When I was 10, a little old lady gave me the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3D. A year later, my friend Aaron and I sat in the back of our Sunday school to whisper over a preview of Doom in a gaming magazine. If you’d have told 10- or 11-year-old me that they would eventually interview id Software co-founder and Doom co-creator John Romero dozens of times, neither version of yours truly would have believed you.
If you would have told me the Icon of Sin himself would refer to me as the “foremost chronicler of FPS history” in the acknowledgments section of Doom Guy: Life in First Person, his memoir and one of the most anticipated gaming books of all time, I not only would never have believed you, I’d have thought you a cruel prankster.
That has all happened, of course, and the cherry on top was being asked by Abrams, the publisher of Romero’s memoir, to host Romero live on stage at the 2023 San Diego Comic Con. On Thursday, July 20, Romero and I took the stage and talked for an hour about his book, some of his favorite anecdotes from a life spent making games, why he chose to take the high road when writing about negative incidents, why a Doom II mod called Myhouse.wad is taking the Internet by storm, and much more.
Author’s note: This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
David L. Craddock: Thanks for coming out, everyone. This is awesome to see. My name is David L. Craddock, and I am the author of over 30 books about how games are made, people who make them, and why you play them. I've talked to John for several of those books and articles such as Rocket Jump for Shacknews, and for FPS: First Person Shooter, which is a documentary about… Pac-Man! No, it’s about first-person shooters. John, I think we talked for five and a half hours straight for that. [Author's note: Read the Shacknews review of FPS here.]
John Romero: Yep.
Craddock: This is really exciting, because for decades, writers like me have been telling your story by threading it into other narratives, but DOOM GUY marks the first time that we're getting your story directly from you. To start off, I understand that there was a convention in Canada where you were going to speak, but they didn't want you to talk about your games; they wanted you to talk about the man behind the game. How did that get started?
Romero: Well, I guess it happened before I even went there. They asked, “What kinds of talks do you have?” I was like, “I’ve got a Wolfenstein one, a Quake one, multiple Doom ones, programming principles of software programmers.” They said, “We've heard those. Do you have one about just you, and how you grew up, where you came from, that made you make these kinds of games?” I was like, “No, but I'll do that.” I made a talk called "A Life in Games" and gave the talk there. They were kind of shocked when they heard my story about how I grew up. Afterwards, people were saying, “You should put that in the book.”
When I thought about it, I was like, yeah, it makes sense that I would, because nothing is written about that time in my life. I also thought that if I wrote an autobiography, it could double as an id Software and game history book as well, because I remember every single game: when they were made, how long it took to make them, what happened while we made those games. While I was at id, I think I made probably 32 games over five and a half years, which is pretty crazy. That’s a lot of games. I thought that would be cool, so I decided to do that.
Craddock: In the spirit of this book, which has a lot of personal stories that, like you said, you’ve never shared, and a lot of game stuff, I thought we’d use this panel to cover some of those personal moments as well as talk about games. What went through your mind when you realized you would be sharing stories that, up until that point, you hadn't talked about with anyone other than mostly the people who lived them with you?
Romero: Yeah. Well, I thought that, if I'm writing about how I grew up, which was basically in the desert in Arizona, I'm going to just write about a bunch of the highlights. I remember so much of everything. I have a condition called hyperthymesia, where I can remember everything that I've done. That made it much easier to write a book. I can just remember everything, but it's way too much information. I had to get the highlights, compress them, and then move on to the next phase. I put a lot of stories in there about what it was like growing up with the family that I had. Then I had a huge transition, moving from Arizona to Northern California, which changed everything. The environment was 100 percent different, and that's how I got my exposure to computers.
Craddock: I think most people probably associate you with Texas or now with Ireland, but you actually grew up in Tucson, and you were immersed in your Mexican, Yaqui, and Cherokee heritage. Since you moved to California at a young age, when were you able to reconnect with your heritage?
Romero: The funny thing is when I went to California, my hair was short, so nobody treated me differently. I basically had zero family connection at that time. I think I took my first plane ride when I went from Tucson to California; it was never a normal thing to get on the plane. I basically stayed up in Northern California and was in an environment where I didn't have my Mexican family with me. Obviously, I don't have any [accent]; speaking Spanish, I don't have an accent that way. I was focused on what I was doing, which was programming. It was years before [I took] trips back to Tucson to kind of reconnect with my family.
