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Developer(s)Potomac Computer Systems
Publisher(s)Potomac Computer Systems
Designer(s)Tim Sweeney
Genre(s)Action-adventure, game creation system, puzzle

ZZT is a 1991 action-adventure puzzle video game and game creation system developed and published by Potomac Computer Systems for MS-DOS. The game was later released as freeware in 1997. It represents an early example of a game that allowed players to edit using object-oriented programming. Players control a smiley face to battle various creatures and solve puzzles in different grid-based boards in a chosen world. It includes an in-game editor, allowing players to develop their own worlds while using the game's scripting language, ZZT-OOP.

The game was designed by mechanical engineering student Tim Sweeney, and took roughly nine months to develop. The game was built from a text editor conceived in 1989 to build a better editor for Pascal, after disliking editors that came with other programming languages for his computer. During development, he experimented with adding creatures and characters, building boards that grew into worlds while refining the editor he used to create his own games. Initially he made the game for himself, but after positive reception from his friends and neighbors, and seeing the potential for making a profit by releasing the game under shareware, he decided to release the game publicly.

ZZT was a commercial success, selling around 4,000–5,000 copies by 2009. The game received mixed reception. Much of the positive reception focusing on the gameplay, editor, and the community it developed, while criticisms focused on the game's graphical and audio limitations, and perceived unfair difficulty. The game was followed by a sequel, Super ZZT (1992). Other ZZT worlds were published later that same year as Best of ZZT and ZZT's Revenge. The game's success led Sweeney to change his company's name to Epic MegaGames, and focus on competing as a video game company using shareware to distribute commercial games. Epic MegaGames later developed other successful games including Jill of the Jungle (1992) and Unreal (1998), using lessons from ZZT's success by focusing on developing the editor and engine to allow others to more easily make games. The game also features one of the earliest active modding communities, that has grown around the game through making new worlds and editing tools.


The title screen in Town of ZZT

ZZT is a top-down action-adventure puzzle video game and game creation system. Players control a white smiley face on a navy blue rectangle that can move around in four directions.[2] Players can interact with objects by touching or shooting at them. Touching ammo containers, gems, torches, and keys adds them to your status bar. Boxes of ammo allow players to fire bullets at objects, gems increase health and are used as currency, torches light up a small area around the player in dark boards, and colored keys allow players to open same-colored doors. Other objects in the game includes bombs, doors, and scrolls. One type of object called "Object" interacts based on written scripts using the game's scripting language, ZZT-OOP. As an example, the object could be programmed to give the player health, or fire bullets at the player. At any time, players can save their progress, and return to the game's exact state.

Game worlds are made up of objects within grid boards that connect to each other, with each one using a board as a title screen. Players can move across different boards by either reaching the edge of the board or entering teleporters. Six game worlds were made for the game's release; four of them are game worlds, and each of the four starts in a unique way.[3] Town of ZZT starts in a hub world with four buildings mixed with six exits, Caves of ZZT opens with a sparse area of torches and a scroll, Dungeons of ZZT starts with a linear opening sequence with gates that lock you inside, and City of ZZT opens with a city street as a hub with a few structures. Two other worlds were included, but served different purposes. Guided Tour ZZT's Other Worlds highlighted levels of the registered worlds following Town of ZZT, while Demo of the ZZT World Editor creates parallels to a museum, showing all of the items, terrains, and creatures that make up ZZT. The goal for players are to reach the end board, progressing either by collecting purple keys to open locked doors, or objects throughout the world.[4] Boards can contain action and/or puzzles. Action boards have the player face off against creatures. Creatures include lions, tigers, and bears. When creatures, bullets, or stars touch the player, they lose health. Once the player runs out of health, the game ends. Puzzles consist of untangling combinations of boulders, sliders, and pushers, or mazes sometimes including invisible walls and teleporters. Some puzzles can trap the player, leading players to require a return to an earlier save.

