September 11, 2016

Summer 2016 and some thoughts

It only feels like it was only a few weeks ago I posted something here. However, time currently tells me it has been more than two months, so much for my biweekly posting plan. I've been pretty busy making more progress with my project but also been feeling a bit of a burnout and needing some time to relax. Most of the last two months has been dedicated to solving some of the harder problems in my project. Some of the challenges involved sketching out pages of design for weeks at a time without writing any code. Others were solved by writing tests or small prototypes.

I had hit a complexity wall. Sometimes you get to a stage in a project where you know what you want to do but cannot wrap your head around the complexity of it. On paper it seemed straight forward, but once I started to code it I had to fight with making sure it was doing exactly what I wanted. I was entering into territory where writing tests was simply not sufficient. As it evolved and changed any tests I wrote were quickly obsolete and meaningless.

It felt like I was back to when I was first learning programming and trying to create a text-based game. I was about 10 years old and had been coding for only a few months, but I had created a game that was about a 1000 lines long. It was my first experience of the complexity wall and my realization where writing software is hard and time consuming. Years later I hit it again, at the time I was working on creating fairly complex game inside of Warcraft 3. I was getting close to 10k lines of JASS2 (the scripting language for Warcraft 3).

There was a realization; software is developed on a spectrum. On one end you can write code which is fragile and small, but can get the job done quickly. Or you can write code which is resilient and large, but takes a long time to get the job done. I noticed over the years how the fragile and small code is a common theme among programming contests and many successful projects. It is really attractive because it takes the least amount of time to get something done. In the case of programming contests it gives you more time to think about solving the problem and lets you finish the contest in less time. In the case of successful projects, it allows you to get the product out and start making money sooner.

I've also seen the dark side of fragile and small code, one that is often ignored. I've seen many games start out good, push out features quickly, and start making money. Then a few years go by and the project ends up being abandoned because progress slows down to a grinding halt, bugs are constantly plaguing the game, and the money runs dry which forces the developer to stop supporting the game. You frequently hear the words 'rewriting', 'bug fixing', 'new systems', etc. If you don't believe me, look at Steam and a vast majority of the indie games... the ones you only heard small things about and the ones that haven't turned into wildly popular games (the ones that after a few years are still < 100k copies sold). It makes me wonder if we are going to have a repeat of the 'video game crash of 1983', mobile apps have not helped with this. Writing resilient and large code is not ideal when it comes to games either. It simply takes too long to get the product out the door, many game projects from start to 'release' tend to take a few years or less. Early access has helped but fragile and small software can also take advantage of early access.

So what is ideal? Well, the short answer is nobody really knows. The long answer depends on what type of software you are producing. If you are writing flight software for an aircraft, or writing software for autonomous vehicles, or safety systems to support industrial applications, then writing resilient software with minimal bugs and high reliability is critical. If you are writing a mobile game, or a simple app for a device where bugs are not critical and the market is constantly shifting to the next hot thing, then getting your app out as quickly as possible is critical. You cannot escape the project management triangle:

Indie developers really are stuck with 'Cheap' so there are really only 2 best case options:
- Cheap & Fast, but not Good
- Cheap & Good, but not Fast
When I say 'good' I am not referring to the quality of the game, but the quality of the software produced for the game. When I say 'fast' I'm not referring to the game running well on low-end machines or getting high frame rates, but the game getting released sooner than later. Those with a keen eye will realize if a game is getting delayed it is because they are trying to go from Cheap & Fast to Cheap & Good. As far as I know, in software there is no feasible way to do it. You can go from Cheap & Fast to Fast & Good, but it seems to kill most indie games.

So where am I going with all this? Well, with my current project I find the Cheap & Fast to be unacceptable. Actually I generally stick to Cheap & Good, which typically means it takes a long time for me to write a project. It is also what turned me off from coding contests and coding competitions. The realization they promote writing terrible to maintain code and reward those who can make something work quickly even if the code itself is throw away. The problem is few want to invest the time in a contest or competition to have a competition for creating a robust system which scales and has a high quality. However, the real-world is that kind of competition and the success of a project is almost never on the quality of the software itself, but on the quality of the overall product in market. The issue is, low quality products can become popular and high quality products can end up never being profitable. However, when I think about it high quality products which do become successful tend to stay popular over the long term. I cannot think of any low quality products which have stood against the test of time. I believe that is why I tend to prefer the idea of a Cheap & Good project over Cheap & Fast project.

I've found a sort of way to cheat in the fast part, with two simple things: technology and architecture. It basically means my speed is limited to the technologies I choose. Which is why I'm continuously looking for better frameworks/libraries/languages to use. If I don't, then my development speed is constantly the same speed which really limits the types of projects I can take on. The other part is architecture, something which you must learn and experience to really understand. Part of the reason I am always working on projects on the side because it takes a long time to improve on if you don't build an understanding of the ways you can solve problems or improve your knowledge. It doesn't mean I am breaking the project management triangle, it just means I'm improving my overall resource capabilities. A diagram to visualize:
Essentially, you can never get into the fast area, but you can certainly get closer to it by improving your total resource capabilities. In the diagram this is going from the black circle to the white circle. Obviously getting to the white circle is never going to happen, but moving away from the black one happens every time you improve your tool-set, gain knowledge which helps you solve a problem, or find a better approach to the overall problem. Yes, every time you do one of those you will pay a little bit in the cost area, but the gains are higher productivity while maintaining high quality and keeping the overall cost of the project low.

A real-world example would be game engines. You could write your own, you could use Unity, Unreal, or another one. Every time you write your own there is a cost, the time it will take for you to write it. Unity and Unreal usually come with a price tag or take a slice out of your profits. The decision you need to make is deciding if the cost is worth the benefits. Sometimes using a framework adds additional development cost with no long-term benefits. Other times using a very popular and well maintained open source framework comes with minimal development costs and significant long-term benefits. It is a hard problem knowing when to write your own, when to stop using a framework and when to pick up a new one. The same can be applied to other aspects of software development, such as languages, design tools, development environments, deployment tools, build tools, source control, etc.

Sometimes I write my own, but it is usually for smaller components and typically I look into how others before me have solved the problem. Building on the knowledge and lessons learned from others will tend to be better than pretending you are an expert and writing your own solution in isolation. You can learn from mistakes without having to experience the mistakes first hand. Don't reinvent the wheel, but when you need to make some special custom wheel to solve your exact problem make sure you understand why the wheel shouldn't be square. Don't try to use a hammer for a screw. Picking a framework or library just because you are familiar with it doesn't mean it will help you solve your problem any faster. Maybe during the early stages you will see lots of benefits but over time you will start to notice the pains of the decision. You or the people who continue with the project will have to live with the pain of the decision you made.

After a summer of being low on the tangible productivity of my project, I still feel a very strong sense of accomplishment. I am working towards fleshing out some of the bigger and complex features of my project. I am writing them in a way I know it is very unlikely I will ever have to rewrite them. A fairly bold statement, but one I strongly believe in. I feel that if you spend the time understanding the problem and prototype out various solutions you will eventually arrive at a solution which will do everything you want it to and be extremely easy to expand or reuse. It doesn't need to be generalized, but it does need to be flexible enough so there is a straight forward way to get to your end goal(s). I think that is the advantage I have of being both the designer and the developer of my project. I know what I want, and I am the one working towards making it a reality.

A minor side note: It is a bit of a scary thought thinking about how a single large complex feature in my project took about 2 months to complete. Maybe a couple weeks less than that if I consider the time I took for vacation and just general down time.