This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. June is Icons Month, where we’re profiling iconic video game industry figures, characters, series, and themes.
John and Brenda Romero are talking to me from separate rooms in their home, but both are surrounded by nerdy detritus, lovingly collected: a couple of pinball machines, a jumble of computer parts. “If you’re looking at the screen to John’s right,” says Brenda, “that’s an Apple II that hopefully is going to start running again. And behind John to his left are three boxes of old Apple II five-and-a-quarter disks, one of which includes the source code from Autoduel from Origin.”
The Apple II and The Icon of Sin
The weekend prior they’d gone through the disks together. This is the kind of family activity the Romeros enjoy, and one that bonded them together in the first place. The pair first met in 1987, fleetingly, while Brenda, then working at Sir-tech Sofware, visited Origin Systems where John was employed (Sir-Tech was showing off the latest Wizardry game, Origin was showing off the latest Ultima.) He fixed a computer she was to be stationed at, which was reportedly broken. “It just needed to be turned on,” Brenda recalls.
But because they were, as Brenda quotes, both “hardcore nerds,” their paths continued to cross in the (then) burgeoning video game industry. Minus John’s rockstar period after his string of hits between 1990 and 1993 in Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom, respectively (“I wasn’t going to surf through the people to talk to the Icon of Sin”, says Brenda), they were close friends for years.
“We are both overly fascinated about game history, if for instance, we were talking about Nasir Gebelli or Bill Budge or some obscure Apple II thing, we would be far more interested in that than having any kind of sort of dating conversation,” Brenda says.
In 2010, they finally had that dating conversation. “And then,” she continues, “it kind of escalated from there.”
John Romero on the Current State of the FPS
Their careers, both apart and together, are iconic. It’s rare for two people who have affected the course of gaming history as much as John and Brenda did to become romantically involved; they are as close to a ‘power couple’ as the video game industry gets.
Brenda, who cut her teeth in a variety of roles at Sir-tech, developer of the Wizardry series of RPGs, would go on to become one of the most important voices in advocacy and education around the medium. Her work has seen her receive a number of awards, a Fullbright fellowship, and widespread recognition as an early pioneer in a male-dominated industry.
John – the Icon of Sin, named after his appearance in the Doom 2 level of the same name – was the co-founder of id Software alongside Tom Hall, John, and Adrian Camack. His work on the aforementioned franchises there established a shooter rulebook that is still as vital to games today as it was back in the ‘90s.
These days, the pair are hard at work on The Empire of Sin, a moody strategy game set in prohibition-era Chicago, developed by their self-formed studio, Romero Studios, in Galway, Ireland. Their downtime is spent shuffling through Apple 2 disks, yes, but also playing video games (at one point they have to tell one of their four kids to stop making so much noise playing an FPS during our interview; apparently the apple does not fall far from the tree).
The pair play everything. During our conversation talk of indies – That Dragon, Cancer, What Remains of Edith Finch, Braid – flows easily into The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, Fortnite. And though the latter game has ubiquitously dominated the conversation the last couple of years, John still thinks the core of the FPS genre has remained largely unchanged since he and his friends helped usher it into the mainstream in the ‘90s.
“The basic elements of FPSs have been around for a long time,” he says. “They just started looking a lot better.”
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If that sounds like something one of the godfathers of the FPS would say, it’s not uncorroborated in the broader industry. When IGN spoke to Doom Eternal’s project director Hugo Martin earlier on in the year, he spoke to how the bones of the older games continue to influence the newer. “[It’s] not just the mechanics, but the tone and the attitude and the personality.” Martin added, “Those levels [in the old games] feel like they’re fucking with you. They’re constantly keeping you on your toes. It feels like you’re in a developer’s funhouse made for a person walking around with a chainsaw and a shotgun. It’s critical that the [new game’s] levels have that intangible quality to them because when they don’t they feel very stale.”
John argues that there haven’t been any truly major changes in the genre “except for maybe Call of Duty where you have an objective-based progression model, or Half-Life 2, which introduced a lot of storytelling.” He says the battle royale genre is a feature, not the future. [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20battle%20royale%20genre%20is%20a%20feature%2C%20not%20the%20future.”]
“It’s another mode of deathmatch. It’s not, like, a whole new type of shooter. It’s a shooter. It’s just in a bigger map and it has a lot more people and it ends within a specific time. So it’s a cool rule set for deathmatch.”
