Dungeons & Dreamers: a book about global gaming

You kids, with your Halo and your hip hop – you don’t know what real gaming is.

Well before you were telling your console to switch itself on, or before you could physically wave your controller like a tennis racket, or even before you were holding funny-looking pads with buttons in your hands, there was a kind of pad where the deepest, most immersive and imaginative kind of gaming got played – on a notepad.

Gaming legend Gary Gygax came up with the miniature wargame Chainmail in 1971, which was based simply in medieval times, and devised rules of combat among ordinary men. However, Gygax’s fellow gamer Dave Arneson would add elements of fantasy into the game, bringing spells and mythical monsters into the mix. One year on this modified version of Chainmail would be repackaged as a standalone game called Dungeons & Dragons, and the rest is history.

The unique combination of fantasy and role-playing elements was something that inspired video game designers and programmers through the years as advancing technology began to produce all kinds of weird and wonderful computer programmes. As computer gaming became more popular, it was the hardcore groups of D&D gamers of these times – close-knit communities brought together to slay dragons and forge long-lasting relationships – that tried to find a way to bring people together online to enjoy their hobby.

It’s this struggle to unite questing gamers from the 1970s to now which is covered in Dungeons & Dreamers: A Story of How Computer Games Created a Global Community – an extremely insightful book that explores the role of games in bringing together players from all walks of life to the same dungeons, space stations and virtual worlds to bring (massive) multiplayer fun.

Dungeons & Dreamers

The narrative of the book is seen in turn through the eyes of key figures in gaming history such as Richard Garriott of Origin Systems, and the two Johns – Carmack and Romero– at id software (whose Quake title was a character from their regular D&D games). It contains plenty of informative reporting on world events which shaped the industry such as the Columbine shootings that tried to vilify games as forms of violent escapism, alongside great insights on the industry itself whose users wanted the very best in technology and design to enjoy fresh new worlds – leading to innovations like Ultima Online, World of Warcraft and Second Life.

There’s also plenty of discussion going to show the dedication of the players who found a new calling in life through these offerings, like the annual QuakeCon events which continue to attract Deathmatchers from all over the world. Much as I enjoyed seeing from the creators’ point of view how their games matured and became new worlds of their own, it’s great too to read about how the players found themselves a part of these worlds.

One other thing which struck me was the great comparisons drawn in which two of the featured companies told the story of relocating offices across country as if living in Frontier times – changing their own landscapes in order to create more of their own, with Origin splitting their bases across Texas and New Hampshire, and id hitting the trail between Louisiana and Texas to form their company. (Romero also worked in New Hampshire for Origin at one point!)

Dungeons and Dreamers is a great read if you’re interested in how gaming got to where it is today in terms of reach and the pursuit of that killer multiplayer experience, written so knowledgeably and with real reverence for its subject matter.

Happy 20th Birthday, Doom!

I can’t remember what I’d asked Santa to give me for Christmas when I was eight – although if I have the year right, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Powerloader and Corporal Hicks action figure from Aliens were involved – but if I’d known then what I knew now, I’d certainly have been a well-behaved boy if I’d asked for Doom instead.

Doom video game

The classic first-person shooter was first released on the 10th December 1993, and solidified its creators, id Software, as the innovators of video game design. They’d already caused a bit of a stir with their previous effort Wolfenstein 3D but their next full release was the first to realise the vision which is still celebrated 20 years on through popular FPS games like the blockbusting Call of Duty and Halo franchises.

Looking back on the game now, it’s clearly showing its age when put up against just about anything we’re seeing on the XBox and Sony consoles, but for its time it was something pretty special; the Shareware boom allowed fringe game creators cursed by a lack of decent storage media and no hard copy distribution deals to release their games by mail order in episodic instalments, much like we see now from the likes of TellTale Games – only these days it’s by choice. A neat idea picked up by Apogee’s Scott Miller among others, the first taste was free – and as gamer reaction to the opening levels to Doom would testify, it spread like wildfire. Awestruck by the 3D elements and otherworldly chilling sound effects, players across the world did their best Phillip J. Fry impression as they overwhelmed the BBS network to which the original demo had been uploaded, urging id founders John Carmack and John Romero to shut up and take their money for the remaining episodes.

If you need any more clues as to just how popular Doom was in the big wide world of 90s computing, well, here’s Bill to tell you more in a video screened exclusively at the Windows 95 launch party to talk about how his new system can handle video games.

