From 'Doom' to Gloom: The Story of a Video Game Flop

On the cultural landscape, there are masterpieces, and there are flops. Even in the newest forms of pop culture, like the video game, there are already memorable failures. John Romero promised to improve upon the game he co-created, Doom. But his bold pronouncements backfired.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The man who made a success out of a game called Doom found that some other efforts are doomed from the start. He went on to become a central figure in one of the most disastrous chapters in video game history, which is how he became part of our series this week on memorable flops. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Every creative medium has its oversize superstars, its Steven Spielbergs, Stephen Kings and Madonnas. In the early 1990s, the video game industry had its first superstar, John Romero. Geoff Keighley writes about video games.

Mr. GEOFF KEIGHLEY (Video Game Writer): He was a rock star in many ways, one of the first sort of video game rock stars. He had long hair that he'd keep in a pony tail. He'd drive the Ferrari. He'd, you know, have the hot girlfriends.

SYDELL: John Romero's star ascended at Id Software, where he helped create Doom. Doom made video game history. It popularized the first-person shooter, that is, a game where the player actually views the virtual world through the eyes of the character who's shooting.

(Soundbite of Doom)

Mr. KEIGHLEY: It was a science fiction game, a first-person shooter, where you'd go into this sort of Mars installation and fight these demonic monsters.

(Soundbite of Doom)

SYDELL: First-person shooter became one of the most popular styles of gaming. Some estimate that as many as 15 million people played Doom, and it spawned a line of sequels and imitators. Romero became a media darling.

Mr. KEIGHLEY: Romero really loved the spotlight, and I think the media ate it up because he was willing to do interviews. He was willing to talk about his lifestyle.

SYDELL: Romero made the list of Entertainment Weekly's 100 most important people in entertainment. Time magazine anointed him `the Quentin Tarantino of the game industry.' Basking in Doom's popularity, in 1994 Romero spoke with NPR about Id Software.

(Soundbite of 1994 interview)

Mr. JOHN ROMERO (Video Game Designer): All we really cared about was making really cool stuff for people to play and just games that we really want to play ourselves, you know, just the ultimate games that we want to do.

SYDELL: But Romero began to have creative differences with his partners at Id, so he left and leveraged his name for millions of dollars in capital to found his own company in 1996, which he called Ion Storm. His new business was more like his Ferrari than the scrappy start-up Id had been. Pam Wolford was hired to run the human resource department.

Ms. PAM WOLFORD (Former Ion Storm Employee): We were in the penthouse suite at Chase Tower in downtown Dallas, and they spent $2 million on the build-out and we had a movie theater with leather chairs and top-of-the-line video equipment. In today's world it doesn't make sense, but back then, it's like, `Hey, we got millions of dollars. Let's just have a party.'

SYDELL: Romero promised he would create a game as extraordinary as his offices. It would be called Daikatana, the name of a magical sword. His company, Ion Storm, began a marketing campaign right away. More than a year before the game's scheduled release, an ad appeared in gaming magazines. A red backdrop with large black lettering proclaimed, `John Romero is going to make you his (censored).' Christian Devine(ph), an old friend of Romero's who was hired as a writer at Ion Storm, admits it backfired.

Mr. CHRISTIAN DEVINE (Former Ion Storm Employee): It was perceived as just arrogant by a lot of people, and, of course, when you set up that kind of gauntlet, then people are going want to--they're going to be gunning for you, and they're going to say, `Oh, you're going to make me your (censored)? OK, well, let's see about that.'

SYDELL: The foundation had been laid for a flop, says Neil Steinberg, author of "Complete & Utter Failures: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Ups and Never-Weres." The two essential ingredients? A history of success combined with arrogance.

Mr. NEIL STEINBERG (Author, "Complete & Utter Failures: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Ups and Never-Weres"): If you have arrogance, it makes the flop puff up. We love nothing more than to see the hottie brought down.

SYDELL: Rumors began to circulate about problems at Ion Storm, and the press, which had once fawned over Romero, had turned, and now it was ready to pounce. On January 14th, 1999, the Dallas Observer published an article based on internal e-mails that had been leaked by former employees to reporter Christine Biederman. Biederman saw evidence of a company out of control.

Ms. CHRISTINE BIEDERMAN (Dallas Observer): That's what I saw in the e-mails that really got me. There is no way; this thing is headed for failure. I mean, I think their burn rate at one point was $900,000 or $1 million a month. It was outrageous.

SYDELL: Chaos prevailed at Ion Storm. Romero's game wasn't quite working, and its release was delayed again and again. And that became a problem, says former human resource manager Wolford.

Ms. WOLFORD: The technology started getting old. That's what happens when the games go so long, is the technology evolves so quickly, your game is going to be outdated, and that's a big part of what happened to Daikatana.

SYDELL: With each delay, the cost of the game went up, meaning it was going to have to sell really well to even recoup its costs. On May 23rd, 2000, Ion Storm finally released Daikatana.

(Soundbite of Daikatana)

SYDELL: The plot goes like this: A martial arts teacher named Hiro Miyamoto, the descendant of a great swordsmith, is approached by an old man who says the Daikatana, a powerful sword created by his ancestor, has fallen into the hands of the evil Mishima clan.

(Soundbite of Daikatana)

Unidentified Man #1: (As Hiro Miyamoto) The Daikatana is still just a sword, like any other, right?

Unidentified Man #2: (As old man) Wrong. Legend has it that the Daikatana contains many secrets, even the ability to warp time and space.

SYDELL: Players move through four different historical eras, searching for the Daikatana. Reviewers pounced on the game with headlines like, `Yup, it stinks,' `I played Daikatana and my brain still hurts,' and `Blast stuck in the past.' The game had technical problems, and some elements reviewers found just plain silly. In Level 1, Hiro is confronted not by vicious warriors but by killer frogs and oversized bugs.

(Soundbite of Daikatana)

SYDELL: Romero's good friend and former writer for the game, Christian Devine, admits it didn't quite work.

Mr. DEVINE: The game should have started with a bang, because the designs were amazing, and everything they had set up for the game was really cool. And it ended up being mosquitoes and frogs. So somewhere (laughs) something went horribly wrong.

(Soundbite of Daikatana)

SYDELL: John Romero couldn't comment for this story, because he's bound by legal agreement not to talk on the subject. Since the failure of Daikatana, Romero tried to start another company, which recently closed, and he just left a job at Midway Games.

Flop expert Neil Steinberg says some may laugh at Romero, but the truth is, great successes usually happen to people who are willing to try the impossible.

Mr. STEINBERG: They only have one life, but most people, they take that life, they put their money on the safe bet and they do pretty well. Other people, they decide, `You know what? I'm going for it,' you know. `I may weigh 300 pounds, but I want to dance in the Joffrey Ballet.'

SYDELL: Steinberg says he wouldn't write Romero off just yet. It is possible to recover from a flop; that is, if Romero has learned a lesson right in the dialogue of his own game.

(Soundbite of Daikatana)

Unidentified Man #3: Don't bet on it, Mishima. Your own arrogance will be your downfall.

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: We'll continue our team coverage of failures tomorrow. We'll hear how some Hollywood filmmakers coped with their flops.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

SUSAN STAMBERG (Host): And I'm Susan Stamberg.

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