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John Romero: Battle Star

John Romero thrilled a generation–and terrified its parents–with videogames Doom and Quake. So why has creating his follow-up, Daikatana, been such a grueling death match?

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The offices of Ion Storm resemble a high-tech shantytown set down in the penthouse suite of Dallas’ Chase Tower. The crew of 20 unshaven programmers has been working 14-hour days for the last six months. In the employee lounge, a handwritten sign hangs on one of the videogame machines: ”No more Tekken 3 until Daikatana ships.”

Now on its fifth lead programmer, wildly over budget, and more than two years late, Daikatana, the much-hyped title from the much-hyped designer John Romero, has become the Waterworld of computer videogames. Its publisher and financial backer, Eidos Interactive, has stepped in, hoping to introduce a little adult supervision at Romero’s home for wayward gameboys. And in the wake of Columbine, the Doom creator’s short-lived romance with the mainstream press has turned rancid.

All the 32-year-old game designer cares about right now is getting his game out the door: Daikatana is finally due to hit store shelves in December. ”There’s been a lot of pressure to release [it] earlier,” says Romero. ”But there was no way I was going to put out a game with my name on it and have it look bad.”

It doesn’t. In fact, Daikatana deftly mixes the action of a kill-everything-that-moves game with an epic plotline that spans four time periods and features cunning monsters and intelligent sidekicks. But will anyone care? After all the troubles at Ion Storm, can Romero recapture an audience that has plenty of other thumb candy to choose from? ”At this point, there is no way that Daikatana can live up to the hype,” says Vince Broady, editorial director for the popular online gaming magazine GameSpot.com.

Widely credited as the creative force behind megahits like Doom and Quake, Romero helped define the genre known as the first-person shooter, a reinvention of the videogame as hair-raisingly violent action movie. In a market where half a million copies makes a hit, Doom and Quake sold an estimated 5.9 million combined, making instant multimillionaires of Romero and his dozen partners at his former company, id Software. With that reputation, Romero quit in 1996 to take a rumored $13 million advance against future royalties from Eidos, publisher of the Lara Croft vehicle Tomb Raider. Romero envisioned a DreamWorks of computer gaming called Ion Storm, and with his trademark swagger, he promised to release Daikatana by Christmas 1997 — in half the time it normally takes to create an original game.

The gaming magazines had always adored him, but now the mainstream press came calling. They loved his long hair and his rock star’s taste for expensive toys. Romero, a military brat who never finished college, owns six cars, including a Ferrari Testarossa and a bright yellow Humvee. His domestic life was suitably baroque (with two kids from his first marriage and one from his second, the recently separated designer now dates Stevie Case, a statuesque Ion employee, professional Quake player, and soon-to-be Playboy and Details model). The ”Quentin Tarantino of computer-game megaviolence” (as GQ called him) seemed to be living the life every computer gamer dreamed about. And Ion happily fanned the flames with a 1997 ad that became infamous in gaming circles: ”John Romero wants to make you his bitch.” Observers started to wonder what was really brewing in Dallas: a computer game or a Frankenstein of hype?

So no one was really surprised when Romero missed his first delivery date in October 1997. But 1998 was no better, as the Daikatana team blew deadline after deadline, blaming technical setbacks and false starts with artwork. The more likely reason was that Romero was doing too many interviews and leaving the programming to a group who seemed to have been hired for the novel reason that they had played a lot of Quake and Doom. “People were just breaking because they were inexperienced,” admits Romero. “They just hadn’t made games before.”

To make things worse, Ion Storm’s top executives spent most of 1998 fragging each other in a kind of corporate death match. It ended last year when CEO and marketing wiz Mike Wilson was forced out, eventually taking a number of key staffers with him to build his own game-publishing company, Gathering of Developers. Ion started losing employees, with the worst incident coming in November 1998 when eight of the top designers and programmers on Daikatana resigned at a crucial time, wiping out most of the development team.

Romero now looks agitated when the exodus is mentioned. “This is not a 9-to-5 situation, a place where you put in your time and get out,” he snaps. “A lot of people don’t know what it takes to make a great game, and we got rid of those people. The people who remain are hardcore.”

Hardcore or not, when the smoke cleared, Ion Storm was deeply in debt and morale was in the gutter. It didn’t help that the Littleton, Colo., massacre came along to turn pundits and parents alike against violent videogames and their designers, nor that id Software was one of 25 entertainment companies cited in an ongoing lawsuit filed by parents of the victims in the December 1997 West Paducah, Ky., shooting. (On the advice of his lawyers, Romero declines to comment on the suit.) Worried about its investment, Eidos decided to act: This May, the company sent London-based publishing director John Kavanagh to Dallas to be more involved with the day-to-day business decisions. “I’ll be honest,” the new boss says. “If it weren’t for the design talent here, we’d have shot Ion Storm like a redheaded stepchild.”

While refusing to confirm it publicly, Eidos is expected by the gaming industry to take a majority stake in Ion Storm in exchange for wiping out the reported $30 million in debt that Romero and company have racked up in the last three years. Ex-CEO Mike Wilson puts Ion Storm’s dilemma simply: “To stay independent, you have to deliver. If the publisher has to bail you out, you lose control.”

That may be for the best. Now that Eidos holds the reins, Daikatana is sharing the spotlight with two other upcoming, highly anticipated Ion Storm releases: Anachronox, an epic space opera, and Deus Ex, an X-Files-style conspiracy game. Both were consistently at the top of editors’ “best of show” lists following this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, and the buzz around them has been built quietly and steadily, in stark contrast to the flashy, contentious publicity generated for Daikatana.

“The inmates are no longer running the asylum, and that’s probably a good thing,” says Deus Ex designer Warren Spector, and even John Romero seems to agree. “Eidos sees us as having more potential than any of the studios they’re working with,” he says defiantly. “They are here to make sure we have the resources we need. So that we can straighten things out. So we can make great games.”