ZZT includes an in-game editor, allowing players to make their own worlds. Players would start with yellow normal walls surrounding a new board as a blank screen, where players can add and arrange items, creatures, and terrain to the board. Each board can also be set to include specific settings, such as adding a time limit, making the board dark so the player could not see the board without a torch, or limiting the number of bullets on screen at any given time. Each board had its own isolated variables within the game, and through scripting players could create ten different boolean flags for the environment, shared across boards.[5] Within boards, objects could be named, given commands for actions, and can send and receive messages using ZZT-OOP. Everything within ZZT are shown through the use of the 255 characters of the IBM PC's character set to create environments. While the game had support for sixteen colours, the editor only permitted the use of seven different colours for colourable objects, and had limits in the amount of objects being placed in each board.[6] Players learned over time of additional ways to add more colours to the game through utilising text, utilising commands and different text characters in the game, and editing world files. Sound for the game was done through the PC speaker, permitting seven notes at several different octaves, and instruments with unique pitches of clicks, pops, and snaps to represent percussion. Sounds are played through normal gameplay, or making custom sounds through scripting.


Video game programmer Tim Sweeney studying mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, first developed ZZT as a text editor that ran in Turbo Pascal.[7][8] During this time, Tim did not know how to program graphics and only had a 286 computer and a Model M keyboard.[9][10][11] The text editor idea came from disliking the included editors for the programming languages he tried on his PC. Instead he wanted to recreate his previously made Pascal-like programming environment for the Apple II.[12] Over time, he experimented with adding collision to text characters, and making the cursor a controllable character, and found it more fun to make it into a game by adding bullets and creatures to fight against using text characters to identify them. From there, he designed his first levels from text files that served as different boards similar in style to Atari's Adventure, and continually offering additions to the game and editor over time. Given the graphics were dated for its time, he could produce ideas such as talking trees or interesting characters, without concerns about breaking immersion. Most of these additions were his own, but occasionally took ideas from Kroz, such as the bomb. Sweeney would study his degree during the day, while working on his game during the night. The game took around six to nine months to develop, taking under 1,000 hours of time spent developing the game, and making around 20,000 lines of Pascal code.[13]

He then shared it with friends and neighborhood kids, observing how they responded to the game. From seeing the joy and excitement from others playing his game, he found making games to share something with the world, and to make more income instead of his former business of mowing lawns for neighbors or wage labor. The game's episodic model took inspiration from Apogee's shareware model, where Sweeney encouraged the spread of the game across shareware vendors, user groups, and bulletin board systems.[2] He would operate his company out of his bedroom, having orders sent to his parents' address, where he would send the remaining episodes on floppy disks and send them through mail. During development, he wrote to Scott Miller for advice and to learn more about the industry. Miller responded while offering him encouragement.[14] Tim chose the name so it would be listed last alphabetically in shareware catalogs and on bulletin board systems, though a fan later suggested the backronym of "Zoo of Zero Tolerance", which Sweeney endorsed.[1] He would also sell the game as the first major game with object-oriented programming.[15] ZZT was released on January 15, 1991. Town of ZZT alongside the in-game editor would be distributed freely, while the other official worlds would normally be sold by mail order to receive a single floppy disk including the purchased worlds, and drawn maps of each of the worlds.[16] At one point, City of ZZT was also distributed as ZZT's City, through Softdisk's On Disk Monthly service.[17] Each of the remaining official worlds, along with other ZZT games were later released as freeware on October 10, 1997.[18]


Following ZZT's release, the game sold about three to four copies daily, selling around 800 copies of ZZT by November 1991,[1] and around 4,000 to 5,000 copies in total by 2009.[7] This gave Sweeney around $100 a day by November 1991, and he earned around $30,000 from ZZT by May 1999, of which most of the profit came from its first year.[1][19][20] After Sweeney moved out of his parents' house to establish proper corporate headquarters for Potomac Computer Systems, then renamed Epic MegaGames, his father Paul Sweeney, continued fulfilling mail orders to the original address under the "Epic Classics" label, allowing for purchase of physical copies of ZZT.[16] The final copy of ZZT was shipped to game designer Zack Hiwiller in November 2013.

