Private / Semi Private Offices vs Team Spaces

What’s your experience? Lots of management books etc say that private offices are super important for software engineers. The basic argument usually goes that engineers need to concentrate and be uninterrupted. That it takes them 30-45 minutes to get “in the zone”. If they are interrupted for anything (phone call, conversation, question, distraction from the cube next to them, someone else’s cell phone ringing) they don’t just lose the 5 to 10 minutes for the interruption, they instead need another 30-45 minutes to get back into “the zone”. To get their mind back around the problem they were solving. So, if they are constantly or even often interrupted they will never get in the zone and never really get any real work done.

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RockBand woes

There are some seriously bad issues with setting up RockBand. If you want to continue with your band apparently you have to plug in the exact same instruments into the same USB ports you original had them. Each instrument has to be assigned to the same xbox live profile. Get even one thing wrong and RockBand will not let you play your saved game.

You even have to make sure all the instruments are plugged in BEFORE you turn on the 360. If you turn on your 360 with just one or two plugged in then later plug the rest in the 360 may assign the instruments to different players. In other words player 1 might be the drums instead of the mic even if you assign the drums and the mic to the correct profiles RockBand will refuse to let you play.

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RockBand

So I went crazy and picked up RockBand, special edition for 360 with the guitar, drums and mic AND… I went and got Guitar Hero 3 and the XPlorer Guitar. This was all mostly for a thanksgiving party. In total that’s like $340 basically just for 1 game!

But, I gotta say Rockband is some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing a video game. We had a blast playing all afternoon and late into the night.

A lotta issues came up though.

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Best Buy S.N.A.F.U.

So, I went to Best Buy today to pick up Super Mario Galaxy and they claimed it wasn’t coming out till tomorrow 11/13. So I called Gamestop. They have it. I checked Nintendo’s website it says 11/12. So I give this info to the robots at Best Buy hoping I don’t have to drive across town to get it. Nope, their computer says 11/13 so they are not putting them out on 11/12 even though they have them. I’m curious what the story behind that is. Stupid mix up at Best Buy HQ or some other reason they are not allowed to put it out on release day. Oh well, Best Buy loses my sale. Worse for them, I was going to buy COD4 and the Ratatouille blu-ray but I’ll get them all somewhere else.

Self Documenting Names

You’d think this would be obvious but it’s surprising how often I run into source code that doesn’t use self documenting names. Many developers will use the shortest names possible. I’m sure plenty of my old code is this way. Some of you may have asthetic reasons for short names. I’d argue asthetics should come after logic and practicality. You’re goal should be to write code fast with as few complications and bugs as possible. Code that is easy for others to understand so that they also don’t get confused and run into bugs.

Let me attempt to point out some examples of self documenting names and non-self documenting names and the problems they cause.

void DrawLine(float x, float y, unsigned int color); // <- bad

This looks like a straight forward function except what is color? Is it in the format 0xAARRGGBB or 0xRRGGBBAA or 0xAABBGGRR or maybe something else entirely. Any time wasted looking up what it’s supposed to be is one more reason you’re going to be sitting at your desk late at night instead of out and about.

void DrawLine(float x, float y, unsigned int colorRGBA); // <- better.

Now it’s very clear. Color is 0xRRGGBBAA format so 0xFF0000FF would give you 100% red.

Someone might suggest instead of the type being unsigned int, maybe it should be custom type. That’s fine, just name the type something clear. typedef unsigned int ColorRGBA not typedef unsigned int Color

void DrawLine(float xPixels, float yPixels, unsigned int colorRGBA); // <- best

Ah ha!, x and y are in pixels.

How about this one.

void copy(thing* a, thing* b); // <- bad.

does this copy a->b or b<-a?

void copy(thing* a, const thing* b); // <- better.

That helped beacuse obviously we can’t copy a->b if b is const but assume the copy function is 100 lines long. Maybe it’s copying an array of something and inside there’s something like copyarray(a.m_arrayData, b.m_arrayData). Again, looking at that single line I’d have to go reference the definition of a and b to know which side is the source and which is the dest.

void copy(thing* dst, const things* src); // <- best.

This one obviously we copy src->dst, no parsing the code required. And lines like this copyarray(dst.m_arrayData, src.m_arrayData) inside copy will now be readable without having to reference anything else.

Here’s some others:

float rotationAmount; // <- bad
float rotationAmountInRadians; // <- better, we know they are radians
float rotationAmountInRadiansPerSecond; // <- best, we know 100% what it is

vector3::velocity; // <- bad
vector3::velocityInMeters; // <- better
vector3::velocityInMetersPerSecond; // <- best

void Update(float elapsedTime); // <- bad
void Update(float elapsedTimeInSeconds); // <- good, ah, it's in seconds.

I heard one programmer object that time wasn’t always in seconds because sometimes (bullet time) he slowed down the game. That’s pretty much irrelevant though, in his game all calculations are done as though the time passed in is in seconds. It’s good to know the time is in seconds, not in frames or some other unit. Name it!

