A Tale of Two Johns

— January 06, 2010 (7 comments)
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 six 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 began to take off with QuakeCon. Everyone wanted to be id.

(Translation: They made lots of money).

But after Quake hit the shelves in 1996, Romero was fired, though 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 technical 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).

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, 1997 came and went with no Daikatana. Carmack had released Quake II by then, and Romero realized Daikatana was technically behind. He grabbed the new engine, not realizing at the time that it was so different from the one he knew it would require an entire rewrite of his precious game.

(Realizing his mistake, Romero tried to catch up technically and failed, badly).

By the year 2000, 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 It was made worse when the game was released with outdated graphics, crappy AI, and unforgivable loading times.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).

There's lot of morals that can be drawn from all this, but I'm going to pull one for us writers.

Carmack's technical expertise is your skill with prose, structure, and grammar. Without it, nobody will put up with your story long enough to see its brilliance.

Romero's creativity is your plot, characters, and conflict. Your prose might be beautiful, but without this nobody will care.

You need both to succeed.

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  1. I vaguely remember hearing about Daikatana. Probably in the same breath as Duke Nukem 3D and all the other games that were either never released or came out really really poorly.

  2. Great analogy. Great writing. Great post!

    I need to find someone who can do the bits I'm not so good at, like structure, plot, characters and conflict. My spelling is quite good.

  3. Thanks, fairy!

    Matt: Duke Nukem Forever is another such game, called vaporware. In fact, DNF was announced in the same year as Daikatana and it still isn't finished. Unfortunately I don't know the story behind that one.

  4. I just caught the last sentence of your comment, fairy. LOL!

  5. Great analogy. I'm Romero, and I've spent this last year trying to catch up on the Carmack side.

  6. Beautiful. I'm somewhere between Johns (yes, my mind's in the gutter on this one, too).

  7. ...and suddenly I regret my post title. :-)