First person shooting games would not be where they are today without John Romero. John has created some of the most classic FPS games of all time. Most of his games he created in the 1980’s are still played today. John’s resume of games is so long, it takes pages to name them all. The most talked about games, however, are titles such as Quake, Red Faction, and Doom. But it was Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 that changed the whole dynamics of first-person shooters. John helped create the company “id Software” in 1991 and planned on changing the way PC games were played forever. Before id Software developed Wolfenstein 3D, another company before created what would become the start of the franchise. Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein were created by Muse Software in the 1980’s. These games were not first-person shooters but more like an arcade style shooter similar to Berzerk. Overheard maps guided you around as you move your player around and shoot the enemies. The style of play was exciting for the time and make the Wolfenstein games very popular. John Romero and id Software took it to the next level. Id Software single handily created the genre of first person shooting with Wolfenstein 3D. With its ray casting rendering, it created the illusion of walking around the map through the eyes of the player. Wolfenstein 3D was a commercial success and has been recognized as on the greatest games of all time. The game took a risk by using the Nazi theme of enemies and making it realistic to the gamer. The gamble worked as the players got more excited about killing the Nazis and succeeding in the game.
Here is my interview with John, talking about Wolfenstein 3D and his opinions on current gaming and first-person shooters.
When did you know you were going to be in the video game business?
It was most likely after I got my Apple II+ in 1982. Making games was the only thing I wanted to do since then.
Do you remember when you created your first game and what do you remember about the experience?
The first game I created was in 1979 when I started learning HP-BASIC on the community college’s mainframe. I was 11 years old and taught myself how to code in the computer lab. My first game was a simple adventure game with about 5 rooms. It was really amazing to create something that ran on a TV screen, and it was so much fun learning the language.
What were your goals and expectations when you co-founded id Software?
id was my fourth startup. The goal was to take the amazing horizontal scrolling tech that John C. wrote and make games with it. Beyond that, we were excited to experiment and try to make the best games we could. The expectation was to have fun making games, no matter what they were. As long as we all shared the same passion for game development, we knew we would make magic.
How many people first started working for id software and how many people were involved designing Wolfenstein 3D?
At the very beginning in 1990, three of us created the original Commander Keen trilogy: me, Tom Hall, and John Carmack. In February 1991, Adrian Carmack joined us when the company officially started. A year later, it was still just the four of us when we started making Wolfenstein 3D.
What gave you the idea of the look and feel of Wolfenstein 3D?
We had made two FPS games before Wolfenstein 3D: Hovertank One, and Catacomb 3D. We knew with Wolfenstein that you were going to be a military character who is breaking out of a Nazi castle. I came up with the idea to make a 3D version of the original Castle Wolfenstein from 1981 because it was such an incredible classic game. I felt that if we were going to make a state-of-the-art game, we should recreate a previous state-of-the-art game and design it in a new way.
How long did it take to create Wolfenstein 3D and was it the time you expected?
We spent four months from concept to uploading the shareware version. It took another month for us to finish the other five episodes of levels and create the hint book. We had no expectations about how long it was going to take – we were experimenting and working hard at it, so whenever we finished, we knew we’d have something great to play.
Most critics call Wolfenstein 3D one of the greatest games ever made. How does it feel that you were involved in creating it?
Well, we owe a huge debt to Silas Warner for creating the original. The design of Castle Wolfenstein is the reason why we wanted to make a new one, to follow in his legendary footsteps and modify the design to better fit this new category of game we would eventually call an FPS.
What was your goal for Wolfenstein 3D when it was released? Did it meet or exceed your expectations?
The goal was for Wolfenstein 3D to be a really fun game that would make people want to buy the registered version. We were making decent money from our Commander Keen sales still and adding Wolfenstein 3D’s income would ensure we could keep making games together. The first month, Wolfenstein 3D’s sales exceeded all our expectations. With no advertising the game sold 4000 copies in the first month at $60 each.
Some view Wolfenstein 3D as the pioneer for first person shooters. Do you believe it was the game that started it all?
Yes, Wolf3D was the first shooter to embody the speed and violence of the genre. Wolf3D ran at 70fps on a VGA CRT in 1992 running on a 386 PC. The design of the game was simplified to its core run-and-gun gameplay. Anything that slowed you down, we removed it. Also important was the digitized audio we used for the first time on the Sound Blaster. It so fitting because Castle Wolfenstein in 1981 was the first Apple II game to use digitized audio and it scared the hell out of you when a character opened the door and yelled “SS!” That was the cue to flip the drive door open in case you got caught. The millisecond you were caught, the disk was updated that you died. Without writing to the disk, you could resume where you left off after quitting and running the game again.