Historic and contemporary reviews from critics were mixed. A comment from Computer Gaming World billed ZZT as "truly charming", finding the gameplay "simple to learn".[15] Scott Wolf of PC Gamer (US) stated the graphics and sound for ZZT to be "truly awful", while the gameplay seves as a flashback to "when gameplay was not overshadowed by flashy video and animation".[21] Benj Edwards has called ZZT an "influential and underrated game", crediting its current enjoyment from playing community worlds and making unexpected things with the "fairly robust" built in editor.[22][23][24] This is while crediting the official worlds for being a "depthy adventure game full of puzzles, challenge, and humor". Chris Kohler of Wired called ZZT a simple, fun, and not always intuitive game design tool under the façade of a simple adventure game, blending seamlessly game design and play such that it was attractive and user-friendly.[25][26] It found making a game fun, thanks to the interface being nearly identical to the game, allowing for the easy placement of objects and terrain. Rock Paper Shotgun's Ollie Toms focused on the editor, finding the game to be more like "a colourful, characterful, years-long course in scripting and programming games".[27] He wrote that while ZZT-OOP was basic and limited, children could learn about and make games without knowing anything about programming. Hardcore Gaming 101 in a podcast episode stated ZZT was "not all that fun", criticizing that official worlds and community made worlds included unavoidable damage, and instant death.[28] They found that games that attempted to expand and push the engine further are generally "rough around the edges", or "more functional rather than good". Rather, they admired ZZT like a science experiment or a demo from a demoscene, existing to study and push the limits of ZZT, finding the game itself and the community that built from it technically impressive.


On getting $100 a day from ZZT, Sweeney was convinced he could earn enough from the shareware industry, and decided to work in the video game industry.[7] He renamed the company to Epic MegaGames on October 1991.[20] Shortly after the release of ZZT, Sweeney started a level designer contest for registered users to make their own worlds and submit them to him.[1] Over 200 users submitted their custom worlds. The best collaboration games that won the contest were included in The Best of ZZT and ZZT's Revenge, released in 1992. The winners of the contest received prizes of gift certificates, while others would receive honourable mentions. The six winning custom worlds that made up ZZT's Revenge earned the designers employment in Epic MegaGames, with the winning worlds being "Ezanya", "Fantasy", "Crypt", "Smiley Guy", "Manor", and "Darbytown".[2] Sweeney later asked one of these developers, Allen Pilgrim, to create a game world for the sequel to ZZT, Super ZZT, released on October 15, 1991 with the shareware world "Monster Zoo".[20][29] Other worlds available for purchase were "Proving Grounds" and "Lost Forest". The game plays similarly to ZZT, while adding more features such as greater colours accessible within its editor, new enemies and objects, and scrolling map screens that allowed for larger boards than in ZZT. Although Super ZZT incorporated several additions to ZZT, it never caught on with the ZZT community like the original ZZT did, and very few games were ever created for Super ZZT, with one reason being due to the editor being hidden during normal play.[12]

After publishing Best of ZZT and ZZT's Revenge, Sweeney realized the community began creating worlds that reached or exceeded the quality of his work.[19] Furthermore, he believed that games with cutting edge graphics and sound similar in commercial quality to Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis games would sell more in the shareware model, taking influence from Commander Keen and Duke Nukem.[20] As such, he moved away from ZZT indefinitely to work on other projects like Jill of the Jungle. While he has commented on wanting to build a massive-multiplayer online version of ZZT during an interview, his future focus on the company was to move forward with new franchises, while learning from the success of ZZT.[30] Sweeney and Mark Rein later credited that much of the core idea of Unreal and Unreal Engine came from what Sweeney learned from the success of ZZT, with a focus on building games with clean code and editing tools, so that others can build their own games.[9][19][22] Mark Rein has claimed that Unreal Tournament became a spiritual successor to the game thanks to the game's modding community and versatile developer tools.[31]

