Gaming, Storytelling and Creative Projects With John Romero

In a now famous essay, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham argued for dividing a working day up into maker and manager time.

Writers and creative professionals can use the former to attend to business and the latter for deep work, like writing or coding.

But what does this look like in practice?

Enter John Romero.

Although not a writer, he’s the creative talent behind games like Doom and Quake.

In this podcast episode, Romero explains:

And lots more

Listen now

Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: John, you seem like a man who has a lot of creative ideas for great games and other projects over the years. How do you decide on what idea to focus on or work on, and what to put off until later?

John Romero: Well, it’s different for every single game, and it depends on when I decide: “It’s time to make another game.” The idea could come from what’s going on in the game industry, what platforms are exciting to me. I have tons of ideas, and they percolate for a long time, and then maybe there’s the right time to make it. It could be a market that’s interesting, like when Brenda and I started; we started Loot Drop about eight years ago. And that was right at the height of the Facebook game era, and we wanted to see what Facebook game design was all about. It was totally different design patterns than anything we’d seen, and it was exciting, so we started a Facebook game company. That went for five, six years.

John Romero: So, it’s just different. Anytime a game idea comes up it’s … I mean, I do game jams and the ideas that I use for games, that I have for game jams, have nothing to do with stuff that I would actually publish. It was just constantly, a constant amount of ideas. I’ve published about 150 games.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, and you’ve published some big games over the years such as Doom, and Quake, and so on. I’m wondering, for somebody who’s worked in the industry for 30 years, how do you sustain your excitement there and your enthusiasm for focusing on a particular type of work?

John Romero: It’s just super fun making games. When you get to work on a lot of the aspects of making a game, it just gets more exciting. So, you could be a programmer, and you could be coding for decades, you know? But coding, in itself, is awesome, but it’s even more fun if, on top of that, you can add in game design, level design, audio design, writing. You name it, there’s all kinds of super-fun vectors into a single game, and the more of those that you get to proficient at the more excited you are to stay doing it. I think branching out is the thing that’s important to being excited for a long time in the game industry.

Bryan Collins: Are there any particular lessons that you’ve learned about shipping games over the years? Because, from reading about some of the projects that you’ve worked on, you’ve worked on huge titles and you’ve also worked on smaller titles.

John Romero: Yeah, there’s a lot of lessons. There’s so many lessons. There’s a few real core ones: Like, if you’re going to start a company with somebody, you need to know them extremely well. Just the same way that you would marry somebody and you have a personal family you’re going to be creating a work family, so it’s highly important that you know who your co-founders are and you know them for a while. Otherwise, you’re taking a huge risk saying you’re going to co-found a company with some nice guy or a nice person.

John Romero: There’s that. There’s make sure you’re hiring the most experienced people you can because they’ll help you solve problems. It’s important to, at the beginning, outsource as much business stuff as you can because there’s lots of services out there to handle your HR and payroll, and all kinds of stuff. The world is full of service right now, so it’s a great idea to just outsource things.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. That’s something that I’m particularly interested in. From reading about what your work in the past, you have spoken about how you love to actually play games and design the levels and so on, but I’m sure you’ve lots of other tasks to do when you’re managing a business as well. Do you still have time to play the games you’re creating or do you spend a lot of your day on the actual on the actual operations and management side of the business?

John Romero: Probably half the day at least is business stuff, and I’m doing production on our current game. Then, the other half is working on the game itself; whether that’s programming, or doing audio, or design work, or level design. You name it; I can basically do any of it. So we do a lot of work on the current game that we’re working on. Actually, we’re working on multiple games. There’s another project that I program on, design and code on. Then, I have a personal project that I’m doing just by myself. So, yeah, I’m really, really busy creating still but also doing tons of business stuff at the same time.

Bryan Collins: One thing I’ve noticed is different parts of the day are ideal for different activities. For example, a writer might work on a first draft in the morning, and they might edit in the afternoon, and they might attend to social media and marketing in the evening. Do you break up your day like that? How do you organize yourself?

