Monday, 15 December 2014

Slipping Back into Old Habits

I have a lot more time to think about coding issues than I have time to code. In some ways, this is quite handy as it allows me to plan through certain problems and foresee potential pitfalls of a particular solution. I think there are two key problems with this, however. First, even if I come up with a solution it's still only half the job done. Second, it gets be bogged down in coding problems that often are beyond my coding abilities. This all became apparent in the last month when I became bogged down in a particular design problem. A month later, I'm still no closer to a solution, and worse still I'm not making any progress in any other area. And instead of just coding a workaround for the time being, I became fixated on solving the problem.

(I needed compile-time polymorphism where I previously had run-time polymorphism. I read through books and websites on templating, tried rudimentary attempts at adjusting my code, but always I was trying to code up a perfect solution in my head, weighing up potential considerations and pitfalls. And at the end of it, all I have is the lament I just didn't code around it.)

What I find so disappointing is I know all this. There's nothing particularly revelatory in that I dwell on problems instead of working around them, but it is disappointing that I still haven't moved on from the problems I had when I was at university learning to code. I get too hung up on solutions that I haven't learnt how to code around it.

This game coding happens in the limited spare time I have. It's a hobby, and comes after other aspects of work and life. So maintaining motivation is always a struggle, especially in the face of seeming blockers. And from what I've come to know about the role pressure plays in inhibiting the creative process, the limited time often translates into fixating on particular solutions instead of just getting on with something else.

Given that I'm still adjusting back into C++, it's easy for me to think of failures as a lack of knowledge of the language itself. Sometimes that's apparent, and I know as I'm reading through various C++ material that I'm skimming for a particular solution context rather than internalising the language feature as a potential design tool in the future. But I think it would be a cop-out to blame my current understanding of C++ when the language is so flexible in the kinds of solutions that are permitted.

It's always, I think, going to be a question of motivation. That is, am I able to code something that's good enough for the task at hand? One thing that's problematic is that my initial scope is far too ambitious – that is, I'm trying to create a framework that could be used to make any number of 2D games. So in that respect I'm stuck trying to figure out generic solutions.

And therein lies the problem. How do I know I'm going to get to use any of the design work I've put in so far? For example, all the time I spent writing wrapper objects for SDL code, as far as I can tell, has had very little benefit so far. Indeed, the main reason I did that was to have a sort of platform agnosticism – the theory was that I could refactor out the core features of the engine to a different library without having to permeate those decisions down through game code. Yet if I'm never going to do that, then as happy as I am with some of the wrapper code I wrote, then a lot of that effort was wasted.

(Funnily enough, as I was trying to learn SDL, one thing I got frustrated with was that the tutorials were so direct in their use of the libraries. I took it as an act of clarity on account of the tutorial writers that they didn't try to muddle things up by enclosing their code in some simple patterns. But as I was coding up my input system, I wondered just what benefit I was getting out of mapping SDL structures with my own.)

This too, I think, highlights the perils of solo development. As I'm working on this project, I'm accountable to one person: myself. What I design, what I build, what my desired end-product is – all that is my decision. And since I'm starting from scratch and working completely unguided, it’s inevitable that I'm going to not only make bad decisions, but those bad decisions will lead t o a lot of wasted time. You live, you (hopefully) learn.

What I think I've learnt is something about the limitations of myself. If I have a certain disposition to coding a certain way, then it would be madness to think I can just overcome it by saying "don't". What I hoped with prototype-driven design was that I could better focus on what needs to be done, rather than what I would think might need to be done. That, now, seems like only addressing half of the equation, and what's missing are techniques for build-and-refactor so I don’t get bogged down where an elegant solution is not immediately apparent.

I know at times I need to get out of my head – I have notebooks that are filling up with ideas faster than I'm adding lines of code to the codebase. What will remain to be seen is if I can work with my own personal practices and habits. Like losing weight, if you try to do it on willpower, then you’re going to fail miserably.

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