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Simple State Machines

Quite commonly game state machines are designed to be overly complex and hard to understand. As the game expands, they become larger and harder to follow. Somehow the game still magically works and most of the time nothing is done to simplify it.  Generally most games revolve around a few states and limiting the number of states makes the game more maintainable.

What Are State Machines?

A state machine is a mathematical model of a number of finite states that can only be in exactly one state at any given time. Transitions between states are predefined and can only take place along those paths. Put more simply, a game can only be in a few states at any given time. For example, the game is either playing, paused, restarting, or ended. It’s not possible to be in multiple states at any given time, and the transitions between each state are clear cut.

Essentially the parts of the state machine are:

  • A number of finite states that correspond to a certain behavior
  • Transitions between one state to another
  • Rules that trigger transitions

Simple State Machines

So how can we design a simple, yet functional state machine? Start with the basics. Every game should at the bare minimum contain a playing state, a starting state when the game is loading, and an ending state. There will possibly a pause state and maybe a menu state. Here’s what it would look like: Simple State Machine

The arrows represent transitions between each state. There are rules that correspond to when the transitions can be triggered. For example, pressing pause would change the game from playing to paused. When the game is ending, it can either go into the main menu or restart back to starting.

Implementing in Unity

As the title goes, it’s actually pretty simple to implement this kind of design in Unity.

To start, we need an interface to build all our states with.

public interface IGameState
    public IGameState Update(float timeDelta);
Every state should implement this interface. Update will be called every frame from your GameManager on the current state. The update method will return a IGameState object, which would let you know if there were any state changes in that current frame.
For example, a playing state might look like this:
public class PlayingState : IGameState {
    public IGameState Update(float timeDelta){
        //game logic
        return this;
And that’s basically it. Game state machines should be simple and easy to understand, which is why this is such a great design. More complex games might have multiple state machines at any given time, but the same framework can apply. Many game systems and AIs are designed using finite state machines, and Unity uses a state machine for the animation controllers. I hope this was simple enough for everyone, thanks for reading!


Hey there, I’m Jon! I love landscape photography which is why I travel all the time! On my blog I’ll share all the best spots for epic sunsets and sunrises as well as some photography tips and tricks. I also have a interest in game design so you’ll find the occasional post about that too. Thanks for visiting!

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