Some Notes on Mac Configuration

I was recently advising a fellow TEC-er on setting up their Mac, and they suggested I write it up. These are the tools I use daily for development! Here we go…

  1. Alfred is an awesome tool. Like the Windows key on Win8, you can hit a keyboard shortcut (cmd-space by default) and type an app name or other command. Super handy.
  2. iTerm2 is a replacement for the terminal. The best thing about OS X is that it has a great UNIX command line alongside a nice GUI, and iTerm2 makes the terminal even better. Don’t forget to configure and use the global terminal hotkey. So handy!
  3. Spectacles lets you control your windows with the keyboard. So handy, especially on my Air with limited screenspace.
  4. Sublime Text 3 is my go to text editor on every platform, and especially Mac. Favorite features include cmd-d (to select multiple matching text ranges and edit them simultaneously) and using the subl command line tool to open folders/files from the terminal.
  5. Oh My ZSH! is a great upgrade for your terminal. Maintaining your own custom config is even better… but as a default setup it’s pretty good.
  6. RVM is a good way to get assorted Rubies install on your system. Ruby is handy but it suffers from versioning hell. RVM can help, sometimes.
  7. The GitHub app is also mega handy. No replacement for command line but it simplifies auth and basic commit/branch switching.

There are also some miscellaneous things you probably need to do: get the latest git, possibly install brew and ports (but I find more and more I prefer to compile and install from source), get all the latest updates from the App Store, and install XCode 5 (from the App Store these days). You might need CMake for Loom builds, along with Android SDK and Android NDK. We like to use the HipChat app for communication amongst our team.

As you can see, I really like a keyboard oriented workflow. Perhaps it is the inevitable outcome of programming for so long. I’ve trended more and more towards it. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of using tmux and emacs in a fullscreen terminal, but who knows…

Loom at FITC Screens 2013 and Samsung Developer Conference

I will be speaking about Loom, Flash, and other interactive media topics at FITC SCREENS 2013! With glorious downtown Toronto as my backdrop, I’ll be discussing the Flash/AIR landscape, why we built Loom, and demoing how it’s a great open source platform on which for you to build apps AND games.  If you need to build cross platform interactive apps with native features, Loom is worth your time.

More about Screens:

SCREENS is dedicated to covering development for mobile devices and operating systems. Through two days of presentations, demonstrations and panel discussions, as well as an optional day of workshops, SCREENS will give you the know-how to address client needs (and demands!) as we move forward into the mobile future. Visit fitc.ca/screens for more information.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 3.23.34 PM

I am also speaking at the Samsung Developer Conference Oct 27-29 in San Francisco. My session is a little bit up in the air but it will focus on mobile cross platform development, how to build neat tech stacks that leverage the native platform, and lessons learned in building mobile games on the platform.

More about Samsung Developer Conference:

Join us for the first annual Samsung Developers Conference to connect with industry visionaries, Samsung executives and technical leaders, and fellow developers. Get an exclusive first look at the latest tools, SDKs, and emerging platforms for Samsung devices to create what’s next.

That’s it for my October speaking plans. See you in Toronto and SF!

Deep Breath & Measure

“Your app is slow!”

What are you going to do about it? Is it that new code the intern landed? Is it the operating system’s fault? Misconfigured hardware? Or even, god forbid, a bad algorithm?

Your thoughts run to that bloated subsystem. You know the one. It’s complicated. You’ve had your eye on it for a while. It would be so sweet to refactor it. Take some of those algorithms down to O(log n) and add some caching. Get it running really sweet. All that code. It’s got to be it.

So you spend all day and a long night crunching on it. Getting it all working right. You spend some time tracking down bugs and adding a few previously unneeded features. You get it all working, check it in, and sleep till noon. You head back into the office to be greeted by… silence.

“Isn’t it faster now?” “Nope – still slow!”

“Crap!”

What went wrong here?

One key got skipped: measuring. 