As far as building on his own heritage, John recalls the struggle to reboot Doom in 2016 and is impressed by how the team eventually managed to isolate exactly what made a great Doom experience while also freshening it up for modern audiences. “They asked themselves ‘What is the core second-to-second experience that identifies this franchise?’ And [the answer is] it’s shooting monsters. It’s fast, skilful movement, shooting demons, and moving through rooms to the exit. Doom 2016 felt like the original because they timed it correctly. They balanced everything to match. And then, with Doom Eternal, they decided to push what Doom could be even further with the balancing of resources.”
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Brenda Romero on the Current State of the RPG
While John riffs on shooters, Brenda contemplates how the RPG has evolved from a relatively niche genre to a set of mechanics even the most mainstream, linear single-player games cherry-pick from (think about The Last of Us Part 2’s character upgrades, for example). “We’re starting to see players wanting to create their own sense of identity and have their own agency within a game and to see what they’ve done reflected in the game,” she says. “And that’s all about role-playing. And so games that you might not ever have thought of having this role-playing element, where you’re building your character up, suddenly do.”
Brenda notes it wasn’t always this way. Both she and John recall their pasts with a warm kind of exasperation. Brenda was a hardcore tabletop nerd with a fondness for metal bands – not a recipe for popularity back in the ‘80s. “If you were a hardcore RPG player, you were the nerdiest of the embarrassing nerd,” she says with a laugh. “If you know what ‘THAC0’ means, first you are great and you are my kind of people. But back when I was going to school, if you were playing D&D – which I was – you were an outcast. And then, if you layered on Black Sabbath, you were doubly outcast. But nowadays D&D is something cool that people do.” [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CIf%20you%20were%20a%20hardcore%20RPG%20player%2C%20you%20were%20the%20nerdiest%20of%20the%20embarrassing%20nerd.%E2%80%9D”]
Our conversation moves from niche nerddom to blockbuster single-player games. John thinks experiences like Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us are “amazing,” but it’s clear that story and cut-scenes aren’t where his heart lies. Brenda describes him as a particularly literal brain when it comes to making games, wired in code and concept rather than story and world-building. “If John were forced to pick an island between programming and design,” she teases, “he would absolutely pick the programming island.”
Looking at their individual and combined body of work, including the upcoming Empire of Sin, the pair seem more interested in systems-heavy experiences that facilitate more emergent storytelling. “I’m the type of person who wants to start in this sort of sandbox,” says Brenda. “‘How can I make all these things do as many different things as possible’ and see what direction the player takes it?”
On Crunch Culture
Of course, talk of blockbuster video games leads to talk of one of the more pressing issues for those on the development side of games: crunch. Crunch is an issue both Romeros acknowledge as enormous, but one that demands complex solutions. “I think the best-case scenario for any developer is when you are in charge of your own destiny, so to speak,” says Brenda. She explains that “video games are an imperfect art”, and if something takes 40 days instead of the 30 days that were planned, having the extra runway to say “it’s done when it’s done” is vital.
But a lot of developers aren’t in that position, she adds. “It even becomes more complicated when you think about if you’ve taken pre-orders… If you’re in a situation where you’ve taken pre-orders and now you’ve gone past that specific window, then you have to refund everybody. There are some pretty big financial repercussions.”
Brenda ponders the number of people she’s seen depart the industry due to crunch. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve worked every day, 12 hours a day, for nine months,” she says. “And that’s just gross. Nobody can sustain that kind of stuff. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes some game developers say, ‘It’s not worth it. There are other ways to do this. There are other ways to make cash. There’s a better way of life.’ And that’s a pity because we lose some really good people from the industry when that happens.” [poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=And%20that’s%20a%20pity%20because%20we%20lose%20some%20really%20good%20people%20from%20the%20industry%20when%20that%20happens.%E2%80%9D”]
The Romeros have carved their way to a unique position in a difficult industry: they’re exactly where they want to be, with the freedom to do what they want to do at their own pace. With that foot off the gas, there comes an easy warmth and humility to their rapport – it clearly helps that their early friendship meant a couple of decade’s worth of mutual support. I ask if there’s ever been a sticking point in their shared love of game design.
“I don’t like Chrono Trigger,” Brenda answers. “And I don’t know why I don’t like it. This is so ridiculous. John adores Chrono Trigger. John has seven copies of Chrono Trigger.”
“I think,” she says, as John laughs, “our marriage will survive it”.