John Romero: Well, yeah, first I do mail. I’ve got to catch up on mail because if there’s anything important that I need to answer, I want to do that first thing to just make sure that I’m caught up for whatever came in overnight. Since we’re eight hours ahead of the United States, stuff could totally come in while I’m sleeping, so it’s important … Not that I do a lot of business in the US, but it’s a good idea to just do email first.

John Romero: Then we do stand up, where we all know what’s every team member and what we’re working on. Then, I usually do business stuff after that for a while. I try and keep the creative stuff until at least after 4:00 PM.

Bryan Collins: Do you work late then, in the evening as well, or do you stop around 5:00 or 6:00?

John Romero: No, I always work late. I mean, my best time to work is really starting at 9:00 PM until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning.

Bryan Collins: Do you still find time to play games as well?

John Romero: Yeah. I mean, during that time things will come up, and I might be like: “Okay, before I get into this project and start doing stuff, I want to play a little bit of Hitman 2.” Yeah, we do Quake deathmatches all the time here. Like, everybody is excited about Quake 1 and at lunch-time people just start up servers and play. Then, sometimes, like on Thursday nights, I play for hours on Thursday nights with my lead programmer because he’s really, really good, so we have a total fun time deathmatching for at least three hours on Thursdays.

Bryan Collins: No Call of Duty, no?

John Romero: Not yet, but I’m excited to try out the new Battle Royale mode.

Bryan Collins: Okay. How important do you think it is to have moments of play like you’ve described? Does that help when it’s time to do something creative for your business or for a project that you’re working on?

John Romero: Oh, totally. I mean, we do play a lot of games. Here at the office there are so many board games it’s just nuts, they’re everywhere. We have so many board games. We have hundreds of board games. The team here plays Magic like crazy. They have massive card collections. We have two D&D campaigns going on that happen once a week. We all are like living games. It’s not like we go home to some normal non-game life, because our whole career and our life is games, so we just go home and either do some more coding or play games.

Bryan Collins: Is there many on your team?

John Romero: We have 20 people on our team right now.

Bryan Collins: Okay. Okay. I suppose, since you’ve started working in the gaming industry, things have probably changed radically, even in how long it can take to ship a big title? How has that changed how you approach your creative projects?

John Romero: Well, it’s different depending on which game. I still do one person game stuff. The biggest project I had, I had a hundred people every day working on it, and that required a lot more organization, with multiple producers per discipline; an executive producer, lots of outsourced management, multiple tiers of disciplines. Like, in design, there’s systems design, and level design, and learning design. In programming there’s database programming, there’s systems programming, there’s graphics programming, network programming. The big teams have a lot of layers, but you have to have that just to keep everything straight and makes sure we’re all doing the right thing.

Bryan Collins: How do you decide what to do yourself versus delegate versus put off until tomorrow or the next sprint or the next month?

John Romero: Usually, I don’t do anything that’s critical path. So, everyone else is tasked with the whole thing, and when I can help out I’ll just take something over real quick and do some work, and then someone else might revise it, somebody else might … Usually, it’s like revision, or they leave it alone, or they just use it to go to another stage. I don’t do anything where I’m holding up the team if I can’t find time to do it.

Bryan Collins: The gaming industry strikes me as one that can be pretty brutal, in that a title can be released and get bad reviews. How do you find your way back after something you’ve worked on maybe doesn’t quite get the reception that you would have liked at the start of the project?

John Romero: Well, that’s like most games. I mean, it’s really hard to … Like, discovery nowadays is really hard, so you have to have a really good marketing team; either that or your game is really, really good. When we work with publishers, they’re the ones who are going to be dumping a lot of money into marketing and making sure that the game is visible, and they market to their current base and all that kind of stuff.

John Romero: But when we do something on our own, like, as an example, almost two years ago we launched a game called Gunman Taco Truck on Steam and on iOS. It was our son’s game design. When he was nine years old, he came up with this really cool idea for a game, and then we spent a couple of years making it and then launched it. We just launched it quietly. We self-published it; we didn’t go through anyone else. There was no advertising or anything, but it was a really good game.

