It’s rare for me to read a book more than once, but I’ve read David Kushner’s Masters of Doom about…eight times. So far.
Why? Well, there’s undoubtedly a nostalgic element to it I’ll come back to. But I firmly believe that, if you give this book a chance, you’ll find it’s one of the best biographies out there, one of the best books about a start-up business (inspiring, I’d say), and maybe the single best book about video games ever written.
That’s because Masters of Doom is ultimately the story of John Carmack and John Romero – the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of video games, according to the back of the paperback edition. The Beatles reference is apropos, given that their rags-to-riches story calls to mind the rise-and-fall archetypal stories most famous bands have (although in their case, both are still quite rich). But I think what makes this book so memorable and so gripping is that, at its core, it’s the story of two friends, who we come to understood so much that it’s a punch to the gut when their friendship is torn apart, even if the split was inevitable.
To back up, Carmack and Romero were two of the founders of id Software, the video game company most well known for creating Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, Quake. Each of these games revolutionized the industry in profound ways, and each was born out of the creative synergy (and later tension) between Carmack and Romero. Seeing the behind-the-scenes behind these classics, which certainly contributed to the prevalence of games today and pushed graphics technology towards the VR future that is now our present, is itself a thrilling story.
But Carmack and Romero, they’re the dual heart of this book. Each is so distinct and richly drawn that it’s hard to believe each is a real person. But they are, and from everything I’ve read and seen of them their portrayals in the book don’t seem far off the mark. To put it simply (and I hate to do that since one of the joys of the book is seeing the subtleties in each man’s personality), Carmack is order while Romero is chaos, to paraphrase another id Software founder, Adrian Carmack (no relation, oddly enough). At first, Carmack’s Vulcan-like logical mind combines with Romero’s rock-star child-at-heart attitude to produce games that are brilliant in terms of technology and game design. But the differences later divide them, and once that rift opens, then the story really gets crazy.
I mentioned nostalgia at the outset because, yes, I grew up on these games so I can’t be entirely objective talking about it. But I believe you – even if you couldn’t care less about games – might find yourself feeling nostalgic as well, because Masters of Doom tells a story that feels less and less likely in today’s world. True, Mark Zuckerburg and others prove that it’s still possible for young kids to strike it rich through technology – it’s probably easier today than ever. But Carmack and Romero don’t produce a massive media corporation, they create games, and there’s an…innocence, I’m tempted to say, in their goals. They didn’t set out to be rich – that was just a byproduct, one which Carmack seems indifferent to and which Romero certainly enjoys but the way he spends his money betrays the child-like-exuberance that allowed him to craft expertly designed games.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there is an earnestness, a sincerity to their story that seems odd in a world where money and fame are far too often seen as ends in themselves by far too many people. And the best part is, Carmack and Romero’s stories don’t end with Masters of Doom. Granted, their stories are separate now, but Carmack, for instance, is now CTO (chief technology officer) for Occulus, the VR company (I don’t know as much about what Romero is up to these days – I’ll admit that, much as I like Romero as he’s portrayed in the book, I feel more sympathy for Carmack’s Vulcan-ish approach – or as the kids might say, Team Carmack – so I’ve tended to keep up more on his activities, like how he started a company that built rocket ships).
Masters of Doom is a lot of things. As I said, it’s a great biography, start-up success story, and excellent example of video game journalism. But above all else, it’s a great book, with the same unpredictability and force of a novel combined with unbelievable moments that could only come from reality.
So go read it. Now.