Born c. 1971, in Kansas City, MO; married Katherine Anna Kang. Education: Self-taught computer programmer; attended University of Missouri, Kansas City. Hobbies and other interests: Sports cars, building space rockets.
Home—Dallas, TX. Office—id Software, Town East Tower, Suite 615, 1860 LBJ Freeway, Mesquite, TX 75150. E-mail—[email protected]
Video game designer, software engineer. Cofounder, id Software, Mesquite, TX, 1991—, designer, director; founder, Armadillo Aerospace, 2002.
Game of the Year, PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World, 1994, for Doom; Game of the Year, PC Games, Computer Gaming World, and PC Computing, 1996-97, for Quake; Hall of Fame, Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, 2001.
(With John Romero) Commander Keen, id Software (Madison, WI), 1990.
(With John Romero) Wolfenstein 3-D, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 1991.
(With John Romero) Doom, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 1993.
(With John Romero) Quake, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 1996.
Quake II, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 1996.
Doom 2, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 1999.
Quake III Arena, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 2000.
Doom 3, id Software (Mesquite, TX), 2004.
Called the "Mozart of computer coding" by a contributor for CNN Online, John Carmack is "widely viewed as the most brilliant mind and one of the most influential developers in the gaming industry today," according to the same writer. Along with fellow designer, John Romero, Carmack is responsible for the immensely popular games Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake. "Love it or hate it," another CNN Online contributor noted, "the 'Doom' franchise is one of the most successful in the gaming industry's history." Credited with development of what is known as "first-person shooter" technology which allows the player to actually be the protagonist on the computer screen, Carmack blended this point-of-view shift with radical new three-dimensional effects and highly detailed graphics that stretched the capability of state-of-the-art hardware. In fact, Carmack's sophisticated programming is in part credited with pushing both PC producers and Apple forward to develop ever more sophisticated hardware on which to display these games. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Seth Mnookin noted that "in the computer world, Carmack is viewed as a deity, a programmer who so impressed [Microsoft's] Bill Gates that Gates used Doom to show off Windows 95's skill as a gaming platform." As Dean Takahashi, writing in Red Herring, noted, "Mr. Carmack matters because no other game developer is pushing technology the way he is—developing games that require not only the best graphics performance on today's machines but that will tax tomorrow's hardware as well."
Founding the company id Software in 1991, Carmack and others began to focus on games that were fast-paced, low on plot, and high on violence. "In their bloody excess, programs like Doom and Quake reinvented computer programming," Justin Peters wrote in Washington Monthly, "and gave birth to a generation of gamers who lived by the mantra that, when it came to guns, guts, and demons, more was definitely better." The spectacular success of their games turned the two computer wizards into overnight millionaires, and with a spate of school shootings in the late 1990s, they also became overnight pariahs to parent groups who blamed such violent excess on the very "first-person shooter" modules Carmack had developed. As Takahashi noted in the Wall Street Journal, Carmack and Romero and their company, id Software, "brought the computer games Doom and Quake to life, putting virtual rocket launchers in the hands of gamers so they could turn . . . demons into bloody giblets." Lawsuits were filed against id Software following school shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School and at a school in West Paducah, Kentucky, but were unsuccessful; eventually the uproar died down, several years after the Carmack-Romero team had split up. Carmack continues on as director of the Texas-based id Software, but his image has softened somewhat over the years: marriage and shorter work weeks helped, as did more time devoted to his major hobby: manned space flight.
