John Romero: Fall from grace

 

BY ALESSANDRO GUARRERA

 

“Daikatana will be the greatest game of all time.” 
     – John Romero’s overly optimistic view of his pet project, the video game Daikatana, released in 2000. 

Riding on the technological boom of the eighties, and the dot-com craze of the nineties, game designer John Romero was known for his online ‘smacktalk’ (insulting taunts made in the spirit of fun), love of video games, and the great relationship he fostered with his adoring fans. He worked on industry icons such as Wolfenstein 3D, Quake, and Doom. He is commonly credited with codifying the FPS (first person shooter) genre of videogames, in particular with his work on Doom, where FPS’s even now use the same template of weapons. FPS games were known as ‘Doom clones’ for years after the game’s release. While working at his now-defunct company Ion Storm, Romero also owned Monkeystone Games, a company specifically made for the purpose of creating portable videogames. In 2003 he left to work for Midway Games, which closed in 2005. However that is another story; this report chronicles the years of work he has done, particularly at his own company, Ion Storm, and afterward.

 

Calm before the Storm

In 1996 John Romero and Tom Hall, former employees of id Software, joined forces with Todd Porter and Jerry O’Flaherty to found the company Ion Storm. The original plan was to make innovative and artistic games alongside taking other companies unfinished games, finishing and publishing them for an easy profit[1]

The first game released was Todd Porter’s Dominon: Storm Over Gift 3 (already partially completed by Porter’s previous employer, 7th Level). It was expected that the game would be completed in three months and for under US$50,000, but development took more than a year and cost hundreds of thousands. The game also suffered from poor sales and a poor reception, in part due to being released at the same time as the demo of Starcraft, the definitive game of the RTS (real time strategy) genre.
 

“You’re not doing your work! You’re not living up to your responsibilities. You’re hurting the project. You’re hurting the company. You’ve been poisonous to the company, and your contribution has been negative over the past couple years. You needed to do better but you didn’t. Now you need to go! Here’s a resignation and here’s a termination! You’re going to resign now!”
– John Carmack, Technical Director of id Software, informing John Romero of his resignation.

 

Form over Function

Ion Storm’s slogan was ‘Design is Law’. This slogan was especially manifest in their Dallas headquarters, set in the 54th floor of the Chase Tower. With interior design done by the Russ Berger Group, the offices were huge, with room for a recording booth, a motion capture stage, a dedicated area for ‘deathmatches’[2], and more than 60 individual workstations. In keeping with the slogan, the terrazzo floor had a large green company logo, the elevator doors were lime green, mimicking the graphic, and light streamed in from many windows which populated the building.[3] Unfortunately this meant that the many workers often had to resort to covering their monitors due to excessive glare.[4] 

Due to internal political struggles and missteps, none of the other games released by the Dallas sector of Ion Storm were commercially successful, although Anachrox was critically well received.

 

 

 

 

 

Ambitiously designing a bomb

John was inspired to make a FPS game that was as much about character interaction and storyline development, and so began the development of Daikatana. The game was meant to revolutionise the genre. Rather than playing and fighting alone, players would have two companions, or sidekicks. These sidekicks would provide the player assistance, liven the gameplay, and could be given simple commands such as ‘attack’ and ‘use a medpack’[5].  

Inevitably the sidekicks’ AI (artificial intelligence) was poorly implemented. They would often refuse a command (not taking a medpack when commanded despite their low ‘health’, or launching poison grenades near the player). They would repeatedly spout annoying catchphrases, get stuck behind walls (which could sometimes be a relief for the player), and if they died (which was often due to their tendency to charge at armed enemies), their deaths would force the player to restart the level. While sidekicks were hyped as one of the reasons to buy the game (and they were essential in some puzzle solving areas), in the end they were intrinsically flawed, and were the subject of much criticism and ridicule. 

Generally most FPS games feature some X weapons, a rocket launcher, a pistol, a melee weapon, a submachine gun, a shotgun, grenades, and some kind of area-effect weapon (again, inspired by those used in Doom), and three to five types of enemies. However Daikatana featured multitudes of weapons and various enemies. Despite their variety, many of the weapons were just as likely to hurt the player as hurt their enemies. Daikatana also included a save crystal[6], a dated and annoying feature which raised so much ire from the players that the creators released a patch to remove it. 

The Plot 

In 2455 AD, the world is suffering from a pandemic, and ruled over by Kage Mishima. It is discovered that the world is not the way it should be, because of the machinations of the time-travelling Mishima who used the magical Daikatana sword to fulfil his ends.  The protagonist, martial arts instructor Hiro Miyamoto, sets out with his companions ‘Superfly Johnson’ and Mikiko Ebihara to recover the titular sword and set wrongs right. 

