Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Ever-Changing Horizon

As of a few days ago, XAGE runs on .NET core.  What does that mean?  Let's have a quick and probably inaccurate history lesson.

.NET Core

In 2014 Microsoft announced they were open-sourcing .NET.  Their new direction involved splitting the framework, from the old monolithic windows-only .NET Frameworks and introducing the new fancy, cross-platform .NET Core.  While Microsoft committed to updating both, it was clear that they saw .NET Core as the future.

For a while everything was confusing.  The command line tools didn't work very well and were constantly being changed.  Microsoft toyed with using a new project.json file to replace the old xml-based *.csproj files, only to revert back again.  The documentation was initially poor and often out of date with each iteration.

With the release of NET Standard 2.0, things are looking considerably better.  The framework API now covers a much larger set of the existing functionality.  All key platforms can target this standard i.e. Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS & Android (via Xamarin) and UWP.  The tooling is now better, with support built directly into Visual Studio, by far the best IDE for development.

XNA, MonoGame & FNA

In 2006 Microsoft first released XNA, a simple framework built on top of .NET for making games.  The main draw was the ability to write games in C# and to target the Xbox 360 console.

A few years later, an open source implementation of XNA specifically for iOS appeared called XNATouch.  This later became MonoGame as the number of supported platforms grew and more developers became involved.

By 2013 Microsoft finally retired XNA.  The writing had been on the fall for a while, though its abandonment upset a great many hobbyist developers who had invested a lot of time and energy building their games upon it.  MonoGame and FNA stepped up to fill the gap.

FNA was a fork of MonoGame by Ethan Lee, using an SDL2 renderer instead of the unsupported OpenTK as used (then) by MonoGame.  One impressive aspect on FNA was its laser-focus on accuracy, which shows in the quality of the Linux and Mac ports it has produced (e.g. Fez, Roque Legacy).


At various points, XAGE has been built upon each of the above, including other implementations not mentioned here (e.g. Silversprite).  At the time of writing, MonoGame is used for its content building tools and handheld platforms.  FNA is used for the main desktop platforms.

With the recent support for .NET Core and potential plans for additional platform support (given the ubiquity of SDL2), the case for using FNA is strengthened further, though MonoGame remains an important and useful project.

Being able to use .NET Core solves distribution problems (no need to install the .NET framework, no complicated or brittle Mono binaries).  It also feels good to be back on the bleeding edge, which is a far cry from all the anxiety around XNA's protracted demise.

There remain some blockers for making the switch fully.  One being that XAGE uses Protobuild for creating all the relevant Visual Studio solutions and projects for the user.  Protobuild does not currently support .NET Core.

Regardless, we're in a pretty good position right now.  The big graphics rewrite started a year ago turned into a larger refactoring project that is resulting in a saner, more manageable codebase.  Once a few more reliability and usability milestones have been hit, we'll be looking to put out a release into the wild.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Xbox One Support

Since starting work on the big refactoring piece I haven't paid too much attention to broadening platform support. However, since Microsoft announced the Xbox Live Creators Program (essentially a replacement for the Xbox 360's Xbox Live Indie Games), I was curious to see how much effort it would be to get XAGE up and running on the Universal Windows Platform. It turned out to be this: two evenings, thanks to MonoGame v3.6.  Using the latest version of Protobuild, XAGE Editor will now automatically create a Visual Studio solution for UWP:

Some of the changes to the engine could be done without breaking anything, though some required introducing more preprocessor soup (#if #else #endif) due to breaking framework changes. Ideally once dotnet core matures then we can move towards NETStandard libraries for all platforms.
  • UWP forces all file IO to be asynchronous, so the simplest solution was to use a synchronous wrapper specifically for the WindowsUniversal libraries. 
  • Minor API changes were needed (e.g. replacing Delegate.CreateDelegate with MethodInfo.CreateDelegate, generic use of SystemException with System.Exception).
  • Replace all Stream.Close() with Stream.Dispose() where a using block is not used for automatic cleanup. 
  • Remove all errant use of System.Console.Write() for debugging.
  • Identifying the main UI thread using Task.CurrentId instead of Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId (access to threads is not exposed in UWP).
  • Inserting GetTypeInfo() into various reflection method calls and properties due to a very UWP specific workaround.
The result of this work is that XAGE now tentatively supports the Windows 10 Store and the Xbox One family of consoles. I've updated the list of supported platforms accordingly.

Not everything is quite implemented yet (serialization, audio etc) but I'll return to finish this up once the main refactoring is complete.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Interfaces vs Concrete Wrapper Classes

Software development can often be very rewarding, with interesting problems to solve and little pockets of endorphin releases as a reward.  It can also be a pretty tedious drudgery of box ticking with little to no fanfare.  The last few weeks have mostly been the latter.

