Little is known about the earliest years of ZZT. Our timeline has always been fuzzy, with release dates for various versions being pretty rough. Physical maps and hints included with registered copies of the game are incredibly rare, and even official packaging is quite hard to come by. Last year a 3.5" floppy disk containing the complete ZZT collection sold for $360 (USD). In the pre-Internet age, so much of this material has been relegated to being stored in basements and attics, often in poor condition, if not thrown away entirely. With disks failing and papers deteriorating, (and then in later years sites being taken down,) video game history is a fickle thing where any old materials are a rarity.
Today however, I bring some good news. Back in 2018, I contacted Beth Daggert after playing her game Ezanya, one of the ZZT worlds submitted for the Best of ZZT contest and included as part of the ZZT's Revenge bundle. Thanks to discovering the game was included on an online résumé, I tried my luck and got in touch with her to ask about the game's development where she revealed that she still had a whole bunch of papers from that time and that she'd be happy to scan them, but that it would take some time.
Two years later, I wake up to an email with a slew of documents containing newsletters for Epic and ZZT that haven't been preserved online. Today it's time to begin sharing these lost pieces of history with the world.
This article will go through the public newsletters and point out a few notable bits and pieces throughout. If you'd like to take a look at the full PDFs of everything presented here (and in a higher resolution), they're available for download from the following links:
ZZT Newsletter (January-July 1991)
Right from the start of the "ZZT Newsletter" we're immediately treated to a groundbreaking revelation: ZZT's release date. There's never been a definite date, and for years it was assumed to be October of 1991 based on an interview with Tim Sweeney done by Hercules in 2000. This was demonstrated to be Tim mis-remembering his dates, demonstrated both by the November 1991 build of ZZT v3.1 citing a date of January 1991. as well as the July 1991 issue of Computer Gaming World including a review of ZZT. Check out page 8 for a screenshot of ZZT, and page 78 for a brief write-up. The October 1991 date seems to be more accurate to when Super ZZT was first released.
It wasn't until some older versions of ZZT stopped being considered a novelty and started actually getting some attention paid to them that a more accurate date of January 1991 was revealed. We didn't expect to get anything more concrete than that, but here in this newsletter that has been lost for 30 years we get a hard date of January 15th, 1991. ZZT officially turns 30 on the date of this article's publication: January 15th, 2021.
The logo used as letterhead reflects the logo design seen in early versions of ZZT's official worlds as well.
Even in 1991 ZZT's capabilities of letting children make games was readily apparent! You'll find this pulled quote about an eight year old making games with ZZT used in some early Epic software catalog programs.
One think we see early on is Tim Sweeney boosting the appeal of the game by accepting fan offerings and making them official. John Beck mapping City of ZZT is an early instance of fan material becoming official, a trend in the early days of ZZT with its game contest resulting in the release of Best of ZZT and ZZT's Revenge collections. David Fernau's aforementioned hints for Town began being included with official ZZT releases as well.
The user submitted worlds mentioned here are some of ZZT"s earliest lost worlds. Caves of Terror as wall as a Star Trek trivia title give a glimpse at what people were making in ZZT's first few months.
There's a mysterious new game project with calls for graphics artists and designers to help out. Most likely, this is Jill of the Jungle, a game that offered VGA graphics when many shareware titles were still sticking to EGA. Jill was often marketed with a strong focus on its graphical fidelity and digitized sound effects that took full advantage of what PCs were capable of in the era.
Lastly, a series of hints for City of ZZT are provided. I love the hint telling you how to copy ZZT and City onto a disk to have room for saves if you were playing on a system without a hard drive, something still a possibility in 1991.
In addition to having John Beck's map of City, there are also forms to volunteer to become a shareware uploader to help spread ZZT and future releases to more bulletin board systems as well as an order form for acquiring more ZZT worlds. In our current preserved version of the map, this upper half has been replaced with instructions on how to get started playing ZZT and accessing its editor.
This is a copy of the already archived map of Town of ZZT. The only difference is the copyright lists Potomac Computer Systems rather than Epic Mega Games.
(It's also not cut off on top, but that's just me apparently having an abysmal standard for scans back when I scanned my own copies of these maps. That'll definitely get replaced with a fresh scan in the future.)
The newsletter closes out by answering a few questions of how to solve a few puzzles and challenges in the official worlds. Notably it ends with a few recommendations for some non-ZZT shareware titles, suggesting those who enjoyed ZZT might also like Kingdom of Kroz and Captain Comic.
ZZT Game Collection
While we currently have scans of the previous eight pages which provide maps and hints for the games in the ZZT's Revenge collection of worlds, this last page is "new". Likely it's actually meant to be independent from the other pages as it relates to Best of ZZT as the rest of the scans make no mention of Best.
There's nothing too exciting here as while we hadn't seen a physical hint document for Best of ZZT, the public release does contain this exact information in a .DOC file. The only new addition is the "Look out" paragraph and some rearranging of the foreward to be a section after the hints.
