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Epic's Sweeney On the PC Shareware Revolution 111

simoniker writes "Over at Gamasutra, there's a massive new interview with Epic (Mega)Games founder Tim Sweeney, the guy who's still a key technical figure at the Unreal Engine/Gears Of War developer. He discusses his early programming days, the story behind classic shareware game/tool ZZT, the origins of Epic, the '90s shareware business, and even a bit about the future as well. Particularly neat is his revelation that you can still order ZZT via mail, with orders fulfilled by his dad: 'My father still lives at the address where Potomac Computer Systems started up, so he still gets an order every few weeks... he's retired now, so he doesn't have much to do. Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders, put disks in them, and mail them out.'"
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Epic's Sweeney On the PC Shareware Revolution

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  • Poor dad (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:38PM (#28090041)
    He's going to get thousands now it's on /.
  • Epic is just assume I will have to read the rest of the interview. Just the first page brought back memories of things I had forgotten like "Epic Pinball."
    • Re:Epic Rocks (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:11PM (#28090335)

      Haha, yes! Epic Pinball was awesome. It was the first video pinball game that I remember having good physics. The soundtrack was pretty badass too.

      If you're still into pinball, check out Future Pinball [futurepinball.com]. It's a fully 3D representation of pinball that you can use to create your own tables or download a number of ones that other people have done.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by zonky ( 1153039 )
    • Re:Epic Rocks (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MachDelta ( 704883 ) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:59PM (#28090639)

      Lets see, I remember... Epic Pinball, Jazz Jackrabbit, Jill of the Jungle, Dare to Dream, Solar Winds, Castle of the Winds, Highway Hunter, One Must Fall 2097, and Seek and Destroy... yup. Lots of time wasted on Epic Megagames stuff back in the day. And that's completely ignoring the fact that I was an Unreal Tournament (1/2/2.5/3) junkie for six or so years. Epic has definitely published and produced some memories for me.

      • by sopssa ( 1498795 )

        I gotta agree here, Jazz Jackrabbit and Jill of the Jungle were great on my years. Even my gf still plays jazz jackrabbit, as its quite fun and controls are great. Along with Civ 2, Settlers 2, MegaRace 2 and SimCity 2000 I have to give kudos for Jazz Jackrabbit. Great game.

      • by bronney ( 638318 )

        Pinball and OMF were must haves. You still remember what S11=55 means? hehehe.

        • by Nimey ( 114278 )

          Hayes-compatible modem init command to make it dial faster, wasn't it? I usually set mine to 50, though.

      • OMF was my first venture into being a gaming curmudgeon.

        SF2 had been out for a few years at this point. Super SF2 Turbo had *just* came out and it was deep. OMF shareware made me want to puke with how cheesy it was compared to it, King of Fighters, and even Mortal Kombat.

      • That's a large chunk of the who's who list of awesome games from the early/mid 90s. Untold days of my life have been wisely spent on each.

      • by Veretax ( 872660 )
        OMF Rocked. Later when they released the old version to build up the later version they released (with better graphics and everything), I enjoyed playing through it repeatedly. (that to me is what makes a game good, is it still fun to replay over and over again.) Funny though that my favorite bot/WAR was in the Demo. (The Thorn :D)
    • Speaking of great shareware games, can anyone tell me where to get a copy of Carl Ericson's 'Race'?

      I loved that game but now can't find it and the 3.5" floppy I had it on died before I got around to buying a USB floppy drive.

