The Const Nazi

Anybody who worked with me or saw any of my code, would know right away why they call me the Const Nazi. That’s because in my coding style, I make use of the keyword const everywhere. But instead of going on about how const is so great, I’m going to let Hitler tell us how he really feels about it.



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Let me get one thing out of the way to stop all the trigger-happy, const-bashing, would-be-commenters: const doesn’t make any guarantees that values don’t change.

You can change a const variable by casting the constness away, or referencing it through a pointer, but you really had to go out of your way to do that. If it helped with that, const would solve (or improve) the memory aliasing problem like Hitler pointed out. It doesn’t, so const is pretty weak as far as promises go. It just says “I, the programmer, promise not to change this value on purpose (unless I’m truly desperate)”. Still, even a promise like that goes a long way helping with readability and maintenance.

With that out of the way, what exactly do I mean by using const everywhere?

Const non-value function parameters

Any reference or pointer function parameters that are pointing to data that will not be modified by the function should be declared as const. If you’re going to use const just for one thing, this is the one to use. It’s invaluable glancing at a function signature and seeing which parameters are inputs and which ones are outputs.

void Detach(PhysicsObject& physObj, int attachmentIndex, const HandleManager& mgr);

Marking those parameters as const also serves as a warning sign in case a programmer in the future tries to modify one of them. Imagine the disaster if the calling code assumes data never changes, but the function suddenly starts modifying that data! const won’t prevent that from happening, but will remind the programmer that he’s changing the “contract” and needs to revisit all calling code and check assumptions.

Const local variables

This is a very important use of const and one of the ones hardly anyone follows. If I declare a local (stack) variable and its value never changes after initialization, I always declare it const. That way, whenever I see that variable used later in the code, I know that its value hasn’t changed.

const Vec2 newPos = AttachmentUtils::ApplySnap(physObj, unsnappedPos);
const Vec2 deltaPos = newPos - physObj.center;
physObj.center = newPos;

This is one of the reasons why I did a 180 on the ternary C operator (?). I used to hate it and find it cryptic and unreadable, but now I find it compact and elegant and it fulfills my const fetish very well.

Imagine you have a function that is going to work in one of two objects and you need to compute the index to the object to work on. You could do it this way:

int index;
if (some condition)
	index = 0;
else
	index = 2;

DoSomethingWithIndex();

Not only does that take several lines not to do much, but index isn’t const (argh!). So every time I see index anywhere later on in that function, I’m going to have to spend the extra mental power to make sure nothing has changed (and, with my current coding style, I would assume it has changed).

Instead, we can simply do this:

const int index = (some condition) ? 0 : 2;
DoSomethingWithIndex();

Ahhhh… So much better!

Const member variables

This one doesn’t really apply to me anymore because I don’t use classes and member variables. But if you do, I strongly encourage you do mark every possible member function as const whenever you can.

The only downside is that sometimes you’ll have some internal bit of data that is really not changing the “logical” state of an object, but it’s still modifying a variable (usually some caching or logging data). In that case, you’ll have to resort to the mutable keyword.

Const value function parameters

const_nazi.jpgApparently I’m not a total Const Nazi because this is one possible use of const that I choose to skip (even though I tried it for a while because of Charles).

Marking a value function parameter as const doesn’t make any difference from the calling code point of view, but it serves the same purpose as marking local stack variables as const in the implementation of the function. You’re just saying “I’m not going to modify that parameter in this function” so it makes the code easier to understand.

I’m actually all for this, but the only reason I’m not doing it is because C/C++ makes it a pain. Marking parameters as const in the function declaration adds extra verbosity and doesn’t help the person browsing the functions at all. You could actually put the const only in the function definition and it will work, but at that point the declaration and the definition are different, so you can’t copy and paste them or use other automated tools or scripts.


The concept of const is one of the things I miss the most when programming other languages like C#. I don’t understand why they didn’t add it to the language. On something like Python or Perl I can understand because they’re supposed to be so free form, but C#? (Edit: How about that? Apparently C# has const. It was either added in the last few years or I completely missed it before). It also really bugs me that Objective C or the Apple API doesn’t make any use of const.

Frankly, if it were up to me, I would change the C/C++ language to make every variable const by default and adding the nonconst or changeable (or take over mutable) keyword for the ones you want to modify. It would make life much more pleasant.

But then again, that’s why the call me the Const Nazi.


This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web site, RSS feed, or Twitter.

When Is It OK Not To TDD?

The basic principles of Test-Driven Development (TDD) are very simple and easy to understand. Every programmer quickly grasps those and is able to apply them to simple cases and low level libraries (math libraries seem to be everybody’s favorite TDD proving ground [1]).

