Tim Sweeney is one of the gods of 3D graphics in video games. He is the founder and chief executive of Epic Games, the maker of blockbuster video games from Unreal to Gears of War. At the upcoming 2012 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Sweeney will be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame and he’ll be giving a talk for the first time at the exclusive industry event. Sweeney has led Epic Games for more than two decades and is the technological wizard behind the company’s industry-leading 3D graphics. Not only does Sweeney enable Epic’s designers to create some of the coolest games, which are catalysts for creativity that inspire the rest of the game developers. He also built the Unreal Engine, which Epic licenses to the rest of the game industry, raising the overall graphics quality of many games. Sweeney has led the company in its transition from PC game maker to console game maker and has helped it expand into iPhone and iPad games. Sweeney is a shy programmer, until you get him in a discussion about what is right when it comes to a technology decision. He is an advocate of open technology, and he has played a big role in pioneering 3D graphics. At Raleigh, N.C.-based Epic, his job is to see the future of games and create the technology that will deliver it to consumers’ living rooms with the highest fidelity. We’ll be covering his award ceremony and talk at the Dice Summit, which takes place Feb. 8-10. Meanwhile, we were able to interview him recently. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Sweeney.
Gamesbeat: We wanted to do a little session about “This is your life” and capture some remembrances about your career. What was your reaction when you heard you got this award?
Tim Sweeney: I was really impressed. John Carmack was the first tech guy to receive this award and that was a big event in the industry. He has always impressed me from Wolfenstein 3D (one of the first fast-action 3D games on the PC) to everything. I was impressed that I would be recognized for my contributions to the industry. I have done some cool things but certainly I didn’t create an industry like Carmack did. I was really honored to be considered for it.
GB: You’ve always been one of the people at Epic who has been in the background. You’ve got some other colleagues who do a lot more of the talking.
TS: (laughs) Yeah well some folks actually talk a whole lot more than me so I’m grateful for the people like Cliff Bleszinski. He talks about our games and Mark Rein talks about our business strategy. I’m the shy programmer myself.
GB: So that fits with your style. You’ve always been that way?
TS: Yeah. I really take pride in the approach and especially the technical aspect of the work these days. Whenever there is somebody at Epic who is capable of doing something better than me, I let them at it. Starting from the early days where I did everything myself, I have seen my responsibilities diminish one by one as we brought on better people in all areas like game design, management, and art work. My experience with Epic is handing off more and more power to the point where I can just sit back and look at our strategy or technology. I provide guidance without being responsible for any particular part of the company.
TS: Oh gosh. My role is more like a chairman and founder. I am used to overseeing the company’s heritage and our strategy. The CEO role is really divided between (president) Mike Capps, who runs development and marketing, and Jay Wilbur, who runs sales and the business side of Epic. They are both world-class managers. I only take on about 10 or 20 percent of the CEO duties.
GB: What is your focus now then? The technology direction is definitely one of those things you do?
TS: I do three things day-to-day. Epic strategy is about what kind of business we are, what platforms we are supporting, how we are prioritizing engines or development. I help direct the long-term direction of our strategy and technology. In the last decade, I really shifted into the technology side. I wrote the first generation engine and I have never seen the engine since. Especially now. We are working on our next generation of engines and our future hardware. We have a lot of decisions to make about future hardware, editor tools and other features like that. I have been heavily involved with that. And I still do a lot of programming for the research into what our long-term goal is. I still do a lot of external projects with rendering or programming languages. I don’t have any day-to-day programming responsibilities on our engine itself.
GB: So now you’re sort of setting the direction for the engine creators to pursue?
TS: Yeah. Gosh wave about 45 people who are contributing to our engine programming and so it’s a big team. If I were to come in and dabble in that, I would create more trouble than good with the project of that magnitude. Once you get to that size, it takes some serious management. We have a director of engineering that oversees all the programming and certainly he’s responsible for a particular project and features of the engine.
GB: So what, how do you do something like figure out where graphics can go next? If you look at something in a scene, and study how good it looks, how do you figure out how it can look better?
TS: We think really long-term at Epic. Once you get a piece of hardware like the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, it’s up to the individual engineers to figure out how they can push it. But the really important thing that we do long term is work with the hardware manufacturers like AMD, Nvidia and Intel and really talk deeply about their long-term roadmap. Not just what’s coming next year but what’s coming out in two years, five years from now. Where is the industry going to max out? We give each other a lot of feedback and can have considerable impact on their direction.