Your very first instinct whenever you see a performance issue should be to quantify it. The most powerful lines of code you can write are these:

var startTime = Platform.getTime();
// ... the code which is the problem area...
trace("Elapsed time: " + (Platform.getTime() - startTime));

I’ll often start at the root of my application and manually add blocks like these until I can identify the specific section which is problematic.

There are lots of fun variations on this idea – for instance, having a time threshold under which no output is printed to cut down on spam, or keeping track of averages/min/max, or even automatically profiling every function in your codebase (my game engine, Loom, does this – try profilerEnable and profilerDump in the Loom console!).

If you can’t nail the problem down to the point where you can measure it, it means you don’t understand the problem and you’re doomed to thrashing around with random chances until you fix it… or you just convinced yourself it’s better without changing anything. (You did all that work, didn’t you?)

The Psychological Barrier

Humans are actually VERY perceptive about fast changes in their environments. VR helmets induce motion sickness if they are more than a dozen milliseconds behind the head’s actual motion. Hearing is dependent on detecting changes in movement that are far less than a millisecond in duration.

So when you’re working on performance, eyeballing it should be plenty good, right?

Not true! People aren’t very good at remembering a specific arbitrary interval (say – 150ms vs. 100ms) and recalling it later. So when you’re optimizing load time and you shave 10% off of your 3 second load, you might not even notice that it’s faster. If you’re tired and grumpy, or just distracted, you might even think it’s slower!

It’s much easier and more reliable to just time it and keep some simple notes on your changes and what they did to your metric.

Deep Breath

The first thing to do when you hit a performance bump is to identify and measure it… then take a deep breath and think about what might be causing it. If you can narrow the problem down to a specific hot spot, you’re golden. (Assuming you can speed that part up – but that’s why we have fancy CS degrees, right? ;))

Now all you have to do is iterate. Try something. Try ten things. Measure after each one. Make hypotheses about what might be slow and try to remove it from the equation to see if it really IS your bottleneck. There’s a whole science here – check out my book on video game optimization for a full discussion – but once you are able to measure progress you will be able to move forward.

This is an area where I often see haste lead developers into wasted hours or days or increased technical debt – when a little care and patience would crack the problem right away! So remember to take a deep breath and measure BEFORE you code. :)

 

The Draw-Render-Update Conspiracy

I love clear terminology. It’s the engineer in me. This post is about some self-perpetuating terminology that confused me as a new developer.

The confusion centers around functions named draw() or renderFoo(). As a new developer, you get excited – “Ah hah!” you think to yourself, “I am about to see something cool go down here.” So you pop open the function, and it’s setting the x coordinate or changing a color on some other data structure. “WTF! There’s no drawing or rendering happening here!” you say, disgusted and confused. Or worse, you assume that changing those values has any immediate effect beyond altering a few bytes in memory – and ascribe magical behavior to that section of the code, corrupting your ability to understand and debug.

The reality, of course, is that the actual drawing – in terms of commands to change pixels on the screen – is happening elsewhere, deep in the bowels of some fanatically optimized inner loop (you hope). The draw() function is just updating some data that is used elsewhere. It’s not drawing anything, any more than telling your painter what color you want your bathroom is painting. That’s why I try to name them things like update().

But naming functions update() where the conspiracy gets ahold of me. I’ve already been disappointed by functions named draw and render, that don’t do either, for years. I’ve become cynical. “Well, everyone knows you don’t ACTUALLY render anything in your render function. It’s just a state update. It’s this code’s perspective on what rendering means.” And due to this etymological relativism, I write functions called renderToast that don’t really have anything to do with displaying charred bread products.

What’s the moral of this story? The trivial one is “name stuff accurately.” But the rot has already set in, and language is situational and metaphoric. So the real takeaway is for those who aren’t on the “inside” of the conspiracy, a warning – things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t trust that draw function until you really know what it is doing. Always read the whole codebase!

(And – OK, maybe it’s more of a stand alone complex than a conspiracy, if we want to be really specific.)

Flatten Your Conditionals!

