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The Challenges of Developing Games & Other High-Resolution Graphics

Developing technical and process improvement strategies

Parasoft, a leading provider of Automated Error Prevention (AEP) software solutions, recently had the opportunity to work closely with leading game development organizations. Since game development differs from "standard" development, we worked with game development organizations to develop technical and process improvement strategies to suit the industry's unique development needs. This article explores the challenges of developing software for the game development industry, and describes the strategies used to overcome them. The challenges and strategies discussed apply not only to game development, but also to most high-resolution graphic development, which is increasingly being performed on Linux.

Challenges of Game Development
Although game development seems like a dream job to many developers, developing solid games is far from child's play. Like other C/C++ developers, game developers must master the art of avoiding typical C/C++ problems such as memory corruption, memory leaks, memory allocation errors, variable initialization errors, variable definition conflicts, pointer errors, and library errors. However, that's just the beginning. The following subsections outline additional challenges game developers often face.

No Room for Error
Even though games are hardly mission-critical applications, the gaming industry simply cannot afford to release buggy software. Faulty software could decimate a brand's reputation and profits because gamers do not forget an error or a bug in a game when they purchased it for 60 dollars. Moreover, software errors place the organization under a significant financial burden. With the concentrated development of sales cycles that are common to most game development organizations, any unexpected debugging and reworking can cause delays that have severe financial repercussions on advertising, promotions, shipping, etc.

Tight Timelines
Game development organizations must meet the deadlines for delivery or miss a significant sales window. For instance, if a game misses a Christmas shipping window, the organization may not have the opportunity to recoup their research and development investment in that game. Moreover, when a game development organization misses a window of opportunity, competitors will likely pass them up very quickly with competing games. Customers in this industry are typically very "distracted," and their desire for the latest and greatest usually outweighs all other considerations. Because delays and missed releases are so risky in this industry, release schedules are very aggressive, and there's little tolerance for slippage.

Code Written by Inexperienced and/or Overworked Developers
The conditions under which gaming applications are typically developed provide a prime opportunity for the introduction of errors. First, many gaming developers are young and not yet experienced enough to recognize and avoid common coding pitfalls. Second, because there are typically so many inexperienced developers working on gaming applications, it's not uncommon that code is written in different styles, and that developers sometimes misinterpret each other's styles - introducing errors as a result of simple misunderstandings. Third, gaming developers typically work long hours as they struggle to meet high-pressure deadlines. As a result, even experienced developers sometimes forget the lessons they've learned in the past, and introduce careless mistakes into the code. In other industries, code reviews are used to ensure that code is written correctly and uniformly across the team, but there's no time for code reviews in the gaming industry.

Multiple Layers of Acceptance Required
Each gaming platform (Xbox, Playstation, etc.) has a third-party testing organization to validate submitted games from code quality to "playability." If problems are reported during the validation process, the developers must fix them late in the development process - at a time when error fixing is most time-consuming, difficult, and costly. A method for identifying these problems earlier in the development process would save development teams much anxiety and extra work.

The Development Process is Typically Not as Repeatable as it Should Be
Game development is undoubtedly a creative process - as is all development, in essence. However, gaming developers often resist standards and repeatable processes for fear that these "restrictions" threaten their creativity. Ironically, it is these very standards and processes that can help ensure that the developers' creativity and hard work pay off when a game is validated and gets to market on time.

Must Interact with Graphics Libraries
Game developers must successfully interact with graphics libraries to maximize graphic effects and achieve the realism that gamers demand. In traditional C/C++ development efforts, the final step before release is to rid the code of errors such as incorrect return values, memory corruption, and memory leaks. In the gaming industry, clearing these problems is just the beginning.

Graphics libraries, such as OpenGL and DirectX, support the high-resolution, realistic graphics that gamers now expect. Because processors alone cannot handle these kinds of graphics, much of the burden has been shifted to graphics cards, and these libraries are the link by which the application communicates rendering instructions to the cards.

If the code does not interact with the graphics libraries correctly and optimally, graphics may not be rendered as designed, and the motion may seem unrealistic. For instance, misusing OpenGL scaling functions could cause unrealistic shading of the "skin" placed over a wire frame figure. A misuse of OpenGL mipmapping could lead to incorrect - or missing - texture rendering. Other misuses might impact performance and prevent the display of the expected frames per second, resulting in choppy motion.

In most C/C++ projects, graphics enhance the application. However, in gaming software, graphics are the application - from the user's perspective at least. Graphical problems are as critical to gaming software as data computation errors are to financial software. Consequently, gaming developers are faced with the daunting task of not only mastering the well - known challenges of C and C++, but also learning how to avoid the pitfalls of newer, less common technologies.

Solving These Challenges
We decided that the best way to address these challenges would be to implement two types of solutions: technical solutions designed to prevent and detect specific errors commonly made by game developers and process improvement strategies designed to make the overall software development lifecycle faster and less error prone. By applying the technical solutions' best-practices in the framework of the process improvement solution, gaming developers could control the errors known to delay their releases and prevent them from obtaining the necessary third-party validation.


More Stories By Wayne Ariola

Wayne Ariola is Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Development at Parasoft, a leading provider of integrated software development management, quality lifecycle management, and dev/test environment management solutions. He leverages customer input and fosters partnerships with industry leaders to ensure that Parasoft solutions continuously evolve to support the ever-changing complexities of real-world business processes and systems. Ariola has more than 15 years of strategic consulting experience within the technology and software development industries. He holds a BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an MBA from Indiana University.

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