Authors: David Kushner
FOR MY FAMILY
The Two Johns
There were two games.
One was played in life. The other was lived in play. Naturally these worlds collided,
and so did the Two Johns.
one afternoon in April 2000
in the bowels of downtown Dallas. The occasion was a $100,000 prize tournament of
the computer game Quake III Arena. Hosted by the Cyberathlete Professional League,
an organization that hoped to become the NFL of the medium, the gathering was BYOC—bring
your own computer. Hundreds of machines were networked together in the basement of
the Hyatt hotel for seventy-two hours of nonstop action. On a large video screen that
displayed the games being played, rockets soared across digital arenas. Cigar-chomping
space marines, busty dominatrix warriors, maniacal bloodstained clowns, hunted each
other with rocket launchers and plasma guns. The object was simple: The player with
the most kills wins.
The gamers at the event were as hard-core as they came. More than one thousand had
road-tripped from as far as Florida and even Finland with their monitors, keyboards,
and mice. They competed until they passed out at their computers or crawled under
their tables to sleep on pizza box pillows. A proud couple carried a newborn baby
in homemade Quake pajamas. Two jocks paraded with their hair freshly shaved into the
shape of Quake’s clawlike logo; their girlfriends made their way around the convention
hall, brandishing razors for anyone else who wanted the ultimate in devotional trims.
Such passion was hardly uncommon in Dallas, the capital of ultraviolent games like
Quake and Doom. Paintball-like contests played from a first-person point of view,
the games have pioneered a genre known as first-person shooters. They are among the
bestselling franchises in this $10.8 billion industry and a sizable reason why Americans
more money on video games than on movie tickets
. They have driven the evolution of computing, pushing the edge of 3-D graphics and
forging a standard for online play and community. They have created enough sociopolitical
heat to get banned in some countries and, in the United States, blamed for inciting
a killing spree by two fans at Columbine High School in 1999.
As a result, they have spawned their own unique outlaw community, a high-stakes, high-tech
mecca for skilled and driven young gamers. In this world, no gamers were more skilled
and driven than the co-creators of Doom and Quake, John Carmack and John Romero, or,
as they were known, the Two Johns.
For a new generation, Carmack and Romero personified an American dream: they were
self-made individuals who had transformed their personal passions into a big business,
a new art form, and a cultural phenomenon. Their story made them the unlikeliest of
antiheroes, esteemed by both Fortune 500 executives and computer hackers alike, and
heralded as the Lennon and McCartney of video games (though they probably preferred
being compared to Metallica). The Two Johns had escaped the broken homes of their
youth to make some of the most influential games in history, until the very games
they made tore them apart. Now in minutes, years after they had split, they were coming
back together before their fans.
Carmack and Romero had each agreed to speak to their minions about their latest projects:
Carmack’s Quake III Arena, which he’d programmed at the company they cofounded, id
Software, and Romero’s Daikatana, the long-awaited epic he had been developing at
his new and competing start-up, Ion Storm. The games embodied the polar differences
that had once made the Two Johns such a dynamic duo and now made them seemingly irreparable
rivals. Their relationship was a study of human alchemy.
The twenty-nine-year-old Carmack was a monkish and philanthropic programmer who built
high-powered rockets in his spare time (and made Bill Gates’s short list of geniuses);
his game and life aspired to the elegant discipline of computer code. The thirty-two-year-old
Romero was a brash designer whose bad-boy image made him the industry’s rock star;
he would risk everything, including his reputation, to realize his wildest visions.
As Carmack put it shortly after their break-up:
“Romero wants an empire
, I just want to create good programs.”
When the hour of the Two Johns’ arrival at the hotel finally approached, the gamers
turned their attention from the skirmish on screen to the real-life one between the
ex-partners. Out in the parking lot, Carmack and Romero pulled up one shortly after
the other in the Ferraris they had bought together at the height of their collaboration.
