Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Emotional game design

It might seem weird for a self-diagnosed autistic game dev to talk about emotions in game design, but that would be incorrect. Its not like I don’t have emotions, in fact I have way too many of them, way too unpredictably! Like Vulcans. Anyway, this is a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention when discussing game design, so I thought I would have a go at it.


Not quite the classic ‘always emotion is the future’ yoda catchphrase, but close enough. For a very long time I have been aware that all entertainment is about emotion. It seems to be what we need as humans. We want to trigger positive emotions, and have controlled release of safe amounts of negative ones. We eat cakes to get the happy feels, we go on rollercoasters to get a safe dose of fear. True of all music, all books, all movies. Some make you cry, some laugh, some scream with fear. Time spend trying to be entertained that is not accompanied with an emotional release likely means the creator of that piece of entertainment has failed.

When you get quite into learning how to create entertainment in a field, you can very rapidly descend into very technical analysis and very clinical and seemingly unemotional advice regarding how best to do that thing. Novelists read about foreshadowing and ‘show don’t tell’, filmmakers learn about color-grading and dolly-zooms, and game designers learn about ‘player verbs’ and ‘design pillars’. To some extent, its all necessary, as you do need to know the basic building blocks of how most pieces of entertainment are made, but I do fear that people get so stuck into the weeds of the technical aspects of game design that they forget the core aim.

Normally at this point in an article like this, the writer would go for the classic phrase, perhaps in large bold type;


But Actually I think that is bollocks.

The problem with ‘find the fun’, is that it assumes that the game’s purpose can be summed up as ‘fun’. Games are apparently ‘fun’ and ‘fun’ is the most important thing. When assessing a game, people often ask their friends ‘is my game fun?’ because its assumed that this is the purpose. Maybe not. Is chess ‘fun’? its arguably a game that teaches you how to wage war. Is watching Schindler’s list fun? I definitely hope not. Is ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ fun? Is reading Anna Karenina fun? Is listening to ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer fun?

Games are no better or worse or more worthy or less worthy than any other form of entertainment. Its fine to make playing a game stressful, or harrowing, or to make a game that makes someone cry, or furious. If you make a game about the holocaust, it SHOULD make the player furious. Making a game that gives people nightmares is a perfectly reasonable decision. We don’t criticize other media for a lack of ‘fun’ by default, and we should treat games no differently.


A game will fail if it does not generate an emotion. That emotion can include a sense of ‘flow’ which is basically the emotional state that combines relaxation with satisfaction. I am currently playing ‘Regency Solitaire 2’ by Grey Alien Games. It makes me feel relaxed, and also gives me slight happiness or sadness boosts depending how the cards fall. The game is crafted, from its art to its sound effects to its music to convey a non-threatening, relaxing and familiar mood, and it does it well. No surprise that the game’s creator, Jake Birkett is a very calm almost zen-like guy.

Far too many words are written in academic circles about game design, which focus on the mechanics. People say things like ‘Primary Ludic Structure’ and are not laughed out of the room. There are lots of diagrams, and lots of spreadsheets, and numbers, and lots of advice on how to BOOST PLAYER ENGAGEMENT and how to design TIGHT GAMEPLAY LOOPS. I feel a lot of this stuff is misplaced.

If you have the time, seek out the introduction to ‘the trilogy suite‘ by Yngwie Malmsteen, and also the first guitar notes in ‘shine on you crazy diamond‘ by Pink Floyd. I’m a guitar player, so these are natural choices for me to make a point. Yngwie packs about a thousand times (at least) as many notes into a minute of music as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Both of the approaches ‘work’ and have become classics, not because of what notes they pick, or what the time signature is, or what chords they are played over. They both work because holy-fucking shit they are emotional-as-fuck, but in wildly different ways,

Yngwie’s guitar is super-fast, super-accomplished, and incredibly showy. Its a testosterone-fueled display of ability, the equivalent of standing naked on a pedestal and yelling proudly I AM DEFINITELY FUCKING HERE. By contrast, David Gilmour uses a tiny handful of notes. Subtle bends, very clear tone. Its both powerful and sad. It sounds like someone expressing grief, or huge emotional conflict, but unable to express themselves openly. Its the guitar version of sobbing in anguish.

Now you can just google for the notes of both those pieces of music, and given 20,000 hours practice, you can probably play them. Youtube is littered with people, often about fifteen years old, annoyingly, who can do just that. Here is one:

But the point is that ITS NOT ABOUT TECHNIQUE. The aim is of course to be something fresh and new, and special in the way that the original composers of those pieces of music are. How do they do that? How can you create something like that? Will cliff get back to discussing games soon? The thing is, both pieces of music are definitely hugely emotional, and personal and they come from the very sincere, very confident, very intimate desire for their creators to broadcast their emotional energy at the world. If you watch an interview with those two guitarists, you will immediately know who wrote each piece. Trilogy suite is not ‘written by’ Malmsteen, it IS Malmsteen. Shine on you crazy diamond IS Dave Gilmour. They didn’t try to put together popular pop songs by studying what was popular, or catchy. They just transferred their emotions from their heart to the world directly and unashamedly through their music. These musicians did not ‘pick hot genres’. Yngwie couldn’t play country and western if you put a gun to his head. Dave Gilmour couldn’t write a kpop song for a billion dollars.

