What is entity component system for

Kevin Wang · Mon, Mar 2, 2020 Last modified 2020-03-08 · 9 min read 1728 Words Permalink

I, like many programmers often do, first began experimenting with programming through games. They can be quite simple to write, and provide a self contained, easily testable, tangible, and fun way to learn programming. To this day, the first thing I will try to build when learning a new UI framework or platform is to build a simple clicker “game”. Though highly contrived, it exercises maintaining and updating state, programmatically updating the view, and interfacing with the event system—all common requirements for building a UI program.

My early experimentation with game programming quickly reached an impasse, however. I discovered, in attempting to write more complex games, that my game logic always became tangled, difficult to understand, and difficult to debug. It wasn’t until recently, in having to design and implement a game for a class project, that I learned the reason why. Now, with many more additional years of experience, I understand that game architecture is an entirely different beast compared with the “traditional” object oriented approach to program design.

Game architecture has a wildly different philosophy than more conventional programs, driven by the unique way data is organized and accessed within them. Currently, the most widely accepted solution is to use the entity component system pattern, or some variant of it. Learning about how the current best architectural patterns solve these problems that uniquely appear in game programming has been useful for me to compare against architectural patterns in other domains. These comparisons give insight into the key aspects of a particular problem that motivate a certain type of solution.

The Problem #

To reiterate, using “traditional” object oriented designs for game development is not recommended, because it quickly leads to tangled logic and difficult to debug code. To better visualize this, let us consider a contrived example.

Say there is a roguelike1 dungeon crawler game with the following types of objects and their corresponding behaviors:

  • player: is collidable, has position, has velocity, has health, is controllable, and is renderable
  • enemy: is collidable, has position, has velocity, has health, and is renderable
  • trap: has position, has health, and is renderable
  • wall: is collidable, has position, and is renderable

The objective here is to write maintainable implementations for these behaviors that allows us to easily share those implementations amongst the multiple types of objects that require them, and allow behaviors to be easily added and modified.

Inheritance #

A traditional object oriented approach here would dictate that we should abstract over the behaviors for each object type. Inheritance is one such solution to share implementation across multiple types of objects, though it would be difficult to implement in practice here, because certain object types share some behaviors in a nonhierarchical manner. For example, player, enemy, and wall share collision, position, and renderable; and player and enemy share velocity and health. However, player, enemy, and trap share position, health, and renderable as well. There is no object type hierarchy here where supertypes may have behavior that is shared only by subtypes. Thus inheritance is a poor solution for this problem.

Interfaces #

Alternately, interfaces are another traditional objected oriented solution. Addressing the previously stated issues, object types only have to implement the behavior that they require. For example, the player type could implement the collidable interface by delegating it to a common, shared collidable implementation, and likewise for the rest of the player’s behaviors. Other object types could similarly implement only the interfaces that they require. However, the issue with this approach is that business logic for games often concerns not just one entire object at a time, but only parts of all objects at a time. For example, in order to calculate collision, one needs to consider the collision and position properties of all objects, but may not care about whether an object has health or is renderable.

Furthermore, both of these approaches fail at a more fundamental level. Abstracting over behaviors on a per object basis is less useful for this problem, because the “behaviors” in question are mostly direct data access and mutation. For example, the position interface would most likely just consist of get_pos() -> Vec and set_pos(pos: Vec), because it needs to be queried and updated in unique ways by velocity and collision. Similarly, the health interface would most likely only consist of get_health() -> int and change_health(delta: int) to support taking damage in various ways such as being attacked by an enemy, or receiving damage over time from a trap.

Abstracting over behaviors is most powerful when the behaviors are complex and higher level, so that the complexity of lower level implementation details is hidden from those who depend on the interface. Interfaces that directly expose low level implementation are inherently weaker.

