We Are the Dreamers of Dreams
Tim Sweeney's office is austere. He has two unassuming desks housing two computers each. There's a well-traveled couch on one wall and a painting leaning against an eight-foot window. The only decoration to speak of is a Ferrari standard, pinned up opposite Sweeney's main workspace.
"You're a Ferrari guy?" I ask. "I didn't see you car outside." Epic's parking lot resembles a luxury car dealership. I saw two Lamborghinis, two Hummer H2s, one H3, a vintage VW bug, three Porsches, a Corvette and a number of sport sedans that made me vaguely ashamed of the financed four-banger I bought at CarMax. I had to look for a car I wouldn't drive. It took me five minutes to find one.
"Oh, I didn't bring the Ferrari today," Sweeney says. "I brought the Lamborghini." He's so matter-of-fact I don't immediately register that the man spent half a million dollars on 1,000 horsepower and Italian metal, and that every day he must choose which machine to drive to work. Looking at him, you wouldn't peg him as a guy who hits 160 mph on North Carolina's back roads, but here he is anyway, telling me about speed traps and horsepower-to-weight ratios and figuring in his head if my motorcycle could take his car off the line.
Sweeney is Epic's founder and CEO, and in many ways he is the company's Willy Wonka. There are stories of brilliant people locking their doors for months on end and emerging with never-before-seen wonders. Sweeney is one of those people. Much of the Unreal Engine's technology can be traced back directly to him, tinkering away in his office.
"Epic began as my scam to avoid having to get a real job out of college," Sweeney says. He attended the University of Maryland with a degree in mechanical engineering, but lost interest in the field. He'd always had a knack for programming, and in 1991, his third year at school, he decided to dedicate six months to building his first commercially released game, a text adventure with a built-in level editor called ZZT.
He released ZZT as shareware, an "experiment to see if I could make some money from that. It was making about $100 a day in shareware registrations." His next game, a Mario Bros.-style platformer called Jill of the Jungle, took him nine months to create and brought in $30,000 a month at the game's peak. From there, a business was born.
He kept the company loose originally, structuring it in Apogee's shareware publishing image. He invited developers to submit their games to Epic. He'd give them the official stamp and would use his experience with ZZT and Jill to sell them nationally. "A lot of the early, core Epic folks contacted us," including Cliff Bleszinski and James Schmalz, Unreal's lead designers. "My role transitioned from programmer to cheerleader at that point, helping people along their projects ... and running the business."
At the time, Epic employed about 10 people, many of whom were tasked with taking shareware orders over the phone and shipping games to customers. In 1992, Mark Rein joined the company to lend more of a business perspective to the operation, at which point they began establishing retail channels to sell the games they were publishing. And by 1994, thanks to the success of Bleszinski's Jazz Jackrabbit and Schmalz's Epic Pinball, Epic was a multimillion-dollar publisher. Unfortunately, their core business, snailmail software sales, was about to be rendered obsolete by the internet.