Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bullshit Building 10: Ion Storm Office

Any 1990s - 2000s gamer knows Ion Storm company. I am sure the story of this company and its office is a useful tale for everybody, not only for gamer. This is a tale about vanity, human chemistry, and of course ... hubris.

The Beginning
In the 1990s, when internet and personal computer began to become common in every house, video game industry started to blossom into a multi-billion industry. History repeated itself: whenever a new industry blossom, new opportunity mushroom, and new people start to become rich. Very rich.

Two of such people are the 2 Johns from id Software: John Carmack and John Romero. Their personality and talents were so contrast like day and night. Carmack is the laser focus-programmer-hermit who created many revolutions in programming of graphic engines. Romero is the gamer-artist-celebrity who has a knack to implement Carmack's programming into a revolutionary game. In essence, Carmack was the scientist, while Romero was the artist. Together with other young talented friends, they arguably created and popularized the "First-Person-Shooter" genre with Wolfenstein-3D, Doom, and Quake. Hell, they even created popular terms in this genre like "Deathmatch." So for readers who are too young and thought that "Modern Warfare" is the most legendary FPS, this is the story about the men who created this genre.

Their pattern in developing their games was like this: Carmack created their "game engine," the nuts and bolts of the game, the "lego" that determines how computers shape and play the game, while Romero is the one who experimented with the engine, gave ideas what kind of implementation that the engine could or should have, implement that engine, and using it to create revolutionary special effects. The result was fantastic. Romero could utilized Carmack's revolutionary engine in many ways that Carmack himself couldn't possibly think. Not only that, Carmack's conservativeness hit the break whenever Romero went too far, while Romero's aggressiveness pulled the best out of Carmack. Looks like their difference complemented each other perfectly, covering each other weakness.

But their success created cracks and frictions. After the success of "Doom" and "Doom II," Romero acted like a rockstar with Doom gamers as his groupies, while Carmack started to work for their next project: Quake. Romero felt that Carmack lost touch with their customers: the gaming community. On the same time, Carmack thought that Romero was too distracted to fill his usual role as the id's level designer. He also thought Romero wasted his and other employee's time with his deathmatches. Romero also wanted to go big, while Carmack wanted to stay focus, stay small. In essence, Romero wanted a gaming empire, while Carmack is a minimalist who wants only to program games.

The gaming world also got another glimpse of Romero's weakness during the early days of Quake's development. When Romero, Carmack and other programmer brainstorming about Quake, Romero was really awed with what he heard. He shared his excitement with all of his fans, that means basically all gamers on earth. Complete with his usual hyperbolic wordings like "The next game is going to blow Doom to hell!"

His colleagues disliked this behaviour, with good reason. Since Quake was still in its infant stages, many of their ideas wouldn't make it in the final version of the game. Many gamers would be pissed if this happens. Romero agreed, but Romero couldn't help himself. After that, during an interview with "Computer Player" magazine, he proclaimed:
 "Quake won't be just a game. It will be a movement."
Can you see where this is going?

The cracks and frictions culminated when Carmack called Romero "poison for the company," and shoot down his design for "Quake." Romero finally had enough. He left Id Software after they finished "Quake." Carmack also practically sacked him. Romero and his close friends founded a new game company. This company would be the realization of Romero's dream.  They were sure that money would not be a problem since everybody in gaming industry thought that John Romero had Midas touch.

One night in November 1996, Romero's real estate agent ecstatically called him about the perfect place he just found. A two-story, 2090 m² (22.500 ft²) penthouse of the JP Morgan Chase Tower in Dallas. The agents explained that the space has its drawbacks: it is expensive ($550.000 per month) and difficult to air conditioned. Not a problem for Romero. Especially after he secured funding from Eidos. He and his friends also agreed for the new name of their new company: "ION Storm." Its motto? "Design is Law"!

The Lobby
The movie room & its $50.000 projector
The Design
After agreeing with the agent to rent the penthouse, and secured funding from Eidos Interactive, Romero  hired an architect firm: "Russ Berger Design Group" to change the plain penthouse into Ion Storm's office.

They spend $2.5 million for the office renovation. The result looked awesome.  Mike Wilson, Ion Storm's marketing head, declared that his company was a Willy Wonka factory of gaming. Hell yeah. You could see from the pictures.

They even have a movie rooms equipped with $ 50.000,00 projector and comfortable leather couches. Of course they have tons of computers, connected with each other to play "Deathmatch"! And seriously, I have no idea what room, other than security room, that actually need 12 televisions, but of course it looks cool as hell!

