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John Romero & Robin Block Interview - First Person Shooter Documentary

CreatorVC and its brand Fandamental have once again set out with a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary, but this time, they’ve set their sights on games, offering up First Person Shooter: The Definitive FPS Documentary. After kickstarting and releasing several successful documentaries on genre film topics, CreatorVC CEO Robin Block decided to try a new direction and tackle a genre near to his heart.

A number of big names in game development have signed on to be part of the project, and one of the biggest is John Romero, co-founder of id Software and co-creator of both DOOM and Quake - two of the most influential FPS games in history. Romero and Block spoke to Screen Rant about their own careers, their favorite FPS games, and just what’s going into the movie.

Related: Vertical Doom Gives A New Perspective On FPS History

Romero also revealed some exciting new information, including the fact that he’s written three-quarters of his autobiography, and is actively working on a sequel episode to Sigil, his official interstitial episode to the original DOOM. Notably, he won't be talking about most of that when they begin filming for the documentary after the FPS Kickstarter campaign ends, as Block reveals that one of their big aims is to get creators talking about work that they love, especially if they didn't make it themselves.

So Mr. Romero, you're known for being one of the co-founders of id Software, and one of the creators of DOOM and Quake. What have you been doing since? 

Romero: Since I left? There was the whole Ion Storm phase. (laughs) The best thing that came out of that was Deus Ex by Warren [Spector] and Harvey [Smith], and Anachronox, which was [Tom Hall’s] game. I did mobile right after that. There was one fun game called Hyperspace Delivery Boy that Tom and I made. Then I co-founded an MMO studio called Gazillion Entertainment, and worked on an MMO for about 4 years. Then right after that I made a Facebook game called Ravenwood Fair that got up to 25 million monthly players, so it was double World of Warcraft’s max peak. It was really huge and it was really fun to make. Right after that, my wife Brenda and I co-founded Loot Drop, which is a social game studio, made a bunch of social games, and then we moved to Ireland. And in December we released Empire of Sin, which is Brenda’s empire RPG.

When you were first approached to be part of the documentary, was there anything in particular that made you want to say yes to participating?

Romero: The quality, definitely. You could tell from the quality of the videos on the page that this is an actual filmmaker, not someone who’s just nostalgic about games and wants to figure out how to make videos. The quality is really the important part for me. Also just the fact that Robin’s getting so many great people involved in the project. And obviously the audience is excited about it, the Kickstarter campaign has almost doubled the original asking amount, and the previous documentaries were really great. [To Robin] If you could do for FPS what you did for 80s horror movies and sci-fi movies, it’s going to be amazing.

You’ve undoubtedly been interviewed hundreds of times over the years, given your wealth of knowledge on the subject and involvement on groundbreaking FPS titles. Is there anything you feel you haven’t had the chance to properly say over the years? Any stories you haven’t had the chance to tell?

Romero: I think that because Robin’s going to really cover a lot of ground in the documentary that will most likely be talking about the essential information that people need to know about each of the games that I was involved with, and if there’s anything else that Robin wants any kind of commentary on, I can provide that. Masters of Doom has been out there for 18 years now, I think? That has a lot of really good information. That’s a real, actually true book - I get that question all the time - and since Robin probably will not be covering stuff that isn’t just part of the mainstream information that people need to know about these projects, I’m basically three quarters of the way through an autobiography, so that will possibly have some information that people haven’t heard before. (laughs)

Robin: I think the focus of the documentary is to really celebrate the games. So we really want to tap into the gameplay, the iconography, the inspiration, the moments.

Romero: And also the feel of it.

Robin: Yeah, 100%. It’s less about telling the history of id, or retelling - because people who really want to know already know. But no one’s really seen the creators revisit their creation. And not just the creators, but also the commentary, the pundits. Remember when you were playing a game when you were a kid, and it just blew your mind? I want this to be like time travel. I want to take you emotionally back to that place where you remember why this was such an impactful moment in your life. At the end of this film, I want everyone to be jumping on their computers and booting up emulators trying to revisit all the games they haven’t seen. We’re well established in the genre film sector for our retrospectives, and I think there’s a huge opportunity to create an entertainment experience around gaming that’s about the games. And the secret to this is bringing the right mix of stakeholders together to almost have a love-in. I got a question on Twitter the other day where someone asked me, “Are you going to talk about this game, which was a failure?” There are no failures. The commercial or critical result of a game is irrelevant. It’s about - how did it make you feel? To recapture that.