  • ZZT! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by atroc ( 945553 )
    Man, I used to love ZZT. It honestly had a decent OOP programming language built-in. Too bad it didn't allow you to extend it... WiL ftw!
  • shareware (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:51PM (#28090149)
    The reasons why shareware exploded into growth in the 90s were because of a number of reasons. Hardware was expensive, today if a game doesn't work because you have too little RAM all you need to do is spend less than $20 and get a gig of DDR2 RAM, likewise if you don't have enough storage, you can move some pictures or movies onto a few GB flash drive for less than $20, if you don't have a fast enough graphics card all you need to do is spend $100 and you can get one that will handle most games (well, perhaps not Chrysis but other than that....), if your CPU is the bottleneck you can get a decent enough box for less than $500, back in the 90s an upgrade like that could be a thousand dollars or more. Shareware gave you a chance to make sure the game ran decently before you spent $50 on it. It also curbed piracy, by giving away part of the game for free pirates had something to distribute other than the full game. On the other hand shareware was as annoying as heck and still is especially on non-PC platforms such as Windows Mobile, iPhone (though due to the app store its a lot better than on Windows Mobile), or the generic cell phone.
    • Re:shareware (Score:5, Insightful)

      by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <qg@biodome.org> on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:59PM (#28090219) Homepage Journal

      Heh.. that certainly sounds like a good theory. But personally I think it was because it was significantly more effort to move around large amounts of data (a whole game) vs a small amount of data (the demo). The reasons being:

      1. Modems were slow (even slower than they are now).
      2. We all still used floppy disks.

      Demos were often exactly 1 floppy disk. The whole game was often many more.

      That, and the fact that the guys who made these games were totally awesome people and you didn't want them to go broke and stop making games. There was an actual cult of personality in shareware.. whereas retail games (as much back then as now) are made by big business who can go spin. That's the way the small-tribe-logic of the brain works.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TheRaven64 ( 641858 )

        1. Modems were slow (even slower than they are now).

        When they even existed. It wasn't until 97-98 over here that Internet access of some kind became common (though far from ubiquitous) and only a few people used a BBS. You're definitely right about the speed though. My first MODEM was 2400 Kb/s. Discounting protocol overhead, it would have taken over 1.5 hours to download a floppy disk's worth of content (there's a reason old web browsers had a 'disable images' button in the toolbar). Over here, dial-up was charged at the rate of a local call, typicall

        • I downloaded a whole bunch of Amiga disk images at 2400 bps... over the course of years. Eventually I got a 9600 bps modem (!) but that wasn't until later. Most people I knew might or might not play the shareware game, and then went to one of Santa Cruz's ten or twenty (!) "Elite" Boards.

      • Are you sure downloading a 10 mb game on 56 kbps modem was any slower than downloading a 10 gb game on a bad DSL or cable connection is now? The cable service over here hasn't gotten any better in the past 10 years or so, so we might be seeing a resurge in shareware unless the ISPs shape up their act.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Um, no.

      Shareware was popular then for the same reason file-sharing is popular now. It lets people know that when they hand over $20, or $50, for a piece of software, that it isn't a piece of crap.

      Or, that they can decide not to pay for it at all, if they are satisfied with what they got for free.

      The difference is that the people who ran shareware publishers understood that sharing is marketing, while the people who run publishers today think that litigation is a business model.

    • by Nimey ( 114278 )

      Yeah. In '93 my computer had 4 megabytes of RAM in a single 72-pin SIMM. To upgrade to 8MB with another such SIMM would have cost $200, and I think that price was pretty steady until about '95.

      Switching in a DX2-50 Overdrive CPU upgrade was IIRC about $150 to $180, and upgrading to a 420MB (from 106MB with Stacker 4) hard drive was about $200 or maybe more -- at that time the most expensive hard drives available were 2GB and they went for almost $2000.

    • by mdwh2 ( 535323 )

      Given the number of PC games that are riddled with bugs (I'm looking at you, Medieval Total War), try-before-you-buy would still be nice...

      Actually one thing that annoys me about shareware on Windows is that applications are often so deceitful about what they are released as. Releasing a free demo that you pay to upgrade is fine, but more often, applications will claim to be "free" when it turns out to be crippleware, or it'll be trialware that silently expires after 30 days. It was much better on the Amiga

  • by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:57PM (#28090199) Homepage

    "My father still lives at the address where Potomac Computer Systems started up, so he still gets an order every few weeks... he's retired now, so he doesn't have much to do. Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders, put disks in them, and mail them out."

