Tom Hall ’86: Video Game Innovator

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Tom Hall uses humor to enhance virtual life and overcome adversity in real life.

Two days bear special significance for video-game designer Tom Hall ’86. On June 9, 1980, his parents brought home an Apple computer. “I lived on that thing,” he recalls. The second milestone occurred three decades later, on April 13, 2010. “Totally out of the blue,” Hall says, “I had a stroke.”

At the age of forty-seven, after forging a reputation as one of the gaming world’s most daring innovators, Hall suffered a lower-left pontine stroke that affected muscles on his right side. During his recovery, he developed a new perspective on life. “I suddenly wanted to do things now, instead of later,” he says. “I love photography, so I got the camera I’d dreamed of. I got a nice Herman Miller chair. I’m eating better and simplifying my life.”

Growing up, Hall thrived on complications when it came to computer programming, creating his own games and vowing to major in computer science once he got to college. At UW–Madison, while working toward his bachelor’s degree in systems programming, he began thinking about a career in game design after he created education software for learning-disabled kids.

“I’d gotten positive response from folks about the text adventures and games that I wrote,” Hall says, “but helping a teacher improve his teaching tools with little games and simulations really gave me that need to do games.” (See a related story, page 13.)

Shortly after graduation, Hall began working at a software company where he met John Romero, John Carmack, and Adrian Carmack. In their spare time, the four geeks created the video game Commander Keen. It caught on. “We realized we could actually do this for a living,” he says, and the quartet formed its own company, id Software. “We worked crazy hard — seven days a week, sixteen hours a day,” says Hall. “I felt guilty eating breakfast. I had to get in to work and make the game.”

Over the ensuing years, Hall developed games including Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, Rise of the Triad, the award-winning Anachronox, and the immensely popular DOOM.

Now living in Half Moon Bay, California, Hall has relied on the playful spirit that informs his game design after he was blindsided by the stroke. “Once I knew I wasn’t going to die,” he explains, “it was kind of fun to relearn stuff: ‘Oh, that’s how you use a spoon.’ It was also fun tweeting dumb jokes and updates from the hospital. My folks … taught me to find humor in life, so that’s how I dealt with it.”

Phasing out the intensive production demands that have marked most of his previous projects, and now working for the Loot Drop game company, Hall says he’s embraced a new direction. “I’m kind of done for now with games that take three or four years to develop. Facebook, smartphones, and eventually Google — that’s the current frontier. I like the fast turnaround. Maybe that has to do with the stroke lesson: ‘Do things now.’ ”

Published in the Summer 2012 issue

Tags: Alumni, Computer Science

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