A Newbie Guide to pygame

or Things I learned by trial and error so you don't have to,

or How I learned to stop worrying and love the blit.

Pygame is a python wrapper for SDL, written by Pete Shinners. What this means is that, using pygame, you can write games or other multimedia applications in Python that will run unaltered on any of SDL's supported platforms (Windows, Linux, Mac, and others).

Pygame may be easy to learn, but the world of graphics programming can be pretty confusing to the newcomer. I wrote this to try to distill the practical knowledge I've gained over the past year or so of working with pygame, and its predecessor, PySDL. I've tried to rank these suggestions in order of importance, but how relevant any particular hint is will depend on your own background and the details of your project.

Get comfortable working in Python.

The most important thing is to feel confident using python. Learning something as potentially complicated as graphics programming will be a real chore if you're also unfamiliar with the language you're using. Write a few sizable non-graphical programs in python -- parse some text files, write a guessing game or a journal-entry program or something. Get comfortable with string and list manipulation -- know how to split, slice and combine strings and lists. Know how import works -- try writing a program that is spread across several source files. Write your own functions, and practice manipulating numbers and characters; know how to convert between the two. Get to the point where the syntax for using lists and dictionaries is second-nature -- you don't want to have to run to the documentation every time you need to slice a list or sort a set of keys. Get comfortable using file paths -- this will come in handy later when you start loading assets and creating save files.

Resist the temptation to ask for direct help online when you run into trouble. Instead, fire up the interpreter and play with the problem for a few hours, or use print statements and debugging tools to find out what's going wrong in your code. Get into the habit of looking things up in the official Python documentation, and Googling error messages to figure out what they mean.

This may sound incredibly dull, but the confidence you'll gain through your familiarity with python will work wonders when it comes time to write your game. The time you spend making python code second-nature will be nothing compared to the time you'll save when you're writing real code.

Recognize which parts of pygame you really need.

Looking at the jumble of classes at the top of the pygame documentation index may be confusing. The important thing is to realize that you can do a great deal with only a tiny subset of functions. Many classes you'll probably never use -- in a year, I haven't touched the Channel, Joystick, cursors, surfarray or version functions.

Know what a surface is.

The most important part of pygame is the surface. Just think of a surface as a blank piece of paper. You can do a lot of things with a surface -- you can draw lines on it, fill parts of it with color, copy images to and from it, and set or read individual pixel colors on it. A surface can be any size (within reason) and you can have as many of them as you like (again, within reason). One surface is special -- the one you create with pygame.display.set_mode()Initialize a window or screen for display. This 'display surface' represents the screen; whatever you do to it will appear on the user's screen.

So how do you create surfaces? As mentioned above, you create the special 'display surface' with pygame.display.set_mode(). You can create a surface that contains an image by using pygame.image.load()load new image from a file (or file-like object), or you can make a surface that contains text with pygame.font.Font.render()draw text on a new Surface. You can even create a surface that contains nothing at all with pygame.Surface()pygame object for representing images.

Most of the surface functions are not critical. Just learn Surface.blit(), Surface.fill(), Surface.set_at() and Surface.get_at(), and you'll be fine.

Use Surface.convert().

When I first read the documentation for Surface.convert(), I didn't think it was something I had to worry about. 'I only use PNGs, therefore everything I do will be in the same format. So I don't need convert()';. It turns out I was very, very wrong.

The 'format' that convert() refers to isn't the file format (i.e. PNG, JPEG, GIF), it's what's called the 'pixel format'. This refers to the particular way that a surface records individual colors in a specific pixel. If the surface format isn't the same as the display format, SDL will have to convert it on-the-fly for every blit -- a fairly time-consuming process. Don't worry too much about the explanation; just note that convert() is necessary if you want to get any kind of speed out of your blits.

How do you use convert? Just call it after creating a surface with the image.load() function. Instead of just doing:

surface = pygame.image.load('foo.png')


surface = pygame.image.load('foo.png').convert()

It's that easy. You just need to call it once per surface, when you load an image off the disk. You'll be pleased with the results; I see about a 6x increase in blitting speed by calling convert().

The only times you don't want to use convert() is when you really need to have absolute control over an image's internal format -- say you were writing an image conversion program or something, and you needed to ensure that the output file had the same pixel format as the input file. If you're writing a game, you need speed. Use convert().

Be wary of outdated, obsolete, and optional advice.

