Why I skipped GDC in 2019

March 23, 2019 | Filed under: business

So… the interwebs are awash with the happy high-fiving post-GDC backslapping and cheering and ‘omg this was what my GDC experience was like!’, so in typical cynical British fashion I thought I would put fingertips to keys for my alternative take.

Some background: I’ve been an indie dev for 20 years and coding for 38 years (not a typo). I’ve released over a dozen games, including Kudos, Gratuitous Space Battles, Democracy and production Line. I’ve also published some games. I work full time doing this as my job, and live in rural UK. I’m 49 (bloody hell!) and married.

I went a LONG time as an indie before finally giving in and going to GDC a few years ago. I remember my first experience being one of nervousness at not knowing ANYBODY, so I followed Jake Birkett of Grey Alien games, (who I’ve known for years) like a little lost and bewildered puppy hoping nobody would notice I was a total n00b to it all. The next year I went back, and the next year etc. This year was the first time I missed it since I started going.

As an alternative to GDC this year I did pop along to a way smaller London event, and spoke a bit about Unity and making your own engine, and met up with some UK indies I’ve known a long time to chat about stuff, which I’m really glad I did. Its a 2-3 hour trip from my house to London, so I stayed over in a local hotel. Drink was drunk, Lamb was eaten, jokes were made.

My decision to avoid GDC this year was very deliberate, but not a complete rejection of the whole concept. I may well return there next year, but my motivations for doing so will be almost entirely opposite to the motivations of people who attend their first GDC, so I thought it worth talking through how I feel about it. In that spirit, lets start by being negative (hey…British!) by listing what people do NOT tell you about GDC.

Negative Item #1: San Francisco. I actually got married in the US, and we stayed briefly in SF on our honeymoon. It was fab. The golden gate bridge! the trolleybusses! the huge pancakes! it was lovely. A great tourist town. Really cool. Almost 20 years later and… Oh…my…god. I’m not sure whats worse, the fact that there are *so many* homeless people or the fact that local residents have got used to totally blanking them. I’ve occasionally given cash to them, sometimes when I’m in a good mood, a fair bit of cash. One guy shouted ‘are you serious man?’ at me once. I guess they are used to being ignored, an inconvenience. an embarrassment. As a visitor, its totally shocking. And many of them seem to have untreated mental health issues.

I know all big cities have a problem with homelessness, but having just got back from London I know its TEN times worse, (at least to the casual visitor) in SF. Bad as the homelessness is, its not the only problem. There are parts of SF that you are very clearly warned DO NOT GO THERE. The really scary bit? they are maybe *one* street away from five star hotels. Its like some dystopian sci-fi future.

In a very small way, I’m not going this year to protest that San Fran will not deal with its problems. This is not a poor city. And frankly, I don’t go abroad much. I don’t want to spend half my time worrying about being stabbed, or getting depressed about homelessness. Other really nice US cities are available. Also, WTF is wrong with Las Vegas? come on guys… Vegas!

Negative item #2: Money. Luckily, the gods of market forces have been good to me (also I work like a fucking maniac and have 20 years indie experience and no kids), so my company does very well. I admit it, I fly business class when I visit the show. I can afford to buy a complete GDC show pass if I wanted to ( I do not). The cost of that pass?

$2,499

This is for a conference pass. Not a new laptop, or a new laptop + apple iphone X plus 3 course meal. Its just a pass that lets you actually go to everything at the show. They have to be absolutely kidding right? By the way, that just gets you into the show. Your food & drinks are extra, your hotel extra, your flights extra, your transfers from hotel, extra. Is this serious? and that brings me onto my next item:

Negative item#3: AFAIK hardly anyone is getting paid. The speakers? they get a free pass (OMG at $2,499 value!!!), but fuck-all else. You think they get free flights too? free hotel rooms? nope. Nothing, at least not the last time I checked. The CONTENT at the show (the talks) are provided by volunteers. At least everyone else got paid. But no, most of the ‘helpers’ at the show are volunteers too, they aren’t getting paid either.

People want to start a discussion of unionization in game dev? FFS lets start here. You give a talk at a show where the tickets are two thousand dollars, you need to get PAID for your time. I’ve spoken at GDC twice (one indie rant, one talk with 3 or 4 other devs). I’m never doing it again. My time IS money, especially if I have to spend my own money to get there and back. FWIW, other shows sometimes DO pay, and sometimes even for flights & hotels.

