Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Featured GCS 1: ZZT

Featured GCS 1


ZZT is a DOS-based game creation system (GCS) made by Tim Sweeny in 1991. Sweeny went on to be the leader of Epic Games, famously known for the Unreal series. ZZT isn't an abbreviation for anything. It was just a random name Sweeny came up with to make sure that ZZT showed up at the bottom of software directories.

At first glance, ZZT doesn't look like much at all. It's a little game using simple ASCII graphics, which is something that was very outdated even for 1991. By that time VGA games were just beginning to gain strength. Since it was supposed to be a simple text editor, Sweeny apparently felt that ASCII characters were just fine. After working on his text editor for awhile, it seems he got bored with the idea and took a completely different direction. After moving the cursor around the screen with the arrow keys, he somehow got the idea to make a game instead.

After ZZT's core engine was completed, Sweeny went on to make a total of 4 games, along with a demo of ZZT's engine and a "tour" of his game worlds. He released ZZT as shareware in 1991. It came with his first game, Town of ZZT, along with his demo of the other games you could get if you paid and registered ZZT. Later ZZT became freeware.

Sweeny's games were a mix of puzzles and action sequences. They were all quite long and the puzzles got increasingly difficult. Generally, his games were well designed. Above is a screenshot of Dungeons of ZZT.

Of course, ZZT wasn't popular because of the little puzzle games that came with it. The REAL success of ZZT was due to the level editor which was built right in. In an interview, Sweeny said he was very surprised that people were so fascinated with the editor. He didn't realize it would be so popular. It was simple and easy to use. It came with a very flexible proramming language called ZZT-OOP (ZZT-object oriented programming). To the right is a screenshot of ZZT in editor mode. After ZZT became popular on AOL, users came up with hundreds of different ZZT games of all types. ZZT wasn't at all restricted to just puzzle games. There are many great RPGs, space shooters, strategy games, and more.

ZZT, surprisingly, actually gained a reputation as having nice looking graphics after a ZZTer by the name of Gregory Janson found several exploits in the editor and created the Super Tool Kit (STK). The STK took advantage of a glitch that occured when an object used ZZT-OOP to place terrain over certain text characters. The result of the glitch was different colors. Originally, Sweeny only included 7 different bright colors in the editor for some reason. The STK changed this and added several new colors. This is where ZZT gained an entirely new dimension. Some users actually turned ZZT into somewhat of a paint program. Below are screenshots demonstrating the graphical power that the STK unlocked.

Trust me, these low-quality screenshots don't do these games justice. Still, if you compare the screenshot of Town of ZZT at the top of this article with these you can really see what a breakthrough STK was. It's quite a mystery why Sweeny didn't include more color options to begin with.

Today, the ZZT community is alive, but just barely. If you're interested in ZZT, you can try out right now. Head over to z2 (, the main hub of ZZT activity, and download a copy of ZZT. You can download hundreds and hundreds of games to play and even make your own. I reccommend you start out playing the featured games, my favorites being Burger Joint and Evil Sorcerer's Party.

I hope you've enjoyed this article and you now have a small glance at what ZZT is. There's tons more content I can cover, so a follow-up article will likely come soon. Comments or emails with your thoughts or criticism are greatly appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. not at, but