Biz Area
Romero really practice the company's "Design is Law" motto. You have to give him credit for that!

But, that beautiful office has one very small fundamental problem.

Other than the extremely high price, the office simply had too many sunlights. No programmer like sunlight. Especially sunlight from above that shines on their monitor screen. To solve this problem Romero installed some covers. Not enough. Ion Storm's employees were forced to bring blankets from their home to block the sunlight. A game programmer needs total darkness in order to program comfortably.

ARGH! The sunlight!
and that is after the covers ...
Gee, a game programming office with shiny sunlight over your head? Why Romero didn't know better? Oh yeah, I forgot, at that time he was a kid in a candy store with his dad's credit card! Why not? Investors were lining to give their money to him!

And looks like Romero didn't count correctly. With 55 grand rent per month, he will spend 6,6 million Dollar per year only for the rent of this office. And don't forget about the expensive electric bill to pay for the cooling of this office, and other maintenance cost. A startup company that spend so many money only for its office before making any product?? He needs to produce boxoffice video games every year only to cover the office maintenance cost.  Looks like he was 1000% sure that all the game he produced would be as popular as Doom.

The Video Game Production Business
And sunlight was only one of the problem faced by Ion Storm. Romero hired many talented programmers and artists, but most of them didn't have any experience in video game production. Since Romero himself also lacked focus, nobody direct the Ion Storm's employees.

Romero and other Ion Storm's founders initial plan was, to buy half-finished game, and complete it in short time for quick buck. This is of course besides their big project they planned to build from scratch. Their first game: a real-time-strategy named Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3.

You don't know that game right? Or maybe you remember it but can't exactly remember its gameplay? That's because the game used an outdated engine, and published around the same time Blizzard launched the most successful Real-Time-Strategy of all time: Starcraft.

Okay ... but that is not really bad, since any game company produce 1 or 2 bad games. Most important is Romero's big dream: a first-person-shooter named Daikatana. Romero envisioned a first-person-shooter that involved AI controlled sidekicks that support the player and could be utilized for many things.

To hype up the gaming world for that game, Mike Wilson had a bright idea: producing an ad that procaliming John Romero will make everyone his bitch. I kid you not. Romero was reluctant, but Wilson's persuade him with the sentence "Don't be a pussy." As the result, we got the ad on the right.

Yup, no explanation about the game, no information about its release date, no screenshot from the gameplay, nothing, just an insult to the whole gaming world. Sorry, my mistake, it was not an insult, it was 2 insults. The ad also told the reader to "suck it down." Of course the entire gaming community was pissed.

If that was not enough, the launching of the game was delayed repeatedly since its first planned release date, the Christmas of 1997. Why? Because Romero decided to change the game engine after he saw how outdated the original game engine was. Because the team members were not experienced, and Romero was too busy to provide direction. Oh yeah, since Romero didn't give any direction to his staffs, everyone was confused. Just add some office politics between Ion Storm's executives, and you got a team of angry and frustrated game programmers and designers. The Daikatana team finally had enough and quit en masse.

That was the time when even Romero recognized he made too much bullshit. He got an epiphany, that he hired too much people, and playing with too much money. By the way, the multimillion Dollar penthouse office was not helping either. Its expensive rent eating Ion Storm's finance, hemorrhaging funds from Eidos. But, it was too late.

The End
When Daikatana was finally launched in 2001, everybody hated it. The game's story was confusing, the graphic was far from revolutionary, and most importantly, the AI of the "sidekicks" enraged any gamer who try to play the game. 

Eidos finally had enough and closed Ion Storm in July 2001.

Until today (2012) nobody rent that penthouse.

Romero's feet touch earth again after this sobering experience. He finally learn one of the basic law in business: start small! Start in your own garage/kitchen, or rent a small office first! Don't hire anyone, just work with your friends or families! Only after your business grow, you should start hiring, etc. Romero's project after this fiasco, Monkeystone Games, was ran with this rule in mind.

What about John Carmack? Although he and his id Software never failed as spectacular as Romero and his Ion Storm, they also never achieved the same success when Romero was with them. Carmack also realized that it was Romero who motivated, inspired, and energized everyone in id, including him. John Carmack still working in id Software to this day, his last game is "Rage" which was launched in 2011.

Previous Bullshit Building: The Statue of the Worst Tyrant
Next Bullshit Building: Abraj Al Bait/ Mecca Clock Tower

David Kushner, Master of Doom, (New York: Random House 2003)

Picture sources:
Romero personal website
Russ Berger Design

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