Luau origins and evolution
At the heart of Roblox technology lies Luau, a scripting language derived from Lua 5.1 that is being developed by an internal team of programming language experts with the help of open source contributors.
It powers all user-generated content on Roblox, providing access to a very rich set of APIs that allows manipulation of objects in the 3D world, backend API access, UI interaction and more. Hundreds of thousands of developers write code in Luau every month, with top experiences using hundreds of thousands of lines of code, adding up to hundreds of millions of lines of code across the platform. For many of them, it is the first programming language they learn, and one they spend the majority of their time programming in. Using a set of extended APIs developers also customize their workflows by writing plugins to Roblox Studio, where they work on their experiences, using an extended API surface to interact with all aspects of the editor.
It also powers a lot of application code that Roblox engineers are writing: Universal App, the gateway to the worlds of Roblox that is used by tens of millions of people every day, has 95% of its functionality implemented in Luau, and Roblox Studio has a lot of builtin critical functionality such as part and terrain editors, marketplace browser, avatar and animation editors, material manager and more, implemented in Luau as a plugin, mostly using the same APIs that developers have access to. Every week, updates to this internal codebase that is now over 2 million lines large, are shipped to all Roblox users.
In addition to Roblox use cases, Luau is also open-source and is seeing an increased adoption in other projects and applications.
But why did we use Lua in the first place, and why did we decide to pursue building a new language on top of it?
Around 2006, when a very early version of the Roblox platform was developed, the question of user generated behaviors emerged. Before that, users were able to build non-interactive content on Roblox, and the only form of interaction was physics simulation. While this provided rich emergent behavior, it was hard to build gameplay on top of this: for example, to build a Capture The Flag game, you need to handle collision between players and flags spread throughout the map with a bit of logic that dictates how to adjust team points and when to remove or recreate the objects.
After an early and brief misstep when we decided to add a few gameplay objects to the core definition of Roblox worlds (some developers may recognize FlagStand as a class name…), the Roblox co-founder Erik Cassel realized that an approach like this is fundamentally limiting the power of user generated content. It’s not enough to give creators the basic blocks on top of which to build their creations, it’s critical to expose the power of a full Turing-complete programming language. Without this, the expressive capability and the reach of the platform would have been restricted far too much.
But which programming language to choose? This is where Lua, which was, and still is, one of the dominant programming languages used in video games, comes in.
Instead of having a large standard library, the expectation was that the embedding application would define a set of APIs that that application needed, as well as establish policies of running the code - which gave us a lot of freedom in how to structure the APIs and when the scripts would get triggered during the simulation of a single frame.
Power of simplicity
Lua is a simple language. What does simplicity mean for us?
Being a simple language means having a small set of features. Lua has all the fundamental features but doesn’t have a lot of syntax sugar - this means the language is easier to teach and learn, and you rarely run into code that’s difficult to understand syntactically because it uses an unfamiliar construct. Of course, this also means that some programs in Lua are longer than equivalent programs in languages that have more dedicated constructs to solve specific problems, such as list comprehensions in Python.
Being a simple language means having a minimal set of rules for every feature. Lua does deviate from this in certain respects (which is to say, the language could have been even simpler!), but notably for a dynamic language the behavior of fundamental operators is generally easy to explain and unsurprising - for example, two values in Lua are equal iff they have the same type and the same value, as such
0 == “0” is
false; as another example,
for loops introduce unique variable bindings on every iteration, as such capturing the iteration variable in a closure produces unique values. These decisions lead to more concise and efficient implementation and eliminate a class of bugs in programs.
Being a simple language means having a small implementation. This may be immaterial to people writing code in the language, but it leads to an implementation that can be of higher quality; simpler implementations can also be easier to optimize for memory or performance, and are easier to build upon.
Developers on the Roblox platform have very diverse programming backgrounds. Some are writing their first line of code in Roblox Studio, while others have computer science degrees and experience working in multiple different programming languages. While it’s always possible to support two different programming languages that target different segments of the audience, that fragments the ecosystem and makes the programming story less consistent (impacting documentation, tutorials, code reuse, ability for community members to help each other write code, presents challenges with interaction between different languages in the same experience and more). A better outcome is one where a single language can serve both audiences - this requires a language that strikes a balance between simplicity and generality, and while Lua isn’t perfect here, it’s great as a foundation for a language like this2.
In many ways, Lua is simultaneously simple and pragmatic: many parts of the language are difficult to make much better without a lot of added complexity, but at the same time it requires little in the way of extra functionality to be able to solve problems efficiently. That said, no language is perfect, and within several areas of Lua we felt that the tradeoffs weren’t quite right for our use case.
In 2019, we decided to build Luau - a language derived from Lua and compatible with Lua 5.1, which is the version we’ve been using all these years. At the time we evaluated other routes, but ultimately settled on this as the most optimal long-term.
On one hand, we loved a lot of things about Lua - both design wise and implementation wise, while there were some decisions we felt were suboptimal, by and large it was an almost perfect foundation for what we’ve set out to achieve.
