This time I want to answer a question that has been asked me several times on gitter or directly through issues open to EnTT.
Given that sharing data can be a concise and elegant solution to some problems, I’m not a fan of the built-in solutions offered sometimes for this purpose. Long story short: there is not a single model that solves all the problems and often the predefined solutions lack this or that facet that would make them suitable for my purposes.
This is why I decided not to offer a built-in yet incomplete solution in EnTT. The library allows multiple entities to share data but doesn’t sponsor a sharing model in particular by design.
This doesn’t mean that built-in solutions are wrong regardless or that they shouldn’t be used. There are notable cases of engines or libraries that offer out-of-the-box solutions for a specific problem and that work as long as you don’t try to apply them where you shouldn’t.
In EnTT it’s rather a design choice. I prefer to implement what I need on top of what the library offers rather than making it part of it. The reason will probably be clear later. It’s mainly due to the fact that it already supports some models transparently while it would be a forcing to try to support others just for the sake of having them.

I’ll get the chance to explain what these models are and how it’s possible to create your own solution for shared components in a few lines of code.
I’ve also invited a friend of mine to contribute to this post and to describe the model he implemented because I found it really valuable.


Personally, I find very few use cases for shared data. The first one that comes to my mind is about resources, since in no case it makes sense to have multiple copies of them. Other more or less meaningful examples I can make are about high level systems and are usually very specific or highly related to the application under development.
Speaking of games, you can imagine for example a horde of enemies that share the same goal. How long does this remain shared though? Is there a main entity making decisions while the others follow their leader? Or can the individual entities leave the group by picking up a new goal spontaneously?
If instead we shared a component that describes the race associated with one or more enemies, this could last over time. However we have to define who owns the component and eventually what happens if this entity dies and therefore is recycled to represent something else.

A user of EnTT once said:

I’ve found myself wanting shared components, only to realise that it would have introduced additional problem that would be harder to solve.

This is true in part. Shared data aren’t for free and come often with their own can of problems to solve. However, they may be worth it if used properly.
Let’s try to explore some models that could make sense to an extent and to understand when shared data are the right solution to use.


I called this model flyweight since the basic idea is the same behind the well known design pattern.

To explain this, consider the problem of managing resources.
First of all, one should avoid duplicating them for a lot of reasons such as memory consumption. On the other side, it doesn’t make much sense to store resources directly within the registry (in the EnTT terminology). It’s mainly a matter of separation of concerns from my point of view. Managing resources means prealoding them, trying to perform prediction, doing a lazy unload of elements and so on. In short, all operations of which the registry shouldn’t even be aware.
Imagine now to have a predictor that triggers the preload of a given resource. If we decided to put resources directly within the registry, we would have to bind the resource to an entity. However, it isn’t in use yet and therefore we would need also to design a way to hide our entity from the systems that could intercept it otherwise. Then we need a way to make it alive when needed other than to look for a specific resource from hidden and visible entities since resources are runtime things and we want to share them.
It can quickly become pretty confusing and hard to work with and to maintain.

With a dedicated class (or subsystem) aimed at managing our resources instead, all we need is a way to retrieve a given element from the components. Let’s call it handle. It can be either an index into an array of resources or a more structured class like a pointer associated to a reference counter, it doesn’t matter here. What is important is that all the components that own a copy of the handle are also sharing the same resource.
This helps to reduce the memory consumption and to separate those that consume the resources from who’s in charge of managing them, that is definitely a nice-to-have feature.

Chunk level reference

A chunk based design can go a bit further on this.
The idea is that of storing entities and components in chunks rather than in plain arrays. To put it simply, imagine an array of pages (or chunks) each of which can contain a maximum of N entities and their components. It’s slightly more complicated than that but this is enough for our purpose.
At the time I’m writing there are two implementations of which I’m aware that combine archetypes and chunks: the one offered by the Unity engine and the one implemented in decs. In fact, one can easily combine also sparse sets and chunks if needed, but you’ve to weigh the pros and cons before moving in this direction since having the chunks means giving up other things.

Having said that, here is a quote from the Unity documentation that explains how a chunk based design can get more in some cases:

When you add a shared component to an entity, the EntityManager places all entities with the same shared data values into the same Chunk. Shared components allow your systems to process like entities together. For example, […] When rendering, it is most efficient to process all the 3D objects that all have the same value for those fields together.

