Among his early influences, he credited Namco's maze chase arcade game Pac-Man (1980) as the title that had the biggest influence on his career. He also cited Sirius Software's Nasir Gebelli as his favorite programmer and a major inspiration, citing the influence of his fast 3D programming work for Apple II games, such as the shooters Horizon V (1981) and Zenith (1982), on his later work at id Software. He also cited programmer Bill Budge as another influence.
John Romero's first published game, Scout Search, appeared in the June 1984 issue of inCider magazine, a popular Apple II magazine during the 1980s. Romero's first company, Capitol Ideas Software, was listed as the developer for at least 12 of his earliest published games. Romero captured the December cover of the Apple II magazine Nibble for three years in a row starting in 1987. He entered a programming contest in A+ magazine during its first year of publishing with his game Cavern Crusader.
Romero's first industry job was at Origin Systems in 1987 after programming games for 8 years. He worked on the Apple II to Commodore 64 port of 2400 A.D., which was eventually scrapped due to slow sales of the Apple II version. Romero then moved onto Space Rogue, a game by Paul Neurath. During this time, Romero was asked if he would be interested in joining Paul's soon-to-start company Blue Sky Productions, eventually renamed Looking Glass Technologies. Instead, Romero left Origin Systems to co-found a game company named Inside Out Software, where he ported Might & Magic II from the Apple II to the Commodore 64. He had almost finished the Commodore 64 to Apple II port of Tower Toppler, but Epyx unexpectedly cancelled all its ports industrywide due to their tremendous investment in the first round of games for the upcoming Atari Lynx.
During this short time, Romero did the artwork for the Apple IIGS version of Dark Castle, a port from the Macintosh. During this time, John and his friend Lane Roathe co-founded a company named Ideas from the Deep and wrote versions of a game named Zappa Roidz for the Apple II, PC and Apple IIGS. Their last collaboration was an Apple II disk operating system (InfoDOS) for Infocom's games Zork Zero, Arthur, Shogun and Journey.
Romero moved to Shreveport, Louisiana in March 1989 and joined Softdisk as a programmer in its Special Projects division. After several months of helping the PC monthly disk magazine Big Blue Disk, he officially moved into the department until he started a PC gaming division in July 1990 named 'Gamer's Edge' (originally titled PCRcade). Romero hired John D. Carmack into the department from his freelancing in Kansas City, moved Adrian Carmack into the division from Softdisk's art department, and persuaded Tom Hall to come in at night and help with game design. Romero and the others then left Softdisk in February 1991 to form id Software.
Romero worked at id Software from its incorporation in 1991 until 1996. He was involved in the creation of several milestone games, including Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II: Hell on Earth and Quake. He served as executive producer (and game designer) on Heretic and Hexen. He designed most of the first episode of Doom, most of the levels in Quake, half the levels in the Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D;Spear of Destiny. He wrote many of the tools used at id Software to create their games, including DoomEd (level editor), QuakeEd (level editor), DM (for deathmatch launching), DWANGO client (to connect the game to DWANGO's servers), TED5 (level editor for the Commander Keen series, Wolfenstein 3D; Spear of Destiny), IGRAB (for grabbing assets and putting them in WAD files), the installers for all the games up to and including Quake, the SETUP program used to configure the games, and several others.
During the production of Quake Romero clashed with John Carmack over the future direction of id. Romero wanted the game to follow his demanding vision without compromise, but Carmack insisted that the project had to make steady progress toward completion and accused Romero of not working as much as the other developers. Although Romero relented on his vision and joined a months-long death march effort to finish the game, this did not resolve the tensions within the company, and Romero was forced to resign.
Romero later co-founded Ion Storm in Dallas, Texas with id co-worker Tom Hall, where he designed and produced Daikatana. This ambitious shooter was announced in 1997 with a release date for the Christmas shopping season of that year. However, this release date slipped repeatedly in the coming months, and the game began to accrue negative press.
In particular, a 1997 advertisement boasting "John Romero's About To Make You His Bitch....Suck it down" caused controversy amongst gamers and the gaming press. The massive pre-hype for the game and the subsequent delays (it was not released until April 2000) were compounded by the poor reviews the game received when it was finally complete. Upon release, Daikatana was critically panned and appeared on numerous "top 10 worst games" listings.
During this time, Romero was rumored to have been killed (aptly enough, with a headshot) and a photograph of his corpse with a bullet wound was also spread through the Internet; Romero himself later stated that the picture was taken for the magazine Texas Monthly, and that "maybe he shouldn't have taken it".
Romero departed with Tom Hall immediately after the release of Hall's Anachronox game and the subsequent closing of the Dallas Ion office.
