Hangin' Out with John Romero!
John Romero is one of "those guys". You know...the guys who have a legacy in this industry...like Sid Mieir, Warren Spector, John Carmack, etc. He's one of those Big Name Guys in the industry. His career has brought us some of the most memorable games from the shareware era, including Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and the original Quake. He started Ion Storm with Tom Hall, Warren Spector, and Todd Porter to make the kind of games he wants to play. His first such project, Daikatana, looks to expand the first person genre by adding two "sidekick" characters, and a more involved story.
When we got the nutty idea here at loonygames to interview John, the first person we thought of was Stevie "KillCreek" Case, who made her first claim to fame by dishing out a (pardon me) manbeating to Romero in his own game. She has since done the pro-gamer's circuit, but recently she came on board at Ion Storm as a game tester, bringing her full circle back to John Romero. As a longtime fan of John's she was the perfect interviewer. Thanks guys!
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman, editor-in-chief.
What were you like as a little boy? What did you enjoy as a kid other than games? I have heard you used to draw some pretty unique comics.
I was a pretty quiet kid that liked to read a lot and be left mostly alone. I used to draw a lot, play with anything interesting and scientific and generally try not to cause any fuss. Before video games, I did fairly normal kid stuff. But after video games were introduced to the planet, my whole life changed forever. Comic-wise, I used to draw some pretty violent stuff; really bloody, skull-cracking comics that featured a main character named Melvin whose father routinely destroyed him. The entire point of the comic was to make Melvin's father so angry that he would desecrate his son in a different way in every comic. I plan on scanning them all in and posting them all on my own web site sometime in the future.
I am told that you made some very fun games as a teenager. What were some of your favorites among the first games you made? Did you sell them or just make them for fun? Is it true that you liked to use alliterative names for your games? What were some of the more amusing titles?
Well, "very fun" is a very subjective comment. Heh heh. I did program about 50 games before I turned 20 years old, all on the Apple II computer. Some of my favorites were Dangerous Dave, City Centurian, Lethal Labyrinth and Major Mayhem. I started selling my games in 1983, but I've always made games for fun and the pursuit of more programming knowledge. In 1984, I decided (for some random reason) to start naming my games with alliterative titles and my plan was to fill the entire alphabet. I think I've missed about 8 letters though. Some of my favorite funny titles are Wacky Wizard, Zippy Zombi, Operation: Obliteration, Bongo's Bash, Krazy Kobra and Double Dangerous Dave.
Why do you consider Commander Keen 5: The Armageddon Machine to be your favorite episode? Rumors have circulated about the presence of a swastika in one of the levels. Were these rumors founded? If so, what lead to your decision to include such a controversial symbol in the game?
I really love Keen 5 because of the outer space theme, the cool robots and monsters, the awesome music that Bobby Prince created and the level designs are really fun to play. That game took us one month to create using the Keen4 engine. Yes, there is a swastika in one of the levels, one of my levels to be exact, but I removed it shortly after the game was released because people were upset that an evil symbol was in a cute kid's game (the changed version is in the screenshot). It was a premonition of things to come, namely, Wolfenstein 3D. I also put a swastika in DOOM's E1M4 as a Wolf3D reference, but I changed it later for the exact same reason.
I have heard that in seeking a publishing deal for Spear of Destiny id encountered some resistance to the idea of making a game about Nazis. Did any of the publishers you dealth with have a problem with the game content?
Hahaha, that's a good one. When Mark Rein (who was id Software's first president) did the "Keen 6: Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter" deal with FormGen, it was a two-game deal. The first game was for Keen 6 and the second game was undetermined at the time, but we all knew it would be a retail version of whatever shareware game we were gonna make. It ended up that after finishing the Keen games, we started working on Wolfenstein 3D so the retail game that FormGen was going to receive would be Wolfenstein 3D's sequel. When I told Randy MacLean (FormGen's co-owner) the premise behind Wolfenstein 3D was running through a Nazi fortress during World War 2, blasting Nazi scum left and right, he was vehemently opposed to publishing that kind of game. Said he, "Don't stir up that World War 2 stuff!" Hahaha, like on which day of the week is there no reference to World War 2? I calmed him down and told him that it would be way cooler than he could understand.
What is one of your best memories from your time at id?
Geez, I have so many great memories of working at id. From the start of the company up through DOOM were some of the best times ever with everyone working in close proximity getting immense amounts of work done in incredible time. I really enjoyed playing Fatal Fury with Tom, DOOM deathmatch and Art of Fighting with Shawn and programming the tools under NEXTSTEP was amazing.
At the end of DOOM II the sound played backwards that says, "to win this game you must beat me, John Romero" and also the hidden replica of your head on a stake have become legendary among gamers. Did you plan to include those from the start, or is there some story behind those secrets?