The thing is, you may consider all this to be worth it if the actual content of the show really improves your business right? I totally agree with you but that means item 4:

Negative item#4: The overwhelming majority of the talks are of zero use to you. This is not a dig at the speakers, many of whom are excellent and put a lot of (unpaid) work into them (including the work done by everyone who ‘submits’ a talk, but gets rejected). The fact is… game dev is a vast topic and a lot of platforms, genres and technologies are in play. The vast majority of it is NOT helpful to you. For example, are you a mobile dev using java and opengl to make an MMO? Awesome, but me giving a talk on optimising C++ and directx for PC strategy games is probably fucking useless for you.

Unless you are bizdev + marketing + finance + coder (all languages) + artist + animator + designer… the overwhelming majority of talks are not in your area. And guess what… multiple talks happen at once, so the chances are you will miss some of the ones you wanted to go to anyway. And oh… sometimes there isn’t enough room, so you will not get to attend a talk anyway.

Of course that applies to any big show, but that doesn’t mean its not a factor. Also applicable to every other big show is…

Negative item#5: You may well get ill. Or suffer in other ways. I used to laugh at people who used hand sanitizer and fistbumping. What feeble office-jockeys are they? whats the worst that can happen? Then it happened to me. I was ill after the show. very ill. Horribly ill. Embarrassingly ill. Get me drunk and ask for details one day. Its actually quite funny, but at the time: No. It was BAD. You are shaking hands with hot sweaty geeks from all over the planet. You *will* get ill at some point, and lose productivity.

Also, even if you don’t get ill, if you are a shy introvert coder like me, GDC is NOT DESIGNED FOR YOU. There are a lot of very confident, loud, assertive, extroverted, friendly, upbeat Americans who will talk extremely loudly in very loud bars absolutely packed with people who all seem to already know each other. You think you will enjoy trying to close a publishing deal over cocktails in a loud dark nightclub where people are yelling across you? You will not enjoy that. Nobody does, and yet its the same, every year.

So given all this… why the fuck did I ever go back?

The Good Stuff. GDC, like any big game show allows you to meet probably at least a hundred people who *do what you do*, and are as keen to talk about it as you are. You will hear a lot of business insider stuff. You will be exposed to lots of ideas, and get insight into the way the industry is heading. We are all still apes in T shirts, so physically meeting and sharing coffee/beer with someone means you are WAY more likely to work with them in the future. Networking is a REAL thing, and GDC is the heart of games industry networking. Despite everything I’ve typed here, you should all go to it once (if you can afford it).

And I admit, that even as I type this extended long-form rant, I do regret the fact that so many people I’ve met before at GDC, like Ron, Tommy, Brad, Chet, Ichiro, John & so many others… I’m just not going to see this year and thats kinda sad. TBH, I go there more for the meals and the drinks and the banter and jokes than any actual *biz* need, but I miss all you people, and wish we could hang out.

Oh and BTW I missed out my ‘kinda preachy’ (*but if you know me well, you will know its my primary reason*) argument for NOT going to GDC. I’m an environmentalist, and if you are too, you either need to not keep jumping on long distance airplanes that pump out serious CO2, or you need to offset the fuck out of it when you do go. I *did* consider flying & offsetting but decided against it.

Anyway… hope this isn’t too depressing. Its my honest take. Be aware of survivor bias, and peoples desire to always appear happy on social media. People are not going to tweet ‘Went to GDC, was expensive and crowded and probably a waste of time’. Nobody does that, but some people likely did think it. Of course, YMMV :D.

So you may have missed it, but we launched Production Line out of Early Access almost exactly a week ago. It looks like we have had a pretty good launch. We were in various charts in various categories, sold a lot of copies, got some good word of mouth coverage, and a fairly minimal amount of bug reports. I have remained relatively calm, and relatively sane, and am still motivated to improve the game and continue to do (some) work on it for the next few months. Woohoo.

TBH this is the smoothest game launch is Positech’s history. This is the first time I’ve done early access, so its the first time I’ve had literally tens of thousands of people hammering the game code *before* I officially declare the game *done*. Frankly, these days most indie games get a way bigger EA launch than a final product launch, so its not as gentle a ramp up as it sounds, but it still resulted in a pretty bug free departure from Early Access

Something I was very happy with was that I could set the ‘final’ build live for all the EA players, not touch the game *at all* for a few days, and when I was absolutely sure everything was fine, just literally click the ‘release out of early access’ button knowing that things were pretty stable. I highly recommend this!

