“My whole life has been heavy metal!” - Doom creator John Romero on making the most notorious game of all time

John Romero Doom creator
(Image credit: John Romero - Press / Doom gameplay - Exposed.Files YouTube)

As one of the creators of Doom, one of the greatest games ever made, id Software founder John Romero’s influence on the world of gaming can’t be overstated, but even inspirational figures must draw inspiration from somewhere.

Metal Hammer talked with Romero about heavy metal, Dungeons & Dragons and the rich cultural landscape of the 1980s where he found his creative ammo.

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Was heavy metal the inspiration for Doom?
“Well, it wasn’t like, ‘Let's make a heavy metal game.’ My whole life has been heavy metal! I grew up in the '80s. It was all metal all the time. And you know, when I'm making stuff metal is always playing, and it's always a creative influence.”

Did you have a lightning bolt moment?
“When I was really young it was just whatever Top 40 stuff that was on the radio but then I moved to England and I started going to school on an American base. There was a kid there who listened to heavy metal, and he asked me if I had ever heard about it. And I was like, ‘No, I've never heard anything about it.’ So he started playing Black Sabbath. And it was like, ‘This is awesome!’ He just loaned me all of his Black Sabbath records.”

Did you get the sense something special was happening?
“Yeah, definitely. By then the world of 80s metal was exploding, you had the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the LA scene - Great White, Dokken, Crue - was just coming out, and of course all the '80s pop music: I was into all of it – you know, Thompson Twins, Madonna, Duran Duran, you name it. There was also a whole goth scene going on. I didn’t really put myself into a metal clique – I was friends with everybody.”

It was also an era of moral panics – not just music but RPGs...
“I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in ‘77 – I remember seeing news about the Satanic Panic, but it didn’t change anything. It was like, ‘Oh, there are dumb people out there.’ D&D has basically influenced every single video game – maps, character building…’

That’s interesting to hear because my thoughts instantly turn to Wolfenstein and Doom because they too caused quite the furore at the time. 
“id Software was my fourth startup company and I’d made at least 60 games before it, so it was like phase four. We knew we had a super special group. I couldn’t work for like three hours this one day when John [Carmack] and Tom [Hall] showed a demo of this new technology that I dared them to do – it was unbelievable, it’s like, ‘We’re forming a company.’”

Was that to make Wolfenstein?
“That was our third first person shooter – we’d already experimented with Catacomb 3D, and then we started working on Wolfenstein. There were a lot of factors that made Wolfenstein great. One was that we didn't have a time limit to finish the game. Because every game before Wolfenstein had a two month time limit on it, we had to start it and ship it within two months, so through 1991 we were making two games at a time all year so we were very, very busy. But then Wolfenstein we had no time limit so we could focus on making something that we thought was really great.

Doom was our fifth first person shooter game, but it was going to be the one that was going to redefine shooters. Before we began we already knew every feature that we wanted to put in it. And then in January of ‘93 when we started working on Doom we put out a press release that said it's going to be the best game in the world. We worked all year to make that true. It was ridiculous but you know, we knew what we were doing.”

Did you have some sense of the impact it would have? It terrified people and caused huge controversy at the time.
“We really ignored it. We didn't care. We were making the game that we wanted to play. And it had that metal aesthetic. And it's exactly what we wanted to make. And it was super fun. And that was it. We put it out. It's like, ‘There's demons in here. Guess what? You're shooting demons. You're killing them. This is a good thing. Right? You're killing demons from hell.’ How can this be a negative thing in anyone's eyes? It was like, if anyone that was gonna get upset about the game didn't understand the game, though the day before we released Doom is when Congress had their their meetings on video game violence with Mortal Kombat and Night Trap talking about how video games needed to be rated, so…[laughs]”

It was a very metal looking game.
“Well randomly id software was in a seven storey building and we got floor six, and when we took it over we changed our suite number to 666…”

Developers of the beast! Were you an Iron Maiden fan?
“Oh yeah. My biggest time was Piece of Mind and Powerslave, the production quality was just so great – such a step up. In fact I loved Maiden so much when I was in English class as a senior I got my teacher to agree to play Rime of the Ancient Mariner for everybody. It was awesome, because it’s such a long song. He liked it. A third of the class were metal anyway…”

And what are you up to now?
“I'm working on new shooter. Everything has changed in the game industry like it does every year, so I'm just building a team and working on just working on building that. I can't say anything about the game because it's totally up to our publisher so we have to be silent about everything that we're doing other than, ‘Hey, we're making a shooter for a major publisher’.”

John Romero will be at the Imperial War Museum’s War Games Live event this weekend in London. For further info and the chance to get free tickets go here.

To keep up to date on John Romero’s work visit romero.com

Alexander Milas

Alexander Milas is an erstwhile archaeologist, broadcaster, music journalist and award-winning decade-long ex-editor-in-chief of Metal Hammer magazine. In 2017 he founded Twin V, a creative solutions and production company.  In 2019 he launched the World Metal Congress, a celebration of heavy metal’s global impact and an exploration of the issues affecting its community. His other projects include Space Rocks, a festival space exploration in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Heavy Metal Truants, a charity cycle ride which has raised over a million pounds for four children's charities which he co-founded with Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood. He is Eddietor of the official Iron Maiden Fan Club, head of the Heavy Metal Cycling Club, and works closely with Earth Percent, a climate action group. He has a cat named Angus.