Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and Rage. With three of the biggest shooter properties in gaming (and also another one), id Software has clearly housed some of the industry's brightest stars. Where is this talent now?
"id Software invented and reinvented the first person shooter, turning it into the hulking mega-genre it is today."
No joke: id Software was once the most recognisable developer in gaming. Its first three shooter properties - Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake - invented and reinvented the first person shooter, turning it into the hulking mega-genre it is today. Doom is one of the most notorious games in our history. The open source id Tech engines dominated gaming before Epic and Unreal stole the show. The influence of id Software is everywhere.
As such, you might expect id to be an eternal, untouchable pillar of the industry, but this isn't so. Throughout its history it has bled talent and founders like nobody's business. There are all sorts of theories as to why this might have happened, but if you put them all together and then squint a bit the magic eye picture that appears is of an independent company struggling to stay true to the visions of not one but a myriad of talented creatives in a very tough industry. (And also headhunting by other companies keen to get a bit of that talent for themselves).
As with any situation involving human beings and their differing perspectives, the truth is hard to pin down. Even widely read and accepted accounts like David Kushner's excellent Masters of Doom, which drew on hundreds of interviews, inspire disagreements and controversies. We'll never know why id Software saw the turnover of its entire founding and chief creative staff, but we do know that it happened.
So where are they now?
Tom Hall - founded id Software 1991, left 1993
One of the least recognised of the four founding members of id Software (poor old fifth musketeer Jay Wilbur never gets a look-in), Tom Hall's story has been swamped by John Romero's thanks to their frequent collaborations.
"Anachronox has not attracted the praise such an original and personality-filled game deserves, although its cult following is testament to its appeal."
Hall was the first of the big four to leave id, having spent just two years with the company, departing before the release of the seminal Doom. Legend has it Hall fell out with other key id members over the amount of gore and violence in Doom, which took a much darker tone than Wolfenstein. Interestingly, Hall's next stop was Apogee, later known as 3D Realms, where he designed Rise of the Triad - quite a violent game in its own right, although nowhere near as controversial as Doom was. He also contributed to Terminal Velocity, a couple of Duke Nukem games and Prey before moving on to Ion Storm with Romero, a repeat collaborator.
Hall's Ion Storm history is rather more lustrous than Romero's, as his personal design project was Anachronox. Hugely overshadowed by stablemate Deus Ex, and perhaps tarred with Daikatana's brush after four years in development, Anachronox has not attracted the praise such an original and personality-filled game deserves, although its cult following is testament to its appeal. This classic of PC RPGs is still waiting for a sequel, with both fans and staff members keen to get on board if the rights and funding ever come together.
Hall left the faltering Ion Storm almost immediately after Anachronox's release, sticking with Romero to found a short-lived mobile studio and take a role at Midway Games. He spent some time with family friendly developer KingIsle, then returned to Romero's side to join social developer LootDrop. Sadly, Hall's legacy has not proved as compelling to modern gamers as other big-game 1990's stars, as his two attempts to crowdfund a project - Shaker and Worlds of Wander - failed. He now works for casual publisher PlayFirst.
Here's an interesting bit of Hall trivia: he created the Dopefish, one of those delightful little pieces of gaming arcana, and has done voice work for a variety of games.
John Romero - founded id Software 1991, left 1996
For a time, John Romero was the most notorious of id alumni. At a time when id Software was the brightest light in development, its key designers were being touted as household names among gamers. One of four original founding members of id, Romero was gone by 1996 to found Ion Storm. He spent just five years with the company he helped create and will forever be cited alongside.
"Critics took delight in putting the boot in to Daikatana, as they often do when a game is marketed with such hubris."
What happened next is a piece of gaming history. Romero threw himself into the ambitious Daikatana, the shooter to end all shooters. Whoever came up with the idea of using Romero's name in marketing materials was on the right track but the famous "John Romero's About To Make You His Bitch... Suck it down" advertisements hit precisely the wrong note.
Although Daikatana was repeatedly delayed, with development stretching right through to 2000, Ion Storm and publisher Eidos elected not to update its ageing tech, and the resulting game was mediocre at best. Critics took delight in putting the boot in, as they often do when a game is marketed with such hubris, and the contrast between pre-release expectations and reality was a crushing blow Ion Storm might not have survived if not for Warren Spector's wonderful Deus Ex releasing in the same year.
