Games, Resources, And XCode

Up until a few weeks ago, I never had any problems with iPhone game resources. I just added whatever I needed to the XCode project, and it was ready to load from within the game. That simple.

But that was because of the kind of games I was making, which were very light on content, with mostly procedurally generated assets (the consequence of working by myself and being much better at programming than at Photoshop).

That game that Miguel and I are working on right now is a lot heavier on assets. It has locations, and levels, and the whole shebang. And that’s where XCode starts falling short.

Explicit Resources

copy_bundle_resources.pngBefore, I was adding all my game assets to the Resources folder in XCode. That adds the file to the “Copy Bundle Resources” step. And as you expect, when you do a build, it checks the date of the existing file, and only copies it if the source file is newer than the destination file.

Personally, I really like this approach. I like to be explicit about what gets included in a game, and I don’t mind at all having to add files manually to the project.

Unfortunately, it has one major flaw: It collapses all assets at the root of the application directory, ignoring the directory structure where they came from. I have no idea what the rational is for this “feature”, but someone needs to be taken out to the public town plaza and whipped for that. Actually, make that a double-whipping session if the reason was “convenience”.

The reason this becomes a big deal now is that we have per-level resources. To keep things sane, we decided to use a directory hierarchy, so Levels/Level00 contains all the files necessary for that level. Same thing with Level01, etc. The problem comes that both those levels have similarly named files: Background.jpg Layout.bin, etc.

Any guesses what happens if you add to XCode two files with the same filename in different paths? Yup. One of them overrides the other. Not a single warning either. Let’s make that a triple-serving of whipping, please.

I briefly considered prefixing all the files with the level name (Level00_Background.jpg), but if later I decide to move Level00 to Level05 that’s a lot of files to rename, so I would end up having to write scripts, or create a separate file with the level ordering, or just generally waste my time doing something that should have been taken care of by the tool.

Folder References

Even though I had read they had their share of problems, I decided to look a folder references (at Miguel’s prompting mostly).

When you add some resources to XCode, you have an option to check “Create Folder References for any added folders”. That option automatically adds any files in those folders without having to explicitly add them to XCode. So you could add the Levels folder, and then any files you create there will be copied with the game.


I’m not a big fan of assets copied automatically, but as a side effect, that step preserves the directory hierarchy each of those files was in. So any files copied this way can be accessed from within the game by using their full directory structure.

I have to ask again: Why are directory structures preserved here but not with explicit resources added to the project? The mind boggles.

But hey, at least it works, right? Not exactly. There are a couple of gotchas.

The big one I had read in multiple places, is that XCode doesn’t detect any changes to files inside the referenced folder. So you can be making all sorts of changes, building the game, and not seeing anything different. The recommended solution was to add an extra step to the build process that would start by touching the reference folder, forcing a full copy of all assets.

I tested that, I’m glad to report that at least in XCode 3.2.4, that’s not the case. If you modify any file inside a referenced folder, the file will get copied over correctly during the build process without the need of extra steps.

The bad news is that all the files in the referenced folder will be copied. Why oh why??? They clearly know which file changed, why do they feel the need to copy all of the other files? No idea. This is not a big deal early on, but as you start to accumulate dozens and hundreds of megabytes of assets, build times start increasing quite a bit, especially on the device itself.

This is what the copy command looks like for referenced folders:

CpResource build/Debug-iphonesimulator/ Levels
cd /Users/noel/Development/Test/trunk/Test
setenv PATH "/Developer/Platforms/iPhoneSimulator.platform/Developer/usr/bin:/Developer/usr/bin:/usr/bin:/bin:/usr/sbin:/sbin"
/Developer/Library/PrivateFrameworks/DevToolsCore.framework/Resources/pbxcp -exclude .DS_Store -exclude CVS -exclude .svn -Testve-src-symlinks /Users/noel/Development/Test/trunk/Test/Levels /Users/noel/Development/Test/trunk/Test/build/Debug-iphonesimulator/

It’s nice touch that it automatically excludes .svn directories though. I was wondering why they use CpResource instead of plain, old cp, but I guess that’s to be able to -exclude specific files. Fair enough.