However, those who wrote the documentation were aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach:

Over using shared components can lead to poor Chunk utilization since it involves a combinatorial expansion of the number of memory Chunks required based on archetype and every unique value of each shared component field.

In other words, the risk is to waste a lot of memory and increase the fragmentation (or put in the other way around, reduce the performance during iterations) if the shared components are misused (or over used) when it comes to working with chunks.
Actually, it can be worse than this if you consider that two entities go in the same archetype and thus the same chunk only if they have exactly the same components. In all other cases, it doesn’t matter if they share something, they’ll occupy different chunks in different archetypes anyway and this makes this feature suitable mainly for static types.
Finally, it’s easy to imagine that there can exist more entities than those that fit in a chunk all sharing the same component. Once again, the fragmentation can reduce a bit the advantage.

With these premises, the chunk-based design can bring some benefits if used properly, especially when combined with a flyweight model.

To be honest, I made an effort to find another use case for this particular approach and it didn’t come to my mind. Or rather, I haven’t found any for which the benefits outweigh the problems.
This is probably due to the fact that, for various reasons, I prefer to rely on other designs and I’m used to thinking about different models. I invite anyone who wants to investigate the matter or present other interesting use cases (with which to also complete this section if possible) to contact me for a chat. I’d be glad to discuss them.

Hierarchy like

We’ve already encountered a different sharing model in the part 4 of this series and its follow-up. That is how we structured our components in order to define hierarchies.

This time, entities share a parent and from the latter we can easily iterate through all the children.
If compared to the previous solutions, it has both pros and cons. An obvious drawback is the cost in terms of memory consumption, since we have one (or more) pointers for every entity (the parent component) while the chunk-based design has only an additional pointer per chunk. On the other side, this solution makes possible to iterate all the entities that share the same component at once. Using chunks is likely to introduce fragmentation instead and therefore to suffer from the fact that not all entities are at hand all the times.

I won’t explore further this model though. I highly recommend reading the posts above to know how this design works instead.

Shared data

The models above are based on instances managed externally (resources) or entities linked together by means of dedicated components (hierarchies).
It’s time to look into some models that allow to share data directly.

Master and slaves

One of the possible ways of sharing data is that in which they are owned by a main entity (the master) and a bunch of secondary entities (the slaves) want to access them.
Sharing data through hierarchies is configured in this way in a sense. In fact, in a multi-level hierarchy, the leaves could get to access data exposed by the root of the tree, even though the latter isn’t a direct parent of the former.

There aren’t many ways (or at least, not many that are worth mentioning) to make this model flat.
The most obvious one is that of using two components: the data and the pointer-to-data. I don’t think there is a need to explain who is assigned which component and how it works. All in all, this is a kind of flat hierarchy.
A slightly different implementation is that in which everyone is assigned the same component type. In this case, the component is defined in such a way that it can assume both the form of the data or of the pointer-to-data. Something like a tagged union or a safer std::variant could work in short. If it may not seem like a good compromise, in fact it is not for this type of design but something similar could prove very useful for other models, as we will see.

Long story short, personally I find that the hierarchical design is the one that best suits this model of data ownership. Among other things, it is flexible enough to be complicated at will and to satisfy every requirement, such as the need to know who’s looking at data of a given entity.
In its flat form with two components, it’s even possible to sort, process, reason separately on those who manage the data and those who observe them, which can give us advantages in some cases.

The main problem with this approach at sharing data is what to do with the data when the owner dies or leaves the scene in some other ways.
One possible solution is to transfer the data to the first available candidate but it may not be the desired result. In the hierarchical model, this translates into choosing a new parent, that’s all. A variant is that of designing an algorithm that makes the orphans elect their new master.
The group can even be dissolved and whoever was observing will have nothing to refer to from now on. I can imagine some use cases for this approach in fact, so it cannot be ruled out.
Another solution may be to provide all children with a copy of the data and let them decide for themselves from then on.

In short, as mentioned, often this decision is application specific and in the same software we may have different data managed differently when the owner ceases to exist.
It’s difficult to define what to do in a generic way on the subject.


This model is more common and perhaps more useful than the previous one, at least from my point of view. In this case, there are a number of entities that share data but none of them actually own it.
The flyweight model enters this category. Resource management is demanded to a dedicated class. Entities are assigned components that refer some resources but none of them actually owns it. It’s not mandatory that shared data are wiped out immediately when no entity refers them, as it happens for resources that are lazy destroyed.
Similarly, the block based reference to external resources falls in this family.