Every time I go down there, it’s like I never left. Everyone’s like, “Johnny!” We all still keep in touch today. But yeah, that was very different for me as a kid, just moving completely into a different environment. It was a lot of focusing on how to deal with the new environment, and taking in a lot of really new, cool stuff.
Craddock: Your book goes into detail on what your dad and stepdad put you through, but one anecdote stood out to me. There’s a point, and I won’t spoil the whole story, where your mom says something like, “Get them out of here,” referring to you and your little brother. Your dad takes the two of you out into the desert, drops you off, and leaves you. The thing I thought about reading that part was that I'm the oldest of four siblings, and I was constantly told, “You need to set an example.” I didn’t want to be a role model. I just wanted to play Doom and Mortal Kombat whether my siblings are watching or not. But there you were, a kid, in this situation where you were responsible for another kid. What was that like for you?
Romero: I was five and a half, and I just had to deal with it. I was used to my dad getting mad. He was an alcoholic, and he worked in the mines, and he was a hard guy. He would get his paycheck and bet it all on pool games, and he even bet and lost his car. It was always something super chaotic. A lot of times we didn't have food because he did something dumb with the money. So, getting dumped in the desert, we had no idea that was happening. My brother was with me, and our dad drove us out there in the truck. We were told to get out, and then just took off.
I kind of recognized where we were, so I told my brother, “I think I know what this is.” I grabbed his hand and we started walking back along the Santa Cruz Wash, where flash floods happened. We walked for about half an hour before he came back. He went home and my mom found out that he had just dumped us in the middle of the desert, literally. Scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes—everything was in the desert. We were used to the desert. We used to go out in the desert and get mesquite for our barbecue we had almost every night, and just go to smash dead trees and throw them on the back of the truck. This was back in the ‘70s, so we’d be standing on the back of the truck holding on to the gate while he's speeding through the desert, and if he hits the brakes, we’d fly into the back of the truck. Sometimes we’d sit on the wheel wells. All this stuff that's illegal now, but back then, a lot of things weren't illegal.
Craddock: You mentioned cutting your hair. Could you talk a little bit about what that means to culture?
Romero: In native culture, hair is really important. My great grandmother on my mom's side was full Cherokee, and she had really, really long hair. That's actually where I think I get my hair, even though on the Yaqui side, which is my dad's side, my grandpa didn't have any hair. So, it's definitely on my mom's side. It’s a symbol of your native culture. You wouldn't cut it off unless it was for a really good reason. I didn't know that for a long time until I learned later in my early twenties.
Craddock: I, and perhaps a lot of people here, did a double take when they saw pictures of you in gaming magazines in the early 2000s when you had cut your hair. What was behind that decision?
Romero: Well, I found out there was a charity called Locks of Love. You donate your hair and they can make wigs for people who are recovering from cancer. When I found out about them, I thought that would be a really good reason to cut my hair. And, you know, I’d have a new look for a little while. I started growing my hair again immediately. I knew I didn’t want it to be short for very long, so I donated my hair, and then immediately grew it, and then I cut it again and did it again. I’ve only done it twice.
Craddock: I love the title of your memoir and the cover art because I remember Doom’s boot-up screen vividly from childhood. Well, who am I kidding: I play through it two or three times a year. What I wondered is, you’ve made a lot of iconic characters, so what made “DOOM GUY” the perfect title for your memoir?
Romero: I'm going to be remembered for Doom more than any other game. But also, we named the player in the game “Doomguy” because it could be anybody playing the game. It could be a woman playing the game. The reason why the book is called DOOM GUY is the reference to the original Doomguy of the game that I made versus being Slayer, which is the new character [in Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal]. It also references the fact that I'm actually the Doomguy on the cover of the Doom box. When we were doing a photo shoot for the dynamic action pose for the illustrator, he brought a model to pose so I could tell him how he needed to stand and everything.
The guy just was not getting the stance right, or the action, or anything. He had taken off his shirt. I was like, “No, let me do it.” I ripped my shirt off and I got in the position, and I made the model be a demon grabbing my arm. I took our BFG toy and I was aiming it as well, saying, “This is what I'm talking about.” The camera guy took a bunch of pictures and then he made the box cover from that. So that's how it happened. I'm actually Doomguy on the cover.
