An Audience With...
From BASIC to VR: Epic’s founder talks us through a life dedicated to videogame technology
Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney tells us about his beginnings in games – and his concerns about the future
Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney has the look of the prototypical nerd engineer, with thicklensed specs, a nervously twitching nose, and a wardrobe full of black hoodies. Where Sweeney breaks from cliché, however, is in his arch outspokenness. “[Microsoft is] subverting the rights of developers and publishers to maintain a direct relationship with their customers,” he wrote in The Guardian earlier this year of what he sees as the company’s anti-consumer policies. It’s fighting talk from a man who has made millions from Gears Of War, a series published by Microsoft. Sweeney, however, can afford to be bolshy. His company, which he founded in 1991 at the age of 21, has produced not only some of the best-selling blockbusters of the past 20 years, but also Unreal Engine, the middleware that’s been licensed by other game developers to power hundreds more.
Where did you grow up?
In Maryland, on the outskirts of Potomac. I got a computer, an Apple II, when I was 11 years old. I completely fell in love with it. The sheer power of that thing… To see what other people were building with it and to think that I might be able to do it myself if I could just learn the commands – that was hugely empowering. For the next ten years I spent more time at my computer than I spent at school. I’d say it took about a decade before I felt like I was actually getting good at it.
What convinced your parents to buy you one?
It was around the time of the computer revolution and my brother, who is 15 years older than me, was living in San Diego, where he was working for hi-tech companies. I visited him and he showed me his garage, which was full of computers. He taught me how to program BASIC while I was staying, over the course of two days. He worked at IBM at the time but, even so, he bought me an Apple II that Christmas. Soon enough I found that BASIC was too slow, so I taught myself machine code and Assembler instead. I programmed that way for 14 years. I made some pretty major programs that way – some games and also a basic bulletin board. I was super into bulletin boards at the time.
What sort of games were you creating in those early days?
All kinds of things – probably about 50 games in total by the time I switched to a PC. The very first game I made was a Pong clone. I didn’t know how to create graphics so I just used hex symbols to form the bats and an asterisk symbol for the ball. I started writing another game and it was going well, so I invited all of the neighbourhood kids over to play it and see what they thought.
How did it work?
It was an action RPG that used text instead of graphics. A little like NetHack, you could say. Anyway, I had all of these kids coming over – some were younger than me and some were older than me; they ranged from age five to 25. I watched them playing and tweaked things and, over the course of a few weeks, I began to feel like everyone who played the game could figure out what they were supposed to be doing and have fun. So I put it out as shareware. I copied the model that 3D Realms and Apogee used at the time, whereby you give away one episode of the game for free and then people can buy new episodes via mail order.
The model has come full circle nowadays with online episodic games.
Exactly. I made about $300 that way and thought to myself: ‘Oh my god, I’m rich.’ Soon after that I wrote ZZT.
How did you teach yourself graphics programming?
I read the documentation and taught myself that way.
What were you studying at college at the time?
Mechanical engineering at the University Of Maryland. I’d been programming computers for half my life by that point and I felt like computer science would have just been a waste of my time. Mechanical engineering turned out to be a good major because I got to learn all kinds of mathematics that’s almost impossible to learn on your own. By the time it came to writing 3D for Unreal, it was critical. There was like a Karate Kid moment, a day that I realised: ‘Oh, wow! I need to represent a point in 3D space as a vector. And for a vector to work I need a matrix’. I learned all of this seemingly useless math and then it turned out to actually work.
So you graduated with a mechanical engineering degree – how did you move from that position to becoming a full-time game-maker?
I actually didn’t graduate. Epic was growing so fast, and I was one credit short after four years. I didn’t follow through and get the degree. I’d put out two games by
that point. But I’d also recruited some other people via bulletin boards and other early communication tools of the Internet like Usenet.
How were you getting online in those days?
Mainly via the university networks. I recruited about five other developers from around the world in this way, and was helping them with their projects as a kind of producer. I’d provide advice with game balance and so on.
Were you always planning to publish their games?
Yes, I was kind of setting up a company, although nothing that formal, really. I was still working out of my parents’ garage. By the time I graduated college I was spending my time in that garage copying disks and mailing them out to people, while working with these other developers virtually around the world. It was a very rudimentary publisher setup, you could say. That’s how Cliff Bleszinski got involved – I met him over the Internet when he was working on an adventure game called Dare
To Dream. It wasn’t a very big hit but, after that game, I put Cliff together with a brilliant programmer I knew, Arjan Brussee, and they built Jazz Jackrabbit together. It’s funny: after years of separation, they’ve recently got back together again.
You’d started out as the somewhat dry-sounding Potomac Computer Systems.
Yes, I did. At the time I had thought I’d become a computer consultant.
Were you called Epic by the point at which you had multiple shareware games coming out?
No, in the early days the operation was called Epic MegaGames. I thought that made me sound like a serious, major company – some kind of big operation. Once we actually became successful, I decided to drop the ‘MegaGames’ from the company name. It sounded a bit much.
How successful were these games that you were putting out?
At their peak, some of these games were making severalhundred dollars a day. They more than paid everyone’s meagre sustenance at the time. I was just super-happy to be in a position where I was able to make a basic living making games. We had no central office or anything like that. Everyone was working from their homes, garages and bedrooms. It worked well. Then the industry started changing really quickly. During this time, Wolfenstein 3D came out. Videogames started to grow larger and larger. At some point it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to support teams of the necessary size on a shareware model. I struck a publishing deal with GT Interactive, and we had to rethink the way that we did business entirely. We took all of our best developers who were working on smaller projects and put them together to work on a much more ambitious game. None of us had done anything in 3D before. I had to learn 3D programming and Cliff had to learn 3D level design.
