Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Jeff Atwood Revisits Masters of Doom

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 22, 2013

Somebody lost my original copy of Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, so I was forced to buy another copy. Forced, because that’s a book I feel belongs in my permanent library. In fact, I think it is mandatory reading for any indie game developer (or aspiring indie). I think I’ve read it about three times, and it’s due for another re-read.

It’s not that it’s any kind of blueprint for how indie ought to be done. In fact, while I sometimes fantasize what it might have been like at the lake house working on Wolfenstein 3D or making the original Doom, as a whole the experience doesn’t sound like it would be that much fun. Maybe that’s because now I’m a family man and that kind of lifestyle described was only really appealing to me my first year of college. At the time, they were pioneering new horizons of shareware – which eventually became indie game development. The world and marketplace was very, very different from how it is now.

But you don’t read the book to learn how to make indie games today. But you do come away with a feel for the different – often conflicting – personalities involved, and the sheer drive that it takes to create something (or several somethings) that became a legend.

Jeff Atwood revisits the book at Coding Horror:

You Don’t Need Millions of Dollars

He finishes with a commentary on a great quote from the end of the book:

Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought on his own. “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. 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.”

Atwood says that in today’s age, if anything, it’s even easier. You don’t need to be as brilliant as John Carmack to achieve success.

This is true. It’s also true that in today’s age, it’s far, far harder to create anything that will get noticed. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake are well-remembered because they broke some pretty significant boundaries (mostly but not all technical), they showed up the bigger-budget mainstream publishers of the day, they had excellent marketing that capitalized on word-of-mouth, and they were lucky. And – let us not forget – these were not the only games these guys worked on. There were others that are far less well remembered today. Not everything they touched turned to gold, but eventually success began to beget itself.

While the shareware game market of the early 90s was sparse and ripe for a revolution (and even so, the id guys had to depend on traditional publishers for much of their revenue), today we face a problem of market inundation. Really. It’s a jungle out there. Sure, you could do something just as cool with the current tools and not much more than a lot of gumption and willingness to work your butt off. But will it have that kind of success?

Probably not. I think Atwood is being a little bit over-optimistic there. But – with enough hard work, and willingness to be flexible about things – it’s definitely possible, even likely, to achieve some reasonable degree of success. He’s absolutely right that today there’s not much of a barrier to entry for anybody to make games (thus the market saturation). The tools are very powerful, and while the learning curve may seem a bit steep, it doesn’t require a programming superhero to climb it anymore. If you aren’t trying to compete head-to-head with the AAA studios with eight-digit budgets, it’s extremely possible to do something really, really cool with a minimal investment of money, but a significant investment of time and effort.  That’s really what it’s about.

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