Craddock: Less than a year later, you became a literal model—and this is how we all know you best—as the model for the severed head at the end of Doom II.
Romero [laughs]: Oh, I thought you were talking about 2014’s Men in Game Development calendar.
Craddock: Well, there’s… there’s that. Let’s talk about that.
Romero: I think it was a charity calendar that was being made by some group. They asked a whole bunch of guys in the game industry if they would [pose shirtless for] a certain month, and they asked me to do one. Brenda, my wife, took the picture. It was kind of impromptu. We were in Ireland, and Ireland has 4,000 castles. We picked one with a really cool staircase. She took a picture and submitted it, and they chose it and put it in there.
Craddock: One of my favorite parts of the book was reading about you tapping into your creativity during your childhood. You mentioned that you were the proverbial kid playing with sticks in the yard because there wasn’t much to do, and you’d make up games to entertain yourself. Do you remember any of them?
Romero: It was taking anything that I could put together with something else. Usually it was broken bricks from around the outside of the house. There were dirt trails everywhere, and an alley where everybody put the trash. You could find all sorts of stuff around the trash and use that, but usually it was bricks, stone, anything that could be put together to kind of build a little structure like a house. We’d find horned toads and stick them in there. Basically, if someone threw away any kind of garbage that was a toy or something like that, I would take it.
Craddock: Dumpster diving in first person?
Romero: Yeah! [laughs]
Craddock: One part of your career in games that I didn’t know about, although it made sense when I thought about it, was that you got a lot of compliments when you were younger about your artwork. People know about your game design and coding, but they probably don’t know that you loved to draw from a young age. Is there an alternate universe where John Romero is the lead artist at a game studio?
Romero: Probably. I spent a lot of my time drawing comics. I started out drawing anything and got pretty good back in the ‘70s. Semi-trucks were everywhere, so I used to draw semis all the time, and really cool hot rods, characters like Scooby Doo and Captain Caveman; I don't know if anyone here remembers Captain Caveman. Then I started making these comics, which I called Melvin comics. Melvin is a kid who basically gets destroyed by his father, like, immediately [in every strip.] He does something stupid, Dad finds out, and ruins him. Then his dad has this ridiculous piece of advice at the end of each comic, like, “Remember, kids, clean up your room!” while Melvin is dead in his bed with his eyes crossed out because he didn't clean. They’re still really funny to me.
Craddock: That would have looked great printed right next to Calvin and Hobbes.
Romero [laughs]: Yeah. The opposite of Calvin and Hobbes.
Craddock: I did wonder, since you had these difficult relationships with your dad and your stepdad, were you ever able to reconcile the fact that they put you through a lot of hard times, while at the same time recognizing that they did love you in their way and did a lot for you throughout your life?
Romero: People make mistakes, you know? That's just part of human nature. You just forgive people for everything they did. If you're a parent, and you're in your early twenties, you know, it's very different than being a parent in your thirties or forties. I know that, especially if you're drinking alcohol all the time, you're not really that great of a parent. My stepdad was a drill sergeant in the military, so he already had his own kind of personality. You have to learn how to live with that. I focused a lot on learning how to code and make games, drawing, and all these things that didn't require anyone else for a long time. When I moved out of the house, that made things a lot better. When you live at someone else's house, they want you to make money and contribute, or get a life. My stepdad randomly kicked me out house one day, and I was just like, “I don't feel like I have enough money to live somewhere.”
Like, what? That's not cool. My mom talked him down, and I immediately got a job with three times the amount of money and moved out in a month. I was like, “That's not happening again.” I never went back to living with my parents after that. Stuff happens, you deal with it, and move on. I think it's my way of seeing things: Bad things happen all the time, so when good things happen, it’s like, “All right!” If a bad thing happens, it's like, “Of course.”
Craddock: You describe how you had a very logic-driven personality like that of a programmer, where you boiled things down to, “input in, output out.” Was that how you processed life even before you discovered coding?
