Saturday, May 25, 2024


Object systems make a natural fit for the game programming domain, but over time people have found that the object-oriented model provided by their favorite language doesn't always fit the use case. So developers have come up with “entity-component systems” (ECS) of varying complexity to fill the gap.

The basic idea is that a game object, called an “entity”, contains or refers to a set of “components” that define its behavior. Entities are too varied to be captured by a single class hierarchy, so we abandon inheritance in favor of composition. An entity that can be displayed on the screen has a “sprite” component, an entity that can move has “position” and “velocity” components, an entity that you can attack has a “hitbox” component and a “health” component. A entity that can attack you has an “attackbox” component. You can play mix and match the components to customize the behavior of the entity. We don't have a hierachy of components because each component can be added more or less independently of the others.

An ECS is an alternative or an augmentation to the built-in object system of a language, but it is an admission that the built-in object is insufficient.

CLOS provides an elegent way to implement an ECS without abandoning CLOS's built-in object system. We define a component as a “mixin” class that can be inherited from using multiple inheritance. We define mixin classes for each component, and then we define entity classes that inherit from the mixin classes. We would define a “sprite” mixin class, a “position” mixin class, etc. So the class of enemy entities would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, “velocity”, “hitbox”, “health”, and “attackbox” classes. A trap entity would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, and “attackbox” classes. A container entity that you could smash open would inherit from “sprite”, “position”, and “hitbox” classes. Etc.

Mixin classes aren't intended to be instantiated on their own, but instead provide slots to the classes that inherits from them. Furthermore, methods can be specialized on mixin classes so that instances derived from the mixin will respond to the method. This allows you to inherit from a mixin providing the particular desired behavior. For example, the “health” mixin class would provide a slot containing the entity's health and a “damage” method to decrease the health. Any entity inheriting from the “health” mixin will react to the damage method. Mixin classes can provide functionality similar to interfaces.

Mixin classes are an exception to Liskov's Substitution Principle, but they are a useful exception. Entities that inherit from a mixin do not have a “is-a” relationship with the mixin, but rather a “has-behavior-of” relationship. An entity inheriting from the “health” mixin is not a “health”, but it has the “health” behavior.

One feature of an ECS is that you can dynamically change the components of an object. For example, once an enemy is defeated, you can remove the “health” and “attackbox” components and add a “corpse” component. Is CLOS you could accomplish this by changing the class of the entity object to a class that doesn't have those mixins.

Of course care must be taken or you will end up with CLOS “soup”. But if you are careful, CLOS can provide a powerful and flexible system for implementing an ECS.

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