However, what CpResource apparently doesn’t do is to process any of the resources in ways that were processed before by XCode. For example, a png file would have been processed by premultiplying it and byte swapping it so loading it in the iPhone would be slightly more efficient. CpResource just does a regular copy and leaves it alone. So if you were relying on that behavior, you need to do it explicitly yourself in your asset baking step.

What I Really Want

For now, I’m using folder references for the levels, and explicit references for everything else. That way I keep the data size to a minimum but I get to have the directory hierarchy. Not ideal, but at least it works.

This is what I would really like thought:

  1. Easiest: Explicit assets with paths. I really want to just add resources to XCode and have it preserve the directory structure. It’s not that hard. If XCode were open source, I would have made that change a long time ago. Can we at least have this as an option?
  2. Second easiest: Folder references that only copy the changed resources. That would also be OK in my book, and I can’t believe it would be much harder to implement either.
  3. Best: A remote file system hosted on the Mac during debug build. All file references go out to the host machine and get loaded on the fly. This would allow for fastest build times and loading times would not be that different from a fragmented drive on an old device probably. I know some of you already have something like this. Has anybody made one open source (preferably minimalistic and standalone)? I’d love to check it out.

Of course, all of this has probably changed already with XCode 4, but I’m deathly afraid of installing it while working on a production game. Has anybody tried it yet? Have they fixed anything, or is it even more broken?

To wrap things up, and since Miguel is spilling the beans on Twitter, I’ll share a few assets from our current game. Now back to the game because we’re submitting it to the Independent Games Festival on Monday. Next Thursday I’ll talk about the IGF. Wish us luck!


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.

Reconsidering Version Control

Ever since I turned indie, version control just hasn’t been much of an issue. Gone are the days of hundreds of multi-GB files that changed multiple times per day. With small teams of one or two plus a few collaborators, Subversion hosted remotely worked fine. Of course, all the cool kids these days are going on about how their distributed version control systems solve world hunger, but I’ve been mostly ignoring it because I have better things to do with my time (like writing games [1]).

Yesterday things changed a bit. As a result of last week’s “growing” post, Manuel Freire is going to join me to help with Flower Garden development. That makes two of us banging on the same codebase, and from two different time zones, so we don’t get the benefit of being in the same closet as it was the case with Power of Two Games. Since I was in my get-things-done mindset, I figured I would just set up a new svn repository for the project, move over the Flower Garden data, give us both access to it, and move on.

But no, it couldn’t be that easy. Can you guess what the first words out of his mouth were when I asked him about version control? “Oh, I love Git!”

That was the last straw. I had to do a mini-research session on version control systems, so I spent a couple of hours looking into it. If we were going to move over to something, now would be the time to do it.

Git and Mercurial

Git and Mercurial both look great. I was debating which one to go with until I realized that they’re both two flavors of the same thing, so it comes down more to personal preferences and tastes. This is best description I found on the differences between Git and Mercurial. When it comes to computers, I’m totally a MacGyver guy (actually, that might be true when it comes to anything now that I think about it), so that made my decision easier.

The big feature everybody keeps talking about for distributed version systems is effortless branching. That’s great, but I really have no intention of branching much. I haven’t created a single branch in the last four years, and I don’t expect to start doing that now. Next.

The other big feature is working disconnected from the network. That’s something I could use, but considering I’m only offline a handful of times a year, it really isn’t enough of an incentive to switch to a whole new system.

Git sounds like a great tool for large, distributed, open-source projects with hundreds of contributors, but frankly, I couldn’t find anything else that was worth mentioning for a small project and a handful of people. I feel like someone is trying to sell me a Porsche when my beat-up Hyundai is still perfectly functional for driving to the grocery store once a week. Am I missing something obvious?


