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.
And why 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:
Where did you grow up, and where were you born?
Tim 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.
Do you mind if I ask you when you were born?
TS: 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 much older.
Everybody's growing up together.
TS: 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.
What was the first computer you ever used?
TS: I 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."
Did you program assembly on that, or did you just stick to BASIC?
TS: I 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.
A lot 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 it.
TS: 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.
What was the first video game or computer game you remember playing?
TS: I 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 play them.
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 disappointing.
After 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?
TS: I 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.
I'd 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 1991 sometime.