How to prevent dangling pointers to deleted game objects in C++

Early versions of Reassembly were plagued with crashes due to game object lifetime problems. For example, the object representing the AI for a first spaceship would have a pointer to the enemy spaceship it was targeting. If the targeted spaceship was destroyed (and the object was deleted) the first spaceship could cause a crash the next time its AI ran. Alternatively, various parts of the user interface reference the player’s spaceship object and then crash when the player spaceship is destroyed and its object deleted.

There are a lot of potential solutions to this problem. We can delay deletion of doomed objects for a few frames and any code that references these objects can check if they are still alive before using them. We can traverse any objects that might reference a game object every time a game object is deleted and NULL any pointers to the deleting object. When there are many types of game objects and they all reference each other in erratic and complicated ways this can quickly become burdensome.

My eventual solution was inspired by an article on Coding Wisdom recommending the use of “Watchers” and arguing against reference counting smart pointers. To quote from the article:

  1. Create a base class “Watchable” that you derive from on objects that should broadcast when they’re being deleted.  The Watchable object keeps track of other objects pointing at it.
  2. Create a “Watcher” smart pointer that, when assigned to, adds itself to the list of objects to be informed when its target goes away.

This is the sort of thing that is probably common knowledge among AAA game programmers but was not obvious to me. I implemented this suggestion and it has worked out really well.


My version is available on on my github in stl_ext.h

  1. Game objects that will be pointed to should inherit from Watchable.
  2. Objects that store a reference to game objects should declare the pointer as watch_ptr<GameObject> m_ptr;. m_ptr will automatically become NULL when the pointee is deleted. watch_ptr is a smart pointer so use is the same as GameObject* m_ptr
  3. watch_ptrs are only used when the pointed object may be deleted while the pointer is stored.

It works by adding each watch_ptr to a doubly linked list, with the list pointers stored in the watch_ptr itself. When the watch_ptr destructs, it removes itself from the list. When the Watchable object destructs, it traverses the list and NULLs all the pointers.


Obviously the doubly linked list traversal is not thread safe. Reassembly uses two main threads, a render thread and a simulation/event thread, with a few more workers. There are a few rules for safe usage.

  1. When the update thread is done with the object, NULL all references to it (call nullReferencesTo()). This will prevent any further references to the object from that thread.
  2. Only delete game objects that need to be referenced by the render thread from the render thread. This is often necessary anyway because destroying these objects can also delete OpenGL buffers, which must be done from the render thread. I push ready-to-delete objects in the update thread to a queue, then delete at the end of the render thread frame.
  3. Always copy the watch_ptr to a normal pointer before checking NULLness when using from the render thread. This will prevent the update thread from NULLing the pointer after the NULL check but before the render thread is done with it. Since the render thread will not delete the object until the end of the frame, we don’t have to worry about referencing free’d memory

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