A few notes about Windows support

First of all, I would like to thank Eduard Gibert for making me notice some issues in Windows that were preventing the correct compilation of Crimild under that platform. I’ve been so  focused on iOS recently that I completely forgot about Windows. And since there’s no continuous integration tool (shame on me) it was a matter of time until these kind of problems occur. Maybe this is a good time to start using one.

Anyway, I wanted to share the changes I made in order to fix the Windows build:

First, all third-party libraries and frameworks required to build Crimild on Windows are now stored in the /third-party folder in the SVN repository. This allows CMake to correctly discover them during the project configuration process and ensures that the development environment is properly set. The reason for doing so is that both Linux and MacOS are much more developer friendly when it comes to depending on third party libraries. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Windows so I have to do what’s necessary in order to ensure the environment is correctly configured.

Concerning Lua, up until now the Lua core had to be compiled separately for each platform in order to produce the correct static library for our projects. It turns out that Lua itself proposes an alternative process which is as simple as including all core files as part of our build process. And that’s exactly what I did. Now the Scripting module will build Lua sources as well without having to worry about the target platform. I should thank Lua engineers for using ANSI C and making my life easier.

On the downside, I was forced to disable a couple of examples and the new shader-based OpenGL renderer until further notice as I’m still working on them.

As a side note, I also noticed that the documentation regarding node visitors is far from helpful so I’ll be writing a little bit more about them in my next post.

The hazards of a binary file format

For years we’ve been told that we have to store our assets using a binary file format (either proprietary or one of the multiple standard ones) and for a long time I followed this rule by heart with Crimild. In fact, the Streaming system currently implemented in Crimild uses a custom binary file format to store all of the assets in a single file. But is this really the best choice for our engine?

We all know the benefits of a binary file format. First, they (usually) load faster than text based files. In many cases, they will require less storage than text files (I’m not talking about compression, just the fact that a number usually requires a handful of bytes depending on its precision regardless of its actual value), which is perfect for things like networking as well. And, depending on the format in which our data is stored, we might not even have the need to transform the data to suit our memory structures.

But despite those benefits, there are a couple of drawbacks that can make our lives miserable, specially during development time.

Why I don’t like binary files anymore?

It turns out I made a huge (and rookie) mistake in Streaming sub-system. As it is right now, you can save an entire 3D scene into a single binary file, including textures, shaders, scripts and pretty much any other asset. While this may seem like a good design decision, it’s definitely a drawback during development time.

Think about this: any scene in our project can become big enough so that it requires at least two people to work with it. The most common scenario is to have an artists for graphical assets and a script programmer to implement the game logic. Then, each of them has his own copy of the scene and from time to time they have to merge their modifications. But in the real world we know for sure that merging binary files can be a nightmare and anyone familiar with any SCM software like SVN or Git knows that a conflict in a binary file probably leads to a lot rework.

How often could this happen? Well, from my experience this becomes a day-to-day issue even for small teams, leading to a lot of wasted time and frustration. And it’s not an issue with games development only. It happens with Word documents, the Xcode project file itself, visual assets, audio assets, you name it. I’ve been using Unity3D for quite some time now and to be honest this is my only complain about it. After all the effort the guys at Unity made to create such an incredible tool, I still don’t understand why they are using binary files for their projects. Recently, they have recognized this as a problem and they’ll try to address it in their next major version, which seems that I’m in the right track too.

XML as an alternative

I’m considering using XML to store scene information, having all assets (like textures, shaders, scripts, etc) as separated files and using some sort of source URL to reference them. Why XML? First, because it’s a text based format. Even in the worst case when an automatic merging tool cannot deal with a conflict, there’s always a chance to do it manually. Plus, we can see the changes made using a diff application.

Secondly, by defining an XML schema developers and artists can modify a scene without having an editor. A simple mechanism can be implemented to reload a scene or parts of it (like reload all shaders) in order to minimize the turnaround time.

Am I ditching the support for binary files?

Of course not. XML can be very effective for development, but of course when things get real and we need speed, it’s not the best choice. Then, I’m still keeping the binary file format support, but I intent to use it only for storing scenes that are ready to be deployed in the final version of our game, since they are not supposed to be changed at that point. A simple tool can be implemented to grab any scene in XML and all of its referenced assets and then compile them into a single binary file.

Final thoughts

So, are we ought to use a binary file format in our projects? Definitely. But we don’t have to use them all the time. During development time, our focus should be on the team and their needs in order to guarantee the best outcome. We always have the chance to develop that set of scripts or tools that will automatically convert all of our assets into the best possible format for our game when actually needed.