I meet the Romeros: An hour on stage with Brenda and John

A classified summer Air Force job! A cancelled MMO! Gazumped by Ubisoft!

By Robert Purchese. Published 17 July 2017

At the end of April it was an enormous pleasure to be asked to host Brenda and John Romero on stage at Polish conference Digital Dragons, and the recording is now online. It's nearly an hour long so I suggest listening to it in the background like a podcast - you won't miss any choreographed dance moves.

We covered a lot of ground but with two people each boasting decades of experience in the industry our time was not enough. We did touch upon Blackroom, the old-school first-person shooter John Romero and Adrian Carmack unsuccessfully tried to Kickstart a year ago, before suspending the campaign in order to return with a prototype.

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"Well interestingly we cannot talk about Blackroom," John Romero said to me. "At some point in the future I definitely will but I can't say anything about it right now." It sounds hopeful - perhaps a publisher is involved.

Brenda Romero also confirmed that "yes", perhaps obviously, Romero Games is working on other game projects too.

"Top secret," John Romero added with a grin. "When you're working with a publisher, the publisher has a marketing department and a PR department and they're the ones who are responsible for talking about what's happening and they don't want the developer to talk about the game before they've laid all the plans. So we can't be the ones to first spill the beans."

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"We can confirm it's a game," Brenda Romero smiled. "It's a game that uses code and art and audio."

The talk began with a whizz through time to where it all began for, separately, John and Brenda - John on the West Coast of America where the gaming scene was blossoming, and Brenda on the East Coast where it wasn't. Where she lived there were more cows than people, she laughed.

John Romero's route into games involved, at one point, working for the US Air Force in a kind of classified teenage summer job!

He was in England but at an American Air Force school, and on his first day he had to go and convince the computer programming teacher he knew enough to join the course. He was about 15/16 years old. He showed discs of his work and was given the thumbs up and the next day went to class.

"The next morning, basically the second day, the teacher told everybody to work on this one programming problem and then said to me, 'Come with me,'" he said. "I went with her and she drove me across the base to this place called the Aggressor Squadron where they taught fighter pilots to do combat with Russians.

"They took me to meet this Captain who ran this one division that was trying to convert software for how to fly flight combat manoeuvres. They took me into an actual bank vault - they had to do code words over the phone before the vault would unlock and open up. I went inside the vault and there was a Chromenco minicomputer, which was a pretty big computer back then - big, not popular. They asked me if I could program it, and I got on it, saw that it was a CPM computer using BASIC, and I was like, 'Yeah, I can program that.' So they said: 'How would you like a job?'"

He couldn't tell anyone about it because the job was classified, but his parents knew - his dad was in the Air Force. His parents had even told the Air Force not to send him any real data, only fake stuff. It would be enough for programming purposes. And so he spent his summer.

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John Romero also talked about perhaps the biggest cancellation of his career: an MMO called Redwood (there are locked videos you can watch on Vimeo but I can't share here) he was working on from around 2005-2009 - pretty much the only period where he didn't release a game every year.

"The reason why," he said, "is because I was making an MMO at a company I founded called Gazilion Entertainment. I worked on it for four years, I was at the company for over five, something like that. It was a really great game, It was an amazing MMO. It was an MMO for kids that was designed like World of Warcraft but it had stealth-math conceptual learning in it - not really learning but maybe exposure. We had a huge learning design team," he added, comprising teachers from all over the world.

"The game was top-quality: it was as quality as World of Warcraft. And the game did not come out because the technology we were using had an issue where the world got to be a certain size and then the whole thing basically broke, and when it broke we either had to replace a big piece of the tech or we have to transition the game itself, the design, to a different engine."

Either option involved a year of work - a year where a 100 people at the studio would have nothing to while the work was carried out. "You can't let 100 people sit there for a year," he said, "so we basically had to decide to stop making the game. It was pretty devastating."

Later in the talk, he said: "It's hard to get people excited around education who are not in education."

Brenda Romero talked to me about her fascinating and thought-provoking game installation series The Mechanic is the Message, which Edwin wrote a piece about recently, and she talked about about being pitched the Gunman Taco Truck game by their then nine-year-old son Donovan - a game that has been released. "It's pretty hard to escape games in our house," she said. "It's what we do," added John.

The pair are coming up with game ideas all the time, they said. One "nugget" grew into a full game idea during their trip to Digital Dragons, they said - and they're keen on going ahead and making it. But their being so prolific also means they inevitably think of similar ideas to other people.

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John Romero remembered one particularly example gazumped by Ubisoft's Epic Quest for Mighty Loot. "It's very similar to an idea that I had years before," he said, "but mine was not a medieval castley thing, it was more of a haunted house type game. But it had the same idea, where you as a player could decide that you wanted to improve your haunted mansion and make it more trap-filled and dangerous, or you would spend your money on more weapons and ammo and have your character go and attack other people's haunted houses, so you could decide do you want to build or do you want to play?

"You'd come back to the game the next day and get notifications telling you that X number of people were destroyed in your house because they played it, or that X number of people had beaten your house and you could watch replays and see how they got past your trap so you'd want to go back in and spend more in-game cash to upgrade your mansion so there was no way they could get past that point."

"It was a funny meeting," Brenda Romero added, "because we were working with Ubisoft at the time, and Ubi just wanted to introduce us to this guy - 'he's got this really cool game idea'. So he's telling us about the game idea, and we were in a really early prototyping of it, and the response was supposed to be, 'That's cool!' And John just said, 'F***.' There was nothing else to say!"

It's why the pair keep their game-idea cards close to their chests these days.

Mind you, John's reactions can apparently be far stronger when he's playing video games. When he's playing Hearthstone it's a half-tantrum because he doesn't want to break the iPad, but when he's playing a shooter - hoo boy. "If the kids are in the office it's more controlled," said Brenda Romero. "He's really quiet and mild-mannered until he's playing a shooter, and then it's just, it's a mess."

I hope you enjoy the talk!

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