Programming and premature optimization

I recently watched a lecture by Jonathan Blow, which can be found here. In it he talks about the kinds of challenges that you have to go through being an independent game developer. The main point to take away is that you really have to take a holistic view of the whole “business” and not just the “beauty of computer science” bits which programmers tend to focus on. Once of the main points he covers is to avoid at all costs the sin of premature optimization. The argument goes that if you spend too much time looking for the “perfect” way of doing something, you’re likely going to over optimize it and have both wasted your own time on a problem, where you won’t get the return on effort that you needed and ended up with code which can’t be easily reused.

One of the ways that he gets this message across is to take a look at one of his games, Braid, which it turns out is approximately 90,000 lines of code. He makes the point that the industry average for “lines of code” per programmer, per year is 3,250. At this rate, it would take some ridiculous amount of time, like 28 years to produce a game. So, in order to launch a game by yourself you have to be “super productive” and spending time on anything which won’t lead to the game launching (like implementing complex algorithms, which only optimize the game by 0.5%) will without a doubt result in failure.

It’s a compelling point and one that can be seen at work in the real world. It’s often not the “best” code that ends up being successful, but rather code that ships. The trade-off I guess is that this “ship first” mentality means that a lot of the time, the user ends up with poor quality code, buggy and resistant to upgrades.

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