What Is A State Machine – Complete Guide

Exploring the concept of state machines feels like embarking on an adventure into the heart of how systems make decisions. Whether you’re new to programming or an experienced coder looking to brush up on the fundamentals, understanding state machines offers insights into organizing complex logic into manageable pieces. As you’ll discover, state machines are crucial for modeling behavior in games, applications, and even in hardware, making this topic not only fascinating but highly practical and universally applicable.

What is a State Machine?

A state machine is an abstract concept used to describe a system that can be in one of a limited number of states at any given time. It’s like a flowchart that keeps track of different scenarios and dictates what the system should do next. This paradigm is vital for controlling complex systems, particularly those that react differently to the same input depending on prior events or conditions.

What is it for?

State machines can be found in all sorts of scenarios, from the logic running in a vending machine to the AI of a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. They make it possible to handle various situations elegantly and predictably, granting developers the power to craft dynamic responses to a multitude of inputs and thereby create richer user experiences.

Why Should I Learn It?

Grasping the core principles of state machines will enable you to:
– Design systems that are easy to debug and maintain.
– Understand and construct complex behaviors without getting lost in a web of if-else statements.
– Articulate your solutions more clearly, which is especially advantageous for collaborative projects.
– Expand your toolkit for tackling coding challenges across countless domains, giving you a versatile skill that boosts your capabilities as a developer.

CTA Small Image

Building a Basic State Machine in Python

Before diving into complex systems, we’ll start by building a simple state machine in Python. Let’s consider a light bulb, which can be in one of two states: On or Off. Our state machine will switch the light bulb between these states based on user input.

# Define the initial state
current_state = 'Off'

# Define a function to get the next state based on the current state
def get_next_state(state):
    return 'On' if state == 'Off' else 'Off'

# A simple function to change state based on user input
def toggle_light():
    global current_state
    current_state = get_next_state(current_state)
    print(f"The light is now {current_state}")

# Test our state machine
toggle_light()  # Outputs: The light is now On
toggle_light()  # Outputs: The light is now Off

With this basic example, you can see how the state machine moves between two states. Now let’s expand our state machine to handle more complex scenarios.

Incorporating Events and Actions

Real-world systems usually respond to a variety of events and not just a single toggle. Let’s modify our light bulb state machine to respond to two events: ‘switch toggled’ and ‘power outage’. We’ll also introduce actions that occur when transitions happen.

# Define states and events
states = ['On', 'Off']
events = ['switch toggled', 'power outage']

# Describe the behavior of our state machine in a transition table
transition_table = {
    ('On', 'switch toggled'): 'Off',
    ('Off', 'switch toggled'): 'On',
    ('On', 'power outage'): 'Off',
    ('Off', 'power outage'): 'Off'  # The light remains off during power outage

# Define a function to handle the state transition
def handle_event(state, event):
    return transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Define an action to print the state
def perform_action(state):
    print(f"The light is {state}")

# Changing the state of the state machine with an event
def change_state(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = handle_event(current_state, event)

# Test the state changes with different events
change_state('switch toggled')  # Expect: The light is On
change_state('power outage')    # Expect: The light is Off
change_state('switch toggled')  # Expect: The light is On

In this enhanced example, the state machine uses a transition table to determine the next state based on the current state and a specific event. It gives a clear structure to the state machine and makes it easier to add new states and events.

Applying State Machines to Game Development

State machines are incredibly useful in game development. Let’s imagine a simple game where a character can idle, walk, and jump. Depending on the player’s input, our character will transition between these states.