Revenge of the Nerd
Carmack grew up the prototypical nerd, a kid who kept to himself, played the Dungeons and Dragons board game, and loved computers from an early age. Born in 1971, he knew he wanted to work with computers even as a young boy. In an interview on Slashdot he noted that there were also "other stereo-typical geek aspects to my life growing up—phreaking, hacking . . . rockets, bombs, and thermite (sometimes in not-so smart combinations), sci-fi, comic books, D & D [Dungeons and Dragons], arcades." He further noted that "I was sort of an amoral little jerk when I was young. I was arrogant about being smarter than other people, but unhappy that I wasn't able to spend all my time doing what I wanted." Obsessed with creating computer games, he was arrested trying to steal an Apple II machine and spent a year in a juvenile home, an experience that alienated him further from his mother, whose fondest wish was that he attend MIT. He taught himself to write code, and that became his major pastime. Days were spent coding without talking to anyone. Jeff Jensen, writing in Entertainment Weekly, noted the influence of this "rebelhacker ethos" on Carmack, but also that he was able to escape these teen years, "supercharged by ambition and anger."
For a time he studied at the University of Missouri, taking only computer science classes, "but it just didn't seem all that worthwhile," he noted on Slashdot. "In hindsight, I could have gotten more out of it than I did, but I hadn't acquired a really good attitude towards learning from all possible sources yet." So he dropped out of college in 1990 to program full time, working as an independent contractor for Apple II and making very little money. Finally he got a programming job with Softdisk in Shreveport, Louisiana, where one of his first jobs was development of Invasion of the Vorticons, a two-dimensional arcade video game, in collaboration with two other Softdisk employees, John Romero and Adrian Carmack, who despite the same name, was no relation. "After I took the job at Softdisk, I was happy," Carmack noted on his Slashdot interview. "I was programming, or reading about programming, or talking about programming, almost every waking hour." He felt he doubled his programming skills in six months, experimenting with software engines that would allow for more speed and more detail, both of which would enhance the reality of video games. Soon, Carmack teamed up with the raucous Romero to start designing their own video games, with Romero being the design mastermind, creating clever and sinister virtual worlds, and Carmack using his coding genius to actualize such fantasies. Carmack, Romero, and Adrian Carmack left Softdisk to form their own games company, id Software, in 1991, moving first to Madison, Wisconsin. They set up shop in an apartment building with drug dealers down the hall, but paid little attention to their environment. They were moving beyond their first video game collaboration, Commander Keen, to produce their first market success, staying up late at night, surviving on pizzas and soda pop, living on the money saved from the Softdisk jobs.
Finding Reality in Virtual 3-D
Searching for a clever idea for a breakthrough game, Carmack and Romero were reminiscing one night about a game they had played as teens on their old Apple II machines. This maze-based game was called Castle Wolfenstein, and involved shooting Nazis and collecting treasure. Romero hit on the idea of a remake of that game, in 3-D. Slowly the two began to put together aspects of this game, such as the "first-person shooter" that allows the player to actually look down the barrel of a gun on the screen as if he or she is a participant in the mayhem. In their take on the game, Wolfenstein 3-D, the eerie castle is filled with Nazis who must be dispatched before they kill the player, who, in this case, is armed with a machine gun and moves through the space in what was, for the time, an amazingly realistic manner. Guards and attack dogs became targets; even Hitler, Gatling gun in hand, comes into play at the end or the final level of difficulty. Best of all, the original producers of Castle Wolfenstein had gone bankrupt in the 1980s and the "Wolfenstein" trademark was therefore no longer protected.
Moving to the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite to set up shop for id Software, Carmack and Romero finished up the design of the game, which became almost an overnight sensation with gamers. At one point it was earning $120,000 a month. Marketing of this product was in part responsible for its success: it was not found in stores. Instead, potential customers could download the first installment from the Internet free of charge; the remainder of the game cost $45. Ten percent of those who downloaded the free version went on to buy the entire game. Carmack was suddenly not only a happy programmer but a wealthy young man of twenty-one.
As he told Slashdot interviewers in 1999, "I know that most people won't believe it, but a 100X increase in income really didn't have that big of an impact on me as a person. It is certainly nice to be in a position where people can't exert any leverage on you, but it's definitely not the primary focus of my life. I get to drive a Ferrari in to work, but my day to day life is almost exactly the same as it was eight years ago. I get up, go in to work, hopefully do some good stuff, then go home. I'm still happy."