The game has developed an early example of a modding community, emerging within Prodigy, America Online, Compuserve, and the Internet.[32][33] Many fan-made worlds and editing tools were created following the game's release, with a fan website, Museum of ZZT, devoted to archiving and curating game worlds and utilities made by users. The game provided those in the community with an outlet for creativity and exploration of themselves without artistic or programming skills, especially among stigmatized groups such as transgender people.[34] As of 2021, more than 3,000 worlds have been created and archived whether made using the built in editor, or third party editors such as KevEdit.[35][36] Tim Sweeney has claimed that tens of thousands of workers in the game industry have previously made worlds in ZZT.[13] A source port called "Zeta" allowed for playing ZZT games on Microsoft Windows or a web browser, while another source port, "DreamZZT", attempted ports to consoles, specifically the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo DS.[37] Worlds continue to be developed that have expanded beyond its intended genre, creating shoot 'em ups, falling block puzzle games, complex role-playing games, and point-and-click adventure games, sometimes deriving from other entertainment titles.[25][28] While the source code of ZZT was lost in a crash,[7][14] a community developer, Adrian Siekierka, reconstructed and released the source code in 2020, creating a binary accurate executable of ZZT with permission of Sweeney.[38][39] Other games have been inspired by ZZT, such as MegaZeux, PuzzleScript and Frog Fractions 2, and authors of ZZT worlds went on to become video game developers.[40][41] Rock Paper Shotgun has made comparisons to Minecraft and Roblox, in its ability to serve as a start for new video game developers, while Wired has found similarities in its seamless blend of gameplay and editing to LittleBigPlanet.[27][26] Hardcore Gaming 101 considered the game an internet meme, with one staff member even comparing it to the Skinner & The Superintendent sketch of The Simpsons.[28]

Further reading[edit]

  • Anthropy, Anna (2014). ZZT. Boss Fight Books. ISBN 978-1-940535-02-9.