# Character's possible states
character_states = ['Idle', 'Walking', 'Jumping']

# Define the character state machine
character_transition_table = {
    ('Idle', 'walk command'): 'Walking',
    ('Idle', 'jump command'): 'Jumping',
    ('Walking', 'jump command'): 'Jumping',
    ('Walking', 'stop command'): 'Idle',
    ('Jumping', 'land command'): 'Idle',
    # Assume the character automatically goes back to walking after landing
    ('Jumping', 'land command'): 'Walking'

# State transition function
def character_handle_event(state, event):
    return character_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Apply an event to the state machine
def control_character(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = character_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"Character is now {current_state}")

# Test character control
current_state = 'Idle'
control_character('walk command')  # Expect: Character is now Walking
control_character('jump command')  # Expect: Character is now Jumping
control_character('land command')  # Expect: Character is now Walking
control_character('stop command')  # Expect: Character is now Idle

These examples illustrate the basic implementation of a state machine from a simple on/off toggle to a rudimentary game character control system. This foundational knowledge sets the stage for even more intricate systems that can include timers, conditions, and multiple interacting state machines. These fundamentals are essential for aspiring programmers and game developers looking to add structure and predictability to the behavior of game elements.State machines have diverse applications, and their usage extends beyond simple toggling or character state controls. Let’s extend our discussion into more nuanced applications, such as implementing a state machine in a turn-based strategy game to manage game phases or incorporating animations in a seamless manner.

Let’s consider a turn-based strategy game where the game flow might involve several phases such as ‘Start’, ‘Player Turn’, ‘Enemy Turn’, and ‘End’.

# Game phases
game_phases = ['Start', 'Player Turn', 'Enemy Turn', 'End']

# Define the game phase state machine
game_phase_transition_table = {
    ('Start', 'begin play'): 'Player Turn',
    ('Player Turn', 'end turn'): 'Enemy Turn',
    ('Enemy Turn', 'end turn'): 'Player Turn',
    ('Player Turn', 'game over'): 'End',
    ('Enemy Turn', 'game over'): 'End'

# Handle phase transitions
def game_handle_event(state, event):
    return game_phase_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Define actions for entering a new phase
def enter_phase(phase):
    print(f"Entering {phase} phase.")
    # Additional logic for setting up the phase can be added here

# Drive the game state transitions
def change_game_phase(event):
    global current_state
    new_state = game_handle_event(current_state, event)
    if new_state != current_state:
        current_state = new_state

# Beginning game flow
current_state = 'Start'
change_game_phase('begin play')  # Entering Player Turn phase.

Next, let’s explore how state machines can manage character animations in a game. Animations often need to blend smoothly, for instance when a character transitions from ‘Running’ to ‘Jumping’. Such fluid transitions are important for creating a polished game experience.

# Character animations
animations = ['Idle', 'Running', 'Jumping', 'Falling']

# Define the animation state machine
animation_transition_table = {
    ('Idle', 'start running'): 'Running',
    ('Running', 'jump'): 'Jumping',
    ('Jumping', 'fall'): 'Falling',
    ('Falling', 'land'): 'Idle',
    ('Running', 'stop'): 'Idle'

# Handle animation transitions
def animation_handle_event(state, event):
    return animation_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Assuming we have a function to play animations
def play_animation(animation):
    print(f"Playing {animation} animation.")
    # In an actual game, this would trigger the animation on the character

# Changing the animation state
def change_animation(event):
    global current_state
    new_animation = animation_handle_event(current_state, event)
    if new_animation != current_state:
        current_state = new_animation

# Test animation transitions
current_state = 'Idle'
change_animation('start running')  # Playing Running animation.
change_animation('jump')           # Playing Jumping animation.
change_animation('fall')           # Playing Falling animation.
change_animation('land')           # Playing Idle animation.

For multiplayer games, a state machine could manage the game’s session state to keep track of whether players are in matchmaking, playing, or in a post-game lobby.

# Multiplayer session states
multiplayer_states = ['Matchmaking', 'Playing', 'Post-Game']

# Define the multiplayer session state machine
multiplayer_transition_table = {
    ('Matchmaking', 'found game'): 'Playing',
    ('Playing', 'game end'): 'Post-Game',
    ('Post-Game', 'play again'): 'Matchmaking',
    ('Post-Game', 'exit'): 'Matchmaking'  # Allows players to exit to matchmaking

# Handle session state transitions
def session_handle_event(state, event):
    return multiplayer_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Drive the multiplayer session state
def change_session_state(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = session_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"Multiplayer session is now in {current_state} state.")