Hosting the actual repository was part of the consideration. This is for a private project, so all open-source sites are out. Ideally I wanted to host it just like I do with Subversion in Dreamhost, but the instruction page on how to install Git and Mercurial are enough to put most people off. Clearly, there’s a steep learning curve there.

server-rack.jpgSo I asked on Twitter for recommendations. I’ve learned that Git and Mercurial users are definitely very vocal and are always willing to help someone join their ranks. Within minutes I had all the suggestions listed below:

Prices varied a lot. From the $25/month/user of Kiln, to the $6/month of RepositoryHosting (gets you unlimited users and 2GB of storage). The Snappy Touch repository is already over 2GB, so it would end up being a bit more expensive than that, but not too bad.

Of those, Github was definitely the most recommended. I was starting to feel Git might not be the one for me, so I looked a bit more into RepositoryHosting because they had Subversion support. It turns out they also provide Trac, which is a great tool, although I already have that set up myself.

Wish List

Binary files

The one thing I really want in a version control system is good large binary file handling. I check in everything under version control, source code, assets, raw assets, and even built executables for each version. I want to be able to throw multiple GB psd files in the repository and have it work correctly (meaning fast, and using the least amount of space possible).

Perforce did an OK job with that. Git and Mercurial apparently are both horrible at it. So is Subversion, but at least it’s a tool I already know and I don’t have to spend time learning the ins and outs of how to optimize the Git database or how to make backups, or cull unused trees.


I love my command-line tools. I live in Terminal for a good part of the day, and having a real shell is one of the things that makes my life so much more pleasant under Mac OS than under Windows. But there are some things for which a GUI tool is a really useful addition, and version control is one of them.

On the Mac, I’ve been using Versions as a client for Subversion and it does everything I want. It’s fast, handles multiple repositories, lets me browse history, diff changes, etc. From my brief search and other people’s comments, there’s nothing quite like that for Git or Mercurial yet. That’s a pretty big, gaping hole.

Low-level access

Looking at all those hosting providers, I realized how much I want to have low-level access to the database. I want to be able to back it up myself, and run svnadmin when I want to. A lot of those hosting sites looked really pretty, but you were very limited in what you could do.

Coming To A Decision

If this were a thriller, you’d be disappointed. I’m afraid there are no plot twists and you can already guess the conclusion.

In the end, since neither Git nor Hg are built to address my biggest need (large binary files), I’ll stick with svn. It might be old, it might not be cool, but it serves my needs, I already know how to use it, I have the tools, I can admin it and fix a problem. I can concentrate on what matters instead: Writing games.

I decided to continue hosting it myself on Dreamhost. I can easily have one repository for every major project. However, by default, Dreamhost creates svn repositories using htaccess security and HTTP protocol. That’s OK, except that none of the actual data is encrypted as it would be if I were using ssh. I could use HTTPS, but then I would have to set up a certificate and pay for a fixed IP address, so instead I found an alternate way to have a secure connection.

All Subversion repositories live in a user account (svnuser). I create a new user group for every repository, and change all the files in the repository to belong to that group. Make sure you also set the SGID bit so any files created in that directory still belong to the group. Then I can create a new shell user for every collaborator, and add him to the groups of the repositories I’d like him to have access to. At that point, he’ll be able to access the repository as svh+ssh:// All safe and secure.

Bonus SVN-Fu

Here’s something that I learned yesterday while I was moving repositories around. It’s probably common knowledge for seasoned SVN admins, but it was new to me.

I had a repository that included a bunch of my projects. What I wanted was to create a new repository that still had all the history, but only for the FlowerGarden part of the tree. I knew about svnadmin dump for transferring whole repositories, but I didn’t know there was a very simple way to only transfer part of it.

First you need to dump it as usual:

svnadmin dump repository > repos-dumpfile

Now, it turns out you can process the dump file before adding it back to another repository. So we can do:

svndumpfilter include FlowerGarden --drop-empty-revs --renumber-revs < repos-dumpfile > fg-dumpfile

Finally, you can add the resulting dump file into a fresh repository and have all the history for that project and only that project:

svnadmin create flowergarden
svnadmin load --ignore-uuid flowergarden < fg-dumpfile

Amazingly, for a repository that was over 2GB, that only took a few minutes. Go Subversion!