How many of you were there on staff at the time?
There were actually about six of us, which quickly grew to 25. It was a period of major growth. We started without knowing what we were doing. About a year into production we had a playable demo and we started showing it around as we needed funding – we needed a publishing deal and publicity for it. Soon, developers started contacting us saying they were interested in using our engine. I was like: “What’s an engine?” That’s when we started to license the use of our tools. It provided us with some income that in turn helped to fund the development of Unreal. We started in 1995 and shipped in 1998. Three and a half years’ development for a game that we never thought would take longer than six months to make.
Did these other developers get in touch because they’d seen your engine in magazines?
Yeah, we had good press contacts from our shareware days, so we used those to get publicity. We had a cover on PC Gamer, which was really the first legitimate 3D screenshot to be used full-page on the cover of a magazine, I believe.
Were other companies trying to do a similar thing with the business model at that time?
Id Software had licensed the Wolfenstein engine, but engines didn’t really exist as a concept until 3D came along. 2D is so simple that you don’t really need an engine to handle it. Everybody wrote their own stuff up until that point. And then it became hyper-specialised. For about 20 years now, that has been our business model at Epic. What do you think was the reason for Unreal’s success? Presumably the timing helped, in terms of the technology you’d developed. It was about nine months before Half-Life. That was important timing. Half-Life completely changed expectations of firstperson shooters – it offered a story that you’re a part of. They broke down barriers that neither Id nor we had ever really attempted before. Until that point, the story was basically: you’re some badass with a gun shooting at stuff. If we’d have come out after
Half-Life I think people would’ve said that our game looked pretty but had no substance to it. So in that regard we were fortunate.
“NONE OF US HAD DONE 3D BEFORE. I HAD TO LEARN 3D PROGRAMMING AND CLIFF HAD TO LEARN 3D LEVEL DESIGN”
The negative aspect, however, was that we shipped with completely broken network code. We’d only tested the game on our local network. This forced us to work on that aspect of the game for months after release. We created an addon to fix its problems, with a bunch of new multiplayer maps. That grew and grew until it became a standalone product, Unreal Tournament, which came out in 1999. That turned out to be a lot bigger than the original game.
Was that due to the gap that Id Software left when it went on to try other things? An opportunity appeared in the multiplayer market?
Yeah. It’s funny. Every company has been founded on core principles. Every step of the industry’s evolution has completely challenged those, and companies have to change. The medium went through so many rapid changes while people were figuring out the rules and the boundaries. The move from 2D to realtime 3D graphics was seismic. Then story’s influence. Then online multiplayer. These major shifts, constantly closing and opening opportunities for game companies.
How did that grow into Gears Of War?
We had a real problem. The Internet became vast. There was no Steam at the time, so it became really, really convenient to pirate games [on PC]. Without a major channel through which to sell games online, we were finding that, for every one copy of a game we sold, ten more were pirated. That ratio made it impossible to compete with the consoles, where piracy rates were so much lower. This led us to sign a deal with Microsoft to make Gears Of War. It took about three years. Then, during that period, Steam came along. Piracy became a lot less convenient than buying games legitimately. Multiplayer became much more important. And so PC gaming became viable once again.
Just prior to Steam’s launch there were endless articles proclaiming PC gaming dead or dying. It was a very quick turnaround to the landscape we have today. Was Unreal Engine licensing the core of your business by that point in terms of revenue?
It bounced back and forth. In years when we haven’t had a major game on the market, the engine has been the number one revenue earner. It’s stabilised us and has enabled us to fund the company when, without the engine, we might otherwise have gone under.
At what point did you decide to change the business model for your engine licence to allow companies to use the tech for free? Was that mainly in response to Unity, where you hadn’t been challenged in the marketplace before?
It just shows the value of competition. We’d gotten fat on the licensing model with blockbuster developers. The indie revolution really started with mobile app stores. Unity happened to be at the centre of that. Suddenly everybody was using its engine for these independent mobile projects. That really democratised access to game developers. We’d always nurtured a community around
Unreal Tournament modding, but it wasn’t really a commercial thing; it was more under the umbrella of the game. Whereas Unity had the same concept: you could use this engine for anything, including modding other products. That forced us to open up our engine to everybody. Our deal is straightforward now: for three years after the game’s release, we take a five per cent royalty on revenues. That way we’re not a tax on people’s income before they make a profit – we only make a profit if the game’s successful. It’s also been crucial to open up the engine to customisation by making it open source. In blockbuster game development, the first 80 per cent of technical development is straightforward; later, you really need to have the opportunity to be able to go in and modify parts of the engine.
You’ve recently made highly critical statements about Universal Windows Platform. It’s unusual for a highprofile figure to attack a high-profile company in such a public way. What agitated you to that extent?
I could see that something very bad was happening
Sweeney’s MS-DOS title ZZT was released in 1991, just prior to his game company’s transformation from Potomac Computer Systems to the less modest-sounding Epic MegaGames
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In April 1998, Unreal saw Sweeney’s coding skills unleashed in the 3D action game arena for the first time. It was, the programmer says, good timing