Advanced State Management in Games


July 29, 2012 Software

In this blog post I’m going to describe the state management system I’ve built for my most recent game, the reasoning behind my design choices, and most importantly the steps I took to build that system and the issues that pushed me to build a bigger system. I’ll start writing posts like this more often if I get a lot of positive feedback. Writing these posts is a win for everyone, since you guys get to skip the trial-and-error that I had to go through and I’ll get to look at my code in closer detail and try to improve it. Anyways, on to the post itself…


If you’ve ever programmed a game, you’ve dealt with the issue of getting a single main loop to act in completely different ways based on what’s happening. When the game first starts up you want to present a main menu to the user. When you’re loading all the game’s assets you want to have a loading screen to show progress. When the user pauses the game, you want to show a paused menu that gives the user the option to resume the game or to exit.

Depending on what kind of game you’re making, that could be the most you need - a state enum and 4 or 5 states just to manage the menus around the game. You can throw that in a switch statement and be done with it. It works great, incurs no overhead, and is very readable. I did this a while back for an escape-the-room game. Each clickable area was a state and I hardcoded all the states together and it worked pretty well for a small game. The full source code is available on my GitHub account.

enum GameStates {
	mainMenu,
	room1Side1,
	room1Side2,
	room1Side3,
	room1Side4,
	room1Up,
	room1UnderBed,
	room1OutsideSafe,
	room1UncoveredSafe,
	room1InsideSafe,
	room1InsideVent,
	room1Dresser,
	room1ToolBox,
	room1BehindCurtains,
	//room2Side1,
	//room2Cabinet,
	//room2InsideCabinet,
	//room1DoorClose,
	winMenu
};

GameStates gs = mainMenu;

But what happens when you’re making a game that requires more complex states? What if you need more functionality out the state manager?

Let’s say you’re making an RPG or Roguelike with an inventory system. You have an “inventory” state so that you can look at all your items (a few can be hotkeyed and are visible from the main game state) and you have a “description” state that provides a long textual description of the item along with all it’s stats and a picture. You want the description state to pop up when you select an item, either from the hotkeyed section or from the inventory state. At first you might think “No problem, you just hook both of those to change the state to the description state,” but you’ll run into an issue when you try to reverse that action. When you exit the description state, what state do you change to?

An immediate solution to that problem would be to store not only the current state, but the last state as well. When you want to return to the game or inventory, you’ll just change the state to the previous one. Great! Now what happens when a player pauses the game in the description state? The paused state will overwrite the previous state with the description state. When you try to get out of the description state, the puased screen state will load instead.

The solution is a stack of states. You use Peek() to get the current state, and all state changing can be represented as a series of Push() and Pop() calls. This provides a very elegant solution to the problems I described above:

  1. Both the hotkeys and inventory state can change to a description state.
    • Solution: Push a description state to the stack.
  2. The description state must be able to return to the state it was called from.
    • Solution: Pop the description state off the stack.
  3. The game can be paused at any point without any side effects to game state.
    • Solution: Push a pause state and pop it off afterwards.

Now that we’ve determined the best way to organize states, exactly what functionality does a state contain and how do we store it? Depending on the game you’re making and the libraries you’re using, this will vary. In my case, I’m using OpenTK, which provides a GameWindow class. The GameWindow class handles the main loop, the message pump, OpenGL context creation, and user input. I’m also making a first person shooter, which means a layer must be able to hide the cursor, as well as choose the type of mouse input they want (unbound and unaccelerated for the game, window bound and OS-accelerated for the UI). So it would make sense for me to take most, if not all, of the virtual GameWindow methods and route them to the current state.

As you can see in the source for my Ludum Dare 22 entry, Each state is a class that implements the IState interface, which I defined as the following:

public interface IState
{
	void OnLoad(EventArgs e);
	void OnUpdateFrame(FrameEventArgs e, KeyboardDevice Keyboard, MouseDevice Mouse);
	void OnRenderFrame(FrameEventArgs e);
	void OnResize(EventArgs e, Size ClientSize);
	void OnKeyDown(object sender, KeyboardKeyEventArgs e, KeyboardDevice Keyboard, MouseDevice Mouse);
	void OnKeyUp(object sender, KeyboardKeyEventArgs e, KeyboardDevice Keyboard, MouseDevice Mouse);
	void OnMouseDown(object sender, MouseEventArgs e, KeyboardDevice Keyboard, MouseDevice Mouse);
	void OnMouseUp(object sender, MouseEventArgs e, KeyboardDevice Keyboard, MouseDevice Mouse);
	void OnUnload(EventArgs e);
}

Again, this is simpler than the current system I have for my FPS, especially since I didn’t bother to write an actual manager with a stack (For those who don’t know, Ludum Dare is a competition that gives you 48 hours to develop a full game, so you tend to skip writing any code that isn’t 100% necessary), but it still shows what I consider a state and how it’s stored.

The system I’ve built for my FPS includes a few more methods, simplifies the parameters, and adds functionality that I’ve found to be very useful, like the ability to partially update states below the current state in the stack (rendering, logic updating, mouse/keyboard input). This gives you the ability to do some really fancy things like transparent pause menus that don’t stop the game in multiplayer to defining the HUD as a “state” to split that rendering code off from the rest of the game, since it’s a much different process than rendering a 3d scene. With that new functionality, I found that the word “state” doesn’t really represent what these objects can do, so I call them layers instead.

