You Don't Need Millions of Dollars

Masters of Doom is the story of John Carmack and John Romero creating the seminal games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:
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I recently quit my job to make my game, and I was told today by a friend, “Starting a business is hard even when you’re doing well financially. I don’t know how you’re going to manage it.”

This was a good thing to read, after that.

I’ve read this book 7 years ago and I loved it. I found it inspiring and I’ve recommended it to all of my friends. Quite a few of them bought it and loved it as well. This is really a great book, from time to time I come back to it and read again a few chapters.

Since then I’ve tried to find other books like this one but without success. “Accidental Empires” from Cringely is also quite good and in the same vein.

If only more people thought the same about patents, the world would be a better place…

Surprised re patents that you didn’t mention the ‘carmacks reverse’ shadow mess. The publicly available Doom 3 sources are missing the shadow implementations - presumably because of this.

If you’re interested in the history of Apogee, very related to id Software, take a look at Polygon’s article :

@Semi John Carmack rewrote the shadows to use a classic algorithm, so it’s not missing A shadow implementation it’s missing the Carmack’s Reverse implementation :

You have a little typo: its not Robert Wallace the programmer at Microsoft and the creator of the word processing program PC-Write but Bob Wallace .

I take away the main point as “everything is possible”.

But as some people have commented on HN, one can make it only when one thinks one can make it - there must be some inner voice that tells the person that he/she would make it.

Thanks for a nice post.

"You know how game companies spent the last 5 years figuring out that free games with 100% in-app purchases are the optimum (and maybe, only) business model for games today? "

Only, it’s not remotely obvious that’s true.

Oh, it’s a great model for small games, or some sorts of (typically annoying to play) MMO. (“Free to play” tends to shade to “Pay to win”, which is not fun…)

But the games I’ve most enjoyed and played the most of in recent memory wouldn’t gain a damned thing from that. I can’t imagine Fallout or Elder Scrolls or Civilization being improved or selling better on that model, for instance.

“The new hotness” is not the same as “the only workable model” - just like iOS/Android gaming is not going to Be The Only Gaming.

“All you have to do is get off your butt and use them.”

There are two types of people. The type that sits on their butts playing the things that the other type got off their butts and created.

Having a lot of resources and code already available can be at the same time a huge advantage and a disadvantage. Creativity oftentimes comes from limitation. The limitations Carmack and Romero were working with were huge not only in terms of hardware but also in terms of technique. The idea to use raycasting to render the graphics in Wolfenstein was brilliant and would not have been conceived had there been 3d hardware and 3d libraries.

With 90% of the problem solved, the question is, how compelling is the other 10%? And how costly? What is left as a real challenge to the programmer today that would motivate him or her to sit for months or years and create a novel game, especially given the high likelihood of little payoff and stiff competition? Carmack and Romero were breaking new ground both technologically and in game design. Another FPS (or any other genre) game today is not going to do so. It seems there is less and less new ground to break these days and much more aggregation of different libraries and frameworks to recreate the same games over and over again. While new gameplay techniques do emerge, the world of PC gaming has hardly seen any new innovations in the GPU / OpenGl, DirectX / Unreal Engine / etc. era other than incremental increases in image quality. Audio and controls fare even worse.

I wonder if today’s “Carmack and Romero” would be able to pull something as brilliant as Wolfenstein if they started today. I hardly think so, even starting with millions and a lot of luck. The palette of tools may have been expanded, but the canvas has shrunk to infinitesimal proportions.

Apparently, there is a movie confirmed based on the book (mentioned at the end of the Wikipedia article).

The context is not exactly clear from the extract, so one might think the (about) 25,000$ per year most shareware authors were making was barely sufficient to make a living; but if we assume these are 1988 dollars, it amounts to about 50,000$ in today’s dollars, which ain’t bad.

I kind of agree with Lucian303 (see a couple of posts above)

IMHO, while today it’s easier to obatain a certain result because most libraries/framework already exist, i think it’s still very difficul to do something that does not already exist.

The internet is a great tool that allows to share code, experience, etc. but at the same time it makes you compete with the whole world. I think it’s a relevant factor that other non-software business do not have, or are affected by a minor degree.

Also, making a game nowaday is different than years ago. We now expect to see high-resolution graphics, 3D, sounds effects, etc. This requires lots of people involved in the development of high-end games. No indie developer would be able to deliver Assassins Creed or GTA V alone or with a couple of colleagues.
Yes, you can still make Doodle Jump and small games like that and make some money with them, but it’s not what Wolf3D/Quake/Doom were at the time. And you can expect someone else to copy your idea in a shorter amount of time due to that “90% of work already done” and bigger competition.