(I know it’s blurry, but that really is Bill Gates.)

There’s a great interview on Wired today with original lead programmer and former id boss, John Carmack, who left the company he founded last month to take up a position with Oculus. Never one to rest on his laurels, Carmack is now heading up what many are calling the next big thing in hardware.

And if you haven’t picked it up yet, I highly recommend Masters of Doom by David Kushner – a brilliant insight into 90s geek culture as seen through the eyes of the major players at id Software.

So there you have it. Guts, gore, and graphics which for their time were revolutionary. Happy 20th Birthday, Doom!

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

At work today, as I gazed over the banks of computers, an idea suddenly struck: Dude, ask to get Quake installed on all the computers. We can Deathmatch during lunch breaks. Seemed like a fine idea to me; unfortunately it’s probably against all kinds of company policy to jump up from my desk and scream “suck it down, bitch!” at a faraway colleague after blowing their face off with the BFG. (Especially if a client was being shown around the office at the time.)

Masters_of_Doom

This thought will no doubt have occurred to me thanks to having just finished reading Masters of Doom for the second time. Released in 2003, it tells the story of the early-to-mid-1990s boom in computer and console gaming as seen through the eyes of John Carmack and John Romero: co-founders of id Software, the company responsible for 3D first-person shooters Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake; the men mostly responsible for such a boom.

From re-telling their oft-troubled childhoods, through their meeting at Softdisk software company, Carmack’s ground-breaking work on game engines and Romero’s ingenious game design providing the means to exploit it during their time together at id, the book by David Kushner paints a brilliant picture of the games industry and its hunt for the next thrill – thanks to intensive research and hundreds of interviews with the key players in the story.

The particular angle that Masters of Doom goes for is how the Two Johns’ partnership was greater than the sum of its parts; while Carmack thrived on pushing the envelope to make the next game even more successful than the last, Romero lived a rock-star lifestyle as the man who “Wrote It” – the slogan he added to the Doom t-shirts which he and other members of the team wore to gaming events.

It’s Carmack’s love of order and Romero’s lust after chaos which proved the winning formula for id; not only in real life but in the story presented too. It’s a powerful combination which is never more apparent than when Romero parts company with id to form his own company, Ion Storm. Without Carmack to push his phenomenal design skills, he underestimates the need to have the semblance of order and organisation around him – with dire consequences. The element of chaos now lacking at id also makes for a tense atmosphere, as Carmack cracks the whip over his staff who needed that unpredictability to spur them onto creating bigger and better games.

The story of the Two Johns makes for a fascinating read no matter what; but I would highly recommend Masters of Doom as a starting point.

QuakeCon 2013 is announced

Hot on the heels of the Blizzcon announcement last week, there’s more good news in store for people who enjoy turning up in far-flung places to celebrate another series of running and shooting games.

quakecon

Yes, the QuakeCon is taking place in Dallas from August 1-4. The world’s largest free BYOC (bring your own computer) LAN party is back for four more days of gore, gibs and gunplay. Taking its name from the first-person shooter developed by id software, the creators of Quake also helped to organise the event from its third year onwards.

Even the acquisition of id by ZeniMax Media hasn’t stopped QuakeCon from being one of the key gaming events of the year – featuring as it so often does panels and discussions from the major players including id co-founder John Carmack, who last year led a panel on the future of online play. There’ll also be demos of the newest games and hardware developed by the ZeniMax family, and booths – lots of booths.

QuakeCon stays free to attend every year thanks to the hard work of its dedicated volunteers, some of whom originated the event by having a small meet-up to play some networked Quake back in 1996; the inaugural QuakeCon started with 30 attendees, although hundreds more turned up over the course of the weekend as word got around on their IRC channel, also called #quakecon.

So what’s in store for this year’s QuakeCon? As ever, id keeps its cards close to its chest until the time is right – such is the way of the video games industry these days – but I’m guessing that the latest BFG edition of Doom will make its way to the LAN party in some form.

QuakeCon 2013 kicks off on the 1st August at The Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Texas – and you can follow them on Twitter and Facebook for more info. Now start practicing!

On a related note, I reckon I’ll have some more lovely lovely id-related stuff coming up on the blog soon – there’s a book about The Two Johns I think you should check out.