The resurrection of Golgotha

The resurrection of Golgotha: By Howard Wen. Volunteer programmers rescue a defunct company's software -- and produce a do-it-yourself tool for building 3-D games.

Published February 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Creating a 3-D computer game requires a lot of work: building models, designing textures, creating game level maps, writing scripts that control the behavior of "enemy" characters, producing sound effects or music. It also requires, as its guts, a 3-D graphics software engine -- like the ones that run popular games such as Quake II or Unreal -- to generate real-time images. Unless you've got the programming talents and time to build such software from scratch, it can cost a ton of money ($100,000 and up) to license.

But now anybody who wants to build an original 3-D graphics game can pick up one such software engine for free -- thanks to a game developer called Crack dot Com that went out of business last year.

Started in June 1994 in Mesquite, Texas -- the Dallas suburb that's home to id Software, makers of the frighteningly successful Doom and Quake franchises -- Crack dot Com once had a promising future. Its most popular game, a side-view action shooter called Abuse, netted enough in royalties for the company to fund work on a follow-up title.

Then the problems began. Crack dot Com spent way too much time and money kicking around concepts for its next game before settling on a plan for Golgotha -- a simulation/strategy game similar to Command & Conquer, but with 3-D graphics. Despite signed deals with AMD, Red Hat Software and a European games publisher, Crack dot Com ran out of money and shut its doors in September 1998. A month later, the company's owners did an unusual, and generous, thing: They took everything they had worked on for Golgotha -- the source code, 3-D models, texture maps, sound effects library, music and the complete script for voice actors -- and released it to the public domain on the Web.

Now a semi-retired business programmer named Mark O'Hara has made it his goal to take the code released by Crack dot Com and turn it into a free, general-use game engine so people can build whatever game they want with it. "What I am doing is building a support system around the engine to allow people (even people who are not necessarily programmers) to build commercial-level games with it," he says. "This is much more than was ever intended by the original authors."

As for the kind of 3-D games that could be made on the Golgotha engine after O'Hara finishes his modifications to it, one's imagination is apparently the limit. "The Golgotha engine is currently best suited for outdoor-type games such as racing games, RTS [(real-time simulation)], flight sims, sports games, RPG, etc., so it's pretty open," he says. "One of the major enhancements I am planning is the addition of well-handled indoor environments so you can build indoor/outdoor games. The Quake engine would be an example of an indoor engine."

"I'm trying to make [the Golgotha engine] as easy as possible to make games with," O'Hara adds. "Hopefully to a level where Joe Average Hobbyist can make a pretty decent game with it."

As for the uncompleted Golgotha game itself, about 60 volunteers have organized and set up the Golgotha Forever! Web site to continue the work Crack dot Com abandoned. Their goal is to finish the original game as a tribute to the company. "A lot of us are students, and some are looking for a good entrance into the computer industry," says high-schooler Andrew Walbert, who runs the site and is part of the effort.

"There are also a few [video game] developers on the team plus a professional musician. We're all here to make a kick-ass game," says programmer Robert Dale, who's contributing to developing the game play of Golgotha.

Most of the unfinished work involves artwork, level design and music, but the 3-D graphics engine itself is mostly complete.

"We're just debugging the source code and trying to make what's there work," Dale says. "The real fun begins when we've picked a story and add functionality to the game." (In its present state, Golgotha has playable demos, which may or may not reflect what the final game will be like.)

According to Walbert, Golgotha's 3-D graphics engine still holds up pretty well to today's standards: "The engine is truly state-of-the-art. The way the level editor was designed, it's possible to produce curves, and ... the curves are very realistic from a distance and up close."

The most surprising discovery regarding the graphics engine code, they found, was its portability across several operating system platforms. Crack dot Com's deal with Red Hat called for the development of a Linux version of Golgotha; producing portable code contributed to the delays that plagued Golgotha and thus to the demise of Crack dot Com.

But now the Golgotha programmers are benefiting from the project's cross-platform approach. "Golgotha is the greatest example I've ever seen of just how easy it is to keep a game source base current on several platforms (i.e. Windows and Linux)," Walbert says.

"It literally should only take a few hours for someone familiar with the target platform to port it over," Dale concurs. "Definitely something game developers should take a lesson on. We've seen interest in BeOS and Mac ports, too."

There's one remaining question about Golgotha: When will it be finished? I ask Dale and Walbert this, even though, having written about the game industry for years, I already know what they'll say.

"You guys still have to ask this question?" Dale responds.

Walbert knowingly gives me the industry clichi: "When it's done."

Thanks to Crack dot Com, Walbert, Dale and O'Hara, maybe Joe Average Hobbyist will soon have the chance to give reporters the same game-developer brushoff.

By Howard Wen

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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