From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks
May 25, 2009 Page 8 of 10
Inside the Shareware Business
Let's go back to the shareware days. When did you first learn about the shareware model? How did you learn about it -- was it from Apogee?
TS: Shareware had been around from the beginning. As soon as I got on BBSes, there were obvious shareware programs, but it seemed like a stupid business model, because you give out a program with all of its features and then ask people to pay you for it? It seems backwards, right?
It was Apogee that made it look like a really attractive, viable business. They released one episode of a game -- you could play through it in a few hours, and then if you wanted more, you'd buy it.
And if the games were high enough quality, that was really powerful. Their games were good enough that I actually bought them, and I hadn't done that with any previous shareware. So it was really the model that Scott Miller defined that made the whole market appear interesting.
Before that, the whole business was so daunting, and that's why I never released anything prior to ZZT. See, you put a huge amount of effort into developing a program. If you have to release it, then that's basically doubling the effort, because of all the polish and documentation that's needed. And unless you're going to make serious money from that, then it's not worth it.
Shareware for most companies wasn't possible at all at that point, and getting into retail was so daunting: then you have to negotiate a publishing deal with a huge company and it's hard to even find the contacts. It just seemed so daunting that I didn't even bother with it.
So you went the shareware route because it was easy to distribute your own games through BBSes.
TS: Yeah, and it was a business model that obviously worked, provided you came up with episodes.
How was your relationship with Apogee back then? Did you ever talk to Scott Miller? Was it a fierce competition between the two of you?
TS: It was always professional. I started out talking with Scott Miller before I even released ZZT, just trying to gather some intel on the whole business. And then after releasing it, Scott Miller was trying to recruit me to publish Jill of the Jungle through Apogee, but I decided to go it on my own.
We'd compete for shareware developers. Somebody would create a game of their own and they'd submit it to Apogee and Epic and we'd both consider them, and we sometimes ended up competing for deals. It was always professional. There wasn't any animosity.
Epic MegaGames' Jill of the Jungle
Did you ever talk to him after you got started with the business? Did you ever have to call him and say, "Hey, there's something we need to talk about."
TS: We talked. There were two ways: there were the CompuServe forums -- basically that was where all of the people in the shareware industry chatted with each other. Scott Miller was very active there, so I'd come into contact with him a huge amount through that. We'd send emails back and forth through it and engage in common discussions with other people.
And then there was this annual shareware event, the Association of Shareware Professionals -- this weird industry group -- that would have an event every year. So I got to meet everybody. I met Scott and George [Broussard] pretty early on -- I guess that was '91 or '92 -- and much of their authors, and we brought a bunch of our people out to that event, so we had a pretty in-depth relationship with them at that point.
If somebody came to you with a great game you were going to publish or distribute, what would you pay them? A lump sum or part of what they sold?
TS: It was all royalty-based. We'd negotiate deals where the developer would come to Epic with their game, and we'd offer to take care of all the marketing, distribution, sales, and all that stuff, and in exchange, pay them royalties.
It was 40% or 50% of each sale. So when a $30 game sold, the shareware developer got $15, then $5-6 went to postage and their labor costs on top of that. So it was profitable enough that we were able to grow.
That's a pretty good deal for the developers -- a large percentage.
TS: The royalties we paid out were better than all but the top several game developers can get from publishers nowadays, for example. And our business was a lot more cost-intensive back then because it was small scale. The overhead was more significant.
How did it work when you and Apogee were competing over a developer? Did you bid on them?
TS: We never really got into a bidding war about anybody. Scott Miller tended to get the people he wanted, so most of the people that came to Epic were the result of direct recruiting efforts by me or Mark [Rein].
We'd go onto the CompuServe forums and Usenet and send messages trying to get people to submit their games for publication. Then when somebody released something just as freeware or for fun, we'd try to contact them, follow them up, and bring them on board.
Around that point -- I guess it was around 1992 when Cliff had released this little adventure game on his own as shareware. He hadn't done much from it, so he submitted his next game, Dare to Dream, to Epic. Mark was visiting me for the first time in Maryland.
The day I met Mark Rein, we got this letter from Cliff at my house, and Mark called him up and went... doing the standard Mark Rein thing: "You should publish this through Epic -- you'll be a millionaire!" [laughs] You know, kind of over-selling the whole thing, and Cliff got really interested about that, so we published that game for Cliff.
It wasn't a big success, but then we hooked Cliff up with this awesome Dutch programmer, Arjan Brussee, who wrote the engine that powered Jazz Jackrabbit. And that was Epic's biggest selling game at the time: Jazz Jackrabbit.
Did they work together over the phone, over computer networks? If the guy was Dutch, was he in the Netherlands...
TS: Yeah, it was phone calls and modems. Cliff was in California at the time. That was crazy: everybody had these massive phone bills. They'd send the phone bills to me and say, "Give me some money for this."
Actually, my personal number was an 800-number, so the authors could call me without incurring phone charges. 'Cause, you know, a lot of them were just -- Cliffy was just in high school at the time, I think; he was about 15 when he created his first game and released it. And that was pretty typical at the time. Nobody had a real career or anything.
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