BEYOND DOOM AND QUAKE

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The biggest entertainment software convention of the year was nine days away, and John Romero still didn't have his monsters finished or his dialogue written. The computer gaming masses who descend upon Atlanta this Thursday for the third annual Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) will be lining up to test-drive the latest offering from the man who designed some of the seminal CD-ROM games of the 1990s--including Doom, Doom II and Quake--but as of last week, Romero and his team were still scrambling to get the demo done.

Being under the gun is nothing new to Romero. For five years, he and the other co-founders of id Software rolled out one ultraviolent shoot-'em-up game after another, in the process becoming legends in the gaming world: designer Romero for the orgiastic mayhem of his monster-filled scenarios; artist Adrian Carmack for his dystopian, mazelike backdrops; and programmer John Carmack (no relation) for game engines that create an uncanny sense of careering movement through a real three-dimensional space.

This time, however, Romero is competing not with id but against it. Last November he and id marketing whiz Mike Wilson abruptly left the company, hooked up with Tom Hall (an id designer who had left earlier), moved into a Dallas skyscraper and announced the birth of a new company, ION Storm. Their first product is called Daikatana, and the E3 show this week is their best chance to spark some buzz for a Christmas '97 software season in which they will almost certainly go head-to-head with id's Quake II. How to finish the demo in time? "Get in at 2 p.m.," says Romero, "and stay until 4 in the morning." And repeat daily until the job is done.

The ability to work around the clock, along with his childhood obsession with games like Pac-Man and his Bill Gatesian decision to drop out of college to write software, are traits Romero shares with many top-notch programmers. He met Hall and the two Carmacks at a company called Soft Disk in Shreveport, La., in 1989, and within two years the four had launched id, settling by 1992 in a Dallas suburb called Mesquite.

Six years later, id's 3-D bloodfests have spawned a worldwide gaming revolution and made its founders cult heroes and multimillionaires before age 30. Sports cars and magazine covers swiftly followed. Romero in particular wore the mantle of pop-culture godhood with aplomb. If the four founders were, as Wired magazine dubbed them last August, "The Egos at id," then Romero, with his lion's mane of black hair, his Tudor mansion, his Testarossa, BMW and Humvee, was the superego.

Why did the hottest game-development team in PC history break up faster than the Beatles? According to Romero, it was because his vision of gaming perfection clashed with John Carmack's vision of coding perfection and lost. Carmack saw id as a boutique company, cranking out one title a year based on his latest it'll-be-ready-when-it's-ready game engine--which left lead designer Romero feeling like a second-class citizen. "We were spending all this time making data for this engine that wasn't even done yet," Romero says, frustration still edging his voice, "and then we'd have to throw it all away because John decided to change something."

Carmack's perfectionism, Romero felt, was costly. Why were they waiting around month after month to make just one game using Carmack's Doom engine, when in the same time they could have released three variations on the Doom theme? "id was just too limiting," he says dismissively. "Too small. Small thinking."

John Carmack doesn't disagree with Romero's description of their clashing priorities. "I'm doing what I want to do now, and it happens to be making us millions of dollars," he told TIME last week, in one of his first public comments on the split with his former partner. Carmack doesn't want to grow id into a big company. "There's only so many Ferraris I want to own," he says. But he takes issue with Romero's version of their breakup. "John's a good designer, and he's got artistic talent. But the fact is that after he got rich and famous, the push to work just wasn't there anymore." Romero didn't quit last fall, says Carmack. "He was handed his resignation."

Now the two young moguls will put their competing visions to the test. ION's big idea is that the age of game technology is over and the age of game design has begun. "Three-D is like Technicolor," says Wilson, pooh-poohing the value of Carmack's perpetual tinkering with his game engines (the latest, code-named Trinity, is due next year). "Once you're there, you're there. It's time to focus on content."

To that end, ION has three autonomous design teams working in parallel, each producing a title in one of the classic computer-game genres. Hall's team is creating a role-playing game called Anachronox, while designer Todd Porter and his team develop Doppelganger, a strategy game. Both are due out next year. For now, ION's bread and butter is the 3-D action game Romero's team is building.

Daikatana, ironically, uses the Quake game engine (id happily licenses Carmack's old engines to any developer willing to pay royalties). It's an expanded version of the standard id action game, with a list of new tricks: where Quake had seven weapons, Daikatana promises 35; to Quake's 10 monsters, Daikatana will offer 64. (Carmack scoffs at these numbers, saying there's "no chance" ION will finish a game of this size in time for the Christmas shopping season.) Daikatana also departs from Quake's Gothic aesthetic with a time-travel story line that allows four levels with four distinct looks: ancient Greece, medieval Europe, San Francisco circa 2030, and the far future.

Daikatana also features a pair of talking characters who act as allies to the human player--a bold departure from standard-issue 3-D carnage that Romero hopes will boost emotional involvement and, eventually, help turn mere games into immersive dramas. "The Internet is sucking people away from TV like crazy," he says, anticipating the day when computer users will tune in to the ION Website as they used to tune in to prime-time TV shows. "Every week the latest Daikatana episode would be up on our site at, say, Friday at 9 p.m.," he says. "It could have new music, new levels, new characters--whatever we can throw over the Internet."

ION's ultimate goal, says Wilson, is to make computer gaming a mass medium "in the same league as film, TV and music." But like those media--perhaps even more so--entertainment software is a risky, hit-driven business. "There will be 3,700 titles published this year," says Wilson, "and maybe five will be best sellers." What's worse, id's onetime monopoly is gone. Last year's independent hit Duke Nukem was just the beginning; this fall will bring a veritable 3-D deluge, including not only Quake II and Daikatana but also Raven's Hexen II, LucasArts' Jedi Knight, Core Design's Tomb Raider II, Valve's Half Life, and other children of Doom.

ION may be the richest of the new kids. A $13 million advance from publisher Eidos Interactive paid for 50-plus employees (three times as many as id has) and space in Dallas' third highest skyscraper, the Texas Commerce Tower, whose button-down bankers and lawyers, says Wilson, at first looked askance "at all us pony-tailed, combat boot-wearing, tattooed freaks." In fact, ION's lease requires company employees to dress in "business casual" in deference to those aforementioned bankers and lawyers, who are now stopping them in the lobby to ask when the new game will be ready.

The answer is sometime this fall. And by November, if construction goes smoothly, ION, now crammed into temporary digs on the 30th floor, will become the first tenants of the building's spectacular 54th-floor penthouse, a 22,000-sq.-ft. atrium overlooking 360[degrees] of Dallas skyline. Somewhere down below, the company's rivals at id are cranking out Quake II. Is Romero still close with his old mates? He shakes his head. "Not really," he says quietly. "No."

Across the office, Wilson grins, folds his hands and hoists his combat boots onto a desk. "It's an interesting soap opera we're creating here in Dallas," he says.

Business casual indeed.