Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
In Part 3 of my interview with John Carmack, Quake III Arena, Beat Saber, and why he thinks "all the things that you wind up doing on your phone, tablet, TV, laptop, and desktop can be done in VR."
This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!
David Kushner: You play a lot of Beat Saber in Oculus VR, and invite others to play against you. What is it about that game that you think is so effective and why does it appeal to you?
John Carmack: In many ways, my peak gaming time was Quake III Arena. It was my simple, elegant, pure game. The gaming world, as it's gone mainstream, has complexified a whole lot. Modern games are a lifestyle decision I choose not to make. To be a gamer today, you invest hundreds and hundreds of hours into gaming. They're following the market. I'm not saying games were good in the old days and they're not good now. It's just the market has evolved away from my general preferences. I was imprinted on the old arcade games. That's what influenced so much in my personal tastes for things. By the way, it's amazing that arcades are actually a little bit of a thing now in the Dallas area. We have these Barcades where they serve alcohol and have old arcade games and free play. It’s awesome.
David Kushner: Do you ever go there and hang out?
John Carmack: Yeah. The old arcade games. You go there and you can play Robotron and Tempest, and all that. They are well-maintained. Clearly that was formative experiences for me. I'm much more about “grab the gun, shoot the thing, grab the health” rather than the modern “carefully manage your skill tree and your loadout.”
In the later days of id [Software], I was fairly dinged for not being in tune enough with the markets that we were serving. I tried to go play some Call of Duty or something and it wasn't really my thing. Then as we were building the nascent VR space, the only games that I would play would be VR games. Because it would be sort of my job to try to figure out what can be done here. Somewhat serendipitously, we had smaller teams making smaller games, and that was my core competence area. I could give very good advice on a super deep, massively multiplayer online game. I would not be the right person to ask for design feedback on that.
But yeah, playing the VR games, I had a few that I liked, but none of them that were really super hitting me. Beat Saber really just exactly hit the right thing for me. It’s the optimal VR game. There are things people try to do in VR that are bad, like manipulating physical things – “grab this thing and turn it.” Because you don't have any physical feedback, that's just not a good thing. Shooting works fine, but so does swinging through something with a saber or a racket. You get all of the skill of having this full six degree of freedom tracking. It’s just fundamentally different. People are wizards on a game controller, but it’s such a limited body experience. But in VR stuff, you are ducking and weaving and moving your arms into all the different areas. That is the unique value of VR.
“All the really great things took into account the limitations of what they had to work with.”
David Kushner: This reminds me of something that you once told me about the monsters in Doom. I’d asked you about why you hadn’t tried to create more realistic humans in the game, and you said it wouldn’t have behaved convincingly enough. But since nobody knows what an Orc moves like it was better to make monsters instead. That sounds like what you’re saying about Beat Saber as well. It’s a game that works within the limited resources that exist at the moment in VR.
John Carmack: It's interesting because I have a half-drafted post about my work at Facebook. It’s a long screed about how it is sub-optimal when designers just expect technology to give them complete freedom. In gaming now, designers can do whatever the heck they want. But at any point, where you're not yet there, the best design is the one that takes into account, at the beginning, the constraints of the platform - whether it's processing power or feedback, limitations. All the really great things took into account the limitations of what they had to work with. People can just say, “oh, I've got a vision,” and then just bull-headedly go along and try to implement that. But that is rarely going to be as good as someone that says, “well, this is the platform that I'm going to be working on. These are the things it does well. These are the things that it does poorly, and I'm going to bend my design around this.” Beat Saber is almost a perfect game from that respect in terms of taking advantage of the controllers.
There’s lots of other things that VR is good for, just as a screen replacement. I still think, in the fully mature world when a billion people are using VR, most of them are going to be looking at screens that are just in virtual reality. They're going to have as many screens as they want, as big as they want, positioned however they want.
“VR has to displace other devices.”
David Kushner: What do you think the experience of VR will be like in 10 years?
John Carmack: You can see the path from where we are now to where people are in the home space, and they've got three giant web browser screens floating up in front of them. It's basically like my triple monitor desktop setup. You can choose what your background is. There's a lot more we can do there where you start getting better and better fidelity. Like, “oh, I want to be on the beach here,” or “I want to be in my luxury apartment” or whatever. I fight this battle internally [at Oculus] about it. To me, it does seem inevitable that all the things that you wind up doing on your phone, tablet, TV, laptop, and desktop can be done in VR.
