From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks
May 25, 2009 Page 7 of 10
Growing Epic: Programming to Managing and Back Again
In the pre-Unreal days of Epic, what was your main role in the company? Were you managing people mostly -- as a producer, like you said -- instead of programming?
TS: On ZZT and Jill of the Jungle, I was almost exclusively programming. And from 1993 to late '94, I was kind of cheerleader/producer of all the external projects. So at that point we had three to five external projects.
We had Cliffy working on Jazz Jackrabbit, James Schmalz working on Solar Winds, this fighting game called One Must Fall was in development, and there were a few other projects like Zone 66 and other work. So there was a full-time job just to manage people, just to get new builds of the games from them and test them out, give feedback, and do all the marketing and everything.
How big was the company? For example, did you have an accountant, or were you handling all the finances yourself?
TS: Well, at that point, we scaled it from one person to about eight, I think. I hired several people to take phone orders. We got a little office in Rockville, so that we wouldn't have people coming into my parents' house every day.
My old friend Carolyn Smith that I grew up with did accounting and helped out with things like that. And then Mark Rein came on in 1992. He stayed in Toronto, but he did sales, marketing, and deal-making -- he signed a lot of deals that brought us more money.
Now you've got Mike Capps as the president. How did you transition from running the company to having a dedicated management team?
TS: We were pretty loosely managed through shipping Unreal, until -- gosh -- 2003 or so. We were basically self-managed. We had a small team: during that time frame, we never got more than 25 people, so I'd be the manager of the technical folks and Cliffy was kind of the designer, producer, and manager of the creative and artistic folks. It was very loose.
The thing is, with a company that small, you don't really need a lot of management. If you hire great people, and they're all self-motivated, then you can get by without a lot of structure. But as we grew -- I guess 2004 or so, we brought on Mike Capps and started developing two projects simultaneously. That was a strategic thing: we realized that having one team was too small for a modern game company.
The problem is if you have a single team, then you have a huge team developing a project through to completion. Then it ships, and now you want to figure out what your next game is. Well, the ideal way to do that is just to have a small number of people -- like five or six people -- doing pre-production work. Just experimenting with concepts, trying to figure out what the game should be -- doing that for a year or more before they figure out the game and before you scale out to a large team.
So the ideal team size goes from 30 people at peak to five to six people at the start of a project. If you have a single large team, you're pretty much screwed: when you go back into pre-production, suddenly you have 30 people on payroll; it's expensive and you aren't able to work productively.
For example, how do you start working on artwork and characters before you know what your game design is and what mechanics really work out? So we saw moving to two teams as the solution to that, that way you can always do projects overlapped so that one project's in pre-production with a smaller team, and another project's in full production. As one project completes, the other is ramping up.
That's a good idea. Do you still have that model?
TS: Mmm hmm. It's been more complex because, at Epic, we also have the engine team now -- it's big enough that it's managed separately, so that's an 18 person team plus...
Once you get up to 30-40 people, management becomes really important. And when you're 100-plus, if you don't have good management, your company is quickly destroyed just because there are so many different layers of communication. With 20 people, everybody knows everybody else and then talks to the people they need to for whatever they're working on.
With 100 people, now you have the engine team working with the game team, complicated sub-teams, all that; you have upward communication; and then you have external companies you need to keep informed. It's just impossible to schedule unless you have a serious structure in place with producers on projects taking responsibility for project management, leads in each area, and so on.
In the late 1990s, Epic's headquarters moved a few times. What's the story behind that?
TS: In 1997, we had started Unreal. We were well into the project, and we weren't making the progress we needed because everybody was all over the place -- it was a very complicated project.
So we got everybody together in Waterloo, Canada for a year to finish the game, since some of the guys already lived up there. It was really nice for about six months, and then it froze over and didn't thaw again for another six months, so we got really annoyed at the cold there.
After that we decided to set up a permanent office and bring everybody together so we could be a more efficient developer. We looked all over the country, decided on Raleigh, and moved here in 1998.
It was funny to relocate here because absolutely nobody working with Epic at the time had been born here. It was just a random place that we chose after looking at the cost of living here, on the west coast, and all over the country.
Do you like it now that you've been here for a while?
TS: Yeah. I'm really happy with the area. It's a good cost of living. We can hire people from all over the world, they can come here, and with a good game developer's salary, you can buy a nice house. Whereas in California, you'd be stuck with a one bedroom apartment.
Raleigh is a really nice place. There's a lot of hiking, good weather, there's the mountains, there's the beach. Lots of good things.
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