From Doom to Quake
Carmack was not spoiled by success. If anything, it made him hungrier; he continued his typical eighty-hour work week and focused on coding to the exclusion
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
of a social life. Its title inspired by a line from the Tom Cruise movie, The Color of Money, about a pool hall hustler, Doom was eagerly awaited by the gaming community; early drafts of it were even hacked from id Software. Eventually Carmack, a proponent of open source coding, released part of the code and allowed modifications by eager programmers who delighted in adding new characters to the Martian mix. The game is set on a military base on Mars. Again, the plot is nonexistent: a Marine/player roams the corridors of the base, searching for alien creatures that he destroys. This time, however, the graphics, especially the 3-D, were even more sophisticated. The marketing scheme, which became known as the shareware system, was similar to Wolfenstein 3-D: several episodes could be downloaded free from an Internet site, and the remainder of the game had to be purchased. So high was the demand for the free versions that the server, at the University of Wisconsin, crashed the first night the game was available.
Sales exploded on Doom; it earned over seven million dollars for id Software in 1994 alone. Since the game was first introduced, upwards of twenty million copies of the free episodes have been downloaded, and it soon led to a "Doom" series, whose combined sales have exceeded $100 million. Awards followed as did critical applause from gamers and reviewers alike. Even more gritty realism and blood splashing was served up in the 1996 title from id Software, Quake. Here, Carmack created much faster engines with more graphic detail in a game whose sole purpose was to destroy possible enemies as quickly as possible. Marketed in cheap disk format as well as online, and developed to be a multiplayer game, Quake rapidly became a cult favorite, spawning conventions, "Quakecons," where thousands of players would come together to play the game. Carmack and Romero had become known as the Paul McCartney and John Lennon of video game design. They "practically invented the popular genre of 'first-person shooter,'" Jensen remarked, "immersive and gruesome thrill rides whose sole objective is to blow away bad guys. (Or good guys, if you're feeling sinister.)" They won crossover appeal with their games: Wall Street types were playing Quake after hours to unwind.
By 1996, success was beginning to take its toll on the collaboration. Romero was becoming, as Carmack saw it, more enamored of his sudden rock star popularity than in designing new games. Finally the rift grew large enough that Romero resigned to form his own company. After his departure, Carmack became director of id Software, and went on to develop both Quake II and Quake III Arena, the second of which was intended as an Internet game to be played by large numbers of participants. Reviewing that game in the New York Times, Michael Marriott noted that it consists of "a group of characters who look like the members of [the rock group] Kiss on steroids [and who] show up to fight monstrous demons in spooky yet spectacular settings." This all translates, Marriott further commented, "into a lot of shooting and getting shot at while running, ducking and hiding." Marriott also noted that Quake III's "approach to online multiplayer gaming is quickly becoming an industry standard among serious online gamers."
To the Moon
Carmack shared some of his insider knowledge of what it takes to be a great programmer with questioners on Slashdot: "Programming is really just the mundane aspect of expressing a solution to a problem. There are talents that are specifically related to actually coding, but the real issue is being able to grasp problems and devise solutions that are detailed enough to actually be coded." Among the many talents and attributes of a successful programmer that Carmack mentioned were being able to visualize many aspects of a complex system, being a good time manager, having experience as well as knowledge of the literature, possessing an ability to integrate knowledge from other fields, and maintaining not only creativity, but also focus. Carmack's own sense of focus is legendary: the classic story about him has a topless dancer deliver him a pizza at work as a joke. Looking up briefly from his code, he told her he hadn't ordered a pizza, and then went back to work.
Carmack and other video game designers weathered the storm over violence in games, which school shootings at Columbine and elsewhere generated. The shooters at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both were fans of Doom, and Harris was reputed to have even attempted to program different levels for the game. When a fourteen-year-old boy, Michael Carneal, went on a shooting rampage in Kentucky, it was reputed that he used the "first-person shooter" experience from video games to enable him to kill three and injure five others with only eight bullets; Carneal had never fired a real gun before that day. But as these lawsuits failed and media attention turned elsewhere, Carmack could return to his game creation.
