Review of Doom Guy: Life in First Person by John Romero

This is the fourth book I’ve read about id Software, but it is the first written by one of the company’s founders. It is also another in a long line of autobiographies written by some of the most iconic people in the video game industry. This is also a very nostalgic book for me.

Doom and Doom II were two of my favorite games from the 90s, and Doom Guy by John Romero is one of the best books I’ve read in 2023. John’s story is inspiring. He also provides much information on what happened at id Software throughout the 90s.

While I enjoyed his retelling of his time at id Software and what happened at Ion Storm, the projects he worked on in the 2000s and 2010s are more interesting. This was when he started working on mobile, educational, and casual games. It is a fascinating part of his history, and I wish he had elaborated more on this time.

Doom Guy: Life in First Person is an excellent book! There is a lot of information here and some beautiful stories. This book is perfect if you love id Software, John Romero, or video games!

Softdisk to id Software

Softdisk was located in Louisiana and was one of the companies that would compile programs onto disks and sell them to computer magazines. John started working there after his time at Origin, and his attempted startup didn’t work out.

This is where he met some people who would help create id Software. He was there to make games, but it would take a little time before that happened. Eventually, this led to Gamer’s Edge. It was also when John met and became friends with John Carmack.

Eventually, Carmack would devise a way to create smooth scrolling on a PC. Previously, this wasn’t possible for PCs at the time. If you would like to see some attempts at it, I recommend looking up the ports of Nintendo games Hudson Soft made.

This new technology led to John convincing his friends to leave Softdisk and create id Software. This would lead to the creation of the Commander Keen games. This, and the other games they had been making, led them to get in touch with Apogee.

Apogee was a video game publisher that used the shareware method of distribution. This was an episodic way of releasing games, along with an example of the free-to-play game idea that many shooters take today, like Fortnite. You would get the first episode for free, and if you wanted the rest of the game, you had to call a number and order it.

The shareware model was very successful for id Software. They would go on to make Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Doom II. There were also other games, but I’ll talk about those later. Because of the success of their games, id was receiving a lot of attention. This led to offers to buy id Software.

Sierra Online and id

This is the third or fourth time I’ve heard this story. It is told in Masters of Doom, Not all Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings, and here. I might have read it in another book, but can’t remember which one.

John’s account of the meeting matches up with what Ken Williams wrote. I’m not sure if the other members of the id team have said anything about it. It is nice to know what happened; first-hand accounts tell the same story.

John gives more details about how the deal fell through. I don’t remember Ken giving as many specifics. Aside from telling the story from a different perspective, it doesn’t change much about what happened.

The CODiE awards ceremony is also brought up. It was after the release of Wolfenstein 3-D, and id was awarded Best Arcade/Action Game. Ken didn’t talk much about this but mentioned something like this. John gives a few more details, but the story doesn’t change much.

I’m glad that we have another first-hand account of this. It is an interesting part of video game history and a fun what-if moment to speculate about. As more people write books, I look forward to seeing if more people talk about this.

Quake and Departure from id Software

This was something that I was looking forward to. I’ve read a few accounts of this in Masters of Doom and Rocket Jump, but this is the only first-hand account I’ve read. It differs slightly from those accounts because John only told us what he knew.

He tells us about what he was doing then and the different projects he was working on. There were a lot of projects that were going on! I didn’t know how involved he was with Raven Software’s Heretic games and the business side of things.

There is also a lot of talk about the Quake engine and how the development of this game was different. John explains each of the games that id made, which helps to tell the reader why Quake was different. This is the first time I’ve read about what a developer goes through when bringing a game from 2D to 3D. It is very interesting.

John explains that what most of the team was doing while the engine was being made involved building R&D levels, creating textures, and supporting other projects. He also explains that there were no design documents, which was the norm for id. Even if the Doom Bible slightly contradicts this. I know he said it wasn’t used much, but parts of it did make it into the games.