On the other hand, we’ve been running into the limitations of Lua on large code bases in absence of type checking, performance was good but not great, and some missing features would have been great to have.
Some of the things we’ve been missing have been added in later versions of Lua, yet we were still using Lua 5.1. While we would have loved to use a later version of the language standard, Lua 5.x releases are not backwards compatible, and some releases remove support for features that are in wide use at Roblox. For Roblox, backwards compatibility is an essential feature of the platform - while we don’t have a guarantee that content created 10 years ago still works, to the extent that we can achieve that without restricting the platform evolution too much, we try.
What we’ve realized is that Lua is a great foundation for a perfect language that we can build for Roblox.
We would maintain backwards compatibility with Lua 5.1 but evolve the language from there; sometimes this means taking later features from Lua that don’t conflict with the existing language or our design values, sometimes this means innovating beyond what Lua has done. Crucially, we must maintain the balance between simplicity and power - we still value simplicity, we still need to avoid a feature explosion to ensure that the features compose and are of high quality, and we still need the language to be a good fit for beginners.
One of the largest limitations that we’ve seen is the lack of type checking making it easy to make mistakes in large code bases, as such support for type checking was a requirement for Luau. However, it’s important that the type checker is mostly transparent to the developers who don’t want to invest the time to learn it - anything else would change the learning curve too much for the language to be suitable for beginners. As such, we’ve investing in gradual typing, and our type checker is learning to strike a balance between inferring useful types for completely untyped programs (which, among other things, greatly enhances editing experience through type-aware autocomplete), and the lack of false positive diagnostics that can be confusing and distracting.
While we did need to introduce extra syntax to the language - most notably, to support optional type annotations - it was important for us to maintain the cohesion of the overall syntax. We aren’t seeking to make a new language with a syntax alien to Lua programmers - Luau programs are still recognizably Lua, and to the extent possible we try to avoid new syntactic features. In a sense, we still want the syntax, semantics, and the runtime to be simple and minimal - but at the same time we have important problems to solve with respect to ergonomics, robustness and performance of the language, and solving some of them requires having slightly more complex syntax, semantics, or implementation.
So in finding ways to evolve Luau, we strive to design features that feel like they would be at home in Lua. At the same time, we’ve adopted a more open evolution process - the language development is driven through RFCs that are designs open to the public that anyone can contribute to - this is in contrast with Lua, which has a very closed development process, and is one of the reasons why it would have been difficult for us to keep using Lua as we wouldn’t get a say in its development. At the same time, to ensure the design criterias are met, it’s important that the Luau development team at Roblox maintains a final say over design and implementation of the language3, while taking the community’s proposals and input into consideration.
Importance of co-design
Luau language is developed in concert with the language compiler, runtime, type checker and other analysis tools, autocomplete engine and other tooling, and that development is guided by the vast volume of existing Luau code, both internal and external.
This is one of the key principles behind our evolution philosophy - neither layer is developed in isolation, and instead concerns at every level inform all other aspects of the language design and implementation.
This means that when designing language features, we make sure that they can be implemented efficiently, type checked properly, can be supported well in editing and analysis tools and have a positive impact on the code internal and external engineers write. When we find issues in any component, we can always ask, what changes to other components or even language design would make for a better overall solution.
This avoids some classes of design problems, for example we won’t specify a language feature that has a prohibitively high implementation cost, as it violates our simplicity criteria, or that is impractical to implement efficiently, as that would create a performance hazard. This also means that when implementing various components of the language we cross-check the concerns and applicability of these across the entire stack - for example, we’ve reworked our auto-complete system to use the same type inference engine that the type checking / analysis tools use, which had immense benefits for the experience of editing code, but also applied significant back pressure on the type inference itself, forcing us to improve it substantially and fix a lot of corner cases that would otherwise have lingered unnoticed.
Whenever we develop features, optimizations, improve our analysis engine or enhance the standard libraries, we also heavily rely on code written in Luau to validate our hypotheses. When working on new features we find motivation in the real problems that we see our developers face. For example, we implemented the new ternary operator after seeing a large set of cases where existing Lua’s
a and b or c pattern was error-prone for boolean values, which made it easy to accidentally introduce a mistake that was hard to identify automatically. All optimizations and new analysis features are validated on our internal 2M LOC codebase before being added to Luau, which allows us to quickly get initial validation of ideas, or invalidate some approaches as infeasible / unhelpful.
In addition to that, while we don’t have direct access to community-developed source code for privacy reasons, we can run experiments and collect telemetry4, which also helps us make decisions regarding backwards compatibility. Due to Hyrum’s law, technically any change in the language or libraries, no matter how small, would be backwards incompatible - instead we adopt the notion of pragmatic balance between strict backwards compatibility5 and pragmatic compatibility concerns. For example, later versions of Lua make some library functions like
table.remove more strict with how they handle out of range indices. We have evaluated this change for compatibility by collecting telemetry on the use of out of range indices in these functions on the Roblox platform and concluded that applying the stricter checking would break existing programs, and instead had to slightly adjust the rules for out of range behavior in ways that was benign for existing code but prevented catastrophic performance degradation for large out of range indices. Because we couldn’t afford to introduce new runtime errors in this case, we also added a set of linting rules to our analysis engine to flag potential misuse of
table.remove before the code ever gets to run - this diagnostics is informational and as such doesn’t affect backwards compatibility, but does help prevent mistakes.
