Delivering games written in Common Lisp

Speaking generally, we can split end-users of a game into two groups: conventional gamers and those who would like to tinker with game sources, if there’s such option. Several ways exist to serve needs of both groups. In this piece of writing we would look into two of them: via Quicklisp or bundling executable with required resources (game assets, dynamic libraries, configs, etc) into downloadable package.


Users that would like to take a deep look into how game actually works will appreciate this method of delivery. Sharing CL code through Quicklisp is awesome, but couple of problems arise: what if our code depends on a foreign dynamic library and how do we get access to game assets.

Accessing assets

This problem is actually fairly easy to solve. Obviously, hardcoded absolute paths cannot be used, but we can find a path to a system using asdf facilities if target system’s definition is already read, which is the case during system components loading:

;; if system's name is :awesome-game
;; and assets stored in the assets/ subdirectory of it
;; then we can find absolute path to the latter with
(defvar *assets-path* (asdf:system-relative-pathname :awesome-game #p"assets/"))

;; now we can access assets by merging *assets-path* pathname
;; with actual resource name
(with-open-file (sound-file (merge-pathnames "beep.ogg" *assets-path*))
  (awesome-game:import-asset sound-file))

Providing dynamic libraries

Most wrappers or bindings require their users to install dynamic libraries manually, but that is to much to ask if an application depends on the several of them.

Solution to that is to treat those libraries as assets, combine them into loadable asdf system and open during load phase. Problem though, most wrappers try to open1 dynamic libraries very early during their loading through cffi. Hopefully, cffi tries to use system’s linker to open the library first before searching for it in system directories, and if the library was already opened a linker will recognize that and would not try to reload it2.

We can use this behaviour to our advantage by opening libraries provided by our asdf system before wrappers will try to do the same. This way we can get libraries supplied with our asdf system opened instead of default ones if those are present in the operating system’s default search directories.

;;; put dynamic libraries into lib/ subdirectory
;;; of your :awesome-game-libraries system

;;; in a file component of :awesome-game-libraries system

;; tell cffi where to find foreign libraries
(pushnew (asdf:system-relative-pathname :awesome-game-libraries #p"lib/")
         :test #'equal)

;; register libraries stored in lib/
(cffi:define-foreign-library libawesome
  (:darwin "libawesome.dylib")
  (:unix "")
  (:windows "libawesome.dll"))

(cffi:define-foreign-library librad
  (:darwin "librad.dylib")
  (:unix "")
  (:windows "librad.dll"))

;; and open/load them
(cffi:use-foreign-library libawesome)
(cffi:use-foreign-library librad)

Now you can trick cffi into opening your dynamic libraries instead of default ones by loading :awesome-game-libraries first:

;; using asdf
(asdf:load-systems :awesome-game-libraries :awesome-game)
;; or quicklisp
(ql:quickload '(:awesome-game-libraries :awesome-game))

Unfortunately, there’s other problem that needs to be solved: native libraries can have their own dependencies we also need to provide. This information is stored in the libraries themselves.

We can use ldd tool for GNU/Linux and MSYS2/Windows or otool -L command for macOS to list dependencies of a library. Some dependencies listed there would be system ones and those don’t need to be shipped with a game or an application. Grab non-system libraries from the list and put them into directory where foreign libraries you planned to ship a game with are stored. Repeat process for newly copied libraries if required.

Now the only obstacle left is to somehow tell a linker where to find native dependencies we just copied. One way is to use environment variables, but that would require additional work for our users, which we try to avoid. Hopefully, it is possible to store relative paths to native dependencies inside a dynamic library itself.

Windows linker will search for dependencies in the same directory dependent library reside, so we don’t need to do anything special in this case.

For elf binaries used by Linux we can use patchelf utility to update search path to dependencies in an already compiled library:

patchelf --set-rpath '@ORIGIN/'

Now will also search directory where lies when looking for its dependencies.

Process to update Mach-O binaries of darwin platform (macOS) is much more involved. Path to each dependency is actually hard-coded. There’s a way to make it relative, but needs to be done for each dependency entry registered within a dynamic library:

# for each non-system dependency of libawesome.dylib you need to
install_name_tool -change /hard-coded/path/to/libdependency.dylib \
                          @loader_path/libdependency.dylib        \

Custom Quicklisp distribution

Asking a user to clone/download a single project into a directory, where asdf or quicklisp can find it and a user will be able to load it, is acceptable. But if there are few projects to clone, it quickly becomes cumbersome to do. To partially solve this inconvenience for end-users of our software, one can deploy custom Quicklisp distribution made with quickdist tool3 onto public server somewhere. Users then will be able to load all libraries your game needs with just two commands:

;;; for cl-bodge distribution and :trivial-gamekit system

;; add cl-bodge distribution into quicklisp
(ql-dist:install-dist "")

;; load precompiled native libraries and the gamekit
(ql:quickload '(:bodge-blobs :trivial-gamekit))


While distributing one’s application amongst fellow Common Lisp users with Quicklisp might seem like an obvious way and suits libraries especially well, it doesn’t really work much for applications intended for end-users that rarely care about language it was written in. Hopefully, it is actually somewhat easier to distribute bundled version of an application rather than its bare asdf system.


To build an executable out of a lisp image I would recommend using Xach’s buildapp tool. One important advice for building stable executables: try to avoid any initializaton during compilation or loading time - put all of your initialization code into a function and call it in buildapp’s --entry function you would need to supply. Starting any threads during loading is especially harmful.

Dynamic libraries

Because an application should be able to run on different machines, you need to explicitly close any foreign libraries that are open during loading time before lisp image is dumped into executable:

;; close all loaded foreign libraries
(loop for library in (cffi:list-foreign-libraries :loaded-only t)
   do (cffi:close-foreign-library library))

Otherwise, some implementations would try to reload dynamic libraries during image bootstrapping and, obviously, would fail to do so, because locations of foreign libraries will differ from machine to machine.

Do not forget to load them back during application initialization:

;; reload all foreign libraries
(loop for library in (cffi:list-foreign-libraries)
   do (cffi:load-foreign-library library))

To help OS dynamic linker find supplied libraries, this time we can use environment variables and ask a user to run an application through a shell script.

Example bash script for Linux and macOS:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# find out a directory where .sh lies
WORK_DIR="$( cd "$( dirname "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" )" && pwd )"

# if required libraries are stored in the lib/ subdirectory
# relative to .sh script
case $OSTYPE in


For Windows’s cmd:


@echo off
set WORK_DIR=%~dp0
set PATH=%WORK_DIR%lib\;%PATH%

start /d "%WORK_DIR%" awesome-game.bin


Path to assets or any configuration files (that in turn can store any paths itself) we just can pass as an argument to an executable:

./awesome-game.bin awesome-game.conf
start /d "%WORK_DIR%" awesome-game.bin awesome-game.conf

Then in a function supplied as --entry to buildapp tool, you will be able to extract all information you need:

;; if we supplied #'main function to --entry option of buildapp
(defun main (args)
  ;; load and parse configuration we passed as an argument to the executable
  (awesome-game:load-configuration (second args))
  ;; optionally, one can extract current working directory with uiop
  ;; if startup scripts (.sh or .bat) mentioned earlier are used
  ;; it will return a directory that contains those scripts
  (awesome-game:set-current-working-directory (uiop:getcwd))

Now put an executable, .sh or .bat script, assets and a configuration file into an archive and Ship it!

  1. Load into process address space. I use open instead of load here to distinguish between foreign libraries loading and asdf system loading 

  2. Applies to GNU/Linux, Windows and macOS 

  3. Available in the main Quicklisp distribution