Control over which actions are passed through to the next layer are defined as 3 separate enums (comments stripped out for readability on a blog):

[Flags]
public enum LayerActionStates
{
	None = 0x0,
	Render = 0x1,
	Update = 0x2,
	All = Render | Update
}

[Flags]
public enum LayerKeyboardStates
{
	None = 0x0,
	ContinuousInput = 0x1,
	KeyEvents = 0x2,
	All = ContinuousInput | KeyEvents
}

[Flags]
public enum LayerMouseStates
{
	None = 0x0,
	ContinuousInput = 0x1,
	MouseEvents = 0x2,
	All = ContinuousInput | MouseEvents
}

And in the ILayer interface, I define the following properties:

public interface ILayer
{
	//...
	
	LayerActionStates ActionState { get; }
	LayerKeyboardStates KeyboardState { get; }
	LayerMouseStates MouseState { get; }
	
	//...
}

Looking back, these 3 enums can easily be consolidated into a single enum, which takes advantage of the fact that they’re bitfields (currently I’m only using the first 2 bits for 3 separate enums). Either way, here’s how I use it:

bool continueMouse = true, continueKeyboard = true, continueUpdate = true;
foreach (ILayer layer in layerStack)
{
	//run the current layer's keyboard update, unless the above layer blocks it
	if (Focused && continueKeyboard)
		layer.KeyboardUpdate(frameTime, OpenTK.Input.Keyboard.GetState());
		
	//run the current layer's mouse update, unless the above layer blocks it
	if (Focused && continueMouse)
		layer.MouseUpdate(frameTime, OpenTK.Input.Mouse.GetState());
		
	//run the current layer's general update
	if (continueUpdate)
		layer.LogicUpdate(frameTime);
		
	//if a layer requests that we don't send keyboard/mouse input down, set the proper bool to false.
	if ((layer.KeyboardState & LayerKeyboardStates.ContinuousInput) != LayerKeyboardStates.ContinuousInput || !Focused)
		continueKeyboard = false;
	if ((layer.MouseState & LayerMouseStates.ContinuousInput) != LayerMouseStates.ContinuousInput || !Focused)
		continueMouse = false;
	if ((layer.ActionState & LayerActionStates.Update) != LayerActionStates.Update)
		continueUpdate = false;
		
	if (!continueKeyboard && !continueMouse && !continueUpdate)
		break;
}

To get a layering effect for transparent menus, I render the layers backwards. Yes, it’s possible to render forwards and get that same layering effect with some fancy depth peeling code, but this way is a lot simpler and only has a small amount of overhead:

//flip the stack to render (rendering needs to happen bottom up, otherwise bottom layer occludes everything above it, etc.)
renderStack.Clear();
foreach (ILayer layer in layerStack)
{
	renderStack.Push(layer);
	
	if ((layer.ActionState & LayerActionStates.Render) != LayerActionStates.Render)
		break;
}

//Render all the layers in reverse order
foreach (ILayer layer in renderStack)
{
	layer.OnDraw(frameTime);
}

And here’s how I manage the layer stack from anywhere in the code (not thread-safe, but it’s only ever accessed from one thread):

//Originally from http://blog.robmaister.com/advanced-state-management-in-games/
public static class LayerManager
{
	private static Queue<LayerStackAction> stackActions = new Queue<LayerStackAction>();
	
	public static void PushLayer(ILayer layer)
	{
		stackActions.Enqueue(LayerStackAction.CreatePushAction(layer));
	}
	
	public static void PopLayer()
	{
		stackActions.Enqueue(LayerStackAction.CreatePopAction());
	}
	
	public static void PopLayer(int count)
	{
		for (; count > 0; count--)
			PopLayer();
	}
	
	public static void UpdateLayerStack(Stack<ILayer> layerStack, Size window)
	{
		while (stackActions.Count > 0)
		{
			stackActions.Dequeue().ApplyAction(layerStack, window);
		}
	}
	
	private sealed class LayerStackAction
	{
		private readonly Action action;
		private readonly ILayer layer;
		
		private LayerStackAction(Action a, ILayer layer)
		{
			action = a;
			this.layer = layer;
		}
		
		private enum Action
		{
			Push,
			Pop
		}
		
		public static LayerStackAction CreatePopAction()
		{
			return new LayerStackAction(Action.Pop, null);
		}
		
		public static LayerStackAction CreatePushAction(ILayer layer)
		{
			return new LayerStackAction(Action.Push, layer);
		}
		
		public void ApplyAction(Stack<ILayer> layerStack, Size window)
		{
			switch (action)
			{
				case Action.Pop:
					//pop and unload the layer
					layerStack.Pop().OnUnload();
					break;
				case Action.Push:
					//load and push the layer
					layer.OnLoad(window.Width, window.Height);
					layerStack.Push(layer);
					break;
			}
		}
	}
}

While it may look overengineered for something that’s just supposed to push and pop a stack, a lot of it is necessary to ensure proper functionality. For example, before I had the nested LayerStackAction class, there was a Queue for pushed layers and an int that kept count of how many layers to pop. When it was time to update, it would pop all the counted layers then push all the layers in the queue. The would cause issues when a piece of code calls Pop and Push and expects the actions to execute in the order they were given. For example, calling Push() then Pop() wouldn't remove the newly pushed layer, but rather pop the existing layer and push the new layer on top of that.

With my recent work on UI, I’ve had to revisit this state management code to add functionality I need in 2D, like control over cursor hiding. While working on that I realized just how much work I’d put into state management and how robust it is, I felt like it wouldn’t be right to keep it hidden.

As for using this source code, feel free to use it anywhere. If you’re redistributing in source format, I would appreciate it if you kept the link to this post with the source code.

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