Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sometimes I don’t understand book reviews..

Not that I have any complaint about them, it’s just odd. For example, my latest book only has a single review, but the review is glowing and the best it could be.  Now, I naturally don’t know how other books are doing, but I am a little obsessive compulsive, so I do watch the average Amazon sales numbers, and compare them to how my book has been doing. Generally, in the category the book is in, we do very well (which is awesome), yet I see other books doing much worse in the average sales with many more reviews and I wonder why? Does their publisher try to prime the channel with reviews? Pay people to give reviews? Maybe those books just give people the overwhelming need to tell others about them, where ours does not?

I also know that our book isn’t perfect, I’ve seen mistakes in there.

I’m curious though, what do you think about the book? Like it? Hate it?

Hosting is apparently hard..

This site hasn’t even been up for two weeks yet. The hosting solution and plan I signed up for guaranteed 99.9% uptime, and so far, we’re well below that. Every day I have to complain because the site has gone down for some reason or the other.

My patience is almost gone now. Godaddy only has a short bit of time before I take my money elsewhere.

Visual Basic for XNA?

So it seems that it was annouced today that XNA is coming to Visual Basic! I have to admit the announcement caught me a bit by surprise. As one of the people who has had to investigate (at various times) what it would take to make this happen, I have no idea where the team has gotten the time to do this! As the article says though, it was one of the most popular feature requests I can remember though so it’s good that it’s finally happening.

Wish there was more information though. For example, when is it coming? Is it coming on all the platforms, particularly Xbox? The picture in the article implies it will, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I know they said to wait a few months, but given people have been waiting for literally years at all, I wish they would have waited until they could give us all the information rather than teasing it early when they cannot.

Although, I suppose I could be in the minority in thinking that. Some folks just like be teased and waiting a few months.

Loading… I hate loading…

I guess I’m impatient, because there are very few things that annoy me more than loading screens. In a world of instant gratification, waiting for any significant amount of time is unacceptable. Hell, I’ve only just started typing this and I’m already annoyed that I’m not finished yet. Loading just bugs me, and I see it creep a lot on Windows Phone 7 games. Perhaps I should ramble on about that for a while.

The first goal of the game should be to show me something on screen as soon as possible. While you can “somewhat” use the splashscreen.jpg trick to show something quick, in XNA applications, it doesn’t stay on screen long enough and looks awkward (in my opinion).  I personally would rather show my splash screen on the first render.  However, that leads me to another common mistake I see people making, and that’s loading a bunch of content (or all!) in the LoadContent method.  This is certainly a bad idea if you want to show something on screen quickly. This is essentially the order you will see things happen at startup:

  1. Game’s Constructor is called
  2. Initialize is called
  3. LoadContent is called
  4. Update is called
  5. Draw is called
  6. Goto 4.

While there are certainly nuances here, that’s the basic order, and notice that Draw isn’t called until way at the end.  I’ve seen people decide that the best way to fix this would be to draw something in LoadContent, and then they implement that, see that it works and call it a success. If only it were so easy. If your application is starting up once more after being tombstoned, essentially the same sequence of events happens, however there is a caveat this time.  While the “startup sequence” is happening, the phone will be displaying the “Resuming…” screen (my how I dislike that screen), and will not show anything from your application until the “startup sequence” has finished. In this case, the sequence doesn’t finish until *after* LoadContent has finished. So if you showed something on screen early in your LoadContent method, and then loaded a bunch of content, it would work in the initial startup scenario, and potentially fail in the restore from tombstone scenarios.

The easy way to get around these issues is to do all of your content loading (aside from the first thing you want to see on screen, such as a splash screen) on the second update call.  This allows you to show something on screen quickly in both the initial startup and coming back from tombstoning cases, and if you don’t have much content, should be sufficient enough. Your splash screen image will stay static on screen (and your application is essentially non-interactive) while the content is loading. If it takes more than a few seconds to get to this state though (ie, you have too much content), you have more work to do.

The most common thing I see happening here is the game will load only the content needed for the main UI portions, and will force you behind a loading screen after you choose the level or what have you. Again, this works perfectly fine, but we can do so much better! Why can’t you load everything you need while I’m playing around with the UI? For ease of explanation, let’s say that you are making a 2D game, and you have a large list of strings that are all the sprite textures you will need to load. What if you had a class such as this:

So long as you called BackgroundLoad.Go(this); sometime after you started up, your game would dutifully start loading all of your assets behind the scenes in a background thread.  This isn’t a foolproof solution though. For one, you have very little control over background threads on Windows Phone 7. You cannot change priority, and you have no control over how much they will execute (although on average for every 4ms your main thread is executing your background thread will run for 2ms).  In this example, you are also using the graphics device on another thread, which will take out a lock to avoid multiple threads manipulating it at the same time. In the larger scheme of things though, it’s still probably faster in this mechanism than without.

You will notice two potentially useless pieces of code here as well. First, a property to dictate when the loading has been complete, and a second in which the actual asset load is happening within an action rather than directly in code. The property is self explanatory if you think about it, you still need to know when all of your content has been loaded so you can allow the user to start the game! This just gives you easy access to it.  The action delegate is slightly less obvious though.

What should you do when the user has gone through the UI and is ready to play the game but the content isn’t done loading? As was mentioned earlier, you don’t have any control over the background threads execution time, and because it is running half the speed as the main thread, as the code is written now, your loading time could potentially be *increased*! This is most definitely not what we wanted. What you really want is a mechanism where you would load things in the background if the user was still messing around with the UI, but will switch to loading in the foreground if the user was waiting on loading, and that is what the action delegate is for. If you replaced the code in the thread method with the following, you will get this behavior:

Now your code is loading in the background while the user is messing around with the UI and will switch to the foreground once they’re done. In the degenerate case, this is still slightly slower than simply forcing them to wait at a loading screen, but given the degenerate case is almost certain to never happen, a mechanism such as this will (for most intents and purposes) always be faster. It certainly took me long enough to exlain all this, I should have had a loading screen for this post…

As a final caveat, this was an extremely simple example of multithreading. If you do anything more complex and don’t have knowledge of multithreading (or what the ‘lock’ keyword does), you should probably read up a bit on that!

Welcome to the new site!

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a real blog post, and this is the first one on my new site, so what do I want to talk about!? I suppose we should start with why I migrated to a new site to begin with!

There are two major reasons in reality. First, I needed a web host for some experiments I wanted to run, so I figured I may as well just catch up with the times and buy one. I’m only a decade or so late, but better late than never right? Second, I needed to have more freedom in what I wanted to say. Having my blog hosted on MSDN was great and all, but despite the disclaimer up top, the reality is that anything I say there is essentially the same as saying it as Microsoft. While it’s certainly true some folks go wild on their MSDN blogs, I never felt very comfortable in doing so.  Now, I’ll be able to say whatever it is that I’m thinking!

Of course, this also means that my MSDN blog is essentially retired as of now, but given the frequency (or lack thereof) of posts there, it probably isn’t a big deal anyway!

So, what do I want to talk about on this new site? Well, a lot of stuff I used to talk about on the old site, game programming, XNA, Xbox, and Windows Phone! For example, while my latest XNA book is already out (look to the right), should I consider writing a new one? Perhaps I should release a few games on XBLIG or the WP7 marketplace? I’m not entirely sure what I want to do yet, but now i’ll have the chance to do them without having to worry about speaking as anyone but myself, which will be nice.

There are too many themes to choose from here.

Well, as a first post, I figured I should complain about the thing that is annoying me right now.  I’m trying to pick a theme for this, and there are entirely too many. I need a ratings system or something to more easily sort through them all.