Student Corner


Road to computer game computer game entrepreneur

Road to computer game computer game entrepreneur - story of a college student who is one credit shy of graduating from University

When Sweeney was a preteen, he visited his eldest brother in San Diego, California, at a startup he was working at, which had an IBM computer. His brother taught him how to program on it, and Sweeney spent the rest of the rather impressionable trip "just programming the computer, figuring things out."

After turning 11, Sweeney spent hours on the Apple II Plus computer his brother gave him and used it to program video games. Sweeney told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that he spent more time "programming than I think I was sleeping or in school or doing any other one thing in the world."

Sweeney would play Nintendo's "Super Mario Bros." when he was a child as a way to "discover what games were doing and how they were doing it," according to an interview with video game website Kotaku in 2011. Aside from gaming, the inquisitive future CEO would disassemble lawnmowers​, radios, and TVs to see how each functioned. He was also a big fan of arcades.

Sweeney attended the ​University of Maryland as a mechanical engineering major. During his second year of college, he decided to go all-in with gaming by creating his first full-fledged​ video game, "ZZT." He also founded his company, Potomac Computer Systems, which would later become Epic Games, to develop "ZZT."

Despite being a gifted young coder, Sweeney didn't initially know how to program graphics, like "actual characters and objects," into "ZZT." Instead, he used symbols and smiley faces that would attack monsters and "run through levels." The hardware also functioned as an editor, so users could create their own games with it. He released the game in 1991.

Sweeney dropped out of college just one credit shy of graduating, and moved back in with his parents in Potomac, when he was 20. He used the $4,000 in his savings and began working on what would later become Epic Games in his parents' garage. For quite some time, customers who were interested in buying a copy of "ZZT" sent checks to Sweeney's parents' house, and waited for a disk copy of the game to come in the mail.

Sweeney sold "several thousand" copies of "ZZT" while living with his parents. He rebranded his company as Epic MegaGames, a name Sweeney said was "kind of a scam to make it look like we were a big company." With new orders coming in daily, Sweeney was able to move out of his parents' house in 1999 and quit his side gig mowing lawns. Epic eventually dropped the "Mega" from its name.

Sweeney then moved Epic to Cary, North Carolina, where it remains to this day. At the start, Sweeney's primary role was still programming — until the release of "Unreal," the company's inaugural first-person shooter video game

"Unreal," which was released in 1998, was a PC-based game that allowed users the ability to play together on separate computers. The 3D graphics technology behind the game was called the Unreal Engine, and it became a foundational element of Epic's future business.

In 2006, Epic's "Gears of War" was released. It was built for Microsoft's Xbox 360 using the Unreal Engine. The New York Times described the game as "a more deliberate, thoughtful sort of shooter [with] plenty of action and gore." The publication also called "Gears of War" one of the "best looking" games.

Following the launch and commercial success of "Gears of War," Sweeney indulged. According to an interview he gave to the Journal in 2019, he had a "Ferrari and Lamborghini in the parking lot of my apartment ... People who hadn't met me thought I must be a drug dealer." He has since gotten rid of the flashy sports cars.

The "Gears of War" franchise, with over half a dozen games, has sold over 22 million units and made over $1 billion in revenue. (Microsoft bought the "Gears of War" franchise in 2014 for an "undisclosed amount.")

Epic Games is also responsible for games like "Shadow Complex" and the "Infinity Blade" series, both role-playing fighting games set in past and futuristic time periods. In 2013, Chinese tech company Tencent invested $330 million into Epic Games for a 40% stake.

In 2015, Epic Games announced that the Unreal Engine would be made free, making it easier for any aspiring game developer to start their next project. The technology behind the Unreal Engine is regarded as "one of the most widely used engines in existence." By making the Unreal Engine free to use, Epic Games gets a cut when game developers and publishers sell games made with it — a significant part of the way the company generates revenue.

Epic revealed a new game it was working on in 2011, "Fortnite." It was introduced as a survival-style game with a smaller scope than the blockbuster "Gears of War" series. It was another six years before the game launched: Epic didn't start offering early access to "Fortnite" until mid 2017.

Everything changed for Sweeney and Epic Games in September 2017 with the release of "Fortnite Battle Royale" — a free-to-play battle royale model of the game where users "collect resources, make tools and weapons, and try to stay alive as long as possible." The game found worldwide success just a few months after its release, amassing over 200 million players across seven different game platforms.

Sweeney, however, does not like to take credit for the success of "Fortnite" — he credits it largely to the game developers on his team. The Journal reported, "the entrepreneur is adamant about one thing: He did not create 'Fortnite' — his employees did. He didn't design or program the game" — but he did create the company that did.

Despite having a sports car infatuation at the beginning of his career, Sweeney has since spent his millions on conservation efforts in North Carolina. He bought 193 acres in Alamance County for​ preservation and donated $15 million to protect 7,000 acres of forests in western North Carolina.

Since the launch of "Fortnite" in 2017, Sweeney has turned his attention to two major new ventures: Launching a digital gaming store in the Epic Games Store, and a battle with Apple and Google over "Fortnite" royalties.

Sweeney is a very casual guy. His workplace attire consists of t-shirts and cargo pants. When people go to an interview at Epic Games, they are advised not to wear a jacket and tie.