Romero: I think it’ll be a great time when we talk about DOOM. I know that while working on the game I got to feel the way some people felt when they saw it for the first time, because I didn’t make all the levels, so when I got to play levels that I didn’t make, it was amazing.

Robin: We haven’t told them yet, but one of the things we want to do is - and we’ve done it with our horror and sci-fi documentaries - is we get some of these huge, famous creators, and we get them talking about other people’s work. What did they love about other games? That often doesn’t get looked at. When we were doing the horror documentary we were talking to John Carpenter about what other movies he liked and why.

Romero: I love documentaries where I can hear a director or creator talk about what inspired them and what they found really interesting at the time. And I have so many stories about other FPSs and games that I’d love to talk about other people’s stuff.

Related: Craig Zinkievich Interview - Aliens: Fireteam Elite

Gaming has taken you many places, Mr. Romero. You’ve had a long and storied career, one that has not been exclusively centered on FPS games, especially in recent years, with projects like Empire of Sin. What pulled your focus away from shooters to look into other genres?

Right, that arcade economy.

Romero: Yeah. I think “continue” killed the arcade. I know home computers helped, but as soon as that challenge went away and it was just pay to win, it just ruined it.

It also looked like you were going to make a return to FPS games with Blackroom, which many were looking forward to. Is that something you might address in the documentary?

Romero: Nope. (laughs) Not talking about that, and I know [Robin] isn’t going to want to cover it. It was never released, so it’s not going to be relevant to the documentary, because you want to talk about things that people have loved and played and lived. I’m excited to talk about Dark Forces, Outlaws, Duke Nukem, and - you name it.

Related: Xbox One: Best First-Person Shooters Of The Generation

What are your thoughts on DOOM as a modern franchise, with the 2016 reboot and, more recently, DOOM Eternal. Are those things you played and enjoyed yourself or did you just watch from afar?

Romero: Everyone was watching from afar during DOOM 2016’s reboots over seven years, but man, Bethesda really stuck by id, and when the game came out, it was like oh my god, this is such a great reimagining of DOOM for today’s audience. And it was super fun. It had that extremely hardcore speed that DOOM was known for back in the day. And still, the original DOOM is like the fastest FPS you can play other than something like Ultrakill or some games like that.

Mr. Block, you’re currently CEO of CreatorVC, so could you give us a brief history of your background for readers who may not otherwise know who you are?

Robin: I set up CreatorVC just over three years ago. My background was always in production, so I was a TV director, then I had a media business. When film retrospectives on YouTube got very popular, I found them absolutely compelling, and I ended up becoming friends with a fantastic YouTube creator called Oliver Harper, and that friendship developed into a collaboration on our first documentary, In Search of the Last Action Heroes, and I had so much fun making that that I was like, “Let’s do horror!” Because I love 80’s horror. And that just blew up into a sequel. We got into development on our third iteration of that after our fundraising for FPS. And the project that will be what we hang our hats on before FPS comes out is In Search of Tomorrow, which is the highest-grossing crowdfunded documentary in history, all about 80s sci-fi. We finished it in December. I’m so excited about it, it’s going really well. And what we did in genre film we want to do in gaming. If you look at what gaming is, it’s just pure creativity. It’s visual, it’s visceral, it’s emotional. It’s nostalgic. And there’s so much correlation between moments in movies and moments in games, and I’ve never seen games looked at like that. But we’re also going into a sector which is new to us, so we’re going into it with huge humility. I wish my producer David Craddock could be on this call, because he literally wrote the book on FPSs. He’s a phenomenal producer and he’s going to bring so much to this project. And in fact the production team I have around this is phenomenal. And it sounds corny, but all of our projects come from a place of love. We want to remember what was great about this stuff. I can tell you right now that there’s currently like 93 titles on the list, so my job is to bring the world’s best speakers on the subject together. Right now with the cast list we’ve got - which is about 47 or 48 people - is the greatest assembly of gaming icons ever assembled on screen. I do believe there’s a vacuum at the top of the food chain for a gaming documentary that’s really about the games, and that’s where I see the opportunity for this.

Why specifically first-person shooter games?

