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Debugging TARJECTORIES: a Ludum Dare 38 postmortem epilogue

If you haven’t played TARJECTORIES yet, I encourage you to download and give it a try first.

Next, I encourage you to read the project postmortem article I wrote about the experience I had creating TARJECTORIES over a 48 hour period.

Back? OK.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, in the midst of my debugging hell hours, I posted this on Facebook:

Debugging a program sometimes is like converting one system of thinking into an equivalent system of thinking, only one that works where the other one fails.

Since you can do this only one keystroke at a time, it’s pretty rough when you’re looking at transitional code and are looking for signposts to remind you of where you are. It’s common when you get distracted briefly to come back to looking at your code, desperate for these signposts.

This can end up making you very confused and waste a lot of time.

How to avoid this?

To put it in more familiar terms, pretend you’re writing a novel, and you want to change some of your characters around, so you need to update the text so that everything Smith says is now said by Roberts. Halfway into this, you’ve forgotten who’s who anymore, and there’s nothing in the manuscript that can help you tell what’s been changed already and what still needs to be changed.

If you keep versions of files, you can run a diff of the current manuscript against the most recently checked in version. If you check in versions at the right time, when things are self-consistent, not in a transitional state, this can be very useful.

If you don’t have, or don’t make use of, these tools, you’re putting a massive cognitive burden on yourself that prevents you from higher order thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve. If you get distracted in the midst of your transitional revision work, it’s like a juggler dropping their balls. One hiccup in the routine and the entire thing falls apart, and the only thing left to do is try to pick it all back up and start over.

The hardest thing is when you keep having ideas and thoughts about what else you’re going to need to do next. Often times a change will have a cascade of changes. Not necessarily code changes, but feature changes, or new features. Each one of these is like someone throwing another ball at the juggler. Even the best juggler can only handle so many things before they slip up and have to drop it. And while a person is juggling, there’s very little else they can do.

If you want to get real work done, don’t be a juggler. They spend most of their time repeating a cycle of familiar tasks that just maintain a status quo, and hardly have time to make any progress with anything else. It looks impressive, but it’s monumentally wasteful.

Learning not to juggle is even harder than learning to juggle, though.

The thing is, when you’re doing game development, design and development are tightly interwoven. It’s not even iterative, it’s sub-iterative. You’re figuring out what’s possible, what’s fun, what you can make work, and figuring out how to make it work, making it, and then seeing what else it needs — all at the same time. It’s inevitable that you will have ideas at every step in that process. And each idea is a ball to juggle. I found it works best to leave myself “TODO” comments throughout the code whenever I have an idea come to me while I’m still in the middle of working on something else, and keeping a notepad handy for things that I observe at runtime. Otherwise, you need to be able to split your conscience like a fractal if you want to have any hope of being able to do all the things that occur to you while you’re in the middle of development.

Holy s—. I’ve been at it since 10pm, and I think I finally just fixed a bug that I’ve been puzzled by for several hours. I can’t even begin to explain all the stupid details that I’d need to in order to convey what I just did.

But here goes anyway.

In my project, I have a planet which has a player on it. I had this working just fine with a single planet.

I wanted to create mutli-planet levels, but when I added a second planet to the game all kinds of things started going wrong because of all these hidden assumptions my code was making about there always only ever being one planet.

So I started disentangling the planet, which was really doing a lot of extra stuff that it didn’t really have any business doing. This stuff was managing other game state, and when you had multiple planets, they ended up screwing with each other as they both were updating the game state. Sort of like a race condition, I guess.

It caused some REALLY bizarre bugs, though.

The level counter went up smoothly until it hit 11, and then it started repeating itself a few times, then skipping a head several numbers, like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 11, 11, 14, 16.

It also had a strange tendency sometimes to not spawn any player at all, on the second level 11.

I fiiiinally got the problem solved, without realizing that was what I was doing. I just started to give up and work on other problems, when I decided that the planet object should not create its own player. I’d done that early on because it made sense when there is only one planet. With two planets, each would create its own player instance, and then I’d have to go back after and delete one of them at random. This SEEMED to work, but somehow became responsible for the weird level number glitch, and the missing player object on the second level 11.