    Odds that his dad just got slashdotted?

  • From page 1 of the article: "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." But Windows has JScript and VBScript.
    • by blazer1024 ( 72405 ) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:15PM (#28090359)

      It's not like it's that hard to *get* a programming language for Windows, though.

      Just download a copy of Visual [C++|C#|VB] [microsoft.com] and you can do all kinds of fun stuff.

      Windows doesn't have a programming language at boot because it's an OS for the masses, and the masses would get confused by a "READY." prompt.

      • When someone wanted a Windows version of one of my programs recently, I tried the latest Visual C++ Express edition. After changing the one line of GNU specific (and it was even already documented as such) code, I could get it to compile but I never did figure out how to get it to run on a computer that didn't have Express installed. Googling provided lots of answers for older versions that apparently don't work with the current version and eventually I gave up and tried MinGW which just plain worked. You w

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        Just download a copy of Visual [C++|C#|VB] and you can do all kinds of fun stuff.

        Or, if you're doing games on Windows, you might want Microsoft's XNA [microsoft.com] instead, a game development environment, with the advantage that if you pay a little bit of money, you can play them on your Xbox360. It's effectively a sanctioned way to do homebrew on the 360.

        • It's effectively a sanctioned way to do homebrew on the 360.

          Yeah, in the sense of "trade sanctions" or something, maybe. Pay to play? Fuck you, I still have an original Xbox and the XDK is everywhere.

      • by Nimey ( 114278 )

        Windows /does/ have a built-in programming language. It's based on Visual Basic and the file extension is .vbs. I think at one time (and it may still) it supported Jscript, which was Microsoft's version of Javascript.

      • download a copy of Visual [C++|C#|VB] [microsoft.com] and you can do all kinds of fun stuff.

        I prefer the Qt SDK [qtsoftware.com] - yeah, it works on Windows (as well as Visual C++ does), and after you've invested 3000 hours learning the tool, you're not locked in.

    • As opposed to the one in DOS?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I do recall some of the computer stuff from the 80s and 90s having some emphasis on programming, compared to today where it's never mentioned outside of a specific class for it.

      But then, it's like cars. They don't teach auto-repair and other mechanical stuff. Most people will never even think about that kind of thing.

      • It's more like if they didn't teach *steering* in cars. You don't program to fix a problem with a computer. the computer exists to do repetitive tasks for you, and programming is how you explain YOUR repetitive task to it.

        • You're confusing the intended purpose of an invention made for and by engineers and scientists, with what general consumers buy their computers for. Computers are marketed as word processors, reference libraries, and entertainment devices; not as fancy programmable calculators with a variety of input and outputs. Of course if you bought your computer to be a fancy programmable calculator, Windows is probably not your first choice of OS since it obscures those capabilities in favor of those consumers gener

    • if you have .net, you have the c# and javascript.net command-line compilers.
      • As well as Visual Basic.NET and MSIL assembly (for the hard core). That's 6 different programming languages that come with Windows - 7 if you want to include PowerShell.

        DOS had QBasic and debug.exe to do some assembly stuff (which was even more hard core).

        • DOS had QBasic and debug.exe to do some assembly stuff (which was even more hard core).

          Ah, I remember using "debug" to actually debug some old DOS programs of mine. Specifically, I was debugging a simple TSR (terminate and stay resident, essentially a daemon in DOS). It had a very unfriendly interface, but once you learned to use it, it was quite helpful.

          The best part about debug was that it ran in DOS 16bit real mode. That meant that you had access to anything on the machine you wanted. You could give debug any address you wanted. Addresses in segment:offset format, of course, since you

  • I remember playing ZZT on an old DOS 3.0 box. It was my first programming experience - being a kid, being able to do some programming inside of a game was very, very cool. I had no idea that ZZT was still alive. I think I'm going to go order myself a copy. (o:

    • I can only find DOS box 0.72 :( I suppose i can't play zzt yet!

