Programming Languages Make Terrible Game Engines

This is the first of a series of posts I’m writing to explain the inner workings of the game engine I used for my 7DRL: Apocalypse Post. It motivates one of the problems I set out to solve with the engine - how to represent the types of game entities.


In the discussion about this post, it was pointed out that the object-oriented examples below are examples of bad object-oriented design. I agree with this, and I’m not trying to argue that it’s impossible to design a good game engine using object-oriented programming. The examples illustrate how someone new to building game engines might attempt to use class inheritance to describe the types of game entities. The article demonstrates the problems with this approach, and suggests a non-object-oriented alternative.

You want types

You’re making a game engine, and you want a way to categorize entities in your game, so the engine knows what operations it can perform on an entity. You want a way to express the fact that Weapons can be fired, Characters can act, Equipment can be equipped, and so on.

Your programming language has types!

Preface: Don’t do this!

Aha, you say, I just need to create abstract classes for Weapon, Character, Equipment, and inherit them for concrete classes representing game entities.

class GameEntity { ... }

class Weapon extends GameEntity { int damage(); }
class Character extends GameEntity { Action act(); }
class Equipment extends GameEntity { void equip(Character); }

class Sword extends Weapon { ... }
class Human extends Character { ... }
class Zombie extends Character { ... }

But hang on, swords can also be equipped, we need multiple inheritance:

class GameEntity { ... }

interface Weapon { int damage(); }
interface Character { Action act(); }
interface Equipment { void equip(Character); }

class Sword extends GameEntity implements Weapon, Equipable { ... }
class Human extends GameEntity implements Character { ... }
class Zombie extends GameEntity implements Character { ... }

When a human is bitten by a zombie, they should turn into a zombie. Wait turn into?

Perhaps we can do something like:

interface TurnsIntoZombie { Zombie turn_into(); }

class Human extends GameEntity
    implements Character, TurnsIntoZombie { ... }

This raises some questions:

How should game entities be stored? One can imagine using a collection of GameEntity. The major problem is that the type information is lost from the entities in the array, and upon pulling something out of the array, we need to check what it is, and then cast it appropriately. An alternative may be to use a separate collection of entities for each entity type. Entities may belong to multiple types (e.g. a Sword is both Equipable and a Weapon), so each may appear in several collections, and we would then have to manage the fact that if an item is destroyed, it must be removed from all the lists that contain it.

Programming language types map poorly to game entities

The cracks are starting to show:

Composition over Inheritance!

The big problem with mapping language types onto game entities is that language types are often concerned with describing what an object is, whereas game entities are best described in terms of what an object has.

Here’s how one might describe the example above, without trying to fit game entities into language types. I’m switching from java to rust because I no longer need to give examples of object-oriented programming (phew!).

struct GameEntity {
    weapon_damage: Option<u64>,
    actor_state: Option<ActorState>, // defined below
    human: bool,
    zombie: bool,

    // collection of keys into entity_table (below)
    equipment: Option<HashSet<u64>>,

struct GameState {
    entity_table: HashMap<u64, GameEntity>,

struct ActorState { ... }
impl ActorState {
    fn new_human_state() -> ActorState { ... }
    fn new_zombie_state() -> ActorState { ... }
    fn (&mut self) -> Action { ... }

fn new_sword(damage: u64) -> GameEntity {
    GameEntity {
        weapon_damage: Some(damage),
        actor_state: None, // a sword cannot act
        human: false,
        zombie: false,
        equipment: None,

fn new_human() -> GameEntity {
    GameEntity {
        weapon_damage: None,
        actor_state: Some(ActorState::new_human_state()),
        human: true,
        zombie: false,
        equipment: Some(HashSet::new()),

Every entity in the game is a GameEntity. A GameEntity is a collection of properties that an entity might have, and the categorization of the entity is based on which properties have values, and what those values are. Each field is either an Option which may contain some data, or a bool denoting the existence of a property with no associated data.

Note that there are more efficient ways to represent entities than structs of Options and bools. I’ll cover this in a later article.

Changing the type of an entity is now as simple as changing some of its fields:

fn become_zombie(entity: &mut GameEntity) {
    // replace human ai with zombie ai
    entity.actor_state = Some(ActorState::new_zombie_state());

    entity.human = false;
    entity.zombie = true;

The price one pays for this dynamism is there is much more flexibility possible, not all of it desirable. What would happen if become_zombie was called on a sword? The programmer must now think about these extra possibilities and explicitly check for them, rather than the language doing this checking at compile time. I argue that this is a reasonable trade-off, as you no longer need to worry about the engine not being flexible enough to express a behaviour you do want.

So far so good

The first few game engines I developed used a class hierarchy to represent game entities, and I was plagued by situations that I couldn’t represent. Since switching to this approach, I’m yet to encounter such a situation.

Further Reading

Representing entities by their constituent parts is how data is represented in an Entity Component System.