John Romero: How One Man Helped Set the Course For Modern Gaming

John Romero: How One Man Helped Set the Course For Modern Gaming

John Romero, award-winning game programmer, game designer, and level designer on video game classics ‘Doom’, ‘Wolfenstein 3D’, and ‘Quake’, is set to appear for an exclusive keynote at this upcoming CasinoBeats Summit.

With a distinguished 40-year career in the video gaming industry, Romero, acclaimed as the ‘father of first-person shooters,’ began as an indie game developer in 1979. After eight years in indie game programming, Romero would go on to land his first official role in the industry at Origin Systems in 1987. In 1989 Romero joined Softdisk where he would meet future collaborators John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, and Tom Hall.

In 1991, Romero, in collaboration with Carmack, Hall, and Adrian Carmack, co-founded id Software. Romero would go on to take an instrumental role in contributing to iconic titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, and Quake, marking a pinnacle in his career.

There is no denying Romero’s place at the forefront of video game innovation during the 1990s, but what elements of titles such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D made them so iconic and revolutionary?

Was it a simple dash of blood, a handful of soul-thirsty demons, and a heaping of heavy metal soundtrack that created the recipe for defining the video game genre so drastically? Or was Romero’s influence perhaps more nuanced and underappreciated, especially in this modern videogame-heavy environment?

This blog post seeks to highlight 10 of the most influential elements of John Romero’s iconic games that have gone on to influence the modern gaming space from Halo to Fortnite.

First-Person Shooters: A Different Perspective

By the end of the 1980s, the video game boom was in full swing; games such as Super Mario Bros, Sonic, and Street Fighter were dominating the video arcade space and seeping into pop culture in ways many did not expect possible. However, for a medium that required a quarter to play and maintained a player base dominated by teenagers, many believed the entertainment form had reached its limit.

However, on 5th May 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was released by id Software and would go on to change the gaming landscape forever. 

Lauded as the ‘grandfather of 3D shooters’ and the ‘foundation of modern First-Person Shooters’ (FPS), Wolfenstein 3D was the first game to put the player directly in the shoes of the protagonist. The game would go on to be a monumental success as players traversed the dingy 3D walls of Wolfenstein castle, shooting up Nazis in a blood-soaked, utopian world.

What was even more spectacular, was that Romero and id Software would not stop there. With the release of “Doom” the following year, id Software would go on to completely revolutionise gaming, pathing the way for the modern FPS and bookending the dominating era of side scrollers.

The new immersive playstyle of Doom would go far beyond just allowing players to observe the action; Romero and id Software were hell-bent (excuse the pun) on ensuring players were living the action. With a fast-pumped, adrenaline-fueled experience, Doom combined innovative 3D graphics, a dark and demonic atmosphere, coupled with the now renowned heavy metal soundtrack, out-of-this-world sound effects, and enough gore to make sure every 14-year-old on the planet wanted a piece of the action.

Innovative design: Blood Guts and Beautiful Sound Design

After the first draft of Doom was sent in, many in the team considered the game too reminiscent of its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D, with level designs too flat for what they ultimately envisioned.

Then John Romero took the reigns and the rest was history. 

Creating latex models that would be captured in stop motion and assisted by an unholy amount of gore, Doom would present an entirely new and enticing world that would arguably be its more appealing offering to young teens and adults. Remember, until then, the most graphic offering was Pac-Man-eating ghosts! 

Coupled with Romero’s love for metal music that would go on to influence the genre-defining soundtrack, interesting level design, and a distinct and bizarre arsenal of new weapons, Doom would go on to be lauded for its unique Dungeons and Dragons-esque approach to world-building, something that would continue to grow in the subsequent games and beyond.

Wolfenstein: Bringing Recent History to the Player

If you were asked to name a game in which you were a soldier during one of the various world conflicts, shooting enemy soldiers with historically accurate weapons, I’m sure you could easily name half a dozen. Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, and Battlefield are all staples of first-person shooters and have rightly, cemented themselves in gaming history. However, none of these games would have been possible without the narrative choice of Wolfenstein 3D. 

Set against the backdrop of a dystopian World War 2, the player is tasked with infiltrating a Nazi stronghold, equipped with historically accurate guns. This not only laid the groundwork for the plethora of first-person shooters to come but also laid the groundwork for the military shooter genre as a whole.

Episodic Levels: Redefining Game Progression

For any gamer of the 80s and early 90s, you will know the frustration of fighting your way through an entire level, only to be defeated in the final moments and get sent back to the start.

In the environment of an arcade, this level design worked tremendously well, enticing teenagers to spend more money to inch ever closer to the next level, whilst also serving as an optimal difficulty level that kept the game replayable.

However, in the new world of home consoles, Wolfenstein 3D decided to change the game (literally) and through the brilliance of John Romero and the team, spawned the ‘episodic’ gaming experience.

Unlike other level-based games, Wolfenstein broke the mould, breaking levels into episodes, in which players would gun their way through foes, obtain collectables and make their way to an exit to proceed. Breaking down the lengthy level times and ensuring extended gameplay and subsequently higher levels of satisfaction.

Sharewave: The Birth of Game Previews and Online Communities

The aforementioned episodic gameplay also lent itself to an amazingly innovative marketing ploy by id Software in the form of the ‘sharewave model’. 

This new form of distribution would utilise the burgeoning internet community by releasing the first episode of Wolfenstein 3D to the public for free download. If players enjoyed the experience, they could then go on to download the full game through an online store.