[1] Or reading. Or going for a walk. Heck, even sleeping would be a better use of my time than futzing around with a new tool.[2]

[2] And yes, I realize I sound like a grumpy old man. Getting there apparently. Now get off my lawn.

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.

Indie Project Management For One: Tools

I’ve been making computer games in some form or another for just over 25 years now. At the very beginning, as a hobby (passion) and completely by myself (although not for lack of trying to get some of my friends involved). In the late 90s, when I finally left academia and started making games professionally, teams were still relatively small, with a total of around 10-15 people per team. As we all know, budgets and scopes kept growing, and so did team sizes. At its peak, the largest team I worked at had around 200 people. That’s when I decided to go indie and started Power of Two Games, which was obviously just two of us. Finally, now as Snappy Touch, I’ve gone full circle: It’s just me again.

gears.jpgDevelopment tools and hardware have changed quite a bit from the times I was writing in straight Z80 assembly and saving the programs to a tape. But I’ve also changed and learned a lot during all those years developing games, and even though I’m writing games by myself again, I’m doing things very differently from how I did them back at the start.

One thing that I’ve always done is to question everything. Why should I do things a certain way? Why is that the “accepted” way of doing something? And not surprisingly, at each step of the way, I’ve changed my development style to match my situation (often in ways that went against the “common wisdom”).

When it comes to solo development, I rely heavily on the concept of goals and iterations at multiple levels:

  • Immediate (< 1 minute): Prioritizing the ideas going through my mind. Writing tests. Writing code.
  • Short Range (< few hours): Tasks that move the project forward in some way.
  • Mid Range (< 2 weeks): “Stories” that define a self-contained, significant part of the project.
  • Long Range (full project, several months): Ship date, beta testing, etc.

It turns out, I use a different set of tools to help me manage the items at each level of the development cycle.


These are the actions I take and complete in less than a minute or two. Most of them are writing tests (with UnitTest++, of course), writing code to make those tests pass, refactor code, and check it into Subversion. I have my Subversion repository hosted on Dreamhost and I access it through SSH so it’s secure, accessible from anywhere with an internet connection (or 3G signal and HandyLight), offsite, and easy to backup. And because Subversion works great offline (unlike Perforce), it’s not a problem to work without connection to the repository for a while.

I also need to manage my minute-to-minute thoughts, write down ideas and reprioritize them when the time comes. When I’m “in the zone”, I get way more ideas than I can execute with my fingers: This function needs to be moved to a different file, I really should be compacting that data over there, who was stupid enough to name this file this way?, that variable shouldn’t be cached, etc. If I don’t write things down, I will either forget them, or I’ll stress for hours until I finally get around to doing them. I could also do things as I think about them, but then I would be chasing a rabbit down a neverending hole and wouldn’t get any work done (I’m sure anybody who’s gotten lost browsing web pages can identify with that).

I used to do this the old-fashioned way, simply with paper and pencil (like Bob described in his blog post). However, I found that physical paper and pencil was just too limiting: I can type a lot faster than I can write, switching to writing requires moving away from the keyboard, and, most importantly, I need to bring the notes with me everywhere and it’s very difficult to rearrange, sort, or coalesce them in any way.

So instead, my tool of choice these days is JustNotes. It’s perfect for jotting down thoughts in a matter of seconds without even interrupting my train of thought. I have JustNotes bound to a global key, so in the middle of typing a line of code, I can press that key, enter whatever I’m thinking about, press the key again, and finish the line of code. All in 4-5 seconds. Don’t laugh: The fact that I can do that in just a few seconds without moving my hands away from the keyboard means I can use it any time without much penalty. It’s amazing how many things I jot down that I wouldn’t do otherwise.

Short Range

To manage tasks up to a few hours in length, I use Trac. Trac is a fantastic issue-tracking tool: It’s free, it’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s configurable. In the past I’ve used anything from spreadsheets, to Bugzilla, to publisher-owned bug databases, and nothing comes close to Trac for my needs. It also scales very well to teams of more than one person (although it might not be good enough for hundreds of people).

