Development Legends: An Unreal tale

Development Legends: An Unreal tale
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

August 12th 2013 at 10:30AM

Epic's Tim Sweeney and Mark Rein tell their story - and their perspective on success

[This feature was published in the August 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Epic’s impact on the recent history of the games industry is one few can match.

The studio’s releases are both critically and commercially successful, with titles such as Gears of War and Unreal Tournament standing as thoroughbreds of the global triple-A stable. The company has spearheaded the movement to succeed in squeezing console-quality releases into mobile and tablet devices, and some of the outfit’s designers have become true games development stars.

But the studio’s real influence over modern video games has been through its technology. The Unreal Engine, now moving into its fourth iteration, has powered a staggering array of high-profile developments over the years, while its sister middleware the Unreal Development Kit has served as a noteworthy force in the broader trend of placing games making in the hands of a wider range of people than ever before.

Today, Epic stands as a sizeable company, both in terms of its cultural weight and its headcount, but there are two men at the reigns that have been with the firm for over two decades.

They are Tim Sweeney and Mark Rein, who together were recognised with the Development Legend accolade at this July’s Develop Awards, given in recognition of their contribution to the games industry.

Mark Rein’s business card will tell you he is the vice president of Epic Games, but in reality he is something more than that. He is arguably a frontman for Epic, so enthusiastic and passionate about the games business that he isn’t a total stranger to making the headlines. He is infectiously positive about games, and not afraid to speak his mind.

Meanwhile, Tim Sweeney is Epic’s founder, less often seen in the limelight but no less important. Indeed, Epic’s story begins with Sweeney, and like all the best games development yarns it opens with a kid coding games in a basement.

BIG BROTHER

Before there was Epic, there was Sweeney’s love for computers, born from a single trip to see his brother. Sweeney was barely ten years old, growing up in rural Maryland and fascinated by the mechanical. At that point his older sibling had moved away from home to work. When the time came for the youngster to visit his brother, he got to see the machines his relation was working with; early, hulking computers. But their primitiveness didn’t deter him. Far from it, in fact, as the young Sweeney was beguiled.

“It was an astonishingly cool experience, so I went home and begged and pleaded with my parents for us to get a computer at home,” remembers Sweeney. “And when I was 11 I got an Apple II computer and learned to program with that. From that point on I have spent the majority of my waking life with computers.”

Previously Sweeney had been happy to pull apart go-carts and build forts, but now he had found a new love, and it was built from lines of code. And it just so happened that code was something Sweeney understood.

“Mechanical things were always so hard to fix. It was different with computers,” he says. “I very quickly realised that a computer could do absolutely anything, as long as I could figure out how to issue the right commands to get it to do what you wanted.”

RAISING HIS GAME

From that point on he was devoted to his new love. Things moved slowly at first. His first game took six months, but, gradually, his speed and ability increased. Sweeney preferred to solve problems himself and then study the limited literature at his disposal. He funded his hobby mowing lawns, quickly learning that financial smarts would open doors that allowed him to do more coding.

From the ages of 11 to 21 Sweeney had made countless games; hundreds at a guess, which he still has on disks tucked away somewhere. But at the time he thought they were not worthy of attention.

He looked at professional releases like Ultima and felt he just couldn’t compete.

However, inspired by companies like Apogee Software, he began to realise that making games didn’t necessarily require the workforce and budgets of a huge company. Sweeney saw the viability of starting a games company proper. He commenced reading up on finance and accounting, certain that prudent business dealing would be a key skill. But he insists he wasn’t good at that side of building a studio.

For years the games he built had kept coming, and eventually, so did Sweeney’s neighbours, flocking to play with his creations. Like it or not, Sweeney had a focus testing group, from young kids to 30-year-olds. He watched them play, and they liked his games. They liked them enough that the word spread, and when he later dared to release a text-based adventure loosely themed around characters from Greek mythology as shareware, he found himself making $100 a day. That game was ZZT.