1992 Q1 Epic Newsletter Vol. 1 Num. 1
Last second update: This one isn't a new document! While I don't personally have a copy, xabbott did some lower-resolution scans and transcriptions of this years ago. I'm leaving it here to provide a little commentary on it. (Plus the modern scan is in color and a better resolution.)
For our last new newsletter we have the premiere issue of the Epic MegaGames Newsletter. This newsletter deals with a lot about the early growth of Epic, where the interest shown in recruiting early ZZTers into creating games from scratch as a part of Epic seems to have paid off. The company has grown from one to twenty, despite all the current Epic MegaGames titles being ZZT related in some way.
There's a big push towards Epic becoming a company dealing not with ASCII game creation systems but with more cutting edge graphics and sound for 1992.
This is the sole mention of Super ZZT, which while optimistic was quickly pushed aside both from the Epic team as well as outside of it.
The one upcoming title is Drum Blaster, a very strange music-making tool that's fallen by the wayside of Epic's history.
A list of high scores is provided to see where one compares with those who have really gone for big bonuses.
The ZZTaholics section offers a very easily forged way to potentially win a few free games. What's most interesting here is the order the worlds are presented. This is a full list of all the official ZZT and Super ZZT worlds (barring Demo and Tour which are kind of their own thing). I'm somewhat curious about the order these are listed here. Notably, City of ZZT is included at the very end of the list. The Super ZZT worlds are listed in an unusual order as well. Monster Zoo provides a numbered order for ZZT and Super ZZT's original sagas. We also know Ezanya to be the official winner of the ZZT contest and thus the "premiere" world of ZZT's Revenge. I'd almost want to say the order here is the ranking of all those games, but because of the other oddities it's tough to say if there's any meaning to actually take from this order.
We also get the revelation of how to access and use the Super ZZT editor. The general inaccessibility of it contributed quite a bit to the drastically reduced number of worlds made for it over the years.
Lastly we also get the origins of the "Zoo of Zero Tolerance" suggestion for what ZZT could potentially stand for and the reasoning behind why the name was selected. The legacy on this one has been quite long lasting, though most references are fortunately smart enough to include the disclaimer that "it isn't actually an acronym". Still, despite the lack of official endorsement on "Zoo", you'll find a ZZT comic world named after it, and the Python library for working with ZZT worlds being called Zookeeper because of it.
Plenty of details on the Best of ZZT contest that jump-started Epic's acquisition of developers. Clearly the contest was more successful than expected with the "6-way tie" for first place resulting in an entirely separate package of ZZT's Revenge. While we did have this list of authors whose boards were included in Best of ZZT, the honorable mentions list is new. With more than 200 entrants, it seems like ZZT really did take off right from the start! That's a pretty significant number of people to go so far not only making a board or game, but paying the costs to ship off a disk containing it! For reference, the authors directory on the Museum currently has around 1100 names on it.
It's also worth comparing the honorable mentions to the list of authors on the Museum. You'll find a few names that overlap! Notably, names like James Holub and Jesse Chang who made a few notable early ZZT worlds. The Museum also hosts worlds created by John Hoelle; Jay Shapiro and Nancy Babyak; and Jeffrey Scanlon Jr.!
One final page with some more advice for ZZT players. Nothing too exciting here, but some excitement towards Jill of the Jungle.
More To Come
We're not actually done with our newly scanned documents just yet! In addition to this public newsletters regarding ZZT, Epic, and Best of ZZT/ZZT's Revenge, Beth also included sixteen additional documents! This first set here is just the ones that were clearly publicly distributed. These scan also include bits of correspondence between Beth and Tim on Ezanya's acceptance into the Best of ZZT contest, the announcement of her game being selected as a winning entry, various letters to get her to work for Epic on an Ultima-style fantasy RPG, and even some internal Epic MegaGames newsletters only shared with those involved with the company in 1992! These files were purposely kept out until permission could be acquired from Tim to share them, which he was happy to grant. Look forward to a second article in the near future that deals with this long lost history of Epic!
An Extra Special Thanks
None of these documents would have came to light without the cooperation of Beth Daggert who not only held onto these for a good thirty years, but took the time to scan and compile everything for the Museum. A find like this is something a video game historian could only dream of, but now it can be shared with the world. Thanks to her efforts we have a definitive release date for ZZT, and an incredible opportunity to explore the earliest days of one of the biggest companies in gaming today.
While circumstances at the time prevented Beth from accepting the opportunity to stay with Epic Games and create a fantasy RPG with them (discussed in better detail in my interview with her from 2018), her love of these games never went away. In 2020, as part of 6502 Workshop, the company released Nox Archaist, an Ultima inspired fantasy RPG that runs on the Apple II (and numerous emulators for the computer as well). If you want to show her some support for recognizing the historical importance of these documents and putting in the work to save them from being lost to time, I highly recommend supporting her by supporting her new game.