Robin: Obviously I grew up playing DOOM and Wolfenstein and Duke Nukem. My actual initial exposure to computer gaming was the 8-bit era, and then I sort of got into girls and everything you do when you’re a teenager. But FPS, I wish I could tell you it was a strategic choice, and we looked at the market, but it wasn’t - because it was the gaming genre I had an emotional attachment to, and I think one of the main memories that I have is being in my twenties and being bought an Xbox, and it came with Halo 2. It was a lovely present, but I thought in my head, “Oh, I haven’t played games in ages.” And, you know, I think my girlfriend at the time left me because I just got lost. It was the most cinematic, visceral, engaging experience I’d ever had. It was like cinema multiplied by ten. I’d close my eyes and I’d see reticles, it was that visceral. And this was my first experience going online and playing multiplayer, and I was like, “I’m never going to go out again.” Now the challenge I’ve got is that I’m competitive and I’m not very good, so that kind of put the kibosh on my FPS experience, but I’ll never forget how incredible that was. It was like everything had leaped to this new point, and it was emotional, and I got really into the narrative. On my bookcase behind me I’ve got books on the art of Halo, and the way that a game that John developed 25 years ago is now put on such a significant platform its looked at as art, and actually there’s no difference. It’s everything that’s great about creativity and ideation but you can experience it. I felt there was a real correlation between, funny enough, horror and FPS because they’re so visceral. You can see how all these different influences all run together as a continuity and keep turning into new versions of what they were before, and I love that.

Where are you in the filming process? Has anything at all been done yet?

Robin: The first part is nearly completed. Our Kickstarter finishes on the 25th of July, and the big mission we’ve been on is just bringing the right contributors on. We move into production at the very earliest it’ll be late August, but probably from September, and then it’ll go over into next year. It’s very likely we’re going to have 50-plus interviews. On the Kickstarter it’s saying it’s three hours, but our last two documentaries have been four and a half hours - I have no idea how we’re going to condense this into three hours. I can already say that it’s going to be quite a heavy swing to the Golden Age given who we have, but I’m really excited about it. I think one of the big things for me which we didn’t know going into it, was the level of support we would get from creators. The fact that John Romero is on a phone call with us is nuts, right? I’m trying to be professional and not a fanboy - I’m fanboying a little bit, sorry. But we’ve also had a lot of support from very well known creators, and it’s good juju, we want to honor what they’ve done. John, when you were working on it, and when you were in the zone putting this together, I don’t know if you can think where it’s going to be 25-plus years later.

Romero: No. You know, what was funny, is when we were making our games, we only cared about beating the previous game. (laughs) That’s it. This game is going to blow away the previous game, it’s going to be XYZ, it’s going to be so cool. And then when we’re done with it, we’re like, “It’s toast, we need to beat it. What can we do better to just wipe it out.” And it was only a focus on the current thing, not like, “What’s this going to do in the future?” We didn’t think about that. I think it might be because we didn’t think so much about how the games we had played to that point had affected the future, because by the time we had made those games, the industry had only been around for maybe a little over 10 years, so there wasn’t enough time to see - Loderunner was a massive game, what did it do? What did Choplifter ever do? What did Boulder Dash do? All these games that were really big back then, they didn’t go somewhere. You didn’t have a million copies of these games. Some of these games were cloned, but not as heavily. I think basically the arcade games were really cloned, at home, to have a home version of them. But they went there and kind of stopped. And I think it took a while for games on a computer to find their own voice, to become something that could become something bigger. Something that could bring the community into it and be part of it. And when we gave our game to the community by releasing the source code and everything, that’s how you let your game live forever. Give it away.

Robin: And the foresight behind that is insane. And actually now it’s multi-generational, it kind of doesn’t belong to you anymore as a creator, it’s the world that has it and has run with it. And that’s what great art should do.

Romero: And it’s so different from traditional art too. The funny thing is that we would actually give away information all the time. We would have people come to our offices while we were making, say, DOOM, and André LaMothe comes into the office, he’s going to write his first really big book, we talk to him all day long about raycasting and everything he needs to know about Wolfenstein so he can write his book. And as programmers, that’s kind of what we were about, just giving information away. So our release of the source code wasn’t anything weird. And the funny thing is that stuff had been done decades before us, because in the 70s games were modded by everybody. That’s why [William] Crowther and [Don] Woods’ Adventure is not just Crowther or just Woods, it’s a mod made by one guy, modded by the other guy - and a whole bunch of other university people - into something cool. And even when I was learning the Apple in the early 80s there were these adventure skeletons, and you were basically like, “Here’s the adventure skeleton, write a game on it and just pass it along and give it to people." So there’s tons of those adventures out there because people were modding stuff that was made to mod. And I’m back in that rabbit hole with Sigil.

