By Michael Mendis
Some famous personalities in the game industry are known for creating imaginative worlds; some are known for writing compelling stories; still others are recognized for voice acting, bringing characters to life. Few are best known, however, for programming: the nitty gritty work of writing line after line of computer code, building the digital foundation for everything else that will come later. John Carmack, co-founder of id Software and current Chief Technical Officer of Oculus VR, is one of those few.
Carmack was born in Roeland Park, KS in 1970 and grew up in the KC area. He was an incredibly bright kid, but didn’t have the best character; he was known for a lack of empathy for others, and as a teenager he wound up spending a year in a juvenile home after getting caught trying to steal a couple of Apple II computers.
Carmack started his career in the tech industry at Softdisk, working on disk publications. In 1991 he left Softdisk, along with some of his co-workers, to start id Software, where he would go on to create his best known and most influential works. Today, first-person shooters (or FPS for short) are some of the most popular games on the market, but they found their beginnings at id Software, thanks in large part to the technical genius of John Carmack.
Carmack’s fingerprints can be found on basically all of the major early FPS games, including Commander Keen (the original FPS), Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. Doom in particular became a huge hit, and popularized the multiplayer mode Deathmatch that is common in most modern FPS titles. id continued its success with the Quake series, which took multiplayer gaming to new heights. The game engines that run these games, most notably id Tech (often referred to as the Doom Engine), were created predominantly by Carmack, and the revolutionary techniques he created set new standards for 3D computer gaming.
Carmack spent many years at id Software, leading development of numerous iterations of the id Tech engine; he also worked on a pair of mobile games, Doom RPG and Orcs & Elves. The final game he helped create for id was Rage (2011), built on id Tech 5. He joined the Oculus Rift VR team in August of 2013, and in November of that year he officially left id to work full-time at Oculus as CTO.
Carmack has given people the opportunity to work with the engines he has built, further extending his influence in gaming; as a staunch supporter of open-source software and critic of software patents, he released early iterations of id Tech to the public for download (developer Infinity Ward used id Tech 3 to create the first Call of Duty game in 2003). His work extends beyond games, as well. He loves programming of all sorts; in an interview in 2000, he said that he found “a great deal of enjoyment writing device drivers for Linux. I could also be having a good time writing a database manager or something because there are always interesting problems.” He even started his own aerospace company, Armadillo Aerospace.
John Carmack’s accomplishments are widely recognized throughout the game industry, and the list of awards he has accumulated over the years is nothing short of impressive. Game journalism outlet Gamespot named him the “Most Influential Person in Computer Gaming” in 1997, he received two Emmy Awards in 2007 as a founder of id Software, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Game Developer Conference, and this year the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gave him the Fellowship Award, their highest honor.
Carmack’s innovative mind changed the landscape of the gaming industry forever, establishing what would become one of the most popular genres in gaming and freely sharing much of his work with the public. At just 45 years of age, his legacy as one of the most influential people in his field is already established, and he has plenty of years left to go. Will his new work on virtual reality and the Oculus Rift lead to the same kind of groundbreaking success? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: any project he touches is one that is worth keeping an eye on.