Jazz Jackrabbit was your highest selling shareware game at the time?
What was your highest selling shareware game overall?
Of all time? That was Epic Pinball.
That was a crazy project. These developers in Finland, Future Crew -- we'd been
trying to recruit them for a long time as shareware developers. They did a
bunch of early 3D demos -- it was incredibly brilliant, impressive stuff. I
thought they were the smartest guys in the world at that time.
Mark Rein went out to Finland to try to recruit them, but they weren't
interested. I guess they had other projects going on at the time. But what he
did bring back was this pinball game that they'd been developing.
It wasn't finished,
but it was a vertically-scrolling pinball game with realistic physics. We were
begging and pleading with them to finish the game so we could release it and
put it out as shareware, but they just didn't have the resources to take that
showed the game to James Schmalz, who'd done Solar Winds. He was this
guy up in Canada -- that's why we moved to Canada for a year with Unreal.
This brilliant guy -- he programmed 100% assembly language and does all art for
his projects, so... brilliant artist, programmer, jack-of-all-trades, which is
really uncommon in the industry at that level of competitiveness.
saw the pinball demo and said, "Oh, yeah, I can build a game like
that." So from scratch, he built a vertically-scrolling pinball game, designed
six pinball tables for it and all that -- he did that while he was in college.
I think he spent nine months on it in total.
Mark Rein and I were basically
being cheerleaders, telling him what needed work, what need improvement, and
giving him references to other pinball games, pinball rules, and things like
that. So he finished the game, and over the next year, he made more than a
million dollars from the shareware royalties.
Epic MegaGames' Jazz Jackrabbit
great. Does James Schmalz work at Epic now? What's he doing?
No. After Epic Pinball, James Schmalz was the first developer on Unreal,
and ended up being the co-developer on the project. Halfway through, he started
Digital Extremes. The first two Unreal games were collaborations between
Epic and DE, so he had about five employees at max, and we had 10 or 15.
just worked together as an integrated team, building the game. After we
released Unreal Tournament, they went off and developed games on their
own while we went off with our own projects.
you ever have any contact with the id Software guys back then? John Carmack, John Romero -- they were
developing Commander Keen, and...
Not during the development of Commander Keen, but after they came out
with Wolfenstein 3D, we met them all on this shareware event. It was in
Indiana of all places. So it was Mark,
me, and a few others -- and who from id was there? Romero was there, Jay Wilbur
was there. They were the superstars of the show, and Epic was an up-and-coming
Romero was a really outgoing guy. He was always really friendly and kept up
with everything that was happening in the industry. He knew who we were, he had
played Jill of the Jungle, and he was like, "Oh yeah, cool game,
man!" He invited us out to dinner one night, so we had dinner with the id
don't think Carmack was there, but it was a really interesting conversation.
Basically Mark and I were in total awe at what the guys had done, and we just
talked about what happened in the industry and what we were doing.
really aggressive in their business: "Yeah, we're going to get out of this
Apogee thing and go off on our own" -- which they did with Doom. Very
you think about doing a first-person shooter after their success with Wolfenstein
3D and Doom?
It was funny how we got to that point. When I saw Wolfenstein for the
first time, that was truly shocking. I'd never envisioned that you could do 3D
in a computer game; I don't know why.
The research had indicated that you could
do that for at least 15 years before that, but it was this 3D game with
real-time texture mapping; you know, real-time bitmaps scaled up and displayed
in 3D on the screen. It never occurred to me that you could actually write code
to do that. It was just another lack of foresight there.
seeing that for the first time, I was like, "Wow, I'm totally not
worthy. I need to get out of programming
now, because I'm never going to be able to compete with this." So they
just basically demoralized me into becoming a manager for a few years.
1994, James Schmalz had written this 3D texture-mapping code, and I was
starting to think, "Hmm, maybe that's not so hard." So I started
reading up on references there and experimenting with it, and it turns out
that, yeah, it's just another piece of code that you can learn how to create.
Did you ever think about doing a Doom-style
first-person shooter with Epic instead of a full-3D game like Unreal?
TS: It took about two years to come around to the
realization that we could be a competitive game company in that business. At
first, the technical problems seemed so hard that it felt like I was out of my
league at that point and that all of the Epic folks were out of our league.
id had done -- let's put it that Wolfenstein and Doom were so far
ahead of everybody else's wildest dreams, that it just seemed crazy to try to
compete. But it was around 1994 when I started to see that, yeah, they're
There were a bunch of shortcomings in the game, and there
were a lot of things you could do in addition to go way beyond what they were
doing -- there were different stories you could do. It was really around 1994
that we felt we could actually try to compete in that area.
at that point, it was daunting. We typically developed games with between one
and three people -- usually a programmer, an artist, and maybe a musician. But
those games took much larger teams -- up to ten or twenty people. It was really
scary scaling up to the size of the project on Unreal where we went to about 20
people by the time the project shipped.
had no experience managing projects like that, and developing that game -- the
cost of it just required that Epic and Digital Extremes -- we had to spend all of
the profits we'd made on all of our previous games up to that point on that one
We were betting everything on that -- including our credit card
balances. Mark Rein got his American Express card taken away from funding Epic
at that point. We bet everything on it, and it was a success.
It's great that it worked out that way.
It's fortunate. If the game had been delayed by another six months, Epic
probably wouldn't be here now.
I have one last question about the shareware days. When I
was downloading Epic's games from BBSes back in the day, Epic's games stood out
because they had VGA graphics and Sound Blaster support. That's why they were
my favorites. Was that a conscious effort on your part to always have games at
a superior level of technical quality from that point on?
Every project after ZZT -- with ZZT, I wasn't even trying to
compete. With Jill of the Jungle, I don't know -- I was always looking
at what other games had and how we could beat that. Commander Keen was an EGA
game with PC speaker sound effects and AdLib music. So we went one step further
and had digitized sound effects and VGA graphics.
with everything since then, we've always put a conscious effort into thinking,
"How can we beat everybody technically?" Because if you beat them
technically, it gives you an opportunity to shine in all other areas. VGA
graphics isn't just a technical feature -- it means you can have much better
artwork than everybody else. Even if your artists are only as good as the
competition's, they have more colors to work with, so they can do better work.
that's been a big driving force with Unreal. Even nowadays, to try to stay as
far ahead of the competition as possible in technical features.