What becomes significantly more difficult is learning to effectively apply TDD to code with more dependencies. A question that I’m often asked from people trying to use TDD for the first time is “How can you possibly use TDD for high-level game code? It’s impossible!”.

When The Going Gets Tough

At that point, the temptation to give up on using TDD for high-level code becomes very strong. It seems that all the time spent writing mocks and hooking objects together is a waste of time and that you could be writing game code much faster without it. “Maybe it would be best to skip TDD, just for that part”.

Bad idea!

tdd_cycle.jpgBy giving up on TDD for high-level code, you’ll be missing out on the main benefit of TDD: designing better code. I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: TDD is not a testing technique. It’s a design technique. You get lots of benefits from applying TDD [2], but one of the main one is much more modular and dependency-free code.

That’s because TDD turns our weaknesses into advantages. We’re humans and we’re lazy. We don’t want to repeat ourselves constantly or write complex code. If we’re writing a test for some code we’ll write in the future, we’re going to create a very simple test. We’re probably going to want to put some object or data on the stack and make a function call and nothing else. We certainly don’t want to initialize the graphics system, create a new world, add some level data, start the physics simulation, and then call the function! So by being lazy, we end up writing very simple code with the least amount of dependencies.

What does that mean for our high-level code? The AI logic seems to need access to every single game system, at least the way we implemented it in the past. Using TDD to implement AI logic doesn’t mean writing tests to write the same code you would have written before. It means writing tests and then writing some code that makes those tests pass and nothing else. For example, we might realize that the AI doesn’t need to access the physics system, cast a ray in the world, find out what entities is interesting, and return that information. Instead, all it might need to do is output some data saying that it wants a ray query done at a later time (which in turn is the key to batching those ray casts and achieving high performance).

You soon realize that the code you write is very different (and better!) to what you would have written before. Once you get over that hump, TDDing high-level code is not about twisting your code with mocks, but becomes simpler code that takes simple input data and creates simple output data. By pushing through and forcing yourself to apply TDD, you made a breakthrough and reaped all the benefits.

That’s the main reason why TDD books push the idea that no code can be written without a test first. Otherwise, inexperienced TDD programmers would be too quick to quit and would miss out on the technique completely.

Not only that, but code that is not created with TDD tends to have the bad habit of spreading. When code was not designed through TDD, it means that other code that uses it will probably be difficult to TDD itself. So it’s a bit like const-correctness: You’re either in our out, and there’s very little room for half measures.

On the other hand, I would argue that using TDD on a math library is a bad idea. It’s essential to write good unit tests for a math library, but probably not to design it through TDD. Are you really going to implement a cross product differently just because you wrote tests before? The emphasis there has to be on correctness and performance, not on creating the interface or implementation through tests.

It’s A Tool To Help Development

A few days ago, I received an email from Caleb Gingles with a great question:

I’ve started a new game project and have been making an effort to strictly follow TDD from the beginning. Which has been a challenge, as much of the coding at the beginning of the project has consisted of operating system requirements and framework stuff. [...] However, there are other situations that seem much harder to test. Like the main loop in a game. According to Kent Beck’s book, everything begins with testing, and no code is written unless a test requires it. But how can a test require the main loop framework in a game? The loop just… is. It exists to allow you to do certain other things, it doesn’t have much purpose in and of itself.

Applying what I just talked about, we could use TDD to create the main loop of a game. It definitely requires thinking about it differently and breaking preconceptions. It’s about writing code to pass the tests, not writing tests to fit the code we want to write.

So we could do something like this:

TEST(MainLoopExecutesCorrectNumberOfTimes)
{
    MainLoopState loopState;
    MainLoopUtils::Execute(loopState, 4);
    CHECK_EQUAL(4, loopState.frameCount);
}

All of a sudden we see a way to test something that before it seemed impossible to test. We can add tests to make sure certain functions are getting called (maybe we add those function pointers to the loopState), that the main loop exits under certain conditions, etc.

For some games with complex GUIs and different game modes, it might make a lot of sense to have a more flexible main loop and develop it completely through TDD. On the other hand, for a simple iPhone game that has a single main loop that never changes, there might be no point at all in using TDD. The loop code is going to end up looking more or less the same as it would without TDD, just more complex and generic. TDD didn’t help any in that case.

How about code that calls into OpenGL, or some other non-TDD-friendly library? Do we have to TDD that? Frankly, I wouldn’t bother. I did give it a good try at one point several years ago and I can say it is possible, but it’s a pain and you gain almost nothing from it. The main benefits is trusting that the library you’re using really does what it’s supposed to do, but it won’t affect much the design of your code. So what you’re really doing is adding tests to that library (which might or might not be of value).