GB: Yeah I remember that back to the original Xbox where co-creator Seamus Blackley was consulting with you pretty regularly.
TS: One of the cool things about being a leading engine developer is that the hardware guys want to talk to us about long-term plans so we are in sync. The development of the Xbox was a great thing and we have talked with Intel about their long-term CPU and graphics plans. The same with Nvidia. They are really valuable relationships. We run our engine a lot like a hardware company runs its products. At any moment, we are shipping product and we are also programming things that aren’t going to ship to consumers for three to five years. It’s a multi-dimensional effort. It really puts us out ahead of other developers who are working from project to project. That is one of the things that makes Epic unique in the game industry.
GB: You haven’t been shy about voicing your opinion with this guys as well. Like I remember with the Xbox, you were very involved in the choice of the graphics chip. With the Xbox 360, you wanted more main memory in the system. That kind of stuff really matters and that’s where you’re not shy about confronting them when you need to.
TS: Oh yes absolutely. We sometimes take controversial positions when talking to the partners. With each generation, we think really deeply about what it’s going to take to fundamentally distinguish it from the previous generation. We don’t want it just twice as good. We want it dramatically better. We fight really hard with our partners to get there. We do our part on the software side.GB: On the Xbox 360, you showed them how much better a scene would look if you had twice as much main memory, the 512 megabytes instead of 256, right?
TS: Right. And they came through. They put in extra memory and that is one of the reasons we were able to make Gears of War look so compelling. Without that extra memory, we would have far less space for details. That decision cost Microsoft about $1 billion, but you can say that it paid off big time. They would not have succeeded to the extent they have today if they had not done that.
TS: And yeah we do that with each generation. Some of the conversations you will hear about, but these are also going on the behind scenes. The conversations happen across the board, not just with the console makers.
GB: How do you feel the age of the consoles right now, since it has been so many years since a new console launched. If you want to set yourself apart on graphics, I would guess that you don’t really like it when the generation of the console stretches out six or seven years. Would rather see the generations come sooner?
TS: The longevity of this console generation has been a mixed blessing. On the game side, it’s been really great for our business. We have been able to ship three Gears of War games on the same generation of hardware, each one with dramatic improvements over the last and a two to three-year development cycle. So it’s been a very good thing for a game business today. With each new title, there is a bigger and bigger Xbox 360 installed base of users, so the games can sell more. On the other hand, it gets harder to generate the same excitement from the same hardware. That is when the new hardware is justified. But then you reset the installed base to zero and it’s a lot harder to sell a lot of games again. So you should only replace the hardware when you can make a dramatic leap in quality, not just 2X or 3X. It has to be huge and fundamentally new.
TS: They are intricately linked. If you create awesome technology for the wrong platform, then nobody will ever adopt it. Epic in general has always tried to be really savvy on the business side. We look at the business models and changing trends and try to stay on top of them. If you look at Epic, we began as a shareware game company in the 1990s making really tiny games. Then we pulled together into one huge team and created the first Unreal game. At that point, we needed to build a huge game to compete with the likes of id Software. We changed our company dramatically to do that. Around 2004, we decided the game industry’s sweet spot was moving to consoles. So we made the transition from a PC game company to a console game company with Gears of War. Now we see new changes afoot with the move to mobile and web gaming with Adobe Flash. So we put together business relationships with Apple and Adobe and other folks to do what we need for the future.
GB: Your rivals didn’t change their strategy as much. They stayed put.
TS: The game industry is a very interesting because the average life of a game developer is may three, four or five years. Epic has been around for 20 years. The only way we did that is we weren’t one company for the whole time. We’ve had four different businesses in that time frame. Ten years from now, we might be developing entirely different kinds of games for entirely different platforms. We have to change to survive.
GB: What is your prediction about the next five years? What will Epic get involved in?
TS: With every console transition, people ask if there will be another console transition or another successful console platform. We are betting big that there will be. If you look at games like Call of Duty and Gears of War, it’s clear that console is the pinnacle of the gaming experience. so we are investing heavily with our engine and game development efforts for the next generation of console technology and games. But at the same time, we actually see this wonderful thing happening where the mobile platform and web platforms are getting to the point where they can run a AAA game. One consistent game engine technology can run across console, PC, mobile and web games. We’re really happy with that position. It lets game developers target lots of different platforms. We have shipped Infinity Blade of iOS. We have announced a new game Fortnite for an entirely different audience, more casual. It appeals to a wider audience than a hardcore game like Gears of War. We are branching out, but we tie it all together with AAA production values.
