A Tale of Two Johns


This is an old story from the computer game world, but there are lessons here for everyone, even writers.

In 1990, id Software was formed by two men: John Carmack and John Romero. Over the next 6 years, id redefined PC gaming and the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Romero is even credited with coining the term "deathmatch."

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about to this point, here's the summary: Carmack and Romero made really good games; they were kind of a big deal).

The PC gaming world was theirs. Carmack licensed the Quake engine to multiple game developers -- including Valve, who used it to make the even more groundbreaking Half Life. Professional gaming took off with QuakeCon. Everyone wanted to be id.

(Translation: They made lots of money).

But after Quake hit the shelves in 1996, Romero quit (actually he was fired, but he was going to quit anyway). His plans were ambitious, and he felt Carmack and the others were stifling him. Carmack, meanwhile, felt that Romero wasn't realistic.

(The two Johns parted ways).

Carmack -- the technical powerhouse of id -- pushed the envelope with Quake II and Quake III: Arena. Good games, well-received, and very, very pretty. But where they pushed things technically, their general design stayed the same. To the point where Quake III was little more than a deathmatch arena with no substance.

(Carmack's games were technically beautiful, but not very compelling).

Photo Credit: Michael Heilemann
Romero's company released this ad
months before Christmas.
Romero, meanwhile, now had the freedom to be as ambitious as he wanted. He proudly announced his masterpiece, Daikatana, would hit the shelves by Christmas the next year. They would use the Quake engine, so the technical aspect would be taken care of, leaving him and his designers only to design.

(Romero thought he didn't need Carmack's technical expertise).

Christmas came and went with no Daikatana. Carmack had released Quake II by then, and Romero realized his masterpiece looked dated. He grabbed the new engine, not realizing it was so different from the one he knew it would require an entire rewrite of his precious game.

(Romero realized technology mattered. He tried to catch up and failed, badly).

Three years later, Daikatana had become a joke. It was made worse when the game was released with outdated graphics, crappy AI, and unforgivable loading times.

(Romero's game was super late, ugly, and impossible to play).

Carmack thought that technical expertise made a game. Romero thought it was creativity and design. The truth is both are necessary to make a quality game.

It's the same in writing (told you there was a lesson). Technical expertise -- your skill with prose, structure, and grammar -- can make for a well-written story, but one that is thoroughly boring to read.

Creative design -- compelling plot, characters, and conflict -- can create a brilliant story, but if the technical aspects aren't there, it will be an unreadable mess.

Don't sacrifice one for the other. You need both to succeed.


Ben Spendlove said...

That's a good example, Adam. And I never knew what happened to id software.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Excellent story. And I see two other lessons in it, because I'm apparently a marketing geek on top of all my other flaws:

Getting to market is important. You can have the most-awesomeest-widget-ever, but if you don't get it to market in a timely manner, you're too late. (I won't make a corollary to writing here, but make you own conclusions about taking two years to get a book to market after it's already written.)

Innovation is important. You can't deliver the same thing, over and over, whether it's technically the same or creatively the same, without boring your customer. (In the writing world, where creativity is the coin of the realm, you would think this would be a non-issue. But when you see the same YA plot-line published year-after-year or the same inefficient marketing using time-and-again, clearly the industry would benefit from more innovation.)

Great post!

Gregory Carrico said...

As a recovering game geek, I remember this mess. Great comparison! Thanks for the post, m8.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Love this. :)

Unknown said...

Thoughtful post! And great comments by Susan!

sally said...

What a great post.

Steve MC said...

Never knew that story, but a modern fable for sure.

It's why sometimes a review will say a movie is so gorgeous and stupid it's better with the sound off, and other times they'll say it looks like crap, but keeps you riveted.

Matthew MacNish said...

In crafting novels, I call it writing versus storytelling. No one I know of is exactly equally skilled at both. For example, Suzanne Collins is a better storyteller than she is a writer, and Cormac McCarthy is a better writer than he is a storyteller, but both of them are also very good at the side they're not as good at, so they craft pretty awesome books. Very different from each other, but still pretty awesome.

Interesting that you equate the coding/engine/technical side with the writing side of my analogy, where I would equate it with the storytelling side. It's probably only because I'm not as good at storytelling as I am at writing.