Build a strong math foundation!

A strong math background is an vital tool for game development. That may sound completely obvious to you, but it wasn’t to the 12-18 year old me. I was a good student and enjoyed my math classes and all, but the light just wasn’t on. I never took a formal linear algebra class, so the best I had was the primer you get in every game development book. It’s enough to understand basic vector algebra and affine transformations, but not much more. I mostly just used the equations and maintained a very surface-level understanding. The dangerous part was that I somehow fostered a false confidence in my math skills. I was good until I started prodding.

Man, was I missing out.

Last year, I had the opportunity to interview for a game development studio. Sure enough, my interviewer gave me a vector algebra problem, and I totally choked. I eventually made it through, but not without lots of coaxing and hand holding. It was a pivotal moment for me: I realized just how much I was holding myself back by not building a strong foundation. So I decided to change!

I immediately picked up Introduction to Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang and began working through his M.I.T. course online. I also registered for Calculus III for Fall 2012, and Differential Equations, and Computational Geometry for my last semester. I picked up Real-Time Rendering and Physically Based Rendering, which are two fantastic and math-heavy books. Linear algebra and Calculus III have been incredible. I’m able to dissect problems and understand their context in ways like never before.

As an example, consider the problem of tangent space normal mapping. I never understood the formal concept of linear transformations and basis vectors. A matrix was just numbers to me; now it’s a familiar construct with a plethora of fascinating properties and elements (like eigenvalues and eigenvectors!). Computing the tangent, bi-tangent, and normal vectors and transforming the lights  and viewpoint into tangent space is a walk in the park now. No game development book primer is a worthy replacement for a rigorous math course.

So do yourself a favor. Learn the math! And really learn it.

Most recently, I’ve been studying the Singular Value Decomposition of a matrix, as well as it’s Psuedoinverse. These constructs are ways to break down matrices into basic and powerful elements. A great application of this concept is inverse kinematics. In my next post, I’ll explain how I solved a basic inverse kinematics chain in 2D using python, linear algebra, and calculus.

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