January Milwaukee Hack 'n' Tell

Once again, I found myself participating in a Milwaukee Hack 'n' Tell, organized by RokkinCat and conducted at Ward 4. I wrote some notes on how the day went in my dev journal, so I thought I'd share the experience here!

Analog Brainstorming and Recognizing Bad Ideas in Advance

Unlike last time, I decided to focus on a singular task in an area I don't dabble in often: game development. This year, I really want to get at least one of my game ideas off the ground, so to accomplish that goal, I decided to sit down with my favorite ideas and brainstorm on them for fifteen to thirty minutes.

Once thing I noticed about myself was that I get a lot more out of brainstorming when I write down the results on paper, rather than record them on my phone or computer. I think part of this has to do with the myriad distractions that a digital device offers, but I think the free structure of paper (being able to make annotations on existing notes, draw pictures, link things together with arrows, etc) also contributes. My wife and I typically go out for coffee once a week or so, and using a chunk of my time at a coffee shop for brainstorming has become a pleasant ritual!

The first idea I had that I brainstormed about was a game about building and coordinating space probes that would explore the galaxy by making copies of themselves. When I first wrote down the idea a few years ago, I thought it was such a cool idea for a game - but during my brainstorm session, I really struggled to think of ways to make the game challenging and fun. This brought to mind an episode of the Final Games podcast I listened to a few months back, featuring Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity fame. He mentions that sometimes you just need to recognize that an idea is bad and it won't go anywhere. I really appreciated that bit of insight, with a personal spin of sometimes it's not the right time for the idea to come out into the world. This is why brainstorming and prototyping before you invest too much time is so important!

Writing a Fighting Game

Anyway, the idea I ended up working on was a sort a fighting game which I may talk about in depth in a future post. Suffice to say, my focus for the hack 'n' tell was getting a simple fighting game working. I decided to try my hand at LÖVE once again - I always enjoy using Lua!

The code I turned out was not-so-great - mainly in terms of duplication and organization (or lack thereof!). The code is, however, better than other games I've whipped up in a short period of time, and the path to making it better is a little clearer, so I feel like I made some personal progress in this area. I would say that the particular strides I made were making sure that magic numbers were factored out into constants with straightforward names, definining the display in terms of the dimensions of the display rather than hardcoded values, and breaking out chunks of code into functions when it made sense.

One thing I made sure to do better at this time, as compared to previous hackathons, was the use of revision control. Most of the time, I'll put a lot of code down, perhaps with an optimistic git init to start the day, and then commit at the end of the day with a slightly dissatisfying git commit -a -m "Did stuff". I really like having fine-grained, descriptive commits, so I made sure to make time for that this time around. I think it really helped - at the very least, I now have a record of where my head was at over the course of the day.

Collision Detection

One thing really threw me for a loop this time: collision detection. Writing code to detect collisions was a lot harder than I'd anticipated - I think part of this was a design decision I made about the API of that routine. Namely, I made the choice that if a collision occurs, I would return nil or a string representing which surface made the impact with the other object (either "left", "right", "top", or "bottom"). Detecting a "yes or no" collision situation is pretty simple - naïvely, you can just check whether any of a bounding box's corners are in the bounding box of the other object. Less naïvely (and necessary for the game), you need to check if any of the lines in the bounding box intersect with the other object. That was somewhat tedious to code, but it's a start towards returning which surface was impacted by the collision.

In order to implement the impacted surface part, I ended up calculating how deep into the other object the various surfaces went, defaulting to math.huge for those that didn't intersect at all. Once I had that, I simply picked the surface with the minimum depth. In retrospect, I probably should have picked minimum depth / velocity_in_that_dimension.

This code worked fairly well, but there was a pretty bad bug that took me about an hour (a whole sixth of the hackathon!) to fix: if you climbed onto a platform and jumped straight up, you would fall to the side of the platform when you collided with it. What ended up happening is that gravity had accelerated the player object to such a velocity that the player's bottom "fell through" the platform, which didn't allow the bottom to be counted as a collision, but then since the left or right side was intersecting with the platform's bounding box, you would get a left or right collision and be forced off to the side.

I got really frustrated and kind of froze in how I would fix this. Then I applied a timeless strategy: I decided "ok, I'm going to brainstorm on solutions for this, and I'll pick the one that I like best". Best, here, being a compromise of simplicity, effectiveness, ease of implementation, and speed. The funny thing was that I only needed to write down a single solution before I decided that I liked it and would go ahead implementing it!

The solution was pretty simple: if you detect a collision but your displacement in either dimension exceeded the size of the other object in that dimension (this is simple to calculate - the amount of displacement from one frame is just your velocity!), do a binary search to find the actual collision at a smaller time slice and use that for your collision detection calculations. So that looked like this:

if not collision_happening(aobj, obj) then
  return nil

-- 'a' prefix means first object, 'b' prefix means second object
local go_backwards = true
while vx >= bwidth or vy >= bheight do
  avx = avx / 2
  avy = avy / 2

  if go_backwards then
    ax = ax - avx
    ay = ay + avy -- my y vectors are inverted because screen coords grow down =(
    ax = ax + avx
    ay = ay - avy

  go_backwards = collision_happening(aobj, bobj) -- update aobj and bobj with new x/y first, though

When the player objects are moving too fast, it takes about 2-3 iterations of that binary search loop to find the right resolution for collision detection. The code I originally wrote doesn't handle the situation in which the first object completely passes through the second, but I figured I could fix that later should it happen.

Using Coroutines with LÖVE

I had a little extra time towards the end of the day, so I decided to give my players (currently blue and red rectangles) a little bit of extra flair: picking up objects in the game causes the player to flash green for a bit. I already had a similar effect for items, but this time, I ended up using Lua's coroutines to implement the effect. So instead of complicating the draw code with crazy conditionals on whether or not a player was currently flashing, I just checked to see if I had attached a coroutine with the following code and ran it if necessary:

local function player_flash(self)
  coroutine.yield() -- we resume() once to kick off the coroutine with parameters
  for i = 1, 5 do
    love.graphics.setColor(0x00, 0xff, 0x00, 0xff)
    coroutine.yield() -- skipping a frame just happened to look nicer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If I write another prototype or full game with LÖVE, I think I'll just add a "run me every frame" coroutine list and implement things there - it should make the code a lot easier to follow.

Sharpening the Vim Saw

One thing that does bother me slightly about Lua is its lack of assignment shortcut operators; that is to say, it doesn't have a += or similar operator. Which means instead of writing player.velocity.x += acceleration_x, you need to write player.velocity.x = player.velocity.x + acceleration_x. What a mouthful! So, in order to save myself some keystrokes, I wrote a little mapping for my Vim configuration that causes Vim to substitute the right text if you type += or one of its brethren, and I pushed that change up here.

Many thanks to RokkinCat and the other sponsors for putting on this hack 'n' tell - I can't wait until the next one!

Published on 2017-01-31