Video games are one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, worth a reported $7 billion, and escalating year after year. One man in particular is almost wholly responsible for the boom—a quirky, skinny, programmer extraordinaire named John Carmack. In 1993, Carmack and his peers at id Software revolutionized gaming when they introduced Doom, a state-of-the-art video game with a technology that allowed a player to be a very real part of the action. Suddenly, video games went from cult use to mainstream, and users clamored for more. Carmack and company responded by releasing Quake, Quake II, and Doom 2. In the summer of 2004 the much-anticipated Doom 3 was launched, and within months had sold more than one million copies. Carmack has legions of fans who view him as a coder supreme, but he also has critics who denounce his games because they are perceived as ultra-violent. The techie from Texas, however, cares little about public opinion. He lives and breathes computers and is always looking for the next challenge. As one of his coworkers commented to the Dallas Morning News, "The things that motivate John are the things that put him out on the edge of discovery." Carmack's next frontier: Space.
The man known as Carmack the Magnificent was born on August 20, 1970, in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. He had what he described as "a normal, gifted-geek childhood." Carmack tinkered with chemistry sets, built model rockets, read science fiction, and played the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Then personal computers came along, and he was hooked for life. Carmack and his friends became obsessed with computers, but the school they attended could not afford them. As a result, when he was fourteen years old, Carmack and some buddies broke into a school in a wealthier neighborhood to steal an Apple II computer. They were caught, and Carmack spent the next year in juvenile detention.
When released, Carmack became a bit of a rebellious teen and threw himself into programming He holed up in his room for days, fueled by pizza and caffeinated soda and taught himself to write code. (Code is the language that creates a computer program.) Carmack's parents knew their son was extremely bright and had a good deal of potential. When he graduated
"There's something fundamentally interesting about the world in a box. If somebody can be an emperor in a virtual world, with only a cheap computer, is that really a bad thing?"
with a 4.0 grade point average from Shawnee East Mission High School, they pushed him to go to college. Carmack reluctantly agreed, and in 1988 he enrolled at the University of Missouri near Kansas City. He took only computer classes, and after two semesters dropped out to devote himself full time to programming. Carmack worked briefly as an independent contractor for Apple II, but earned very little money. He finally landed a steady programming job with Softdisk in Shreveport, Louisiana. One of his first jobs was developing a two-dimensional video arcade game called Invasion of the Vorticons.
Carmack's collaborators on Invasion were two fellow computer fanatics, John Romero (1967–) and Adrian Carmack (no relation to John). By day they developed games for Softdisk; at night they would load up their cars with company equipment and stay up until the early morning hours experimenting with coding. They soon created their own video game called Commander Keen, which was distributed by Apogee Software. Spurred by the game's success the three quit Softdisk in 1991 to form their own company, id Software, which was first based in Madison, Wisconsin. Later that year the company moved to its current headquarters located in the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite.
While tossing around ideas for their first id venture, Carmack and Romero both remembered a game they used to play as kids on the Apple II called Castle Wolfenstein. The maze-based game involved gunning down Nazis and collecting treasure. The id version, called Wolfenstein 3-D, became an overnight success when it was released in 1991. One reason it was such a hit was that the game allowed players for the first time to actually feel like they were participating in the on-screen adventure. Known as first-person perspective, a player looked down the barrel of his gun and aimed at targets, including Nazi guards and attack dogs. Response to the game was phenomenal, thanks in part to its unique brand of marketing. Wolfenstein was not sold in stores; instead customers downloaded the first installment free-of-charge from the Web and then paid forty-five dollars for the remainder of the game. This was the beginning of share-ware. Share-ware involves using software on a limited, or trial basis, and then paying a fee later for full access or a complete upgrade.
Wolfenstein was so popular that each of its creators were making about $120,000 per month, and Carmack, the college dropout, was a wealthy man at the age of twenty-one. The dedicated programmer, however, did not rest on his success alone. He remained as driven as ever, continuing to work more than eighty hours per week in order to tweak and perfect his coding. In the world of id, the cool and collected Carmack was the coding king in charge of the programming that transformed ideas to three-dimensional reality. The more outgoing John Romero was the concept mastermind, in charge of designing the games and creating the fantastic worlds and characters.