However, part of Carmack's attention was already focused on another real-life project: competition for the X-Prize of $10 million, to launch a privately funded manned spacecraft on a mission of just over sixty miles by January 2005. A promotion to popularize the idea of tourist space flight, the X-Prize began in 1996 in a move that was similar to the Orteig Prize, which in turn inspired Charles Lindbergh on his non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Carmack founded a team, Armadillo Aerospace, and set up shop in a Dallas warehouse, one of a score of such teams competing for the prize. As Carmack told Mark Carreau in the Houston Chronicle, "I'm paying for it out of my own pocket. The money is there. We just need to go do it." Writing in the New York Times, John Schwartz noted that Carmack's "homely rocket . . . looks more like rough sculpture than spacecraft, a surprising blend of high tech and handmade." Schwartz continued: "Unlike some of the other teams in the X-Prize competition, there is no Buck Rogers industrial design at work here. It looks for all the world like a big science fair project." Carmack is sanguine about his team's chances. Speaking with Steven Kent on GameSpy.com, he noted that his mission is much simpler than actually putting people into orbit. "Orbital is a lot more challenging," Carmack noted. "The X-Prize is about going up 100 kilometers and coming back down. You leave the atmosphere. You enter space and you remain weightless for 10 minutes or so. You come back in and it's the world's tallest roller coaster ride. That would require about one-eighth of the energy required to go into orbit. The X-Prize is absolutely obtainable."
Carmack's space passion did not, however, keep him and his company from enlarging on the "Doom" series. In late 2002 and in 2003, id Software released a preview of Doom 3, a game that "virtually erased the line between video game and animated Hollywood movie," according to John Markoff, writing in the New York Times. Again set on Mars, the game opens with an explosion that unleashes a monster. "What follows is designed to scare the daylights out of the game player," Markoff continued. Carmack echoed this evaluation in an interview with George T. Chronis of Gamers.com: "Doom 3 is pushing the fear factor over the raw action," the programmer/designer said. "The monsters are going to be much more independently fearsome, rather than just acting as moving gun targets."
With a powerful new rendering engine, Carmack was able to program much more detail into the game, approximating the data used for an animated movie. As Takahashi noted in Red Herring, this new game "will have images comprised of 250,000 polygons, compared with only 10,000 or so in Quake III. That's not far away from the 1.5 million-polygon characters in the animated film Shrek, which set a new standard for realism for computer-animated cartoon characters." And with music by Doom fans, the rock group Nine Inch Nails, the video game is more sophisticated than any yet developed by Carmack and id Software. Carmack told Takahashi in Red Herring that he ultimately sees game technology he is developing used to animate films. But for all his success and all the hype about him being a "Mozart" of programmers, and even with his dreams of sending a private, manned rocket into space, his feet are still solidly on the ground. He "cautions against classifying games as an art form," Takahashi wrote. Carmack told the same journalist: "That's not what we're doing. . . . We're doing entertainment. Saying it's art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry." In an interview with a contributor for Computer Gaming World, Carmack added, "There's very little magic with a code base. What makes a good engine are the five thousand small right decisions made."
If you enjoy the works of John Carmack
If you enjoy the works of John Carmack, you might want to check out the following:
Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor: Frontline.
Rockstar Games' Max Payne.
And speaking with Tom Ham on GameSpy.com, Carmack summed up his own achievement in the world of video games: "As a part of id Software, the distinctive feel of a first-person shooter may be the broadest accomplishment. 3D games were certainly going to exist, but they could have all gone the way of Ultima Underworld or Mario 64, rather than taking the action-arcade route. Personally, most of my technical accomplishments are just temporary. Because of the nature of Moore's law, anything that an extremely clever graphics programmer can do at one point can be replicated by a merely competent programmer some number of years later."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Kushner, David, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Capital Times (Madison, WI), May 9, 2003, Doug Moe, "'Masters of Doom' Got Rich Here," p. A2.