Carmack walked quickly past the crowd; he had short, sandy blond hair, square glasses,
and a T-shirt of a walking hairball with two big eyes and legs. Romero sauntered in
with his girlfriend, the sharpshooting gamer and
model Stevie Case; he wore tight black jeans and matching shirt, and his infamous
dark mane hung down near his waist. As they passed each other in the hall, the Two
Johns nodded obligatorily, then continued to their posts.
It was time for this game to begin.
The Rock Star
Eleven-year-old John Romero
jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again. A scrawny kid with thick glasses,
he pedaled past the modest homes of Rocklin, California, to the Roundtable Pizza Parlor.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to be going there this summer afternoon in 1979, but he
couldn’t help himself. That was where the games were.
Specifically, what was there was Asteroids, or, as Romero put it, “the coolest game
planet Earth has ever seen!” There was nothing else like the feeling he got tapping
the control buttons as the rocks hurled toward his triangular ship and the
style theme music blipped in suspense,
dum dum dum dum dum dum;
Romero mimicked these video game sounds the way other kids did celebrities. Fun like
this was worth risking everything: the crush of the meteors, the theft of the paper
route money, the wrath of his stepfather. Because no matter what Romero suffered,
he could always escape back into the games.
At the moment, what he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping. His stepfather,
John Schuneman—a former drill sergeant—had commanded Romero to steer clear of arcades.
Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and
in life. As his stepfather was fond of reminding him, his mother had enough problems
trying to provide for Romero and his younger brother, Ralph, since her first husband
left the family five years earlier. His stepfather was under stress of his own with
a top-secret government job retrieving black boxes of classified information from
downed U.S. spy planes across the world. “Hey, little man,” he had said just a few
days before, “consider yourself warned.”
Romero did heed the warning—sort of. He usually played games at Timothy’s, a little
pizza joint in town; this time he and his friends headed into a less traveled spot,
the Roundtable. He still had his initials, AJR for his full name, Alfonso John Romero,
next to the high score here, just like he did on all the Asteroids machines in town.
He didn’t have only the number-one score, he owned the entire top ten. “Watch this,”
Romero told his friends, as he slipped in the quarter and started to play.
The action didn’t last long. As he was about to complete a round, he felt a heavy
palm grip his shoulder. “What the fuck, dude?” he said, assuming one of his friends
was trying to spoil his game. Then his face smashed into the machine.
Romero’s stepfather dragged him past his friends to his pickup truck, throwing the
dirt bike in the back. Romero had done a poor job of hiding his bike, and his stepfather
had seen it while driving home from work. “You really screwed up this time, little
man,” his stepfather said. He led Romero into the house, where Romero’s mother and
his visiting grandmother stood in the kitchen. “Johnny was at the arcade again,” his
stepfather said. “You know what that’s like? That’s like telling your mother ‘Fuck
He beat Romero until the boy had a fat lip and a black eye. Romero was grounded for
two weeks. The next day he snuck back to the arcade.
Romero was born
resilient, his mother, Ginny, said, a four-and-one-half-pound baby delivered on October
28, 1967, six weeks premature. His parents, married only a few months before, had
been living long in hard times. Ginny, good-humored and easygoing, met Alfonso Antonio
Romero when they were teenagers in Tucson, Arizona. Alfonso, a first-generation Mexican
American, was a maintenance man at an air force base, spending his days fixing air
conditioners and heating systems. After Alfonso and Ginny got married, they headed
in a 1948 Chrysler with three hundred dollars to Colorado, hoping their interracial
relationship would thrive in more tolerant surroundings.
Though the situation improved there, the couple returned to Tucson after Romero was
born so his dad could take a job in the copper mines. The work was hard, the effect
sour. Alfonso would frequently come home drunk if he came home at all. There was soon
a second child, Ralph. John Romero savored the good times: the barbecues, the horsing
around. Once his dad stumbled in at 10:00 p.m. and woke him. “Come on,” he slurred,
“we’re going camping.” They drove into the hills of saguaro cacti to sleep under the
stars. One afternoon his father left to pick up groceries. Romero wouldn’t see him
again for two years.
