A busy dev’s guide

Guest post: First steps into Java games on Android


What should you use to make a game on Android? John Purcell weighs up the available (free) options.

may be pretty familiar when it comes to working with Java, but
making a game on the Android platform is a whole different kettle
of fish. Here’s a thoroughly unscientific exploration of Android
game programming by John Purcell.

Recently I set to work to figure out the basics of game
programming and animation in Android. After spending the best part
of fourteen years as a software developer, I now make online
programming video tutorials for a living. A few months ago I
created an Android course
and I had finally got round to the bit that I knew lots of my
clients were waiting for; games and animation.

The only problem was that I’ve never created a game in Android
in my life. Like most software developers, I’ve created the odd
game or two for my own amusement, so I’m familiar with the basics
of game development; I’d just never created a game for Android.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when you start to
put together a game, it’s best not to reinvent the wheel. Use a
free established game library if you can. For instance, if you’re
writing games in Flash, you might use Flixel; in Python you could use Pygame and so on. Using a game library
can save you from having to do stuff like implementing your own
sprite animation system or your own collision detection code and
lots more.

The situation with regard to Android turned out to be just a
little more complex than I’d first imagined. Now, what I’m about to
tell you isn’t a comprehensive survey of the situation with regard
to Android programming and games, or anywhere near it; it’s just
the impressions of a seasoned software developer who’s new to this
particular lark.

libgdx: A Cross-Platform Game Library

The first library I looked at was libgdx, a cross-platform
Java game programming library. Libgdx is pretty popular, free, and
allows you to write games on your desktop that can then be easily
transferred to Android. You link your program with one set of jars
for Android and another for Java desktop, for instance. By clever
use of linked projects in Eclipse (cleverer than I’m frankly
accustomed to), you can work on your code in one place and quickly
build it for both platforms.

This all sounded great at first. It didn’t feel like the
absolute easiest thing in the world to dig up example code to work
with, but after a few hours I managed to put together a sample
application. The idea is that you divide up your program into files
that correspond to different game states among other things. Libgdx
is pretty nice; considering it’s free, you can’t complain. The
point where I (perhaps foolishly) threw up my hands in disgust and
dropped the whole idea was when I realised that libgdx doesn’t
appear to have any built-in 2D collision detection at the

I know I’m probably being a fool, and some fellow or other has
probably written an add-on library, but since I’ve been spoilt by
Flixel, this came as quite a shock to the system. I immediately
started looking around for other alternatives.


The next API I tried was AndEngine. AndEngine has a great
reputation, and people seem to be saying that if you’re serious
about programming games in Android, it’s worth persisting with. I
totally don’t doubt it. For me, however, it proved a challenge.
AndEngine seems to be in the process of migrating from one version
of its API to another, and it’s often hard to tell which examples
are meant for which (at least for me anyway, but even while I type
these words I have visions of hordes of software developers and
teenage coders with brains the sizes of planets rising up en masse
and pouring scorn on my lack of software savvy).

Neither could I find anywhere where I could download a single
jar for AndEngine. Once again I’m open to correction, but it seems
there isn’t one. The correct way to proceed with AndEngine is, I
believe, to create a library project in Eclipse. I somehow managed
to create a jar, which I need for psychological reasons having to
do with early childhood trauma, but I just couldn’t get any example
of AndEngine to actually compile, much less run.

This is entirely my fault; I only gave the matter a few hours of
attention before giving up. That’s the kind of person I am. If
you’re a serious Android game developer, no doubt you’d have it all
figured out pretty quickly. I think AndEngine looks great, but just
don’t expect it to immediately dance to your tune the second you
look at it. You’re going to need a little patience. It’s in a state
of constant development, which in many ways is great of course, and
hats off to the developer, who seems to be a brainy-looking guy by
the name of Nicolas Gramlich.

The Android SDK Game Examples

At this
point I gave up on Android game libraries. I didn’t want to fork
out money for a commercial product; I hadn’t the patience to set up
AndEngine and, for the simple games I wanted to write, libgdx
didn’t seem to me to offer clear advantages over writing my own
code (although I see that it is capable of doing many things that I
haven’t explored). So I turned in desperation to the examples
included with the Android SDK itself.

These are a mixed bunch. To be fair, I only tried two; Lunar
Lander and JetBoy. I couldn’t get either to actually work on my
phone, an HTC Desire C. They did run, but I couldn’t figure out the

After examining the source code, I concluded that my phone was
probably supposed to have a keyboard, and doesn’t. They also seemed
to crash if I tried to switch away from them to another application
and then go back again.

Aside from these niggles, these two applications, together with
a lot of Googling, did allow me to eventually figure out how to put
together my own simple game programming framework, complete with
sound and 2D frame-by-frame animation; enough to satisfy me, and
hopefully, my course subscribers.

In case you’re interested, here are the main things that I
figured out. And I might mention at this stage that, yes, it
probably would have been easier to use libgdx – but then I wouldn’t
have had the fun of working with the Android API directly.

Firstly, you can extend a class called SurfaceView and then put
your extended SurfaceView component in your layout. Surface view
has a method called getHolder() which allows you to return a
SurfaceHolder object. You can do two really useful things with

One is that you can use addCallback() to add a listener which
will be notified when the drawing surface is created or destroyed;
paying careful attention to this will enable you to stop and start
your drawing code when the user starts or navigates away from your
application. Oh, I didn’t mention this yet, but you’re going to
have to set up a separate thread to draw to the surface every few
milliseconds and update your game. This isn’t handled for you. Just
use an ordinary Thread class with a loop in it.

The second thing you can do with your SurfaceHolder is to lock
it using a method called lockCanvas(). This allows you to retrieve
a canvas object which you can draw on. Don’t forget to unlock it,
and don’t forget that lockCanvas() won’t always succeed; you need
to check that the returned canvas is not null. Since the drawing
surface is locked before you draw on it, as far as I can see, you
don’t need any further thread synchronization, which is nice.

You’ll need to spend a bit of time initially figuring when to
stop and start your drawing thread (hint: use the surface callback)
and stuff like that, but once you’ve got the basics nailed, the
rest is just standard game programming. Of course, if you want to
do anything more complex that draw 2D images, you’d be well-advised
to use a game programming library instead of trying to roll your

Playing sounds is very straightforward, mercifully. Use the
SoundPool class to load and play sounds in mp3 or some other


The easiest way to create simple animated games in Android is
probably to use libgdx, which has the
additional benefit of being cross-platform. If you’re really
serious about game programming, you’ll probably want to use
AndEngine, or even make use
of a proprietrary product like Unity3D. If you want to roll your own,
make use of the SurfaceView class (Google for it!), create your own
thread to hold your game loop, and use SoundPool to play

About the author: John W. Purcell worked
for a variety of global and not-so-global corporations in the UK
and Holland for the best part of fourteen years before moving to
Budapest and starting the site Cave of Programming, from
where he now makes a living by creating online video programming
courses. His latest fledgling project is an ill-conceived and
frankly somewhat insane attempt to convince everyone that the world
is merely a projection of our collective minds and can be found
at QuantumLifetime.com.

John W. Purcell worked for a variety of global and not-so-global corporations in the UK and Holland for the best part of fourteen years before moving to Budapest and starting the site CaveOfProgramming.com, from where he now makes a living by creating online video programming courses. His latest fledgling project is an ill-conceived and frankly somewhat insane attempt to convince everyone that the world is merely a projection of our collective minds and can be found at QuantumLifetime.com.
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