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Working with Unreal Engine source releases in Plastic SCM

This guide is for Plastic SCM users, that want to build a game using Unreal Engine, and plan to compile and make changes to the engine code itself, while also upgrading engine releases as they are released by Epic.

Hi, I'm Andreas, a game developer here at GOALS. We are building a football game using Unreal Engine and use Plastic to manage our source code and assets. This article tells the story on how we bridged the gap between Git and Plastic to stay on top of new engine releases.

Building blocks

Full engine source code is served via Unreal Engine own GitHub repository, to which you get access by registering your GitHub user with Epic. See How do I access Unreal Engine 4 C++ source code via GitHub?

Each official engine release is labelled with a Git tag, for example 4.27.2-release or 5.0.0-preview-2. Here you also find a downloadable tarball or zip for the release.

Then we have a Plastic repository, where we want to develop our game.

The idea

The main idea is to see Unreal Engine as a third-party vendor library, albeit a really big one. One strategy for vendor libs is to keep a clean and unmodified copy of it in a separate branch, that is then merged into your development branch.

This idea isn't new, it's basically exactly what Karl Fogel describe in Tracking Third-Party Sources (Vendor Branches), a section of his 20+ years old book titled Open Source Development With CVS.

Sounds simple enough, but how do we apply it to Plastic and Unreal Engine?

Branch layout and upgrade flow

Let us start with deciding a branch layout. The game itself is developed on main, we keep unmodified Unreal Engine releases in vendor-unreal-engine that is merged down to main for each release.

Take this example, where we set up an empty repo with 4.27.0 that we upgrade to 4.27.1 and finally 4.27.2.

Branch Layout

This image speaks a thousand words, in text it says:

  1. Start with an empty Plastic repo
  2. Add 4.27.0 to vendor-unreal-engine
  3. Make a small tweak to the engine itself.
  4. Merge it all down into main
  5. Add your games main module
  6. Upgrade vendor-unreal-engine with release 4.27.1
  7. Merge the new release with main, and apply fixes to make your game module compile and work again.
  8. Merge the new engine into main
  9. Make local modification to the engine itself
  10. Upgrade vendor-unreal-engine with release 4.27.2
  11. Merge it with main, and apply even more fixes to your game so that it still works.
  12. Publish the new release to main
  13. And continue making local changes to the engine

Importing Unreal Engine releases

So, how do you import or upgrade the engine source code into our vendor-unreal-engine?

Import by delete and re-adding all files

One crude strategy is to delete all files on the vendor branch and simply copy all files from the new release, and then let Plastic detect which files have been added, removed, modified or moved.

This should work well. Alas, plastics move detection seem to miss most moves, maybe there are too many files involved in engine upgrades for it to be practically possible? It would be understandable, upgrading 4.27.2 to 5.0.0-early-access-1 modifies over 50k files.

As a result, moved files will be imported as a delete followed by an add.
If you have made changes to the file in the old location on your main-branch, Plastic will not help you merge these changes into the file in its new location. Instead, it will ask you how to resolve your changes to the old, deleted file. Forcing you to manually copy your changes into the new location.

Depending on how widespread your local engine changes are, this strategy might be good enough, for us at GOALS it was not.

Import by replicating changes from Git

Luckily, we can do better. Full revision history is available in the main Git repo, it knows which files has been modified, added or removed, and most importantly it also knows which files have been renamed or moved.

The command we use is git diff --name-status, here's the output of the diff between 4.27.1 and 4.27.2. Note that this is just an excerpt, the real diff contains roughly 460 changes.

$ git diff --name-status 4.27.1-release 4.27.2-release
M   Engine/Build/Build.version
A   Engine/Extras/Containers/Dockerfiles/linux/dev-slim/Dockerfile
D   Engine/Source/Programs/Enterprise/Datasmith/DatasmithSolidworksExporter/Private/Animations/AnimationExtractor.cs
R064    Samples/PixelStreaming/WebServers/SignallingWebServer/platform_scripts/cmd/run.bat  Samples/PixelStreaming/WebServers/SignallingWebServer/platform_scripts/cmd/run_local.bat
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

The leading column means:

  • M - File was modified in place
  • A - File was added
  • D - File was deleted
  • R* - File was renamed or moved. The number is a percentage of how certain Git is that the file was in fact moved, and not a delete followed by an add. There is some grey area when it comes to moves in Git, sometimes a file is moved, but then modified to fit in its new location. For example, a moved C++ file may need to have include paths tweaked to compile.

Git uses some fuzzy heuristics to discern moves from adds and deletes. Most of the time it seems to make good guesses. When it fails it is not a big deal; the old location will still be deleted, and the name, location and content of the added file will be correct.

Now, it's just a matter of replicating these changes in vendor-unreal-engine.

Dealing with modified files is simple, just check out in Plastic and copy the file from the new release.

Adding files is almost as easy, just copy their content. But, if the target folder does not exist in Plastic we need to first create and add it before coping the file.

For deletes, the opposite of adds, we start by deleting the file itself.
If the folder in which it existed became empty, we need to remove the folder, we also need to iterate up the hierarchy to delete any now empty parent directories.