Deep nesting is a pet peeve of mine. I’m going to show you what deeply nested code is and discuss some strategies for keeping things tidy. It’s my opinion that deep nesting is a sign of sloppy code.

You know, code like this (with my condolences to the author):

    if (productId != nil) {

        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: %@", productId);

        if ([SKPaymentQueue canMakePayments]) {
            // Yes, In-App Purchase is enabled on this device.
            // Proceed to fetch available In-App Purchase items.

            // Initiate a product request of the Product ID.
            SKProductsRequest *prodRequest = [[SKProductsRequest alloc] initWithProductIdentifiers:[NSSet setWithObject:productId]];
            prodRequest.delegate = self;
            [prodRequest start];
            [prodRequest release];

            return YES;

        } else {
            // Notify user that In-App Purchase is Disabled.

            NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: IAP Disabled");

            return NO;
        }

    } else {

        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: productId = NIL");

        return NO;
    }

This code is hard to understand. It’s hard to understand because error handling is distant from the error checks (for instance, the check for nil is at the beginning but the error and return are at the end!). It’s hard to understand because the important parts are deeply indented, giving you less headroom. If you want to add additional checks, it’s hard to know where to add them – and you have to touch lots of unrelated lines to change indent level. And there are many exit points scattered throughout. GROSS.

Whenever I see code like this I cringe. When I get the chance, I like to untangle it (or even catch it in code review). It’s soothing, simple work. To be sure, the functionality of the code is fine – it’s purely how it is written that annoys me.

There’s a key thing to be aware of in the structure of this code – it has a bunch of early outs related to error handling. This is a common pattern so it’s worth walking through the cleanup process. Let’s pull the first block out:

    if(productId == nil)
    {
        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: productId = NIL");
        return NO;
    }

    NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: %@", productId);

    if ([SKPaymentQueue canMakePayments] == YES)
    {
        // Initiate a product request of the Product ID.
        SKProductsRequest *prodRequest = [[SKProductsRequest alloc] initWithProductIdentifiers:[NSSet setWithObject:productId]];
        prodRequest.delegate = self;
        [prodRequest start];
        [prodRequest release];

        return YES;
    }
    else
    {
        // Notify user that In-App Purchase is Disabled.
        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: IAP Disabled");
        return NO;
    }

    // Never get here.
    return NO;

It’s a LOT better, but now we have a return that can never be run. Some error handling code is still far from the error detecting code. So still a little messy. Let’s do the same cleanup again on the second block:

    if(productId == nil)
    {
        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: productId = NIL");
        return NO;
    }

    NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: %@", productId);

    if ([SKPaymentQueue canMakePayments] == NO)
    {
        // Notify user that In-App Purchase is Disabled.
        NSLog(@"EBPurchase requestProduct: IAP Disabled");
        return NO;
    }

    // Initiate a product request of the Product ID.
    SKProductsRequest *prodRequest = [[SKProductsRequest alloc] initWithProductIdentifiers:[NSSet setWithObject:productId]];
    prodRequest.delegate = self;
    [prodRequest start];
    [prodRequest release];

    return YES;

See how much cleaner that is? Beyond saving indents, it also exposes the structure of the algorithm a great deal more clearly – check it out:

  1. Check for nil productId; bail if absent.
  2. Log productId if it is present.
  3. Check if we can make payments/IAP is active; bail if not.
  4. Submit the product info request.
  5. Return success!

The code and its “flowchart” now match up nicely, and if you modify one, it’s easy to identify the change in the other. This might seem like a little thing, but I find it shows that the purpose + structure of the function is well set up. And if you can’t write the function without violating this rule, it’s often a very solid clue you need to introduce some more abstraction – tactics such as breaking stuff up into helper methods, reorganizing your data structures a little bit, centralizing lookups/checks, and so on.

Something to keep in mind next time you find yourself hitting tab more than a couple times – flatten your conditionals!

