“Masters of Doom” Review

Wagner James Au has written a review of “Masters of Doom”, the new book about id Software, for Salon.com (you’ll have to click through an ad if you want to read all of it). He takes issue with how David Kushner, the author of the book, overstates the significance of id, ignoring the influence of Blue Sky’s / Looking Glass’s Ultima Underworld.

I kinda agree, but in my experience it’s par for the course for books written by journalists about technology. You can’t just write about the technology: you have to put it in the context of something as large and meaningful as possible if you want your book to be successful. What I like about Au’s article is how he dismantles the illusion that first-person shooters were popular:

While many paid for the full registered version of the game, far more were happy just to enjoy the shareware version that was downloadable everywhere. “Ultima Underworld” and its 1993 sequel together sold almost half a million copies — more, as it turns out, than “Wolfenstein 3-D” (150,000) and “Spear of Destiny” (135,000), the expanded retail version sold in stores. Despite this, the ubiquity of the shareware version helped foster the illusion that id’s game was the real blockbuster.

This misperception was also true for “Doom”: id sold just under 1.5 million copies of the registered version, but it’s estimated that over 15 million copies of the shareware version were downloaded. In other words, id’s games didn’t seem so phenomenally popular because they were great — rather, they seemed popular because they were pretty good games that were basically free.

But the game industry went ahead and gleaned the wrong lesson from it, dumping the market with derivative first-person shooters. From “Wolfenstein 3-D” in 1992 to now, an online game database counts over 500 FPS titles — on average, a joyless churn rate of one per week, almost all of them irredeemably wack. Despite this deluge, total market share for the genre never exceeded 10 percent or so. (Wondering if they’d enjoyed an aggregate post-Doom surge in popularity, in the ’90s, I double-checked with Douglas Lowenstein, president of the IDSA, the game industry’s lead advocacy group. “Through the mid and late 1990s,” he e-mails me, “first-person shooters were a small portion of the total PC game market and they remain a niche market today.”) And even id’s games were significantly outsold in the mid-90’s by crossover titles “Myst” and “Microsoft Flight Simulator.

This is the damage done by the hard-core gamers (both in- and outside of the industry) – as first perceived by Chris Crawford in 1991. This is not to say that id Software is the root of all evil, but it’s interesting to look back at the hype of the last ten years and the consequences it had.