John Romero is best known as being one of the co-founder of id Software, which was set up in 1991. He originally cut his teeth on machines like the Apple II, but soon moved over to PCs, where he found success with the likes of Doom and Quake. Romero eventually left id Software and worked on his own game Daikatana, but it wasn’t as well received as his work at id. He currently works for Lootdrop. Here we speak to John about the days before id Software.
So, what was your first experience with videogames?
John Romero: Back in the Seventies, before there were videogames, I used to go to this place in Tuscon, Arizona, called Spanky’s. It was just a long room, and it was just pitch black, and there were probably about 50 pinball machines all lined up against the wall. And then they had electromagnetic games, which were, like, little fluorescent moulded cars going around inside a giant racetrack. I played them a lot, until Space Invaders and Targ came out. I thought they were so cool, because they were so different to pinball and electromagnetic games – they weren’t limited by the physical shapes of things you could create. I thought, ‘How many other kinds of things will there be like this?’
Did you start thinking about your own game ideas then?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t think about game design stuff then. I was just having fun.
But did you ever think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be better if it did this?’
No, I was just kind of accepting what I was playing. I played it to the end and I tried to master it. I just figured out what its limitations were, and tried to get really good at it.
Oh yeah, I got good at whatever games I played. Pac-Man was probably the first game that got me thinking about game design. So many games were just ‘shoot the alien’, but this was so different – not only was it in colour, but it had a completely different game design, where your job is to avoid the bad guys and eat the pills. I got hooked on it – it showed me that game design was wide open.
So when was your first experience of game creation?
So, in the summer of ‘79, my brother and my friend rode up to my house on their bikes, and said they’d come from the local college. They said: ‘There’s games up at the college on computers, and they’re free!’ And for an 11-year-old kid, who doesn’t have any money, free is awesome! So, I was like, ‘Oh my god! Let’s go!’ And I got on my bike, and we rode three miles to get there. We go into this computer lab, and see all these terminals in a room. Another room had the giant HP 9000 mainframe that you couldn’t go into, but we found a free terminal. The games were real basic, but I got to see what computer game design was versus arcade game design. I was excited that you could type something and make a game from it, unlike the arcade machine, which was just a big mystery box.
Did you try to make your own?
Yeah. I started to ask all the kids in the lab – they were all learning HP BASIC – ‘What words do you type in for programming?’ And then we found out that at 7am every Saturday, one of these guys had access to play Colossal Cave Adventure on the mainframe. So we’d bike up there at 7am every Saturday morning to watch some guy play Adventure. But it was cool, because you could see that this was a game you couldn’t have in an arcade – arcades were just there to eat your quarters, but this game actually wanted you to take your time and solve it. So the first thing I did was try to write my own little adventure game on that mainframe. I couldn’t save my programs on this guy’s account, though, so I had to print them out on punch cards and paper tape. And after it got to about 100 punch cards, one day I was riding my bike, hit a bump, and they all fell out the back into a big puddle. That’s when I knew that I was done with the mainframe. I needed my own machine.
So how did you get one?
Well, around that time the Apple II had come out. I was in the 9th grade. I was like, ‘Now we’re talking. It has colour, it makes noise, and it’s not a giant mainframe.’ And every day, I’d go home and tell my dad all about this stuff. After a while, I guess he figured it would be a good idea to get one at home. And once I got it, it was pretty much the end of everything else. I was just coding all the time. That’s all I cared about.
Did you ever recreate the game you lost in the puddle?
Oh yeah. First I made a Crazy Climber clone, but I did do a few adventures. But I was sort of alone in what I was doing. I couldn’t talk to anyone. And then my family moved to England halfway through sophomore year, and absolutely nobody there – not even the teachers – could speak assembly language. I was in a vacuum. To make things worse, I didn’t even have a computer in England; it took six months for my computer to get to there by boat, so I was hand-writing all my code on notebook paper. I was hand-assembling the assembly language into machine language, and then at school during lunchtime, I’d run to the computer room and type it in and see if it worked.
Did you ever wonder at the time whether you could make a career out of it?
Well, I saw the names of people on the Apple II games I was playing, and I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do, too.’ My mind was made up. I was never like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do with my life?’
A young Romero, when he was first starting out in the industry.
So when did you start selling your games?
