Bots do battle, teach Java

One of IBM's most surprising recent successes has been, believe it or not, a game. But this is not just any game, it's Robocode, a game that teaches you Java as you create robot tanks and send them out to battle.

One of IBM’s most surprising recent successes has been, believe it or not, a game. But this is not just any game, it’s Robocode, a game that teaches you Java as you create robot tanks and send them out to battle.

Since Robocode was uploaded to IBM’s alphaWorks site in June 2001, there have been 120,000 downloads. Now there are Robocode leagues of battling robots created by enthusiasts all around the world, and universities and schools are making use of the game as a teaching aid to introduce their students to Java.

Robocode is the brainchild of Mathew Nelson, an engineer in IBM’s advanced internet technology division, who developed it in his spare time.

Nelson says the project started as an after-hours hobby. It took him about five months to get the basics of the gaming framework written. But a game like this is no fun without others to play it with, so he approached alphaWorks site manager Marc Goubert to see if he could get Robocode added to the site for other developers to download and provide feedback.

Nelson says future developments will be driven by suggestions from the Robocode community, with which he corresponds regularly on the alphaWorks site. He admits to being amazed by the number of downloads.

“I expected only a couple of hundred downloads at most,” he says. He’s excited by the possibility of national and perhaps international competitions.

The big question is what IBM is doing backing a free game in the first place? Goubert says it fits in with alphaWorks, which is designed to help IBM to capitalise on R&D projects that otherwise might not have made any commercial return.

By making some of these projects visible to the developer community, the company can get an idea of which are worthwhile taking further and turning into commercial products. They can also tap into developer community expertise.

Commercialisation does not necessarily just boil down to dollars and cents, however; quite a number of the developments that have debuted on alphaWorks have been subsequently released into the open-source community. Examples include Xerces (an XML parser) and Xalan (a XSL stylesheet processor), both of which have been donated to the Apache project.

Evans is online business manager at Computerworld’s publisher IDG. He attended Developerworks Live! in San Francisco courtesy of IBM.

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