Ludum Dare 26 & Loom

Are you a fan of Ludum Dare? I’ve loved watching it for a long time. The huge community of excited developers is fantastic to watch, and some great games come out every time. More than that, LD is a great opportunity. In fact, such a good opportunity that we’re giving LD participants a huge deal on Loom (but more on that later).

The incredible opportunity in an event like LD is that it gets you to finish something. It’s so common for projects to run on and on and on and on… Professionally, you could work in AAA games for a decade and only ship a few games. Imagine being a professional painter and only making 10 paintings in your whole career.

There are big lessons you only learn when you finish. Like – was the feature you spent 80% of your time working on what made the game fun, or was it the feature you added at the last minute on a lark that made the whole game work? Is your gameplay immediately understandable? How much is your fun driven by content vs. gameplay? What dumb things kept people from enjoying your game (like missing DLLs, unclear instructions, installer issues, and so on)? What REALLY goes into the last 20% it takes to ship?

You also get the big endorphin rush of releaseIt feels GOOD to ship. Even if you decide the project was a failure, completing it is good. You can put it on the shelf and refer to it later. And it’s motivating to know you’ve gotten something DONE and don’t have to think about it any longer.

It’s easy to get stuck in the doldrums of project creation. You end up going around and around creating new things on new tech. It’s shiny and in some ways fun, but you never experience the growth and maturation that comes from shipping and sharing your creation with the world. Shipping – even something small – gets you out of that rut.

Take some time and participate in Ludum Dare 26. Creating and finishing a small game project is one of the best investments you can make in yourself – not just as a game developer but as a professional. It’s easy to overlook how valuable this can be.

And of course – Loom is a great fit for making small games fast. Through LD26, use the code GO_LD26 to get 50% off all Loom subscriptions. Get Loom and go make something cool!

Loom is Launched!

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 11.59.20 PM

Howdy!

You may have wondered what I’ve been up to since PushButton Labs and PushButton Engine. Nate Beck, Josh Engebretson, and I are proud to share our latest creation, the Loom Game Engine, with the world. It’s a native mobile game engine with live reloading of code and assets, a great command line workflow, and a powerful AS3-like scripting language.

Check out this sweet video demoing Loom:

We’re giving away Loom Indie Licenses (normally $500) for FREE until Mar 29, the last day of GDC. We’ve already given away almost $2,000,000 in licenses. Get yours now!

TCP is the worst abstraction.

TCP is the worst abstraction.

You are hopefully familiar with Leaky Abstractions as described by Joel Spolsky. The idea is that when you add layers to hide messy details, you can mostly avoid having to know what exactly is going on – until something breaks. Think of it as putting a smooth plastic coating on your car. Everything is really simple and zero-maintenance until your engine breaks and now you’re peeling plastic back trying to figure out which part is on fire…

TCP makes some big promises. “Your data will magically arrive in order and on time!” “Don’t worry about it, I’ll retry for you.” “Sure – I can send any amount of data!” “Hahah, packet sizes? I’m sure we don’t have to worry about those.”

Let’s talk about springing leaks. Just like when your upstairs neighbor’s toilet springs a leak and you have to deal with the concrete realities that a high flow water source above your bedroom ceiling introduces, springing leaks means you can’t use your abstraction anymore – you now have to work with the underlying system, often at one remove (or more!) because you’re working through the abstraction you chose to shield you from this in the first place!

TCP is leaky as a sieve. TCP says “I’ll just act like a stream and send bytes to someone on the internet!” But here are just a few areas where TCP breaks:

