Retro Game Designers: From Super Mario to Doom, The Id Software


Who is the Id Software? Why did it play such an important role in the video game industry? Why should we gamers be grateful to this handful of weird programmers and designers? For two basic reasons. The first is that Id Software was the pioneer of the “first person shooter”, giving birth to masterpieces like Doom and Quake. And the second reason is that Id Software revolutionized the video game distribution and selling system, inventing shareware.

John Romero e John Carmack la storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

The history of Id Software begins in the offices of Softdisk, a magazine for Apple II published in the 1990s both on paper and on floppy. It is in these rooms, full of computers and promising and underpaid young people, that John Romero and John Carmack met.

Romero, in his early twenties, had already to his credit an infinite number of videogames made, mainly arcade clones, often distributed free on specialized magazines or used for programming contests (in which, each time, he came first). Romero had also worked for the Origin, at the height of his success, but avoiding with bad luck all the opportunities and valuable collaborations and producing by himself excellent conversions of games that however punctually or never saw the light or paid him a dollar.

John Carmack, on the other hand, was a young freelance programmer, who had recently left university to devote himself full time to computers. His passion for technology has been with him since he was 8 years old. Even today, Carmack remembers how inspirational the first time he saw Space Invaders and Pac Man in the summer, in the arcade. John also had a past as a difficult and introverted kid, all focused on his personal passions. At school he participated in an organized theft of some Apple II from the computer room, ending up in reform school. The agents who arrested him wrote in the report “the young man shows no empathy for other human beings. It’s a walking brain “.

With these exciting premises, the two were hired by Softdisk to form, together with Tom Hall, first the “Big Blue Disk” and later the “Gamer’s Edge”, two labels that made PC games to be distributed through the formula disk + magazine paper.

Il demo di Super Mario Bros 3 realizzato da John Carmack e John Romero la storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

It is precisely in the Softdisk period that the two Johns, together with their colleague Tom Hall, experimented with unusual scrolling routines on EGA PCs, first applying them to a Xevious clone “Slordax” and then to a platform game that copied in all and for all first level of Super Mario Bros 3, prophetically called “Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringment”. While for the three young designers these projects were a small achievement, for Softdisk they represented only legal issues and non-marketable products. He was told “Get back to doing what you are paid for”. In response, Carmack and Romero completed, on their behalf and in secret, an even more faithful version of the early Super Mario Bros 3 levels and sent it directly to Nintendo America, hoping that the company would be interested in a high quality conversion for PC systems. Their demo reached the Japanese company’s top floors, but there was no commercial agreement: Nintendo policies had changed and there was no interest in any kind of conversion for systems that were not proprietary consoles. Nintendo’s words, summarized by Romero, were “Good Job! You can’t do this. Thankyou. “

However, John’s talent did not go unnoticed. Scott Miller, from the newborn Apogee Software, had long been interested in Romero’s projects and took the opportunity to leap. He proposed to publish their clone of Super Mario, suitably repackaged, through his label and in the shareware formula. Thus “Commander Keen” was born. Romero, Carmack, Hall and other collaborators then left the job at Softdisk and set up their own business, founding Id Software in December 1990. There are different interpretations of the origin of the name. The original name was to be Ideas From The Deep, then abbreviated Id. The Id is also the third part, along with the ego and the super-ego, of the human psyche. For others, Id stood for “In Demand”.

The sales model of their first platform games through Apogee was simple: the first chapter was free and could be copied and distributed at no cost. To play the next ones, it was necessary to place an order by mail.

Wolfenstein 3d per PC. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

The following years saw the development and improvement, mainly by Carmack, of a 2.5D graphics engine in first person. Thus was born Wolfenstein 3D, evolution of two previous shareware games published in Softdisk: Hovertank 3d and Catacomb 3d.

The revolutionary graphics engine represented an incredible turning point in the world of video games. With Wolfenstein 3d the genre of the first person shooter was officially born. Of course, video games already existed that exploited the first-person view, but no one had achieved the technical quality, playability and “coolness” of the Id Software product.