Pygame has been around since the early 2000s, and a lot has changed since then -- both within the framework itself and within the broader computing landscape as a whole. Make sure to check the dates on materials you read (including this guide!), and take older advice with a grain of salt. Here are some common things that stick out to me:

Dirty Rects & performance 'tricks'

When you read older bits of pygame documentation or guides online, you may see some emphasis on only updating portions of the screen that are dirty, for the sake of performance (in this context, "dirty" means the region has changed since the previous frame was drawn).

Generally this entails calling pygame.display.update()Update portions of the screen for software displays (with a list of rects) instead of pygame.display.flip()Update the full display Surface to the screen, not having scrolling backgrounds, or even not filling the screen with a background color every frame because pygame supposedly can't handle it. Some of pygame's API is designed to support this paradigm as well (e.g. pygame.sprite.RenderUpdates()Group sub-class that tracks dirty updates.), which made a lot of sense in the early years of pygame.

In the present day (2022) though, most modest desktop computers are powerful enough to refresh the entire display once per frame at 60 FPS and beyond. You can have a moving camera, or dynamic backgrounds and your game should run totally fine at 60 FPS. CPUs are more powerful nowadays, and you can use display.flip() without fear.

That being said there are still some times when this old technique is still useful for squeezing out a few extra FPS. For example, with a single screen game like an Asteroids or Space Invaders. Here is the rough process for how it works:

Instead of updating the whole screen every frame, only the parts that changed since the last frame are updated. You do this by keeping track of those rectangles in a list, then calling update(the_dirty_rectangles) at the end of the frame. In detail for a moving sprite:

  • Blit a piece of the background over the sprite's current location, erasing it.

  • Append the sprite's current location rectangle to a list called dirty_rects.

  • Move the sprite.

  • Draw the sprite at its new location.

  • Append the sprite's new location to my dirty_rects list.

  • Call display.update(dirty_rects)

Even though this technique is not required for making performant 2D games with modern CPUs, it is still useful to be aware of. There are also still plenty of other ways to accidentally tank your game's performance with poorly optimized rendering logic. For example, even on modern hardware it's probably too slow to call set_at once per pixel on the display surface. Being mindful of performance is still something you'll have to do.

There just aren't that many 'one neat trick to fix your code performance' tips. Every game is different and there are different problems and different algorithms to solve them efficiently in each type of game. Pretty much every time your 2D game code is failing to hit a reasonable frame rate the underlying cause turns out to be bad algorithm or a misunderstanding of fundamental game design patterns.

If you are having performance problems, first make sure you aren't loading files repeatedly in your game loop, then use one of the many options for profiling your code to find out what is taking up the most time. Once you are armed with at least some knowledge on why your game is slow, try asking the internet (via google), or the pygame community if they've got some better algorithms to help you out.


The HWSURFACE display.set_mode() flag does nothing in pygame versions 2.0.0 and later (you can check the docs if you don't believe me)! There's no reason to use it anymore. Even in pygame 1, its effect is pretty nuanced and generally misunderstood by most pygame users. It was never a magic speed-up flag, unfortunately.

DOUBLEBUF still has some use, but is also not a magic speed up flag.

The Sprite class

You don't need to use the built-in Sprite or Group classes if you don't want to. In a lot of tutorials, it may seem like Sprite is the fundamental "GameObject" of pygame, from which all other objects must derive, but in reality it's pretty much just a wrapper around a Rect and a Surface, with some additional convenience methods. You may find it more intuitive (and fun) to write your game's core logic and classes from scratch.

There is NO rule six.

Don't get distracted by side issues.

Sometimes, new game programmers spend too much time worrying about issues that aren't really critical to their game's success. The desire to get secondary issues 'right' is understandable, but early in the process of creating a game, you cannot even know what the important questions are, let alone what answers you should choose. The result can be a lot of needless prevarication.

For example, consider the question of how to organize your graphics files. Should each frame have its own graphics file, or each sprite? Perhaps all the graphics should be zipped up into one archive? A great deal of time has been wasted on a lot of projects, asking these questions on mailing lists, debating the answers, profiling, etc, etc. This is a secondary issue; any time spent discussing it should have been spent coding the actual game.

The insight here is that it is far better to have a 'pretty good' solution that was actually implemented, than a perfect solution that you never got around to writing.

Rects are your friends.

Pete Shinners' wrapper may have cool alpha effects and fast blitting speeds, but I have to admit my favorite part of pygame is the lowly Rect class. A rect is simply a rectangle -- defined only by the position of its top left corner, its width, and its height. Many pygame functions take rects as arguments, and they also take 'rectstyles', a sequence that has the same values as a rect. So if I need a rectangle that defines the area between 10, 20 and 40, 50, I can do any of the following:

rect = pygame.Rect(10, 20, 30, 30)
rect = pygame.Rect((10, 20, 30, 30))
rect = pygame.Rect((10, 20), (30, 30))
rect = (10, 20, 30, 30)
rect = ((10, 20, 30, 30))

If you use any of the first three versions, however, you get access to Rect's utility functions. These include functions to move, shrink and inflate rects, find the union of two rects, and a variety of collision-detection functions.