John Romero: Apple decided to choose to make it part of The Game We Love for a week. Then, when we put it on the Mac App Store, they did the same thing for the Mac version. Then, I think the next year, they decided to do … No, later that year, they decided to do an in-depth story with Donovan, basically just interviewing him about the whole process of how he came up with the idea and how he made it. So, Donovan has a story on the App Store. When they revamped, when they decided to relaunch the App Store with all the new stuff, this was one of their head stories, it’s one the new things they wanted to come out with.

John Romero: Then, just recently, in September, which is like a year after that story ran, they emailed me and asked if I would make a special iPhone XS Max or iPhone X version of the game, so it looks good on that phone, and they would promote it. I found out that 20,000 games come out every month on the App Store. It’s an insane number of games that are being dumped out there constantly, so discovery is really hard, but Apple decided to email me to modify one of my games to work well on their latest phone. That shows you how good the game was. And it was because we spent a lot of time on it, so if you can spend a good amount of time on developing a game and launch it when its ready, you can make a game that stands out.

Bryan Collins: This was a game that you had self-published rather than going the traditional route?

John Romero: Yeah, we just published it on the App Store like anybody can do. We did not advertise or do anything. It just got attention because it’s funny … As soon as we released it on PC, a woman in Australia started it on Twitch. She played for a solid seven hours. We had that stream going for seven solid hours the first day, and just tons of streamers picked it up and started playing the game.

Bryan Collins: One thing I read about what the barriers that you had to overcome when you were making your first games, the Commander Keen series, and Wolfenstein, and so on. Things have obviously gotten a lot easier for game developers today, do you think that’s a good thing? That it’s so easy now to self-publish?

John Romero: Well, yeah. I mean, back in the early days, like Commander Keen was 10 years after I started learning how to code and making games. The 80s were assembly language; bitmap graphics and assembly language, it was as low as it goes. As far as programming, you’re as close to the CPU as possible. You’re directly programming the CPU. That was a ton of work because you had to know the architecture of the machine. Even getting into Commander Keen era in 1990, you didn’t have to know the architecture of anything but the graphics card really, at that point. So knowing that really, really well was very helpful for us to basically come up with our smooth scrolling code which then kind of changed games on the PC. It was seen as a gaming machine now that it could compete with Nintendo.

John Romero: We switched over to doing development on a much more … on a superior platform, at the end of 1992 when we switched to the NeXTSTEP operating system which has migrated into OS 10 today. So, we were working on NeXTSTEP machines back in the early 90s, and that’s how we developed Doom, and we developed Doom II, and Heretic, and Hexen, and Quake, all on that platform. Our DOS machines were just sitting there ready to run the latest compilation that we made on our workstations.

John Romero: So, yeah, development has really changed.

Bryan Collins: It sounds like the barriers to entry have really dropped. One other thing about that I was interested in is if the barriers to entry have dropped do you think that means the standard of games out there has dropped as well? Or does it mean that you just have to get a bit better at marketing your work?

John Romero: Well, you have to have good games for people to want to play them. There could be … I mean, there has been, and always has been, really bad games, and there have been really, really good games. It’s just the number of people making games. It wasn’t like there was a small number of people making the best games in the world; it’s always been all over the place quality-wise.

John Romero: Just the fact that you can now get Unity or Unreal and start making a game means that’s just more games that you can see out there, and it just … Maybe there are some more games that are lower quality design-wise but tech-wise not too bad because they’re using really good engines like Unity and UnReal. But I think it’s really important that there’s access to creators … They’re designers, not programmers, that can come up with really good ideas and at least get them prototyped in a modern day engine and see where it goes. Because, really, at the end of the day, it’s not the technology that you’re trying to play. You’re trying to play an amazing design, and the more people that have access to making their designs come alive, just makes the industry better.

Bryan Collins: One thing that I’ve also noticed is that you’ve built up a great relationship with the gaming community over the years, from the Quake community, and the Doom community, and so on, but a lot of creative professionals struggle when it comes to that type of outreach or marketing their work because they’d rather spend time writing or coding or working on their creative projects. How have you made peace with that; with balancing marketing and creating?