  • If you send too much data at once (the OS buffer fills and the write fails; you then have to resend).
  • If you send too little data at a time (the OS will sometimes fix this for you, see Nagle’s Algorithm, which can be good or bad depending on when that data needs to go over the wire).
  • If you try to read too much data at once (again, the OS receive buffer has limited size – so you have to be able to read your data in chunks that fit inside that limit).
  • If you transfer data at the wrong rate (the TCP flow control rules can be a problem).
  • If you try to read too little data at a time (then OS call overhead dominates your transfer speeds).
  • If you want to assume data has arrived (it may not have, you have to peek and see how much data there is and only read if there is enough, which necessitates careful design of your protocol to accomodate this).
  • If you want to initialize a connection in a deterministic fashion. (You have to do a bunch of careful checks of domain/IP/etc. to make sure it will even go through and once the connection is initialized you have to figure out if it’s alive or not. It can also take quite a while to establish a connection and get data flowing, see efforts like SPDY)
  • If you are on a lossy network (it will incur arbitrary overhead resending lost data).
  • If you want to manage latency (you have to take care to send data in correct packet boundaries).
  • If you want to connect through a firewall (good luck with that one).
  • If you want to use nonblocking IO. (You have to do a bunch of platform specific crud and even then not all actions are nonblocking; you have to live in a separate thread and block there.)
  • If you want to run a popular service. (There are a lot of ways the OS can be tricked by outside parties into mismanaging its resources leading to starvation/denial of service attacks.)

IMHO, TCP is an abstraction in name only. If you want to get any kind of decent results from it, you have to fully understand the entire stack. So now not only do you have to know everything about TCP, you have to know everything (or at least most of it) about IP, about how the OS runs its networking stack, about what tricks routers and the internet will play on you, about how your protocol’s data is set up, and so on.

I came to networking in a roundabout way. I did a couple of small TCP projects in my teens, but I spent most of my formative programming years (18-23 or so) working with Torque, which uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Here’s what UDP code looks like:

// Send a packet.
sendto(mysocket, data, dataLen, 0, &destAddress, sizeof(destAddress));
// Receive a packet.
recvfrom(mysocket, data, dataLen, 0, &fromAddress, sizeof(fromAddress));

It’s very very simple and it maps almost directly to what the Internet actually gives you, which is the ability to send and receive routed packets from peers. These packets aren’t guaranteed to arrive in order nor are they guaranteed to arrive at all. In general they won’t be corrupted but it would behoove you to check that, too.

This is primitive, like banging two rocks together! Why do this to yourself? Well – it depends. If you just need to create some basic networking behavior and don’t care if it’s subpar, TCP works well enough, and if you have to, you can get it to sing for certain situations. And sometimes TCP is required because of firewalls or other technical issues. But if you want to build something that is native for the network, and really works well, go with UDP. UDP is a flat abstraction. You have to take responsibility for the network’s behavior and handle packet loss and misdelivery. But by doing so you can skip leaky abstractions and take full advantage of what the network can do for you.

Sometimes it’s better to solve hard problems up front, rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away

Some Thoughts on Build Servers

Continuing from last week’s thoughts about build systems, let’s talk about build servers.

Say you’ve gotten a build system, like CMake, up and running in your project. Now the developers on your project are doing consistent builds across all your different platforms, and people are hopefully not missing important build steps anymore. However, there can still be differences between systems, and it’s hard for any one developer to try building on all platforms. Additionally, they could have some left over crud from old builds that throws things off.

The next step in sanity for your project workflow is to set up a build server. This is a box (or boxes) that sits there and pulls down clean copies of your codebase and does full builds, from scratch, all the time. It is kept in a pristine condition so that you don’t e.g. introduce a new dependency in your production binaries by updating Visual Studio. To do these builds, it runs some continuous integration package that lets developers trigger builds, check up on their status, and view build logs to find out why things broke. CI packages can also do fancier tricks like run unit tests, upload builds to QA or even the public, tag releases, and so on. (We’ll get into advantageous use of these in a later post.)

There are a lot of great build server options out there, and I’ve worked with or evaluated many of them. Let’s walk through them in order:

Tinderbox Mozilla’s Tinderbox was one of the first public continuous integration packages. Much like Bugzilla, it was the first place many people looked – and most people moved on to look at something better suited to their needs right away. This is not necessarily a knock on Bugzilla or Tinderbox, as they and their derivatives have continued to serve Mozilla just fine over the years.

