Nowadays I hear a lot about graphics engines, game engines, physics engines etc. but don't remember the term being used much, if at all, back in the 80s and the 8-bit era. I'm not including Charles Babbage's Difference Engine or Analytical Engine, since those were hardware machines. Where and when did this term originate?

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    I don't know the answer, but I suspect a marketing department had more to do with it than the technicians. How can we make it sound sexy? Hmm, maybe we can give it a steam-punk vibe.
    – RichF
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 12:43
  • “Inference engine” has been in use since at least 1986. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 13:28
  • Note the Analytical Engine was supposed to be programmed - Thus at least would have contained "software".
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 13:36
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    I guess if you have software engineers it makes sense that they could write software engines.
    – C.Wyatt
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 19:18
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    The first reference of engine regarding software that I'd ever heard was regarding ID Software's Castle Wolfenstein. I remember that the "graphics engine" was licensed to the makers of subsequent first-person three-dimensional games, like Quake, Doom, et. al. It would have been the very early 1990's. Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:50

5 Answers 5


While I don't know the first software to be referred to as an engine, it seemed useful to check Google's Ngram Viewer: Ngram: database engine, game engine, software engine

As can be seen, database engine slowly began being to be used around 1979, while game engine took another decade to begin catching on. Checking a few books using software engine, they were using the phrase generally, in titles like Best Practices in Software Measurement and Practical Biometrics: From Aspiration to Implementation.

Darn, I left out graphics engine. Regraphing, I see it began around 1982 and in in 2008 shows about three times the usage of software engine, but still well below game engine.

I checked links and found results for:

  • 1982: A 6809 based graphics engine used in Electrical Design News
  • 1983: The inference engine is an interpreter of the facts and the rules. used in The Journal of Forth Application and Research - Volume 1
  • 1987: Relational Database Engine used in Computer Architecture, Tutorial
  • 1995: Wolfenstein 3-D game engine used in Game Developer magazine

(Be careful if you want most recent results with the Ngram Viewer. By default, it cuts off at 2000, which in this case misses the recent drop-off in usage.)

Stephen Kitt pointed out that inference engine peaks higher than everything else, and he is right. So I'm adding a 2nd graph with both that term and graphics engine. The phrase software engine was so minor I took it out.

Ngram: database engine, inference engine, game engine, graphics engine

"Everybody" was using inference engine in 1990, but the drop off from that year is dramatic. It must not have been cool any more.

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    Interesting... It turns out “inference engine” dwarfs all these and starts earlier. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 17:22
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    @BrianH I'm just glad we have the data — imagine trying to figure this out nine years ago... Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 23:10
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    @StephenKitt You mean you're glad we have... a search engine? XD (I'm sorry)
    – krs013
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 8:49
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    @StephenKitt - I'd probably agree with that more readily for earlier topics. However I was a CS student in the 1980's, and a professional and gamer since then. I have an AI textbook here at my desk copyrighted in the 80's that discusses inference engines, and with some work could probably dig up the first reference to a Game Engine and Graphic Engine from the CGW's in my attic. Kind of annoying to see people using book archeology techniques to show stuff I remember happening. I'm not that old, damn it!
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 17:23
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    @T.E.D. I'm younger than you but I remember this stuff too, I just find it easier to find references this way than leafing through stacks of paper. Incidentally many issues of CGW are available online and can be searched too. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 18:18

The word "engine", applied to game development software platforms, came into common usage in the mid-1990's and is mostly applied to that category of software today. While there is history of using "engine" to describe database and AI platforms too, it is the "Game Engine" that is commonly recognized by the non-technical public as a special class of commercial software, utilized by commercial game developers.

As evidence of the recent trend in using the term "engine" more in connection to game engines, and less in reference to database engines, please see the Google search trends comparing the two below. This is the trend in very recent years and months. "Game engine" is the search term represented in blue, and "Database engine" is red.

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The key attribute for these game engines, or any software engine, is that they are data-driven. The game content itself is represented as data entities, not as native code. In more sophisticated systems, event actions are also created using some form of high-level, portable scripting capability. The game engine is the software that can execute this data and script. Thus, the game engine can be utilized for the creation of many different games. Depending on the flexibility of the game engine, even games of differing genres may be created; however, the game engines are commonly limited to one basic genre.

Since script execution is a common features of most game engines, there is an intersection with the concept of a Virtual Machine. For efficiency, game engine script is commonly "compiled" into some form of efficient byte-oriented code, or "byte code". Since the game engine runs this proprietary byte-code, the term virtual machine also makes sense when applied to these engines.

