John Romero Bows Before Gaming's Masters

Speaking last night at The Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta, Doom developer John Romero talked about the "masters" the game industry should look to for help creating games today. Which industry figures could make Romero their bitch?

The first thing that Romero made clear during his talk, titled "Masters Among Us", is that John Romero should never follow three scholars discussing art in games on stage. It's not that Romero's talk wasn't informative and enjoyable; it's just that after hearing Ian Bogost talk for an hour, bringing the proceedings down to Romero's level was a bit jarring.

Once he hit the stage, he went through a list of people he considered to be the "Masters" of the game industry, much like Mozart is a master composer.

"Mozart was a great person who lived a long time ago and made some great music," Romero begins. "Today we only have 10 per cent of his output. We'd learn more if we had more."

More than just a group of people whose work we should admire, Romero suggests that these are people we should study, turning to them when the limitations of present-day game development bring us down.

Right now out masters walk among us in the game industry. It's not so old... a lot of our masters from the early 80's are still here. It's important to learn from them."

Let's look at the industry figures Romero considers masters.

Nasir Gebelli

Nasir Gebelli is an Iranian programmer who was instrumental in the early '80s creating games like Space Eggs and Gorgon. At one point he made nine games in one year, typing directly into a mini assembler. Romero is impressed.

"He had to keep an entire game in his head. To be able to keep it all in your head with no source code is on a crazy genius level."

Gebelli eventually moved to Japan, where he went to work for Squaresoft, programming Final Fantasy I through III.

Bill Budge

Bill Budge worked with some early 3D programming, but his main contribution to the industry was the Pinball Construction Set. Building off his Raster Blaster pinball game, Budge delivered a set of tools that allowed anyone to create their own pinball table. "People had never seen a program this complicated," says Romero.

Mark Turmell

Mark Turmell is best known for his work on games like NBA Jam, Smash TV, Total Carnage, and Space Invaders clone Sneakers. Romero says he's a guy that's not too difficult to get in touch with.

Dan/Dani Bunten

Next Romero moved on to industry figures that are no longer with us, starting with M.U.L.E. creator Dan Bunten, who later in life underwent a sex change to become Dani Bunten. "Dan created many of the blueprints for today's games."

Bill Williams

"There are no pictures of Bill Williams," says Romero, and try as I might, I can't prove the man wrong. Best known for his Atari computer games, including Alley Kat, Salmon Run, and Necromancer (pictured), Williams' work was lauded for its skill and artistry.

Gunpei Yokoi

The creator of the Nintendo Game & Watch series and father of the Game Boy, Gunpei is "the guy who Shigeru Miyamoto learned from."

"Gunpei had a theory of design - that great games don't have to come from insane technology." It's a theory Nintendo has proven true again and again.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson

The co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, and grandfathers of the role-playing game. "Remembering these people is very important," is all Romero has to say.

Sid Sackson

An acclaimed designer of board games, Sid Sackson's family, not understanding his work, sold all of it off after Sackson passed in 2002. Thousands of games were lost to collectors and auctions, they're examples lost to those who could learn from them.

Sid Sackson's example is a tragic one, but it drives home Romero's final point.

"Between genrefication, software API's, and ESRB ratings, we are limiting ourselves. We need to go back to our masters and see what they would have done with (game design). People who worried more about play than polygons.

"I believe these people should be studied and their data warehoused. We need to go back to the beginning of the industry to learn as much as we can...We need to do this before this knowledge is lost. We don't want what happened to Mozart to happen to our masters."

Romero might not be the most accomplished public speaker, but the man knows how to bring a point home.


    Good article... I know Romero is sometimes considered a bit of a joke (Daikatana much?), but he's partly responsible for making FPS what it is today with Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, etc... he does deserve *some* credit, even if he is a bit of a douche for leaving id Software to begin with.

      Uh dude, he was fired from id Software.

    I've heard he's less of a git now he's gotten older. Fair enough, he did some pretty amazing stuff in his day. I agree with what he's saying - there's not enough recognition for the people in the industry, and those who built it.

    He definitely does have a point. Whilst the industry has become too wrapped up with who's product looks better, who's product pushes more polygons, who's product is sexier, they do seem to forget who's product in general has better gameplay. A better looking game, does not a better playing game guarantee. I'll take Summer Games and World Games on the C64 over any goddamn Olympic style games on any console or platform these days... know why? Uber simple controls, very fun, easy to play, minimal events that boiled it all down to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.

    As true as this point seems to hold, is it really something that can be changed? I mean people always talk about focusing more on the gameplay than the graphics, making something new rather than re-hashing the old, just about every development company talks about it.

    But in the end it is what sells that counts, I don't know if that pressure comes from the publisher or not, but new ideas aren't necessarily good ones and making more of the same is a tried and true method. People make these same points in the movie, tv and music industry and always point to the forefathers of the medium. Its not that these new ideas aren't out there, they just aren't as bankable as others, so we won't see them as often.

    Well they are bankable though, look at New Super Mario Bros. wii, 10 million copies, and the version on the DS almost 20 million. Every really great game as some very satisfying gameplay. Even something as mainstream as COD:MW1 + MW2 has some really good gameplay, aside from the basic "point at head and pull trigger". Half-Life, my favourite series is all about valve exploring interesting gameplay elements.

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