John Romero: Usually it’s because something that just popped up. Like, Twitter makes it easy to interact with people. I used to have a forum on my website, jeez, almost 20 years ago, and it was really populated with a ton of people. It was really great. People loved it. This was back in the days of BBS or, yeah, I guess, BBS, now it’s like bulletin board systems, but I mean they’re forums, early forums, like PHP, BBS, that kind of stuff. Now, it’s Reddit where there’s a lot of people in communities.

John Romero: But I’ve always been a part of the several … I have a lot of communities right now because I’ve made so many games. There’s Commander Keen people. There’s Doom people, there’s Wolfenstein fanatics, there’s Quake nuts, there’s Dangerous Dave fanatics, Daikatana fanatics, Heretic and Hexen. You name it, there’s a fan base for a specific game, and they just kind of fixed on those games. I used to get letters for a game I made called Pyramids of Egypt which you’ve never heard of. I made it in 1985, but I would get letters from people telling me that they’re getting high scores on it, and how great it was.

John Romero: You just pick up fan bases for things that you release. If you talk to people, they’re interested in finding more out about the games or just to tell you that they like them. Responding to people is just common courtesy. If they email you, you answer them. We get lots and lots of emails every day about everything. The more games you publish, the more incoming you’re going to get over the years, so we get a lot coming in.

Bryan Collins: I can imagine. How do you manage all that incoming information from gamers of your various releases over the years?

John Romero: Well, Brenda helps me with it. She has her own groups of fans for various things she’s done as well, but she’s really good: she’s an awesome writer, she’s a fast typer, she knows what to say. She’s just perfect for communications, so … Sometimes she’ll just ask me the answer for something that I can tell her, that she’ll just type up because she’s answering stuff. But usually, I’m the one writing stuff down.

John Romero: I’ve got a really active Instagram that is doing pretty well. We’ve just recently decided to take control of our Instagram, my Instagram, which is @theromero and basically just start posting pictures constantly, and doing 20 questions, and doing prize giveaways, and stuff like that because the community really loves it if there’s an Instagram that gives them what they’re interested in and does extra stuff.
Bryan Collins: Finally, how important is story and games today? I was reading about Red Dead Redemption 2, when, the amount of work that went into the story behind that game, and it was almost like writing War and Peace.

John Romero: I think it really depends on the game how important it is. Like, Minecraft, what’s the story? The story is the one that you make. Some games provide a sandbox to create stories with, and then there are games like Red Dead that are these huge worlds that have so much going on. World of Warcraft, same thing; there’s a ton of lore, there’s a ton of stuff going on, and when you choose to interact with those areas of the game, you get locational stories in those areas, and it’s stuff you’re kind of asking for. So, it’s great because you’re not forced into a story, You’re not forced to read the text; you’re choosing to engage with it.

John Romero: To me, that’s one of the best ways of storytelling; is that the story is a pull from the player versus a push onto the player. Sandbox games like, even GTA, which is this great world that you could just mess around in and never do one single mission. You don’t get access to the whole world, but you have so much fun just messing around without even going on a mission it’s just amazing. I really like that design has gone in that direction.

John Romero: What Remains of Edith Finch is a really amazing example of a 3D environment where you can walk around and just look at everything. The story is happening as you’re walking, and you’re not forced to read it. When there is reading, it’s a sentence, it’s one sentence at a time, there’s talking, and it’s just so well done. I think that the medium is exploring lots of ways to present narrative and gameplay at the same time to get rid of the stigma of: “What about games that are just story?”

John Romero: What Remains of Edith Finch is an entire story, but you don’t feel like you’re pushed into a story. You’re exploring and finding the story, so it’s basically giving you a super-futuristic interaction with a book, but it’s this really cool 3D world with some of the best graphics you can get.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. I think gaming has really been elevated as an art form over the years. Where can people find you online, John?

John Romero: All over the place. Romero.com, romerogames.com, rome.ro, which is Romero. Yep.

Bryan Collins: Thanks, John. That was great.

John Romero: Cool. Thanks.

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