There's definitely a nutty story behind those two Secrets of DOOM II. First off, my head in the demon's brain was not part of the original plan. There used to be a yellow circle sprite there (no one was supposed to see it anyway). One night while I was programming the sound effect for the demon to scream in pain (when a rocket made it through the brain opening), I "noclipped" through all the walls so I could just shoot the thing with a pistol and see if the yellow sprite made noise when I shot it. Well, just before I reached the demon brain room, I stopped noclipping suddenly because I thought I had seen my reflection in the screen somehow and it didn't seem right. I continued noclipping into the room and was immediately super-shocked to see my head on a stake in there! We were near the end of the DOOM II project and I knew that Adrian or Kevin must have sneaked that sprite in there at the last minute thinking that after the game was released they would have a good laugh and tell me what they did. My mission immediately was to reverse their little trick and have the Last Laugh when the game was released. So, I had to come up with something to put in the game that basically said that I knew about their little trick. I figured that an evil-sounding backwards voice at the start of that level would be a great way to shock the player, but also provide a nice way to stick my little reversal in there. I went in to where Bobby Prince was working on the sounds and music and told him the whole story and we came up with the infamous phrase that you now hear (pitch-shifted and reversed) and I programmed it to play as soon as you make it through the teleporter. Well, waiting for the game to hit the shelves before springing the trick on the guys didn't work because first thing the very next day, American came in, ran the level, heard the voice and said, "Oh cool, backwards hidden stuff!" and he found the sample, reversed it back to normal, heard my secret message, then told the artists. The gig was up.
Everyone that has played Quake is familiar with the characters Cthon and Shub Niggurath of course, but what happened to the other characters such as Ithaqua, Cthuga, Hastur, Shalrath and Shantak that were originally planned to be a part of the Quake design?
Well, those characters are all a part of Quake game design lore. They are all Old Ones from the Cthulhu Mythos that H.P. Lovecraft invented and your goal was originally to travel to an alternate dimension to find a Freedom artifact that you would use to free the Old One from its dimensional prison. Eventually, your goal was to defeat Shalrath who originally imprisoned all the Old Ones, but then he would transform into his true self, Shub-Niggurath. We didn't have time to do the original design, but I have all the original designs that I did and will be posting it to my personal web site sometime in the future so anyone who's still interested can take a peek.
Did Quake live up to your expectations? How would you like to have done it differently?
Deathmatch-wise, Quake is pretty close to what I had hoped, except that the weapons needed to be better balanced (like Quake 2's) and the movement speed was way too slow. Single-player-wise, Quake turned out very differently from our original conceptions of the game and I think it would have been much more interesting if we had stayed with the first original design instead of moving the design back toward the safe DOOM-style gameplay we had done already. But I still love Quake, it's a great game.
Our little deathmatch back in January of 1997 and the shrine you created as a result of it have become quite infamous. How did you feel about being beaten at your own game by a woman? What is your take on all the public interest in that event?
Well, I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. One day, I would miss lunch or something, my energy supply would be super-low and someone would take advantage of that and beat me in Quake. Hahahaha, just kidding. You beat me fair and square and it was really fun to see a woman smack the living s**t outta me in my own game. I was really surprised to see how excited the community became after that happened and the fact that you made it into Rolling Stone before I did really wiped me down! Hahaha!
I understand that Chrono Trigger, released in 1995 by SquareSoft, is one of your favorite games of all time. What is it that you love so much about Chrono Trigger and how do you apply it to your own work?
Yes, for me August 1995 was a very special time because that's when Chrono Trigger, perhaps my favorite game of all time, was released into the world. It has one of the coolest stories, most memorable characters, most amazing music and awesome combat system that I've ever experienced. I love the 16-bit SNES graphics and the whole feeling that the game evokes and if someone that I know is willing to try it out and they finish the game, I award them with the complete 3 CD soundtrack. I love Chrono Trigger! Help me!
What does a typical workday consist of for you? What sorts of things do look forward to each day?
First, I get into the office and check my email. After that I will either see how the team is doing or go to lunch. When I get back from lunch, I will check with my producer to see where we're at in our current tasks and find out from the team members what kind of information they need and try to get it to them. That could mean they need design information for tweaking something like part of a map, a weapon effect, or they might need an idea for a trap. Interspersed with teamwork is usually plenty of biz work, marketing work, interviews and PR opportunities, etc. My entire day is spent working on a wide range of tasks until the biz department shuts down at night. Then I can spend more time with individual team members and anything they require. I don't code or do map design anymore; my team is way too big for me to be able to spend my time buried in something fun like that.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. Still Sick of Games is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it...it can totally make you (or us, for that matter) sick.|