Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Maximize Your Learning: Code

One of the most important things a student or teacher could come to understand, is that learning cannot take place in a vacuum. Knowledge simply isn't retained without application. This is why homework exists kids, this is why most jobs will have you learn the trade onsite rather then just put you in-front of a screen with an instructional video, or rather, this is why you don't remember everything from that video or whatever they tell you on your first day, but rather you "get the hang" of it after a few days of being in the thick of it. Trial by fire.

That being said almost any video online discussing learning code will say, you can't just learn code, you have to learn code while making something. Which is.. obvious after the fact. But during it's a difficult and weird idea to wrap your head around.. like.. How can I make something when I can only attain the knowledge to first make it after I've made it. This sounds worse then the chicken and egg problem. If don't have the tools to make something how can it be that the only way to gain the tools is to make the thing?

The Stages of Learning that Accompany them.
Followed by
The Best Way to Learn From Them

Learning code stage one: No idea where to start

Now, the beginners answer to that is, look up a tutorial. But because often newcomers don't know how to do anything yet, they also don't know what they cannot do, or how difficult specific things are over other things. Or what the advice that guy on the forum post even meant; what are these Array, Global int. and if loop things they speak of?

Learning code stage two: You speak Latin, but your magic seems to work.

The ambitious amateur will often after a time of this learn to look up the very specific features they're being told about and watch multiple videos, and copy what they see onscreen into the program, often mistyping little bits and, not knowing what's wrong, getting frustrated to the point of starting over or quit.

Learning code the Intermission: It's-Not-Working-And-I-Don't-Understand-And-My-Career-Is-Over-Before-It-Started!

This last stage is unfortunately where most aspiring game devs get stuck and then.. well either quit or just stick with the excuse of "coding isn't for me, just can't do it." and then they focus their aspirations to working exclusively with art, writing, sound, design, or whatever small corner of production that looks as far away from coding. And there's nothing generally wrong with that path leading you to what you really love about video games, if you find you love being a producer or concept art, or sound, or animations guy more then you like anything else, that's fantastic. I'm just going to say don't let it stop you from making games. I spent years stuck in these last two stages of learning coding and years of unfinished projects and lost potential lessons because I let this pressure of never getting it to work or never finishing or not being smart enough, or ready to learn something, prevent me from making game. The important thing to learn from this temporary road bump in learning code is that it's one of those things that happens to everyone, and it by no way is a sign from above punishing you for trying something outside of your destiny, it's just a part of learning. You can overcome it. Honestly.

Learning code stage three: Learning in Application 

The best thing about stage three is you can jump to it at any point in your learning process; which does in fact mean, you are not guaranteed to go through stages one or two, you might just have the luck that you find the right tutorial and started with the right project and having everything fall together or apart in just the right way that you learned how to find your mistakes among the code, and the values of different functions and techniques of organizing data, and learned the math to make cool little features that do neat stuff. For some lucky people they stumble onto this stage in development earlier rather then later, but other struggle finding it. I think I've finally figured it out, it's not really a trick but i want to share it with you all because had I been told this years ago I probably would have some games under my belt.

1. JOIN A GAME JAM. Give yourself something external to pressure yourself into keeping at whatever tutorial series you're following and something that'll limit the scope of that project to something complete-able within a few weeks. 

2. INSTEAD OF GIVING-UP, FIND WORK AROUNDS. There's more then one way to skin a cat and coding is no different. Learning what bits are interchangeable gives you insight to the logic behind the specific function bits and syntax in your specific code. This learning feature by feature goal mindset helps you visualize and cement in your mind what the specifics you see in the tutorial are doing and mean within the program, having something constant to apply the short youtube videos to helps you understand the building blocks outside of the specific use displayed. It's like how learning to use a foreign word in a sentence is more useful then just learning a phrase that uses that word. 

3.OR JUST EDIT YOUR DESIGN. Good design is decision making that incorporates all elements of the work, it's not possible to see all the elements of the work before they're formed, so don't feel bad about throwing out the original blueprint you had while you're working. If the project you have doesn't look like it'll be as strong as this thing you thought before you started, go with the newer path you see it going. Especially if this new path interests you.

4. MAKE IT SIMPLE AND INTERESTING, TO YOU. If you're not excited or interested in working on it. Drop it. Nothing great has ever come out of someone who was only half paying attention, and no one has ever learned or remembers the lessons they learned from the school project that didn't interest them, also you'll make yourself miserable; don't let your hobby be something that makes you miserable. There were plenty of times I tried to make mini-games where the idea bored me but they were the only thing I thought I could make using the "beginners" level tutorials I found. And that's deeply frustrating because you want to make something interesting, but it seems like you can't learn how to make those things without making these boring games you don't yet want to make.

5. STOP BEING BORING AND MAKE GOOD SMALL GAMES. There is no reason for small or simple to equal dull. There are hundreds of small games out there that have limited coding and minimal design, that end up being interesting. These are the kinds of games you need to study. Try to think about all these simple features, and think of them in terms of what they could also do. This is where your design and creative skills pay off. You could do something interesting story wise, you could do something interesting art wise. You could just do something that's a kinda neat little mechanic. Just find something neat and small that excites you and make it, once you get that little neat thing, and you understand how you got it and what all your code is doing, then you've made it. Congrats kidos, you're a game dev.


I'm a massive fan of the, follow with me step by step, line by line, regularly save and test to see if the code is working, kind of learning from tutorials. But at the end of the day, when you're new to a program and you know you're going to be referencing this tutorial more then once or trying to put your own twist on the feature you're learning to code. Backups and notes are a great thing. Now you can make a physical copy of the notes, which is brilliant, easy to access and good for following along. But what I've been doing that I've found most helpful when going through tutorials and organizing my notes/code. Is using something like google documents. I have a file for my code, a file distinguishing between each game program in that, and then i have files organizing between each tutorial, and documents for each tidbit of code with hyperlinks to that time in the video. 

This has been very useful for the long winded videos that near the hour mark, you can break it up into bits, with notes next to the label like, //establishing array in room, //global variables for array, // algorithm for bullet time, ect. This lets you start breaking down the large chunks of code in your head via their function piecemeal rather then trying to remember each step in the recipe as one massive meal you can visualize it as all the small bits of prep-work that go together creating the whole, which will make it easier to dismantle and use bits later to make other features.

Secondly you can copy the code down verbatim into your document so it can be copy/past utilized later for other projects, and you'll always know where it is, and be able to access it anytime you've got a computer. Having this with the hyperlinks to the section of tutorial explaining each bit eliminates the need to search through your youtube history or sit through the majority of the video when only a few minutes pertain to what you need. It saves large amounts of time and also gives you a space to store that new code function you just figured out even though you don't have use for it in your current project. Honestly I'd rather have a dozen small word document files with lines of code in them then a dozen or so versions of the same game because I don't know if I'll want to go back to an old build, especially when most of the code is exactly the same except for a few long coded functions. That might just be me, but I'd rather my builds be stored on the cloud where I can always access and edit them rather then on a single computer, or hard drive. I have lost so.. so many jump drives, and there's nothing worse then the computer bursting into flames and loosing everything you've been working on. 

And those are my tips to learning code the fastest, I went from almost never getting anything working after years of being stuck in the first two stages, to having a working understanding and building a game with my own unique twists that I coded on my own in the span of two weeks. All because of two things, I had a small project with a similarly small (achievable)scope and time-frame to make it in, and I was excited to make it.

That being said, I didn't have any art/animations, and there was virtually no story, or levels, so those are things I'm going to need to learn to do as well. Next time I'll probably have something up on one of those. 

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