Within that time his mother remarried. John Schuneman, fourteen years her senior,
tried to befriend him. One afternoon he found the six-year-old boy sketching a Lamborghini
sports car at the kitchen table. The drawing was so good that his stepfather assumed
it had been traced. As a test, he put a Hot Wheels toy car on the table and watched
as Romero drew. This sketch too was perfect. Schuneman asked Johnny what he wanted
to be when he grew up. The boy said, “A rich bachelor.”
For a while, this relationship flourished. Recognizing Romero’s love of arcade games,
his stepfather would drive him to local competitions—all of which Romero won. Romero
was so good at Pac-Man that he could maneuver the round yellow character through a
maze of fruit and dots with his eyes shut. But soon his stepfather noticed that Romero’s
hobby was taking a more obsessive turn.
It started one summer day in 1979, when Romero’s brother, Ralph, and a friend came
rushing through the front door. They had just biked up to Sierra College, they told
him, and made a discovery. “There are games up there!” they said. “Games that you
don’t have to pay for!” Games that some sympathetic students let them play. Games
on these strange big
Romero grabbed his bike and raced with them to the college’s computer lab. There was
no problem for them to hang out at the lab. This was not uncommon at the time. The
computer underground did not discriminate by age; a geek was a geek was a geek. And
since the students often held the keys to the labs, there weren’t professors to tell
the kids to scram. Romero had never seen anything like what he found inside. Cold
air gushed from the air-conditioning vents as students milled around computer terminals.
Everyone was playing a game that consisted only of words on the terminal screen: “You
are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest.
A small stream flows out of the building towards a gully. In the distance there is
a gleaming white tower.”
This was Colossal Cave Adventure, the hottest thing going. Romero knew why: it was
like a computer-game version of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, as it was commonly known,
was a pen-and-paper role-playing game that cast players in a
Lord of the Rings–
like adventure of imagination. Many adults lazily dismissed it as geekish escapism.
But to understand a boy like Romero, an avid D&D player, was to understand the game.
Created in 1972 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two friends in their early twenties,
Dungeons and Dragons was an underground phenomenon, particularly on college campuses,
thanks to word of mouth and controversy. It achieved urban legend status when a student
James Dallas Egbert III disappeared
in the steam tunnels underneath Michigan State University while reportedly reenacting
the game; a Tom Hanks movie called
Mazes and Monsters
was loosely based on the event. D&D would grow into an international cottage industry,
$25 million in annual sales
from novels, games, T-shirts, and rule books.
The appeal was primal. “In Dungeons and Dragons,” Gygax said, “the average person
gets a call to glory and becomes a hero and undergoes change. In the real world, children,
especially, have no power; they must answer to everyone, they don’t direct their own
lives, but in this game, they become super powerful and affect everything.” In D&D,
there was no winning in the traditional sense. It was more akin to interactive fiction.
The participants consisted of at least two or three players and a Dungeon Master,
the person who would invent and direct the adventures. All they needed was
the D&D rule book
, some special polyhedral dice, and a pencil and paper. To begin, players chose and
developed characters they would become in the game, from dwarves to elves, gnomes
Gathered around a table, they would listen as the Dungeon Master cracked open the
D&D rule book—which contained descriptions of monsters, magic, and characters—and
fabricated a scene: down by a river, perhaps, a castle shrouded in mist, the distant
growl of a beast.
Which way shall you go?
If the players chose to pursue the screams, the Dungeon Master would select just
what ogre or chimera they would face. His roll of the die determined how they fared;
no matter how wild the imaginings, a random burst of data ruled one’s fate. It was
not surprising that computer programmers liked the game or that one of the first games
they created, Colossal Cave Adventure, was inspired by D&D.
The object of Colossal Cave was to fight battles while trying to retrieve treasures
within a magical cave. By typing in a direction, say “north” or “south,” or a command,
“hit” or “attack,” Romero could explore what felt like a novel in which he was the
protagonist. As he chose his actions, he’d go deeper into the woods until the walls
of the lab seemed to become trees, the air-conditioning flow a river. It was another
world. Imbued with his imagination, it was real.