There are also cases where this co-design approach prevents introduction of features that can lead to easy misuse, which can be difficult to see in the design of the feature itself, but becomes more apparent when you consider features in context of the entire ecosystem. This is a good thing - it means co-design acts as a forcing function on the language simplicity and makes it easier to flag potential bad interactions between different language features, or language features and tooling, or language features and existing programming patterns that are in widespread use in real-world code. By making sure that all features are validated for their impact across the stack and on code written in Luau, we ultimately get a better, simpler and more cohesive language.
One of the critical goals in front of Luau is efficiency, both from the performance and memory perspective. There’s only so many milliseconds in a frame, and we simultaneously see the need to increase the scale and complexity of simulated experiences, which requires more memory and computation, as well as the need to fit more comfortably into smaller budgets of performance memory for better experience on smaller devices. In fact, one of the motivations for Luau in 2019 has been improved performance, as we saw many opportunities to go beyond Lua with a redesigned implementation.
Crucially, our performance needs are somewhat unique and require somewhat unique solutions.
We need Luau to run on many platforms where native code generation is either prohibited by the platform vendor or impractical due to tight memory constraints. As such, in terms of execution performance it’s critical that we have a very fast interpreter6. However, we have freedom in terms of high level design of the entire stack - for example, clients never see the source code of the scripts as all compilation to bytecode happens on the server; this gives us an opportunity to perform more involved and expensive optimizations during that process as well as have the smallest possible startup time on the client without complex pre-parse steps. Notably, our bytecode compiler performs a series of high level optimizations including function inlining and loop unrolling that in other dynamic languages is often left to the just-in-time compiler.
Another area where performance is critical is garbage collection. Garbage collection is crucial for the language’s simplicity as it makes memory management easier to reason about, but it does require a substantial amount of implementation effort to keep it efficient. For Roblox and for any other game engine or interactive simulation, latency is critical and so our collector is heavily optimized for that - to the extent possible collection is incremental and stop-the-world pauses are very brief. Another part of the performance story here however is the language and data structure design - by making sure that core data types are efficient in how they are laid out in memory we reduce the amount of work garbage collector takes to trace the heap, and, as another example of co-design, we try to make sure that language features are conscious of the impact they have on memory and garbage collection efficiency.
However, from a whole-platform standpoint there’s a lot of performance aspects that go beyond single-threaded execution. This is an active area of research and development for the team, as to really leverage the hardware the code is running on we need to think about SIMD, hardware thread utilization as well as running code in a cluster of nodes. These considerations inform current and future development of the runtime and the language (for example, our runtime now supports efficient operations on short SIMD vectors even in interpreted mode, and the VM is fairly lightweight to instantiate which makes running many VMs per core practical, with message passing or access to shared Roblox data model used to make gameplay features feasible to implement), but we’re definitely in the early days here - our first implementation of parallel script execution in Roblox just shipped earlier this year. This is likely the area where a lot of future innovations will happen as well.
We’re very happy with the success of Luau - in several years we’ve established consistent processes for evolving the language and so far we found a good balance between simplicity, ease of use, performance and robustness of the language, its implementation and the tooling surrounding it. The language keeps continuously evolving but at a pace that is easy to stay on top of - in 2022 we shipped a few syntactic extensions for type annotations but no changes to the syntax of the language outside of types, and only one major semantic change to the for loop iteration that actually made the language easier to use by avoiding the need to specify the table traversal style via
ipairs. We try to make sure that the features are general and provide enough extensibility so that libraries can be built on top of the language to make it easier to write code, while also making it practical to use the language without complex supporting frameworks.
There’s still a lot of ground to cover, and we’ll be working on Luau for years to come. We’re in the process of building the next version of our type inference / checking engine to make sure that all users of the language regardless of their expertise benefit from it, we’ve started investing in native code generation as we’re reaching the limits of interpreted performance (although some exciting opportunities for compiler optimization are still on the horizon), and there’s still a lot of hard design and implementation work ahead of us for some important language features and standard libraries. And as mentioned, our execution model will likely see a lot of innovation as we push the boundaries of hardware utilization across cores and nodes.
Overall, Luau is like an iceberg - the surface is simple to learn and use, but it hides the tremendous amount of careful design, engineering and attention to detail, and we plan to continue to invest in it while trying to keep the outer surface comparatively small. We’re excited to see how far we can take it!
In fact, scaling to large teams of expert programmers is one of the core motivations behind our creating Luau, while a requirement to still be suitable for beginner programmers guides our evolution direction. ↩
This is limited to Roblox platform and doesn’t exist in open-source releases. ↩
Which we do follow in some areas, such as syntactic compatibility - all existing programs that parse must continue to parse the same way as the language evolves. ↩
Some design decisions and implementation techniques are documented on our performance page. ↩