Doom 1 su PC. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

In 1992, a further enhanced graphics engine will lead to the birth of DOOM, a game that deserves a separate book. The graphic impact, the frenetic action and the original mix of science fiction, blood and demons (Carmack calls it “Alien meeting Evil Dead”) will catapult this game to the top of the sales charts. No one had ever seen a game play so well on a mid-range PC.

The name “Doom” is instead inspired by the film “The Color of Money”. In one scene, Tom Cruise is asked what was in his briefcase. The answer was “Doom”. And for Carmack, “Doom” was the effect his game was supposed to have unleashed in the video game world. And so it was.

The tried-and-tested shareware formula was also applied to Wolfenstein 3d and Doom. The first chapters were free, while the others could be purchased for a fee. The free versions, even, were given away to video game distributors who could do whatever they wanted, give them to customers or make them pay a symbolic fee. For Doom, requests for download from the servers were such that, on the scheduled day of the release, the University of Wisconsin had to disconnect more than 10,000 users who wanted to download the game all at once. In another case, the servers were so clogged that the ID itself couldn’t get the connection to upload the game!

Schermata di Doom II su Pc. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

In 1993 Id Software released DOOM II: Hell on Earth. More hardware requirements were the price to pay for the definitive first person shooter of those years. Even more violence, even more demons and a graphic engine that came closer and closer to a real 3d, allowing movements up and down and structures of more complex levels. Over two million “official” copies of the game will be sold worldwide.

The Doom series introduced another feature that will become an essential element for FPS games in the future: the online multiplayer mode. A certain number of players could challenge each other to death (Death Match) one against all in specially made levels, called arenas. This innovation, which will lead to unforgettable Lan parties around the world, will completely transform the gaming experience forever.

Immagine di Quake per PC. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

Between 1995 and 1996, Id Software released their first FPS video game in real 3D: Quake. Dark atmospheres, the possibility of using accelerator video cards, Nine Inch Nails music, deathmatches no longer only in Lan but also through the Internet were just some of the reasons that made this game, and its sequels, champions of revenue.

Unlike many other companies of the time (and even today), Id Software’s approach to the world of video games was never just aimed at personal enrichment. They certainly didn’t do it just for the glory, no doubt, but in particular John Carmack always designed his video games in such a way that it was easy for fans to modify them. The data used for the Wolfenstein and Doom game engine were compressed into single .WAD files (acronym for Were’s All Data). It was therefore easy to alter the game levels without touching the engine. Carmack himself was impressed by the number of “mods” that, shortly after Wolfenstein’s release, could be found online.

Whenever ID Software completed a new graphic engine, it immediately made the previous one available for the developer community. Free. For this reason, infinite variations of Doom were born, often official and often supported by the same Id.

When the Unreal Engine of Epic Games appeared on the market, the first true “competitor” of Id Software products, Carmack did not change its point of view of sharing technology by one iota. When it was pointed out to him that Epic Games required “fees” for the commercial use of his engine, earning mountains of money, Carmack replied with a sharp “Good for them.”

John Romero programmatore e designer. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

Despite the fact that today the ID Software continues to achieve great success, it is no longer that of its origins. John Romero was “fired” in 1996 immediately after Quake’s release for “poor performance”. With Ion Storm, which he founded, he will publish Daikatana, an FPS that will be called one of the worst gaming industry failures.

Tom Hall programmatore e designer. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

Tom Hall had differences of opinion with John Carmack during the development of Doom and went to work for 3D Realms in 1993, where he produced Rise of The Triad, the game that, he said, “had to include all the elements discarded by Doom II in production phase ”.

John Carmack programmatore, designer e fondatore di Id Software. Il videogioco Shareware Commander Keen pubblicato da Apogee. La storia della Id Software, Doom, Quake su Retro-game.it

John Carmack, the father of Id Software’s engines, will leave the company he created in 2013, to devote himself full time to the virtual reality technologies of the Oculus VR. Also on this occasion, Carmack chose innovation and experimentation, compared to the sure profits of a well-established company.