Monthly Archives: February 2019

Coders talk a lot about technical debt. here is a rough definition:

“Technical debt” (also known as design debt or code debt) is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.”

It’s often used in the context of justifying redoing some work. As in… “we have a lot of technical debt. The best thing to do is rewrite all this properly from scratch”. To some extent that can be justified. The engine for your games is effectively your house foundations. Don’t start building a house without ensuring you have decent foundations, and all that sort of thing. The problem with this mindset is that people (or rather…computer programmers) often get into the situation where they want to re-code everything from scratch again, and again, and again.

The thing is, the more experienced you get, the more you realize that the big, messy, patched, complicated looking smorgasbord of code that you are working with probably HAS to look like that. it probably looks like that for a reason. Its not pretty, its not clean, it doesn’t make for nice diagrams but it WORKS and thats important.

If you think thats not true I point you towards the apache web server (literally a pun on ‘a patchy web server’) and Microsoft windows, an absolute towering pile of code mess that is the very definition of technical debt. How can I possibly view these as good things…?

The simple answer is: Practicality and commerce. Apache is not the most beuatiful work of art in terms of highly structured, elegant, perfectly designed code, and windows is literally the state of the art in horrible hacks. (Like this one, to ensure sim city still runs). To quote:

They reported this to the Windows developers, who disassembled SimCity, stepped through it in a debugger, found the bug, and added special code that checked if SimCity was running, and if it did, ran the memory allocator in a special mode in which you could still use memory after freeing it.

And it you are someone who considers code to be beautiful, who likes to describe themselves as ‘a software architect’ instead of ‘hacker’ (or code monkey), then stories like this will fill you with rage but…

…Apache sure is installed on a lot of servers, and a huge number of PCs still run windows. Why? Because accepting that your patchy, confusing, held-together-with-string piece of code is actually MORE reliable than new stuff you could code today is actually a sign of coding maturity.

I do not open source my engine, and TBH nobody would likely use it if they did, but part of my reasoning is that it would be embarrassing. I couldn’t even decide on a naming convention. At one point I didn’t care, and I had classes called things like IniLoader. Then I thought it would be cool to have a ‘G’ prefix to indicate game engine, so I have GArc GFile, GHashTable. At some crazy point I had my classes in all caps, hence DEBUGENGINE.h. Some of the code separates functions with /************/ some of it with //////////////////////////////. Pretty much the only coding standard was a member variable naming convention with FirstLetterCapped.

By far the two biggest embarrassing pieces of dodgy code in the ‘more or less part of the engine’ GUI code are the following. Please try not to laugh.

Stupidity one: I have a GUI_ButtonBase class, and a GUI_WindowBase
class . They are DIFFERENT things, with no connection, despite a button obviously being a derived class of a window in any sensible system. Thus my GUI_WindowBase class contains separate lists of buttons, and child windows. *sigh*.

Stupidity two: All my windows have a virtual function call CheckClick(int x,int y), which they process, then call on any children. You would think that this took the x,y of the current mouse position and operated on it, but for some reason I gave up bothering and use helper functions like IsMouseInside() to check such stuff, which ignores the passed-in x and y. I still go to all the bother of passing x,y, down the hierarchy, but its ignored. I’m just paranoid about it.

Sure I could fix this, I could rewrite my button code, junk that dumb x,y, thing and rename all my classes sensibly while I’m about it. I would then need to spend several days changing all the code in Production Line, AND checking it, and I *ASSURE* you, I would miss something. There would be a new crash bug. I wouldn’t spot it, and maybe after a dozen players encountered it, someone would tell me about it. I would have achieved nothing, but frustration for my players, and a smug feeling that my code was less embarrassing.

I’m not giving into that. My current code WORKS, it has less bugs than it *ever* has. My current game (Production Line) is more stable than ever, and more stable than any game I have ever shipped. Going back and changing parts of my engine because they look messy, or because modern code fashions have changed or because there is a new API or code pattern would be MADNESS.

Don’t be too hard on your old code. Sometimes age brings wisdom.

Only part of the ‘true cost’ of producing a game is the narrowly defined ‘development cost’, as it should also theoretically include an allowance for ongoing studio costs over the lifetime of making the game. The cost of heating my home office, the accountant, the webhosting for all my sites (including this blog) and depreciation of my PC should all play a part in calculating the *true* cost of producing Production Line. (My car factory strategy game for the PC).

With this in mind I thought I’d briefly add up some estimates of the paper-cost, the estimated cost if I was paid a regular salary, and also the true, true cost.

So the basic cost, if I break it out into categories gets me a breakdown like this:

If I assume as lead programmer I should be earning £60,000 (first result I found. Note that I’m the only coder and have 20+ years coding experience), then things change a lot to look like this:

Then I need to add in the office costs. Firstly I’d get a pension as an employee, so I should add that in over the dev period (3 years of contributions), 3 years of accountancy, 3 years of webhosting, and as I replace my PC probably every 4 years, I need to allow for 3/4 of a new desktop PC. I also have 3 years of office internet and phone bill to include. There is stationary, heating and other bullshit, but lets just call that $200 a year. New chart:

So is anything learned from this short little exercise? Well there are many ways to interpret it. Firstly, It really looks like I may be undervaluing music and SFX in my game. Surely combined they should be more than 5% of my dev budget right? And translation, although the costs scare the fuck out of me, actually seems relatively small in terms of the big picture.

It also brings home just how important personal productivity and time management is. If I messed around on twitter less, got distracted less, and maybe got up a bit earlier each day, a 10% increase in my productivity would have a massive impact on overall costs, probably saving me enough to make a huge boost to the art budget.

It also shows me that trimming the art budget if the game is not doing well is absolutely the wrong target. Its all about the code.

And finally its worth keeping an eye on the external dev costs such as webhosting etc. Each item is small, but together they are virtually the same as the art budget. Also worth noting: I deserve an absolute monster PC every 4 years, thats for sure. Even if I doubled the price I pay for a PC, the faster compile times would probably pay for themselves.