Their greatest hit came in 1993 with the much-anticipated release of Doom, which according to Lev Grossman of Time, "Created a three-dimensional virtual world so powerful, compelling, and disturbing that it would change the real world around it." The plot of the game was not really important: A space Marine posted on a research facility on Mars fights off demon attackers. What was truly unique were the sophisticated and very realistic graphics. Prior to Doom, most video games were rather flat and unrealistic; Carmack's programming fleshed out a more natural-looking fantasy world. "You could have fun with those old games," Carmack told Grossman, "but it was more of a detached, abstract sort of fun."
Customers couldn't get enough of Doom, which reached sales of more than $7 million in 1994 alone. It eventually became one of the best-selling video game of all time and led to a Doom series. The success of Doom also cemented id's reputation as the top game producer in the country, and Carmack and Romero became legends. In 1996, the duo followed up Doom with Quake, which offered an even higher level of gritty realism. A multiplayer game with the sole goal of blasting enemies as quickly as possible, Quake became both a best-seller and a cult favorite. Quake II was released later in 1996; Quake III Arena came out in 2000. Quake III is an Internet-based game that lets a large number of participants play at once.
Despite their phenomenal success, tempers flared between Carmack and Romero, primarily because they had such different personalities. Romero had achieved a sort of rock-star celebrity and Carmack felt that his partner's work was suffering as a result. In 1996 Romero left id to form his own company, called Ion Storm Inc., which proved to be an unsuccessful venture; the company folded in 2005. Carmack became the director of id, and the company continued to thrive by putting out a more advanced and super-charged game every few years. The buzz surrounding each new release was enormous, especially in chat rooms on the Internet. By 2004 the buzz reached a fever pitch as gamers anticipated the latest in the Doom series, Doom 3. The latest Doom offering was officially released in the summer of 2004, and in the first six months the company sold more than one million copies.
Carmack spent four years experimenting with a new high-speed engine and studying optics (the science of light) in order to make his latest brainchild the most realistic fantasy game on the market. He thoroughly succeeded. According to Lev Grossman the world of Doom 3 is "meticulously detailed," populated by a gallery of rogues, gargoyles, and cherubs. And as players wind their way through the Martian landscape, steam ripples, boulders cast shadows, and light fixtures swing and flicker. "There is a crispness to details," Grossman enthused, "a weight and solidity to objects and figures, a lifelike sheen to surfaces in Doom 3 that is unlike anything we've seen before."
No doubt the technology that Carmack created will be copied by other programmers since he is considered the pioneer of the industry. And as he continues to push the computer engine envelope, computer manufacturers scurry to make faster and more powerful personal computers (PCs). Carmack's impact, however, goes far beyond video games. The U.S. military has used Doom to train soldiers for combat and architects use the graphics technology of Quake to construct virtual buildings. On the other side, critics worry about the more wide-reaching, cultural impact of Carmack's universe.
Carmack's creations are gory, bloody, and undeniably violent, prompting parents to fear that their children are being somewhat brainwashed. Some even blamed the wave of high school shootings that took place in the late 1990s on id games. Specifically, one of the shooters involved in the highly publicized 1999 Columbine High School tragedy, in which two students opened fire on their high school killing twelve students and one teacher, was quoted as referencing Doom. Several lawsuits were filed against the company but proved to be unsuccessful. Regardless, as Grossman noted, "We don't have to be happy about it . . . but it is no longer possible to deny that Americans passionately enjoy pretending to shoot one another with guns."
Just as he is passionate about computers, Carmack is equally enthralled by rockets. And just as he taught himself how to code, the technology genius learned everything he could about rocketry on his own. "I can trace back my interest in
John Carmack and the owners of id Software are considered to be heroes in the world of video games, and thousands of fans congregate each year to meet them at a gathering in North Texas called QuakeCon. The annual event was launched in 1996 by a group of gamers who had been communicating over a chat network. Fewer than one hundred people attended the first convention, but those who did were ecstatic at the opportunity to talk to Carmack and other id idols in person. Participants also indulged in multiplayer video game marathons.
