GDC 2004 - Lua in the Gaming Industry Roundtable Report
Jon Burns 
David Eichorn 
Microsoft Game Studios
The embedded programming language Lua is becoming more and more widely
used in the gaming industry. The beauty of this language is in its
simplicity and flexibility; several games within Microsoft Game
Studios employ the use of Lua for many aspects of their architectures,
including scripting, game balancing, AI decision making, driving
animations, UI layout, and level building. The purpose of this
roundtable discussion is to bring developers from the industry
together to share in their experiences integrating Lua into their game
projects. The goal is to spread awareness of the most popular uses of
Lua and to also make any short-comings or pitfalls apparent to those
developers evaluating the use of Lua in their games.
The first session had approximately sixty attendants, primarily all
developers. The second session had approximately forty five
attendants, again, primarily all developers. The first session had
many more active participants, approximately fifteen, as more of this
group had some good experience working with Lua on their projects. The
second group was less experienced; only approximately seven
participated actively. Some attended to share their experience while
others simply wanted to learn more about Lua's impact in the industry
or evaluate it for possible use.
Key Discussion Points
Lua vs. Python
The comparison of Lua and Python was a major theme of both sessions.
The general consensus here is that Lua is much faster, uses less
memory, has a smaller footprint, and is easier to get up and running
and hooked into a game than Python. Python, however, is much more
scalable than Lua. Python has a good set of modules for specialized
tasks which makes it a good language to use for cross-platform
development, while in Lua you'd have to write much of it yourself.
Many developers use both languages for different purposes - Lua is
most often used for small-scale while Python is used for large-scale
tasks (such as tool development efforts). Lua is often used for game
scripting, Python for tools. One developer even said he had written
his Lua debugger in Python!
Lua vs. XML
A question was posed regarding using Lua or XML for data definition.
The general consensus was that Lua is much more compact and readable
than XML. XML is good for describing small sets of data and
web-related data, and it was suggested that a team could use XML as a
meta-language to express game data in binary, which would be good for
cross-platform development. Most agreed it is much easier to find
XML-savvy editors than Lua editors.
Lua's easy ramp-up time
Most developers heavily experienced with Lua said Lua is a language
that developers can learn in about 10 minutes and that non-programmers
can pick up at a fairly quick pace. Certain scripting applications
using Lua could be a good way for junior programmers to get into the
There is good documentation for Lua, which aids in the ramp-up
process. There is now a Lua Programming book, reference manuals, and a
good community support web site  .
Non-programmers using Lua
There was general agreement that non-programmers - game and level
designers, perhaps artists - can learn to understand the syntax of the
language and write small bits of code with excellent results, but that
learning how to actually program in Lua is a challenge. The risk here
is the higher chance of subtle bugs being introduced into Lua scripts
from these non-technical people.
For example, some devs had problems with their artists not knowing
good naming conventions and programming concepts well enough to do a
good job in Lua. One suggestion was to use a tool named Ultraedit that
color-codes the Lua script - this developer claimed his artists found
programming in Lua much easier in this editing program.
It was also suggested that data-driven design support in Lua is better
for these non-technical people. One developer suggested creating a
multi-tiered system that added increasing levels of abstraction - each
level increasing the ease of use for the non-technical people using
Lua. He claimed it has worked very effectively in his project.
Binding Lua to C++
Many less-experienced Lua users asked about binding Lua with C++. Some
developers are using the Luabind tool which does this quite
effectively, though some cautioned that the compile times are much
longer. One mentioned that the tool ToLua is no longer supported, so
use of it should be transitioned to another automatic binding
generation tool. Other tools mentioned included LuaPlus and Swig. Some
developers found it easier to write their own in-house tools to bind
Lua and C++ because it is quite easy to do.
The discussion produced this word of caution: the easier it gets to
bind Lua to data objects in the game source, the easier it is to fall
into the trap of binding *everything* to Lua, which is dangerous...
Issues encountered when using Lua in game development
The attendees had many suggestions on avoiding pitfalls:
Avoid using Lua in "every frame" actions as performance drops
dramatically. For example, don't use Lua to do animation updates; set
up parameters for the animation in Lua and do the updates in C/C++
Avoid using Lua for large game development tasks; rather use Lua in
quick small-scale actions.
Avoid using extremely large table sizes as performance drops in table
Store state information outside of Lua in C++ objects, only bind when
Be careful about what data is bound to Lua. Having careful control of
this data can result in a good, stable environment regarding security
Call garbage-collection routines explicitly only when free cycles come
up. Some devs found that Lua was doing garbage collection at
One developer cautioned against using incremental garbage collection
as he observed noticeable slowdown. Because it is a new functionality,
however, this claim wasn't discussed much.
Good things about Lua
The attendees had the following to say about what appeals to them
about using Lua:
Lua coroutines work "reasonably well" for cooperative multithreading.
One developer said they have about twice the overhead of a function
call (negligible), and that having 3-4 works just fine.
All of the developers love the fact that licensing Lua is so easy, and
especially so free.
In event-based and polling systems, many of the developers claimed
they observe no noticeable bottlenecks caused by Lua.
New features/tools coming into the Lua scene make it more attractive
day by day: Lualint and the new standard debugging library provided in
All devs unanimously agreed that the support for Lua is great, whether
off of the Lua homepage or the community sites, etc.
Experiences applying Lua
The group shared some of their own personal uses of Lua that were
particularly memorable and successful:
One developer created a cutscene handler in Lua that managed the
triggering of cutscenes in his game project. He found it easy to
manage in Lua.
One developer was able to setup a record / replay system for all UI
One developer was doing unit code testing in Lua.
One developer was able to derive game objects in Lua, and assign
functions to these objects in order to test their attributes, etc.
One developer integrated Lua with their physics engine to allow more
accessibility to tweak physics scripts dynamically.
Summary and Conclusions
This roundtable focused on the hands-on experiences of people using
Lua in the gaming industry. Attendees were encouraged to share their
personal experiences with Lua in order to spread awareness of the
benefits and pitfalls of this embedded language. The two sessions
accomplished this goal quite successfully (we as moderators were very
surprised at the interest in Lua in the gaming industry based on the
number of attendees both days and in the discussion that came about) -
there was good conversation in both roundtable sessions that conveyed
several things, most notably: 1) The diverse uses of Lua that are
specific to games development, 2) What not to use Lua for in games
development, 3) The ease of ramp up time for users of Lua, and 4)
Comparisons against other languages and even older releases of Lua.
This is where most interest lay for both days.
There are definitely a handful of very experienced Lua users in the
gaming industry that are doing some very impressive work in their
projects with the language. Future roundtables on this topic can begin
to explore more of what the industry would like to see as features of
the language itself and how the community support for games
development can expand more effectively...