In July 2001, Romero and Hall founded Monkeystone Games in order to develop and publish games for mobile devices, and Monkeystone released 15 games (approximately) during its short lifespan of three and a half years. Some highlights of their developments included Hyperspace Delivery Boy! (Pocket PC, PC, Mac, Linux, GBA), Congo Cube (Pocket PC, PC, BREW, Java ME), and a version of Red Faction for the Nokia N-Gage. He and his girlfriend, Stevie Case, broke up in 2003, and she left the company in May while Red Faction development continued until October. John then left Monkeystone Games' day-to-day operations to Lucas Davis while Romero and Hall left for Midway in San Diego.
In mid-October 2003, Romero joined Midway Games as project lead on Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows. While he continued to maintain his working relationship with Monkeystone, Lucas Davis took over running the office. The Monkeystone team moved to Austin, Texas to work on Midway's Area 51 title until its release. Monkeystone Games closed down in January 2005. Romero moved from project lead to creative director of internal studio during this time.
At the end of June 2005, Romero left Midway Games mere months before the completion of Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows.
On August 31, 2005, Romero confirmed that he was working on a yet-to-be-announced MMOG at his newly opened development studio, Slipgate Ironworks. It was reported that the name was temporary. "For the record," Romero wrote, "I'm co-founder of a new game company in the Bay Area and am much better off in many ways than I was at Midway". He said that he would not reveal anything about the company or the game until 2007. On March 17, 2009 it was announced that Slipgate Ironworks was part of Gazillion Entertainment. Along with venture capitalist Rob Hutter and investor Bhavin Shah, Romero was a co-founder of Gazillion.
On July 22, 2006, John Romero and former co-worker Tom Hall guest hosted episode 53 of the podcast The Widget.
Romero departed Gazillion Entertainment in November 2010 to form a social game company called Loot Drop alongside Brenda Brathwaite. His longtime co-worker, Tom Hall joined the company on January 1, 2011.
John Romero was the CPL's Chairman of the Board for ten years.
On December 20, 2006, John Romero announced a new FPS project for the Cyberathlete Professional League titled Severity for both consoles and PC. It was announced that Tom Mustaine (ex-Studio Director at Ritual Entertainment) would act as Director of Game Development at CPL's new studio. It was stated that Severity would be a multiplayer first person shooter, and that the game would be built on technology licensed from id Software.
In September 2008 Romero told ThatGamingSite that Severity was cancelled, but Tom Mustaine contacted the site to inform them the project was not cancelled but in "stealth mode" citing John Romero was "let out of the loop". On October 2009, Angel Munoz, founder of the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) stated that Severity was no longer being produced because they were not able "to convince game publishers of its value".
In March 2010, John Romero collaborated with the gaming magazine Retro Gamer and taking on the role of a guest editor, taking charge of the magazine's editorial and contributing to a number of articles and subjects throughout the magazine. There is an extensive interview with Romero in the issue with industry luminaries offering their thoughts on Romero.
In Spring 2010, Gamesauce featured Romero on its cover and contained an in-depth interview with Romero written by Brenda Brathwaite. In the interview, Romero publicly apologized for the infamous Daikatana advertisement.
In August 2014, in a Super Joystiq Podcast at Gamescom 2014 Romero announced that he was about to make a new shooter, stating that he was working with a concept artist and he had some cool imagery for the main character.
Romero was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the United States. He is of Yaqui and Cherokee heritage.
In January 2004, Romero married Raluca Alexandra Plesca, originally from Bucharest, Romania. They divorced in 2011.
Romero and game developer Brenda Brathwaite became engaged on March 24, 2012. They married on October 27, 2012. Together, they worked on Ravenwood Fair, with Romero as Lead Designer and Brathwaite as Creative Director and Game Designer. They also founded social game development company Loot Drop in November 2010, and worked on Cloudforest Expedition and Ghost Recon Commander together.
Romero has three children from two previous marriages: Michael, born in 1988, Steven born in 1989, and Lillia Antoinette, born in 1998.
Romero's long hair has been a source of both admiration and derision for his fans. John guest-answered Planet Quake's "Dear Mynx" column, in which a female fan asked for hair care tips.
Romero cut short his hair in 2002 and donated it to Locks of Love. Discussion boards such as Doomworld and BeyondUnreal had threads discussing his new look at the time, although in recent years Romero has grown it back to full length.
In level 30 of Doom II, "Icon of Sin", the boss is supposed to be a giant demon head with a fragment missing from its forehead. When first viewing the demon, a distorted and demonic message is played, which is actually John Romero saying "To win the game, you must kill me, John Romero!", reversed and distorted to sound like a demonic chant. One can use the "noclip" cheat to enter the boss and see Romero's severed head which is skewered on a post. The player defeats the boss (without the noclip cheat) by shooting rockets into its exposed brain after activating a lift and riding it. Romero's head functions as its hit detection point; when he "dies", the boss is killed and the game is finished. In the 2013 IGN Doom playthrough to celebrate Doom's 20th anniversary, Romero shared the backstory behind the inclusion of his head as the final boss and the reversed sound effect - they were both a result of in-joke pranking between development team members.
The name "Romero" is written in blood on one of the walls in level 19 "Shipping/Respawning" in Final Doom's TNT: Evilution campaign.