Headlines > News > Video game pioneer now eyes space flight

Video game pioneer now eyes space flight

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Jan 12, 2005 7:26 am
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chabot imageBY ALEXANDRA WITZE, The Dallas Morning News: Millionaire programmer John Carmack turned the hood of his Ferrari F50 into a place to lay machine shop books.

The gleaming sports car in his Rockwall, Texas, garage had to share its space with more-appealing equipment – a giant lathe where he churns out rocket parts.

At 34, Carmack is outgrowing speed driving and turning instead to high flying. As the leader of Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, he’s a respected force behind the push to develop cheaper, easier access to space.

The role of space revolutionary fits well a man who, almost single-handedly, transformed the video gaming industry. No matter what he does in aerospace, to legions of gaming fans he will always remain “Carmack the Magnificent,” the legendary programmer behind the hugely popular games “Doom” and “Quake.”

For most people, being famous and rich would be enough. Not so for John Carmack. An intensely intelligent and introspective man, he seems remarkably immune to the adoration that swirls around him.

“I’m not bothered much by what people say about me,” he says. “My social graces leave a lot to be desired, but almost all of my motivations are internal.”

Given a choice, he’d rather be in his rocket workshop or at his computer, tackling an engineering problem in a new and different way.

“The things that motivate John are the things that put him out on the edge of discovery,” says Phil Eaton, one of his Armadillo co-workers. “Thinking of ways to get there, that’s what challenges him the most.”

Until problems with launch licensing and fuel suppliers temporarily derailed the group, Armadillo Aerospace was considered one of the leading contenders to win the X Prize, a $10 million race to put a private rocket into suborbital space.

Another team claimed the X Prize in October. Carmack congratulated the winners and, typically, wasted no time in refocusing on his original goal.

“It’s not about swinging at the fences for the grand slam,” he says. “It’s about chipping away at a problem.”

His approach to space echoes his general approach to life: If there’s a problem, engineer a solution. Find creative ways around any stumbling block.

“Creating something that a lot of people can use is often at the heart of what he does, and it’s the difference between being a successful businessperson and a tenured professor at a university,” says his wife, Katherine Anna Kang.


As successful as he is, Carmack doesn’t look like a typical businessperson. He sports the programmer’s usual outfit of shorts, T-shirt, and pale skin. It’s a style that works for long hours at his two jobs: building rockets and programming for id Software, the Mesquite home of some of the most popular video games ever.

Even on Sundays, which his wife says is newly designated as family day, he reads technical manuals to his 5-month-old son, Christopher Ryan. “John’s responsible for teaching programming and science,” jokes Kang.

Most of his knowledge comes from teaching himself. He learned rocketry using online NASA technical manuals – the old ones from the `60s and `70s, not the newer ones that he scoffs at for being full of acronyms and devoid of useful information. He picked up computer programming during long nights working with other game fanatics.

Growing up near Kansas City, the son of a local television anchor, “I had a normal, gifted-geek childhood,” he remembers. Chemistry sets and model rockets dominated his life – until personal computers came along. Suddenly, a new world opened before him.

But his ordinary school couldn’t afford a lot of computer power. At age 14, he and a group of friends sneaked into a wealthier, neighboring school to “borrow” an Apple II. Instead, he got a year in juvenile detention.

Hardened against authority, he turned to programming. He began a lifelong pattern of working at his computer into the wee hours, fueled by a stream of pizza and Diet Coke.

His parents insisted he go to college, but he dropped out after two semesters at the University of Kansas. To pay bills, he took a programming job in Shreveport, La.

By day, he developed games. By night, he and his co-workers loaded the company’s powerful computers into their cars and took them home for a night of programming.

On their own, they put out a landmark, immersive action game called “Commander Keen.” The first royalty check was enough to persuade part of the group to quit their day jobs and start their own company. After a series of brief moves, id Software finally took root in Mesquite in 1991.


Carmack’s specialty was the gaming “engine,” the programming code that creates a video game’s visual environment. With a Carmack engine, players could more realistically scroll through three-dimensional surroundings, creating a fluid virtual experience. Another id co-founder, John Romero, tackled game design, fashioning the look and characters for each title.

Together, the “Two Johns” gained a reputation as the Lennon and McCartney of gaming.

And then, in 1993, id released “Doom.”

The flood of downloads crashed servers the night “Doom” was released. Within weeks, it became the best-selling video game of all time.