Romero: Yeah, I think so. Because it's like, okay, if anything happens, let me just figure out how to deal with it and move on to the next thing. When you're a new programmer, everything is a bug. Everything just doesn't work. You're always trying to solve a problem. So, with real-life problems, I just thought, Okay, this is a real-life problem. I'll try and solve it as fast as I can, then get on to the next thing. Being used to solving problems constantly as a programmer made it easier for any real-life problems because I was solving stuff all the time.
Craddock: The Apple II was my first personal computer. Well, it was my grandma’s. She was a reading teacher and had an Apple II in her classroom, and she brought it home for the summer, and it was basically mine for three months. The Apple II was a formative computer for you as well. There's still a lot of affection for early PCs such as the Apple II and the Commodore 64, but the Apple II especially is still beloved. Why do you think that is?
Romero: There’s a really great book by Laine Nooney that just came out [in May 2023]. It explores the reason why the Apple II was such a leader back then. It has a lot to do with the amount of access that was put in that computer for people to be able to access any part of it. The fact that the computer manual that came with it had schematics of all the hardware on it to make it fully open. That’s what we at id Software were about as well: Opening up Doom for modding. All those slots in the Apple II were for peripheral cards, and that’s why the PC has peripheral cards. It's because of Steve Wozniak’s design, which is also based on earlier designs, like the S-100 bus of the Altair and all the other computers that came before it. Woz was very much about sharing information and making [the Apple II] open and not a closed system.
I think getting in early, and giving the computer a lot of graphics and sound [made the Apple II a leader]. It came out in 1997 and had all these features back then. The Commodore PET didn't have them. The TRS-80 didn't have them. It took five years until the Commodore 64 to actually have graphics hardware, although the Atari 800 [released] in 1979 was pretty amazing when it came out. But it had a smaller audience than the Apple II, and the Apple II didn't really change for 10 years. That allowed it to build up a massive software library that everybody would play. What computer do you want to get? Well, the one with all the software.
Craddock: That makes sense. The Apple II being in so many classrooms played a part in that as well. I was playing The Oregon Trail on an Apple II in my fourth grade class.
Romero: Yeah, that was critical. Steve Jobs getting the Apple II in schools was critical. It’s funny, because in January of ‘83, we moved from Northern California to England. I lived just north of London, and I went to a US military base for school. As soon as I got there, I was happy. I came in at the start of the second semester, but they had a computer lab, and it was all Apple II computers, and they were teaching BASIC programming.
Craddock: For a lot of your fans, the first game of yours they played was probably Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, or Doom. But you were selling games that were published as code listings in magazines. In the book, you mention that Scout Search was the first game you sold, and you got lots of rejections before selling it to Apple InCider. What do you remember about those rejected games?
Romero: Oh, yeah, I wrote so many. I never submitted any games that were written in BASIC because they just weren't good. BASIC was the first language I learned, and the games I wrote were just not fit for publishing in magazines. As soon as I started learning assembly language in 1983, I wrote a whole bunch of little games. I wrote a Frogger game. I wrote a [clone of] Miner 2049er, if you remember that. I made a Breakout-style game, just a whole bunch of little games that I wrote in lo-res [color mode] and sent to magazines. I even did a Donkey Kong game. They all got rejected, probably because they were lo-res, and [they were too similar to trademarked games]. I had all these rejection letters, and was just like, “All right, I’ll figure out what to do.”
Scout Search was a combination of BASIC and Assembly, because it teaches people who are at different levels of learning. If you’re a BASIC programmer, you'll learn something from the BASIC listing, and if you're an assembly language programmer, you'll learn something about game programming from the Assembly listing.
Craddock: Yeah, that makes me think of Doom’s source code. John Carmack released it in 1997, I think, and I remember opening it and sorting through a hybrid of C and assembly.
Romero: Usually when you're writing a game, you do as much as you can in the higher-level language [such as C or BASIC], because higher-level languages are so much easier to type: You type a little and get a lot of [work out of those short commands]. Low-level languages [such as assembly] are usually for speed, because the data that you need to do something with, like graphics data, needs to be manipulated in a really specific way depending on the hardware you're trying to use. When you're rendering a screen, like pixels for VGA screens, you put the graphic driver into a specific mode that sometimes changes the way that all the memory is interpreted. Then you have to write the graphics into memory at very high speeds in this weird format so it looks great on screen. Even way before Doom, I’d done many games that were half and half. It was kind of rare after the ‘80s for games to be all assembly because the C compilers were great, but I don’t want to get too technical.