Previously, when working on game scripts, a developer would be using C# interfaces defined within a standard interface library (XAGE.Interface.dll), which is how the scripts are de-coupled from the engine runtime.  The .NET naming convention for interfaces is to use an 'I' prefix e.g. ICharacter.

However, it's not possible to define a static method or property as part of an interface (which, when you think about it, wouldn't make sense anyway), so these were instead implemented as part of a second class e.g. Character.  This leads to some confusing and inconsistent typing in game scripts, e.g.:

ICharacter myCharacter = Character.GetAtScreenXY(mouse.x, mouse.y);

To work around this, I've created a concrete wrapper class for each interface:

// Instance of interface injected into concrete wrapper class
private ICharacter engineCharacter;

// Properties
public int x
        return engineCharacter.x;
        engineCharacter.x = value;

// Methods
public void SayAt(int x, int y, int width, string message)
    engineCharacter.SayAt(x, y, width, message);

Creating these wrapper classes has not been fun, even though it was partially automated, as there were of hundreds and methods and properties to wrap.  It does however have the following benefits:

  • The developer only needs to know about the single concrete class instead of the interface.  The newly styled documentation is also more straightforward as a result.  This will be fleshed out in future with examples and annotations.
  • Any discrepancies between the interface class and AGS scripts can be hidden as part of the wrapper class.  The main one being how AGS primarily uses integer IDs compared to XAGE's string IDs.
  • Automatic AGS conversions now no longer need clumsy string swaps for certain types.

There are some downsides however.  There is a tiny performance overhead in some instances, and some additional complexity when maintaining lists of objects in both the script and the engine.  These are outweighed by the benefits however.

So the last few weeks of spare evenings have been pretty dull, much like this blog post, but it's another small step in the right direction.  Next up:  Re-wiring and profiling.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Still Alive

Whatever tiny web presence XAGE has is usually followed by a comment including the word 'discontinued' or 'abandoned'.  Lack of any new releases and updates on this blog hasn't helped that perception.  In reality development has continued at a fairly steady pace (416 commits since I switched version control to Bitbucket in February 2014).  I've been posting the occasional progress tweet but recent work justifies (and my daughter's now almost sane sleeping habits allow) a new blog post.

Graphics Rewrite

A hangover from the earliest XAGE prototype had become increasingly a problem and the effort required to solve it meant it had been put off not just for months but years.  Originally, XAGE required that SpriteSheets be built by hand.  The earliest engine runtimes contained hardcoded animation frames (X/Y pos, Offset etc) for borrowed Monkey Island 2 graphics.  Later these animation frames were editable via XAGE Editor but were time consuming and fiddly to set up.  The situation was eased when converting AGS games, where SpriteSheets were built automatically at the point of conversion, but there were still problems with the whole process:

  • The placement of the assets on each SpriteSheet was not optimal which resulted in larger Png & .Xnb files.
  • Each object was directly tied to a single specific SpriteSheet, so anything that did not fit onto the specified maximum texture size (e.g. 1024 x 1024) would not be available to that object (you can see the visual glitches this would result in on old TGP videos).  SpriteSheets could be shared between objects but each object would need to have its own set of frames, animations and views etc.
  • Creating a game from scratch would still require manually building a SpriteSheet.

The solution was to move towards an approach much closed to how AGS handles art assets:

  • XAGE Editor will automatically create SpriteSheets on build (rather than during conversion) from the raw image assets.  The bundling of these images can still be dictated by the end user by arranging them in different folders or providing overrides.
  • Objects are no longer tied to a specific pre-built SpriteSheet, but now can use any image or globally shared animation and view.  This should make it much easier to eliminate any outstanding animation glitches found in converted AGS games.
  • SpriteSheets are automatically created under the hood using SpriteSheetPacker which arranges the images in a more optimal way, saving space.  Performance is improved by using FastBitmap and by only rebuilding whatever SpriteSheet has had a raw image asset change (or recreate everything when the per-platform setting has changed i.e. from maximum texture of 1024 x 1024 to 2048 x 2048).
  • Some components that were split out into seperate elements in the XAGE Editor Treeview have now been simplified by using DataGrids, to make it quicker and easier to create animations and views.
  • Managing raw assets now uses Cyotek's ImageBox component, which is far more polished than the clunky old custom viewer.

The take away is that everything is far simpler for the end user.  The rewrite is about 80% complete but the results are already positive.