Before Wolfenstein 3D, what were some of your favorite games you worked and why?
Definitely the Commander Keen games were lots of fun to make. We created seven of those and received lots of mail from kids with hand-drawn pictures of the various characters we put in the games. Before id, I made a game called Dangerous Dave that ended up being more popular than DOOM in India and Pakistan due to its installation on every new PC sold for years. In 1984 and 1985 I made a couple games named Subnodule and Pyramids of Egypt that I sold in computer stores. Those were fun games to make because they were bigger than my average game and were more polished.
Who did the cover art for the game and what was the vision?
The cover art for Wolfenstein 3D was painted by Ken Reiger, the artist that painted the Commander Keen: Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter box cover. There wasn’t really a vision for the cover – we just told him you were a beefy Schwarzenegger-like soldier with a chaingun blasting your way through Nazis. Ken figured it out.
What are some interesting and/or funny stories that happened while working on the game?
You might not believe it, but Wolfenstein 3D’s levels was the most boring chore for Tom and I to do. The Commander Keen levels were so much more fun to make because we could directly see the level on the screen the way we would play it. With Wolfenstein 3D, the level is abstracted because we created them in 2D from above – to see them in 3D we had to run the game and see if the level looked and felt good. Our design palette was limited, so we didn’t have much we could do in a level beside do cool things with sound areas.
Due to the chore of W3D level design being boring, Tom and I would play Fatal Fury on the NEOGEO next to us. Or Street Fighter 2 on the SNES. Or go swimming in the pool. I used to remind Tom we needed to get those levels done so we didn’t have to do them again. This was mostly during the time we had to create the last 50 levels after we had created the 10 shareware levels.
If you could make a change to Wolfenstein 3D, what would it be and why?
I would remove the score items, remove lives, add more weapons, give away less ammo depending on difficulty, improve melee combat, and lots of other things. This is for the original DOS game. Those changes would make the game easier to finish, add more variety to the weapons, and toughen up the balance.
You have designed and created many more first-person shooters after Wolfenstein 3D, what are your favorite and was Wolfenstein the game that influenced the others?
DOOM and Quake were my favorites after Wolfenstein 3D. Each game was unique, and its design was informed by the success and failures of the previous game.
What are your opinions about today’s generation of video games? How do you compare them to older, classic games?
Today’s games are absolutely incredible. I wish I was growing up right now – the variety and quality is stunning. Important games have their place when they are created, and everything ages and becomes simplistic. There’s no need to compare today’s games to their antecedents, just appreciate that they existed so today’s games could likewise exist. Just remember how those games made you feel – that was entirely their point.
How do you feel about consoles and handhelds playing Wolfenstein 3D on its platform?
Well, it’s great of course. Being able to play a game that’s almost 30 years old on new hardware is always a sign that the game did something right. People are still playing Tetris!
Do you believe the of first-person shooter games are too violent and lead to violence in America?
Absolutely not. If anything, they were a release valve.
Who is your favorite video game character of all time and what makes that character special?
I would have to pick Chrono from Chrono Trigger. The entire story is designed around Chrono, and he’s only trying to save the world from Lavos with a rag-tag group of friends from various timelines.
Is there a game that you wished you were on the development team at that time and why?
I would have loved to be part of World of Warcraft, and I wish I had made Minecraft. The reason is simple: both games are incredible and have had a massive impact on people for a long time.
Doom was inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in 2019. What was your thoughts and feelings about it?
I’m definitely honored that DOOM was one of the recipients of the first cohort of the IVGHOF. Back in the 90’s, Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM were both added to the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, which was the same thing, only decades earlier. We’ll always remember Johnny Wilson and Scorpia.
In recent years you have created Romero Games, LTD. Where do you see your next generation of games going and what are your goals?
Our newest game, Empire of Sin, launches on December 1, 2020. It’s an example of how we always try to do something new, to explore genres and push them further. Most of all, it represents a really great time making a game with an exceptional team in a wonderful country, Ireland.
Where do you see video gaming in the next 10 years?
Better tech, every genre inching forward, and possibly something unexpected that changes everything.