Thirty years ago – January 15, 1991 – an American college student named Tim Sweeney was released ZZT, a low-key adventure game with a revolutionary element: it comes with a free built-in game editor. ZZT’s success brought Epic Games, Unreal Engine and most recently FortniteThis is why ZZT was special.
What is a “ZZT”
Tim Sweeney’s passion for programming started on his Apple II when he was a kid. After getting his first IBM PC during his freshman year in college in 1989, he immediately delved into programming the new machine. When he created an MS-DOS text editor with Turbo Pascal in 1990, he decided to make the project more fun by adding game-like elements. That evolved into ZZT, which was released as shareware in 1991.
The genius of ZZT in the early 1990s, it wasn’t just a cute ASCII-based adventure. With every copy of ZZT downloaded, players also got an in-game world editor for free. That is because ZZT’s The roots of the text editor meant that Sweeney first created the game engine and editor and then built his game worlds in it.
Just like a text editor, ZZT only uses characters in text mode. That means a zero can represent the segment of a centipede, and a small circular degree symbol can become a bullet. In fact, in ZZT, you usually play as a smiley-faced general protagonist navigating a world of traps, puzzles, and dangers while collecting keys, torches, and gems along the way.
During ZZT’s Initial release, Sweeney called his sole proprietorship “Potomac Computer Systems,” but he changed the name to “Epic MegaGames” in October 1991 to make it sound like a big, successful company. (Epic dropped the “Mega” in 1999 after the success of Unreal
Since it was a shareware title, players could ZZT and a world called City ZZT free – usually by downloading it from dial-up bulletin board systems or at the time CompuServe. If they liked it, players could send money to Sweeney to buy more levels to play. After people started ordering multiple copies of the game per day, Sweeney realized he had a banking business.
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The shareware element is key to understanding the nature of ZZTActually, ZZT stands for nothing – it was Sweeney’s clever way to always be at the very bottom of alphabetical file lists on dial-up BBSs at the time. It’s a marketing ploy.
While ZZT Only sold around 4,000-5,000 copies, Sweeney’s humble ASCII adventure has had a massive stealth impact on the game industry due to its innovative design – and the lessons Sweeney learned himself ZZT’s good luck.
ZZT: The editor is the game
With ZZT’s in-game editor, anyone with a copy of ZZT can make their own ZZT-like adventure games. And thanks to a built-in scripting language called ZZT-OOP, creators can even extend the game engine in new ways to produce games in unexpected genres, from turn-based text adventures to space shoot-’em-ups.
In the early 1990s, when simple game creation tools were rare, ZZT’s world editor has enabled a new generation of emerging game designers. Dr. Dos, who runs the Museum of ZZT website, remembers what it felt like. ZZT makes me feel like an adult computer programmer. As a child I would be constantly drawing stages Mario World and Mega Man sequels that I wanted to make, and I always assumed making games was something kids couldn’t do. You had to be an adult and go to college and learn to program. ZZT let me skip all that. As a child, it is incredibly powerful to be able to say to your friends, “I make video games.” ”
The ease with which people could just start making a game without any thought of intensive programming (or even having to create graphics) created a loyal community of ZZT game makers that continues to this day. It also opened up future careers in the gaming industry. In fact, a repeat winner of Sweeney’s ZZT level design contest called Allan Pilgrim eventually ended up at Epic and developed games for the company a few years later.
ZZT‘s Influence lives on in Unreal Engine
Today, one of Epic’s main products is Unreal Engine, rich game engine and real-time graphics environment. Developers can create complex video games with relative ease using that engine. It prevents them from having to reinvent the wheel with every new game.
After being shipped as a high-end commercial product for many years, Epic decided to release Unreal Engine 4 for free in 2014. While few industry experts noticed at the time, the move mirrored the release of ZZT itself 23 years earlier, allowing thousands of people to use free game creation tools.
In fact, the parallels between the two game engines, old and new, go well beyond zero. In 2009 I interviewed Tim Sweeney extensively about it ZZT and the history of Epic for Gamasutra. In our interview he talked about how the concepts of ZZT directly translated to Unreal Engine.
“There is really a huge similarity between them ZZT and unreal when you look at it, ”said Sweeney.
“It’s a structure that we’ve since copied and pasted into increasingly sophisticated game engines,” he said, referring to the ZZT fashion model. “You have this editor, you have this game runtime, they use the same display environment, the same programming language.”
Over the past two decades, Unreal Engine has enabled dozens of blockbuster video games, including the Weapons of war series, Bioshock Batman Arkham Asylum, and much more. Companies are increasingly using Unreal Engine in commercial marketing applications and as a real-time visualization tool for major TV shows such as The Mandalorian
In a way, that all started with ZZT, a modest text-based shareware game released in 1991. That’s a huge legacy for a game that a lot of people still haven’t heard of.
Epic is also 30
The 30th anniversary of ZZT’s release means Epic Games is also 30 years old. It’s rare for a company of the size and success of Epic to still be privately run – Sweeney still personally owns more than 50% of the company, and that gives Epic the leeway to pursue bold actions, such as the continued confusion with Apple about App Store fees.
How does he deal with it? There is definitely pressure to sell or go public. “We’re just trying to adapt the company so that it is the right size and shape for the capabilities available to us over time,” he told How-To Geek via email. “And this is an unprecedented time of opportunity.”
With the company’s anniversary approaching, we also asked Sweeney about his favorite Epic Games project. He chose the first Unreal Engine, a huge effort for him personally that opened Epic to blockbuster success.
“Writing the first Unreal Engine was a 3.5-year, broad-based first tour of hundreds of unique topics in software and was incredibly enlightening,” Sweeney wrote. “It is unfortunate that the complexity of the engine now requires so much specialization that few programmers understand all facets of a modern engine, as was possible in 1998.”
And of course, Epic’s 2021 success story continues with Fortnite, a Battle Royale FPS game that has some funny similarities to ZZTBoth games debuted as free-to-play games with players buying features later, and both use game engines that allow people to create similar games for free (in the case of Fortnite, that’s Unreal Engine).
ZZT’s affect lives on, and in some ways, the ZZT ethos still represents Epic’s core values today: empowering creators with open and easy-to-use tools. Sweeney doesn’t take success for granted and still runs Epic with the heart of an underdog, even though the industry’s influence is now massive.
How to play ZZT Today
If you want to jump in ZZT nowadays most ZZT fans recommend using Zeta, a compact and reliable MS-DOS emulator that can run ZZT worlds on a modern Windows PC. Or if you are looking for a quick fix to see what ZZT is like, you can try it out using this neat HTML5 based emulation created by Christopher Allen that works in most modern web browsers.
According to zzt.org, fans have more than 50 new ones ZZT games between 2017 and 2020, so there is still a small but special one ZZT community out there. You can find a lot of them ZZT games to play in Museum of ZZT. The museum includes ZZT’s history with a passion that fits such an influential but underestimated game.
Happy Birthday ZZT– and Happy Birthday, Epic Games!