All Your History: id Software Part 1
embedded by Embedded Video
By the late 80s, it was clear that videogames were a growth market. After surviving the Crash of 1983, the industry was once again mining gold with powerful home consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and its mascot, Mario. Still, even after all that, there was a definite sense that the medium was only at the tipping point before spilling over into true mainstream success. There was still plenty of room left to grow. For one thing, all games were two-dimensional; but products like subLOGIC’s Flight Simulator showed that real-time 3D graphics were possible and an obvious area for expansion. For another, the personal computer was taking off as a must-have item for every household, yet nobody was seriously trying to turn it into a gaming platform. The situation was ripe with opportunity, if only someone with the vision and ability to move the medium forward could burst on to the scene. And then in the early 90s, out of nowhere, they arrived. They were a couple of twenty-somethings with no money and no corporate backing, just a couple of dudes who shared a house and decided to make some games. Only a few short years later, they had single-handedly changed the entire industry, electrified the emerging Internet phenomenon, and rewrote the book on selling software. They were the new gods of gaming, the doom of side scrollers everywhere, and still just twenty-somethings with no corporate backing. They were id Software. And they did it because of a letter from a liar.
At the time, a company called Softdisk created business and utility applications every month, and sent them out to their subscriber base. It was a nice little business, but to really kick it into high gear, they wanted to get into gaming. To that end, they’d created a sub-label, Gamer’s Edge, and staffed it with a small, young, but passionate team. The team had a John, a Carmack, and a John Carmack. John Romero both built the software tools and designed the games. Adrian Carmack was a talented young artist with a taste for the twisted. And the unrelated John Carmack was a programmer with an untapped brilliance that was about to explode.
Romero had convinced his boss that PCs were the wave of the future; the Apple II and even Macintosh had come and gone, and now, it was Microsoft-DOS that was going to take over. He successfully argued that if he and his team could produce quality games for DOS PCs, they would make a killing. But even though their boss agreed, there was a problem: PCs of that era weren’t very fast. The Nintendo Entertainment System had gorgeous graphics, vibrant colors, and smooth animations because it was a powerful, dedicated gaming device. Generalized PCs didn’t have the same power, and thus, couldn’t run games as well. Games like Mario had proven that “scrolling” was a major seller. The screen wouldn’t remain static as the character moved around; the character would effectively stay at the center of the action as the entire world moved along with him. The side-scroller genre was exclusive to consoles, because only they had the silicon muscle to constantly redraw the screen at a fast rate. PCs just couldn’t do it. And because they couldn’t, they would forever be consigned to being a secondary gaming platform, a lesser entity than the mighty NES.
In the meantime however, another guy who believed in the power of PCs, and also in the power of modems to link computers around the world — a technology called the “Internet.” Scott Miller was making so much money distributing his games on this “Internet” that he had quit his day job. He had single-handedly developed a model in which he would put a portion of a game online for free. Anybody could download it onto their PC and play it. But at the end of this trial, there would be a screen telling them that to play the rest of the game, they’d have to mail in a check. The system completely cut out retailers, publishers, marketers, and traditional inventory problems. All he needed were great games to distribute through his company, Apogee.
One day he played Pyramids of Egypt and loved it. He could tell that the guy who had made it was talented, and it was exactly the kind of game he was looking to distribute. The programmer was John Romero. But when Miller learned that Romero worked for Softdisk, he was dismayed. Software companies were notoriously paranoid, and would often read a programmer’s fan mail to make sure nobody was trying to headhunt him for their own business. So, to get around the censors, Miller sent in a letter pretending to be a fan. Then he sent another, and another. Always pretending to be a different person, but always leaving the same call-back number and address.
Romero was flattered, but never bothered to call back. Then one day, while reading a PC Games article on none other than Scott Miller, he noticed his address at the bottom. He’d seen that address before, somewhere… he looked over at his wall, where he’d pinned his fan mail… and there was the address again! On all three letters! Romero was outraged. What was going on? The letters weren’t from real fans, but from some weird guy!
He sent back an angry letter, telling Miller exactly what he thought about being lied to. But for whatever reason, he also left a callback number. Miller immediately called back, apologized, and offered him a deal: if Romero would make games for him, he’d give Romero a huge percentage of the profits. And all of the sudden, Romero wasn’t mad anymore. He had a way out of Softdisk.
