Refactoring Part 1


I’ve started writing about this because it’s better than talking to myself and that’s how I work out problems in code.

For a little background, I started coding on RisingStorm,which is a remake of an old game from the 90′s called Netstorm,  back in late June (I actually started looking at it earlier, but then I had to travel to France for work, and who can work when you’re sitting in Paris?!  I mean come on!)  Since then it’s been coming together nicely:

Here’s a video someone put together play testing (he even used a cheat to give himself extra money): Rising Storm play test build The music is from Netstorm not from RisingStorm.

It’s funny, that was build 9.  Of course, that was build 9 after I started performing a build release cycle.  Before I would just make a few changes and upload them.  Occasionally I still do, but there are advantages to doing a cycle… if your testers pay attention to build numbers when submitting bug reports anyway :)  Perhaps I’ll talk more about that some other time.

This post is going to be about refactoring.  I just uploaded build 20 which contains some basic multiplayer and uses levels constructed in the in-game level editor I put in around build 17, I think.   Now I’m taking a moment (more like a day or two) to think through the code and do some reoganization.

There have been some elements I’ve been thinking about fixing, but not necessarily doing so.  The thing that’s been working really well for me and especially in a diverse, internet-only group is rapid deployment. When everyone can see and comment very early on it keeps progress smooth. This is a sort of agile formalism, but treating agile formally always strikes me as silly.  The idea is that you get something that works, but probably isn’t quite the solution you want, but it’s better to push it through and come back to it later when there’s a driver.  Despite what people think, coding very often isn’t engineering.  It’s more like crafting, like chipping away at a raw element (an idea) and shaping it.

I once heard that when Michelangelo was crafting his David out of a single block of marble, he did so by chipping away at the block.  He said the block gave him his sculpture that he was just pulling it out (sorry wikipedians, no reference, this is just hearsay).  And in the course of chipping away at the block he discovered a fault in the stone around where David’s hip was.  In order to work around the fault, Michelangelo gave David that bend he has in the upper body which starts at the hip.  In the same way, coding a raw formed idea can’t be forced, it has to be moulded.  Coding new ideas requires crafting them.  You can’t put the Requirements or Specification before the horse.  Horses eat hay. (RisingStorm is a remake, but making an RTS like Netstorm is new to me, so the ideas are new to me… otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting for me to do in my spare time :)

One of the first, simpler, cases of refactoring I did was in how the build system works.  In Netstorm and Risingstorm, there is a build panel where you can select either units or bridges to place.  These operate very differently after they’ve been placed, but placing them isn’t all that different with one exception.  After a bridge is placed it just appears there, but when a unit is placed this little sparkly thing needs to pathfind over to it and teleport it in.  Well, originally I started with the bridges (they are the most important element in the game) and just got something working with a simple function call.  But when I added in this little sparkly thing I decided to make use of Unity’s message passing interface first to notify on various states, like “OnDraggablePlaced” or “OnConstructionStarted” (draggable is the name of some element which can be placed from the build panel)  There’s also a message that gets sent by the sparkly thing when it arrives and a publish-subscribe mechanism that lets it send to only the objects that care about it arriving.  I’ll probably open source this sometime soon.  Look for the “RTS Source Code Components” at the top here.

One major refactoring I started recently was with the level editor.  I decided to try to reuse the code for the build panel and draggable stuff to allow the user to place objects in a level design similarly to how they would in game.

I discovered along the way that there were very many assumptions I had made about building that weren’t very abstracted.  They worked for in-game building, but there was quite a bit of spaghetti calling back and forth between objects.  Draggables talking back to the build panel in a way that seems to violate controller continuity.  I’m not sure that’s a thing, but it’s related to a real thing :)  I just can’t remember the real name.  The idea is that say when you construct something in a piece of code, that code should also be responsible for removing it.  It’s of course possible to code where you destroy an object into any place and why not?  It turns out if you decide to change something later trying to track down all the weird places you could have possible called that destruction can be a real pain.  Having the Draggables call back to the build panel isn’t necessarily wrong, but right now it’s just ugly.

Every great performer does something which is incredibly difficult, but it looks really easy when they do it.  I think the same should go for code.  It should be very simple to follow the logic.  It should even look so easy someone can look at it and go “Oh I could totally have done that in a weekend.” and yet the crafter behind it went through a painstaking thought process to carefully lay out the code and refactor the code so that it would lay so beautifully well.  Everyone can appreciate David, but not everyone can make a statue of similar caliber.  In the same way, everyone can code, it’s not really that hard.  But not everyone can make really good code.

It’s amazing how much refactoring like this can beautify your code.  It’s like proofreading text.  By the time I’m publishing this, I’ll have read through it a few different times.  When I’m writing through the first time there’s no way I can clearly see what I’ve written after this line until I write it.  I have an idea where I want it to go, but the actual word structure change and veer from my intention.  In fiction writing this is how you create those really great repeating themes or strong foreshadowing.  You may have had an idea on the first pass of how the story would go, but as you were writing it, it shifted slightly or formed in a way you didn’t really expect.  When you go back through the moon needed to be  full for the hero to look into the heroins eyes.  But it turns out that he’s a werewolf.  You can slip a little piece of text about the state of  moon earlier on and then it looks like you’re a really great planner.  “It looks so easy, I could totally write that book in a weekend.”

Enough of the diversions, I wanted to work on the actual problem.  But this post is getting long, so I’m going to think about the writing and save the problem solving for the next post.

Btw, have you ever noticed how the foreshadowing just isn’t as good in a serial like a tv series.  You get vague prophecies, but nothing perfectly clear (except maybe Joss Whedon.  I just don’t know how he does it, except that he doesn’t because nobody lets him finish it… sigh).  Nobody can predict the future, even though they may want to, so the TV series shifts from those original intentions and it may be hard to pull it back in line with consistency to the first season.  Oh, Lost with your islands and hatches, I miss your potential.

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