Just like Subversion, I have Trac hosted externally, through my web hosting company. Sometimes it’s frustrating if I need to access it and the server is down, but again, the convenience of having it off site makes it well-worth it.

Any task that requires more than 10-15 minutes goes in Trac, and then I can easily prioritize tasks depending on their importance. Usually, if an item has been on my instant queue in JustNotes for about a day and I haven’t gotten around to it, it either gets deleted or it gets moved into a full item in Trac. The only way progress happens is by ticking off Trac tasks. In the end, my projects live and die by Trac.

Medium Range

User stories (to borrow terminology from Scrum/XP) are visible, relatively self-contained features of the final project. They’re made up of several tasks, and usually take a few days to a few weeks to implement. A group of user stories make up a full iteration (sprint) of the game, which is usually between one and two weeks long. Sometimes user stories are complex enough (add a replay feature visible on the web site) that the full iteration is just the one user story.

I keep track of these stories in Trac as well. Trac is both an issue-tracking system and a wiki, so the wiki part is perfect to keep these user stories. In addition to that, I label tasks as belonging o a particular iteration. That allows me to separate what needs to be done for this iteration, from other tasks that I added for the future. At the start of each iteration, I decide on the user stories and either generate new tasks or label existing tasks as due for this iteration.

The wiki in Trac is extremely valuable for all sorts of other things: game design ideas, general brainstorming, gathering reference material, etc.

Trac ends up being the perfect mid-range vision of my project.

Long Range

User stories and tasks in Trac aren’t enough to cover a project that is potentially 3-4 months long. I need something that helps me with the longer view, otherwise I find that things creep up on me without realizing it because I’m so focused on the short and mid-range items.

The best tool I’ve found so far is very low-tech: A printable month-per-page calendar covering the full length of the project. Right now I’m shooting for a November release of my current project, so I printed August, September, October, and November and pinned them to the corkboard on my office. It’s amazing the sense of urgency that seeing your ship date gives you. You realize that you only have a handful of weeks before shipping and makes it much easier to prioritize tasks (and chop off features or save them for an update).

I realize this long-term, calendar view isn’t very useful if you don’t have a set release date and you want to continue chipping at your game until it’s ready. But even if your release date is flexible, having this long-term view can help you keep budgets in perspective and manage them accordingly.

Finally, for an extra bit of motivation (or maybe this falls in the category of excessive pressure), I just started using a countdown widget for the Mac OS Dashboard. Just in case the calendar view wasn’t enough, here’s a countdown (down to the second) of the time left until release.


Speaking of which, I think it’s time I get back to work. Only 102 days left!

Remote Game Editing

I’ve long been a fan of minimal game runtimes. Anything that can be done offline or in a separate tool, should be out of the runtime. That leaves the game architecture and code very lean and simple.

One of the things you potentially give up by keeping the game runtime to a minimum is an editor built in the game itself. But that’s one of those things that sounds a lot better than it really is. From a technical point of view, having an editor in the game usually complicates the code a huge amount. All of a sudden you need to deal with objects being created and destroyed randomly (instead of through clearly defined events in the game), and you have to deal with all sorts of crazy inputs and configurations.

The worse part though, is having to implement some sort of GUI editing system in every platform. Creating the GUI to run on top of the game is not easy, requiring that you create custom GUI code or try to use some of the OpenGL/DirectX libraries available. And even then, a complex in-game GUI might not be a big deal on a PC, but wait and try to use that interface on a PS3 or iPhone. After all, making games is already complicated and time-consuming enough to waste more time reinventing the widget wheel.

Remote game editing manages to keep a minimal runtime and allow you to quickly create native GUIs that run on a PC. It’s the best of both worlds, and although it’s not quite a perfect solution, it’s the best approach I know.

Debug Server

Miguel Ángel Friginal already covered the basics of the debug server, so I’m not going to get in details there.

