Gears of War. Unreal Engine. Journalists commonly
use these two phrases to quickly encapsulate the history of Epic Games, a
highly successful video game developer based in Cary, North Carolina.
not? The Gears of War franchise has sold gazillions of copies, and the
Unreal Engine commonly powers blockbuster titles like BioShock. Both
successes have made the gaming industry look up and take notice. But to stop
with those platitudes is to ignore a much deeper and richer past.
Epic Games, founded by Tim Sweeney in 1991, has a much
bigger gaming footprint than most people realize. When I hear "Epic,"
I think back to a time in the early 1990s when I was deeply involved in my
local computer bulletin board system (BBS) scene. BBSes were early dial-up
online services that provided message boards, primitive online games, and
numerous free files to download.
At that time, Epic MegaGames -- as Sweeney's
company was then called -- published some of the world's most popular and
successful shareware games. Games like Jill
of the Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball, and others could be found in
nearly every BBS file section across the U.S.
And the game that started it all for Sweeney was ZZT.
Released in 1991, ZZT is a text-based action/adventure/puzzle shareware
title with a built-in game editor and scripting language. Think LittleBigPlanet
in text. Sweeney's experiences with ZZT led directly to Epic's success
with Unreal Engine, which inseparably integrates game engine and editor much in
the same way ZZT did.
Sweeney -- now CEO and technical director of Epic -- is
probably a genius, and he's definitely a geek. But he's not a geek in your
standard "never leave the basement" sense. Although soft-spoken,
Sweeney is quietly confident, and he possesses a keen business instinct that is
rare in an analytical genius of his caliber. That instinct for business led him
(and Epic) directly where they are today.
Earlier this year, I met with Sweeney to discuss his
personal history over lunch. With so much press coverage overlooking Epic's early
days, he was happy to oblige. During our one and a half hour conversation, we
talked in earnest about Sweeney's early programming days, the story behind ZZT,
the origins of Epic, the '90s shareware business, and even a bit about the
future as well:
The Early Years
did you grow up, and where were you born?
Sweeney: I grew up in Maryland in a little town called Potomac. It's where my
parents live. My father started out working for the government. He worked for
the Defense Mapping Agency creating maps from satellite imagery long before
that was commonplace.
you mind if I ask you when you were born?
1970. That makes me 38 now. Scary. That's really old. For a long time -- this
shows how old Epic is -- I was a really young guy running a game company. That
was kind of unusual. The funny thing, though, is you see that happening
throughout the whole industry. People really started getting into game
development in a big way in the early-mid 1990s, so the industry's grown that
growing up together.
Yeah. Back then, your typical developer was in his twenties; now, he's in his
thirties. Most developers have a family -- wife and kids -- so the industry's
really changed a lot.
was the first computer you ever used?
started out with an Apple II. Which was a good computer to learn with because
it had absolutely no hardware accelerated graphics or anything like that. It
was just a little 6502 processor, so you had to do absolutely everything
yourself. Of course, you learned things the hard way, and you basically learned
about computer science rather than "how to use a Commodore 64
light-blinking flashing effect."
you program assembly on that, or did you just stick to BASIC?
started out with BASIC and then I learned machine language. I didn't know
assemblers existed at that point, so I just learned the hex op codes and typed
them into the little debugger manually. I'd write some fairly complicated
assembly programs, manually assembled. That was a crazy time.
of game developers actually started out that way. When I was out at Richard
Garriott's new start-up, which is now NCSoft Austin, he had an Apple II sitting
out, so we're like, "Oh wow!"
I sat down, and I could still type the crazy assembly codes into it.
Yeah. That was my first computer as well -- an Apple II+.
It was already pretty old when I got it, but I learned how to program BASIC on
The great thing about that computer -- I just bought one about a year ago to go
back and use it. The thing that strikes me is the first thing that starts up
when you boot it. You're in a programming language. Try to find a programming
language in Windows. Your computer's a million times faster, but you can't do a
damn thing with it.
was the first video game or computer game you remember playing?
used to play the early arcade games. You know, there's Pac-Man, Defender...
there's this one I was addicted to for a while, Space Firebird. It was this little Galaxian-style game
with a bunch of things flying around. I
was never really a serious gamer that way, but I'd go to the arcades a lot and
I guess when I was about eight or nine, the Atari
2600 came out, and it was a really sucky game machine. It was obvious even at
the time that it was sucky relative to what the arcades could do. It was
that, I got the Apple II, and I really missed out on all of the game consoles
after that. I missed out on the early Nintendo and Sega Genesis. I ended up
basically being a generation ahead of CliffyB -- you know, the guys who got
into computers and did gaming the computer route rather than going into the
game consoles. You end up with a very different perspective that way.
Sounds like it. So you started programming on the Apple
II. Did you move on from there to a PC?
got a PC in 1989. The Apple II is a great machine, but the problem was that, by
the late 1980s, there was really no market around it anymore. There weren't
games being actively developed, all of the bulletin board systems and developer
forums had moved on to IBM-based development.
I moved, kinda begrudgingly,
'cause it was a pretty complicated and messy machine at the time, you know,
with DOS and early Windows. I got that in 1989; I started writing random little
programs for it.
written maybe several hundred programs for the Apple, including maybe fifty
little games. Some of them were pretty extensive, but I'd never released
anything until ZZT, which I started in 1990 and then released in early