botZilla : An Programming Challenge.

by Steve Baker


About BotZilla.

Every year, L3 Link Simulation runs a series of events for National Engineers Week. However, these have traditionally been mechanical and aeronautical engineering challenges. But our company is as much a software house as a hardware engineering organization so in 2005, a bunch of Link programmers decided it was time to have a pure programming problem as a challenge for E-week.

With little time available to prepare, I took an old idea of combat between simulated robotic vehicles - with each vehicle driven by a computer program written by a different competitor. That much is an idea that's been around for a long time.

To make things more interested for onlookers - and to complexify the problem for the contestants - I decided to build an environment where giant robots fought in a city of demolishable buildings. This sounded a lot like the script for a Gojira ('Godzilla') movie - and botZilla was the fusion that came out of brainstorming it.

The City Simulator package was written from scratch for the event in my spare time over about a week. To get things done in such a short time, I used pieces of computer games I've written in the past - and leaned heavily on my OpenSourced games library: PLIB.

Some of the 3D building models came from a defunct driving game I was playing with, others were built by my son, Oliver. Then we found a model T-Rex on the internet and heavily remodelled it - added texture and animations - and thus we had our first 'bot'.

The first ever botZilla contest had just six entrants, but none the less, was a great success - with a large audience coming to cheer on the winners. That first contest was won by 'Xtinct', followed by 'UncleRico' and 'Superman' in second and third places. We also held a competition where all of the robots were placed into the arena at the same time - and that round was won by 'Violator'. The source code for five out of those six original 'bots is distributed with botZilla.

Now, in Feb 2006, we are about to run the contest for a second time.

The History of this Game Genre.

In 1981, a company called 'Muse Software' (who are famous for creating the original 'Castle Wolfenstein") released a game called 'RobotWar' for the Apple][. I never saw that game - but I did read a review of it in BYTE magazine and was inspired to write a clone of it for the UNIX box at Philips Research Labs where I worked at the time.

My game was briefly popular as a lunchtime activity amongst programmers at Philips - but sank without trace after that.

In 1985, Tom Poindexter was evidently inspired to do the same thing. His program (CROBOTS) has since been copied, cloned and extended - and can be found in various forms all over the Internet.

Here are some links to the original RobotWar game: The last link has a download of the original software, a screen dump and a scan of the original box art and the manual. If you grab one of the many Apple][ emulators out there, you can even still play it!

It's instructive to see how much progress we've made since 1981!

As a small homage to the original RobotWar game, you'll see some adverts for the original game on signs in the botZilla city - also, some of the robot models used in the game are taken from the design of the RobotWar artwork.