For moves we start by creating and adding target directories to before we tell Plastic to move the file. Finally, we copy the contents of the file from the new release.

Announcing ueimporter

This git->plastic import process is very scriptable, and I wrote a command line tool called ueimporter that takes care of it all. I'm happy to announce that GOALS are now open-sourcing this tool, available in GitHub at goalsgame/ueimporter.

Ignoring the elephant in the room

If you have ever tried to store Unreal Engine source inside Plastic, you may have noticed a rather big elephant that I so far avoided; Plastics ignore file, and it's incompatibility with Gits equivalent.

Unreal Engines GitHub repo comes with a rather complex .gitignore file. Whenever you build or work with the engine various intermediate and temporary files is scattered all over your workspace, not to mention the thousands of files that is downloaded when you run Setup.bat|sh.
These files should not be committed into Git, and likewise we do not want them checked into Plastic.

It is not possible to directly translate Gits .gitignore file into Plastics ignore.conf, the two systems have rather different rules deciding in what order ignore patterns are applied.

Ignoring in Git

On one hand, we have Git, where each line specifies a file or directory pattern, any subsequent matching line will override preceding matches. A simple philosophy that is relatively easy to understand.

If we compress Unreals .gitignore into a nutshell, it can be described like this:

  1. Start by ignoring all files
  2. Add exceptions to not ignore certain extensions. For instance, .h and .cpp files.
  3. Add exceptions to those exceptions so that temporary build folders are ignored. For example, everything under Engine/Intermediate should be ignored, or else the *.h and *.cpp files that UnrealHeaderTool generates during the build process would be tracked.

On and on the list goes, with more detailed exceptions and ignore patterns. There are close to 160 rules listed in the ignore file for the 5.0.0-preview-2 release.

Ignorance is not a bliss in Plastic

Then we have Plastic, it prioritizes patterns based on its type, rather than in what order it occur in its ignore.conf. Two patterns of the same type are applied in the order they appear in the file. Exception patterns take precedence over ignore patterns of the same type.

So what pattern types are we talking about? Quoting the Pattern evaluation hierarchy section of the Version Control, DevOps and Agile Development with Plastic SCM book.

Plastic SCM will try to match the path of an item using the patterns in the file in a predefined way.
This means that some pattern formats take precedence over others rather than processing the patterns
in the order they appear in the file.

  1. Absolute path rules that match exactly
  2. Catch-all rules
  3. Name rules applied to the current item
  4. Absolute path rules applied to the item directory structure
  5. Name rules applied to the item directory structure
  6. Extension rules
  7. Wildcard and Regular expression rules

There are more devils in the details, but that's the gist of it.

Unreals .gitignore use most of these types, but relies on the order to accomplish desired behaviour. Just copy pasting this to ignore.conf does not work, because it wreaks havoc to this order.

An acceptable workaround

We at GOALS have wrestled quite a bit with our ignore.conf, trying to come up with equivalent behaviour as in Git. So far, we haven't nailed it, but have at least arrived at a config file that we can endure.

We simply ignore the entire Engine-folder, that gets rid of most of the intermediate and temporary files that is explicitly ignored in .gitignore.
The main drawback with this is that we must remember to manually add files to Plastic, whenever we add anything to Engine, or else it will not show up as a pending change that can be checked in. We can edit files that are already checked into Plastic just fine, they will be detected as changed.

For our games own modules and plugins it was relatively easy to write ignore rules, mainly because Unreal write most files to Engine during the setup process and build artefacts all end up in easily identified intermediate folders.

Ignore files and our vendor branch

Thankfully, the ignore file is irrelevant on our vendor-unreal-engine branch.
Here we always want Plastic to detect all files, so that we can check them in and later have them merged into main. This implies that you must clear out any private files before you start importing a new engine release to the vendor branch. You should not build or do anything to pollute your workspace here, do that on an upgrade branch after merging with main (where an ignore file is present).

Parting words

With this setup you have the power to change the engine at will and still stay up to date with new releases. How you wield this power is up to you.

Consider that any merge conflicts you get with new engine releases, after making local changes, will need to be resolved. This is a manual process that is hard to automate.

In the past, when working in another big game engine, I have seen many, many, many dev-months been sunk into resolving merge conflicts and follow up issues, due to local modifications when the engine was upgraded. Tears were shed, good night sleeps lost and dev-happiness fled down the drain. It was not pretty.

Keep your engine changes small and isolated, and tag changed lines with begin/end comments. If a change can be done in your game module or a plug-in that is the preferred way.

One benefit with this setup, is that you can cherry-pick fixes from Epics mainline and push directly into your own main. Later, when the fix gets included in an official release your divergence should just resolve itself in the upgrade process.

Finally, upgrade the engine often, the further you diverge from the mainline the harder it will be to catch up. Take one version at a time, even if you are more than one version behind. In their Fish Slapping Dance Monty Python teach us that it's better to be slapped with a small pilchard multiple times than it is to be slapped by a big fat halibut just once.

Take care, stay safe and happy game making.

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