Craddock: I knew you’d worked at Origin early in your career, but I guess I just assumed you’d met Richard Garriott. It turned out you didn’t. When did you finally meet him?
Romero: Yeah, he worked at the Austin branch of Origin, and I was in New Hampshire, which was actually the big studio. They had Origin’s corporate office there. All the marketing was there, the salespeople were there, and all the ports they were doing were managed up there as well. Ultima V was being developed in Austin, and simultaneously, they were porting it to the PC where I was in New Hampshire. Herman Miller, who was a great low-level, VGA graphics programmer guy at Origin was there; Cheryl Chen, and Ed Nelson, and John Fachini, who was the project lead of the PC version. The [core team] was just four people making the PC version of Ultima V.
So, yeah, there were a lot of projects going on up there. I never met Richard because he never flew up. He stayed down in Austin. When I started Ion Storm in 1996 and I was looking for a publisher to pay for us to develop games, Origin was one of the companies I wanted to talk to. When I got there, before I even reached Garriott’s office, I met Rod Nakamoto, who created the MockingBoard soundcard for the Apple II. He was just in the elevator, and I was like, “Oh, my god! Rod Nakamoto!” He was also the founder of Micro Systems, so it was great to meet him. Right next to Richard's office was Herman Miller's office; he was the longest-tenured employee at Origin at that time, which was 20-something years, so it was great to meet him.
Anyway, Richard walked us through all the projects that they're working on, giving us information about what they were doing and how we could fit into it. At the very end, I had him sign my Ultima V t-shirt that I’d kept since 1987.
Craddock: So even John Romero is asking for autographs.
Romero: Oh, yeah. Richard Garriott is a legend.
Craddock: You’ve met so many “game design rockstars,” a term coined to refer to you and select others in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Is there anyone you’ve always wanted to meet but haven’t?
Romero: I would love to meet Larry Miller, which is the most generic name for a programmer. He did some amazing 3D programming in assembly language on Apple II. This guy was crazy-smart. When he made a game, he didn't send a disk to publishers. He would go to the publisher with his secretary who had a massive stack of paper, pages and pages, reams and reams. She would type in his assembly code [as he dictated it to her], and when he ran it, it worked. He had the whole game in his head. This dude was brilliant. I'd love to meet him.
Craddock: Let’s talk about Softdisk and your Gamer’s Edge division for a minute. It’s you, John Carmack, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack. You come to work one morning and find a floppy disk on your keyboard. This is one of my favorite stories. Could you tell us the significance of that disk?
Romero: The disk had a little demo that Tom and John had spent about six hours creating. I left work probably about 10 o'clock the previous night, and they started this demo around 11 o'clock. That’s because Tom came in after I left; we just had a 10-by-10 office. John was still there, because he was trying to finish this little piece of tech [code for smooth scrolling] that I challenged him to write. It so happened that Tom came in and saw this working, and said, “You know what we should do? We should make the first level of Super Mario 3 using Romero’s Dangerous Dave character.” We had an NES in the corner of the room and it was running Super Mario 3. Dangerous Dave was perfect because the character already existed with all his animations, so he could take that and put it in this demo. John said, “All right, let's do it.” They spent six hours, until about 5:00 a.m., making this little demo that Tom thought would be hilarious, that I would laugh at because he named it Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. It was just a joke to show that John did the thing that I kind of dared him to do.
I came in, and there was the disk on my keyboard. There was a sticky note on it that said something like, Run Me. So I went and I ran it. The game popped up on the computer, and I was laughing just because the screen said Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. Tom had drawn a title screen with a judge wearing a powdered wig and holding a gavel. I was like, okay, this will be funny. The game starts, and I see the [first screen in World 1-1 of] Super Mario 3. There’s Dangerous Dave in a Mario level. I held down a key, and as soon as the screen scrolled, I was just like, “Oh, my god.” I was blown away. No one had ever seen this happen on a PC. It moved like an actual original Nintendo.
The significance is that the PC was released in August of 1981, and no one had ever done this before. It had been nine years, and John Carmack figured it out. I saw it, and was like, “We’re leaving. Now. We’re quitting. We need to start a company because this company can't take advantage of this the way that we can.” I knew this because I took the disk around to show people in other departments and they were like, “Oh, neat.” I'm like, “No way. Seriously, nothing exists like this.” Suddenly, I was like, “I'm going to shut up,” because this is crazy that people don't even recognize it, and I don't want too much information getting out.