TS: I would never imagine that we would be offering a game like that. But Mike Capps decided at one point that we were finishing Gears of War 3 and we had a whole lot of people available. We weren’t ready to ramp up our next AAA project yet. So we held an internal “game jam” inside Epic. Everybody in the company who was available divided up into teams and spent a week creating prototypes. We got a bunch of different prototypes and proposals out of it, with an incredible amount of variety. Fortnite arose through that process. And it’s a really cool game to work on. There are a bunch of people at Epic who wanted to work on it. So when we saw that, then we knew the chances were that it would be a big game that would appeal to a lot of people. The graphics are not that bad. They have vivid colors and there are real-time shadows everywhere. There is destruction of buildings. The game is a technical powerhouse, though it’s not as obvious as in Gears of War.
GB: You started programming at the age of 10, right?
TS: Oh gosh yes. My older brother is 16 years older so we were never competitive like most brothers are. He was always my hero. He went off and got a job at a technology company in California. At some point, I went out to visit him and he had one of the very first IBM PCs that had been sold in California. So I got to spend a week programming his computer. I fell in love with the whole concept of programming. I’ve always love creating things, building things out of spare parts. But building physical things is always difficult and time consuming. But programming is really perfect. You write tight code and the computer executes it. There are no mechanical parts. It really engaged me. Then my family bought an Apple II computer. I spent about ten years building my programming skills on that before I tried anything commercially.
GB: So you got your 10,000 hours in during that time?
TS: Yes, a Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, mentioned that. I figured I spent at least 10,000 hours programming machines after school. I switched from Basic to machine language and saw the performance go up dramatically. It was an incredible learning experience figuring all the things that can be done with a computer.GB: Your first game was ZZT. What was that?
TS: Yes, ZZT is the first game I shipped. That was a really short project. It only took me about six months to create. I was just fooling around on my computer. My father bought me an IBM clone at the time, a 286. It was a simple game, not a big project. It was a really fun little text-based game. It didn’t have any graphics. It had text characters like smiley faces. It had big letters for enemy characters. You would explore levels and collect treasures and fight monsters. I showed it to neighborhood kids and friends from high school. They all loved it. It was pretty but it was fun I released that in 1991 and it was unique in one way. It included an editor so you could create game levels. It fostered a community of people who created levels and shared them on bulletin boards. That was a precursor to the internet. We talked about the indie community all using the Unreal development kit, but back then it was building game modes in ZZT.
GB: Were you inspired to enable user-generated content?
TS: ZZT started all that. It was a practical matter. I made the editor first and started making game levels with it. I kept the editor really polished. It was a whimsical decision to release the editor to the world. I thought a couple of people would do it. But tens of thousands of people in the game industry created their own levels with ZZT when they were kids.
TS: ZZT was just a fun project. But when I saw how much fun people had when I shared the game to them, I decided to release it commercially. Around that time, in 1991, Apogee Software was a shareware game company. Scott Miller had this cool business model. He would create a trilogy and release the first part for free. Then they would sell you the sequels through mail order. It gave them a taste for the game and a reason to spend money. I released ZZT that way and it was immediately started getting several orders a day. That was $100 a day of income for a kid in high school and that was really neat at the time. I realized at that point that I could actually build a real business around it if I gave it an even greater effort. And so from that point on, I really appreciated Epic as a business. I started to create much more serious and bigger game, which was Jill of the Jungle. That was Nintendo style platform game where you were jumping around on these two-dimensional scrolling levels. I had a musician and an animator to help me with the areas where I was weak. I did all the programming and released that game. It was selling about 30 copies a day and it was enough to start hiring people to help with sales and mail floppy disks. I used that game as a vehicle to advertise to other game developers to join Epic Games.
