[Special] DOOM

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Games, Politics & Labor
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Games, Politics & Labor
The creators of DOOM are driving Ferraris.

When we think of a first-person-shooter game, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter Strike or CrossFire often come to mind. We imagine the hands holding the well-sculpted gun, moving through a map with the aim of killing the enemies. Everything on the map is impeccable and the attention to detail leaves us mesmerized: we can climb mountains, move through the ocean and swim, and the wind seems to influence the trajectory of the bullets. The complexity of the game leaves us thinking that it will be hard to make beat the current achievements.
Original Doom Gameplay [Nightmare Difficulty]
Original Doom Gameplay [Nightmare Difficulty]
In order to achieve the progress in terms of graphics and gameplay, video games have gone through intense sessions of inventing and reinventing the wheel. When the first video games came out of the computer science departments of university, they relied on an appropriation of military technology to resist the militarized university campus. The entire history of video games relied of appropriating a certain technology, a certain design or programming technique, and trying to create a video game out of it.
With regards to complexity, people in the 80s and 90s were feeling the same about games such as Castle Wolfenstein (1981), in which you were controlling a stickman, infiltrating in a NAZI controlled castle. When John Cormack and John Romero, also known as The Two Johns joined their forces, alongside others to start working on video games, there wasn’t much 3d action happening. They had to reinvent the wheel, to imagine ways in which they can push video games into a direction atypical to those times: 3d, filled with gore and very fast-paced, while the other companies were trying to be more family-friendly.
The Two Johns initially worked for Softdisk, a company which was distributing on a monthly basis software for people’s computer. While working at the company, they are pressured to design against a very strict schedule, which gets more tighter due to the CEO wanting to increase profits at the company.
“Look,” Al said, “we can’t take two months to get out this first disk. We have to get it out in four weeks. And you have to have two games on it so we can entice people to subscribe.”…“One month!” they cried. Two months, the original deadline, was tight enough. There was no way they could come up with two games from scratch.
The pressure to work harder, to put more hours in and to get the stuff done in a shorter, squeezed period of time is something prevalent in the video games industry, known as crunch. The practice continued throughout their time with the company, leaving its mark on the health of the developers, as well as on their relationship. Romero and Carmack used to work endless nights, with little or no sleep, munching on pizza and diet coke to keep themselves going. They were working such long hours, visiting their homes so little, that at a point their wives came into the office in sign of rebellion.
When nothing elicited a response, she threw up her hands and said, “Why can’t we just have our men come home and have sex with us?”…“Because we’re working,” Romero said. Carmack laughed.
… There is more to the story of Doom, Wolfenstein 3d and Quake, besides long working-hours and personal relationships having to suffer. The example of Romero and Cormack are very relevant when trying to look at the video games industry, because not only did they reinvent the wheel once with Wolfenstein, but three times, with Doom and Quake as well. The impact they have had over the industry is immense, and reasons why the first-person shooter genre is so popular nowadays has in part to do with their work as well.
Given the importance of the previously-mentioned games, can we tolerate the working-conditions that were prevalent amongst them at a time, and say that they sacrificed themselves for the sake of all of us? That could be one way to approach it, and while we, gamers, are definitely grateful for having had such a big impact, their practices must also be analyzed in the context of labor relations in the video games industry.
Their example, while it might have been typical for the 80s and 90s, might be a bit odd nowadays, given the size and corporatization of the industry. Cormack and Romero came in the industry, when the industry wasn’t really a thing. Imagine telling your parents nowadays that you want to make games, and imagine them having a negative answer, even though video games are everywhere and are impossible to avoid. In the 1980s, it was still an emerging field, which made working in it look counter-cultural.
As a result, they have spawned their own unique outlaw community, a high-stakes, high-tech mecca for skilled and driven young gamers. In this world, no gamers were more skilled and driven than the co-creators of Doom and Quake, John Carmack and John Romero, or, as they were known, the Two Johns. For a new generation, Carmack and Romero personified an American dream: they were self-made individuals who had transformed their personal passions into a big business, a new art form, and a cultural phenomenon.
Meet John Romero: One of the Godfathers of the First-Person Shooter
Meet John Romero: One of the Godfathers of the First-Person Shooter
Not only was their practice counter-cultural, but it represented a new direction in which business could expand. When video games came out of the university labs, there wasn’t a proprietary model of distributing them, putting them in a box and issuing a copyright. Quite the contrary, video games were part of the greater hacker culture which cherished the values of freedom and sharing. That doesn’t mean that paying for software or games wasn’t part of the industry around the time, but rather that a freeshare model was utilized. When DOOM came out, The Two Johns gave it away for free, with the option of purchasing extra levels for a certain sum. They gave the game away for free to everyone, and even encourage the retailers to put it on their shelves, charge whatever they wanted for it, just so that it could get into people’s homes. That is why there are just so many versions of DOOM on the market, even though at its base it is the same game.
The story of The Two Johns represents a very good example of understanding the state of the industry back in the day, and how much it resembles today’s one, and how much it is different. While the working conditions might prevail, justified by immense passion and a desire to reinvent the wheel or completely change a genre, the corporatization of the industry turned it into what Cormack and Romero tried to prevent it from becoming. When they were working at the software company, creating games, they made their own office, according to their own anarchic values, rejecting the cubicle. Nowadays, games are made in cubicles, with very little exceptions. Games are no longer just about fun, and if it works, it works. They were not about that, even during the time of The Two Johns. They wanted to live the American Dream, but didn’t want to end up in a factory with an union job. They wanted to risk it, to go through life fast, and drive fast cars, maybe this is why both of them have gotten a Ferrari.
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Radu Stochita
Radu Stochita

Newsletter following the research process for my Honors Thesis which aims to understand the labor relations inside the video games industry.
Writing once a week (at least) about working inside the video game industry, the politics of games and their relationship to society.

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