# Changing session states
current_state = 'Matchmaking'
change_session_state('found game')  # Multiplayer session is now in Playing state.
change_session_state('game end')    # Multiplayer session is now in Post-Game state.
change_session_state('play again')  # Multiplayer session is now in Matchmaking state.

Finally, consider an enemy AI system where state machines dictate how enemy characters behave. The state could switch based on player proximity, player actions, or other game events.

# Enemy AI states
enemy_ai_states = ['Patrolling', 'Chasing', 'Attacking', 'Searching']

# Define the enemy AI state machine
enemy_ai_transition_table = {
    ('Patrolling', 'see player'): 'Chasing',
    ('Chasing', 'lose player'): 'Searching',
    ('Searching', 'find player'): 'Chasing',
    ('Chasing', 'reach player'): 'Attacking',
    ('Attacking', 'player escapes'): 'Searching',
    ('Searching', 'give up'): 'Patrolling'

# Handle enemy AI state transitions
def enemy_ai_handle_event(state, event):
    return enemy_ai_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Simulate the enemy AI behavior
def change_enemy_ai_state(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = enemy_ai_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"Enemy AI is now {current_state}.")

# Test enemy AI states
current_state = 'Patrolling'
change_enemy_ai_state('see player')    # Enemy AI is now Chasing.
change_enemy_ai_state('reach player')  # Enemy AI is now Attacking.
change_enemy_ai_state('player escapes')  # Enemy AI is now Searching.
change_enemy_ai_state('give up')        # Enemy AI is now Patrolling.

The versatility of state machines is evidenced through these varied use cases. From managing game phases to animation blending and AI behaviors, state machines provide a reliable and scalable approach to handling complex systems that require predictable, maintainable state transitions. By mastering state machines, game developers can create intricate gameplay mechanics that respond intuitively to player interactions. This fundamental tool is indispensable in the toolkit of any programmer aiming to implement robust game logic or any other system with well-defined states.State machines can also manage non-player character (NPC) interactions, dialog flows, and even complex puzzle mechanics. Another fascinating application is within procedural content generation, where state machines can help determine what kind of content to generate based on current conditions or player actions.

Let’s look at an example of an NPC interaction where an NPC can respond differently based on its current state, such as idle, talking, or giving quests.

# NPC states
npc_states = ['Idle', 'Talking', 'Giving Quest']

# Define the NPC state machine
npc_transition_table = {
    ('Idle', 'player approaches'): 'Talking',
    ('Talking', 'player speaks'): 'Giving Quest',
    ('Talking', 'player leaves'): 'Idle',
    ('Giving Quest', 'quest accepted'): 'Idle',
    ('Giving Quest', 'quest declined'): 'Talking'

# Handle NPC state transitions
def npc_handle_event(state, event):
    return npc_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Change the NPC state
def interact_with_npc(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = npc_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"NPC is now {current_state}.")

# Interacting with NPC
current_state = 'Idle'
interact_with_npc('player approaches')  # NPC is now Talking.
interact_with_npc('player speaks')      # NPC is now Giving Quest.

Dialogue systems can be quite complex, involving branching paths and multiple outcomes. State machines are excellent for managing this complexity.

# Dialogue states
dialogue_states = {
    'Start': 'Ask Question',
    'Ask Question': ['Answer 1', 'Answer 2', 'Answer 3'],
    'Answer 1': 'End Happy',
    'Answer 2': 'End Neutral',
    'Answer 3': 'End Sad'

# Handle dialogue progression
def dialogue_handle_event(current_state, choice):
    return dialogue_states.get(current_state)[choice]

# Progress through a dialogue
def continue_dialogue(state, choice):
    print(f"NPC says: {state}")
    if state.startswith('End'):
        print("The conversation ends.")
        new_state = dialogue_handle_event(state, choice)
        continue_dialogue(new_state, 0)  # Automatically selects the first option

# Starting dialogue
current_dialogue_state = 'Start'
continue_dialogue(current_dialogue_state, 0)  # NPC says: Ask Question

Puzzle mechanics often rely on state machines to determine whether the player’s actions meet the conditions to solve a puzzle.

