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I'm making a simple fixed shooter game (similar to Galaga) as part of a presentation I'm doing. I'm wondering, what strategies/data structures would people use for tracking projectiles (like lasers fired from a spaceship)? A super simple implementation that I've used before is to just represent each projectile as a point and check for collisions with all objects in the scene.

However, this seems costly in large scenes with many projectiles, so I'm wondering what other types of strategies/implementations are used for this type of use case? What do games like FPS use for tracking projectiles (bullets, tank shells, etc)?

I realize this is kind of a broad question without many specifics, but any help/brainstorming is appreciated!


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A lot of FPS games assume that bullets are instant, but there are those that calculate trajectories and travel time. – John McDonald Aug 12 '13 at 15:47
+1 this is a great question, and I wouldn't limit it to 3d necessarily either. – ashes999 Aug 12 '13 at 16:14

For very fast projectiles (such as lasers or bullets), you could use, a Ray.

A ray has a start point and an end point. A (very minimal) data structure for a ray is:

struct Ray
  Vector3f start, end ;
} ;

Looks like this:

enter image description here

(You could also cache the direction vector and length, but I used a very simple defn above).

If the ray is a laser beam that travels at the speed of light, you would just persist the ray (as starting at the gun nozzle and ending on a wall somewhere) for a couple of frames. Anything intersecting the ray each frame takes damage.

If the ray is a slower projectile (like a bullet, for example), the distance the bullet travelled over a timestep is modelled by the ray. The start point is where the ray is at the beginning of the frame, and the end point is where the ray will be after the frame is done. Anything in the bullet's ray's way is damaged by the bullet.

Rays can be efficiently collided with spheres, aabbs, convex hulls etc. Check out my Hullinator project for an actual running program (CTRL+Click to fire rays)

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A ray doesn't work very well for many projectiles. For example, any projectile that can be lobbed, like tank shells. Rays are great for straight shot projectiles however. – Byte56 Aug 12 '13 at 17:03
Well, if the shell is extremely slow moving (compared to a bullet or laser), then yes I'd model it as a regular body (just as the player) – bobobobo Aug 12 '13 at 17:12
Technically, a ray is a start point and a direction. This can be determined WITH a start point and another point, but this is not part of its definition. By definition, rays are infinite, and have no end point. – darthfett Aug 12 '13 at 17:18
You're right, what I've described is actually a line segment, but most people call them rays when talking about collision detection. – bobobobo Aug 12 '13 at 17:43

Using a ray works well for instantaneously travelling projectiles such as bullets. For projectiles which have slower speed such as the type you'll make use of for your space game it makes sense to simply track their position in the game world like you would any other entity. What I often do is have a base class called Entity which contains properties of any lasting game object — position, rotation, collision box, etc. My player driven and projectiles then inherit off this and my game world only needs to know how to deal with the super class Entity, not each individual type of entity.

To increase performance it's very common to keep a pool around for any objects you'll be creating and destroying often. When you need a new projectile you'd pull from this pool, modify the new projectile as needed and return it back to the pool when it's expired.

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When you want to optimize for collision detection, you could store all game objects in a two- or three-dimensional tree. This data structure makes it very efficient to retrieve all objects in a certain area.

Binary trees do however have the disadvantage that they degenerate easily when objects are added, removed and change their positions, so you will need to auto-balance it.

A compromise which would be easier to implement but not be quite as efficient would be to use a chunk-based approach. Divide the playing field into cubes and keep track of which objects are touching each cube. When you check for collisions with an object, you only need to check it against the object lists of the cubes it is touching (replace "cube" with "rectangle" for a 2d-game).

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