The Epic Mega Haul

By: Dr. Dos
Published: Feb. 15, 2021

See scrapped deals, game design documents and more in these long lost documents exploring Epic's rise as a game developer in 1991-1992

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Jan. 22, 1992 - Game Concept: Ultima-style FRP-Action game

So IF we can make an extremely impressive breakthrough game, expect to match Keen at a minimum. BUT if the game has any weak links [...] it will only be a flop. Take this as incentive to work hard!

Finally we reach the big one. An early conceptual design document for a previously unknown Epic MegaGames fantasy role-playing game!

It's definitely a bold concept for the still tiny company. This file was labeled with a date of Jan. 22nd, so I suspect it came with the previous letter though there's no date on these yellow pages themselves. If that's the case though, Epic is currently only selling ZZT and Super ZZT. Jill of the Jungle and Kiloblaster still aren't ready, and those are far simpler games. The plans for... "USFRPAG" are far more ambitious, intending to combine Ultima with Duke Nukem.

This document isn't exactly the most formal. It's more of Sweeney's notes being organized, but it still offers some good insight to these telephone conversations and other communication that these documents don't capture.

Plenty to take in here. The game wants to set itself apart from traditional RPGs like Ultima by being much faster paced rather than relying on abstracting combat with calculations.

The "character building" paragraph is peak 90s video game character design. The three genders: "Arnold Schwarzenegger", "hot dungeon babe", and "kid".

When not falling into old "sex sells" stereotypes, there's some real definite thought on the design of the game with a strong focus on how to make sure that those unfamiliar with these sort of games can jump right in and enjoy themselves. It's stressed that because the game will be shareware, people won't feel the same investment into learning complex mechanics that they would with a game they paid money for.

Usability is stressed with the idea of touching objects defaulting to the sensible action, opening chest, talking to NPCs, rather than constantly pulling up menus to perform basic actions. The layout makes it seem like the game is going for an isometric look, but with a fixed camera which leads to a situation where the player would be unable to see behind certain walls. The next page goes on to talk about avoiding hiding important items behind walls, but using them as a way for monsters to ambush the player.

All this and it's expected to be completed within nine months. Tim's enthusiasm and confidence really shine throughout this. This game will beat Origin Systems. This game will beat Apogee. This game is going to sell 1000 copies per month minimum! It won't be easy, and the more established competition is going to do their best, but this game is going to be spectacular and take on the big guys.

Sadly, it just wasn't meant to be. Personal financial issues meant that their programmer would be dropping out, leaving the game to be left behind and forgotten for 30 years.

Mar. 24, 1992 - ZZT Winner Letter

You have a lot of talent for this, but keep in mind that the competition is very talented also.

Oh yeah that silly ZZT contest thing is still going on, and you won.

1992 Q1 - Epic Insider Letter

This document must not be distributed in any form, and violations will be strictly prosecuted under the U.S. Trade Secrets act.

This is really where Epic moves on from ZZT and into becoming a major player in the shareware market. This newsletter will go on to discuss getting some actual office space and really pushing the company out there. Jill and Kiloblaster are almost ready and will mean Epic jumping from those text mode people to a group you'd associate with cutting-edge graphics and sound. Epic is going from 256 characters to 256 colors.

On page three we get a lot of insight from some of the big guys. Scott Miller of Apogee explains what's needed to be successful and shareware and how Apogee and Epic both have it.

Robert Cook, who I suspect is the one involved with Kareteka and Prince of Persia, takes a dig at the direction games are going with things turning more into movies and climbing budgets. What a powerful quote at the end!

More recruiting as well with Ultra Force showing up again and Dutch group listing four upcoming releases for Epic.

Of which I can't find anything? There seems to be a theme here of Epic making these connections, and planning to publish their titles, only for nothing to happen in the end.

The rumors are juicy. I suspect that the first rumor is referring to Wolfenstein 3D. Perhaps the second is Duke Nukem 2? As for the last one, I have no guesses.

We do get a very nice listing of everything Epic has in the works. Jill is pushed back to March. Ultra Force has a slew of games and no information. (I mean, Turrikan has to be Turrican inspired no doubt.) Animac is still clinging on with its CGA graphics going up against Epic's VGA releases now.