# Puzzle states
puzzle_states = ['Unsolved', 'Partially Solved', 'Solved']

# Define puzzle state machine
puzzle_transition_table = {
    ('Unsolved', 'correct action'): 'Partially Solved',
    ('Partially Solved', 'another correct action'): 'Solved',
    ('Partially Solved', 'incorrect action'): 'Unsolved',
    ('Solved', 'interact'): 'Solved'  # Once solved, it stays solved

# Handle puzzle events
def puzzle_handle_event(state, event):
    return puzzle_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Attempt to solve the puzzle
def solve_puzzle(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = puzzle_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"Puzzle is {current_state}.")

# Attempting to solve puzzle
current_state = 'Unsolved'
solve_puzzle('correct action')            # Puzzle is Partially Solved.
solve_puzzle('another correct action')    # Puzzle is Solved.

Lastly, procedural content generation can benefit from state machines by determining what to spawn next based on game context.

# Content generation states
content_states = ['Generate Terrain', 'Populate Terrain', 'Decorate']

# Define content generation state machine
content_transition_table = {
    ('Generate Terrain', 'terrain complete'): 'Populate Terrain',
    ('Populate Terrain', 'population complete'): 'Decorate',
    ('Decorate', 'decoration complete'): 'Generate Terrain'

# Handle content generation events
def content_generation_handle_event(state, event):
    return content_transition_table.get((state, event), state)

# Generate content
def generate_content(event):
    global current_state
    current_state = content_generation_handle_event(current_state, event)
    print(f"Content generation: {current_state}")

# Content generation cycle
current_state = 'Generate Terrain'
generate_content('terrain complete')          # Content generation: Populate Terrain.
generate_content('population complete')       # Content generation: Decorate.
generate_content('decoration complete')       # Content generation: Generate Terrain.

In each one of these examples, we’ve seen how state machines provide a systematic approach, allowing developers to anticipate outcomes and handle transitions effectively. This demonstrates the power and flexibility of state machines as a problem-solving tool, particularly in game development, where entities are often driven by complex behavior and require dynamic responses to a wide array of stimuli.

Where to Go Next in Your Learning Journey

As we wrap up this tutorial, you might be wondering, “What’s next?” If you’ve enjoyed learning about state machines and are looking to dive deeper into the world of programming, our Python Mini-Degree is an excellent next step. Python is renowned for its simplicity and versatility and is a wonderful language for both beginners and seasoned programmers to master. Our Mini-Degree covers everything from coding basics to more complex concepts like game and app development, offering a wealth of practical projects to work on.

Beyond Python, programming offers a vast landscape to explore. At Zenva, we understand the importance of continuous learning and skill enhancement. That’s why we offer a broad range of programming courses, touching on multiple areas such as algorithms, object-oriented programming, and much more. Our courses are designed to be flexible and practical, with the goal of equipping you with skills that extend across a variety of industries. You can check out our wider collection of Programming courses to find the perfect path for your career aspirations or personal projects.

The journey of learning is an ongoing adventure, and with Zenva, you can shape your path in the way that suits you best. Continue to build practical skills, embark on new coding ventures, and take the next steps to achieve your goals in the tech world!


In the fantastic odyssey of coding, mastering state machines is akin to discovering a versatile compass that guides you through the intricacies of program logic and behavior. Whether you’ve just begun your exploration or you’re expanding your horizons, the skills you’ve gained here serve as a foundation for creating more robust and sophisticated systems. At Zenva, we believe in the power of hands-on learning. Our Python Mini-Degree not only solidifies these fundamentals but also catapults you into a world of programming possibilities.

So, keep the momentum going! Continue your learning journey with us, where every course is an opportunity to craft, refine, and elevate your skill set. The path to becoming a proficient coder is both exhilarating and rewarding with the right resources at your fingertips. Embrace the challenges ahead and let your new-found knowledge of state machines unlock new potentials in your programming projects and career.

Did you come across any errors in this tutorial? Please let us know by completing this form and we’ll look into it!

Python Blog Image

FINAL DAYS: Unlock coding courses in Unity, Godot, Unreal, Python and more.