We don’t usually bother with news around here, but sometimes it’s News and deserves a remark.
The Industry said a collective “whoa” on Friday when it learned that John Carmack, programming megamind and id Software co-founder, creator of Doom and Quake and Rage, has left the company he built. Several months ago Carmack took on a new role as Chief Technology Officer at Oculus VR – they of the eventual Oculus Rift headset – and it’s on this role that he is going to focus his attention.
John Carmack. Boy.
If you look at the whole of Carmack’s career, the whole of his contributions – not just to gaming, but to computer science in general, to technology’s evolution, to innovation, to business growth and entrepreneurialism, to spaceflight, propulsion, and now virtual reality, describing him as “a really talented guy” begins to come off a little weak. Especially when we add the fact that he’s only 42 years old, half his career is still ahead. “Talented guy?” Someone who sticks with that assessment has other problems with Carmack.
So is he, what, a programming prodigy? This I don’t know. Not being a programmer myself I wouldn’t understand how to rate his code, and it’s surely possible that his peers would just consider him a really good coder, or even a great one, but not a miracle worker. The other thing about prodigies is the loadedness of the label. Bobby Fischer was a prodigy. Stephen Wolfram is a prodigy. Prodigies are amazing but it’s like making a character in a balanced RPG. Feel free to load a single stat or skill with every last one of your starting points. You’ll be amazing at that one thing, which is where prodigy loses a great deal of luster. Prodigies, after all, still got the same starting points we did, so they tend to be deficient practically everywhere else. They have one skill to excess and insufficient of many. As for John Carmack, I guess he has a share of quirks but he’s annoyingly well-rounded for somebody with his so obvious level and breadth of skill.
After all, he’s best known for his coding, but he keeps his hands in many pies. The Oculus VR job is hardware as much as software. He founded Armadillo Aerospace, a private rocket-ship and commercial space exploitation firm; for a while it looked like he might win the Ansari X Prize, until Elon Musk’s team beat the competition. He writes well, very well, entertainingly and with good pacing, a skill the subject-verb-direct object idiocracy of the masses would do well to quit dismissing and one most highly technical people don’t have. He’s an engaging public speaker. He’s a very good educator, maybe not in a scholastic sense but certainly when he’s communicating with learners on less professorial terms. He’s even fairly personable. Maybe a little intense, but far more socially adroit than some industry people I know, including some he used to work with.
It’s kind of unfair, really.
Unless you’re laboring under some malevolent personal opinion where you just don’t like John Carmack or you preferred Unreal Tournament that much more, you have to objectively look at him and realize that he’s made some enormous contributions to gaming and technology, possibly bigger than anyone else in history. It seems excessive to say, but the very subjective matter of weight – what contributions matter most – certainly puts him in the running. If you’ve ever actually spoken to him, or seen him speak, it’s pretty obvious that you’re facing an unutterably remarkable mind. Conversations with John, whatever the ostensible topic, tend to serve largely to provide an intimidating sense of scale wherein your own intellect compares quite unfavorably to his.
He’s got a sort of trans-savant thing going on, associated with that breadth of skill. He’s a little Renaissance. We know him mostly as a coder, which for most people would be a good definition, but he’s already done other things to show it’s way too narrow for his interests.
“Programming in the abstract sense is what I really enjoy,” is how Carmack explained it, and went on to say he might have as much fun creating a big database, because it too comes front-loaded with the kind of challenges he likes. Finding similar fascination in the abstraction of rocketry and VR tech, he’s also a rocketeer and VR-eteer on top of programmer. For most people any one wouldn’t be just enough, it’d be pretty much all they could handle. Even non-prodigy skills tend to lean one way or another.
So John Carmack programmed, but arguably never was a programmer. The former is something you do. The latter is something you are. Normally it’s seen as better to “be” something, to fully inhabit it, than to simply do it. But it’s hard to be more than one thing. Most people aren’t, at least not in terms of measurable capability.
It’s not like he’s dead or something, and this is beginning to look like a he-died tribute. He hasn’t even left the industry. And the groundwork for this exit was laid months ago when he took the job at Oculus, saying he’d juggle both. Well, all three, if you count Armadillo in addition to id and Oculus. A difference between our characters is how we react to news like this. John is almost completely unfettered by the past, and not one for unimportant sentimentality.
As to his contributions at Oculus, that’s sort of hard to say. He might wind up changing the world again, he might wind up M. Night Shyamalan-ing. More likely it’ll be somewhere in between. Carmack’s massive name power will help Oculus in a variety of ways, and his technical skills will surely improve the product. I didn’t get a chance to test one out at Eurogamer – Gregg will tell you about his experience if you ask nicely – and I’m not totally sure that these bulky headsets are going to enjoy universal adoption. Still, it’s a big potential next step and a lot of smarter people than me are betting on it. Not just Oculus VR, either – Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson just Kickstarted a million bucks for CastAR, the VR glasses they’d been developing at Valve until that company ran one of its inscrutable purges and let them go. Valve, in turn, is evidently announcing an entirely new VR/wearable solution at Steam Developer Days. So VR is quite the thing right now.
And id Software, honestly, is not. Rage was a better game than people give it credit for, but it didn’t go over that well. The company’s Tech Five engine is really impressive, but it also lacks some features and effects, like dynamic light, that most consider necessary these days. And with Bethesda now owning id, Tech Five is no longer licensable anyway. DOOM 4 is in development, but rumors haven’t been positive, and Carmack himself (to his enormous credit) acknowledged in an interview that his own game design skills never evolved much past 1994. For all his vast range and extent of skill, he’s also pretty good at knowing his limitations.
Mostly this is newsworthy because id Software and John Carmack seemed kind of eternal. Despite the fact that id has not been a major influence in recent years, its early impact – and by extension his – was so impossible to quantify that even the relative obscurity of today doesn’t particularly diminish its gravity.
As for Oculus… this is either a big coup or it’s a dumb ION Storming, depending on two factors: how much Carmack is getting paid (which could be zero as easily as a gazillion), and how well the Oculus Rift does. Oh! And when it arrives. If it doesn’t ship by Q2 of next year the jokes will start. If it ships and sucks, that would be worse. If either of those things happen and Carmack’s sitting there siphoning off the startup’s large-but-finite resources in compensation, well, no technical genius will likely be enough to save them.
Still, I’m optimistic. Oculus Rift is the first time that wearable VR has seemed practical at all, and widespread developer support is promising. I also think id will continue to do okay, though it’ll doubtless miss its technical genius at the helm. My guess is that once DOOM 4 ships, Bethesda parent ZeniMax will quietly transition the studio, either to a game-heavy approach (which might necessitate a fairly large scale and culture change) or to a non-game-producing middleware studio (which would’ve been even more likely had Carmack remained). Overall, though, it’s a change that feels simultaneously big and small, as if Dallas and Houston switched places one morning. Unexpected, major, but not really a disruptive event once people get used to it.
Send Steerpike his own Dear John letter at firstname.lastname@example.org.