Enter Entity Component System #

Entity component system (ECS) attempts to address the issues that we have seen above, i.e. a heavy emphasis on data access and mutation, and objects that are composed of many subcomponents. It has, as its name suggests, three main parts:

  • Entity: An entity is conceptually an object that exists in the game world. Most importantly, an entity does not contain any data or behavior itself. It is represented only by a global identifier (not unlike the primary key of a database table). Usually, there exists an “entity manager” which keeps a record of all the entities that currently exist.
  • Component: A component is a property of an entity, and only stores a particular facet of data about an entity, such as a velocity component or position component. Importantly, components do not contain any behavior. Like entities themselves, components of the same type are usually all stored together in a single data structure (typically an array for performance reasons) and managed by a “component manager”. This is in stark contrast with traditional the OOP mindset, where a player object might own its velocity, position, etc. In ECS, component managers each own all the components of a particular type. For example, a velocity component manager owns and manages all the velocity components of all entities in the game world.
  • System: Grouping like components together through component managers paves the way for the final part of ECS, system. A system contains an aspect of the business logic of a game. An ECS instance (known as a world) may have many systems running every tick. Systems operate on specific subsets of components, read their state, and act upon it, which may include updating the component, updating other components, or dispatching events. For example, a physics system may iterate through all entities with velocity and position components, and update position based on velocity for the time step. Another may be a movement sytem which checks for input, and updates the velocity component of a player.

Example #

Here is a brief code example of what the physics system in the game that I wrote looks like. Some things of note about this example are:

  • The run function is called on every tick of the game loop.
  • The physics implementation is quite simple, and just involves iterating through each entity with a PHYSICS and TRANSFORM component, and updating their positions and velocities for the next time step.
  • ECS encourages writing systems, i.e. game logic, that are concise, single responsibility, and composable.

const TransformComponent = (px, py, pz, orientation) => {
  return [TRANSFORM, {px, py, pz, orientation}];


const PhysicsComponent = (vx, vy, friction) => {
  return [PHYSICS, {vx, vy, basevx: 0, basevy: 0, friction}];

const PhysicsSystem = () => {
  const applyFriction = (f, v) => {
    if (f > Math.abs(v)) {
      return 0;
    if (v > 0) {
      return v - f;
    return v + f;

  const run = (ctx, dt) => {
    for (const [id, physics, transform] of ctx.getEntities(
    )) {
      transform.px += (physics.basevx + physics.vx) * dt;
      transform.py += (physics.basevy + physics.vy) * dt;
      if (physics.vx !== 0 || physics.vy !== 0) {
        transform.orientation =
          Math.atan2(physics.vy, physics.vx) - Math.PI / 2;
      if (physics.friction !== 0) {
        const f = physics.friction * dt;
        physics.vx = applyFriction(f, physics.vx);
        physics.vy = applyFriction(f, physics.vy);

  return {

Philosophy #

The ECS pattern is highly data driven compared to other architectural patterns. With ECS, one defines a large, segmented pool of state (components), and separately defines business logic which operates on those components (systems). Systems only care about and operate on the components that they are responsible for, and entities only need to compose over the relevant components in order to obtain behavior from systems. For example, creating a new enemy would involve creating a new entity with collidable, position, velocity, health, and renderable components, knowing that the physics, collision, health, and rendering systems will ensure that its state is updated correctly each tick. Creating new enemy types that are mechanically different also become “easy”, as a direct result of the composability of components. For example, creating a ghost enemy that may fly through walls would only need position, velocity, health, and renderable components, knowing that the collision system would not operate on this new ghost entity.

ECS embraces the fact that game logic has inherently cross-cutting concerns that involve different entities and components. This is apparent in position, which needs to be updated both by velocity and by collision, and as such cannot be directly “owned” by either. Collision also involves all entities with a collidable component. This would be difficult to implement if collision data was not managed by a single data structure.

ECS is well suited for problems where data needs to be accessed and modified constantly by a multitude of actors, because of its focus on a separation of data and its associated behavior. It does this, however, by giving up some degree of encapsulation and information hiding. A more traditional object oriented architecture is designed to hide implementation details so that other services may depend upon a constant API contract/interface while the underlying implementation evolves and improves. With games, the aspect of the code that changes the most is not implementation, but instead new features and systems that integrate tightly with the existing systems, i.e. new ways to play the game. This unique problem is why entity component system is so prevalent in game programming, and why it is crucial to learn for game developers.

  1. Roguelike game https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roguelike  ↩︎

gamedev notes

Kevin Wang

Web dev and engineer. Experiences decision fatigue daily.