Epic wasn’t quite yet a reality, but the seed had been sown. Sweeney saw that making games could really be his livelihood, and had established Potomac Computer Systems.

By this point he had also dropped his engineering studies with little left to do to graduate, and had attracted four employees, working together from his mother’s basement. It was 1992, and Sweeney’s second “proper” game was due out. It was called Jill of the Jungle, and he needed more help. It was time for Mark Rein to join the company, which was that year renamed Epic MegaGames.

RIGHT AS REIN

At the time, Rein was at id Software, having befriended Jon Romero and secured a job playtesting Commander Keen 4, before climbing through the company ranks.

“Prior to joining Epic, Mark had talked his way into that company too,” jokes Sweeney, who met Rein via something else he had long worked creating; namely bulleting boards. Around that time, during Id’s development of Wolfenstein 3D, Rein parted company with his employer and joined Epic.

“He’s an awesomely talented negotiator, and proved to be a great compliment to my programming skills,” says Sweeney of the hire.

At the same time, Sweeney had put out a call for other developers to submit their games, and up-and-coming talent like Cliff Bleszinski and James Schmalz responded.

Soon Epic MegaGames was producing numerous high quality titles – many of them shareware – including Epic Pinball, Jazz Jackrabbit and Solar Winds: The Escape.

ENGINES OF CHANGE

As the industry changed, so did Epic MegaGames, demonstrating a trait that continues to define the company; which in turn is part of the reason for Rein and Sweeney’s Development Legend recognition.

In 1998, it released 3D shooter Unreal, by which time it had moved away from the shareware business model. But something else that would prove to be more significant also happened. Epic MegaGames’ phone started to ring, and the callers wanted one thing: Sweeney’s games engine.

Back in 1995, Sweeney had begun work on what would become the Unreal Engine, using much of the core learning’s from his engineering degree, which was suddenly feeling rather worthwhile.

Wolfenstein 3D had convinced him “2D was over”, and he threw himself into designing what would later become the bedrock for the company. Sweeney particularly remembers the calls from MicroProse and Legend Entertainment, which inspired him to make Unreal Engine available as middleware, and soon Epic was both developer and tools provider.

In 1999, Epic MegaGames rebranded as Epic Games, and established itself as a titan of triple-A, which culminated with the release of Gears of War in 2006. Later mobile games making and studio acquisitions would come, bringing us to the present, where Rein and Sweeney took to the stage together at the Develop Awards to receive their award.

SECRETS TO SUCCESS

So how does it feel to win an award for over two decades of hard work? And just what does it take to be successful and influential? The answer to the first of those questions comes relatively easily to both, even if the feelings associated are hard to pin down.

“To be getting an award for something we feel honoured just to do anyway is a strange one, especially when it’s an award for ‘Legends’,” admits Rein, “It feels like big shoes to fill when you look at the people that have won it before. It’s amazing just to be in that crowd, and you certainly don’t want to catch yourself thinking of yourself in that way.”

“It’s really cool to get an award like this,” adds Sweeney. “We’re in this industry because we love making games, and we love participating in it, and it’s quite an honour to receive recognition for that. It’s not something we set out to do. As Mark says, it’s already an honour to be paid for making games.”

Getting at what has made Epic and its leading duo so successful is a little harder to define, but again, it comes down to passion, and an unquestioning devotion to making games for the love of the craft and business of doing so.

“It’s about being driven, and part of it for us is being lucky enough to have a good upbringing,” offers Rein on the secret to success.

“Both of us had good families that supported what we’re doing. And then part of it is luck, and being fortuitous with the people you meet, and being in the right place at the right time.”

And Rein doesn’t think it can be done just by striving for success for success’ sake. He believes that while anyone can try to do the things it takes to get there, it requires something else; a will to take risks and complete dedication to what you love.

“I’ve always just strived to make great games,” states Sweeney in agreement. “That was my motivation. I wanted to write cool programs. All the success – both monetary and in terms of recognition, like the Develop Award – is just a by-product of that desire to make games, rather than what I set out for.”