As the term "Game Engine" came into common use, it was also retroactively applied to older game platforms that met the basic requirements for the term. For example, SCUMM, first used in 1987 by LucasArts for Maniac Mansion, would commonly be called an early game engine today. Interestingly, the modern reverse-engineered SCUMM system is called "ScummVM", emphasizing the point of interchangeability of "VM" and "engine".

To my knowledge, the two earliest game engines, used for the production of many commercial retrocomputer games, were both developed in 1979. The "Z-Machine" was developed by Infocom and used in the creation of their many famous text-based adventure games throughout the 1980's. Also in 1979, Automated Simulations, which would later become Epyx, created a game engine for the Dunjonquest series of games. These games were originally released for the Commodore PET, and later ported to other retrocomputer platforms. The most famous games of this series was the Temple of Apshai trilogy.

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    I would agree the two "Engines" you mention in your last paragraph would maybe called Game Engines today. To my knowledge, however, neither Epyx nor Infocom were literally using that term.
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 15:49
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    I agree the term was not used until many years later, and I'm simply making the point that it is "proper" and accepted to apply the term retroactively, because its the technical attributes of the software that make it a game engine, rather than the lingo of the day. OP may feel differently, I know.
    – Brian H
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 16:11
  • FWIW, Wikipedia list Z-machine under Game Engines. Another early candidate would be Sierra's Adventure Game Interpreter from 1984.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 16:18

The first Game Engine that literally used the term Engine was, to my knowledge, the Doom Engine by id Software in 1993.

Database Engines, however, used this term much earlier. dBase and, especially Foxpro, later also Borland, used the term Database Engine in their advertisements basically all through the 80ies.

Actually, I was trying to find Software ads and marketing material before 1980 and failed - interestingly, nobody seemed to see the need for software ads before the 1980ies. All the computer-related ads I found preceeding 1980 were advertising hardware only...

  • Would not the Wolf3D engine have come before Doom?
    – Brian H
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 14:17
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    @BrianH it would have, but AFAICT people didn't talk about "games engines" before the mid-90s (as you mention in your answer), after Doom's release. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 15:00
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    If it's any help at all, I had a quick search for information around Freescape, which via the 3d Construction Kit was technically the first licensed game engine. The kit's video refers to it exclusively as "the Freescape system". Previews of earlier Freescape games like Driller and Castle Master talk about "the amazing new 3-D technique called Freescape" and "the Freescape system" but never use 'engine'. Although hardly conclusive, I think that's evidence towards the term not being in common use up to the early '90s.
    – Tommy
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 22:31
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    @Tommy - there were definitely licensed engines available earlier than that one. A couple I did some work using were 3D Game Maker, which did generate a handful of commercial releases (e.g. this one) and perhaps more memorably The Quill which was used in releases from several top tier publishers (e.g. Melbourne House, Firebird, Games Workshop).
    – Jules
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 15:10
  • Freescape may have been in many ways more impressive, but it certainly wasn't the first. And neither of the above systems (nor others I recall, e.g. HURG, which wasn't licensed commercially AFAICT, although its publisher did offer to publish any suitably high quality games made using it) used the term "engine", so I think you must be right: somebody would have thought to call at least one of them by the name if the word was in use, I'd think.
    – Jules
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 15:11

As an addendum to tofro's anwswer, many years ago I read somewhere about when id Software would license the Wolfenstein 3D Engine (which would predate the DOOM Engine) for $50,000, which may have put them in the position of being amongst the first game developers to license out game engines. I found the passage on the Internet but it's on a web page with pirated software so I'll just paste the relevant text here (emphasis mine)

Great enough that many companies started requesting licenses for the Wolf3D engine for their games. This happened enough times that it became an inside joke at id and "Let's do another $50k xcopy" was John Romero's response to any new requests.

Granted, the story is ambiguous enough that it's not clear if id Software thought of it as an "engine" yet or if they just thought it was awesome to be able to make $50k just for copying some code to a disk.

In the years since they've retronymed the DOOM engine to be "id Tech 1" (2 is Quake/Quake 2, 3 is Quake 3, 4 is DOOM 3, 5 is RAGE, 6 is DOOM 2016), but no such designation for Wolfenstein 3D. In addition, the hacking tools for Wolfenstein 3D were clunky and discouraged, whereas modding DOOM was absolutely fine with id.

So while they licensed out Wolf3D's engine they may not have called it an engine yet. Same way FPS games were called "DOOM Clones" before the other term stuck.

  • Unfortunately I cannot comment yet to you @Tom Kidd but there is a very interesting and to me also inspiring talk about a year ago on YT titled: "Joe Rogan Experience #1342 - John Carmack" where he talks a lot of that stuff that was going on back in the day.
    – motaa
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 15:51

The term was definitely used in conjunction with games in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, the 1980s.

For example this item on football game 'Player Manager' from 1989.

"Using the same basic game engine as Kick Off" ...

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