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John Romero: "There are always people who question games that push the boundaries"

At the GamesIndustry.biz Careers Fair, the id Software co-founder discusses the patterns he's noticed emerging throughout his career

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. That was the sense you might have taken away from John Romero's opening talk at this week's GamesIndustry.biz Careers Fair.

The legendary designer kicked off the three-day event, which is part of EGX Rezzed, with a session entitled 'A Life In Games.' In it, he discussed his personal history and career, not only relating it to the iconic titles he's worked on but the other revolutionary games that came out around them.

He finished the talk with reflections on patterns he's seen repeating throughout his career and commented on how they're presented today, as well as offering an insight into where he sees the future of the industry heading.

The first pattern he discussed was digital distribution, very much the dominant delivery model in the industry today. And while it may feel like something only high-speed broadband can enable, Romero likened it to the bulletin board systems used to deliver games in the early days of his career.

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John Romero, Romero Games

"The only difference between using Steam and downloading games from a BBS in the old days is the speed has gone way up," he told attendees. "We have repeated the pattern of digital distribution from the '80s into a faster, sleeker model."

Interestingly, he notes, the RPG company he used to work for -- Origin Systems -- was acquired and later shut down by EA, and the publisher now uses that brand for its digital distribution service.

"So it looks like Origin is also repeating itself in another manifestation," he adds.

Next, he discussed multiplayer, which lies at the core of the most popular games on the market. But when people first started bringing computers into their homes, video games quickly became "overwhelmingly single-player" -- although for Romero, this felt somewhat odd.

"For as long as people have played games, they have largely been multiplayer games," he explained. "Chess, chequers, pretty much all board and card games, baseball, basketball, football -- games have always been multiplayer. But with the home computer, they became single-player.

"Doom came out at the right time when local area networks were emerging and modems were everywhere, so Doom kinda broke the single-player spell of the previous 20 years since the start of the computer games industry."

On a similar note, he observed that esports is another facet of the industry he has seen evolving. As multiplayer became more popular, more people wanted to play together at events. In the wake of Doom's release, there was a rise in LAN parties where gamers would lug their hefty CRT monitors and computer towers to a friend's house for a weekend of deathmatches.

"Chess, chequers, pretty much all board and card games -- games have always been multiplayer. But with the home computer, they became single-player."

By the time Quake was released, there were even team-based deathmatch tournaments being organised -- real competitions with cash prizes, and several leagues springing into existence around them.

"Quake was the prime game to use in esports for years, then it shifted to Counter-Strike," said Romero. "But esports started in the '80s with the arcade boom. There were arcade tournaments for many years with cash prizes given to the big winners. If you've heard of the movie King of Kong, you might remember that a couple of the main players met at a 1982 arcade tournament. Tournaments were happening everywhere back then."

While multiplayer is perhaps the natural form of gaming for many, the evolution of single-player games has seen the medium become better at telling stories. This ramped up with the classic adventure games of the '80s and '90s, but Romero said developers today are taking interactive storytelling further than many thought possible -- although it's triggered a long-running debate.

"Recently, the question of 'what is a game?' has arisen," he said. "Computer games are not games, according to people who played dungeons and dungeons and board games back in the '70s. Console games aren't games according to computer game players in the '80s. And then there was a huge issue when the 'C' was dropped from the Computer Game Developers Conference and it became GDC back in 1999 to include all platforms.

"As we expand the boundaries of games, people question whether something is even a game at all. Is Gone Home a game? Is Life Is Strange? Is Her Story? Yes, I think they are. When we push the boundaries of games and we experiment with the medium to see what it can do, there are always those who will question if this new work at the edge is still within the boundary, when in fact it has just pushed it."

John Romero also discussed his career, sharing photos from the early days of id Software, Origin and other studios he worked at

John Romero also discussed his career, sharing photos from the early days of id Software, Origin and other studios he worked at

The fifth pattern he identified was the ongoing debate about violence in video games. Games are, he said, only the latest form of media to be blamed for violence in society, following in the shoes of comic books, heavy metal and more.

"Is Gone Home a game? Is Life Is Strange? Is Her Story? Yes, I think they are. There are always those who will question if this new work at the edge is still within the boundary, when in fact it has just pushed it"

"While games are entertainment, they are very much about war and conflict practice -- chess, for instance -- and war games rose out of this," he said. "Governments have been investing in game-like technology for over 40 years.

"Dungeons & Dragons spawned its own outcry. Death Race spawned the loudest outcry in the '70s, but that was followed by Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and of course my own games [like Doom]. In a case of incredible timing, Doom released on December 10th - the day after the congressional hearings on video games in the United States.

"I believe games are cultural, and the violence we see in them goes beyond games. Plenty of countries play games -- Canada, Germany, Japan, England, they're all hardcore consumers of games and yet we don't see similar outbreaks of violence in these countries like we do in the United States. It's not the game, it's the gun. It's not the computer, it's the culture. It's not the player."

Finally, Romero looked forward to where video games are heading as an industry. Obviously, there's the high interest in virtual and augmented reality -- or XR, as they are often referred to together.

"Everyone's looking for new ways to see games and play games, and augmented reality has immediate and wide-ranging applications of seeing through your game's camera," he said.

"Mobile gaming gets more incredible every year; there's a lot of experimentation with how 3D games can be played on a smartphone so players feel like they're navigating a 3D world same as they would on PC."

He predicted that procedural generation will "reach a more impressive level" as developers apply more advanced techniques like machine learning. Eventually he expects procedural synthesis (an algorithmic method for generating graphics) could be implemented into leading engines, much the way middleware SpeedTree has in order to handle foliage generation.

Finally, Romero noted that games are becoming much more social -- "which is where they really find huge success" -- but stresses that we must never forget the value of solid game design.

"I still believe that games have to have great design to be successful," he says. "Tech by itself is not enough, but great tech combined with great design is a huge win. And what does all this great technology and design mean? It means what it has always meant. We're going to continue to have even more amazing games in the future."

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