foot soldiers, racing through mazes while fighting monsters or,
if they so chose, each other. To bring these games to the con-
sumer PC and establish Id as the market leader required skill
at simplifying difficult graphics problems and cunning in ex-
ploiting on-going improvements in computer graphics cards,
processing power, and memory size [see facing page]. To date,
their games have earned over US $150 million in sales, accord-
ing to The NPD Group, a New York City market research firm.
It all began with a guy named Mario
The company owes much of its success to advances made by
John Carmack, its 31-year-old lead programmer and cofounder
who has been programming games since he was a teenager.
t’s after midnight when the carnage begins. Inside a
castle, soldiers chase Nazis through the halls. A flame-
thrower unfurls a hideous tongue of fire. This is Return
to Castle Wolfenstein, a computer game that’s as much
a scientific marvel as it is a visceral adventure. It’s also
the latest product of Id Software (Mesquite, Texas). Through its
technologically innovative games, Id has had a huge influence
on everyday computing, from the high-speed, high-color, and
high-resolution graphics cards common in today’s PCs to the
marshalling of an army of on-line game programmers and play-
ers who have helped shape popular culture.
Id shot to prominence 10 years ago with the release of its
original kill-the-Nazis-and-escape game, Wolfenstein 3D. It and
its successors, Doom and Quake, cast players as endangered
At the time, the PC was still largely viewed as being for
business only. It had, after all, only a handful of screen colors
and squeaked out sounds through a tiny tinny speaker.
Nonetheless, the Softdisk gamers figured this was enough to
start using the PC as a games platform.
First, they decided to see if they could recreate on a PC the
gaming industry’s biggest hit at the time, Super Mario Broth-
ers 3. This two-dimensional game ran on the Super Nintendo
Entertainment System, which drove a regular television
screen. The object was to make a mustached plumber, named
Mario, leap over platforms and dodge hazards while running
across a landscape below a blue sky strewn with puffy clouds.
As Mario ran, the terrain scrolled from side to side to keep him
Back in the late 1980s, the electronic gaming industry was
dominated by dedicated video game consoles. Most game soft-
ware was distributed in cartridges, which slotted into the con-
soles, and as a consequence, writing games required expensive
development systems and corporate backing.
The only alternative was home computer game program-
ming, an underworld in which amateurs could develop and dis-
tribute software. Writing games for the low-powered machines
required only programming skill and a love of gaming.