These are my opinions of course.
I’d be happy to ear people considerations too.

Lately I’ve been pondering the similarities between mobile app development of today and shareware back in the day. What I think about is how shareware was really pretty big and many individual developers where putting out all kinds of little programs. I think that’s what mobile app development is like right now.

I also think that you had a few shareware developers who really hit it big, but by far most shareware developers just making a little extra scratch. I suspect the same is true in mobile development.

Ultimately, I think we’ll move past this preoccupation with the sheer number of mobile apps available (I think we’ve already rounded the bend actually) and the focus on crazy amounts of mobile apps will level off.

I think that shareware developers, who cut their teeth programming their own software, eventually transitioned into jobs where they wrote software for corporate overlords will also happen for mobile developers. All the skills developed writing personal mobile apps will transition into job skills for companies looking for programmers to move their LOB apps into the mobile space.

"What is the equivalent to shareware today?"
There are still alternative solutions like And in video games, there are innovative ideas like the Humble Bundles.

I also loved that book. Thanks for publicizing it.

This is one of my all time favorite books. I have re-read it 6 times. It’s a great inspiration tool when starting a new project/venture.

Richard Stallman, well-known critic of software patents, stated that he could probably live with software patents if they lasted no longer than five years. I agree with this. After all, pharmaceutical patents only last seven years, and the computer industry moves at a much faster clip than that.

That book is one of my favorites too, but it has an overhyped, hero-worshipping tone – Romero wasn’t God and his “Daikatana” vanity project, mentioned in the book, as we know now, turned out to be utter shite.

Moreover, those three guys working out of their bedrooms weren’t facing competition from a huge established games industry churning out titles with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, not even including the promotional budgets.

A little cold water on the “all you need is a dream” rhetoric, please. They were three nerds with technical talent who came along at the right time. Had the hardware been ready for it at the time, we’d have fawning books written about Steve Colley and “Maze War.”

To RandomCoderDude, Lucian303 and :

Facebook was started by Mark Zuckerburg (one person) and money he borrowed from his parents in 2006. The company now makes almost $3b a year. Twitter came out of a failed podcasting venture by a couple of guys. And let’s not forget Jeff Atwood himself started Stack Overflow by himself and one lone server into arguably one of the most important developer forums anywhere. Any time I have a (I think) esoteric developer question, I search on Google, and the first result is almost invariably Stack Overflow.

And let’s not forget the Occulus RIft. Developed by a handful of folks into what many think could be one of the most important developments in gaming hardware.

I think Carmack is still right. It is still possible to do something amazing with a PC, some pizza and a dream. But it’s not easy. It never was. Carmack spent an INSANE amount of hours developing his skills to the point he was able to write Commander Keen, Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake. Granted, if you’re narrowing your idea of success to graphics programming, you’re right, it’s no longer possible for a single person to know everything (graphics, networking, sound, CPU optimization) and still be the best. Carmack admitted as much at this year’s QuakeCon 2013 keynote. But if you’re talking about making something amazing, take off those blinders and look around you. The opportunities are out there. But it will take a lot of hard work and an obsessive dedication to the craft and the dream to do it.

That’s why most of these success stories are from guys (and gals) in their teens and 20s, with no families, no children and no responsibilities. Once you have kids and bills to pay, it gets a LOT harder (see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell). Making something amazing requires an enormous investment in time and skill. And yes, being there at the right time helps too, but only if you’ve put in the time and effort to get ready for it, and you take the risk. Anybody else could have done what Carmack did. He was using the same technology as every other developer out there. Carmack just was more hungry, more motivated, more driven. To the point that it tore apart the id family.

And for me, that’s been the hardest part of the book. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the audiobook (read by Wil Wheaton, and a pretty awesome read, if you don’t mind profanities – courtesy of Romero – blasting in your ear every hour or so :-), but the breakup between the original id guys, Tom Hall, Romero and Carmack is heart breaking. Carmack’s laser sharp focus on the code made him a machine, incapable of seeing beyond the needs of his latest engine. He didn’t care about sentimentality, emotions, empathy. And it cost him his friendship. I wonder if he feels any twinge of regret, now that he’s older, with a family of his own. I read a long time ago, that broken families raise kids who tend to raise broken families themselves. I hope John’s able to avoid the fate that befell Romero. I hope so, for his son’s sake.

Still, an amazing book. Thanks for the recommendation Jeff. (And for Stack Overflow. I can’t believe how much I’ve used it over the years.) Check out the audio book on Audible if you don’t have time for a physical book.

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