John Romero now lives in Ireland, and is involved in a new release of the classic shooter, writes Ronan Jennings
THE harbinger of Doom lives in Galway, Ireland. Once, he unleashed a horde of demons upon Earth, changing the gaming landscape forever. Now, 25 years later, he has opened the doors to Hell again, for one last invasion.
John Romero is a legendary American developer and one of the co-creators of Doom, arguably the most influential game of the last 30 years. Doom not only birthed the modern online shooter genre, now popularised by Call of Duty and Destiny among others, but it also introduced technological and design innovations that can still be seen in gaming today.
“We knew that it was going to be pretty big,” says Romero, chuckling at the memory. “We even put a press release out in 1993 ahead of the launch, because we knew the tech was going to be beyond what anyone else was doing.”
Now Romero is returning to the original game for one last entry, called Sigil, which will be his first full episode in over two decades. It is a free release that continues the story of the original Doom, following in the aftermath of that game’s conclusion.
Why has Doom left such a lasting impact on the world of gaming?
“There were a lot of big breaks in Doom that made it so big,” says Romero. “It wasn’t incremental, like ‘We’ll add floor height and then we’ll do multiplayer in the next game’. In Doom, we just did everything at once.”
“I think that multi-layered innovation was one of the reasons it was so huge. There was modding (the ability for players to make their own levels and content), multiplayer deathmatch, plus an engine with techniques that every game used for decades afterwards, like binary space partitioning (BSP).”
Being a programmer, John is proud of the game’s technological feats, and he highlights the sheer ‘speed’ of Doom as being a key selling point, because that speed of movement had never really been done before in first-person gaming. But he also understands the emotional impact the game has had on generations of gamers.
“I have often heard over the years about people who played with their parents, like their fathers, and their fathers have since passed away. They remember the game as some having great memories with their dad.”
Indeed, John’s own story harks back to childhood, and he remembers the moment his friend introduced him to Adventure, a classic PC game.
“Until then, I had been addicted to arcade games that ate all your quarters,” he says. “But I suddenly found this world where I could take turns with a friend and explore this entirely different gaming experience. From then, I took a big interest in programming, hanging around at local universities so that I could pick up lines of code from the students. I would go from store to store, finding the places that had PCs available to use and I would programme on them.
“Finally, after three years of that, we got a PC at home and I was able to programme all day in my bedroom, learning how to create games.”
That bedroom enthusiasm never completely left Romero, it seems, as becomes evident when he talks about Sigil, the long-awaited fourth episode of Doom releasing in April.
“I’m doing something unique,” says Romero, and for a moment you can feel the magic in the air, the same energy that must have been in place when he, John Carmack and Tom Hall worked on the original game. “In the level files for Sigil, I have two levels — a single player level and a multiplayer level. I’m designing it so that the levels are connected, and if the players who are in the deathmatch multiplayer agree, they can open up the single-level portion of the level to play in at the same time, complete with the enemies and single-player content.”
“It’s all the same technology as before,” says Romero excitedly. “It could have been done when we made Doom originally, but there were so many other things being implemented we just didn’t think of it.”
Of course, Doom wasn’t Romero’s first rodeo, nor was it id software’s first hit. Romero had been making games for 14 years before Doom released, while ID Software, which was the fourth development house he worked for, had released the seminal Wolfenstein 3D the year prior.
Romero says the Wolfenstein series, which they actually developed for another company, is the longest-running active video game franchise.
When we ask him what it would take for Ireland to produce games of that status, Romero is unequivocal in his belief that it is possible.
“The Irish are great programmers and great artists. Plus you are polite and friendly and work great in teams, which is essential to modern game development. Once Ireland gets some seed companies in the door, from there you’ll see people break away and form their own development teams with their own ideas.”
As for why Romero and his wife Brenda — herself a BATFA-winning developer — moved to Ireland, the answer was posted by John himself on internet forum quora in 2015 just after their move:
“My wife and I love Ireland,” he said at the time. “The country is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and the food is amazing. The people in Ireland are so friendly, polite, and helpful. There’s no better place to raise kids and we have four in the house. Ireland’s game dev scene is doing better than ever and everyone loves hanging out and talking about what they’re doing — they’re not secretive. People are real here. And how about 4,000 castles in the country?”
It is no surprise to hear Romero share his love of castles, with the aesthetics of Doom and Quake, another of id software’s classics, often resembling that of a twisted, abstract fortress. Has Sigil carried on this tradition of abstract design?
“The first level has a triple-nested secret that I have never done before. I created a secret pathway — the pathway is raised stealth-like, so you may not notice it — but this first area gives you access to two more secrets. I’m also using a rare sprite in the game that players need to shoot in order to open critical pathways and find hidden areas.
“Basically, I’ve been trying to evolve my thinking around the design spaces for Doom,” Romero says. “The levels are really hard and challenging, especially if you’re playing in harder modes. I wanted it to be really hard to finish.”
After all these years, Romero and his most famous creation still make headlines around the world and have inspired millions. A reboot of the series, which Romero was not involved in but admires greatly, was released in 2016 and topped the charts, carrying on the spirit of the game in a modern context. Meanwhile, John and Brenda still develop titles through Romero Games, their team in Galway city. Their next big title, in development for two years now, is due to be announced ‘soon’.
Yet John has never lost touch with the community around Doom and his own passion for the game. “I love games,” he says, when we ask him why he became a programmer. And that’s why we’ll be playing Sigil.
- ‘Sigil’ will release as a free ‘megawad’ for the original Doom in April.
Romero will be present at Dublin Comic Con on March 9 and 10, where he will take part in a panel and meet and greet the fans. He and his developer wife Brenda take part in the event every year. “We really love the guys that are putting it together,” says Romero.
Dublin Comic Con will have a host of gaming activities and exhibitions on offer, including an indie developer zone, Virtual Reality tournaments, Retrozone with old consoles and a host of arcade machines where you can pick from over 1000 games. Based on his history of arcade game addiction, they might want to keep Romero away from those!