    • Epic actually released ZZT as freeware some time back. Although I don't think they have it on their site anymore. Am I the only one really sad to go to epicgames.com and click Previous Releases [epicgames.com] only to find a list of Unreal games? I really wish the website could celebrate their rich history. It would be even more awesome if they provided the old shareware demos - or even made more of those games freeware since they aren't available anymore. Ah well. :-(
  • I'm confused (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    does he get orders every week or does he have a huge backlog to hold him over:

    "...he still gets an order every few weeks... Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders..."

    • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) *

      Can't it be both?

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      does he get orders every week or does he have a huge backlog to hold him over:

      "...he still gets an order every few weeks... Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders..."

      Easy. He sends out the orders he gets, and in weeks that he doesn't get an order, he sends out orders that he doesn't get.

  • ZZT had (and still has) some absolutely awesome stuff in it. I remember, it was the first game I actually got for my computer. It was also my introduction to programming and dicking around with "how do you make a playable game?" as well. There were some absolutely awesome fan-made worlds which really pushed the in-game programming to its limits - "Operation: Gamma Velorum" comes immediately to mind. It did some stuff which the in-game engine allowed, but I don't think it was expected to be used in -quite- t

    • by FreonTrip ( 694097 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (pirtnoerf)> on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:31PM (#28090869)
      I remember playing Jill of the Jungle on a friend's 8 MHz Tandy 286, and being in awe that it scaled down so gracefully - my home PC ran with VGA graphics and 16-bit stereo audio, and his ran with CGA and PC speaker sound. The framerate was still perfectly reasonable too, except when one invoked the wrath of the bees. Out they'd swarm, devouring CPU time and chopping the framerate in half. Even now when we find some new computer-eating FPS we bitch about "a serious case of the lag bees" and laugh...
      • by lannocc ( 568669 )

        I remember playing Jill of the Jungle on a friend's 8 MHz Tandy 286

        Got you beat... I remember playing the game on my IBM-compatible (not sure the brand) with 8088 CPU at 4MHz (8MHz turbo) and orange monochrome display. It was also the first machine I went online with when I got a Prodigy starter kit, 2400 baud modem included. This was in the era when 386's were common, so I was a little behind the times, hehe.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by retchdog ( 1319261 )

      ZZT was a great intro not only to game design and programming, but also hex editing! You could find the byte which disabled level editing, by comparing your levels to the ones that came with the game. (And of course, being teenagers, we then made obscene parodies of every edit-protected level we could find. Ah, memories.)

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Do you remember ZZT STK? It was a world with nothing but boards of new things (walls, blinkers, objects, etc) in it. Most of the boards were just new coloured things (introducing background colours and some blended colours!), but there were some cool custom objects on the end there. It's a shame SuperZZT flopped, because I think that included a lot of that stuff out-of-the-box. I also remember coding super-ammo/super-health, either by making a custom object (which wasn't good, because they didn't dissapear

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      They are *not* closing down the page (I know this for a fact, as I am the current site owner). This is just part of a running joke that ZZT is dying.

  • "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. "

    Very interesting point. I wish they'd gone into more detail around programming languages...

    • Not really; it's the same opinion you'll get from anyone who has used C++ and any other language (with the occasional exception of C). The vast majority of people who advocate C++ do so because they don't know any other languages, or only know them to a superficial level.
      • by mdwh2 ( 535323 )

        The vast majority of people who advocate C++ do so because they don't know any other languages, or only know them to a superficial level.

        Citation? I suspect that this is just as much true of any language, given that most people only mainly know one language, and the one they use and hence are most likely to advocate is going to be the one they know best.

        Personally I like C++, and I know other languages such as Java.

        And I suspect that most C++ programmers know C...

        • What I remember hating most about transitioning from C to C++ was the change from printf to COUT. For the longest time, streaming output just did not *click*, probably because it didn't give the same level of control over string formatting.