…Yeah but games?

This is why I think we have a lot of soulless, uninspiring, even bad big AAA games now. When a game costs $400 million to make, then there is ZERO chance you let a single individual call ALL the shots. Everyone has to weigh in. The next big mega-franchise is not the distilled emotion of anybody. Its just a focus-group-designed and committee-approved venn diagram of core market segments. It lacks soul. If you are trying to make a decent piece of entertainment, you need to avoid becoming this!

I’m not a good game designer by traditional measures. I suck at balance, I suck at introducing mechanics to the player in a nice way. I have very little sense of what fits together in terms of clashing art styles. I have not played a whole bunch of classic games that are often referenced in game design circles. I do somehow manage to keep making games that sell lots and lots of copies though, and I think its because my games, even though they seem like they are not, are extremely emotional and passionate.

Democracy is far too complex a game. It does not slowly introduce concepts to the player. It is unforgiving. It has death-spirals and virtuous circles. Some levels are too hard, some are too easy. At first glance, its an impenetrable nightmare of overwhelming complexity. THATS THE POINT. The game is designed to mimic, as closely as practical, how it would feel if you actually did become president. Thats a job that *is* overwhelming. Often unfair, sometimes impossible to win. Some countries must seem like they are on stupid difficulty settings. The thing is, it encapsulates how I feel about politics and economics, and how complexity is fundamental to the experience. As a designer, I LOVE the complexity. The player often feels like everything is insanely interconnected, and that they are barely managing to put out fires and hope for the best, with all their hopes and dreams dashed to ashes the day after an election victory. That feeling of it all being a bit of a nightmare, is not a game design flaw. Its the point.

Gratuitous Space Battles is also too complex. And too big. There are too many ships, and ship modules, and its all too complicated due to the staggering amount of combinations. Its ludicrous. It is, at its heart, totally and utterly gratuitous. It is not a serious game, its one that should awaken the 13 year old boy who has seen star-wars a hundred times in grown adults. The point of the game is not to carefully strategize your way to victory. The point is to amass a ton of ships with different color lasers, watch them explode and then shout FUCK YES at the monitor as an adolescent expression of energy. Its puberty with lasers.

Maybe you like one of those games, maybe not, but when they ‘work’ they work really well because they are PURE. They are what one person (me!) wants the game to feel like. Not ‘play’ like, but FEEL. There is no POINT to games but to make you feel, or help you feel. Thats what entertainment is for. I’d rather my game’s angered people than just left them emotionless and untouched.

The most successful game I published by another designer was Big Pharma. The designer was young, chirpy, happy, upbeat and optimistic. His personality was not mine. He liked games by nintendo. I had only ever played one (a star wars one on gamecube). I thought the art style for the game was too simple, too flat, too symbolic. I thought the simple way in which the gameplay elements clicked into neat place was unrealistic, felt too easy, felt too ‘resolved’. The player could feel happy, and content and satisfied. This was not me. But I let Tim make the game he wanted to make. Its a Tim Wicksteed game. You can tell. Playing that game does not feel like a game I made. It’s also a very popular game, and did very well. I could have waded in there with my strong opinions and insisted on a less cute look, a more industrial feel, and changed the mechanics, but I deliberately let Tim make the game a Tim game.

…of course I then got all of my ARGH about how I would have made it out of my system by doing my take on the factory-sim idea, which is called Production Line :D.

Anyway. This is my way of trying to convey that you can NEVER put too much of YOUR emotion into your game, and you should NEVER let other people try to mitigate, or dilute the emotional content of it. If people say ‘this part of the game is too depressing’ or ‘its a bit fatalistic’ or ‘I hated seeing this character die’, then you should think VERY carefully whether or not to listen. Also, right from the very start, you should know what emotion your game primarily conveys. It doesn’t have to be a positive emotion, its fine to make a sad game, a stressful or harrowing game, or even a game that makes you angry about injustice.

Just be very careful of the game-design equivalent of having produced Schindler’s list, and then someone pipes up and says ‘couldn’t it be a bit more upbeat’? All entertainment should be driven by the emotional force of a single creator. Anything else risks becoming mediocre.

Is it harder to sell games on steam in 2023?

I had a chat today with a very knowledgeable fellow indie game dev. He asserts that it is way harder for a game dev to sell a game on steam in 2023 than it was in the past. My gut feeling was that he was wrong, but who needs guts when you have data and analysis? lets find out.

I dug around to find out what I could. There are various sites listing the number of games on steam, but the most interesting data I found was listing the games released on steam, but also breaking down the more recent years into games that have certain community features enabled, and games that did not. Steam requires a certain amount of sales and interest in a game before you can do things like have trading cards. I suspect this is a good proxy for what games are serious commercial releases as compared to student games, hobby games, and the sort of games that are made part-time on a low budget. The question I am interested in was whether or not there is more ‘genuine competition’ for full time indie game devs now. With this is mind, I think its far to ignore games that don’t meet the trading card threshold.