A standardized tool to share data between entities and have them deleted when unused is a shared pointer, that is nothing more than a type and can be used as component if needed.
To be honest, it’s pretty annoying to do this with libraries like EnTT that rely heavily on the type system of the C++, mainly because you can no longer get<T>(entity) your instance but you’ve to get<std::shared_ptr<T>>(entity) it instead. Fortunately, aliases can mitigate the ugliness here.
The fact that the lifetime of the shared data depends on that of the entities that own the component can be either an advantage or not. If it’s so mostly depends on the requirements you have time by time. Again.

When it comes to working with EnTT or any other ECS library that allows for multiple containers (or registries in the EnTT terminology), there exists also another viable solution that doesn’t require us to design a new class to manage shared data nor to use a shared pointer.
Since there is nothing wrong in creating multiple instances of our container, we can use one of them to host entities and components for the simulation and another instance to put aside shared data (for example, prototypes). This works as long as we can easily make entities refer each other across registries, that is straightforward usually. Unless you can guarantee pointer stability, we’ll refer to shared data by means of entity identifiers though and this may introduce indirection. On the other side, the lifetime of the data no longer depends on that of the entities that share the component, that is a nice-to-have feature in many cases.

Copy on write

Ownerless sharing policies are probably the most common ones. Sometimes we want to make entities exit their groups though and therefore we need something more than a simple reference to shared data.
This isn’t as easy as it seems at a first glance. As always, we must find a tradeoff between the typical requirements that make a developer happy: easy to use, fast enough and designed in such a way that it doesn’t consume more memory than what it would have consumed otherwise by assigning an instance of our component to all entities.

For what it matters, my idea of easy to use is that of a tool that doesn’t require me to guess at runtime and in the codebase whether an entity refers to a shared instance or its own copy of the components.
Fast enough doesn’t need explanation but the idea is to avoid having an indecent number of hops to reach the information if possible.

The problem of memory consumption is interesting though. If we had N entities and the size of our component was S, we cannot expect to spend more than (N+1)*S, where the extra space is eventually reserved for the shared instance. However, the optimal solution is that in which we spend S when all entities are assigned the same component and thus share the same instance, while the consumption grows up to N*S when the entities exit the group.
As far as I know, the actual consumption is strictly related to how easy to use the final solution is. The more we save, the uglier will be the final code at the call site.

Despite the efforts, I didn’t find an approach to reduce memory consumption to a minimum that doesn’t also require to use two different components, one for when the entity is assigned the shared component and the other one for when it owns a private instance.
Put in these terms, the implementation details are straightforward. The problem is when we decide to iterate all components, no matter if they are shared or private instances. We have two different loops for that, one for every type. Another problem is that we cannot sort entities since they are split in two different sets. We cannot even easily make cross references to get the component when needed, since we don’t know what type the entity owns and this requires a branch. And so on…

If we accept to increase the memory consumption a bit, we can design our components such that they have the actual data and a sort of pointer-to-data. All entities will have at least an instance of the latter. For those that share the data in an ownerless model, the pointer-to-data points to an instance of the component stored somewhere else (for example, in a side registry). In all other cases, the entity is assigned also an instance of the data and the pointer-to-data points to the entity itself.
The copy and thus the assignment of an instance of the data to the entity and the update of the pointer-to-data component happens when the need to write and use a custom copy of the shared information arises.
Iterations take place on the pointer-to-data component this time, whatever it is. We don’t have anymore to split the loops in two parts. Moreover, we can now reason on our entities and even sort them and therefore their pointer-to-data components if needed. Roughly speaking, we have most of the benefit of a single, tightly packed component although we are using two different types.
Note that in the best case, that is when all entities share the same piece of information, memory consumption is pretty low. In the worst case instead, that is when all entities own a private copy of the data, memory consumption is as bad as it can be. It’s a matter of knowing your application to know if this approach is worth it though.

A variation of the previous approach exists too. It has some pros in terms of performance but it also requires more memory.
The idea is that of using a single component that contains both the data and the pointer-to-data. This means that all entities will consume as much memory as it is required for the component, even if they don’t own a private copy.
During iterations, the entities that share some data will introduce a hop to reach them while the entities that own a private copy will have it along with the pointer-to-data and therefore will avoid the indirection.

