The bittersweet story of the “last” physical copy of PC classic ZZT
Tim Sweeney is the founder of Epic Games, the company that created the many iterations of the Unreal Engine, and he’s been interested in helping people create their own games since the beginning of his career. Sweeney’s first officially released game was called ZZT, and it allowed players to make their own levels and content.
“ZZT started out as an editor to build game levels. The editor came first, and the game came second. I kept them both together as the same program,” he told me in a prior interview. “You could really easily build a level and play it, go back and forth and kind iteratively design it. The tools were the focus from the very beginning. I included the editor with the game release, and thousands of ZZT levels were created by different authors.”
ZZT was released in 1991, and the last physical copy was sold last week. An amazing story lies between those two events.
ZZT was a hit, or at least it seemed to be for the young programmer. Sweeney said that it made around $100 a day, and the distribution system was low tech.
“I'd receive a bunch of orders through the mail (people would send their checks in), then I'd copy disks on the computer and send them out,” he told Gamasutra in 2009. There was no publisher, no fancy packing materials… it was all done by hand.
The rest is history. Epic’s next game was called Jill of the Jungle, and that game went on to make around $1,000 a day. The company grew, the technology improved, and now Epic Games is one of the most powerful companies in the modern game industry. From Jazz Jackrabbit, to Unreal Tournament, to Gears of War, Epic has created many influential games along with the engines that power countless titles.
Here’s the interesting bit: ZZT continued to be sold out of Sweeney’s childhood home.
“My father still lives at the address where Potomac Computer Systems started up, so he still gets an order every few weeks,” Sweeney told Gamasutra. Potomac Computer Systems was the first name for Epic, back when Sweeney thought he may want to do consulting. It sounded a bit more professional. Tim's father, Paul Sweeney, gamely filled orders for years after the game should have been “out of print.”
“He’s retired now, so he doesn't have much to do,” Sweeney explained. “Every week, he'll just take a stack of a few orders, put disks in them, and mail them out. So you can still buy ZZT.”
Sweeney said those words four years ago. Sadly, they're no longer true.
The last copy
Zack Hiwiller is a game designer and a department chair for the Game Design degree at Full Sail University. He cites ZZT as one of his earliest inspirations, and has written blog posts about using the program to create his own games. When he realized that he never actually purchased a copy of the game, he decided to try. It would look great framed in his office.
He found shady collections of shareware and Google searches that led to car parts, but no official releases of the game. He grew a little disheartened.
“That would have been the end of it as it usually is for my fits of nostalgia if I didn’t have a crazy idea: what if I just Googled 'zzt order form' and found the shareware catalog order form that came with all the Epic games back in the day and placed an order? The worst that could happen is someone could steal my check for a few bucks,” he wrote in a blog post.
Sure enough, Paul Sweeney received the letter, put together a copy of the game, and sent it to Hiwiller. “This is the last copy,” he wrote on the back of the paper, and signed his name.
I reached out to a contact at Epic Games who put me in touch with Tim Sweeney. I wanted to be sure that yes, this was the last physical copy that will ever be mailed out of that address.
“That's right! My Dad's supply of floppy disks containing the original Epic Games [ZZT] just ran out after 15 years of him continuing to ship orders sent to [the house] following Epic's move to North Carolina,” Sweeney e-mailed back.
It was great to have the story confirmed, but the last copy finding a home is also rather bittersweet. It’s the end of a 22-year story, and there’s something rather beautiful about the last copy finding its way back to an industry professional was inspired by the contents of that floppy disc.
“Indies almost exclusively digitally distribute and the only ones pressing discs are large corporations where the purpose of its physicality is to attract eyeballs on a shelf in a store, not because of any distribution limitations,” Hiwiller wrote upon receiving the final copy of the now legendary game. “There’s no love in the physical object anymore. Every once in a while you will see a Kickstarter that includes a physical artifact which is a reflection of the love of an individual or a small group of individuals for their work. But it just doesn’t happen often.”
But he holds in his hand a message in a bottle, a sort of last hurrah of the physical game. A game that was created by one of the most powerful men in the industry when he was still a young man, that sat in his childhood home for decades before being packaged up and sent out by Sweeney's father. It's not just a physical copy of the game, or the last physical copy of the game, but it's a relic of a time when “publishing a game” often mean something very intimate.
“It’s nice to see here, even if it is for the last time,” Hiwiller stated in his blog post. Amen.