John Carmack, one of the creators of influential and controversial first-person shooter games "Doom" and "Quake," took gamers by surprise Wednesday morning when he announced that he would be stepping back from his position as technical director at id Software, the influential game studio he co-founded in 1991, to join the nascent virtual reality startup Oculus VR as chief technical officer.
Carmack, who played a formative role in developing 3-D graphics and modern game programming, is an auspicious addition for a tech startup whose core product — a pair of exceedingly high-tech goggles known as the Oculus Rift — remains largely untested.
While early adopters and tech critics now sing the virtual reality headset's praises, adding in one of the pioneers of first-person shooter games to the Oculus Rift team makes the possibilities of using the gadget to play something like "Call of Duty" all the more exciting.
The news comes as Oculus VR, which recently raised an additional $16 million in venture capital funding, relocates part of its operation to Dallas, Texas, where id Software is also based. The company announced the news somewhat quietly on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site where the company first caught the attention of gamers the world over after it breezed past its $250,000 goal to earn nearly $2.5 million in September 2012.
Carmack was an early supporter of the company's Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets — talking up the device in interviews and at video game conventions, even appearing in the initial Kickstarter pitch video. Gaming publications such as Eurogamer credit his presentation of the Rift at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) as the initial stamp of approval that "sent Oculus Rift and its creator Palmer Luckey on a rollercoaster ride of success that is still picking up speed."
In a statement Wednesay, Carmack explained that he was inspired to join Oculus VR in a more official capacity because he wanted another chance to be a technological "pioneer":
I have fond memories of the development work that led to a lot of great things in modern gaming — the intensity of the first person experience, LAN and internet play, game mods, and so on. Duct taping a strap and hot gluing sensors onto Palmer's early prototype Rift and writing the code to drive it ranks right up there. Now is a special time. I believe that VR will have a huge impact in the coming years, but everyone working today is a pioneer. The paradigms that everyone will take for granted in the future are being figured out today; probably by people reading this message. It's certainly not there yet. There is a lot more work to do, and there are problems we don't even know about that will need to be solved, but I am eager to work on them. It's going to be awesome!
Carmack later commented on Twitter about the excitement and trepidation of going to work at a startup after more than two decades on top of the game industry, writing "it is a big change of pace to go from working on carefully engineered code for the long haul to PANICKY STARTUP CODING FOR THE NEXT DEMO."
Judging from the most comprehensive description of Carmack's career in the game industry offered by the journalist David Kushner in his 2003 book "Masters of Doom," Carmack's work has always been on the more high-minded technical side of game development. He's the man credited with creating id's many groundbreaking game engines, in other words, not the man plunking down individual monsters or packs of ammunition in a level design toolkit. In addition to his work at id, Carmack has also been involved with an aerospace startup, Armadillo Aerospace, that he founded in 2000.
It's unclear what Carmack's new job means for id Software, however. A representative from Oculus VR told NBC News Wednesday that Carmack is joining the company "full-time." Representatives from id or its parent company, ZeniMax Media, were not immediately available for comment. Bethesda Softworks, the current publisher of id's games, released two somewhat divergent statements to a handful of gaming sites — the first saying that "the technical leadership [Carmack] provides for games in development at id Software is unaffected," with the second adding that "John will spend time working out of Oculus as part of his role with them, but he will also continue to work at id."
In any case, it sounds like the rock star programmer is going to have his hands full.
"My time division is now Oculus over Id over Armadillo," Carmack wrote on Twitter Wednesday morning. "Busy busy busy!"
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.