Romero left Ion Storm in 2001 with his fellow co-founder, resulting in the immediate closure of the Dallas Studio. The Austin team followed in 2005. After founding a since defunct mobile studio and short stints at Midway and Gazillion, he founded social game developer Loot Drop in 2010 in collaboration with Brenda Brathwaite-that-was - an industry legend in her own right who promptly married him, taking his surname. The two now do a lot of work in education and advocacy. Romero's most notable lead design role of recent years seems to be Facebook game Ravenwood Fair.
Sandy Petersen - joined id Software 1993, left 1997
"Petersen churned out 19 levels for Doom despite his late arrival, later contributing levels to both Doom 2 and Quake, and drawing on his horror fantasy roots for monster design in both franchises."
Coming to game development by the roundabout but not uncommon route of fantasy literature and pen-and-paper roleplaying, Sandy Petersen was a member of the legendary MicroProse before his interest in Wolfenstein 3D lured him into id Software's clutches shortly before the release of Doom.
Apparently finding no conflict between the controversially demonic Doom and his devout Mormon faith, Petersen churned out 19 levels for Doom despite his late arrival, later contributing levels to both Doom 2 and Quake, and drawing on his horror fantasy roots for monster design in both franchises.
Perhaps because his name is lesser known outside of hardcore fans, Petersen is one of the few key id alumni whose departure didn't spark rumours and speculation. He took himself off to Ensemble Studios in 1997, burying himself in Age of Empires and continuing to explore his outside interests in film, literature and board game and pen-and-paper roleplaying design.
Although he apparently still serves as creative director at jobbing studio Barking Lizards, Petersen founded Green Eye Games and seems to have come back to his roots with Cthulhu Wars, a crowdfunded board (and later video) game that drew over $1.4 million in pledges.
American McGee - joined id Software 1993, left 1998
It was EA's idea to use American McGee's highly memorable name to market his first post-id game, so the publisher is who we should thank for McGee's fame. Prior to leaving id, where he spent five years climbing rapidly from tech support to designer, McGee wasn't anywhere near as well known as some of his colleagues.
It's not totally clear why McGee left id, actually, except the impetus seems to have come from above rather than from the designer himself. Despite acknowledging McGee's contributions to Doom 2, Quake and Quake 2, id "let go" of McGee for not delivering what it was after.
"In those heady days when any association with id was a potential goldmine, EA birthed American McGee's Alice, a dark take on the Lewis Carroll stories that slotted right in with late 1990's goth cool."
Luckily, he wasn't unemployed for long. In those heady days when any association with id was a potential goldmine, EA birthed American McGee's Alice, a dark take on the Lewis Carroll stories that slotted right in with late 1990's goth cool, and nowadays the designer's association with fairy tales and fables has been cemented by the cult success of this classic.
Several unrelated projects marketed under McGee's name followed but none has ever come anywhere near the success of Alice, although a sequel - Alice: Madness Returns - achieved growing acceptance among fans a few years on from a disappointing launch.
McGee now heads up independent studio Spicy Horse in Shanghai, which has a number of cross-platform multiplayer projects on the bubble in addition to a crowdfunded cinematic re-examination of the Alice mythos. Spicy Horse's games almost always seem to tap into major trends and put an interesting twist on them, not to mention a trademark splash of imaginative aesthetics, but for whatever reason, none of them have found major success in the west. Yet.
Next: The exodus of the 1990's is over, but the slow leeching away of familiar faces is not.
Adrian Carmack (no relation) - founded id Software 1991, left 2005
In the history of id Software, John Romero and especially John Carmack are the names that buried themselves in people's minds. It's no wonder, then, that every mention of fellow co-founder Adrian Carmack is immediately followed by a quick "no relation". And then by one party saying "who"?
"It was with Adrian Carmack's input that games like Doom and Quake took on their trend-setting aesthetics."
And yet Carmack (no relation) played a vital role in the early days of id, serving as its first artist. Although he had never planned to enter the games industry, it was with his input that games like Doom and Quake took on their trend-setting aesthetics, taking the raw potential of the other Carmack's graphical breakthroughs and turning them into memorable, darkly beautiful worlds that still resonate.
After a flurry of high-profile departures in the 90's we thought id had settled whatever behind-the-scenes goings-on drove its high turnover, but it was not to be. When Carmack announced his departure from id in 2005, he quietly put it down to a desire to pursue other forms of art, having done all that he felt he could in gaming. Later, he took the rest of id's owners to court.
According to Carmack's claims, the other owners of id conspired to push him out of the company for refusing a buyout offer. The terms of his contract required him to give up his 41% stake in the developer for $11 million, and while that might sound like good money, at the time Carmack levelled his complaints that share was valued at a minimum of $43 million. That's a much larger number indeed.
