Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
"I do miss making metal chips." John Carmack on the future of AI and Commander Keen.
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!
I’m serializing my recent interview with John Carmack here in my newsletter, Disruptor. To read from the beginning click here.
David Kushner: At the end of Masters of Doom, there’s a quote from you that has become well-known. You told me, “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.” How true do you think that is today?
John Carmack: From a software standpoint, it's more true than ever. The number of one hundred million dollar or one-billion-dollar companies just started by somebody that put a few things together is bigger than it's ever been. The opportunity for exits into great wealth from software is phenomenal, because the ecosystems that are available to spin up software services can scale. Eight years ago, WhatsApp had something like 25 people serving a billion users. That's just astounding. That's just really, really, really amazing.
I'm a middle grade millionaire from my couple of successful exits. And here I am making a decision [to work on Artificial General Intelligence]. And I think there’s at least a chance I could be making a difference on what could be the most important thing that happens in the century. It’s a non-zero chance that somebody that followed my trajectory as an engineer through a couple of successful company exits could be in this position of doing something that could be literally world changing. So I think the amplification factor is even larger now than it's ever been before. Software is down to the point that you could be legitimately poor and develop a piece of software as a service that could catapult you to really great wealth.
On the non-software side of things, we saw hints of this with Armadillo [Carmack’s aerospace company]. Our team of eight at Armadillo, while not ultimately successful, we got a pretty decent chunk of the way towards the V2 development in terms of capabilities of intermediate range ballistic missile rocketry stuff, not done with thousands of engineers or tens of thousands of slave laborers. So that's come down a lot. And even in the last decade, 3D printing is overrated in a lot of ways, but there are places where that still is also transformative. I do miss making metal chips and doing all of that, but if I'm rational about it, if I want to build something, I would probably outsource the production. So yeah, I think in all ways, individual leverage is still actually increasing.
David Kushner: Do you keep in touch with id co-founder John Romero?
John Carmack: We occasionally cross on Twitter, but not really. We’ve gone on very different arcs. I actually follow Tom Hall now on Twitter. He's been a big booster of the PICO-8, which is this little virtual retro console stuff. I started following him from that. And he's actually working in VR at the company he's at, which is kind of interesting. But I feel good about this. I look at this as the fourth major arc of my technical career, where I went from gaming to aerospace to virtual reality to AGI. If I spend 20 years in this, I'm kind of hoping for a good sign in 10 years. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it takes longer or likely somebody else gets there first.
I'm still kind of pushing away collaboration opportunities and some of that's definitely informed by my trajectory through Oculus. Me and Palmer Luckey were the founding spirit of Oculus, but I stayed at id for a good bit of time after that while Oculus grew up around. When I finally did return to Oculus, it had a lot of cultural DNA that I thought was kind of harmful. It kept me from being effective for a long time. It took years for things to kind of come around to ‘John Carmack kind of was right on a lot of those early calls there that were resisted.’ I know that if I go to work at Open AI or something, I would have a great time working with a bunch of brilliant people, but they've got their plan of attack. It's not my plan of attack. And I don't want to be the new guy coming in trying to steer the battleship in a different way.
“People wonder how we were able to do it in such a small amount of time.”
David Kushner: Would you ever consider working with the original founders of id Software again in some capacity?
John Carmack: Not with the particular id people. They don't have any real relevance to the AI side. But I was kind of sketching out a Commander Keen comic book, like Commander Keen the next generation. For the longest time ZeniMax hated me, there was no chance that would ever happen. But now that Microsoft is there, I have tossed around the idea about maybe hitting Tom up and collaborating on something like that and just paying for it myself and making it free just as a game. Game wise, I think I get pretty good value providing editorial oversight on virtual reality. But going in and grinding out a full-scale modern game, there’s a near zero chance that I would ever go back and do that.
David Kushner: When you look back on all the innovations at id Software, it’s incredible how much was happening so quickly.
John Carmack: People wonder about how we were able to do it in such a small amount of time.
David Kushner: What do you think it was about the combination of parts that allowed you guys to achieve that?
John Carmack: It was a great technical time where these things that we wanted to do, whether it was scrolling and then 3D, they were just becoming barely possible. You could just kick back and wait until they're easily possible. But there’s an appeal of doing something when it's barely possible. Bringing the future forward just brings so much value. Smart designers working within constraints sometimes produce really important works. That was something I did notice towards the tail end of my game development career. At that point, there was almost no constraints, you can almost do anything you want.
I don't want to be a good old days person. But, in some ways, it's less efficiently produced value when you have to have hundreds of people working on a game. A Triple A game is designed around how it better sell 10 million units or it's a failure. That can feel bad to indie developers nowadays. There’s a lot of sad stories about people that want to replicate that. They run the playbook, even from Masters of Doom, and they wind up being bitterly disappointed when it doesn't work out like that. It’s because the environment around it has changed - what people have in terms of options, what you can provide them. You can't just do the same thing because it's a different situation.