A real world example

As I said, I’m not a fan of the built-in solutions but I don’t discourage them or the use of them.
Sander Mertens explains below how the solution he implemented in flecs works, the problems he tried to solve and why it matters.


One application of component sharing is the ability to create entity prototypes (sometimes called templates or prefabs).
Prototypes are special entities that an application can instantiate, so that each instance ends up with the same values as the prototype. Prototyping can be implemented in many ways. We’ll discuss how it can be implemented with component sharing only here.

To create a prototype, we need to create an entity that contains the components we want to share. We can then create an entity that uses the components from the prototype.
Lets call the prototype the base, and the instantiated entity the instance. Multiple instances can share the same base. This approach is in many ways similar to master-slave component sharing discussed earlier.
In pseudo code:

entity base;
base.set<Position>({10, 20});

entity instance_1;

entity instance_2;

In the above example instance_1 and instance_2 share the component Position from base. When Position changes on the base, it will also change for instance_1 and instance_2 as they point to the same address in memory. Base owns Position, whereas instance_1 and instance_2 share it.

There are several features that can make prototyping more expressive. I’ll describe some of them in the following sections.


Overriding is the ability to assign a private value to a shared component by adding it to the instance. Upon overriding, the value of the base component is copied to the instance component.
In pseudo code:

entity base;
base.set<Position>({10, 20});

// Create instance that shares Position from base
entity instance;

// instance owns Position with value {10, 20}

// instance shares Position from base again

In flecs applications have the ability to auto-override components by creating a type that both has the instance of relationship on the base as well as the override component:

entity base;
base.set<Position>({10, 20});
base.set<Velocity({1, 1});

type prototype;

// instance owns Position with {10, 20} and shares Velocity with base
entity instance;


With variants applications have the ability to specialize prototypes by creating a prototype hierarchies. Variants are enabled by the ability to share components from nested base entities.
In pseudo code:

// a white circle
entity circle;
circle.set<Color>({255, 255, 255});

// create red circle, override color
entity red_circle;
red_circle.set<Color>({255, 0, 0});

// Shares Circle from 'circle' and Color from red_circle
entity my_red_circle;


Prototyping is an useful ability in game development, and when implemented with component sharing it provides an application with a single consistent way of defining both prototypes and entities.

There are however some caveats to consider. The most obvious one is that since prototypes are regular entities, they are also matched with systems which is usually undesirable. A common way to address this is to introduce a special tag that is filtered out by systems.
Another caveat is that prototyping can, depending on the implementation, introduce fragmentation as entities with different base units are typically stored in different arrays.

Consider this example:

entity base;

entity e1;

entity e2;

Here both e1 and e2 have exactly the same components, but because e2 has the instance of relationship with the base, it will be stored in a different array.
This is ok when the number of instances is much larger than the number of base entities, but if not this can cause performance issues.

Another thing that may initially seem strange is that, since prototypes are regular entities, they can also be deleted.
Consider this example:

entity base;

entity e1;

base.delete_entity(); // now what?

This may seem like it would introduce undefined behavior, but we can solve this elegantly since in ECS entities are not objects but identifiers (typically an integer value). Even though we can delete all components from an entity, the identifier may still be valid.
In the above example we create an instance of relationship to base using its identifier and that relationship persists even after deleting the base.


Unfortunately I didn’t find the time and space to provide practical examples. It took me longer than expected to write this post and it contains a lot of information already.
Probably I’ll write an insight in future to describe how one can implement a pointer-to-data component or how we can use a side registry to setup shared data and back links, then walk through the entities that share the same instance.

For the time being, I hope you enjoyed what you’ve read so far.
Shared data are sometimes useful but what the right model is for your case strictly depends on the requirements. There doesn’t exist a one-catch-all solution unfortunately.
Note also that the shared components on the one hand solve a problem, on the other they introduce some new design choices to be taken into consideration. Sometimes these can quickly turn into problems, especially if you don’t choose the right model for your problem.

All in all, however, they are a useful tool to solve some problems. In this sense, I hope I’ve given you some useful tips.

Shout out

Thanks once again to Sander Mertens for contributing to this post.
This isn’t the first time that we cooperate. We have a rather different approach to the problem and this helps to put many good ideas on the table.
I hope you found the different points of view interesting. Hopefully, this won’t be the last chance to work together!

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