        • The fact that you regard Java and C as sufficiently different from C++ to give you a relevant perspective only reinforces my point. Even though Java is closer to Smalltalk and C++ to Simula, most C++ programmers I've encountered write Simula-style Java and so manage to miss much of the point of the language.

          most people only mainly know one language,

          Good programmers know a dozen or more languages, and know at least three or four from different language families well enough to solve any given problem.

          • Bytecode compilation, a VM, and large set of libraries is a characteristic of the programming environment, not the language. Both Java and C++ derive from Simula, because they have the same semantics - you call a method from an object like you call a function, whilst in Smalltalk and ObjC (a direct descendant, BTW) you send a message to a given method in a given object. That screws with microbenchmarks when you have complicated behaviour, because virtual functions run through RAM, instead of the CPU cache,

            • Not even close, sorry. Objective-C and Java have identical semantics. Method calls in Java are identical to message sends in Objective-C. You can substitute instances of one class with instances of another in Java if they implement methods with the same names (and type signatures, since Java encodes the types in the selector), irrespective of where they are in the class hierarchy. This is exactly how objects work in Smalltalk-family languages, but not how they work in Simula-family languages like C++.
              • Eh, I don't have any programming experience outside of some C, but as you can judge from the timestamp on my post, I wasn't at my best. Sorry for flaming you like that, everybody (in the "obscure forum in the middle of the night" sense) keeps saying Java is almost like C++, so I was sort of confused. Or did I read it in Wikipedia?... Whatever, thanks for the info BTW.
                Aaaa, may I ask, which object system do you find the coolest/most useful? For me it's Io, Lua, and whatever Lisp uses.

                • Io is pretty nice, it's basically a pure COLA in the Self style, but the scoping rules are just insane. I've not used Lua much. Lisp doesn't really have an object system, but CLOS is incredibly powerful as a metaobject protocol (a tool for building object systems). I've recently done some work adding prototype-based object orientation to Objective-C, and my Smalltalk compiler (which targets the same ABI and object model) benefits from this too, and so we've been working on a JavaScript-like front end for
                  • Have you thought about using ObjJ from the Cappuccino project? It's pretty much ObjC on top of JavaScript. Technically, you just have to make a JavaScript frontend to the LLVM compiler system to get it running like a normal language. Lua is quite similar (in the use of associative arrays for the object model), and was able to target it. Heck, a JS->Lua source converter shouldn't be much trouble, and you get Lua's C heap and interface as a bonus. Though you'd need to bolt on a descent typing system, ala A

                    • Take a closer look at Io's scoping. There are a few dozen weird corner cases where it does some deeply strange things. It's almost as bad as the semantics of 'new' and 'return' in ECMAScript (you'd think they'd be simple, but read the spec and prepare to be confused).

                      ObjJ is irrelevant to what I am doing. I have built a compiler infrastructure on top of LLVM that compiles a Smalltalk-like AST to native code with the same object model as Objective-C, allowing us to subclass Objective-C classes in Small

    • In fact there's an archive of Tim Sweeney of posts and interviews [team5150.com] out on the web.

      As an aside, I remember reading an article Tim wrote about the programming languages [gamespy.com] back in 2000...

  • MegaZeux beat ZZT in every way. Programming language and everything was much better. I was just looking into this half a year ago, MegaZeux is still in development.
  • I feel that I owe Mr Sweeney quite a lot. I was one of the people who ordered the full version of ZZT and Super ZZT back in the golden days, and I have to say that those two 'games' had a direct impact on me.

    I always thought it would be nice to have a game editor that was similar in concept to ZZT, but with graphical capabilities. So, that's what I did (http://rpgtoolkit.com).

    And I wonder who else owes him the same thanks for the inspiration he sent out on those 3.5 inch disks

  • Its so good to hear someone getting this message out. I've been saying this for a long time. Cellulosic ethanol is in this category, too!
  • Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders, put disks in them, and mail them out.

    Hope he's remitting sales taxes accordingly!

IN MY OPINION anyone interested in improving himself should not rule out becoming pure energy. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.