PMEase QuickBuild QuickBuild was my first experience running a build server. We used QuickBuild 1.0 for C++ Torque builds on multiple platforms, which was weird and new – at the time, most build server packages – including this one – were very Java oriented. Luckily, we could call out to MSVC and XCode from Ant! PMEase has kept with it, and now they’re at version 4.0. I found them to have very responsive support, and QB itself was nice to configure and work with. It’s more expensive than some of the other options ($3k/site), but if you have the budget it’s worth a look.

Bamboo From Atlassian, I had high hopes for Bamboo, as JIRA is a powerful and reliable tool. However, when I last evaluated it (in late 2010 or so), I found its paradigm hard to understand. I just couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to use it – it had a lot of proprietary terminology that confused me. Additionally, it did not have good support for building all topic branches, which was a big part of the workflow I wanted my team to use. Looking it over again, I’m not sure it has improved on either front. However, I hold Atlassian in fairly high regard, so I am hopeful that someone else has figured it out and can enlighten me. :)

Jenkins/Hudson After a sale to Oracle, Jenkins was forked from Hudson to continue open source development. It runs on a wide variety of platforms, and it’s easy to set up. It has a large set of plugins of varying levels of maturity, and it’s not that hard to write your own. However, key plugins (for instance, the Git plugin) can have frustrating gaps and holes, and because it’s community driven, bugs can linger for a long time. The REST API is also weak in places, making it hard to extend with custom tools/scripts. My experience is that Jenkins is a solid choice for simpler projects but if you want to push your build server it can fall apart on you. We used it for several smaller projects, where it worked great, then we took it into a project with a large, 50+ member team of artists and developers. In that scenario, we ended up having to extend it heavily with custom scripts, mostly to add functionality it should have had to begin with.

JetBrains TeamCity TeamCity is free for lighter use, although heavier usage requires purchasing licenses from JetBrains. TeamCity has very solid Git/JIRA integration, and a well thought out UI. Setup isn’t hard and it has good support for adding distributed build agents. We’ve been very happy with it for our C++ and Ruby projects. It has good support for building topic branches, too.

In the end, what is crucial for continuous integration software? It should be reliable, and especially robust in the face of broken builds. It should be easy for the team to understand and use, especially when they are debugging build issues. It should be able to scale to build across all your platforms, quickly – it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes or so for a full build across all platforms to complete.

Some Thoughts on Build Systems

Note: You might also want to read Some Thoughts on Build Servers, which discusses software packages for running automated builds on a shared server.

SmokestacksThe hardest part of software development is often the road from code in a repo to an artifact in the user’s hands.

There are a million ways you can ruin yourself along that long and winding path. You miss a DLL or dependency. You mark a flag wrong and it won’t run on a non-developer system. A setting gets changed on the system doing the compile and builds mysteriously fail. On multiple platforms (and who isn’t on at least a couple?), you forget to test on all 5 of your platforms and find out the build is broken – obviously or subtly – on one of them.

One building bock that helps cut down on this pain is a build tool – a tool to manage what files are built in what order and with what settings. If you can fire off your build from a single command line command, it dramatically reduces the risk of breakage due to outside factors – and helps a lot with setting up build boxes. At this point I’ve worked with nearly every option: make, msbuild, xcodebuild, rake, Maven, Ant, CMake, premake, qmake, and even a couple of home brew systems. Here are my thoughts on each of them:

GNU Make. The granddaddy of all build tools. Cryptic syntax, most widely used on POSIX-compatible environments like Mac or Linux. It can do anything you want it to, if you’re willing to dive deep enough into it. Provides very little hand holding. Tools like automake and autoconf expand capabilities quite a bit, but they are anything but intuitive, and if your goal isn’t a UNIX command line tool, they may be frustrating to work with. Makefiles are generally shippable if you are willing to put enough smarts in them (since they are fundamentally built on top of the shell). Make files are easy to generate, and many tools exist to programmatically do so (more on those later).

