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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 6 of 10 Next

How well did Super ZZT sell compared to ZZT?

TS: Super ZZT was never successful. It was... maybe a copy a day at its peak. Hard to say why. I guess that's the danger of Super ZZT. It went more in the direction of being a real game with realistic scrolling, graphics, and everything.

Did it have an editor with it? I don't ever remember using the editor in that game.

TS: Yeah, it shipped with one, but there's some stupid cheat code you had to use to get into the editor.

That was probably your problem, then.

TS: 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.

ZZT included the editor in the shareware version and everybody was able to do it whether or not they sent in money. That was a huge factor in it being successful, I think.

Just looking at our current stuff, I have to wonder how much more successful -- how much larger the mod community for Unreal or more recent games might have been if we'd given away the editor tools to everybody without any cost at all.

Without selling the game to them? Is that what you're saying?

TS: Yeah. But it's a different scale. You can't really make the business comparison, because millions of people bought Unreal, whereas several thousand bought ZZT, so it might be that buyers of a game like Unreal are enough to fully support the community.

Did you ever consider doing a version of ZZT with bitmapped sprites?

TS: When I created ZZT, it was 80x25 column, 16 color text mode, basically. I then created Super ZZT, which was lower -- it was 40-column mode, so characters were square, which was better for the movement speed and everything. I was thinking at that point of creating a graphical game, sorta like Ultima-level graphics -- still tile based, but with iconic representations of everything.

There were two problems: one, I was such a terrible artist; I didn't have any collaborators at the time. The other thing is, a lot of the cool constraints that made ZZT interesting really don't work when you're unconstrained graphically.

With ZZT, every character is at a particular grid location in the world, and if you have fractional movement between grid locations, you have a whole different set of obstructions and rules for movement. Animation becomes more complicated, and then you have to handle collisions between guys which are half-way between cells. So I ended up concluding that it wasn't worth creating a tile-based game with unconstrained movement.

At the same time, I started working on Jill of the Jungle, and there were these 2D platformer games. That approach seemed to work better. You still had a tile-based environment, but you had gravity, so the characters were always drawn towards the ground.

You had a really clear method of finding where a platform is that you can stand on and what kind of tiles you can go through -- it just seemed like the better approach for developing a 2D graphical game to introduce gravity and all the constraints that come with it.

Jill of the Jungle was developed similar to ZZT. It started out as an editor -- I wish I had put more time in the editor along with the game; it was kind of crappy and didn't have a scripting language. Most of the deficiencies of that game came from just wanting to ship it really quickly to be able to compete in the serious shareware business, rather than spending a lot of time to develop a good framework for future re-use.

If I had taken a slightly different approach, I think I could have built Jill of the Jungle and the engine more modularly and had an engine that could have been re-used for four or five games. That could have made a few million bucks at that point. It would have been a distraction from Unreal, ultimately, but it certainly would have been a more profitable business approach than developing a whole bunch of external games with their own engines.

There's a game called Xargon. Did that use Jill of the Jungle's engine?

TS: Yeah, that's the one game that used the Jill engine. That was built by Allen Pilgrim, who started out as a ZZT level designer. He's a really smart guy, but he had absolutely zero programming experience until he started working with ZZT.

And he created a bunch of the winning levels in the Best of ZZT contest. So I contacted him to make Xargon, and he learned to program from scratch in C++ on that project and shipped the game about a year later -- really impressive work.

But then we went to develop Jazz Jackrabbit where Arjan Brussee -- this brilliant Dutch programmer -- wrote this platform scrolling engine, and Cliff Bleszinski designed the game levels and designed the game itself.

Did Cliff design the Jazz Jackrabbit character?

TS: Yeah, the whole game design and concept for the game was Cliff's. It was loosely supposed to be an answer to Sonic the Hedgehog on PC. Previous games to that had been Mario-style games: slow character movement and cutesy characters. Jazz Jackrabbit was still a cute game, but it was more bad-ass -- much faster and more wild movement.

Did you create the Jill of the Jungle character yourself? Was that your idea?

TS: Yeah. I wanted to do a Nintendo-style game and all of the PC shareware games of the time had these heroic male characters, so I wanted to do something to distinguish the game from that.

It could have gone further than that. We could have developed 3D games along that line, kind of what Eidos did with Lara Croft, but it never became a priority.

Did you ever think of making another Jill of the Jungle?

TS: At one point, I had a grand scheme to create a second 2D side-scrolling engine -- basically everything that I had wanted to do in Jill of the Jungle but didn't have time for. To create better smooth scrolling using some of the new VGA scrolling tricks that were available, to create parallax effects.

I was also thinking of doing some sort of real physics in the game. Not the sort of physics you see in LittleBigPlanet, but something that would have been pretty beefy for the time, like suspension bridges that change shape as you move around, and real dangling vines. But I never got around to that. At that point, after I shipped Jill of the Jungle, I went into a few years of just being a producer for all these external projects.

It was a funny time. I think that by not doing that, I made a really sub-optimal short-term business decision, but the funny thing is at that point we brought in a lot of the key folks that became Epic's great developers. And if I hadn't done that, it would have been lone wolf -- I would have made a lot more money at that point, but we wouldn't have the company we have now.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 10 Next

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