The idea is that you run a very simple socket server on the game, listening in a particular port. This server implements the basic telnet protocol, which pretty much means that it’s a line-based, plain-text communication.

The main difference between my debug server and Miguel’s (other than mine is written in cross-platform C/C++ instead of ObjC), is that I’m not using Lua to execute commands. Using Lua for that purpose is a pretty great idea, but goes against the philosophy of keeping the runtime as lean and mean as possible.

Instead, I register variables with the server by hand. For each variable, I specify its memory address, it’s type, any restrictions (such as minimum and maximum values), and a “pretty name” to display in the client. Sounds like a lot of work, but it’s just one line with the help of a template:

registry.Add(Tweak(&plantOptions.renderGloss, "render/gloss", "Render gloss"));
registry.Add(Tweak(&BouquetParams::FovY, "bouquet/fov", "FOV", Pi/32, Pi/3))

And yes, if I were to implement this today, I would probably get rid of the templates and make it all explicit instead (ah, the follies of youth 🙂

TweakUtils::AddBool(registry, &plantOptions.renderGloss, "render/gloss", "Render gloss");
TweakUtils::AddFloat(registry, &BouquetParams::FovY, "bouquet/fov", "FOV", Pi/32, Pi/3);

The debug server itself responds to three simple commands:

  • list. Lists all the variables registered in the server.
  • set varname value. Sets a value.
  • print varname. Gets the value for that variable.

For example, whenever the server receives a set command, it parses the value, verifies that it’s within the acceptable range, and applies it to the variable at the given memory location.

Telnet Clients

telnet.pngBecause we used the standard telnet protocol, we can start playing with it right away. Launch the game, telnet into the right port, and you can start typing away.

However, most telnet clients leave much to be desired for this. They all rely on the history and cursor manipulation being handled by the shell they assume you’re connected to. Here we aren’t connected to much of anything, but I’d like to be able to push up arrow and get my last command, and be able to move to the beginning of the line or the previous word like I would do in any text editor. The easiest solution I found for that was to use a telnet client prepared for that kind of thing: A MUD client! Just about any will do, but one that works well for me is Atlantis.

So far, we’ve implemented the equivalent of a FPS console, but working remotely. And because the code is fully portable, our game can be in just about any platform and we can always access it from our PC. Not just that, but we can even open multiple simultaneous connections to various development devices if you need to run them all at once.

Custom Clients

Game parameter tweaking is something that is OK through a text-based console, but really comes into its own when you add a GUI. That’s exactly what we did at Power of Two Games. We created a generic GUI tool (based on WinForms since we were on Windows at the time), that would connect to the server, ask for a list of variables, and generate a GUI on the fly to represent those variables. Since we knew type and name of each variable, it was really easy to construct the GUI elements on the fly: A slider with a text field for floats and ints, a checkbox for bools, four text fields for vectors, and even a color picker for variables of the type color.

It worked beautifully, and adjusting different values by moving sliders around was fantastic. We quickly ran into two problems through.

The first one is that we added so many different tweaks to the game, that it quickly became unmanageable to find each one we wanted to tweak. So, in the spirit of keeping things as simple as possible (and pushing the complexity onto the client), we decided that the / symbol in a name would separate group name and variable name. That way we could group all related variables together and make everything usable again.

The second problem was realizing that some variables were changing on the runtime without us knowing it on the client. That created weird situations when moving sliders around. We decided that any time a registed variable changes on the server, it should notify any connected clients. That worked fine, but, as you can imagine, it became prohibitively expensive very quickly. To get around that, we added a fourth command: monitor varname. This way clients need to explicitly register themselves to receive notifications whenever a variable changes, and the GUI client only did it for the variables currently displayed on the screen.


During this process, it was extremely useful to be able to display a log console to see what kind of traffic there was going back and forth. It helped me track down a few instances of bugs where changing a variable in the client would update it in the server, sending an update back to the client, which would send it again back to the server, getting stuck in an infinite loop.