The 2005 QuakeCon marked the tenth anniversary of the event, and Todd Hollenshead, chief executive office of id, promised it would be spectacular. "QuakeCon's 10th anniversary is a historic milestone," Hollenshead was quoted as saying on the FrontLine Web site, "and a time to celebrate the volunteers, fans, sponsors and games that have driven QuakeCon to become the largest event of its kind. We're going to have the party of the decade, and we want everyone to be there." More than six thousand eager gamers were expected to attend QuakeCon 2005, which was held in a 150,000-square-foot convention space, allowing plenty of room for workshops, contests, exhibits, and parties. The event lasted for four days and included ninety-six hours of nonstop video-game playing.
space to the end of the development of Quake, " Carmack told Computer Gaming World in 2003, "I borrowed a bunch of Robert Heinlein [science fiction writer; 1907–1988] books. A year later, I started reading up on everything about space travel. Now I'm building what amounts to the world's biggest roller coaster." In 2000 Carmack spent some of his own millions in order to make his dream of traveling to space a reality. He purchased a cavernous warehouse in Mesquite, along with a 100-acre testing ground, and formed a group called Armadillo Aerospace.
Carmack is the undisputed ringleader and is assisted by a half-dozen rocket enthusiasts at Armadillo's fully equipped machine shop and laboratory. All of the workers are unpaid, volunteering their time every Tuesday and Saturday night. While Carmack is the rocket science expert, each team member contributes something. Some have built rockets before; others have become versed in space travel testing and space regulations. They all, however, share the same goal: to one day make space travel accessible to the average citizen.
The first step toward that goal was to win the Ansari X Prize, a $10-million race to launch a privately funded, manned spacecraft on a sixty-mile orbital mission. More than two dozen teams had been competing for the prize, which is funded by a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization, since it was first announced in 1996. Unfortunately, Armadillo ran into a few snags, including licensing issues and problems obtaining the right kind of fuel for their engine. As a result, in October 2004, another team won the competition. Carmack remained undaunted. As he told Alexandra Witze, "It's not about swinging at the fences for the grand slam. It's about chipping away at the problem."
Although John Carmack is a multimillionaire, and his company brings in close to $20 million a year, he is still a self-described workaholic. "I still work 80 hours a week," he admitted to Mark Lisheron of the Austin American-Statesman. "It used to be 80 hours on software, now it's 40 hours on software and 40 hours on Armadillo." Carmack did ease up a bit after he and his wife, Anna Kang, had their first child in 2004—he was getting home from the office at about midnight instead of 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM. Kang, however, insists that Sunday is family day, so Carmack compromises by reading technical manuals to his infant son.
In 2005 the head of id was thirty-five years old and had been writing computer programs for almost twenty years. This made him practically an old man in the youth-geared video game industry, and rumors were flying that Carmack was thinking about retiring. He quickly dismissed them. Carmack was actually hard at work on the engine for id's next game, which is not scheduled for release until the late 2000s. What he has up his sleeve is anyone's guess. As he told Computer Gaming World in 2003, "To a degree, we're past the hurdles of computer limitations. Thanks to new tools there are fewer restrictions to the imagination."
And while he may be ancient by gaming standards, Carmack looks like someone half his age. He has flyaway, palered hair; wears baggy shorts, T-shirts, and striped high tops. According to Lisheron, "Carmack seems happy to play the role of boy genius."
Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. New York: Random House, 2004.
Brown, Ken. "John Carmack: An Interview with Gaming's Greatest Technologist." Computer Gaming World (March 1, 2001): p. 36.
Grossman, Lev. "The Age of Doom: In 1993 Six Geeks Had a Digital Nightmare That Changed the Culture. It's About to Get Far Creepier." Time (August 9, 2004): p. 82.
"John Carmack and Doom 3." Computer Gaming World (November 26, 2003).
Lisheron, Mark. "Space: The Final Frontier." Austin American-Statesman (Texas) (September 26, 2004): p. A1.
Witze, Alexandra. "Video Game Pioneer Now Eyes Space Flight." Dallas Morning News (January 11, 2005).
Armadillo Aerospace Web Site. http://www.armadilloaerospace.com (accessed on August 22, 2005).
QuakeCon Web Site. http://www.quakecon.org/ (accessed on August 22, 2005).