Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getting Real In The Early 90's - The Secret Behind the Rise of ID Software

Recently, I've finished Masters of Doom by David Kushner for the second time now and it's interesting the new insights and relations i've noticed . When i read it for the first time (july/2005) i wasn't even working with software development. Now that i'm kinda on the trenches(working as a developer on a small & agile product development team) i'm in better conditions of analyzing it

Games in general always made me curious in terms of how they were made, but Doom was the Coup de grâce that made me pursue programming for a living. The delicate weaving of computer code , art and fun present on games will always interest me.

Masters of Doom describes in a "novelish" style how the precise weaving of such factors, coupled with REAL team work can create a product able to cause a full paradigm shift in its area. While reading the book you possibly will remember of agile principles and some Getting Real essays

Doom was born out of a womb with brilliant minds working together within an Agile-like environment. It's noticeable what ID did at its halcyon days had a lot of Agile and Getting Real ideas rooted in it :

Small, highly synergic development team:
Their common objective was fairly simple. Developing games through hard work(crunch mode included) and having alot of fun in the process. Carmack focused on technology, Romero bridging between the technology/design and Adrian C., Petersen, Hall + Cloud doing graphical and level design.

Iterative Design:
iD's development cycle seemed to be of iterative nature. In those times where technology limitations where the main barrier for them to implement their visions, Carmack was the guy that would do anything to overcome those limits so the game experience could the the best possible. Through research and implementation, the team would test the framework and experiment design ideas over it, giving room for the design to emerge. When something clicked, they directed all their efforts to it until it was shipped. Doom, the game who changed the gaming world as we knew was born in this way. [1]

Motivated individuals in environment with all support needed:
Jay Wilbur, as manager would do whatever needed to get the team focused 100% on the product. From standard business stuff to cooking barbecues and filling junk food supplies for the developers.

Build it for yourself/It Shoudn't Be a Chore:
Being a team of ultimate gaming lovers, they knew how to create fun properly. John Romero always was a hardcore fan of his own work(check out how addicted to Doom he got). The results were notorious , Doom invented a genre, a lifestyle and made ID guys multimillionaires

Fund Yourself:
Id software was assembled with every employee on a Day job at Softdisk. At night and during the weekends everyone would reunite at the Lake House to work on their stuff. They pretty much funded their work on the early days.When good conditions to work full time appeared(after joining ranks with Apogee's Scott Miller) they so did it.

The book makes clear that as iD success grew exponentially, team union started to fade away. John Romero, the lead game designer(and "product owner") got too involved with marketing-related activities and other distractions. Quake(Doom's successor) had a more complex technology and most members of the team felt disoriented in which direction their designs should go. Constant team interaction problems made Quake's development unroll under a heavy weather[2]. Unity was being lost, Carmack/Romero weren't synced anymore and the divergence of their ideas on how Quake and Id's future should be, only increased.

Quake is iD Software's equivalent of Beatles Let it Be: Great work, highly appraised but it costed the union of a very innovative team. Life would never be the same :

[..] The good mood didn't last. Like Romero at Ion Storm, Carmack was discovering that the glory days of a small team and easy chemistry were gone [...]

Although always an excellence in technological innovation through Carmack's work, Id never managed to explore new genres and achieve new game design innovations again. In my view it turned out to be more of a technology company, always providing bleeding edge engine technology. Surely this direction caused their game designer talents to leave over the years(like American McGee & Sandy Petersen)

What Went Wrong?

Scaling is hard
The transformation process of a b2b(buddy to buddy) company to a world synonym of digital entertainment is not easy. I see this happening everywhere, family businesses included. If the entire team is not working together to keep unity solid, the consequences are often bad.

Communication & Feedback
The book explores alot the individual feelings of ID Crew in different times and the impression left is that a communication gap was always present between the team members. Their issues often accumulated in a boilerplate and discussed in tense meetings(one of those got Romero officially fired).

Fame , Fun and Fortune can be harmful distractions
According to the book Romero kinda lost his focus when Doom exploded. Deathmatching competitions , media appearances and related stuff kinda separated him from the work at Id. Although this "Marketing" position was important, the Quake development kickstart was important too. Carmack was left mostly alone during the Quake engine development stage. His trust in Romero greatly reduced during at this period

Everybody together
Again, the moment when Team Members get distant and start working too much time on their own islands, communication isn't exercised and creative potential isn't leveraged properly. The empty spaces tends only to grow

When trying to innovate and create something really remarkable, an agile-way-of-work and good team composition proves to be a powerful ally to achieve groundbreaking results. It is important to keep the "agile core" strong when the whole structure starts to grow.

"In the information age, the barriers just aren't there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to get off and go develop some grand new thing you don't need millions of dollars of captalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We Waded across rivers" - John Carmack


Masters of Doom (2004) - How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
[1] See Chapters 9 - 10
[2] Pg 272 This is not the id of the past, he thought, the id of "let's make a great game together and have fun" This is the id of "shut up and work"