My advice in a situation like that: Call the library from as few places as possible (I didn’t want to say make a thin wrapper because that implies isolation which is not the goal here), and just test that your code is called at the right time with the right data. The actual code that calls the library should be small and simple enough that you should feel OK not having any tests for it.


Even though it seems to go against what I said in the previous section, TDD is not all or nothing. It’s not a religion.

When you’re starting out, I encourage you to push yourself to think how you could apply TDD to situations you don’t think are possible. Once you’re experienced enough, you’ll know when to say enough is enough, and use TDD only when it actually benefits you. At that point you’ll also know how to write code in a way that plays well with TDD, even if the code itself was not developed through TDD.

In the end, TDD is a tool to help you develop better and faster. Don’t ever let it get in the way of that.


[1] That’s actually a horrible place to apply TDD. More on that in a second.

[2] Usable API, simple code, unit tests, documentation, safety net for refactoring among others.

The Always-Evolving Coding Style

This is my first entry into #iDevBlogADay. It all started very innocently with a suggestion from Miguel, but the ball got rolling pretty quickly. The idea is to have one independent iPhone game developer write a blog entry each day of the week. At first we thought we would be hard-pressed to get 7 developers, but it’s starting to seem we might have multiples per day!

Check out the new sidebar with all the #iDevBlogADay blogs. We’re also putting together a common RSS feed if you want to subscribe to that instead.

Writing is addictive, so don’t be surprised if this once-a-week minimum turns into multiple-times-a-week.

 

matrix.jpgEvery developer who’s been working on a team for a while is able to tell the author of a piece of code just by looking at it. Sometimes it’s even fun to do a forensic investigation and figure out not just the original author, but who else modified the source code afterwards.

What I find interesting is that I can do the same thing with my own code… as it changes over time. Every new language I learn, every book I read, every bit of code I see, every open-source project I browse, every pair-programming session, every conversation with a fellow developer leaves a mark behind. It slightly changes how I think of things, and realigns my values and priorities as a programmer. And those new values translate into different ways to write code, different architectures, and different coding styles.

It never happens overnight. I can’t recall a single case where I changed my values in a short period of time, causing dramatic changes to my coding style. Instead, it’s the accumulation of lots of little changes here and there that slowly shifts things around. It’s like the movement of the Earth’s magnetic pole: very slow, but changes radically over time (although maybe just a tad bit faster).

Why Talk About Coding Styles

Coding style in itself is purely a personal thing, and therefore, very uninteresting to talk about. However, in its current form, my coding style goes against the grain of most general modern “good practices”. A few weeks ago I released some sample source code and it caused a bit of a stir because it was so unconventional. That’s when I realized it might be worth talking about it after all (along with George bugging me about it), and especially the reasons why it is the way it is.

Before I even start, I want to stress that I’m not advocating this approach for everybody, and I’m certainly not saying it’s the perfect way to go. I know that in a couple of years from now, I’ll look back at the code I’m writing today and it will feel quaint and obsolete, just like the code I wrote during Power of Two Games looks today. All I’m saying is that this is the style that fits me best today.

Motivation

This is my current situation which shapes my thinking and coding style:

  • All my code is written in C and C++ (except for a bit of ObjC and assembly).
  • It’s all for real-time games on iPhone, PCs, or modern consoles, so performance and resource management are very important.
  • I always try to write important code through Test-Driven Development.
  • I’m the only programmer (and only designer).
  • Build times in my codebase are very fast.

And above all, I love simplicity. I try to achieve simplicity by considering every bit of code and thinking whether it’s absolutely necessary. I get rid of anything that’s not essential, or that’s not benefitting the project by at least two or three times as much as it’s complicating it.

How I Write Today

So, what does my code look like these days? Something like this (this is taken from a prototype I wrote with Miguel of Mystery Coconut fame):

namespace DiverMode
{
    enum Enum
    {
        Normal,
        Shocked,
        Inmune,
    };
}

struct DiverState
{
    DiverState()
        : mode(DiverMode::Normal)
        , pos(0,0)
        , dir(0)
        , o2(1)
        , boostTime(0)
        , timeLeftInShock(0)
        , timeLeftImmune(0)
    {}

    DiverMode::Enum mode;
    Vec2 pos;
    float dir;
    float o2;

    float boostTime;
    float timeLeftInShock;
    float timeLeftImmune;
};

namespace DiverUtils
{
    void Update(float dt, const Vec2& tiltInput, GameState& state);
    void Shock(DiverState& diver);
    void StartSprint(DiverState& diver);
    void StopSprint(DiverState& diver);
}

The first thing that stands out is that I’m using a struct and putting related functions in a namespace. It may seem that’s just a convoluted way of writing a class with member functions, but there’s more to it than that.

