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From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks
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From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks

May 25, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 10 Next

Did you live with your parents or did you have your own place?

TS: I was in a college dorm for four years there, but I was still in the same town with my parents -- I'd go back there on weekends. Mostly, I kept my computer there and did most of my work from there.

Did you ever finish your degree in mechanical engineering?

TS: Not quite. Epic was growing rapidly, and I was one credit short after four years. I didn't follow through and get the degree.

Did your college studies in mechanical engineering have any influence on your game engine design? Are the two related in any way?

TS: I've always enjoyed building things, from go-karts to programs. And I wanted to avoid undergraduate computer science studies -- the courses weren't challenging because I knew most of it from my programming work. Mechanical engineering seemed like a good alternative.

But it was somewhat disappointing, as it takes far more effort to build an interesting mechanical contraption than an equally interesting program. However, the math courses were immensely useful. There are some things you just don't know you need to know until you know them.

Where is the University of Maryland?

TS: College Park. It's close to Washington, D.C. My parents lived in Potomac, Maryland. It's a rural-looking area along the Potomac River.

So that's why you called your company "Potomac Computer Systems" first.

TS: Yeah, that's how I started out.

The name sounds almost scientific. Why did you change to Epic MegaGames?

TS: I started Potomac Computer Systems because I wanted to do computer consulting. I'd gone through this succession of jobs: I had this job at a hardware store that paid four dollars an hour -- basically minimum wage. That really sucked. It was really hard work, and I didn't make much money.

I started mowing lawns after that, and I found out that by getting a tractor and going around and being entrepreneurial, I could make about 20 dollars an hour mowing lawns. So I was thinking, "What can I do to make more than this?"

I was going to start a little computer consulting business where you create little custom databases or things for people -- but that took a lot of work, actually, and I didn't get anywhere with it. So I had all this business letterhead and business cards with "Potomac Computer Systems," and by the time I finished ZZT, I thought, "Oh, might as well just use this." I hadn't really thought of it as a game company until after releasing ZZT.

After ZZT came out, I was selling about three or four copies a day, which is a hundred dollars a day. It was income you could live on, actually. I decided I was going to try to do that full-time and make a living from it, so I started working on Jill of the Jungle, this 2D side-scrolling game.

That was early 1992, and at that point, Apogee had released a number of little 2D games, and id Software had released Commander Keen. It was clear that there was some real money to be made in that business. I was trying to grow PCS into a real company, so at that point I realized that we needed a serious name, so I came up with "Epic MegaGames" -- kind of a scam to make it look like we were a big company.

Because "Epic" sounds big, is that what it was?

TS: "Epic ... Mega ... Games" -- yeah. Of course, it was just one guy working from his parents' house.

Did you get the name from any specific place? Did you think of other possible names first and pick one from that?

TS: Yeah, I was thinking of a bunch of names. At that point I was kinda fixated on competing with Apogee software, which later became 3D Realms. They were, by far, the number one shareware publisher at that point -- very similar to Epic in our business model.

I was trying to think of a name that would stand up well against that name. I was thinking, "Apogee... Perigee... Epic." There were a bunch of little ideas I came up with, but Epic seemed interesting for the time.

Of course, once the company became really successful after Unreal, I figured we didn't need to pretend, so we dropped the "Mega" part.

It's kinda like growing up a little bit, I guess. Your name seems more serious that way, but strangely enough, I still think of you as "Epic MegaGames."

TS: That's funny. The "Mega" didn't stand the test of time. Now it seems like a 1980s type of name. But "Epic" stands out well.

Yeah, "Epic" is a great name.

TS: Of course, now there's a resurgence in the use of the word "epic" associated with everything, and it's horribly overused, so that will probably seem a little dumb in a few years.

Does the name ZZT stand for anything?

TS: No. At that point, games were mainly distributed on bulletin board systems [BBSes] -- basically the precursor to the internet. I always wanted to run one myself, but I figured if I had done that, I probably wouldn't have had any time to develop games. So it was probably a good career move not to.

There was this scam: everybody who released shareware would rearrange their name so they would always be sorted to the top when people listed out the files available for download.

So at that top of all the file lists, there was this huge clutter of junk that you wanted to skip past. So I did the opposite and named ZZT so it would appear at the bottom of all the lists. So ZZT was just a scheme for that. It's also the cartoon sound effect.

In ZZT itself, there are a couple references to ZZT with a dot after each letter as if it were an acronym.

TS: No, it wasn't an abbreviation for anything. Some people were trying to reinvent what the name actually was. Somebody came up with "Zoo of Zero Tolerance" -- but no, it wasn't really an abbreviation. I'd actually thought of the name "ZZT" years before I created that game -- it just seemed like the right name for it then.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 10 Next

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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.)