The dispute seems to have quietly faded away, and Activision - who was rumoured to have made the repeated, ever more lucrative acquisition attempts that sparked tensions - did not fork out for id. Carmack has since withdrawn from the development scene altogether, although Chinese whispers report he is well and happy.
Todd Hollenshead - joined id Software 1992, left 2013
Gamers were shocked when Bethesda parent company Zenimax Media bought the developer out in 2009, but at least it freed the team up to focus on producing technical wizardry and excellent games rather than getting bogged down in money and management matter. Right?
"So familiar had Hollenshead become to id fans that it’s often a shock to remember that he wasn’t one of the founders; prior to joining id he was a tax consultant."
Maybe, but it also meant less for former id Software CEO Todd Hollenshead to do. With his bulging muscles and rippling waterfall of metal hair, Hollenshead was a highly recognisable face of id Software, and had become something of a spokesperson thanks to his engaging presence at QuakeCon.
So familiar had Hollenshead become to id fans that it's often a shock to remember that he wasn't one of the founders, nor worked his way up as a developer; prior to joining id he was, in fact, a tax consultant, who jumped ship from financial company Arthur Andersen. (Isn't that wonderful? If my financial advisor looked like a viking prince I'd be more inclined to take his advice.) The savvy businessman is nevertheless credited on all id games from Wolfenstein 3D onwards.
Since id seems to have been driven more by passion and talent than profits, to a degree unfortunately rarely seen in successful developers, it's likely Hollenshead was one of the lynchpins holding it together before it finally gave up and humbly submitted itself to Zenimax's management. Having steered the ship through many a stormy sea, Hollenshead gave up his post-acquisition presidential role and has now gone to his well-earned rest. Oh, no, he's not dead; he just seems to have gone to a better place, where nobody makes him talk about Rage.
John Carmack - founded id Software 1991, left 2014
Finally, we come to the big one. John Carmack was the last of id's founders to leave the company, and it was a departure that we never expected.
"Carmack’s next-level tech wizardry is one of the industry’s treasures, and Zenimax’s refusal to pursue virtual reality lost it this priceless gem."
An undisputed master who leaves other, lesser programmers gasping, and - I swear to god - a literal rocket scientist, Carmack was the driving force behind id Tech in all its permutations over the years.
Whether this makes him an expert game designer we can't say; in the absence of other veterans, Carmack's name was attached to Rage perhaps more firmly than it ought to have been - after all, video games are a hugely collaborative enterprise, and he who builds the engine doesn't necessarily call the tune.
Regardless, Carmack's next-level tech wizardry is one of the industry's treasures, and Zenimax's refusal to pursue virtual reality lost it this priceless gem - much to Oculus Rift's delight. Thanks to his repeated advocacy, it's clear Carmack is a great believer in virtual reality, and may be just the man the tech needs to solve its hard problems.
Carmack's departure marked the end of an era. Yes, other high profile names had come and gone, but his exit marked a complete turnover of the original founding group. So who's left at id Software?
Tim Willits - joined id Software 1995
When you're mourning the loss of the old guard, don't forget one proud sentinel still standing watch over id. Tim Willits was recruited by id in 1995, just four years after its founding, on the strength of Doom levels built in his spare time. He hasn't looked back since.
Rising up through the ranks to eventually serve as creative director on Rage, Willits is an integral part of id, and his continued presence at the developer should help ease concerns that the spirit of the crew has been watered down post-acquisition.
Kevin Cloud - joined id Software 1992
Another early id hire, Kevin Cloud was hired on as assistant artist to Adrian Carmack just one year after id's genesis. Like many of the early id staff, he was a Softdisk alumni. He's reasonably notorious for being a staunch supporter of new properties and projects when all id Software staff wanted to do is knuckle down on remakes; since the compromise result of all this internal strife was Doom 3, we're still debating whether the fallout was positive or negative.
With credits stretching right back to Wolfenstein 3D, Cloud now acts as id's lead artist as well as having served as executive producer and creative director in his time. His importance to id is probably best illustrated by acknowledging his role as co-owner, with John Carmack, prior to Zenimax Media's acquisition of the studio. He currently shows no signs of wanting to wander off.
It's the unfortunate nature of the games industry that the work of hundreds is publicly credited to a very few. The scope of this article does not permit us to touch on the many, many other important and recognised figures throughout id's history, but if you'd like to chime in with your own heroes, we'd love to hear them.