By keeping the data in a struct instead of a class, I’m gaining several advantages:

  • I’m showing all the data there is and how big it is. Nothing is hidden.
  • I’m making it clear that it’s free of pointers and temporary variables.
  • I’m allowing this data to be placed anywhere in memory.

The fact that the functions are part of a namespace is not really defensible; it’s pure personal preference. It would have been no different than if I had prefixed them with DriverUtils_ or anything else, I just think it looks clearner. I do prefer the functions to be separate and not member functions though. It makes it easier to organize functions that work on multiple bits of data at once. Otherwise you’re stuck deciding whether to make them members of one structure or another. It also makes it easier to break up data structures into separate structures later on and minimize the amount of changes to the code.

Probably one of the biggest influences on me starting down this path was the famous article by Scott Meyers How Non Member Functions Improve Encapsulation. I remember being shocked the first time I read it (after having read religiously Effective C++ and More Effective C++). That reasoning combined with all the other changes over the years, eventually led to my current approach.

Since everything is in a structure and everything is public, there’s very little built-in defenses against misuse and screw-ups. That’s fine because that’s not a priority for me. Right now I’m the only programmer, and if I work with someone else, I expect them to have a similar level of experience than me. Some codebases written with a defensive programming approach have an amazing amount of code (and therefore complexity) dedicated to babysitting programmers. No thanks. I do make extensive use of asserts and unit tests to allow me to quickly make large refactorings though.

Another thing to note that might not be immediately obvious from the example above is that all functions are very simple and shallow. They take a set of input parameters, and maybe an output parameter or just a return value. They simply transform the input data into the output data, without making extensive calls to other functions in turn. That’s one of the basic approaches of data-oriented design.

Because everything is laid out in memory in a very simple and clear way, it means that serialization is a piece of cake. I can fwrite and fread data and have instant, free serialization (you only need to do some extra work if you change formats and try to support older ones). Not only that, but it’s great for saving the game state in memory and restoring it later (which I’m using heavily in my current project). All it takes is this line of code:

oldGameState = currentGameState

This style is a dream come true for Test-Driven Development (TDD). No more worrying about mocks, and test injections, or anything like that. Give the function some input data, and see what the output is. Done! That simple.

One final aspect of this code that might be surprising to some is how concrete it is. This is not some generic game entity that hold some generic components, with connections defined in XML and bound together through templates. It’s a dumb, POD Diver structure. Diver as in the guy going swimming underwater. This prototype had fish as well, and there was a Fish structure, and a large array of sequential, homogeneous Fish data. The main loop wasn’t generic at all either: It was a sequence of UpdateDivers(), UpdateFish(), etc. Rendering was done in the same, explicit way, making it extra simple to minimize render calls and state changes. When you work with a system like this, you never, ever want to go back to a generic one where you have very little idea about the order in which things get updated or rendered.

Beyond The Sample

To be fair, this sample code is very, very simple. The update function for a reasonable game element is probably larger than a few lines of code and will need to do a significant amount of work (check path nodes, cast rays, respond to collisions, etc). In that case, if it makes sense, the data contained in the structure can be split up. Or maybe the first update function generates some different output data that gets fed into later functions. For example, we can update all the different game entities, and as an output, get a list of ray cast operations they want to perform, do them all in a later step, and then feed the results back to the entities either later this frame or next frame if we don’t mind the added latency.

There’s also the question of code reuse. It’s very easy to reuse some low level functions, but what happens when you want to apply the same operation to a Diver and to a Fish? Since they’re not using inheritance, you can’t use polymorphism. I’ll cover that in a later blog post, but the quick preview is that you extract any common data that both structs have and work on that data in a homogeneous way.

 

What do you think of this approach? In which ways do you think it falls short, and in which ways do you like it better than your current style?

A Day in the Life

High Moon Studios is an unusual company in the games industry. We’re applying agile methodologies for all of our development. My team in particular is using both Scrum (an agile management methodology) and Extreme Programming (an agile engineering methodology). And yes, that means we’re doing pair programming, test-driven development, and all the other often controversial practices. I expect that in a few years, these practices will be a lot more common than they are today. Continue reading

Agile Game Development: Dealing with Chaos in the Real World

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. In game development, detailed milestones, complex schedules, and careful planning often go out the window as soon as the project starts. Agile development provides a set of techniques to steer the project in the right direction and embrace change. Is your game not shaping up to be as fun as you thought? Has a game come out with features that you must match to remain competitive? Has your code degenerated into an unmanageable mess?

Continue reading