Thinkofname's blog

Designing a UI System

UI is a pretty core component of every game. There’s a few different libraries out there already which can handle this for me like: Flatui, Imgui and Conrod which are all immediate mode instead of retained (my searches for a retained mode gui library returned nothing useful). I prefer working working with a retained mode styled GUI which has the benefit of working better with the scripting interface I want to add later. I like reinventing the wheel so this should be fun too.

Representing elements

Inheritance is a pretty useful way of representing a UI system however Rust (currently at least) doesn’t have a way of doing this for us.

Previous attempts

In the past I’ve tried a few different ways of handling UI in rust, Steven for example used a mess of macros to allow all elements to share a base set of properties and methods. This caused a lot of duplicated code to be generated and generally made the whole system a pain to work with. It also abused the unstable Rc::would_unwrap method to detect when references were dropped which caused some hard to track down bugs when I forgot to hold a reference to an element I created. It did have the benefit that the macros could automatically generate nice builders to work with:

let login_btn = ui::ButtonBuilder::new()
    .position(0.0, 100.0)
    .size(400.0, 40.0)
    .alignment(ui::VAttach::Middle, ui::HAttach::Center)
let login_btn_text = ui::TextBuilder::new()
    .position(0.0, 0.0)
    .alignment(ui::VAttach::Middle, ui::HAttach::Center)
    .attach(&mut *login_btn.borrow_mut());

The other way I have tried was using an entity component system to manage ui elements (This was done in the university project I talked about in the previous post). This solved some of the problems I had with the previous attempt (as well as being quick to implement using an entity component I’d already created for this project). Inheritance wasn’t an issue anymore because I could just ensure that all entities had a base set of components and fetch them when doing layout without caring about other attached components. This also made handling parents easier, instead of having a graph of all elements I could store them all linearly in memory and just lookup the parents position when aligning the element.

pub fn create_image(
    m: &mut ecs::Manager, renderer: &mut render::Renderer,
    tex: &'static str, x: f64, y: f64, w: f64, h: f64) -> ecs::Entity
    let e = m.create_entity();
    m.add_component(e, Position::new(x, y));
    m.add_component(e, Size::new(w, h));
    m.add_component(e, Image::new(renderer.get_texture(tex)));

/// Stores the position of an ui element on the screen.
pub struct Position {
    pub x: f64,
    pub y: f64,
    pub v_align: VerticalAlign,
    pub h_align: HorizontalAlign,
    pub parent: Option<ecs::Entity>,

The issue with this system is that you lose the ability to be able to tell what an element is, whether its an image, text etc without checking for every type of component. For the limited UI of the project this didn’t come into play much as it only had the in-game UI, no menus or anything else.

Current system

For this system I went back to a inheritance-like system but instead of using a macro to provide a base set of fields I just went with a simple struct. Every element in this system contains this struct and a implementation of Deref<Target=BaseElement> and DerefMut which due to Rust’s auto-deref rules allows access to the fields from BaseElement as if they were from the element that contains it.

/// All elements contain at least this struct
pub struct BaseElement {
    /// The id of the element
    pub id: Option<String>,
    /// Location of the element
    pub position: Position,
    /// Size of the element
    pub size: Size,
    /// Property storage that can be used by events to tag elements
    pub properties: HashMap<String, Box<Any>>,
    /// Method to be called when the mouse is pressed down
    pub on_mouse_down: Vec<MethodDesc>,
    // <snip>

let mut img: Image = ...;
img.position.x = 50;
// etc

To allow for elements to all be stored in a Vec together I wrapped them all in an enum. This does currently prevent custom element types but I’m currently hoping that I can just provide a base set of elements and allow ‘custom’ elements to just be made up of the base set, this is something that the entity component system based version handled better. Element also implements Deref<Target=BaseElement> and DerefMut which simply delegates to the wrapped struct. This way when you obtain an element (e.g. via a get_element_by_id method) you don’t have to match against it to simply change its position/size.

impl Deref for Element {
    type Target = BaseElement;

    fn deref(&self) -> &BaseElement {
        match *self {
            Element::Collection(ref c) => c,
            Element::Image(ref i) => i,
            Element::Text(ref t) => t,
            Element::Image9Patch(ref i) => i,
// Repeat for DerefMut


The current system I have does not handle layouts currently and simply relies on relative pixel positions and alignment (same with all the previous systems too). This is something I want to work on but I haven’t come up with a good way of doing this yet.

Positioning is all handled by a compute_rect method which takes the rect of the parent either computed by a previous compute_rect call or the rect of the screen and takes the BaseElement struct of the element.

/// Computes the bounds of the element within the parent rect.
/// This makes no attempt to ensure the size of the element fits
/// within the bounds.
fn compute_rect(parent: Rect, element: &BaseElement) -> Rect {
    let mut ret = Rect {
        x: parent.x,
        y: parent.y,
        // Size is weird here due to the fact its loaded
        // from a json file where null means inherit
        // from the parents size and less than 0 means
        // inherit but reduce by size.
        width: if element.size.width.is_none()
                    || element.size.width.unwrap() < 0 {
            parent.width + element.size.width.unwrap_or(0)
        } else {
        height: if element.size.height.is_none()
                    || element.size.height.unwrap() < 0 {
            parent.height + element.size.height.unwrap_or(0)
        } else {
    ret.x += match element.position.h_align {
        HAlign::Left => element.position.x,
        HAlign::Center =>
            (parent.width/2) - (ret.width/2) + element.position.x,
        HAlign::Right =>
            parent.width - ret.width - element.position.x,
    ret.y += match element.position.v_align {
        VAlign::Top => element.position.y,
        VAlign::Middle =>
            (parent.height/2) - (ret.height/2) + element.position.y,
        VAlign::Bottom =>
            parent.height - ret.height - element.position.y,

As pointed out in the comments width/height is a bit weird, this could be better handled by an enum but I haven’t found a nice way to describe it in json form. The same could be done with the way HAlign and VAlign as the position could be contained within the enum itself.



To save repeating myself in the json UI descriptions I implemented a template system. These are just simple string substitutions ($$/%% variables, @@ random unique id to prevent conflicts). These are pretty undebuggable when something goes wrong with no clear indication of where the error comes from.


Currently they are pretty hacky. Strings that describe method calls in json. With a ‘fun’ custom syntax to referring to elements with dynamically generated ids (due to templates). This means all functions that can be used in events must be declared up front (scripts can’t add their own) causing things like the single_player call being accessible whilst already in game.

    "on_mouse_move_out": [
        "change_texture(ui/button, @@button_back@@)",
        "change_color(0, 0, 0, 255, @@button_text@@)"

I’m not sure of a solution which allows for events to be described in json, Rust and in scripts.

Summing up

After attempting a retained mode gui multiple times with varying amounts of success I’m tempted give a immediate mode style gui a go. Scripting is still a big limiter on using immediate mode though (invoking a script every frame doesn’t sound like a good idea) but there may be a hybrid system out there I can use.

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