 

“Can’t leave without my buddy Superfly!”Kage Mishima prompting the player to turn back as the game would not let one leave any level on one’s own.

 

The characters themselves were derided, with Kage described as flat and uninteresting, Mikiko sounding like a the stereotype of a female Japanese cartoon character, and Superfly a ‘jive turkey’ similar to ‘Blaxploitation’ characters from the 70s and 80s. 

The title itself is a mistranslation. The Kanji (Japanese characters) on the box should be read as ‘Daito’, literally: ‘big sword’.

Suck it Down

Because of Romero’s high standing in the industry and the amicable relationships he had forged with gamers at large, the previews of Daikatana were hyped up and people’s expectations were raised. After all, this was a game by John Romero, the John Romero, creator of  Doom, the man who codified the most popular genre of  gaming ever seen. How could he go wrong?

The advertisement for Daikatana was created by then-CEO of Ion Storm Mike Wilson. The language was typical of a deathmatch – insulting, but apparently playful. However the advertisement campaign failed. Most players were insulted rather than amused. More news emerged about delays in the development, Romero’s girlfriend joining the development team, along with much of the development team quitting en masse. Stories of John Romero’s lavish lifestyle (partying and driving fast cars, including a customised Ferrari Testarossa) soured his reputation amongst gamers. The game itself was critically panned and became a commercial failure, just as much for its many shortcomings as for John’s personal life and the business over at Ion Storm.

Graphics/Hardware Specs

Developed over the course of three years, the game originally utilised the Quake engine[7], which was outdated even at the time of the planned release date (in 1997). The game was not completed on time, and with the release of Quake II Romero decided to put his work into the Quake II physics engine[8]. While this is problematic at the best of times, Romero and his team found that the new physics engine was radically different and had to abandon much of their work, causing more delays.

By the time of Daikatana’s release the games Unreal Tournament and Quake III were released, making Daikatana’s graphics dated by the time of release. Coupled with the numerous delays it is easy to see why the game was so derided by the public at large.

The Nintendo 64 version was even worse, with blurred graphics, fog to make up for the jagged textures, and sidekicks not included in the gameplay. It was so bad, that Romero himself said that this version was “abysmal”.  

 

The Fall of an Icon 

Eidos, publisher of Ion Storm, refused to continue funding their projects and they closed down in 2005. From 2005-2010 John Romero worked for Gazillion Games (aka Slipgate Iron Works), where he developed nothing. In October  2010 LOLapps Inc. released his Facebook widget Ravenwood Fair, which although highly successful and popular, is a far cry from his days as the head of a company.

 

Bibliography:

http://entertainment.salon.com/2002/01/02/ion_storm/
TV Tropes & Idioms: Daikatana, ION Storm.
Wikipedia: John Romero-Tom Hall-John Karman & other searches
http://www.giantbomb.com/john-romero/72-2/
http://www.3drealms.com/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=819
http://rome.ro/ferrari.htm
plenetromero.com –JR’s personal site.
http://www.rbdg.com/newsroom/ion/

http://au.gamespot.com/pc/action/daikatana/review.html
http://rome.ro/games_daikatana.htm

 


[1] [1] Ion Storm was founded on November 15, 1996 with its headquarters in Dallas. The company had signed a licensing deal with Eidos Interactive for six games and the founders planned to scoop up titles from other companies that were close to completion, finish them, and push them out quickly to bring in initial revenue. en wikipedia.org.

[2]  In videogames a’ deathmatch’ refers to a battle where the participants attempt to kill each other’s characters, the one with the highest number of ‘kills’ scoring the most points. Usually a free-for-all, though sometimes a team based affair, the term was coined by Romero.

[5]  ‘Medpacks’ are small icons which would increase the character’s ‘health’ bar (a bar which indicaes their vitality) and were a staple of games from the nineties to mid 2000’s.

[6]  ‘Save Crystals’ are small crystals, usualy blue, that the player character would pick up and store in their inventory as a usable item; its function to allow the player to save whenever they wanted at the cost of these crystals, yet they were limited in number to prevent cheating via loading& reloading old saves on difficult areas to try again.

[7] It is typical for videogame developers to use the physics engine of another company rather than making their own from scratch. The two most often used are the Quake and Unreal physics engines, and their successors/variations/iterations. A physics engine determines the in-game physics and offers many pre-made textures, etc , cutting the time needed to develop a game however most developers will add content to their engines for obvious reasons. See more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physics_engine

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