We immediately made a Super Mario Bros. 3 demo for Nintendo. We did the full first level with all the characters in, all the animations, everything. We sent it off to Nintendo. At the same time, I was contacted by Scott Miller, and he wanted us to make a game. We decided to do it. That’s how id Software started.
Craddock: I brought up that story so I could establish some context for my next question. You and I have been talking about that disk recently for one of our projects. I’ve been thinking about its significance, and I realized that every time that disk and Commander Keen come up in articles and books, they’re made out to be a stepping stone to id’s FPS games. I think people are overlooking the disk’s greater significance as one of the first game engines, since that tech was used as the foundation for Commander Keen. Am I wrong about that?
Romero: Yeah, it was one of the first game engines. Just the concept of having an engine and making multiple games out of it actually came out of necessity. That code on that disk, you can trace the entire first-person shooter genre to that disk, because if that demo didn’t happen, the FPS genre we know today would look very different. It would have happened because of someone else, but it wouldn’t look the way it does today. It all traces right back to that. That's why id Software started, and that's why we started making 3D games eventually, after we did that hardware trick with smooth scrolling, and then we got into 3D games and started making Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake and all that stuff. It all comes back to that. If that hadn't happened, we wouldn’t have started id Software.
Craddock: That’s what I was thinking. For all anyone knows, you four would’ve hung around Softdisk a while longer and then gone your separate ways. I think another epiphany from that story is that today we have the so-called “PC master race,” but Nintendo’s NES was so far ahead of the curve before Commander Keen made people realize that smooth-scrolling software was possible on the PC. Nintendo was so far ahead of everybody else.
Romero: Absolutely. The Super Nintendo was incredible. When that came out in 1990, it was the best platform. We had every platform back then. The Neo Geo was super badass, except it was extremely expensive. Every cartridge cost, like, 100 bucks. It never really took off because of how expensive it was. But below that [in terms of hardware] was the Super Nintendo. That was incredible. Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo looked awesome. We used to play as many fighting games as we could on it. Any games, really. Super Star Wars, Super Empire Strikes Back, and Super Return of the Jedi were awesome. Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past… It had so many incredible games. I played F-Zero against Carmack for years.
Craddock: What do you guys think of Mode 7?
Romero: Mode 7 was awesome. In fact, I have a demo that we made similar to Mode 7 on the Super Nintendo, but on the PC to make a racing game.
Craddock: One of id’s pre-Wolfenstein 3D shooters was Catacombs 3D. I still go back to that and play around with it, and one reason is because of the mechanic where you can click your mouse to throw a fireball, or click and hold to charge up a larger fireball. I really liked that mechanic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that mechanic didn’t return in any other id game. I wondered why that was.
Romero: It just didn't make sense in our future games. For a game set during World War II like Wolfenstein 3D, you hold down a button because you want instant response for your weapons, right? I think that design idea was probably okay for that game, but it wasn't good for Commander Keen. When you press the button, you kind of crouch down and then jump. You should never do that. In Commander Keen 4, you jump immediately, because you want that “I’m jumping right away” response. You don’t want your character to say, “Okay, I’m getting ready to jump.” Just jump.
It's important to really understand design rules. One of them for us was, stop pausing [before certain actions] and make the thing happen as soon as somebody presses a key. Charging up your power was great for Catacomb 3D because it made sense for what you were doing: you could shoot a fireball quickly, or build up power. Earlier that year, we made a game called Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, which has a really cool mechanic where you have a shotgun with unlimited shots, except you can only hold eight shots [before you must reload]. Everything's coming towards you, you're shooting and you're running out of ammo, and you have to stop shooting to automatically reload your shotguns while stuff is still coming toward you. That delay while zombies are coming toward you is intense. That was a really great balance, and again, we did a lot of experimentation: having unlimited ammo, or having to charge a fireball, that kind of stuff. We played around with design experiments all the time.
Craddock: Dangerous Dave is usually mentioned in the context of the Copyright Infringement demo, but he was one of your most popular characters before id Software. Where did he come from?
