An acquantance wrote about John Romero and John Carmack but missed – what I think is – one of Romero’s most underappreciated abilities: making tools.
Tools give you leverage
An organisational leverage point is a way that a group of people working toward a common goal can improve their performance. I know of five such leverage points:
- How the group organises themselves to reduce wasted effort.
- Picking the right people to include in the group.
- The way the group prioritises learning against progress, since the two are often in conflict.
- Methods of rewarding differbent types of excellence.
- Reusable technical improvements to processes.
I read a lot about innovative, highly productive groups of people1 I want to figure out how effective product development happens., and every time they stress the importance of good tools. Sometimes this means sticking to off-the-shelf components because they are usable with standard tooling, and sometimes it means inventing custom tools to work with custom parts. Sometimes it’s Abraham Lincoln quipping that
If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the axe.
Good tools are the things that allow others to experiment more freely, with less friction. They are a good investment because they can last for a long time – far outlive the initial process they were developed for.
John Romero made tools
Throughout his career, John Romero has always been the guy that made the tools. At Softdisk, he made puzzle creators for their puzzle games, along with several other helper utilities.
At Id, he made a tile editor TEd, that ended up being used for 33 games, apparently. It is called a tile editor, but it was really flexible enough to be used as a level editor for titles like Wolfenstein. Romero says
Yeah, I think we talked pretty quickly about it. We were saying “we’re going to have a 2D matrix to represent the level. Cool, we’ll just use TEd for it.” Yup, that was it! [Laughs] It was very simple.
Then he went on to write DoomEd, the level editor for Doom, as well as conversion utilities for various formats used in Id games.
People ask how Id Software managed to release titles at such a high rate back in the days. Sure, some of it is John Carmacks legendary ability to write lots of code that does things nobody thought was possible. But I speculate an even greater contributor was the tools designed by John Romero. These gave the power to the rest of the team to just get going and make stuff without having to think about the hard parts.
I’m not a toolmaker
Some of the most successful programmers I know are great toolmakers. I’m not, sadly. I really wish I was, and I’m actively taking the opportunity to try when I spot one. I suspect I fail to see more opportunities than I take.
This is why it’s so inspiring to read about Romero’s toolmaking abilities, and so sad to see that it’s almost universally overlooked.