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From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks

May 25, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 10 Next

Jazz Jackrabbit was your highest selling shareware game at the time? What was your highest selling shareware game overall?

TS: 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.

So 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 on.

So we 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.

James 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

That's great. Does James Schmalz work at Epic now? What's he doing?

TS: 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.

We 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.

Did you ever have any contact with the id Software guys back then? John Carmack, John Romero -- they were developing Commander Keen, and...

TS: 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 game developer.

John 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 Software guys.

I 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.

They were 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 successfully.

Did you think about doing a first-person shooter after their success with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom?

TS: 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.

But 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.

Around 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.

What 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 actually beatable.

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.

Even 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.

We 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 single game.

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.

TS: 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?

TS: 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.

But 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.

And 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.

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Daniel Carvalho
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Wow, awesome article. Best one I've read on Gamasutra ever. I couldn't even hold myself back from commenting before I've read the whole thing. Great questions, ones I've always wanted to hear answered.

I absolutely love hearing of Id Software and the other big boys back in the golden era of PC game development. I always wondered what Tim Sweeney was thinking when Id Software released DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D. Classic response.

I still remember Solar Winds, Epic Pinball and Jill of the Jungle. Thanks again.

Alexander Bruce
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I'm glad this article was posted. I think it gives some really good insights into why the company is where they are today.

Excellent read.

Nicholas Sherlock
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It's fascinating to see some of the history behind the best games I played when I was a kid. I absolutely loved building my own games in ZZT, and later, in the ZZT clone MegaZeux.

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Rob Bergstrom
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B N: Which article were you reading?

Scott Miller
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>>> Yeah, there was a business mistake there. Kroz did the same thing. With Kroz, Apogee released game for free as shareware -- one episode of it, and you could buy the other episodes. But the editor you had to pay money to get, so most people never got the editor or never saw it. So you didn't have this sort of user community developing around the editor.

Kevin Potter
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This is an inspirational and insightful interview.

Prakash Angappan
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Great article....thanks for posting stuffs like this....

Lieven van der Heide
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>> S: Yeah, it was a good language. It was more rigorous than C++. When I moved from Pascal to C++ to create Jill of the Jungle, it was a real shock that people would actually be using a programming language that was so bad for large-scale development. To think that operating systems are built in that sort of language was really terrifying.

Ah, now that explains a lot:), had always been wondering why the unreal engine needed to abuse the C++ language so much, for no apparent reason at all.

Daniel Carvalho
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On Scott Millers note, it's amazing to see what happens when you package the editors with games. Think of Half-Life, which spawned what had to have been the peak of modding communities. Being a level designer and involved with Mapcore was really eye-opening. So many people were given the opportunity to try and be developers without requiring source code and programming knowledge, lifting the large barriers to entry. Half-Life's life cycle went on over 5 years because of it. Amazing.

Santiago Lazo
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Excellent ...... I remember when I was a child, I tried to get a computer ... but only got a nintendo, but it was fun, although not as didactic :(

Elvis Fernandes
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Nice stuff... very inspiring to read about Tim Sweeney.

Paul Eres
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good interview; i liked it. i wish he'd talk more about how he marketed his early games though (zzt, etc.)