TS: Yeah,, with Jill of the Jungle, we reached out and met Cliff Bleszinski, James Scmatz and all the other really Epic authors who played the game and saw the ad. Mark Rein called me up and described how much money he could make by doing marketing and sales for Epic. Mark was in Toronto and I was in Maryland. Mark flew out to visit and we talked about business possibilities. So he came to my house and I just received the big batch of disks in from the the authors and one of them was Cliff Bleszinski’s game, Dare to Dream. So Mark picked up his cell phone and call Cliff and told him how awesome Epic would be. That’s how Epic and Cliff Bleszinski ended up together. We started to put different people together with complementary talent. We met this really brilliant Dutch programmer, Arjan Brussee, who had done some incredible graphics demos. We hooked him up with Cliff Bleszinski to design Jazz Jackrabbit. Cliff did the art work and design. Arjan did all the coding. He had a wicked-fast engine running games at 60 frames a second on old PCs. So that’s how we expanded. We brought out all the old-time Epic authors to do games like Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball, One Must Fall — a lot of games that old-time gamers still recognize today.
GB: You guys have stuck together for a long time. What do you think is the secret to keeping the team together?
TS: Nobody at Epic has a huge ego. I think that’s a huge part of it. We all have respect for each other and recognize that we are really complementary. Cliff and Arjan together were able to create a much better game together than either one could have done on their own. It has fostered a collaborative environment where no one person thinks they are the master of all of game development. We’ve also tried to create a fun place to work with a bunch of assets, a friendly working environment, and financial stability.
GB: Nothing holds a team better than success?
TS: Sometimes success is a harbinger of doom. If you have a bunch of egotistical people together in a room, just struggling, it tends to hold together better than a bunch of egotistical people who are really successful. They all have unique talents. A lot of our success is due to the people involved. Cliff has been here a long time and is incredibly creative. He has always been designing his own games, but he has also been playing all of the other games that Epic has published. He can make a big long list of what can make the game better. It’s cool to see people grow.
GB: Do you share some of the same passion for gaming or is more of your interest in the technology and graphics? Could you be making a Mickey Mouse game and still be happy as long as it had outstanding graphics?
TS: I could be happy making any game. It’s always been the programming for me. Solving big technical challenges has excited me. I’ve always played game just enough to know what they are doing and how they work. I played Sonic the Hedgehog for a few hours. I’ve only finished two games in my life. Doom and Portal. The game design and quality of the game experience has been the work of Cliff and others. The only time I was a competitive game designer was when we had 16-color graphics.
TS: I was addicted to Doom. Once in a while, a game comes out that is so far above other games that it is hard to imagine what they are ally doing. Most of the games have been products of engines. Moving from Wolfenstein to Doom and Quake was so incredibly impressive for id. They created a whole new level of immersiveness.
GB: Some companies like Nintendo have stayed with cartoon graphics. Shigeru Miyamoto has done his games, but you guys have pushed the edge on 3D. What do you think of that difference?
TS: It’s really a matter of artistic style. Even when you do cartoon graphics, you can still apply some really serious technology to it. If you look at a Pixar movie, they have impressive effects. It’s more a question of style than technological prowess. You can build a cartoon version of Gears of War, but still preserve all of the key elements of the game play. Not that Epic would ever do that.
GB: What is your best memory of the making of Gears of War?
TS: That project went through so many phases of design. It started out as Unreal Warfare, an extension of the Unreal universe. It broke off into a series of design and artistic thrust that made it completely separate. We had a cover system. The point where I was impressed was when we got multiplayer working from a third-person perspective. At that point, with the third person camera, the multiplayer and the visual style, it was clear we were delivering an entirely new type of game experience. It was a cover game with a much more realistic kind of combat. A multiplayer game before that was where you were running at 35 miles per hour. You would jump 12 feet in the air.
TS: Ah, gee. The whole time I have been playing games, the times when I have been most impressed are when I played Doom. Seeing 3D graphics. There were multiplayer text-based dungeon games around 1980 or so. You would log into the game and just see a huge number of other people. That was a detailed, immersive experience. Massively multiplayer online games have tried to capture that but I’ve never had the same feeling in an MMO. They have always felt rote and repetitive. I would like to have that feeling again where it was a completely free-wheeling and open adventure. That stands out for me.
GB: Are you getting a nice speech together for your award?
TS: I only have 2.5 minutes. The last winner created a poem.
GB: Do you agree with Bing Gordon, that we are in the Golden Age of gaming?
TS: There were many golden ages. Like the 2D games and 3D games. It’s hard to tell what the future holds. To me it is really cool to be a part of everybody’s lives, to be pervasive. People sit around the TV. They play on the iPhone. They play FarmVille. It’s just cool to see gaming everywhere. It’s not just an experience for hardcore geeky guys. That’s cool.