You don’t need to stop at a totally generic tool like this either. You could create a more custom tool, like a level editor, that still communicates with the runtime through this channel.

Flower Garden Example

For Flower Garden, I knew I was going to need a lot of knobs to tweak all those plant DNA parameters, so I initially looked into more traditional GUI libraries that worked on OpenGL. The sad truth is that they all fell way short, even for development purposes. So I decided to grab what I had at hand: My trusty tweaking system from Power of Two Games.

I’m glad I did. It saved a lot of time and scaled pretty well to deal with the hundreds of parameters in an individual flower, as well as the miscellaneous tweaks for the game itself (rendering settings, infinite fertilizer, fast-forwarding time, etc).

Unfortunately, there was one very annoying thing: The tweaker GUI was written in .Net. Sure, it would take me a couple of days to re-write it in Cocoa (faster if I actually knew any Cocoa), but as an indie, I never feel I can take two days to do something tangential like that. So instead, I just launched it from VMWare Fusion running Windows XP and… it worked. Amazingly enough, I’m able to connect from the tweaker running in VMWare Fusion to the iPhone running in the simulator. Kind of mind boggling when you stop and think about it. It also connects directly to the iPhone hardware without a problem.

VMWare Fusion uses up a lot of memory, so I briefly looked into running the tweaker client in Mono. Unfortunately Mono for the Mac didn’t seem mature enough to handle it, and not only was the rendering of the GUI not refreshing correctly, but events were triggered in a slightly different order than in Windows, causing even more chaos with the variable updates.

Here’s a time-lapse video of the creation of a Flower Garden seed from the tweaker:


As I mentioned earlier, I love this system and it’s better than anything else I’ve tried, but it’s not without its share of problems.

Tweaking data is great, but once you find that set of values that balances the level to perfection… then what? You write those numbers down and enter them in code or in the level data file? That gets old fast. Ideally you want a way to automatically write those values back. That’s easy if the tool itself is the editor, but if it’s just a generic tweaker, it’s a bit more difficult.

One thing that helped was adding a Save/Load feature to the tweaker GUI. It would simply write out a large text-based file with all the variables and their current values. Whenever you load one of those, it would attempt to apply those same values to the current registered variables. In the end, I ended up making the Flower Garden offline seed file format match with what the tweaker saved out, so that process went pretty smoothly.

Another problem is if you want lots of real-time (or close to real time) updates from the server. For example, you might want to monitor a bunch of data points and plot them on the client (fps, memory usage, number of collisions per frame, etc). Since those values change every frame, it can quickly overwhelm the simple text channel. For those cases, I created side binary socket channels that can simply send real-time data without any overhead.

Finally, the last drawback is that this tweaking system makes editing variables very easy, but calling functions is not quite as simple. For the most part, I’ve learned to live without function calls, but sometimes you really want to do it. You can extend the server to register function pointers and map those to buttons in the client GUI, but that will only work for functions without any parameters. What if you wanted to call any arbitrary function? At that point you might be better off integrating Lua in your server.

Future Directions

This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the current implementation of the system I’m using was written 3-4 years ago. As you all know by now, my coding style and programming philosophy changes quite a bit over time. If I were to implement a system like this today, I would do it quite differently.

For all I said about keeping the server lean and minimal, it could be even more minimal. Right now the server is receiving text commands, parsing them, validating them, and interpreting them. Instead, I would push all that work on the client, and all the server would receive would be a memory address, and some data to blast at that location. All of that information would be sent in binary (not text) format over a socket channel, so it would be much more efficient too. The only drawback is that we would lose the ability to connect with a simple telnet client, but it would probably be worth it in the long run.