Related: PS4: Best First-Person Shooters Of The Generation

Was there anyone that you tried to get for the documentary that you tried to get that wasn’t able or willing to participate for any reason?

Robin: When it comes to game creators, no. The tagline on the Kickstarter is, “Let’s revisit these games with the creators that made them.” When I originally was envisioning putting this project together, and I wanted to get a mixture of game creators, of influencers, and celebrities. Because we’ve had a lot of Hollywood people in our previous documentaries, we wanted to bring that Hollywood thing over to gaming, but where we’re at right now is actually a lot purer. We don’t have a Seth Rogen or an Ice-T or a Samuel L. Jackson. And it’s not because we’ve been declined, but it’s too early in our production timeline to do that. You tend to get that kind of talent later on.

Romero: Get Trent [Reznor] in there?

Robin: So one of my friends is Corey Taylor, who’s the lead singer of Slipknot, and he was a co-producer on my horror documentary. I couldn’t get anywhere with Trent, so I rang him, and I said, “Listen, do you know Trent?” expecting that - he’s a rock star, they’re all supposed to hang out. And he didn’t know him. So Trent actually would be super relevant, right? He’s not a celebrity fan. But one of the things I’m finding out is that, actually, our core audience is less interested in that, and they’re more interested in having probably lesser-known but more credible voices, and so that isn’t necessarily people who said no, but I’ve kind of backtracked a little bit on what I want to do with this. Because I think that for us to be successful we need to serve our core audience, and that means listening to them and backtracking sometimes around this. So right now this is a very pure, creator-lead experience. And the fun part for me will be having creators discuss other games. From what I gather, everyone’s down for that. It’s the right time to celebrate something.

What’s your release for the film going to look like? Will it be physical media and streaming services?

Robin: It’s Q4 next year. We’re a sort of direct-to-consumer kind of company. If I look at In Search of Darkness 1 and 2, they’re on Shudder, and they’ve been picked up by some streaming services in Europe. But Shudder was a natural home. Shudder is U.S., it’s AMC, they’ve got a million subscribers. Our first documentary got acquired, and that’s gone all over the world. That’s on Amazon Prime right now. But the reality is that’s an afterthought, because we’re backer-supported. All we really care about is serving this niche audience, and that allows us to be indulgent, it allows us to set our own rules. We’re not looking at streaming schedules or a TV format. We can do a crazy long, four-and-a-half-hour documentary because we want to, and people can binge watch it. You can have an indulgence. And that makes what we do quite defensible. This isn’t for everybody, this is going to be for a very specific audience that I think is underserved. It’s even underserved as far as YouTube. There are some amazing creators creating context on all these classic titles, but they’re normally one-man bands. They don’t have the capability or resources to bring everybody together like we’re able to do, and I think that’s the key difference. And that’s the plan for this project.

One final pair of questions for you both: what are your favorite FPS games of all time, and what are your favorite deep cut, classic FPS games that people might not have heard of or played?

Romero: Other than my games, which I do really, really like, Ghost Recon Breakpoint is my favorite because it’s an open-world FPS and it’s just - I just love it. I can’t say enough about it. Classic FPS? I really love Dark Forces. I really, really like that game. It’s tough. Duke Nukem was so good too, but I’m going to say Dark Forces, just because they did such a great job on it, and it was out in 1995, so it was pretty early.

Robin: For me, when I talk about modern, it’s in the last decade or so. It’s going to be a toss-up between Halo: Reach and Halo 3: ODST. ODST kind of blew me away. It was like, how did this become a game? It was so unique and felt connected to that universe but was so its own. I really enjoyed the campaign. [Classic] FPS? Probably Duke Nukem. For me, that’s the one I played the most on my PC. And I miss the big box game era. Part of the reward tiers [for the documentary Kickstarter] is we are bringing back the big box look and feel for this project. I miss having big stuff on the shelf. Physical media will never go away.

Romero: That’s what we just did with Sigil. We have a giant Beast Box for it that matches the id Anthology size, and then a big box size, the kind that you want to put on the shelf. And we’re about to release another big box for Dangerous Dave, which is a classic game lots of people have played and it’s finally going to get a big box release - it’s never been in a box, ever.

Robin: You look at Limited Run Games. We’ve got Josh Fairhurst [CEO of Limited Run] as a contributor as well, and you can’t build a successful business like that without being a superfan.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Next: FPS RoboCop Game Rogue City Announced As A New, Original Story

First Person Shooter: The Definitive Documentary is currently being Kickstarted, with a final release estimated in December of 2022.

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