So far we have had ONE patch since release, which fixed a short list of things, and there is another one on the way in maybe a week or so, which will be the accumulation of a bunch of bug fixes (even some pretty rare crashes) and some UI features people have asked for like a camera speed slider, autosave interval slider, and some extra stats. It feel so good to be in a position where people are saying ‘the game needs a better UI for feature X’ instead of ‘the game needs feature X’.

I definitely have plans to do some paid content for the game (DLC) alongside regular updates. I’m obviously not in a position to even tease anything like that yet, but as I prefer content-heavy DLC to code-heavy DLC (its just optimal given that I am the only coder), such things do not take *much* time to do (although there is of course a big art budget cost).

Right now I’m pretty happy with how Production Line has gone. Even if the game makes NO MORE MONEY AT ALL, I’ll be happy (but amazed!), and I think over the long tail of the next 2+ years there is a good chance of it making at least 50% of its current earnings again, which I’d be very happy with. I’m currently minded to *not* go mad with sales and discounts, as I think this is getting a bit out of control and games are being devalued, but I may think differently about that in a years time.

Anyway, this is nothing but good news, which is a change from the usual indie ‘I sold no games and have eaten my pets’ stories, but I’m not going to pretend things went wrong when they didn’t. I always blog openly about my screw-ups (2 recent games still in the RED for me :(), so I may as well be honest when things go well.

Thanks to everyone who bought the game so far!

My super-complex spreadsheet which I use to track the spending and income for my latest game (Production Line) informs me that I have been working on it for 3.12 years, and have spent a (very roughly estimated) total of 9,115 dev hours on it. The game is leaving early access tomorrow!

In truth I have probably spent a lot more hours than that, as I tend to overwork, and spend a lot of time in evenings checking forums and reddit/facebook etc to reply to people, but anyway you look at it, 3.12 years seems to be quite a long time to work alone as the only coder and designer on a game.

Bizarrely, I am still very much enjoying the games development, and have a list of extra things I would like to tweak and improve after release. In many ways the decision that the game is ‘released’ is a purely arbitrary one. In marketing terms it encourages people who dislike the state of most EA games to try the game out, and it also signals a potential slowing down in the addition of new features.

I still have a lot of ideas for stuff that could be added to the game, and I suspect we will have some paid DLC once the dust has settled. I wont rehash my pro-DLC arguments here, but I’m in believer in it both as a developer and a gamer. Why will DICE not sell me panther tank DLC for Battlefield V? TAKE MY MONEY. (also new hats please!)

Speaking from a personal point of view.. I am TIRED. I’ve felt like it for a while, and I think I do need a brief period where I scale down my work slightly. We are currently working on Democracy 4 (I’m not coding on it), and helping to manage that is an imminent concern. I currently have NO PLANS for any other game after Production Line (as a coder), so I’m pretty free (assuming it sells ok) to relax for a bit.

While I relax (Maybe for an HOUR!), here is the new launch trailer for Production Line. I really enjoyed getting this made. I hope you like it :D

Oh and if you have suddenly decided to buy the game, you get a steam key and we get 95% of the money if you buy using the widget below!

I have a few reports of a bug in production line where people have got VERY good at the game and amassed tens of billions of dollars. Nothing actually crashes, but financial reports start filling up with gibberish like $-1,-4,-2,-0,-1,-3,-5 and so on. The cause is simple, the fix difficult(ish) and the wider implications worthy of comment.

Firstly, as most coders can already guess, its because I’ve gone outside the max limits on the data type I’m using. I use a ‘float’ for financial figures in the game (mainly because some items get percentage reductions due to global events and competition, so I need decimals) and because *somewhere* I must be casting it to an int (no idea where yet) the numbers I can represent are limited to -2,147,483,648 to 2,147,483,647 because an int is 4 bytes. If I was using only a float, things would be super different. More details here.

Anyway, although generally speaking numbers like that are big enough, in a financial sim, restricting any possible number to a max value of $2billion is not ideal. My game is not ‘realistic’ in costs, and its rare that players finances will exceed $100 million, let alone 2 billion, but obviously it happens now and then and the game kinda screws up.