Id became legend. Chat rooms buzzed with tales of Carmack’s robotic work habits and Romero’s flamboyant “deathmatch” playing, in which he would smash computer monitors as a rock star would smash his guitar.

Romero eventually left id, run out by a philosophical rift with Carmack and other id co-owners. The Two Johns no longer speak, but they maintain a long-distance courtesy.

“Sheer focus and genius like his can change the world,” Romero says of his one-time partner.

Id continued to thrive. Today, its games are hotly anticipated, and its programmers regarded as demigods. Gamers flock to hear Carmack and other id owners speak at the annual QuakeCon gathering in North Texas.

“Doom 3,” the company’s latest offering, has sold more than a million copies since its summer release.

Rumors abound that, after 13 years with id, Carmack is bored with gaming and ready to retire. But not just yet, he says.

He’s currently working on the engine for id’s next game, another 3-D action-horror title that won’t be released for several years. Crafting the new engine presents exactly the kind of technical challenge he thrives on.

For “Doom 3,” for instance, he taught himself optics so he could more realistically render light bouncing off the walls, floors and passageways of the game’s landscape.

“The more I learn about any given subject, the more humble I am,” he says.

Among programmers, Carmack is famed for his openness with his software code. Going against standard business practice, he released the code for “Doom” and “Quake,” which allowed other programmers to modify the game as they pleased – for instance, tweaking the appearance of the backgrounds or the villains. To him, the release validated an unspoken programmer’s principle to share information.


He’s just as transparent when it comes to Armadillo’s rocket development.

Among all the X Prize competitors, Armadillo was the only team to regularly share its progress with the public. Carmack updates the team Web site, www.armadilloaerospace.com, every Monday with notes from the previous week’s testing. He even posted a video of one of Armadillo’s rockets crashing spectacularly in August.

Every Tuesday and Saturday, the half-dozen members of Armadillo Aerospace gather in a cavernous warehouse in a Dallas office park. Most of them scurry around drilling, welding, soldering and fueling giant machines.

Carmack orchestrates it all, rattling off jobs that need to be done as he ratchets up a rocket engine or digs through a box of parts for a particular flange.

Armadillo hasn’t launched anyone more than a few inches off the ground during test flights. Yet each week, the crew debugs its latest rocket, envisioning a day when the latest launch sends a person soaring into suborbital space.

Instead of flying groups of people aboard a spacecraft for $200,000 each, as British tycoon Richard Branson has proposed, Carmack wants to do it for $10,000 per ticket.

He is no rebel billionaire, throwing money at a problem until it’s solved. He is Armadillo’s sole funder, and he has already spent nearly $1.5 million on it over the past four years.

But he isn’t loose with money: When faced with a supplier demanding he stockpile $40,000 worth of fuel, he refused, frustrated with the regulatory demands. The supplier went out of business, and Armadillo had to design a new engine to accommodate a different type of fuel.

Carmack’s generosity crops up regularly in other fields. He gave away one of his Ferraris as a prize in a “Quake” tournament, reportedly handing the winner thousands of dollars in cash to ship the car home.

In September he hired a “vomit comet” plane and took his Armadillo and id friends up for their first joy ride in zero gravity, practicing judo throws as they floated. He regularly gives money to the Mesquite Police Department, allowing them to purchase tactical equipment for SWAT teams.

“I have a lot of respect for a difficult job where you don’t get much thanks,” he explains.

Life for “Doom`s” creator is not likely to slow down much. For a while after his son was born, he was getting home early – around midnight – instead of 2 or 3 a.m.

But he still sleeps in the guest bedroom so he can get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep before tackling another long day of gaming or rocketry.

Born in 1970 in Kansas City, Kan.; now lives in Rockwall, Texas
Gained fame as the programming genius behind some of the most popular video games of all time, including “Doom” and “Quake”
Co-founder of the gaming company id Software
Also known for his efforts to develop a private rocket to carry people into space


id Software Web page at www.idsoftware.com and “Doom 3″ page at www.doom3.com

Armadillo Aerospace’s Web site www.armadilloaerospace.com

Though the X Prize has been claimed, discussion forums linger at www.xprizenews.org/forum, including one started by John Carmack.

“Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture” (Random House, $24.95), by David Kushner, chronicles the tale of Carmack and his id co-founders, particularly John Romero.

© 2005, The Dallas Morning News.
Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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