July 16, 2017

What happened to John Carmack after the book Masters of Doom?

John Carmack is famous for creating the games Doom and Quake. In the book Masters of Doom, you will learn how he created those games and the company id software. That book ended with the game Quake 3, but what has he been up to since 1997? The answer comes in a free 300 pages pdf, which consists of interviews with John Carmack, beginning with Quake 3 and ending with Rage, so from year 1997-2008.

Here are some key lessons learned from the book
  • "The assumption that hiring more people gives a better product is often incorrect. It might (but not always) give you more product, but not necessarily better product." [He argued that the 11 people id software had at the time is the right number of people to do a project and having 50 people would hurt the project]
  • You should listen to the community, but this will also take time, so you have to prioritize. Carmack argued that John Romero (who was forced to leave the company) was talking to the community when he should have been working.
  • "I will always take an aggressively simple approach to things" was his answer to the question if Quake's level should be more interactive.
  • Carmack was working 70 hours a week for six years.
  • "I had this really bizarre conversation with a couple of lawyers and they were talking about 'How do you pick your target market? Do you use focus groups and poll people and all this?' It's like 'No, we just write games that we think are cool.' They're from such a different world that they fundamentally did not get that."
  • "There's plenty of starving artists that are probably talented and hard working, they're just doing something nobody cares about."
  • "The graphics technology everybody looks at is only a quarter of Quake's code, and it's not even the hard part of it. Look at the things that are really unglamorous but really important, like the file extension architecture in Quake."
  • "I tried just a couple of features, like transparency or shadows and reflections. And they just dropped in - it was so wonderful. And that was what really got me crusading for OpenGL. It was like, "This helps me. This is something that's letting me be more creative and try out more things to produce a better architecture than we would have had otherwise." A good API can help you produce better products." [So using a game engine like Unity is not cheating!]
  • How do you handle third-party developers when you license your engines? Carmack: It's, "Here's a CD. Thank you for the half-million dollars. Have a nice life."
  • "All of science and technology is built standing on the shoulders of the people that come before you. Did Newton patent calculus and screw the hell out of the other guy working in it? It's just so wrong, but it's what the business world does to things, and certainly the world is controlled by business interests." [Why software patents is a bad idea]
  • You hear it from the fan base a lot. "Do it right. We'll still be here. We'll wait," and it's tempting to just let things slip. But that's really not OK. If you're doing something cutting edge, you're making fundamental decisions about your architecture, and if you let it slide for a year or two, then it's just not the right decision anymore. Even if you pile on all these extras, it's not optimal. It's not targeted at what you're doing. [Why it's important to ship a game. They planned it would take 12 months to make Quake, but it took 18, which is fine] If we shipped on time, we probably weren't ambitious enough. Quake 2 would take 12 months because "a lot of things are functioning better at the company."
  • "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." 
  • "I feel bad for some companies out there. The founders, who are these incredible engineers, are now directors of their departments doing management rather than engineering. At the same time most of the people they are managing are nowhere near as good as they were at doing the actual work. That's what I hope never happens to me. I want to stay in the trenches working on the things all the time."
  • "In the last two projects, my time has been split. I'd have about 3 months och pure research, playing around with different stuff. And then after that it's about 16 months of work on the project. It would be nice to shift that more towards research, but I would never want to devote a majority of my time to research." 
  • "It's not the one brilliant decision, it's the 500 smart decisions that really make things good. Even at the end of Quake 3, I had a to-do list of a thousand things that could potentially be improved on. So it's a matter of going through and knowing all these things that could be done, and prioritizing what the "sweet spots" are."
  • "I actually learn from almost anyone. Maybe I was smarter than the [college] professor but it didn't mean that there weren't things I could learn from him. So it doesn't take someone that's necessarily a "better" developer or programmer for them to have things that you can learn from. So almost all the programmers I've worked with, I've learned something from."
  • "There have been flight simulators where you just jump in, fly around and shoot things, and those are fun and interesting. Then there are these serious simulators where you have to convince yourself that you're being entertained. I still like playing a simple, fast game, where you jump in and have a good time, and I think there are five times as many people in the game buying world that also feel that way." 
  • "Sometimes I wind up feeling guilty that I'm not doing more. I'm willing to just ignore a whole lot of things. And that's pretty important, because so many things come in that are potential demands on my time, and it's just easy to see how people that are in a similar situation, wind up just getting their entire days spoken for, and not being able to do any work because every day, there's phone calls and emails from people that want to do something, they want to have an interview, or pitch a business proposal." 
  • On market research: "I don't do a really through canvassing, play everything that's out there. Usually I watch over someone's shoulder when they're playing the hot new game. But I don't spend that much time actually playing other games. I certainly play more Quake 3 than any other games out there."
  • "Too many programmers agree to random feature requests without thoroughly considering the impacts."
  • "There are a lot of arguments that can be made about game design, and I prefer simplicity and elegance. I'm always the one saying we want the minimum number of everything, because I want it to be simple and fun to play." He would later say that he stepped away from id software because "I'm really no representative of what most of our market is now. I did realize that my very simplified game design ethic is not what the market is demanding. [Quake 3] was the id game I probably spent the most time playing and enjoyed the most, but it was actually one of our less successful titles." 
  • "Usually when I set out making the technical decisions I don't know how it's going to turn out. A lot of it is working out what works, and what ideas come to you. We commonly switch gears during our development process when a really good opportunity comes up." 
  • "Once or twice a year I go on "working retreats", where I lock myself in a hotel room for two weeks with no internet connection for completely focused work." 
  • "We try to pick directions that a good number of people will enjoy, then just do a quality job implementing it. Some people will love it, and some people will hate it. The people that hate it usually scream louder."
  • "Tessellation has been one of those things up there with procedural content generation where it's been five generations that we've been having people tell us it's going to be the next big thing and it never does turn out to be the case. What we want is something that you can carve up the world as continuously as you want without any respect to underlying geometry." 
  • "A lot of people don't seem to really appreciate how the vertex fragment rasterization approach to computer graphics has been unquestionable the most successful multi-processing solution ever."
  • "'Oh just thread your application.' Anyone that says that is basically an idiot, not appreciating the problems." 

Update! John Carmack replied to this article on twitter: 

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