My first gig was with inCider magazine in ‘84, which… I should explain that when you get a game published in a magazine, you have to have a game that has a special combination of stuff to type in because people can’t type in reams of assembly language; they get bored. It’s just onerous to type in. Once I worked that out, I got Scout Search published in inCider. They bought it for 100 bucks.
What was your favourite game that you did for a magazine?
My favourite would be Bongo’s Bash, which was published by Nibble magazine in ‘84. It was kind of like a Pac-Man game, but it had more to it, where you’re basically a monkey versus robots. It’s so funny, you know, so 1984 – monkeys versus robots! And then Uptime magazine licensed the game in ‘87 so they could put it on their disks! That one got around. Probably my first successful game.
Did you start getting noticed?
I didn’t know! I wasn’t part of the industry. I was just churning out a shitload of games and just selling ‘em. I was still the lone programmer with no one to talk to.
So, after freelancing for a while, you got your first industry job at Origin …
Yeah, that’s a pretty cool story. At the beginning of ‘87, I met this girl, and by May, she’s pregnant. And guess what? She’s keeping that kid, because she’s Mormon. So I was, like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get a better job,’ because I was working at Burger King. I got a job doing temp work, but it still wasn’t enough. I said to myself, ‘I need to get in the industry – I need a full-time job, making games all the time.’ Funny thing is, I was such a lone programmer that the only gauge I had for how good I was were the commercial games I played.
Were yours better?
No, but they were close. Anyway, I did this game called Lethal Labyrinth in 1987, which was in double-res. And not many games on the Apple II were, because it was hard to do. And I went to the big Applefest show in San Francisco, and they had lines of tables just stacked up with Nibble magazines, with my game on the cover. I went straight to the Uptime booth, and the publisher asked if I wanted a job. Then I went over to the Softdisk booth, and they offered me a job, too! But I really wanted to work at Origin. I was an Ultima fanatic. So I walked over to the Origin booth, and they had a bunch of computers demoing Ultima V, and also they had one demoing Ultima I, which had been rewritten in assembly language. I said to myself, ‘That’s the computer they don’t care about so much.’ So I went over there, popped the disk out, put my double-res Lethal Labyrinth game in there, and the marketing lady comes over and goes, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ I say, ‘Watch.’ She goes, ‘Woah, double-res.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And she’s like, ‘Can I have your information?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Can I have yours?’
Did she call you back?
No, so I called her. And I called her, and I called her. And she finally handed me off to a manager there. He said: ‘We don’t have a spot yet, but we have one coming soon for the Commodore 64.’ I was like, ‘I don’t care what machine it’s on. I can do it.’
How long did you stay there?
I got there in November ‘87, so I was there for eight months. I loved it there, though. They got me doing this port of 2400 AD, but after the Apple II version sold poorly, they sent me over to Space Rogue, Paul [Neurath]’s game. And while I was there, my boss asked me if I wanted to start a company with him. I said: ‘If you can guarantee I’ll be making the same amount of money, then hell yeah.’ He did, and we founded Inside Out Software. But after a while, I knew Inside Out couldn’t afford to have me around, so I left. I’d heard Jay Wilbur, my friend from Uptime, had gone to work at Softdisk…
Did you follow immediately?
Yeah. I said to Jay, ‘That’s awesome. What’s the name of Softdisk’s president?’ He told me it was Al Vekovius, so I just called him up, said: ‘Hey, my name’s John Romero, and I’m a game programmer.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve heard about you! I want to fly you down immediately.’
What did you start doing at Softdisk?
Al knew I came from Origin, and he wanted to make games. And sell them. So he let me put together what we called the ‘special projects’ division. I started helping the PC department with ports, and then their other stuff, and did that for a year. By 1990, I was so burned out. I said: ‘Al, look, I came here to make games. If I can’t do that, I’m just going to go to LucasArts.’ And Al was like, ‘Woah, okay, don’t leave! Let’s work this out.’ So I said: ‘I want my own division, and I don’t want to do games in a month. I need two months.’ Two months! Seemed huge at the time.
So it was just you in the new games division?
No, I got my friend Lane Roathe from the Apple II division to come over and be the managing editor of our game disk. But I couldn’t count on him to program games. Up until that point, I’d always been a lone programmer, but everything was turning into team efforts.
Notable John Romero Games
You can read the rest of our interview with John Romero in issue 75. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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