For example, suppose I'd like to get a list of all the sprites that contain a point (x, y) -- maybe the player clicked there, or maybe that's the current location of a bullet. It's simple if each sprite has a .rect member -- I just do:

sprites_clicked = [sprite for sprite in all_my_sprites_list if sprite.rect.collidepoint(x, y)]

Rects have no other relation to surfaces or graphics functions, other than the fact that you can use them as arguments. You can also use them in places that have nothing to do with graphics, but still need to be defined as rectangles. Every project I discover a few new places to use rects where I never thought I'd need them.

Don't bother with pixel-perfect collision detection.

So you've got your sprites moving around, and you need to know whether or not they're bumping into one another. It's tempting to write something like the following:

  • Check to see if the rects are in collision. If they aren't, ignore them.

  • For each pixel in the overlapping area, see if the corresponding pixels from both sprites are opaque. If so, there's a collision.

There are other ways to do this, with ANDing sprite masks and so on, but any way you do it in pygame, it's probably going to be too slow. For most games, it's probably better just to do 'sub-rect collision' -- create a rect for each sprite that's a little smaller than the actual image, and use that for collisions instead. It will be much faster, and in most cases the player won't notice the imprecision.

Managing the event subsystem.

Pygame's event system is kind of tricky. There are actually two different ways to find out what an input device (keyboard, mouse or joystick) is doing.

The first is by directly checking the state of the device. You do this by calling, say, pygame.mouse.get_pos()get the mouse cursor position or pygame.key.get_pressed()get the state of all keyboard buttons. This will tell you the state of that device at the moment you call the function.

The second method uses the SDL event queue. This queue is a list of events -- events are added to the list as they're detected, and they're deleted from the queue as they're read off.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. State-checking (system 1) gives you precision -- you know exactly when a given input was made -- if mouse.get_pressed([0]) is 1, that means that the left mouse button is down right at this moment. The event queue merely reports that the mouse was down at some time in the past; if you check the queue fairly often, that can be ok, but if you're delayed from checking it by other code, input latency can grow. Another advantage of the state-checking system is that it detects "chording" easily; that is, several states at the same time. If you want to know whether the t and f keys are down at the same time, just check:

if key.get_pressed[K_t] and key.get_pressed[K_f]:

In the queue system, however, each keypress arrives in the queue as a completely separate event, so you'd need to remember that the t key was down, and hadn't come up yet, while checking for the f key. A little more complicated.

The state system has one great weakness, however. It only reports what the state of the device is at the moment it's called; if the user hits a mouse button then releases it just before a call to mouse.get_pressed(), the mouse button will return 0 -- get_pressed() missed the mouse button press completely. The two events, MOUSEBUTTONDOWN and MOUSEBUTTONUP, will still be sitting in the event queue, however, waiting to be retrieved and processed.

The lesson is: choose the system that meets your requirements. If you don't have much going on in your loop -- say you're just sitting in a while True loop, waiting for input, use get_pressed() or another state function; the latency will be lower. On the other hand, if every keypress is crucial, but latency isn't as important -- say your user is typing something in an editbox, use the event queue. Some key presses may be slightly late, but at least you'll get them all.

A note about event.poll() vs. wait() -- poll() may seem better, since it doesn't block your program from doing anything while it's waiting for input -- wait() suspends the program until an event is received. However, poll() will consume 100% of available CPU time while it runs, and it will fill the event queue with NOEVENTS. Use set_blocked() to select just those event types you're interested in -- your queue will be much more manageable.

Another note about the event queue -- even if you don't want to use it, you must still clear it periodically because it's still going to be filling up with events in the background as the user presses keys and mouses over the window. On Windows, if your game goes too long without clearing the queue, the operating system will think it has frozen and show a "The application is not responding" message. Iterating over event.get() or simply calling event.clear() once per frame will avoid this.

Colorkey vs. Alpha.

There's a lot of confusion around these two techniques, and much of it comes from the terminology used.

'Colorkey blitting' involves telling pygame that all pixels of a certain color in a certain image are transparent instead of whatever color they happen to be. These transparent pixels are not blitted when the rest of the image is blitted, and so don't obscure the background. This is how we make sprites that aren't rectangular in shape. Simply call Surface.set_colorkey(), and pass in an RGB tuple -- say (0,0,0). This would make every pixel in the source image transparent instead of black.

