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Programmed in C and x86 assembly language primarily by id Software's John Carmack, the Wolfenstein 3D engine is an early example of a first-person game engine. While it is surpassed in complexity by the engine used in Origin System's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which was released two months prior to Wolfenstein 3D, it was designed to be a much faster renderer, and in that respect it was quite successful. Unlike the Ultima Underworld engine, which was notoriously taxing even on high-end systems of the time, id's engine performed respectably on a fairly broad range of hardware. This performance boost came at the expense of the engine's feature set, however, as many capabilities displayed in the earlier UUW engine (sloped floors, changes in floor and ceiling height, floor and ceiling textures, variable lighting) were simply not possible to recreate in the Wolfenstein 3D engine. Rather than working against it, though, these limitations were more than likely crucial to the engine's success, as Wolfenstein 3D, with its fast action and reliable performance on a wide range of systems, is usually cited as the beginnings of the modern-day FPS genre.
Like id's latter day game engines, the Wolfenstein 3D engine saw significant use outside its namesake franchise. Though subsequent id engines were typically named after the game in which they first appeared (i.e., Doom engine, Quake engine), the technology that powered Wolfenstein 3D had actually been tested on previous id games, namely Hovertank 3D and the Catacomb series, and would go on to be used in several games after its release, including the Wolfenstein sequel, Spear of Destiny. In all, the engine experienced a roughly four year lifespan, with the last game produced with its technology, Rise of the Triad, being properly released in 1995. With the release of Doom and its superior engine in 1993, however, many of the later products produced with the Wolfenstein 3D engine were simply overshadowed by Doom's success.