We also hear about two stories that seem to have gotten mixed. This involves a meeting where John Carmack accused John Romero of not working hard enough on Quake. Carmack wasn’t tracking what Romero did at work. This was something that Scott Host was doing at Cygnus when they were working under the id Software umbrella.

Cygnus is an interesting case. It seemed like Carmack was trying to do something similar to what John was doing with Raven. However, Carmack didn’t work as closely with them, and the team fell apart due to terrible management. This was a project that John took over. There is more to it than that, but that was how it read to me.

John explains the employee report card that Carmack sent out to the id staff. Carmack was under a lot of pressure and wasn’t dealing with it well. These guys were still young, and the development of Quake was much more complicated than Doom and Doom II.

This is one of the times I would like to hear from Carmack. We can only speculate on his goal, but I’m guessing it motivated people to work harder on things he felt were more important. John explains this as Carmack wanting the team to only work on Quake while John was trying to grow the business.

At the time, they couldn’t see things from the other’s perspective. John is very up-front about this. He also goes through some other ways things could’ve been handled differently.    

John left id Software after Quake. At the time, his relationship was frayed with his friends, but that damage would be repaired later. There isn’t any mention of what was brought up in Masters of Doom, where John and Carmack would take shots at each other. It wasn’t anything serious, and I think it was just friends poking fun at each other.

The story transitions to Ion Storm. I do like this part because I find the history of id Software to be fascinating. The next part of the book was a little disappointing for me to read, not because of what John says about Ion Storm but what isn’t talked about.

John Romero Tries to Make You His Bitch (DaiKatana)

This is an odd section for me to write about. I feel that John was more detailed about his time at id than he was about his time at Ion Storm. I have a few theories about why, but none are based on what has been written in any of the books I’ve read about the id team.

I want to single out the marketing of the Bitch Ad. John talks about how he didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it. I’ve read about this in a few places, and I always wondered why it went out if John didn’t like it. An answer is given, and it ties into some of the larger issues at Ion Storm.

John trusted the marketing team because they had a track record dating back to id Software. The ad was an attempt at aggressive marketing. However, it didn’t have the desired effect. The ad turned some people off, and others started to get hyped about the game. I had no idea who John Romero was, and after reading the ad, I had no interest in finding out. When I first saw it, I had no idea it was advertising a game, and, even worse, I didn’t have any interest in finding out what it was trying to tell me.

At the time of this ad, I was thirteen and didn’t have access to the internet at home. I would’ve had to walk to the library and navigate to a place that could’ve told me what was going on. Unfortunately, I had other things to do, and trying to decipher an aggressive ad took a backseat to playing in the woods and beating Doom II or Warcraft.

John doesn’t go into much detail about his time at Ion Storm. The simplest answer is that he wasn’t there for everything, and you can’t expect him to remember something he wasn’t there for. It does seem odd that he talks more about what he did at id, and then doesn’t go into detail with what he was doing at Ion Storm. At the end of the day, if John doesn’t want to talk about it, he isn’t going to talk about it.

When discussing id Software, John talks about all the projects he was working on and what he did. While at Ion Storm, it sounds like much of his work dealt with dysfunctional management. Much of the dysfunction is with Todd Porter and his management style. John also talks about the root of some of his troubles during the 90s.

He doesn’t take action when he needs to. At least, back in the 90s, he was prone to inaction when faced with a problem that concerned people. While running Ion Storm, he was in charge of a big team and had to deal with workplace problems. Specifically, he had to deal with Todd making everyone’s life miserable by meddling in projects he wasn’t in charge of.

John’s inaction had a direct impact on Daikatana. It wasn’t just John. Other people at the company contributed to the environment at Ion Storm. You can’t place the blame on one person for the work environment at the company. When entire teams of people quit on mass, you have a bigger problem than one tyrannical owner meddling in projects he isn’t involved with.

There is talk about Daikatana and what John was trying to do with the game. However, it takes a backseat to the dysfunction going on in Ion Storm. The problems with the game are discussed, and I think John tells us everything he remembers about the game. If I just described what the game was about, it would be something that many people would want to play. However, with all the problems in the company, the end product suffered.

