On Target: John Romero

Game legend John Romero shifts his sights from shooters to social games.


In certain circles, John Romero is legendary as the self-taught game designer who pioneered the original first-person shooters. Romero’s career dates back to the early ‘80s when he published his first titles for the Apple II. After programming for the Richard Garriott-led company Origin Systems, Romero started two development companies and did a stint at Softdisk Publishing before cofounding id Software in 1991. Along with designers John D. Carmack, Adrian Carmack, and Tom Hall, he created some of the industry’s most iconic games including DOOM, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, and the Commander Keen series.

Romero credits id Software as his greatest career success, but he left in 1996 to co-found Ion Storm with Tom Hall, a venture he calls his biggest regret. The company created the shooter Daikatana, which brought strong criticism for both the gameplay and its controversial advertising campaign. Nevertheless, Romero scored a homerun with gamers by producing Anachronox and Deus Ex, the latter of which holds the number three spot on Complex magazine’s “50 Best PC Games of All Time” list 13 years after the game’s release.

Romero has launched several development companies and worked on nearly 100 published games including Ravenwood Fair, a social game for Facebook that garnered more than 25 million players per month at its peak before shutting down on July 18. He’s currently working on another yet-to-be-announced Facebook game.

Get In Media: When you’re coming up with a new game, do you have a specific [design] process that you go through?

John Romero: Yeah. At the very beginning, a lot of it has to do with the platform that I want to put the game on, the technology available. That’s kind of like the base to build the game on. [My design strategy is] kind of in the moment. It’s like, “OK, now I want to make a game about X.” The design just kind of wraps itself around all that stuff automatically. It’s more [about] the design patterns I’m interested in exploring, and then a design comes around that pretty quickly.

GIM: You’ve stated before that when you were building Ravenwood Fair, you looked at games like Frontierville to see how they were monetizing the game design. Do you have a specific research process for looking at other games?

JR: Well, I did that for that game because I don’t play Facebook games normally. I was new to it and I needed to see what kinds of games were successful on Facebook. Because the game had to make money, I needed to find the pressure point, the monetization pressure point, in the design and decided to limit the amount of the moves that the player could have and then figure out where people would spend money based off of the way Frontierville monetized. Those high levels are what I used to create Ravenwood, along with the other high level. You know, what are games on Facebook like? What are the key factors that people love to do? Decoration is a huge driver and so are quests. I basically built something from that.

GIM: The technology has vastly evolved since the DOOM/Quake/Wolfenstein days. Has the actual process for making a game changed?

JR: Nope. It’s all the same. With Ravenwood, the technology used on Facebook for games is different than standalone games on your PC or consoles, so it was using Flash. The engine that I had available to use for that game was an engine from 1992, I believe, from the game Syndicate. It basically ported the ActionScript Three [scripting language]. The author, lead programmer of Syndicate, had basically ported that engine over to the Facebook ecosystem, and so it rendered graphics really quickly and that factored into my design for Ravenwood. I wanted it to be visually impressive on the Facebook platform. I wanted to take advantage of the speed.

GIM: Looking at the landscape of video games now, what excites you technology-wise or design-wise?

JR: Mobile is super exciting. I started a mobile company back in 2001 [Monkeystone Games] because I knew it was going to be big. Today’s mobile phones are way, way better than they were ten years ago. Design for a mobile phone is really just making sure that what you’re designing is great for a small screen, for the type of gameplay length, and the kind of games that you would actually play on a phone, which are mostly casual-type things. So that’s exciting. Other than that, PC gaming is never going away and now it’s stronger than ever with the waning of the current consoles and the distribution platforms are really great now.

GIM: Are there any particular games within the mobile or PC spheres that you find really exciting or are particularly representative of where you see the industry heading?

JR: I think Minecraft is a pretty important game. That basically sets a new pattern that games haven’t followed before, which is creation while playing a game. Minecraft is the only game where you actually build and play at the same time, so that’s really important. And then just the fact that mobile really shows that game design is so important and that the technology is not as important as the design. Now, when you have games like Angry Birds that could have been made on an Apple II back in the early ‘80s, you know it’s the strength of the design of that game that really skyrocketed it to success.

GIM: What do you recommend for students who are looking to follow in your footsteps?

JR: Learn C++ and make a lot of little game projects. Don’t try to get things published immediately. You need to build up experience actually designing small things and actually finishing those small things. And then when you make a game, a small game, and you make it good enough that you think it really compares to other people’s games. Go take the game to conferences like IndieCade, where you can actually enter it in competition. If you get nominated or you win, you are now known. One of the biggest things that students ask is, “How do I get my game name out there? I’m nobody. Can you please tweet me?” And the best thing they can do is make something great, get it entered into competitions. We were making our first game software with Commander Keen. We got awards and then we were known. That’s the best way to do it. You don’t have to pay for marketing, just make a great game.

GIM: Do you think it’s easier to become known now? There are so many different avenues of getting promoted, but there’s also so much competition.

JR: It’s all relative. The audience of game players has changed over the years. There’s way more people nowadays in the game industry’s development. Nowadays, it’s wide open. Download it off of websites, off Steam, off App Store, etc. But now that it’s so wide open, the trick is getting noticed. The only way that anybody gets noticed is by making great games.

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GIM: You’ve also stated that indie games are the segment of games where people are not getting paid. Any tips for indie developers to overcome those financial hurdles?

JR: People need money to live on while they’re making games, so get yourself a normal job and do that for work and on weekends to get your game done. That’s the way to do it.

GIM: Would you recommend somebody start [working at] a larger game company or just do it on their own first?

JR: Some people have started with game companies, save up all your money, and then quit and try to live off that money, basically, all renting together. That’s not the norm, but it’s pretty nice to be able to do that where you can focus all day long on making your game. But the other route that I guess will test your team’s strength is to have a job and everybody work hard to get together after work and on weekends to get your game done. It takes a lot more work to do that, and if you have a team that’s truly dedicated and a game comes together, you know you’ve a pretty long-lasting team, if they’ll dedicate that much time to it.

GIM: You’ve certainly gone through triumphs and tribulations in terms of business partners. Do you have any tips for people who are looking to form a long-lasting development team?

JR: Yeah. If you’re going to form a dream team you think is going to be successful, you need to all have years of experience making games, number one. If you’re going to own a company with people, you need to have worked with them and you should know them for at least a year or two and have made several games together. That’s the only way to actually know that you’re getting into something that is potentially going to work out. If you go in blindly, you’ve never worked with the people, all that stuff, it will just be a catastrophe.

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