Note that it’s okay to shorten or abbreviate. Just be consistent MPerSec or InSec or use a prefix secsElapsed, mpersecVelocity. A very good article that also deals with similar issues this Joel’s “Making Wrong Code Look Wrong

These ideas are not about being a code nazi. They are about being efficient and avoiding bugs. Every one of these has bitten me before. I’ve had to dig through levels of library code to find out which is source and which is dest in a function. I’ve spent hours trying to figure out why something did not appear on screen because I was passing radians when the function in question wanted degrees but because the docs just said “rotation” and because the argument was just called “rotation” it didn’t even cross my mind until hours of tracking down the issue.

Another common excuse some programmer will bring up is because their editor shows the help or function signatures or has other kinds of helpful features that they don’t need to follow these guidelines. That might be true if you’re a one man team. On anything larger other programmers are likely to be using different editors which may or may not bring up the same help. I know that in my current project I use both Visual Studio and Visual Slickedit and neither bring up all our help.

So, help out your fellow programmers and automatically document your code by choosing variable names that make the code easier to understand. If I had followed these rules I’d have had to work less, gone home to be with my girlfriend, or moved on to the next feature instead of wasting time figuring out things or tracking down bugs that could be avoided by simply naming things better.

Professional Game Development Guidelines

There a few topics I’ve been wanting to post about for a while but I’ve been putting them off because I wanted to change the software for this site to organize them differently.

For example, Maya tips. I wanted to have a page about Maya tips (I do here) but on my current system, if I add a new tip to that page no headline appears on the front page. There’s no indication that anything was updated.

So, for a couple of years now I’ve wanted to add to my blog software that ability but I’ve finally decided I’m not going to add it. Instead I’ll just post each tip separated and make a new category. That’s the more obvious way to do it.

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Reading Excel XML in Python

Python is one of the new weapons of choice at one of my current contracts. I’m a big believer in removing as many chances for error in a project as possible. That means for example where as some teams will have their designers edit an Excel spreadsheet .xls file and then require them to also export to a .csv file for the game, I’d prefer if they just save to .xml at all times.

They lose no features because Excel will save all the data, formatting, formulas etc to XML and Windows will even directly open the .xml files to Excel when double clicked so as far as the user is concerned nothing changes. In fact once they create the file Excel will load and save to .XML so there is no need to remember to save as .XML, it just happens. Automated things like that mean no errors.

When using CSV files there is always the issue that the designer may or may not have remembered to export so they change a value, save the file and forgetting to export they spend a bunch of time trying to figure out why their changes are not showing up in the game. Or, worse, when you save AS CSV in Excel, excel then defaults to saving that file in CSV mode. So, if the designer makes any changes after that and forgets to resave the file specifically in .xls mode then all their changes will be lost. Sure they can reload the .csv file but any formulas, formatting, colors, comments etc will all be lost.

If instead they use XML files then they don’t have to remember the step of saving to CVS. They don’t have to worry about saving back to XLS as well and they never have to worry about losing data since that issue will never come up.

I know some teams that write Excel macros to do this. That’s a huge waste of time. Those macros generally have to be propogated to all their Excel files. Those macros often have to be tweaked for different versions of Excel. It becomes even more of a pain at localization time because the developers don’t usually control the machines of the people editing the files in other countries and macros etc are often disabled. I’ve seen no end of problems dealing with Excel files that had macros in them so no, macros are not the solution.

It’s much simpler just to parse the XML. As you can see below it’s very little code. You can easily add it to your tool pipeline or, looking at the example for reference, just make your game load and parse the XML file directly, at least during development.

Anyway, here is code to read an excel XML file (right click and pick Save Target As). I posted some perl to do the similar things before if perl is more your thing.

I tried Pythonifying the code so it’s pretty simple to use. The following are a few simple examples

import excelreader

xl = excelreader.ParseExcelXMLFile("someExcelFile.xml")

print "Cell B4 in first sheet = ", xl[0][4][2]
print "Cell G5 in first sheet = ", xl[0]['G5']
print "names of sheets        = ", xl.keys()
print "Cell A7 in Sheet1      = ", xl['Sheet1'][7][1] # assumes there is a sheet called "Sheet1"
print "all cells in all sheets"
for worksheet in xl:
    for row in worksheet.keys():
       for column in row.keys():
          print row, column, worksheet[row][column]

The library also pulls out style info which is useful if you want to know the colors (say for generating corresponding materials in Maya) or the font names and sizes (say for auto-generated localized textures)

print xl[0].GetCellStyle(7,2)  # style info for cell B7 in first sheet
print xl[0].GetCellStyle('D3') # style info for cell D4 in first sheet

An Open Letter to EA – Open Source EASTL!

I was recently made aware of something really great. A version of the C++ Standard Template Library that has been modified and redesigned to deal with the issues of game development. It was created by EA and is called the EASTL (Electronic Arts Standard Template Library)

Dear Electronic Arts,

Please make the EASTL open source with a BSD style license. You’d be doing the game industry and the software industry at large a HUGE public service. You’d be our heros!

I know that on the one hand you’ve put lots of work into it. You might even see it as a competitive advantage so you might be asking why open source it?

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