The fix is easy. I just need to replace that datatype, but the actual implementation is a bit more messy, because that means old save games need converting or handling as I load those numbers in (right now the game only knows how to load ints, floats and strings and likely casts to ints somewhere). I also have to go through every place where those numbers get locally stored by any GUI code and ensure I’m not using ints there either, and of course I need to change my display code so it handles floats properly and converts them to strings properly.

TBH its likely only a days work, but assuming another day to test it, and then a few days of ‘unstable build’ roll-out to the hardcore before folding it into the main code branch, all this means that this will be a fix coming after release on Thursday, and NOT today :D

Perhaps the more interesting topic is how do you deal with edge cases and marginal cases with a sim/strategy game. I know from experience that people WILL push these games to the extreme and WILL break them. I’ve had negative reviews from people with >100 hours playtime because their extreme playtime has led to discovering exploits, and edge cases that allow them to ‘break’ the game.

Anyway, this is a real issue because making a balanced, playable, fun, reliable game that works for 99% of the playerbase takes 99% of the effort, and making it work perfectly in EVERY edge case is…another 99% of effort. Generally speaking, its way better to concentrate on fixes, features and changes which make the game better for the 99% than to fixate on the extreme edge cases, especially as a time-limited indie who can never do everything.

I’ll fix the numbers thing post-release, but I have to admit that are likely some other real edge cases that I never will. This is also true of any of my games, like Democracy 3, or Gratuitous Space Battles. There are probably obscure edge cases and tactics that you can discover in all my games that ‘break’ them, after 100+ hours of gameplay. Thats not shocking. I’m always going to make the majority of players who play in the ‘usual’ way my primary focus. Edge case fixes are something I like to do, and want to do, but you can never get them all, or fix them all. You will go mad trying to do so.

Do not forget that there are companies like EA/DICE where thousands of players will scream that ‘X’ is unbalanced or ‘Y’ breaks the game and has not been fixed!, and yet presumably those companies have 50x the manpower I do. The likelihood is that they have data that shows this is only true in 0.1% of cases, and their dev time is better spent elsewhere. I have no illusions that players will accept that as an answer, but that will not stop it being the case!

Production Line Updated to 1.68

February 28, 2019 | Filed under: production line

This is the last feature-update before we come out of Early Access. The next week is likely to just be bug fixing and usability/UI tweaks and fixes. Here is the list of new stuff:

1) [GUI] Changed vehicle renaming so it doesn’t annoyingly add (1) to a duplicate name until you leave that screen, to prevent driving people MAD.
2) [GUI] Component prices on the finance screen can now be sorted up or down by either name or price.
3) [GUI] Added remappable shortcut key (B) to toggle blueprint mode.
4) [GUI] Redesigned layout of car design screen to accommodate longer languages.
5) [Feature] Added Swedish translation and improved others.

6) [Bug] Fixed bug when adding items to a supply stockpile where some categories would occasionally not be shown.
7) [GUI] Smart junctions now retain their list of designs when switching in/out of design mode, and also add new designs to the default list.
8) [Bug] Fixed crash bug when moving existing paint drying slots.
9) [Feature] You can now move supply stockpiles, and they keep their configuration when moved.
10) [Bug] Fixed bug where if you changed floor textures under office space, then moved existing office facilities, the default office floor texture was not re-set.
11) [Feature] Added researchable make electric motor and make electric powertrain slots.
12) [GUI] Canceling a slot or facility movement action snaps the item back to its old location.
13) [Feature] You now get a brand awareness boost of up to 20% automatically if you have high number of sales over the last four hours.
14) [Bug] Moved slots now remember their import preferences.
15) [Feature] Telling a supply stockpile to copy a specific task’s requirements now links it, and it auto-updates to account for new research. Any manual change to the slot breaks the link.

16) [GUI] You can now place down conveyor belts as blueprints.

17) [GUI] The production schedules at the start of each line are now saved if you move that slot.
18) [GUI] Slight gradients on the vehicle design price slider now mark out the different price ranges.
19) [Content] Some new items have been added to various slots, to show gantrys, dashboards, shock absorbers, speedometers,automated platforms & scisssor lifts.

Hope you like the new stuff. feedback most welcome, as are bug reports, we really want a bug-free emergence from Early Access. Many thanks to all your support while the game was in EA. Suggestions for future updates also welcome. if you like the game, bought it from steam and have not yet left a steam review, it is much appreciated!