Meanwhile, John Carmack had changed the world.
Without telling anyone, Carmack had been wrestling with the issue of side-scrolling on a PC for a couple of nights. Plenty of other veteran, high-paid programmers in the lucrative industry had struggled with the same problem and given up. Carmack, though, realized that the real issue was right in front of their face: the computer wasn’t fast enough to redraw the entire screen every frame. So, why redraw the entire screen? If the sky was always the same shade of blue, and it was already on the screen, why redraw it? Why not just redraw the parts that actually moved and changed?
Then instead of thinking about it, he just did it.
Late one night, only he and his friend Tom Hall were still at work. He showed off his neat little trick to Hall, who thought it was awesome. So awesome in fact, that they should remake the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3! So they stayed up all night, did exactly that, then put it on a disk that they left on Romero’s desk.
When Romero came in the next day, he found the disk and loaded it up. He got a strange title screen: Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. This was weird. Dangerous Dave had been a character in a game Romero had made before working for Softdisk. Curious, he started the game. Yes, there was Dangerous Dave, in a level that looked a lot like Mario. Then he hit the arrow key.
And the screen scrolled.
Carmack had been proud of his achievement. Hall had thought it was cool. Romero was blown away. Side-scrolling was the Holy Grail of gaming. It was what kept consoles as the dominant gaming platform, over the much larger PC market. Whoever could harness side-scrolling on PCs would control the Universe. And now, they harnessed it.
Romero immediately convinced the guys that they had to drop everything and use this power as much as humanly possible. More than that, they needed to keep it secret from Softdisk so that they could start their own company and use Carmack’s incredible technology for themselves. And so, for the next few weekends, they made Super Mario Bros. 3. Not a look-alike, not a rip-off: Super Mario Bros. 3. On the PC. A pixel-by-pixel translation, done by hand, using Carmack’s tech. To do it, they ‘borrowed’ their work computers from Softdisk every weekend, and then brought them back early Monday morning, before anyone noticed they were missing.
When they were done, they excitedly sent their work off to Nintendo. They said that the PC market was the wave of the future; that if Nintendo wanted to cash in on this market, all they had to do was sell the very conversion they’d just done, and pay them for the work they’d done. Astoundingly, Nintendo declined. Mario was half the reason people bought an NES in addition to the PC they already owned. Nintendo wanted to keep it that way.
The guys were crushed. But then, Romero remembered Scott Miller from Apogee. Why remake Nintendo’s games when they could make their own games, and sell them through a man dying to work with them? Romero called Miller back and told him that they could make him a game that he could sell through the Internet, a game that could be cut up into a free trial and a full paid version. And best of all — it could scroll. A scrolling game for PCs. Was he interested? Of course, he was.
Once again ‘borrowing’ their work computers at night, the guys created Commander Keen. A fun, lighthearted adventure about an eight-year-old boy and his overactive imagination, it was both an addictive game and a staggering technical achievement. The design prowess of Tom Hall, the tools created by John Romero, the artwork of Adrian Carmack, and the engineering genius of John Carmack all combined into a title the likes of which no one had ever seen before on PCs.
Scott Miller released the free trial to the Internet on December 14, 1990. Up until that time, his entire business had been making around $7,000 a month. Only ten days after release, Commander Keen alone had made $30,000. The guys, with no investment money, no backing from a big corporation, and no reputation, had conquered the software world. Their game, which had never seen a store shelf, had made them an astounding amount of money. And in 1990, the Internet hadn’t even made it to most households yet. A fake fan letter from Scott Miller had put them on the edge of something exploding. And they knew it.
On February 1, 1991, John Romero, John Carmack, and Adrian Carmack left Softdisk to go it alone. Tom Hall would join a few months later, after he’d finished his responsibilities at Softdisk. All they needed was a name.
Before, they’d been calling themselves Ideas from the Deep, but the name was too long. They decided to just shorten it. The first two letters were the same as the part of the brain the Freud had dubbed the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking side. And, it was also an acronym for “in demand.”
It was settled. They were id.
Tune in next time to watch id create the next dimension