Romero: Dangerous Dave started out as a 1988 game on the Apple II that was published by Uptime. In fact, it was published in the very last issue of Uptime. Fortunately, I made a bunch of games for Uptime, and they were publishing all my stuff through one year all the way until they finally ceased functioning. Jay Wilbur was the guy who was in charge of the Uptime disk. As soon as [the magazine went under], he went to Softdisk. And at the same time, I went to Softdisk with Lane Roathe. All three of us were hired simultaneously to come and do good things.
Craddock: You and Carmack ported a lot of your Apple II games to the PC. Was that a case of you two knowing those games, having written them, and feeling confident you could port them quickly?
Romero: Yeah, the reason why we made them is because we were working on a new product that I started called Gamer’s Edge. It was a subscription disk for games. Every two months, we would mail games out to people who were subscribing to get whatever we were selling them. We just had to design and ship a game every two months. That happens a lot faster when you have something that you've already written that you can use as a base to make a sequel to. We already knew everything about catacomb because John had already made Catacomb 1 and 2. Making the next catacomb, Catacomb 3D, was easy, since we already knew all the characters and we knew what the world was about. We could just focus on making a Catacomb game for Gamer’s Edge. The same with Dangerous Dave: We already knew him, so making a sequel was easy. That helped speed along the process.
Craddock: One quote you shared with me years ago, and I’m paraphrasing, is, “Make your first level last.” You did that with Doom’s E1M1 map. How did you implement that philosophy in Doom to help you decide what the first level should show, and what it should hold back for later?
Romero: This is something that all game developers should be doing: By waiting to make your first level last, you know everything about the game, so you can put all that knowledge into making a first level that really blows away the player. You've made so many assets: all the characters you've developed, environmental storytelling language, everything. Now you can just load it all up in that first level, and make it really impressive for the player. In Doom, the player enters the first level and says, “Oh, wow, why is that person lying on the ground? And what’s this over here?” If you start building your game by making the first level, you have nothing except the walls you're drawing. There are no characters, no pick-up items, none of that stuff. You’re going to have to revisit it [throughout development] to add things to it.
But if you make the first level last, it's something you don't have to revisit later. It's like, “I'm making this level, and I'm putting everything in it.” It's so much more impressive when you do that. It works out so much better than, “Oh, yeah, the first level is where I made a bunch of mistakes.” When you launch a game, you don’t want the first level to make players say, “This is kind of crappy.” Show the best thing first, and make the first thing the last thing you make.
Craddock: As a Doom fan, I have to say that one of the highlights of this year for me was watching Decino complete Ultimate Doom, Sigil, and Doom II on Nightmare with 100 percent secrets and items. Have you ever finished Nightmare?
Romero: Nope. I can't get past level three [Doom, E1M3]. I dare anybody here to try and get past level three. It's so hard.
Craddock: Decino did say that map is one of the game's biggest hurdles.
Romero: The problem with it is backtracking. If there's any level where you have to backtrack, where you have to go far in the level and then come all the way back to the beginning, you don't have any armor, health, or ammo pickups; you've used it all up, but all the monsters are back because after 30 seconds monsters all come back one after another. You really need to be a speedrunner and know how to dodge, but there’s all these hitscan enemies like shotgunners, and you can’t really dodge those guys.
Craddock: What is your favorite Doom map in any commercial Doom game that you didn’t make?
Romero: That's tough. I really like level 14 [in Doom II] that American McGee made. That was cool. I love Downtown, map 13. Sandy Petersen made that; those are both really good. American did a great job on Map 4, which was one of the earliest Doom II maps. Also E2M8 in Doom when the Cyberdemon is revealed. You start the map, and the first thing you see is the boss from the first episode, which is bloody and mounted to a wall. You're like, what happened? Then you hear that loud, thumping noise, and you’re like, “Wait, what did that? Is that what I’m hearing? It’s terrifying to go out and meet the Cyberdemon.
Craddock: The industry has changed a lot, and you've both seen and been a harbinger of that change. What are some design principles from the ‘80s or ‘90s that have faded, but you think are still applicable today?