  1. ^ a b c d e Dr. Dos (January 15, 2021). "ZZT and Epic Newsletter Scans". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on January 16, 2021. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Anthropy, Anna (2014). ZZT. Los Angeles, CA: Boss Fight Books. ISBN 978-1-940535-02-9. OCLC 887992348. Archived from the original on February 13, 2022. Retrieved November 26, 2021.
  3. ^ Dr. Dos (July 22, 2018). "Closer Look: Caves of ZZT". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on December 3, 2021. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  4. ^ Dr. Dos (June 19, 2017). "Closer Look: City of ZZT". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on December 3, 2021. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  5. ^ Fiadotau, Mikhail (2016). "Game Engine Conventions and Games that Challenge them: Subverting Conventions as Metacommentary". Replay. The Polish Journal of Game Studies. 3 (1): 47–65. doi:10.18778/2391-8551.03.03. ISSN 2449-8394.
  6. ^ Dr. Dos (September 18, 2016). "640x350x16 A History of ZZT's Graphics". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on February 2, 2022. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
  7. ^ a b c d Edwards, Benj (May 25, 2009). "From The Past To The Future: Tim Sweeney Talks". Gamasutra. Archived from the original on February 4, 2017. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  8. ^ Thomsen, Mike (June 15, 2012) [February 24, 2010]. "History of the Unreal Engine". IGN. Archived from the original on January 8, 2022. Retrieved January 8, 2022.
  9. ^ a b Conditt, Jess (March 20, 2019). "Epic Games has 250 million 'Fortnite' players and a lot of plans". Engadget. Archived from the original on March 20, 2019. Retrieved December 13, 2021.
  10. ^ Totilo, Stephen (July 12, 2011). "The Quiet Tinkerer Who Makes Games Beautiful Finally Gets His Due". Kotaku. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  11. ^ Boudreau, Ian (April 5, 2020). "When it comes to keyboards, Tim Sweeney sticks with the classics". PCGamesN. Archived from the original on December 14, 2021. Retrieved December 14, 2021.
  12. ^ a b Hercules (November 17, 2000). "Hercules meets Tim Sweeney". Interactive Fantasies. Archived from the original on August 24, 2017. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  13. ^ a b Takahashi, Dean (January 20, 2012). "Epic's 3D graphics wizard Tim Sweeney says business and technology are "intricately linked" (interview)". VentureBeat. Archived from the original on December 17, 2021. Retrieved December 17, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Sweeney, Tim. "The Official ZZT Home Page". Epic Games. Archived from the original on October 10, 1999.
  15. ^ a b Circle Reader Service #12 (July 1991). "Taking a Peek" (PDF). Computer Gaming World. No. 84. p. 78. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 27, 2020. Retrieved April 1, 2018.
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  18. ^ "News Update". Epic MegaGames. October 10, 1997. Archived from the original on February 14, 1998. Retrieved December 15, 2021.
  19. ^ a b c Bovelander, Wouter (May 25, 1999). "Tim Sweeney -- interview". Planet ZZT++. Archived from the original on October 11, 2000. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  20. ^ a b c d Dr. Dos (February 15, 2021). "The Epic Mega Haul". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on December 13, 2021. Retrieved December 13, 2021.
  21. ^ Wolf, Scott (December 1995). Bennet, Dan (ed.). "Lupine Online". PC Gamer (US). Vol. 2, no. 12. Burlingame, CA: Imagine Publishing. p. 297. ISSN 1059-2180.
  22. ^ a b Edwards, Benj (February 19, 2021). "Before Fortnite, There Was ZZT: Meet Epic's First Game". How-To Geek. Archived from the original on December 28, 2021. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  23. ^ Edwards, Benj (September 3, 2007). "Great Moments in Shareware: ZZT". Vintage Computing and Gaming. Archived from the original on December 28, 2021. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  24. ^ Edwards, Benj (March 10, 2016). "7 Classic PC Games With ASCII Graphics". PC Magazine. Archived from the original on July 18, 2016. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  25. ^ a b Kohler, Chris (October 12, 2005). "Chapter 8, Playing at Game Design". In Jepson, Brian (ed.). Retro Gaming Hacks: Tips & Tools for Playing the Classics. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc. p. 441. ISBN 978-1-4493-0390-7. Archived from the original on January 8, 2022. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  26. ^ a b Kohler, Chris (October 1, 2008). "First Impressions: LittleBigPlanet's Ever-Expanding World of Wonder". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Archived from the original on March 4, 2021. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
  27. ^ a b Toms, Ollie (October 23, 2019). "Have you played… ZZT?". Rock Paper Shotgun. Archived from the original on December 18, 2021. Retrieved December 17, 2021.
  28. ^ a b c Switter (May 14, 2018). "Episode 99: Kirby's Dream Land 3, ZZT". Top 47,858 Games of All Time (Podcast). Hardcore Gaming 101. Archived from the original on December 28, 2021. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  29. ^ DOSGuy (April 27, 2015). "Allen Pilgrim Interview". RGB Classic Games. Archived from the original on February 7, 2022. Retrieved February 7, 2022.
  30. ^ Elig (July 15, 2007). "An Interview with Tim Sweeney". dMZX Forums. Archived from the original on December 28, 2021. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  31. ^ Kohler, Chris (February 5, 2007). "Interview: Epic's Mark Rein". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Archived from the original on February 13, 2022. Retrieved December 17, 2021.
  32. ^ Au, Wagner James (April 16, 2004). "Triumph of the mod". Salon. Archived from the original on July 3, 2015. Retrieved January 8, 2022.
  33. ^ Schreiner, Lukas; von Mammen, Sebastian (August 3, 2021). "Modding Support of Game Engines". The 16th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG) 2021. FDG'21. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery: 1–9. doi:10.1145/3472538.3472574. ISBN 978-1-4503-8422-3.
  34. ^ Welch, Tom (December 2018). "The Affectively Necessary Labour of Queer Mods". Game Studies. 18 (3). ISSN 1604-7982. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  35. ^ Dr. Dos. "Mass Downloads". Museum of ZZT. Archived from the original on December 28, 2021. Retrieved December 27, 2021.
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  37. ^ Carless, Simon (2004). Gaming Hacks (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc. p. 67. ISBN 9780596007140. OCLC 326649266. Archived from the original on January 8, 2022. Retrieved April 17, 2018.
  38. ^ Gipp, Stuart (March 17, 2020). "ZZT's source code has been reconstructed - Reconstruction of ZZT is a game-changer for the ZZT community". Retronauts. Archived from the original on March 18, 2020. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
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  40. ^ Warren, Jonah (June 18–21, 2019). "Tiny online game engines". 2019 IEEE Games, Entertainment, Media Conference (GEM). New Haven, CT, USA: IEEE: 1–7. doi:10.1109/GEM.2019.8901975. ISBN 978-1-7281-2404-9. S2CID 208210552. Archived from the original on January 8, 2022. Retrieved February 7, 2022 – via IEEE Xplore.
  41. ^ Graft, Kris (February 20, 2018). "Frog Fractions 2 ARG co-creator reflects on what makes a good alternate reality game". Game Developer. Archived from the original on December 14, 2021. Retrieved December 14, 2021.

External links[edit]