This also represents a slight change in direction for XAGE.  Previously I'd been reluctant to model both the editor and engine on AGS too closely, which resulted in forcing some square pegs into round holes.  Going forward I'll be reworking any sensible AGS paradigm directly into XAGE as an individual component, rather than forcing them into a component that doesn't quite fit its needs (e.g. AGS Regions and HotSpots into XAGE WalkBoxes and Room Objects).  Anything I'm still not fond of (e.g. Bitmap masks for walkable areas) will not make their way in, but overall the ease and quality of AGS conversions should improve.

The above means ripping out a lot of old code written five or six years ago and replacing it with something a bit more elegant and appropriate.  This should put the entire engine as a whole on better footing for a maintenance perspective.

Other bits & pieces:

  • The 'X' in XAGE no longer stands for XNA but instead 'Cross-Platform'.  This felt like an important distinction as XNA is essentially dead whereas the libraries that XAGE is built upon, MonoGame and FNA, are very much alive.  More importantly, keeping the same acronym meant I didn't have to put any effort into rebranding.
  • A simple static website serves as its new home:
  • Bitbucket also hosts a public-facing Issues/Enhancements list and Documentation Wiki.  The latter will be fleshed out once the next alpha release becomes available and focus moves away from plumbing towards implementing more of the scripting hooks within the engine itself.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Awakener ... again

Several years ago I ported Ben Chandler's Awakener to XAGE.  Although it was fully playable, during development I was increasingly unhappy with what was under the hood.  I've blogged infrequently about the improvements that have been made to the engine since, but here's a concise comparison:
  1. Scripting is now handled in pure C# rather than an XML-based scripting language.  Protobuild is used to synchronise XAGE Editor with automatically created Visual Studio solutions.
  2. On Windows, the dependencies on Microsoft .NET and XNA have been removed by using mono & Ethan Lee's Monogame fork, FNA, along with cygwin & mkbundle to produce a standalone executable.
  3. Pathfinding is much improved with the old walkboxes replaced with floor polygons.
  4. There are now three interchangeable input methods - mouse, controller & touch.
  5. The new SDL2-based backend allows for fully resizable windows and different scaling modes. 
The Awakener UI has also been tweaked to incorporate some lessons learnt with Ortis.  Try for yourself:
I've also uploaded a short youtube video to showcase some of the above features: (ProTip:  Don't record videos at 1AM with a poor quality headset).

Monday, 17 December 2012

Like a Traction Engine

Ortis is currently being developed in two different continents using two different engines.  How does that work?  Like this:


It's a simplification of course - Ben has input on how the different user interfaces should work, and I chip in with some AGS code and the occasional ill-conceived plot device ("What if Madelyn actually suffers from hair loss and can only stimulate her follicles using the milk of human kindness?").

As the lead creative force, it's absolutely fair to say that Ortis is primarily Ben's baby.  One advantage of the approach we're taking is that, in the unfortunate event I'm incapacitated by one of the UK's many bad drivers, he'll be free to continue and complete the game to his own satisfaction within AGS.  Assuming my good fortune continues (thirty years free from being run over and killed), we'll end up with an attractive, interesting and accessible game available on three core platforms, with potentially up to six more should interest be sufficient.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Games 'n that


As mentioned on Ben Chandler's blog, we've been collaborating on a new game for some months.  It's being developed primarily in AGS, with a view to releasing an XAGE version of the game on as many platforms as we can.  It's early days yet, but the quality of Ben's initial artwork is very high indeed, and improving with each scene:


Rather than porting it at the end of the development cycle and being overwhelmed with hundreds of bugs, the game is being ported iteratively.  This means I can squash most issues as and when they occur, and being able to play early builds on the Xbox and Windows Phone has been important in making sure the interface is simple and intuitive across all platforms.

It's a massively exciting project to be a part of.  I'll try to blog about this more as things ramp up.

Prime Minister's Questions:

About eighteen months ago, I agreed to attempt a port of Mark Richards' then beta AGS game, Prime Minister's Questions.  It proved to be a good test case for the early C# scripting engine, though a chronic lack of free time and some unfortunate technical issues with third party libraries meant it was only about 90% complete.  Mark released the AGS version shortly after and got some decent coverage within the  mainstream press.

After recently taking another look at latest (and most likely, last) version of Silverlight, I found I was able to finally complete the job.  I'm quite pleased with the results - whilst there are still improvements to be made, general performance is much better than the original port of Awakener back in 2010:


Mark's now working on a new HTML5 & Javascript powered PMQs, so I look forward to seeing a smug, pixelated George Osborne receiving his parliamentary comeuppance.