I STILL don’t get how that exactly worked. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. But when I decided to de-couple the player-spawning duties from the planet object, and instead of two planets each creating a player on it, and then randomly selecting one of those two to delete, I re-did the code to spawn two planets, then randomly choose one of the planets to spawn a single player on.

That fixed it. Like, whoa.

Update: A day later, it finally occured to me what happened, and why. This may not interest many, but for posterity, here’s what was going on:

When I made the game, I started out with a 1-planet room. I had this working so well that I didn’t want to screw it up, so when I was ready to start work on a 2-planet room, I created a new room so I could mess around in it. I had my level counter set up in such a way that after level 8, it would switch rooms to the 2-planet room for planet 9.

I had some code in the LevelUp object that handles this. But the thing about the Level Up object is, it doesn’t do those things when the game room loads. So on the transition into the 2-planet room, there were certain things that weren’t happening. To compensate, I (this was a bad move on my part) copied some code out of the LevelUp object and put it into the Creation code for the 2-planet room, and then failed to maintain this code adequately as I continued to make further changes on the LevelUp object.

So what happened was, when Level 8 is cleared, the LevelUp object does its end=of-level thing, and increments the global level variable, and creates new planets for the next level. It then checks to see if the level is 9, and since it is, it moves to the 2-planet room. The 2-planet room starts, and there’s 2 planets there from the room editor, not from the LevelUp object resetting the level. So nothing weird happens until after Level 9 is cleared, because that’s the first time the LevelUp object levels up in a 2-planet room.

I’m still unclear why the level incrementer goes from 9 to 11 — it seems obvious that it has something to do with there being two planets, but I didn’t have the level incrementer tied in any way to the number of planets. And it’s more mysterious to me still that it gets stuck on level 11, and so displays level 9, 11, 11, 11, 14. If GameMaker Studio had a better debugger, I might have bothered to trace through the script and watch the variables change to understand what’s going on, but I figured out enough to fix the problem without completely understanding it (well let’s hope so).

As to why there was no player at all on level 12, I do understand that. The planet’s Create event creates a player instance, and stores its ID in an instance variable, so it can update the player’s x,y position as the planet rotates. In the two-planet world, of course, I ended up with a player instance on each world. I didn’t need or want both of them, so I figured I’d just randomly destroy one of them, rather than fix it so that there would only be one. So I used a for loop and iterated over an array that should have been as long as the number of planets (2), and picked 1 array index to keep, and destroy all others. I figured I might want to make a 3-planet room at some point, and was trying to make the code work for N-planet rooms, rather than solve the 2-planet problem and leave a 3+ planet problem still unresolved. But sometimes the random chooser picked an array index that was out of bounds for the “keeper”, and so the for loop would go through and destroy all of the player instances. This happened to happen on level 12. It happened consistently on level 12 because the RNG seed value was always the same, and the same number of calls to random() always happen between the start of the game and getting to level 12.

I fixed the code by removing the player create from the Planet object, and put it after the planets are created, using choose() to select which planet if there’s more than 1.

The code works and appears to be bug free, but from a design standpoint it’s still messy. When I get around to doing it over, I will clean things up by removing the 2-planet room, which was only ever supposed to be an experimental room, and re-writing the code so that rather than move to that room when the level incrementer hits 9, it will spawn two planets, instead. This will enable move to remove the duplicate code by getting rid of the now-obsolete experiment room entirely. In retrospect that’s what I should have done in the first place, but because I was so concerned about not screwing up my working 1-planet room, I didn’t want to risk it. But really, all I needed to do was check-in to source control and create a fork to experiment in.

As easy and fast as the progress I made Friday night was, Saturday night was an absolute nightmare of a debugging session, just to figure this thing out and get it working. It’s SO weird how it was sortof almost working. Sometimes it’s a lot better to have something completely not working and obviously wrong. Those kind of bugs are much easier to fix.

The good news, though, is that I kept my Friday momentum through Saturday until I took my long break. I implemented a lot of features and had the game 95% complete, or so I thought. Just that last little bit of debugging took about 7 hours, and now the game is basically done.

So I made excellent progress Friday, and most of Saturday, although I unwittingly introduced this nasty puzzling bug during that progress, which stalled me for the entire night. But I still got so much done so quickly that I’m basically done now.

I have until 9pm Sunday to work on it, but I think it’s pretty good right now.

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