This innovative distribution model, not only got the game into players’ hands in an attractive and easy manner but would also go onto encourage word of mouth to spur sales. By the end of 1993, it is reported Wolfenstein had sold over 100,000 copies, an extremely impressive feat for a company’s first major release.

This style of game preview would go on to solidify the importance of game demos heavily used in the late 90s and early 2000s and would lay the foundation for the entire gaming models of modern gaming juggernauts Epic games, 3D realms, and more!

Modding Software: Where’s All the Data?

Looking at the release of games such as Doom and Wolfenstein through a 21st-century lens, it can be easy to overlook the impact these games had on the online community.

Alongside the sharewave model, Id Software understood the power of the burgeoning ‘modding community’ and its impact on the longevity of a game. This understanding led to many mods for Doom and games alike being created well into 2024 (over 20 years later).

After being made aware of many budding game designers attempting to create custom levels for Wolfenstein 3D, id Software would spawn the creation of  ‘WAD’ files (Where’s all the Data), which would package maps, sprites, textures, and soundtracks in files completely separate from the initial game engine. This would ultimately allow would-be designers to forge their own maps and levels, multiplying the playability factor of the games.

This would prove so popular within the gaming community that id Software would be the first company to make user-friendly tools to allow effortless game mods and would pave the way for young talent to be recognised, with one particular talented modder ‘Tim Willits’ actually landing a job at id Software.

Online multiplayer mainstays such as ‘Capture the Flag’ and ‘Team Fortress’, which would be included in games such as Halo and Call of Duty, all originated as mods on future id project ‘Quake’, further solidifying the importance of the modding community.

Team Deathmatch: The Birth of Multiplayer

Whilst Doom is primarily known for its revolutionising single-player experience, the introduction of its multiplayer mode was triumphant in itself. Dooms multiplayer gave players the ability to connect with friends in one-on-one ‘Deathmatches’ over local area networks (LAN), spawning the infamous LAN parties.

Doom laid the groundwork for the multiplayer-centric culture that has now become a staple of many successful games in the three decades since its inception. The addition of editable maps and the combined force of the modding community helped lay the foundation for not only online-focused games such as Call of Duty, Counterstrike, and Apex Legends, but also online creator modes such as Halo’s Forge mode, Fortnite creative, and more!

Speedrunning: A Zoom Through Doom

Speedrunning is the act of playing a video game, or a section of a video game, with the sole goal of completing it as quickly as possible. The form of gameplay typically involves following meticulously planned routes and exploiting glitches within the game that would allow the player to skip sections of the game.

Although the Speedrunning community was well established by the release of Doom, it was Doom’s large online community that really pioneered the community further. The game included a built-in feature that would allow players to record and replay their gameplay and then upload their runs online. In the subsequent years, the Doom community would create dedicated servers and leaderboards for Doom speed runs and even had an LMP Hall of Fame (named after the file extension of Doom speedrun files .lmp). 

It is hard to tell whether speedrunning would be nearly as popular without Doom, but it cannot be argued that without the innovative features built into the core of Doom’s base game, it would not be nearly as accessible.

Bringing Games to The Masses: The Microsoft Instance

Another notable reason for Doom’s monumental impact was its impact on the PC gaming community. With video games largely seen as a childish pastime left purely for arcade machines and early home consoles such as the Sega Megadrive, Doom was accessible to any computer that could handle its industry-leading graphics.

Its popularity soared to such heights that at one point Doom was installed on more computers worldwide than Windows 95, a statistic that would lead Bill Gates to attempt to buy id Software in hopes of profiting from the franchise (a deal that would eventually happen in 2021 when Microsoft completed the acquisition of Bethesda).

Bill Gates was impacted so much by the success of Doom, that he would go on to star in the now-infamous promo announcing the arrival of Doom to Windows 95, superimposing himself into footage of the game.

This would prove a monumental success for Windows and would usher in a new era in which video games were seen as a profitable and marketable commodity for computers and solidifying themselves as a dominant force in technology and pop culture.

Controversy: Nazis, Blood and Demons

Over the past 30 years, controversy and video games have gone hand in hand. Whether it is the sexualised violence of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the violent ‘Fatalities’ of Mortal Kombat, or the predatory nature of microtransactions in games such as Star Wars Battlefront 2 (2018) and FIFA, controversy is inescapable.

However, no game truly captured the prolific controversy of both Wolfenstein and Doom back in the early 90s. Wolfenstein faced heavy backlash upon release due to the game’s heavy depiction of Nazi imagery, a topic that had never been tackled within the video game medium, leading to the game’s country-wide ban in Germany.

Doom was criticised for its over-the-top violence, gore, and satanic imagery, becoming one of the first games to ever receive the ‘Mature 17+’ age rating. It was the second id Software title that would go on to be banned in Germany.

Although for some, such widespread controversy would be damaging, for id Software, this only helped the marketing of Doom as something alluring and forbidden. Subsequently, the game garnered the attention of every teenager who was bored of the child-friendly and unprovoking video games of the era and is a marketing approach that has been widely adopted by mature-rated games such as Grand Theft Auto.

John Romero will be recounting his illustrious career and providing invaluable insights on game design and creation during an exclusive keynote at the upcoming CasinoBeats Summit.

Purchase your tickets here and take advantage of the incredible SUPER EARLY BIRD ticket, gaining you access to all three days of the event at the discount price of €300.

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