was warm and cheap.

‘Doomed’ to fame

Intensity is not a rarity in the computer game world, nor is singular focus. The industry is known for all-night programming sessions, offices overflowing with pizza boxes, soda cans and guys who need a shower.

John knows that side of the business all too well. He calls it the death schedule, that critical period at the end of a game’s production when the deadline looms and it needs one last push. That’s what he relishes most about id’s first summer in Dallas.

“We walked in and rented six units at the La Prada apartments, five for us to live in and one for an office,” Mr. Wilbur says.

John calls that summer the best of his life. The days were endless programming sessions punctuated with trips to the pool.

“It was before the big dollars. We were still struggling,” Mr. Wilbur says. “There’s something romantic, something fun about building a future from scratch.”

When their second game, Wolfenstein 3D, hit the market it was clear that id was about to become something big.

“The first [royalty] check came and it was for $250,000. We figured that was just a fluke,” Mr. Wilbur says. “Then came the second, and a third, and they kept coming.”

John and the others were too busy to do interviews when the game press beat a path to their door. Mr. Wilbur handled most of that.

Then came Doom, which was not just a hit with gamers, but a pop-culture breakthrough. It was on the cover of Wired magazine, on the computers in the television show E.R. Movie studios were calling for rights to the title.

The publicity coincided with the explosion in personal computer sales for home users. The gaming industry suddenly saw an opportunity for growth.

“The industry needed a rock star. We were the right people in the right place with the right product,” Mr. Wilbur says. And John more than anyone embraced the spotlight.

“You could see it happening over the course of time. It was a look he cultivated, the long hair, the duster coat, the fast cars. The next thing you know, we had a guy who looked like ZZ Top walking around the office,” Mr. Wilbur says.

Still, some of the subtleties of success were lost on John. One afternoon it was up to him to deposit several checks for id, totaling more than $3 million. He used the bank’s drive-through window.

The creator

By 7:30 p.m. most of the offices at The Quadrangle have been dark for several hours. But on the sixth floor, hostile screams punctuated by laughs and other unintelligible noises race out past the elevators.

It’s death-match time. And the employees of Ion Storm are throwing themselves into the nightly ritual of trying to kill one another in the cyberworld of Quake.

For the moment, a half-dozen players are zoned into their massive computer screens, looking over the barrel of a rocket launcher, shotgun or other weapon. They are racing through an industrial post-apocalyptic world, hoping to blow away the figures representing co-workers into a bloody mess.

Others move from screen to screen looking for new perspectives on the carnage. One of the players, a tall, barefoot, curly-haired guy nicknamed Squirrel, has tallied more than 200 kills. He is a marked man.

Every so often John emerges from his corner office that he shares with three other employees. He watches the mayhem with quiet satisfaction.

“I made that world. It’s always fun to see people enjoying it.”

Mind games

Software companies are like garage bands, popping up everywhere, occasionally successful, but seldom becoming a powerhouse. id bucked the odds, with distributors competing for their next title, releasing a game every year or so, then living large off the profits.

So the game industry buzzed when John announced he was leaving id to launch Ion Storm. He said he wanted to put more energy into the creative process and less emphasis on the technical side.

“John wants complete control over games,” Mr. Wilbur says. “At id he was part of a committee.”

Exerting control is not an ego thing for John as much as it is the only way to put what he has in his head onto the computer screen, says Mike Wilson, Ion Storm’s chief executive.

“I’ve heard John talk with an artist and describe a scene in such detail that you’d swear he was sitting in the middle of it,” Mr. Wilson says.

It has taken John some time to understand how unique his talent is. Where others imagine a doorway, John sees an arch of interlocking stones, every other one set in more than the others, a slight green of early moss growth on the edges and a muddy brown mortar.

It was something John’s possessed since he could first draw, his mother says.

“At 4 he would draw city skylines,” she says. “Not just the outlines of the buildings, but every single brick, every pane of glass. When he drew trucks he would make the grille a perfect replica, right down to the spacing of the metal bars.”

“That’s what making games for me is all about, getting what’s on the screen as close as possible to what’s in my mind,” he says. “It’s like I’m a movie director, only you’re going to get to go anywhere in my scenes, not just where the camera wants to go.”

That kind of perfection of vision can come at a cost for artists who fall short, he admits. In the making of Quake, entire levels were redesigned because the flickering of a torch or the glow of a stained-glass window didn’t measure up.

“I can’t run the risk of something we overlook being the thread that undoes all that the game works to create,” he says.

The faster and more powerful computers become, the further John can push the experience.

“The ultimate would to be to be inside an Indiana Jones movie, for some maybe Star Wars. You could go where you want in that world, do what you want, and it would all be reality. The player would believe they are the character. I want to be more inside a game than just killing everything and heading for the exit.

“There has to be more to do in this game than just run around and kill stuff.”

That might be blasphemy to legions of Doom and Quake players, but John acknowledges he’s tiring of the shoot-first, never-bother-to-ask-questions type of games.

So John is trying to change the genre once again by making the player part of a three-person team.

When playing against the computer, the player will have running dialogue with a woman and a man, giving them orders, taking responsibility for their lives. John has even brought in his childhood friend, Mr. Devine, to write dialogue.

It has never been done before, which is precisely why John is so confident he can do it well. And the game players will expect something spectacular, Mr. Wilbur says.

“It’s got to be gold, right out the chute. But you expect that – after all, he’s John Romero. That’s the pressure that comes with being the best.”

Microphone cover photo by Alex Cole on Unsplash

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