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Beginning game programming

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Emmanuel Deloget


Disclaimer: this is full of typos and grammar errors. I don't have much time to correct these right now, so I guess I'm going to correct them later...

OK, you decided to pick up game programming (and maybe MMO programming), and you want an advice about what language / API / tools you should use. As always, the thread starts with a "is Blah Blah Diese Plus Plus language good enough for game programming ?" or "Can I redo Oblivion with Bum Bum API ?" and usually ends in a language or API war, with zaelots of both camps coming with nebulous and misleading arguments (such as "langage Yuk is widely used in the industry, so it's the best one one one lol", with an obligatory "you must give a try to Lisp/Haskell/brainf**k, it rocks!").

Don't let the others tell you what you want to learn.

There are a lot of programming languages, some of them are widely known and rather hard to understand, while some others are easier to pich up but less known. My goal is not to list them - just have a look to the gdnet forums, you'll hear about most of them in less than a day (C++, C#, python, C, (Lisp, Haskell, Brainf**k), some Basic flavor, and so on; oh, I forgot Java, and the classic HAV1).

In this post my goal is to help you to choose a language - and to put some rationale behind the choice. Then, i'll try to give some advices about API that you might use.

Choosing a language

This is tricky. If you never programmed anything, then it will be The Hard Part. Why? Because hey, you probably don't have a clue about how a program works! If you ask the question here, you'll get answere ranging from "learn C++" to "learn C++" (with "teh Fruny exception" - he'll say "learn Python", or something like that). These are, IMHO, bad advices, because these languages are way too complex for a beginner. C++ requires years to be mastered, uses concepts that are hard to grab (for example, pointers), and both C++ and python are using a programming paradigm2 which looks simple (object-oriented often look simple) but which is, in fact very difficult to understand.

I believe you should learn a interpreted procedural language.

Why ?

First, by using an procedural language you'll be able to spot the flow of your program - meaning that the language will allow you to think your program as a list of actions that will be executed one after one. It is easier to get a mental representation of such kind of behavior.

Second, using an interpreted language will allow you to debug your code easily - because you'll be able to modify/run your program more easily than a compiled program. You'll be able to progress by trial and error - trial and error is a good progression method, especially if it is backed by a good book.

Of course, you need a decent IDE3 - something that will allow you to think to your program and not to the magic that happens behind the scene. While none is simple enough to be understood in a couple if minutes by a newcomer, you'll be able to find some of them that are easier to manage.

The first tool I'd advocate is MS QBasic. Yes. It is old (it came with MS DOS 5.0), works in console mode, and looks odd. But BASIC flavors are easy to understand, and this one is a good one. The problem is that it is not distributed by MS anymore. Powerload may still have it, but the legality of this page is questionable.

Another (far less questionable) solution is to use lua. Lua is a cross plateform interpreter, so you'll be able to use it on yout *nix box (young padawan). You'll be able to find an IDE for Windows (and even a compiler - thus, when you'll be more confident with your skills, you'll be able to release softwares! [smile])

Finally, python can be used as a procedural language, despite the fact that it is an object oriented programming language. You can use the interactive interpreter rather easily, but it will still be less convenient than a full blown IDE.

If you don't find the IDE that suits your need, you are still able to use a text editor (for example, PSPad) and integrate the interpreter you want with this editor (will not be easy, but it can be done).

Now, you are ready to learn how to program.

I want to maek a leet game!

Now, you need to learn an API. But which one will you choose? There are just too many of them! Oh, wait, there is only 2 main API (OpenGL and DirectX), maybe 3 if you count the Win32 GDI, so the choice is not that difficult, right?

The short answer is no. In fact, you have more than 2 choices: you have plenty of them, because what you want to do is to use a graphic engine, not to use a graphic API.

If you are still in the learning process, trying to build your own engine is rather pointless. Of course, you may be able to do it, but it is a huge task and while you do it, you don't do your game! Moreover, I bet that you won't be able to finish your engine - because your design is bad, because coding it is boring, and so on. There are tons of reasons to not finish a graphic engine.

BTW, I often see the utterly pointless discussion entitled "should I use DX or OpenGL?". The answer is: use whatever you want - it is up to you to pick up what you think is better. The worst answer I ever heard (and I continue to ear it very often) is "use both; put the renderer in a DLL and load it at runtime". This is pure nonsense. Unless you are able to prove me that there is an absolute need for this, don't do this (and yes: only one renderer will work at a given time).

On the contrary, if you use a pre-made engine, you'll be able to do your game directly. It means that you'll be able to concentrate on the game design and on the gameplay, which is a rather good thing [smile].

Now, what engine should you use? Well, it depends on your knowledge and on your experience. A 3D engine requires some linear algebra knowledge. A 2D engine is far simpler, but is more limited (of course). Anyway, since you are supposed to be a beginner, I suggest that you stick to a 2D graphic engine for an important reason: 3D games tends to be bigger than 2D games in terms of content - which means that they are also bigger in terms of code to manage this content.


The most important thing to remember is to keep it simple (but not stupid). A simple language in a simple IDE, simple tools and simple libraries. Once you'll master these, you'll be able to puch forward and to learn new things - learning a new language is far easier if you already know one, despite what everybody will tell you, because you acquired the basic knowledge of what a program is and how it works.

The other important thing to remember is to be patient - John Carmack himself had to learn before he was able to do these highly technical games.

The last thing to remember is that the others advices won't replace experience. They can help, of course, and it is still a good idea to ask for advices.

I hope I was able to help you :)

(1) HAV is the acronym of "HTML And Variables". This is a Hockey MMORPG programming language, and most of us (including programming beasts like Fruny or Washu) are still unable to use it correctly, so I suggest you to forget this at this stage.

(2) Most languages comes with a programming paradigm - for example, C#, C++ or Java are supposed to be used as object-oriented programming languages, Lisp is a functional language and C is a procedural language. Anyway, the programming paradigm is rarely enforced by the language itself (you can do procedural programming with C# or object-oriented programming with C).

(3) Integrated Development Environment. An IDE typically let you type code in an editor and integrates the tools that will allow you to run and debug this code.
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Wow [smile]

As I read again my entry, I don't feel enlightened at all. In fact, I believe it is a poor writing. I need to work on it if I want it to be useful.

Anyway, thanks, dear Mushu [smile]

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