Even more impressively, it was an alternate reality that he could
Since the seventies, the electronic gaming industry had been dominated by arcade
machines like Asteroids and home consoles like the Atari 2600. Writing software for
these platforms required expensive development systems and corporate backing. But
computer games were different. They were accessible. They came with their own tools,
their own portals—a way inside. And the people who had the keys were not authoritarian
monsters, they were
Romero was young, but he was a dude in the making, he figured. The Wizard of this
Oz could be him.
Every Saturday at 7:30 a.m.,
Romero would bike to the college, where the students—charmed by his gumption—showed
him how to program on refrigerator-size Hewlett-Packard mainframe computers. Developed
in the fifties, these were the early giants of the computer industry, monolithic machines
that were programmed by inserting series of hole-punched cards that fed the code.
IBM, which produced both the computers and the punch card machines, dominated the
sales reaching over $7 billion
in the 1960s. By the seventies, mainframes and their smaller cousins, the minicomputers,
had infiltrated corporations, government offices, and universities. But they were
not yet in homes.
For this reason, budding computer enthusiasts like Romero trolled university computer
labs, where they could have hands-on access to the machines. Late at night, after
the professors went home, students gathered to explore, play, and hack. The computer
felt like a revolutionary tool: a means of self-empowerment and fantasy fulfillment.
Programmers skipped classes, dates, baths. And as soon as they had the knowledge,
they made games.
The first one came in 1958 from the most unlikely of places: a U.S. government nuclear
research lab. The head of the Brookhaven Nation Laboratory’s instrumentation division,
Willy Higinbotham, was planning a public relations tour of the facility for some concerned
local farmers, and needed something to win them over. So, with the help of his colleagues,
he programmed a rudimentary tennis simulation using a computer and a small, round
oscilloscope screen. The game, which he called “Tennis for 2,” consisted merely of
a white dot ball hopping back and forth over a small white line. It thrilled the crowds.
Then it was dismantled and put away.
Three years later, in 1961
, Steve “Slug” Russell and a group of other students at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology created Spacewar on the first minicomputer, the PDP-1. In this game,
two players shot up each other’s rocket ships while drifting around a black hole.
Ten years later, a programmer and amateur cave explorer in Boston, Will Crowther
, created text-based spelunking simulation. When a hacker at Stanford named Don Woods
saw the game, he contacted Crowther to see if it was okay for him to modify the game
to include more fantasy elements. The result was Colossal Cave Adventure. This gave
rise to the text-adventure craze, as students and hackers in computer labs across
the country began playing and modifying games of their own—often based on Dungeons
and Dragons or
Romero was growing up in the eighties as a fourth-generation game hacker: the first
having been the students who worked on the minicomputers in the fifties and sixties
at MIT; the second, the ones who picked up the ball in Silicon Valley and at Stanford
University in the seventies; the third being the dawning game companies of the early
eighties. To belong, Romero just had to learn
the language of the priests
, the game developers: a programming language called HP-BASIC. He was a swift and
persistent student, cornering anyone who could answer his increasingly complex questions.
His parents were less than impressed by his new passion. At issue were Romero’s grades,
which had plummeted from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s. He was bright but too easily
distracted, they thought, too consumed by games and computers. Despite this being
the golden age of video games—with
arcade games bringing in $5 billion a year
and even home systems earning $1 billion—his stepfather did not believe game development
to be a proper vocation. “You’ll never make any money making games,” he often said.
“You need to make something people really need, like business applications.”
As the fights with his stepfather escalated, so did Romero’s imagination. He began
exorcising the backwash of emotional and physical violence through his illustrations.
For years he had been raised on comics—the B-movie horror of E.C. Comics, the scatological
the heroic adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. By age eleven, he churned
out his own.
In one, a dog named Chewy
was invited to play ball with his owner. With a strong throw, the owner hurled the
ball into Chewy’s eye, causing the dog’s head to split open and spill out green brains.
“The End,” Romero scrawled at the bottom, adding the epitaph “Poor Ol’ Chewy.”