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Commentary > Game Over
'Doom' creator faces a crossroads
John Carmack weighs his future as a video game superstar
September 9, 2004: 9:33 AM EDT
Game Over is a weekly column by Chris Morris

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Most husbands, when they're sent to sleep in the guest room, are in trouble. For John Carmack, it's a reward.

The video game industry's premier coding maestro (and the mind behind some of its most visually spectacular games, including the recently released "Doom 3") became a father for the first time last month. Typically, that means a lot of sleepless nights. Carmack, though, can't function like that.

"I've never been one of those programmers that works effectively on short amounts of sleep," he said. "I've always needed eight hours."

With son Christopher only sleeping a few hours at a time, Carmack's wife Anna gave the id Software co-founder permission to call the upstairs guest room home for a bit.

"My wife is really wonderful about the situation," he said. "I spend a couple of hours a day in the morning and the evening helping take care of the baby, but my wife has gone out of her way to make sure that I'm able to do the things I want to do."

Chief among those things are building orbital rocket ships and working on id's next game. Lately, though, he's found his interest in rocket ships surpassing his interest in coding video games. He's definitely on board for one more title, but Carmack's future as a video game programmer is growing increasingly hazy.

"I wouldn't hazard to look too far ahead," he said. "I'm definitely going to see through this round of rendering work. I wouldn't make any promises beyond that."

Should he decide to move on from building game engines, it would undoubtedly bring about cries of anguish from the gaming world. His groundbreaking work on such seminal titles as "Doom" and "Quake" has elevated Carmack to celebrity status amongst gamers - and a position of respect amongst peers.

"John is one of the leading minds in the graphics industry," said Dan Vivoli, senior vice president of marketing for graphic chip maker nVidia (NVDA: Research, Estimates). "The thing we like the most about him is he pushes the edge of our technology. There aren't that many people who understand both deep graphics technology as well as game development's look and feel. It takes a special mind to create that bridge."

id Software's John Carmack's game engines have revolutionized the gaming industry.  
id Software's John Carmack's game engines have revolutionized the gaming industry.

Still, after 10 years of building game engines, Carmack's passion for coding has faded somewhat. So has his passion for gaming. The last video game he played and truly enjoyed was id's 1999 release "Quake III".

"I very much appreciated the simplicity and purity of it," he said. "Since then, I'll play a little bit of the games of our competitors, but nothing has grabbed me enough that I wanted to keep playing."

While he mulls his future in the industry he helped create, Carmack is building the engine for id's next game. So far, the company has not divulged many details, other than it will be a new franchise, likely in the horror/action genre and it will probably be a first person shooter.

"Visually," Carmack teases, "it's going to be a pretty good step above what we've shown in 'Doom'."

The company's also hoping for a shorter turnaround time than the four-year development cycle of "Doom 3."

"We really, really want to get it done in the next two years," Carmack said.

Game Over
Video Games
John Carmack
NVIDIA Corporation

Games still pay the bills. But Tuesdays and Saturdays are rocket days. As the leader of Armadillo Aerospace, Carmack has been involved in the chase for the X-Prize, a $10 million bounty promised to the first amateur team that builds and flies a manned craft into space. Winning the prize is pretty much out of the question now, particularly after an Aug 7 crash that completely destroyed the team's vehicle. ("It's a good thing Doom 3 is selling very well..." cracked Carmack on the team's Website after the crash.) But Armadillo plans to see its work through to completion regardless.

You see, instead of being frustrated with the crash, Armadillo is excited. Failures, especially catastrophic ones, explains Carmack, allow industries to approach things from a different angle which can result in tremendous advances.

"One of the reasons microcomputers progressed so fast is people are willing to accept crashes," he said. "It's faster to build something and try it even if it means you'll have to rebuild later. ... If you spent too much time building and massaging one vehicle, you don't learn anything."

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Some might view building rockets as a child's dream gone awry, but Carmack sees a financial future in it. Within the next 10 years, he expects orbital journeys to be a reality. And don't be surprised, he said, if it happens within the next six or seven years.

As for the returns: "I think there's decent money to be made - something in the tens of millions in orbital journeys."

But it's as much an intellectual journey for Carmack as it is a financial one. And if Armadillo is successful in ushering in an era of commercial space flight, Carmack will have achieved one of his goals.

"I like working on things that have leverage," he said. "I like building the [game] engine that's going to be used in a half-dozen titles. The core of what I do is solve problems, whether that's in graphic engine flow or rockets. I like working on things that are going to have an impact one way or the other."  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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