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.

iSimulate: A Great Add-On For The iPhone Simulator

isimulateI just had a chance to check out iSimulate, a tool for iPhone developers created by Vimov. iSimulate is intended to complement the current iPhone simulator by adding most of the features a real iPhone has. In the spirit of full disclosure, Vimov sent me a promo code to try it out for free, but I only accepted it with the condition I could write my unfiltered impressions. So here we go.

iSimulate consists of two different parts: The iPhone app, which you need to purchase through the App Store, and a static library that you link with your program. Once your app is using the library, launching the iSimulate iPhone app lets you connect your device to your app and forward accelerometer, touch, and GPS events. In other words, most of the things the simulator doesn’t do natively.

iSimulate definitely passed my picky installation requirements with flying colors. I was afraid the installation would hook up with existing framework libraries, add new configurations, and in general mess up my system. Fortunately, hooking up the iSimulate library couldn’t be easier: Copy the provided .a library anywhere you want, link with it in your app (don’t forget the -ObjC linker flag), make sure you’re using the Core framework, and you’re good to go. That simple. That’s how I want external libraries to work.

You don’t even need to initialize anything. Just launch your app in the simulator, launch iSimulate on the iPhone and it detects your program running and lets you connect to it. The iPhone app itself even looks very pretty and polished. The overall package is definitely very professional-looking.

From there, any touch on the device is forwarded to the simulator. So you can finally do off-center multi touches, or two touches that happen at different times, or even 5-touch events (the max the iPhone support). The other big one is being able to tilt or shake your device and see the game react correctly on the simulator, which is would have been very handy when writing the accelerometer code to move flowers around in Flower Garden, but would almost be necessary when you’re making heavy use of accelerometer input for games like Sky Burger. Finally, it also claims to give you location information, but I didn’t have an app I could easily test it with.

Flowers affected by gravity on the simulator

Flowers affected by gravity on the simulator

Another situation where iSimulate is a life savior is when trying to capture a video of your game. If you rely on multi touch or accelerometer features, then your only options are to either hack in something yourself, or dig out a physical video camera and record it the old-fashioned way (which is surprisingly time consuming and creates less-than-ideal results). With iSimulate you can still use a desktop video capture software on the simulator and create a top-quality in a fraction of the time.

Not everything is perfect though. I thought the forwarding of touch events would be incredibly useful, until I realize I have no idea what I’m about to tap because the program is running on the simulator, not on the device. So I’m just making a guess about where my finger is going to land. It’s not even like a mouse cursor that you see where it’s going and then you click. You’re literally tapping blind hoping you touch what you wanted. That works with a static UI, but if you have moving elements you need to touch, you’re totally out of luck. I wonder if they could extend iSimulate to capture the image from the simulator and forward it to the iPhone. Even if they only refreshed the image a few times per second, that would be enough to make touch input a lot more friendly.

There’s another big problem with touch input though. From their docs page, iSimulate works great with OpenGL apps, but doesn’t work with the following UIKit controls: Keyboard, UIScrollView (including MKMapView), UIPickerView and UITableView. Wow! Apart from the keyboard one (no big deal, we have a real keyboard attached) the other ones are pretty major. I’m sure they have a good reason why, but I can’t imagine what that might be from my knowledge of how the touch even system works (anybody from Vimov care to comment on that?). Heck, I’d even be willing to add some extra code to my app to hook directly into iSimulate input events if it means it would work with those classes. Apart from that, I found one case in Flower Garden where iSimulate failed: Touching the bouquet tag to bring up the editing mode. It’s weird, it would let me touch-drag it to move it, but it wouldn’t go into editing mode.

The accelerometer input worked flawlessly, but here iSimulate has some competition from Accelerometer Simulator, an open-source app plus library to forward accelerometer data from the device to the app. It’s not nearly as slick as iSimulate, but it’s free, so that migth be a more attractive solution for some people.

Overall, is iSimulate worth the $32 price tag (it’s $15.99 at the moment)? I would say yes if you’re developing OpenGL iPhone games with heavy use of multi touch and accelerometer input and you’re planning on making money from them. In that case, you’re better off spending an hour of your time polishing the game (or taking a break from programming) and buying iSimulate. However, if you’re using UIKit objects or you just need accelerometer input, then you might be better off just using Accelerometer Simulator. If Vimov can fix the UIKit input and display the output of the simulator on the device, iSimulate would become an indispensable tool in every programmer’s toolbox.