To say that, “oh, people will just stop doing all of those things, because we'll have some magical new VR thing, that positions it as one company against the entire world and all of history,” it’s just not going to win like that. There's too many valuable things. We always pull these medias with us. We have books on our computers. We have music on our computers. We bring all of those along. And many people wind up spending lots of their displays and processing power just doing media consumption or even book reading. I don't think VR will be any different. It's going to be a new way to do these things. I think it has to displace other devices. This is again where the rich people bubble looks at it as, “well, I'm going to add this device to my life.”
So Beat Saber is a great thing in that case. It does something that no other device does. But to be really successful, you have to displace other devices. It has to be, you pick up a headset instead of a big screen TV, or instead of a tablet or instead of a laptop. Because for people that aren't rich, all of their resources are spoken for. If you're increasing value in the world, if you display something else and provide more value at the same time, then the whole world gets wealthier in life.
David Kushner: How does this contrast with Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse?
John Carmack: The funny thing is, given the early quote about the moral imperative that everybody hears, I have been fighting hard the entire time at Oculus to forestall any attempts to be doing Metaverses. My pithy internal line that I say all the time is “the Metaverse is a honeypot trap for architecture astronauts. “There is a whole class of programmers that just salivate at the idea of designing the architecture for the metaverse. It is super attractive as a problem to be working on. But, more and more, I find that those types of initiatives are just not the ones that lead to the productive value at the end of it.
I've seen this now over and over. Minecraft and Fortnite are closer to the metaverse than anything Facebook has built, or frankly, is likely to build, unless we wind up getting really lucky. Those were things that started off with no pretensions about being a metaverse. They started off with the idea of being an awesome, entertaining experience. They were fun and value first, architecture second. In many cases like Minecraft's architecture, it was a trash fire in so many ways. But it still became, by many metrics, the most popular game in the world because it turned out to be a wonderful platform. Now, hundreds of teams since then have said, “well, we're going to intentionally design a perfect platform for doing these things.” None of them have hold a candle to Minecraft's success.
David Kushner: That’s similar to your work on the early id games. You weren’t setting out to create a metaverse, you were making fun games - but you were taking steps along the way.
John Carmack: Yeah. For almost all cases, if you don't start off trying to build explicit value, you're probably going to fail. It's almost a disease in programmers, this idea that you can build an architecture and an abstraction, and the value will just naturally happen. People look at this and think, they might even have experience and say “Oh, I did Minecraft mods and it was terrible. I know how to do this so much better. I'll do something better, then all of that value that happened around Minecraft should happen around my new project.” And it just doesn't work that way.
You need a kernel of value for people to be excited about your project and to gravitate around it. This agglomeration gravitational pull effect of when there's value, it begets more value. And then you get, it expands out into this metaverse-like world, where eventually you've got millions of people doing interesting things. But if you just set out from the beginning, “let's build the metaverse,” it’s like, we've got Horizon with Facebook now, which in many ways is struggling to get its product market fit because it was designed to be this generic thing rather than designed to make something awesome from the beginning.
“I'm not in any super hurry for the metaverse.”
David Kushner: So will the Metaverse happen eventually? And if so, how long will, do you think, it will take?
John Carmack: I'm not in any super hurry right now for it. In many ways, Tim Sweeney and Epic could parlay Fortnite are probably in the best position to quickly parlay something into a metaverse. Their whole platform battles now with Apple and Google. They may have squandered at least a tempo that was at their disposal to go forward on this by doing platform wars. I think that, for Facebook, there’s a better chance of growing value out of their acquired studios than building them from scratch internally. We're going to see what we can get out of it.
We have things like VRChat, which in many ways, has been almost looked down upon as an embarrassment. In many ways, it's a crappy experience and there's lots of reprehensible shit that goes on in systems like that. So Facebook has been like, “we don't want to make something like that.” But, those companies, those small teams, they're following signal from users. I understand it's like, “well, okay, maybe a good chunk of our users are people that are not good for polite company,” but they're following a signal. While at Facebook, we start off and say, “okay, we want to design something that's going to be safe for the entire community, that everyone will feel comfortable and welcomed and all this. But there's no actual talk about value there. You're just trying to design this comfortable beige blank space and hoping that people will decide that they like it and build tons of things inside it. So far, that's actually not happening.