Romero: I really like puzzle-solving in level; you saw a lot of that in the ‘90s. There was a lot of puzzle solving to get through levels, and it was done really well. We didn’t want scenarios where you flip a switch that opens a door, only you have no idea where the door is. You should have already seen that door. Having puzzle solving coupled with a bunch of secrets hidden all over the place for players to find makes them play the game again, play that level again, when they get to the exit. The [score screen] says zero out of 20 secrets and they’re like, “Wow. I know the level pretty well, but now I'm gonna start looking for secrets.” It’s always fun to have a level that you feel has that kind of depth in it and realize, wow, I've barely scratched the surface. Kind of like Myhouse.wad, right? I finished five percent of the game, only I felt like I’d finished all of it, so I had to keep playing. What an insane level.
Craddock: I was going to ask you about it. A lot of people are saying Myhouse.wad is a candidate for horror game of the year. Now, I’ve played a lot of Doom mods, but that map does things in the Doom engine I’ve never seen. You and Carmack wrote the engine. As you were playing, were you sitting there trying to analyze everything that was happening?
Romero: Yeah, I was. And the thing is, I don't do any scripting. The author used [a source port called] GZDoom with scripting tools. There are things he did that we couldn’t do in vanilla Doom. It looks like an old-school map, but it’s not. You go through this house, which is a really small house. If anyone has read House of Leaves, which I actually did read years ago when it came out, this is almost like the Doom interpretation of House of Leaves. The house doesn’t look that big [from the outside], but when you go inside, it's massive. You go through it, and at some point you go back through it again, but at different points in time. You see a PlayStation connected to a TV, and then you see an Xbox. There’s so much happening. It's crazy. That little house turns into a massive place.
I remember when I was streaming it, I got to a certain point where I was like, is this Cube, the movie where there's an infinite amount of other spaces all around? It’s hard to describe. But the funny thing is, when I finished it in my stream, which was almost two hours long, I got to the end, and I was like, “Okay, well, that was pretty interesting.” Then it drops you into level two of Doom II, because normally when you play a custom map, it replaces level one, and it drops you into level two when you finish. But the thing is, if I would have finished past map two, I would have been back in Myhouse.wad again, because it actually extended the game, right? I have to play it again because I only saw five percent in two hours. It's really good. It's really scary and weird.
Craddock: I’m getting a signal that we should wind down, so I’ll wrap up with a couple more questions about DOOM GUY. For fans here who think they know almost as much about you as I did, what do you hope they take away from your book?
Romero: What I'm really grateful for is being able to make games my entire life. Since I was 11 years old, I've been making games constantly. I'm really grateful for being able to stay in an industry that changes as fast as this one. It’s a really fun industry to be in. It's really great that it's so creative. I think what people will get out of the book is how creative I was as a little kid, and when I found games to be massively creative, that meant I could kind of grow with games as they were getting better and hardware was getting better.
And that it's a positive book. There is zero negativity about people in the book, even though negative things happened to me. I just forgive people all the time. The book is all about, hey, people make mistakes, and that’s just what happens, and there are reasons why people did certain things. Looking back after this many years, it's easy to kind of say, “Yeah, it would have been better if we had done this.” I think people will notice that whatever image of me is out there, I think that that might change. If it was a negative image, they can see that I wrote a positive book. Anybody that's going through any kind of difficulty growing up, or in certain situations, they can see that I was in that kind of situation, and DOOM GUY is like a blueprint for how I got out of it. It was a lot of hard work and focusing on something that I really liked doing, and I stuck with it even when everyone around me was like, “You're wasting time playing games.”
Craddock: For our last question, where can people find DOOM GUY?
Romero: It's everywhere, but I always encourage everybody to go to their local bookstore to keep them in business.
Craddock: And you'll be doing a signing here.
Romero: Yep, I'm gonna do a book signing here. If anybody wants a signed version of the book with any kind of personalization, you can order it on our site, romero.com.
David Craddock posted a new article, Becoming Doom Guy: John Romero on his memoir and a life in games
Bump for the evening reading crowd.
I’m reading his book now and it’s pretty cool. They’re currently shopping around Ion Storm.
I’ve read Masters of Doom and remember all the magazine articles and stuff from back in the day, but it’s interesting reading about the story from his perspective.
Dope! You deserve that forward!
Speaking of becoming Doomguy, check out Sandy Peterson's Doom dream:
Haha, that's great. Sandy's such an interesting figure in computer and tabletop/rpg games.