Gearing Up for Release: Platform-specific Issues

I started a three-month project at the beginning of the year, and I’m now in the eighth month. I reported on the reasons why it was taking so long last month.

But I’m feeling pretty good about it, and while I still have some balance issues to work out, and it’s a bit ugly, I’m preparing for the actual release.

The thing is, I haven’t really done a serious release before, and since I want to do a simultaneous cross-platform release, I’m finding issues unique to each platform.

The platforms I currently support:

  • GNU/Linux
  • Android
  • Windows

What I want to support:

  • Mac OS X
  • iOS

I’ll start with Apple platforms, then talk about the environment I use natively. Other platforms will be discussed in the next post later this week.

Mac/iOS: no development or testing environments

I would love to create a Mac port. I know it is theoretically possible to create a cross-compiler to generate a Mac version, but it seems I need Mac-specific libraries, which requires owning a Mac.

I don’t own a Mac, and while I know of virtual Mac services you can subscribe to online, I haven’t bothered to look too seriously into them. I would also like to be able to test the game, and so I would need to use a Mac in order to see how it really runs, especially after running into the Windows-specific issues above.

As for iPhone or iPad, I’m in a similar position. I don’t own an iOS-based device. As I’m using libSDL2, I know it is possible to port to it, even without a Mac, but I would need to look into how to do so, and I would still need to invest in the devices to test on.

I am saving up for these things, but at the moment I don’t have them and I don’t want to spend time on them until I know what I’m doing.

And in the past it’s been difficult to hear back from people willing to be paid for porting a game for me, and volunteers have had difficulty figuring out how to put my project together on their system. I might look into it again, because that was years ago, and it’s a different world today.

GNU/Linux: distributing dependencies and architecture compatibilities

I develop and test the game on my Ubuntu GNU/Linux system, and the main thing to worry about there is that I can distribute the game and have it work out of the box on other distributions.

My game uses libSDL2 and related libraries. While I installed them on my system using my package manager, I can’t assume that my customers will have them installed as well.

Basically, I need to build custom dependencies, as per Troy Hepfner’s excellent article series on Linux Game Development, and then distribute them with my game.

Quite frankly, rather than worry about an installer to put everything in the correct locations on someone’s system, I think providing a basic tarball might be fine. Rather than provide .deb or .rpm or customer shell installers for each type of system, and then worrying about following the correct Linux Filesystem Hierarchy Standard, you allow the player to put the game in the directory of their choosing, extract it, and play.

But then I need to worry about how the tell the system to load the libraries. Running an application on Windows, the system generally looks in the local directory for libraries to depend upon. Unfortunately, Linux-based systems don’t do so, and while there is a way to point it towards your libraries using the LD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variable, I also know that it is frowned upon to do so due to the security and compatibility issues it can introduce.

On the other hand, many popular commercial games on my system do just that. For instance, looking at the directory for Don’t Starve, I see:

$ cat bin/dontstarve.sh
#!/bin/bash
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=./lib64
./dontstarve

The fact that it is in this shell script wrapper is better than the original concern of changing the default environment variable in a more or less permanent way, which can cause version conflicts and such. It’s your program. You know what it needs, and any other applications that run will not be affected.

Still, supposedly the better way is to tell your binary at build time where to look, which isn’t very difficult. It requires -rpath=\$ORIGIN/[directory where you put your libs]. $ORIGIN expands into the directory that your binary is located.

So if the extracted tarball would have the following structure:
– foo-bin
– libs
– libfoo.so
– libbar.so

Then I would build foo-bin with -rpath=$ORIGIN/libs.

Of course, now foo-bin MUST be in the same directory as libs, but in practice, it’s fine. When was the last time you moved parts of a game’s files to different relative locations and expected it to continue to work?

I’m sure there’s issues with this approach as well, but with these two approaches, there’s plenty of precedent.

The only unknown I have is dealing with 32-bit vs 64-bit systems. Ubuntu has multiarch support, but I’ve seen comments on forums about people not being able to run an application due to architecture issues.

Don’t Starve distributes separate 64-bit and 32-bit builds. FTL, on the other hand, distributed both the 64-bit and 32-bit binaries and libraries together, and using a shell script, it determined which platform you were on at runtime to point LD_LIBRARY_PATH to the appropriate directory.

And other games distribute all desktop platforms together in one file, so if you bought the game, you bought it for Windows and Linux and Mac, whichever one you wish to play on. I like this option, especially since I hate the idea that I have to pay for a game twice in order to play on two different platforms.

I know some companies make their living by porting games and then selling them directly, but it’s not a business model I prefer.

Next time

In the next post, I will talk about issues specific to Android and Windows.

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