Sonic the Hedgehog is explained in case you haven't heard of it.

1992 Q3 - Epic's News: September 1992

We need to push the PC to the end of its limits, then push it some more. That is how we'll leave the competition behind.

Tim's optimism paid off. It's September and Epic is no longer a group of disparate people vaguely committed to making some shareware games. They've arrived in the big leagues. Jill is finally out and the company is doing numbers. Epic's broad spectrum of games in development has little genre-overlap and makes it easy to prevent the company from competing with itself.

ZZT isn't even mentioned as a released product anymore! Instead it's Jill and Castle of Winds, the latter of which is probably doing some heavy lifting for the company given the quality of it relative to most games designed for Windows at the time.

The rumors get interesting this time. What could this unreal game be?

We won't know for another fortnight, but for now the gears of war are turning in Tim's head to make sure whatever this amazing game is, that it comes out under Epic.

...it's probably Jazz Jackrabbit which has the European programming team and fits with there being a "group" brought along. You'll notice the current and upcoming releases have dropped the Ultra Force games, and it's likely this is trying to keep get them committed to being part of Epic MegaGames.

The newly welcomed Avery Pack is taking a stab at educational shareware with what will be released as Adventure Math.

Another finished game goes to other newcomer Tran with Zone 66.

Ronald Davis's Thor project is another missed connection. In this case, the game in question is none other than God of Thunder, but the game ultimately went with a different publisher.

Lastly, Mel Odious, a finished adventure game that also didn't end up going through Epic.

The newsletter ends with some news about changes to the company's BBS distribution, becoming a part of the same network used by Apogee and ensuring that Epic's games are spread as far and wide as anything rival company Apogee publishes.

A followup document included with the same PDF shows the explosive growth of the company. 1991's annual sales of $25,000 have turned into $25,000 per month a year later.

The document goes on to discuss Epic's approach to shareware and what leads to it being successful. It's stressed that shareware shouldn't be purposely missing critical features, but also that registering should give the customer something they didn't have.

1992 Q4 - Epic's News: October 1992

We're all very enthusiastic about the potential for good shareware educational games.

Mark Rein of id Software moves to Epic and starts working on deals with Gravis and bundling Epic's games with their sound cards. While I'm unsure if that ever happened, anybody who's played Jazz Jackrabbit knows how strongly it promotes the Gravis gamepad, so I'm confident the talks worked out in some way.

Adventure Math is seen as an opportunity for good press. The second and final page of all the documents brings up plans to directly promote the program in educational magazines, going for an audience of educators rather than the folks browsing shareware catalogs for the latest and fanciest games out there.

Some cursory searches for scan of "Shareware Magazine" didn't turn up anything from the right period in time. I'd love to see these back cover ads!

The shareware list is a really great look at what kind of market there was in 1992. Apogee and id Software have a very strong grip, claiming seven spots on the list! Jill of the Jungle, Galactix, and Mah Jongg take up the remaining spots. I suspect Mah Jongg is this version, as the solitaire variation was an early hit with Windows titles.

Things come to an end with three more mystery games that are so under wraps that's there's no point in guessing. Things are looking pretty good for Epic here in 1992.

Special Thanks

As with the previous set of documents, all the scans were made available here are courtesy of Beth Daggert who held onto them for thirty years and put in the time and effort to get everything scanned, packaged, and sent off. Without her work, we would simply not have, nor even know that these newsletters ever existed.

While more immediate financial needs meant that her fantasy RPG for Epic never happened, it was a stepping stone for her to enter the games industry.

Recently, as part of 6502 Workshop, she released an Ultima-style CRPG designed for the Apple II, with freely available emulators making the game playable on modern computers. A fantastic way to show thanks for what she's done here both for the ZZT community as well as those interested in the PC side of gaming history by providing these scans would be to support her with a purchase of Nox Archaist.

Special thanks also go to Tim Sweeney for giving permission to publish these files as well!

====== A Worlds of ZZT Production ======

The Worlds of ZZT project is committed to the preservation of ZZT and its history.

This article was produced thanks to supporters on Patreon.

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