'Alpha' is different, and it comes in two flavors. 'Image alpha' applies to the whole image, and is probably what you want. Properly known as 'translucency', alpha causes each pixel in the source image to be only partially opaque. For example, if you set a surface's alpha to 192 and then blitted it onto a background, 3/4 of each pixel's color would come from the source image, and 1/4 from the background. Alpha is measured from 255 to 0, where 0 is completely transparent, and 255 is completely opaque. Note that colorkey and alpha blitting can be combined -- this produces an image that is fully transparent in some spots, and semi-transparent in others.

'Per-pixel alpha' is the other flavor of alpha, and it's more complicated. Basically, each pixel in the source image has its own alpha value, from 0 to 255. Each pixel, therefore, can have a different opacity when blitted onto a background. This type of alpha can't be mixed with colorkey blitting, and it overrides per-image alpha. Per-pixel alpha is rarely used in games, and to use it you have to save your source image in a graphic editor with a special alpha channel. It's complicated -- don't use it yet.

Software architecture, design patterns, and games.

You may reach a point where you're comfortable writing code, you're able to solve complex problems without assistance, you understand how to use most of pygame's modules, and yet, as you work on larger projects they always seem to get messier and harder to maintain as time goes on. This can manifest in many ways -- for example, fixing bugs in one place might always seem to create new bugs elsewhere, figuring out where code should go might become a challenge, adding new things might frequently require you to rewrite many other things, and so on. Finally, you decide to cut your losses and start fresh on something new.

This is a common issue and it can be frustrating -- on the one hand, your programming skills are improving, and yet you aren't able to finish the games you start due to somewhat nebulous organizational problems.

This brings us to the concept of software architecture and design patterns. You may be familiar with pygame's "standard" base template (there are many equivalent variations of this, so don't stress about the small details too much):

import pygame


screen = pygame.display.set_mode((1280,720))

clock = pygame.time.Clock()

while True:
    # Process player inputs.
    for event in pygame.event.get():
        if event.type == pygame.QUIT:
            raise SystemExit

    # Do logical updates here.
    # ...

    screen.fill("purple")  # Fill the display with a solid color

    # Render the graphics here.
    # ...

    pygame.display.flip()  # Refresh on-screen display
    clock.tick(60)         # wait until next frame (at 60 FPS)

It does some initial setup, starts a loop, and then proceeds to repeatedly collect input, handle the game's logic, and draw the current frame forever until the program ends. The update, render, wait loop shown here is actually a design pattern that serves as the skeleton of most games -- it's prolific because it's clean, it's organized, and it works. (There's also an important but easy-to-miss design feature here in the form of a strict division between the game's logic and rendering routines. This decision alone prevents a whole category of potential bugs related to objects updating and rendering concurrently, which is nice).

It turns out that there are many design patterns like this that are used frequently in games and in software development at large. For a great resource on this specifically for games, I highly recommend Game Programming Patterns, a short free, e-book on the topic. It covers a bunch of useful patterns and concrete situations where you might want to employ them. It won't instantly make you a better coder, but learning some theory about software architecture can go a long way towards helping you escape plateaus and tackle larger projects more confidently.

Do things the pythony way.

A final note (this isn't the least important one; it just comes at the end). Pygame is a pretty lightweight wrapper around SDL, which is in turn a pretty lightweight wrapper around your native OS graphics calls. Chances are pretty good that if your code is still slow, and you've done the things I've mentioned above, then the problem lies in the way you're addressing your data in python. Certain idioms are just going to be slow in python no matter what you do. Luckily, python is a very clear language -- if a piece of code looks awkward or unwieldy, chances are its speed can be improved, too. Read over Why Pygame is Slow for some deeper insight into why pygame might be considered slower than other frameworks/engines, and what that actually means in practice. And if you're truly stumped by performance problems, profilers like cProfile (or SnakeViz, a visualizer for cProfile) can help identify bottlenecks (they'll tell you which parts of the code are taking the longest to execute). That said, premature optimisation is the root of all evil; if it's already fast enough, don't torture the code trying to make it faster. If it's fast enough, let it be :)

There you go. Now you know practically everything I know about using pygame. Now, go write that game!

David Clark is an avid pygame user and the editor of the Pygame Code Repository, a showcase for community-submitted python game code. He is also the author of Twitch, an entirely average pygame arcade game.

This guide was substantially updated in 2022.

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