EPIC SACRIFICES

There have been sacrifices too, from the very beginning right up to the present day. There are the long hours, the time away from family and friends, and betting it all on what you believe in; something founders of tiny indies and industry giants alike will know. Sweeney remembers all too well the day early in Epic’s history that Rein had his American Express card taken away from him by the bank.

“There was one point when I was running my personal credit cards up to something like $28,000 when we were trying to get deals. There were times we didn’t pay ourselves and stuff, but I don’t want to make it sound like a hardship,” says a pragmatic Rein.

“There was lots of work, but we loved what we were doing. We’re not out mining coal. It’s brainwork and it’s fun.

“People think of games developers as working very hard, long hours and crunching and things like that, but then so do doctors and lawyers and firemen and trash collectors and nurses. The list goes on. People everywhere work long hours.”

Rein apparently told Sweeney that when they got their first big cheque in those early days, he would go straight to American Express to show them why he needed to push his credit card to the limit. But by the time the opportunity came, he was far too busy to pursue his idea.

And they are still busy, pushing their products and encouraging their teams. They work tirelessly, but they love their work. Entertaining for a living, says Rein, is never a chore. And the fuel that keeps them motivated? It’s another abstract; the ‘spirit’ of Epic.

THE WINNING SPIRIT

It’s hard to argue that, in contrast with the corporate fascia many games companies of Epic’s size sport, Sweeney and Rein’s outfit doesn’t have that character. Rein and former Epic personality Cliff Bleszinski are typical of the company; energetic, enthusiastic and not afraid to speak their minds. And that non-corporate, even unconventional image comes from Sweeney, says Rein.

“The fact that Epic has this distinct spirit and character comes from Tim,” he confirms. “He just never let us develop much in the way of hubris. And Tim always recognised that there was always some new risk around the corner, so you can’t get too complacent. We never settled down in that way.”

“We’ve always kept the company simple enough that our big challenges are simply about technology and video games,” adds Sweeney.

“Those challenges are hard enough, but that focus has meant we’ve never evolved the company into a big corporation where you have executives who don’t know anything about games. That’s from the original spirit of the company.”

Sweeney is not a man to mince his words, and from an outsider’s perspective, it does feel like the spiritual core of Epic that started life in a Maryland basement still prospers. And Rein is optimistic that moving forward, Epic can continue to deliver something distinct to the industry.

“Right now I really think we are doing the best stuff we’ve ever done,” he insists.

“Unreal Engine 4 is just amazing, and really going to blow people away. And Fortnight, which we’re building but can’t talk about too much, is just one of the best things we’ve ever done. And all the mobile stuff is hugely exciting.

“For me, that’s what’s exciting; after 22 years we’re still evolving and continuing to get better. We’re still reinventing ourselves, and we’ve moved through several generations of the company, and we still keep setting our sights on higher peaks.”

Based on Epic’s past successes, those peaks will very likely be scaled. The real impact of UE4, in particular, will truly begin to be felt as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One make their way into consumer’s hands.

And, for the foreseeable future, it is Sweeney and Rein that will be guiding Epic as it embraces change and defines the way people make games.

Unquestionably, they will continue to be Development Legends.

TIM'S TIPS

How can your studio ape Epic’s success? Founder Tim Sweeney has some advice for you

Epic Games isn’t precious about the way it made it big, and is happy to share the secrets to its success. So if you’ve set your sights on taking to the stage to accept a Development Legend award in years to come, you’d do well to listen to Epic’s esteemed founder Tim Sweeney.

“My advise to everybody would be to work hard, make fun games and constantly be willing to reinvent yourself and your company as the games industry changes and as new opportunities emerge,” offers Sweeney.

“It’s a rapidly evolving industry, which is why you see new companies coming along every year and becoming major successes.

“Things are always changing so you have to stay on the leading edge. And that’s in all areas of games development, from technology and design
to platform and business models evolving.”

And there you have it; a straightforward logic. Mirror Epic’s success in implementing that approach, and you might even make a classic game like those Sweeney and his team have crafted.