“It’s always the quiet ones. Tim Willits is a nice, bright, clean-cut 20-year-old. He lives in his parents’ St. Paul home and cleans his room when Mom tells him to. He’s a University of Minnesota senior, with a double major in business and computer science, and an officer in the ROTC. He has a part-time job at the University Relations News Office, where he’s so well regarded that he has the honor of wearing the Goldy Gopher costume and serving as the school’s representative at nonsports functions.
In his spare time he designs gore-spattered arenas of death. In fact, his designs for the colossally popular computer game ‘Doom 2’ are so throat-clenchingly horrific that he’s been hired by ‘Doom’s’ creator, id Software, the hottest company in the business. Being tapped by id, he says, is like a hobby guitarist being recruited by Soundgarden. It’s the Big Time.
Willits has been playing with computers for a decade. To say he’s at home with them is an understatement. Last New Year’s he invited a bunch of friends over for a party. They all brought computers, linked them together and spent the night doing multi-player games.
In his spare time Willits uses his high-end Zeos home computer to create new levels for ‘Doom 2.’ The ‘Doom’ games use sophisticated programming to create arcade-quality 360-degree movement. Players see the action from a first-person perspective, aiming down the barrel of a shotgun or machine gun, or even using a chainsaw on the game’s demonic bad guys. The firm’s groundbreaking search-and-destroy game, ‘Wolfenstein 3D,’ allowed users to move on a single floor. ‘Doom’ introduced mazelike stairways and exteriors, with realistically textured graphics and more challenging tactics. ‘Doom II’ enabled users to run and jump through the environment.
Computer-savvy ‘Doom’ fans soon began adding new weapons, new demonic enemies and new battlegrounds of their own design. If you’d like to shoot Barney, monsters from the ‘Aliens’ movies, or Bill Clinton, there’s a home-brewed program that makes it happen.
Creating these upgrades and add-ons has become a minor industry among game fans, albeit not one that generates much capital. Most enhancements are posted on the internet as ‘shareware,’ which computer users can can download for free or a token fee.
Willits designs sprawling, castle-like environments with courtyards full of nasty surprises, pillars to hide behind and windows perfect for snipers. He draws them on a computer screen, just as an architect would lay out a mansion. But instead of pondering where to put the bathrooms, Willits wonders whether he has enough monsters lurking in the sub-basement.
Until now, Willits Software has been a ‘virtual company,’ a no-income hobby whose only payoff has been personal enjoyment. It’s operated by Willits out of his room at home, with volunteer assistance by his computer-literate sister, Theresa Chasar.
But in some ways, Willits Software stands tall beside the big boys. The ‘Raven’ levels have their own handsome Internet ‘home page,’ just like Microsoft and Silicon Graphics. HTTP://WWW.UMN.EDU/NLHOME/G.466/WILL0057/RAVEN.HTML is Raven’s Internet address; call it up and you can see photos of the Willits clan and download his creations.)
Hard numbers are elusive in cyberspace, but no one denies that Willits has produced some of the hottest ‘Doom’ add-ons. The ‘Raven’ levels, as he named them, have been downloaded countless times, and enthusiastic users from Sweden to Japan have inundated Willits with a tidal wave of e-mail.
Soon the honchos at id Software heard about the popular Raven levels. Willits got an encouraging e-letter from id designer American McGee, who praised his skill at using textured surfaces, using consistent color schemes and creating pleasing layouts, just as if they were two interior designers comparing notes.
Not long afterward, he logged on to find a recruiting letter from Rogue Software, a subsidiary of id. Jim Molinets, Rogue’s president, figured the best way to find a designer would be to go through the levels posted on the Internet. He found Willits’ ‘much higher quality and more fun to play than all the rest,’ and quickly signed him up to join the tiny four-person company in Texas.
Willits leaves this week to begin work on an authorized ‘Doom’ clone called ‘Strife.’ It involves more roleplaying and strategy than the ‘Doom’ titles, which are nonstop shoot-em-ups. It should be in stores by fall.
His folks are thrilled and no one in the family seems too perturbed by the games’ grisly content (‘Doom 2’ is rated 3 for ‘Violence – Blood and Gore’).
‘We used to watch cowboys shooting Indians when I was a kid,’ said Richard Willits, Tim’s father, ‘That wasn’t real and neither is this.’
Mary, his mother, gave a little yelp of surprise the first time she saw Tim cut his sister Theresa to ribbons with a chainsaw during a doubles game. But she’s happy about his new job, and traded him a futon for one of his computers.
Theresa’s tickled, despite the chainsaw incident. ‘You can’t be nothin’ but proud,’ she said. ‘In five years he’ll come back and start his own company. I hope he’ll hire me.'”
-courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Nice guy is in a bloody business,” by Colin Covert, photos by Bruce Bisping, published on Thursday, March 16, 1995