Computer Gaming World, March 1, 2001, Ken Brown, interview with John Carmack, p. 36; November 26, 2003, "John Carmack and Doom 3."
Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2003, Jeff Jensen, Game Wardens, p. 74.
Esquire, June, 2003, Chris Kaye, "Q & A: Dr. Doom," 29.
Guardian (London, England), June 25, 1998, Colin Campbell, "OnLine: Videowatch: Floating Points," p. 12; March 2, 2000, Jack Schofield, "Game Watch," p. 10.
Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), October 17, 2002, Mark Carreau, "Beyond Earth-World Space Congress 2002: Game Creator Taking A Shot at Space Race," p. 11.
International Herald Tribune, August 26, 2003, John Schwartz, "The Little Spacecraft That Could?," p. 1.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 8, 2003, Karin Shaw Anderson, "Millionaire Working to Win a Space in History," p. K6813.
Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1999, Charles Piller, "The Cutting Edge," p. 1.
New York Times, April 29, 1999, Matt Richtel, "Game Makers on the Defensive after the Columbine," p. G3; February 17, 2000, Michel Marriott, "New Heights (or Depths) of Blood and Gore," p. G6; May 30, 2002, John Markoff, "From Shadows to Gore, A Hyperrealistic Doom," p. G7; August 26, 2003, John Schwartz, "Inside the Clubhouse, A Rocket Is Being Built," p. F4; August 26, 2003, John Schwartz, "Into Space, without NASA," p. F1.
New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2003, Seth Mnookin, "Id Vid," p. 27.
Red Herring, January, 2002, Dean Takahashi, "Lord of the Games," p. 60.
Times (London, England), May 23, 2003, Jon Ashworth, "Parting of Carmack and Romero Was Like the Break-Up of the Beatles," p. 33.
USA Today, June 10, 2002, Mike Snider, "Third Time Scary," p. D3; May 12, Mike Snider, "'Doom' Returns in All Its Gory," p. D1; February 10, 2004, Traci Watson, "U. S. on Verge of Private Space Travel," p. A1.
Video Business, February 5, 2001, "John Carmack," p. 6.
Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2000, Dean Takahashi, "The Real Video Game Wars," p. R16; May 6, 2003, Dean Takahashi, "At the Top of Their Game," p. D5.
Washington Monthly, July-August, 2003, Justin Peters, "Profit of Doom: How Violent Video Games Drove the New Economy," pp. 52-54.
AMO.net,http://amo.net/ (February 24, 2001), Dustin D. Brand, "John Carmack Talks about the XBOX GPU."
Beyond3d,http://www.beyond3d.com/ (June 6, 2002), "John Carmack on Doom3 Rendering."
Blue's News,http://www.bluesnews.com/ (January 8, 1997), Dr. Bone, "A Conversation with id Software's John Carmack."
CNN Online,http://money.cnn.com/ (August 16, 2003), "Face to Face with 'Doom'"; (August 22, 2003), "Doom and Rocket Science."
Gamers.com,http://www.gamers.com/ (May 21, 2002), George T. Chronis, "Master of Doom: Carmack Speaks."
GameSpy.com,http://www.gamespy.com/ (May 23, 2000), Sal Accardo, "Q & A with John Carmack"; (April, 2001), Tom Ham, "Legendary Programmer John Carmack Expresses His Opinions on the Business of Game Creation, Online Gaming, and Microsoft's Xbox"; (April 28-30, 2003), "Masters of Doom"; (August 16, 2003), Steven Kent, "A Conversation with John Carmack."
Slashdot,http://slashdot.org/ (October 15, 1999), John Carmack interview.
Webdog,http://www.webdog.org/ (February 8, 2003).*