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The Contrasting Personalities of John Carmack and John Romero in Masters of Doom
(or how I became a John Carmack fanboy this week)
I breezed through the book “Masters of Doom” this week. It’s a book by David Kushner about id Software, the video game company behind Doom and Quake, focussing on John Carmack and John Romero. It is a great read. Reading a well-written, easy to consume story about the industry was very fun, even though I was a bit young for these games.
The main theme of the book was the contrast between both of the co-founders: John Carmack and John Romero, the two Johns. The book goes through their initial collaborations building absolute gold, and then later falling through after they’d achieved a lot of success.
Carmack is a technical genius, obsessed with programming and computer graphics. He was the lead programmer of all of these games (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake), the biggest games in the video game industry at that point. In comparison, Romero was focussed on the more creative aspects of the games (storyline, design, look and feel etc). This was a great combination in the beginning. They complemented each other, as Romero was able to use Carmack’s innovations to build things that were amazingly cool at the time.
However, once they became successful, the differences in their personalities started showing up. As more and more money rolled in, Carmack was still focussed on the work and the hard tech while Romero became more and more distracted. Carmack was more successful by the end, having shipped better games (specifically Quake II) while Romero floundered with Daikatana. This seems to be another example of my “five beats a day for three summers” thing.
The other interesting thing was the different ways in which Carmack and Romero ran their companies after splitting up. Carmack kept the team small, opting for a solid team that was laser focussed on releasing one game at a time. In contrast, Romero hired a large number of people, working on multiple things at the same time. By the end, Romero’s game, Daikatana, was a few years behind schedule and not a critical success when it was actually released. This was an interesting parallel to tech companies hiring a large number of people in 2021, with little to show for productivity gains.
Carmack has since worked as CTO of Oculus VR, and now has started a company called Keen Technologies with the goal of building Artificial General Intelligence. He is one of the coolest programmers alive. I’m a fanboy now.
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