MSBuild. The successor to nmake (with a brief detour to devenv.exe), it owes a lot of its legacy to make. However, it’s fully integrated with Visual Studio, so if you have a Visual Studio project, it’s easy to drive. In general, vcprojs are pretty easy to programmatically generate, and also easy ship to other Windows developers, which is a big bonus. No viability for sharing cross platform, except possibly in the context of Mono development.

XCodeBuild. The command line tool for compiling XCode projects. It works just like XCode does, minus the goofy UI. Great for doing OSX/iOS builds, nothing doing for any other platforms. XCode project files are relatively easy to ship to people, although there can sometimes be little subtleties that screw you up. Once nice thing about XCode’s build model is that it’s fairly easy to call your own scripts at various points in the build process. The downside is that xcodeproj’s are finicky and hard to generate.

Rake. Ruby is pretty sweet, and Rake builds on it in the Ruby way – that is, with a domain specific language tailored to the task at hand. The downside is that the docs are inscrutable – you pretty much need to be prepared to look at a lot of examples and dive the code to understand it well. But it responds well to hacking and generally gets the job done. Since Rake just sequences commands it works great for non-Ruby projects – it’s basically a much better Make.

Maven. I have seen Maven used very well in real Java projects, and abused heavily in non-Java scenarios. If you grok the Maven way and are prepared to conform to its view of the world, you can get good results. But in general I think it is much more trouble than it’s worth in anything but enterprise Java contexts.

Ant. I’ve used Ant several times on non-Java projects, to good results. Ant is powerful and has some nice capabilities for filtering/selecting actions. However, it also has an obtuse XML syntax that becomes cumbersome in complex build scenarios, and it can be finicky to set up all your Ant tasks properly.

CMake. CMake is ugly, but it’s an effective kind of ugly. The CMake language is gross and its codebase is complex, with important features often being driven by subtle combinations of settings. But the docs are pretty decent, the community is large, and it has good update velocity. It also generates pretty good project files for most IDEs. And it is pretty easy to hook arbitrary commands into key points in the build process, which is a big win. CMake is bad if you want to do a lot of file processing or complex logic, but good for making and running project files that work across many platforms – including iOS and OSX.

premake. Of all these technologies, I most want premake to rock. It uses Lua, which is an easy and low-dependency language, and it has a pretty good set of modules for emitting different projects. Most of the time, projects can be shipped, which is big, too. However, the core generators are finicky, and we had compatibility issues. And development velocity isn’t as high as we’d like. So we ultimately had to drop it. However, I think it’s worth a look again in the future.

QMake. QMake is mostly associated with QT development, and exists to facilitate the preprocessing that QT requires to generate all of its binding + convenience features. It takes a simple configuration language, and can be effective. However, its support for mobile platforms appears to be rudimentary and it does not produce project files – just sequences build commands.

Homebrew. My main experience here was a custom project generation tool I developed at GarageGames. (Ultimately, many others have touched it, and I believe that it is still in use as of this writing.) We decided to go the homebrew route because we needed to ship high quality project files to our customers. None of the existing tools could produce these (premake is now probably the closest). And our existing process of hand-tweaking projects resulted in a lot of broken releases. We ended up using PHP to process hand-written project file templates. It worked because we had a large enough team to be able to spend a few man-months refining it until it was good enough. The main take away from that experience was that it’s not as hard to do as you’d think – it’s just matter of patience and groveling through exemplar build files to learn the format. The real cost is maintaining on-going compatibility with all the different versions of all the IDEs. I hope that someday GarageGames releases this tool as open source.

So, with all those out there to consider – what am I using today? Well, we are using a hybrid of Rake and CMake. We use CMake for all the project generation + compilation, while Rake deals with sequencing calls to CMake and make or xcodebuild or what have you – mostly for the build box’s benefit. Our project targets iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, and so far this combination has worked out well.

Ultimately, you want a tool that builds from a single command and doesn’t require user intervention to produce final build artifacts. Otherwise, you will be constantly chasing your tail as you move from developer to developer or platform to platform. Any of these tools can achieve this, so it’s a question of choosing the tool or combination of tools that fit your situation the best. Good luck!

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