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Imagine we’re writing a game. We’ll need “data structures” (collections of variables) to represent player characters (PCs; the characters controlled by humans), non-player characters (NPCs; the enemies that are part of the game), and physical objects (weapons, crates, stairs, etc.). We could do this with basic classes:

class Object
{
public:
    int weight;
    int position_x;
    int position_y;
};

class Weapon
{
public:
    int damage;
    int weight;
    string success_msg; // e.g. "the arrow hit!"
    string failure_msg; // e.g. "the arrow missed!"
};

class Player
{
public:
    int position_x;
    int position_y;
    int health;
    int strength;
    string name;
    Weapon *current_weapon;
    int id; // tells us which human is controlling which player
};

class Enemy
{
public:
    int position_x;
    int position_y;
    int health;
    int strength;
    string name;
    Weapon *current_weapon;
    int strategy_id; // what kind of AI (e.g. aggressive, friendly, etc.)
};

Good so far. Now we need functions. We want players and enemies to move around, to fight each other; we want to determine which objects/players/enemies are present at some position, etc. Here are some function headers:

void walk_one_step_player(Player* p, int direction);
void walk_one_step_enemy(Enemy* e, int direction);
void attack_enemy(Player* p, Enemy* e);
void attack_player(Enemy* e, Player* p);

Etc.

Since we’re using classes, we can actually put the methods inside the respective classes and get rid of the first parameter (the pointer):

class Player
{
public:
    int position_x;
    int position_y;
    int health;
    int strength;
    string name;
    Weapon *current_weapon;
    int id; // tells us which human is controlling which player
    
    void walk_one_step(int direction);
    void attack_enemy(Enemy* e);
    void attack_player(Player* p);
};

class Enemy
{
public:
    int position_x;
    int position_y;
    int health;
    int strength;
    string name;
    Weapon *current_weapon;
    int strategy_id; // what kind of AI (e.g. aggressive, friendly,
    etc.)
    
    void walk_one_step(int direction);
    void attack_enemy(Enemy* e);
    void attack_player(Player* p);
};

Because enemies, players, objects, and so on are distinct classes, we have lots of specific functions. But these classes have a lot of commonalities. Players and enemies are nearly the same thing except for just a few differences. What if, instead, we could say “a player is a kind of ‘agent,’ and an enemy is a kind of agent, and agents are a kind of ‘object’ or ‘thing’…”

This is what “object orientation” in general offers.

Classes and inheritance

We really want a player to be a “kind of” agent and an agent a “kind of” object. This is called “inheritance.” We can diagram it like so (in “UML” format):

Class diagram (no methods)

The arrows mean that a class inherits properties from the parent class (what an arrow points to). So a Player automatically has the properties health, strength, and so on from the Agent class, and has position_x and so on from the Object class.

We could redefine the functions above in order to work on instances of the Object class, instances of the Agent class, and so on. Typically, we put functions inside the classes themselves. (And we call typically them “methods” when we do that, rather than “functions.”) So our diagram now shows methods as well:

Class diagram (with methods)

Classes inherit methods as well as properties. So the Player class automatically has access to the method walk_one_step(), which comes from the Agent class.

Why inheritance?

Without inheritance, we had to write functions like walk_one_step_player() and walk_on_step_enemy(), or alternatively, if we put the functions inside the classes, we had to write the function walk_one_step() twice (for the Player and Enemy classes each). Either way, there is duplication.

This is unfortunate because players and enemies are very much alike; in fact, the two classes have many of the same attributes (internal data): int position_x and int position_y in particular. This means that the code for the walk_one_step_player() function and the code for the walk_one_step_enemy() function or both class-specific walk_on_step() functions will be identical! These functions will change the position_x and/or position_y values of the player or enemy class.

Well sheesh, isn’t there some way to write a single function that works on both players and enemies, so we don’t have to repeat code?

In order to write just one function, we have tell the compiler that players and enemies are going to share code. The way we do this is we create a parent class Agent that has the walk_one_step() method. We’ll have the new Player and Enemy classes “inherit” the attributes position_x and position_y from the Agent parent class; they will also inherit the method walk_one_step().

The primary point of object-oriented programming is to move the focus of program design from algorithms to data structures. In particular, a data structure is elevated to the point that it can contain its own operations.

But such data structures–called objects–often are related to one another in a particular way: One is just like another except for some additions or slight modifications. In this situation, there will be too much duplication if such objects are completely separate, so a means of inheriting code–methods–was developed.

Hence we see the claim of reuse in object-oriented languages: When writing a single program, a programmer reuses code already developed by inheriting that code from more general objects or classes. There is a beauty to this sort of reuse: It requires no particular process because it is part of the nature of the language.

In short, subclassing is the means of reuse. – Richard P. Gabriel, Patterns of Software

How to use class methods

Ok, now that we have the right hierarchy for Players and Enemies, we need to figure out how to use the walk_one_step() function for some particular player or enemy.

Let’s create a player:

Player me;

Now set its position:

me.position_x = 5;
me.position_y = 9;

(Notice that we set attributes just like we did when we used structures.)

Since a player is an agent and agents have a walk_one_step() method, we can use it on the player called me:

me.walk_one_step(0); // 0 means walk North

We use a method on a class variable (called variously an “instance” or an “object”) in the same we that we get or set attributes. That is to say, we put the class variable or object first (me) then a dot (me.) then the method name like a normal function call (me.walk_one_step(0)).

This is not how we use the functions at the top of these lecture notes; those functions were defined outside of the classes and thus needed a parameter that was a pointer to a class object:

Player me;
me.position_x = 5;
me.position_y = 9;
walk_one_step_player(&me, 0);

But not now that we are using classes:

Player me;         // same as above
me.position_x = 5; // same as above
me.position_y = 9; // same as above
me.walk_one_step(0); // different

Since walk_one_step() is now a class method, it has to be called “on an object” (the me before the dot). The code inside the method can just refer to attributes position_x and position_y without using a pointer.

Let’s compare. Here is the function:

// walk_one_step_player() function
void walk_one_step_player(Player* p, int direction)
{
    if(direction == 0) // North
    {
        p->position_y = p->position_y - 1;
    }
    else if(direction == 1) // South
    {
    //...
    }
}

Now for the method version:

// walk_one_step() class method
void walk_one_step(int direction)
{
    if(direction == 0) // North
    {
        position_y = position_y - 1;
    }
    else if(direction == 1) // South
    {
    //...
    }
}

The variable position_y in the code above (the second example, the method) doesn’t seem to exist (it’s not a parameter and it’s not created in the method). So how do we know what position_y refers to? Recall that a Player inherits the attribute int position_y from the Agent class. And recall that the walk_one_step() method is being called from a Player variable (object) called me:

me.walk_one_step(0);

This means that position_y in the method is the position_y of the me object.

Continue to Classes and object orientation (part 2) to learn how to create complete programs.

CSCI 221 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.