This section of the book made me want to do more research on Ion Storm. It is such a fascinating story, and some of the games that came out of it succeeded despite the dysfunction.

What Came After Ion Storm?

John’s time after Ion Storm made me feel happy. This is an excellent part of the book as we follow John from one project to another. There are some sad moments that John writes about, but overall, the last few chapters of this book are wonderful.

The story of making Gunman Taco Truck with his nine-year-old son was heartwarming. Some kids build a deck or a birdhouse with their dads; John Romero makes a video game with his son. It is cool to hear about how his son came up with the idea, and then John helped breathe life into the design.

There is also the story of John’s archives. Over the years, he accumulated a ton of stuff. This part reminded me of Sid Meier’s Memoir, where he talked about keeping builds of games for years. John’s story sounds less like an episode of Hoarders and more like a collector. He kept design sketches, memorabilia, and floppy disks with builds of games.

This leads to a story about a flood that ruined his house, but water avoided the secret room where his archives were held. After this flood, John started donating parts of his collection to a museum. He also encouraged other programmers to do the same.

He brings up his return to designing levels for Doom. It is nice to see John doing this; it sounds like he enjoyed it. It was also a prelude to his work on Blackroom. This was supposed to be a new FPS, but it was canceled.

I knew something was going on when I looked at the book’s remaining pages. There wasn’t enough time for him to talk about a new game he was working on. When he brought up other games like Doom, Quake, or Daikatana, several chapters were dedicated to the development of the game. With Blackroom, there was 20-30 pages left.

John talks about the Kickstarter, but there weren’t many details. The reason was due to its short time and the failure of it. It comes down to the lack of a demo, which makes me think that they put the Kickstarter up too early. They got excited and jumped the gun before they had something to show.

The Kickstarter was pulled down after four days. No one lost any money, and John talks about other video games that also tried to use Kickstarter. He also mentions that they made a gameplay demo of Blackroom and showed it to publishers.

Unfortunately, the game didn’t get much interest from publishers and wasn’t made, as you’ve probably guessed. From reading John’s explanation of the game, it sounds like they jumped the gun with the Kickstarter, which had a cascade effect on the publishers. When the Kickstarter failed, it showed the publishers that there wasn’t much public interest.

I’m glad he talked about the game. I heard of the game before reading this book but didn’t know what happened with it. Having John explain what went down with Blackroom was great.   

Likes and Dislikes

I liked everything about this book. From his childhood to his life after Ion Storm, everything is great. John shares much of himself in this book, and it tells a wonderful story of how he got to where he is today.

Hearing about Softdisk, id Software, and Ion Storm from John’s perspective was awesome. While I had read about these events in different books, I was glad to hear how John saw things. It is always good to hear about what happened from someone who was there.

I still have questions about some parts of this story. Not questions for John, but questions about what other people think. Other people involved with Ion Storm and id Software haven’t written their stories. They don’t have to, but it would be nice for someone like me if they did.

There isn’t anything in here that I would say I didn’t like. It is a very enjoyable book. John has a fantastic story that I was excited to read.

Final Thoughts

I was looking forward to this book, and it didn’t disappoint. It is a wonderful account of John’s life. There is a lot in here, and I found many of John’s game development stories very interesting.

I wanted to get some answers from this book. After reading other books about Doom, I was looking forward to reading a first-hand account of what happened at id Software. There was also the story of what happened at Ion Storm and the development of Daikatana.

I didn’t get all the answers I sought, but that is to be expected. John put as much of the story as he could into the book. He can’t tell us what other people were thinking or doing.

Doom Guy is a great book! It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best biographies I’ve read. This is one of the books I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about video game development or history.

Published by Paul Werkema

Hi! I'm here to share my hobbies with all of you. I love video games and books, so I write about the books that cover video games or are novels about video games.

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