Game Developement

Building and creating video games (and software) is hard. How hard? It can be a difficult thing to describe and understand. The public perception, at least in my eyes, appears to fall onto one of two perceptions; That software is complex and basically magic or that of being incognizant of the hidden workings of the software behind the interface. I often get asked, "So how do you actually make games? How do you make things that appear on the screen". The real answer to this requires thousands of hours of knowledge, study and understanding across multiple disciplines. In simple terms though the answer really is mathematics and logic combined with physics and electronics. Many years of very smart people building technology and layers of systems and mechanics combining to where we are today, able to make incredible 3D simulations with highly detailed graphics and interaction.

"Why does this crappy game keep crashing?", "Why is this software broken?".

These are common questions, and frustrating when you are an end user. Unfortunately, like vehicles, infrastructure and other complex technology, software is no different in that it can have faults, deteriorate over time and just flat out break.

I think it can be hard to comprehend just how complex software can be. Why is it so hard to make X or do Y?

Building a complex video game is like contracting a skyscraper: Hundreds of thousands of moving parts, millions of interactions and connections, safety mechanisms, backup systems, hundreds of different feature requirements and aspects, you get the point. Software and games also have some other fun parts to consider. Video games are built and compiled from source code into machine code (at least in compiled languages such as C++) using software that itself has millions of lines of code and is also running on more software (your operating system) which itself is communicating and working on top of the hardware of your computer which has its own low level mechanisms and features. Programming does not exist in the physical space (at least in the general perspective, compared to traditional engineering), which means anything can interact with almost anything else. To compare, that is like every wall being able to touch and connect with every other wall in your skyscraper, as well as your wires, plumbing, flooring, air vents and everything else. Changing one small thing like the carpet in your 5th floor could accidentally break the door to the bathroom on the 50th floor. Of course traditional engineering has it's own difficulties and I am not saying a game is more difficult to make than a sky scraper; not even close. But the idea is that software is in the same vein of complexity and likely has a lot more happening that you might realise.

You can create software from nothing which can be a great benefit, unlike traditional engineering. Although this means more people making software and very low requirement for entry versus if you were an engineer or architect, you'd need tools, resources, money and usually a whole team. This results in a lot more software being made by people with a lot less knowledge, care, or planning.

Because of the lack of resource requirements (material wise), and the ability for software to be adjusted and changed (relatively) easily, at least compared to traditional engineering, simple projects can scale up to massive ones. This means it is far more common to have a project that ends up far out of scope and design that was originally intended, which contributes to having more bugs and more unforeseen outcomes / problems etc.

Bad software (usually) won't cause harm or death to users, whereas bad engineering absolutely can. Thus the restrictions, policies, safety checks and rigidity of traditional engineering is much higher compared to software.

Another fun aspect of software is that it is equivalent to basically creating an entire skyscraper, with all of these layers of complexities, and then shipping that skyscraper to someone's location and placing it there, relying on their foundations, environment and supports to make sure it works. Every end users PC is different: Different hardware, different operating systems, different software, different versions, different internet connections, the list goes on. Traditional engineering would create a product designed specifically for a scenario (specific city, location, environment, setup, requirements etc.) but that just can't be done realistically with software. Of course there are exceptions to this but the idea is there. It doesn't help that a lot of software is cheap (or free) and easily accessible (online) so many people will try to run software or games that their system can't even handle. Then they complain that the product is terrible, when it is like shipping a skyscraper into the desert with no support and wondering why it doesn't survive.

There are so many variables, so many layers of technology, so many moving parts and complexities that it shouldn't be too surprising when every now and then your program crashes, or lags, or displays some information correctly. Technology is complex and the layers we have built to allow for the creation of things is unbelievable. None the less, we as humans clearly have the capability to create unbelievably complex systems with fail-safes and methods to stop problems occurring, and we should strive to make things that never break, or if they do, to fix themselves quickly without resulting in any damage of inconvenience. There are always two sides to the story. With every complex bug that only occurs on one guy's pc who hasn't got a graphics card nor updated his software in 5 years, there's a story of simple typo in an obvious place from a neglecting programmer that causes everyone to crash on startup. Software needs to get better and become more reliable, and people need to become more understanding and aware. After-all, we as programmers don't want you to crash and have a bad experience!

Next time your software crashes or game bugs out, have a think and appreciate the skyscraper (both as the analogy and as a metaphor) of complex code that is running behind the scenes to make that thing tick!

© Alex Denford, 2021