Speaking last night at The Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta, Doom developer John Romero talked about the "masters" the game industry should look to for help creating games today. Which industry figures could make Romero their bitch?
The first thing that Romero made clear during his talk, titled "Masters Among Us," is that John Romero should never follow three scholars discussing art in games on stage. It's not that Romero's talk wasn't informative and enjoyable; it's just that after hearing Ian Bogost talk for an hour, bringing the proceedings down to Romero's level was a bit jarring.
Once he hit the stage, he went through a list of people he considered to be the "Masters" of the game industry, much like Mozart is a master composer.
"Mozart was a great person who lived a long time ago and made some great music," Romero begins. "Today we only have 10% of his output. We'd learn more if we had more."
More than just a group of people whose work we should admire, Romero suggests that these are people we should study, turning to them when the limitations of present-day game development bring us down.
Right now our masters walk among us in the game industry. It's not so old...a lot of our masters from the early 80's are still here. It's important to learn from them."
Let's look at the industry figures Romero considers masters.
Nasir Gebelli is an Iranian programmer who was instrumental in the early 80's creating games like Space Eggs and Gorgon. At one point he made nine games in one year, typing directly into a mini assembler. Romero is impressed.
"He had to keep an entire game in his head. To be able to keep it all in your head with no source code is on a crazy genius level."
Gebelli eventually moved to Japan, where he went to work for Squaresoft, programming Final Fantasy I through III.
Bill Budge worked with some early 3D programming, but his main contribution to the industry was the Pinball Construction Set. Building off his Raster Blaster pinball game, Budge delivered a set of tools that allowed anyone to create their own pinball table. "People had never seen a program this complicated," says Romero.
Mark Turmell is best known for his work on games like NBA Jam, Smash TV, Total Carnage, and Space Invaders clone Sneakers. Romero says he's a guy that's not too difficult to get in touch with.
Next Romero moved on to industry figures that are no longer with us, starting with M.U.L.E. creator Dan Bunten, who later in life underwent a sex change to become Dani Bunten. "Dan created many of the blueprints for today's games."
"There are no pictures of Bill Williams," says Romero, and try as I might, I can't prove the man wrong. Best known for his Atari computer games, including Alley Kat, Salmon Run, and Necromancer (pictured), Williams' work was lauded for its skill and artistry.
The creator of the Nintendo Game & Watch series and father of the Game Boy, Gunpei is "the guy who Shigeru Miyamoto learned from."
"Gunpei had a theory of design - that great games don't have to come from insane technology." It's a theory Nintendo has proven true again and again.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
The co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, and grandfathers of the role-playing game. "Remembering these people is very important," is all Romero has to say.
An acclaimed designer of board games, Sid Sackson's family, not understanding his work, sold all of it off after Sackson passed in 2002. Thousands of games were lost to collectors and auctions, they're examples lost to those who could learn from them.
Sid Sackson's example is a tragic one, but it drives home Romero's final point.
"Between genrefication, software API's, and ESRB ratings, we are limiting ourselves. We need to go back to our masters and see what they would have done with (game design). People who worried more about play than polygons.
"I believe these people should be studied and their data warehoused. We need to go back to the beginning of the industry to learn as much as we can...We need to do this before this knowledge is lost. We don't want what happened to Mozart to happen to our masters."
Romero might not be the most accomplished public speaker, but the man knows how to bring a point home.