This required some stats mangling by me, because it took a while for steam to realize it needed to introduce this measure, so unless you fade-in the effect of the threshold sensibly, there would be a sudden peak and then dip. I did my best, and ended up with a chart that looks like this, for games released:

This goes from 2006 to 2023. I’m too useless on a laptop with office365 to get the horizontal axis right :D. This definitely shows a huge jump in the number of games, but this is clearly not the whole story. Steam launched just in English, with just valves own games. It took a while to add ANY new games, and in that time the number of users shot up. People might not remember but I recall how much everyone HATED steam initially. People really resented having to install it.

Over time, obviously steam has become huge, and more global. I dug out some stats that gave me the peak concurrent users for each year. Not perfect, but an interesting proxy for steam usage, and must be vaguely related to how many active users the platform had… Anyway, adding that to my chart allows me to then calculate the ratio of peak concurrent users to games released, which gave me a new chart:

I think this is more interesting. That peak is around 2012, and the low point to the right is 2017-2019. This data is far from perfect, because obviously people can continue to play games from previous years, and the accumulation of games is definitely a factor. However, I would argue that the tendency for people to buy games released a few years ago is also good news for developers, as it means your game will have a long tail and continue to generate revenue.

So a very rough hacky analysis suggests that peak-time to release a game on steam may have been 2012. It got a fair bit harder since then, but has been getting easier for the last few years. Obviously this is only a tiny bit of the picture though, as there is so much more to consider.

Steam sales changed a few years ago, due to laws regarding refunds. Because steam was forced to offer a refund in the event that a recently purchased game was suddenly cheaper, the whole concept of flash-sales and one-day spikes during steam sales became history. Gone are the days where you would have your game 90% off just for one day. That may have influenced how gamers value and buy games. I do wonder if the average price of ‘professional’ games has gone up since those days? Gamers like the refund policy, but it also made steam sales more muted, and more predictable, with less crazy discounting.

I do think its VASTLY easier to make games now. There is Unity and Unreal. There is also Twitch, Twitter and YouTube. Streaming is a huge promotional opportunity for game devs, Steam now has reviews, and video uploads, and trading cards and achievements. These have not been around for ever! Plus steam supports a ton of languages, payment providers and currencies. The available market for your PC indie game is now colossal. Big hits are now HUGE hits, because there are just so many more people available to see your game if it is good. I do not have concrete data for just how much money the first 100 indie games on steam made, but I’d wager its not much by modern standards.

I’m guessing Factorio made a LOT more than Rag Doll Kung Fu. Ditto Dyson Sphere Program, Prison Architect and RimWorld. It may seem insane that there was a time when just releasing a game on steam got you front page coverage for DAYS, but there actually were not that many people seeing that page! For one thing, not everyone had broadband, and certainly not uncapped broadband.

On balance, I think making a game in 2024 is hilariously easier than making a game in 2008, because of the tech, the price of tools, the ubiquity of tutorials and communities. When I started, I had to buy physical books about C++ and game engines. I followed the blogs of every indie game dev online, because there were really not that many of us.

The flip-side is that it is much harder to get noticed as a developer in 2024. I accept that. But this is just a change, not a deterioration. All that time you save not having to work out how to code a particle system in 2024 needs to be put into promoting your game to people. Its the same amount of hours for the same reward, you just have to work differently. Maybe. YMMV.

Some food for thought: 14.43% of Steam users are from the United States. There are more than 30 million Steam users in China. If you are making a puzzle-platform game or visual novel, and its only in English, then yes, you might struggle a bit. I find that ‘indie dev twitter’ (which I mostly ignore because its all identity politics), is overwhelmingly made up of US or UK game devs making a small unity game in English. They generalize massively from that experience, but I don’t think its the whole story.

Gratuitous Space Shooty Game is now on steam

Bit of a low-profile sudden launch, because its only a little fun hobby game. But I do think its rather good, and it is also super, super cheap, especially with a launch discount. So go grab a copy :D Its fab. Try to beat it on WTF difficulty level.

A productivity boost for everything you are trying to do

A million years ago, my ambition was to be as good a guitarist as Richie Kotzen, in his pre-poison, shred days. I thought he was super cool. I then started guitar lessons with the teacher who, at the time, was considered the best heavy metal guitar teacher in the country. His name was shaun baxter. It was a 3 hours trip each way with a guitar, walking, getting a bus, then 2 trains, then walking, then the reverse. The lessons were expensive. I was very determined. I learned lots of things, and one of them is broadly applicable to everything you might ever want to learn, improve at, or get done. I will share it with you for FREE. How amazing.

Firstly Shaun exposed me to how amazing yngwie malmsteen was as a guitarist. He could play some malmsteen stuff at the full tempo. This blew me away, although nothing in the universe is as insane as the way Chris Impellitteri plays… but anyway the main thing is that yngwie played guitar very very very fast. I had reached my limit and couldn’t get any faster.

It doesn’t matter if you hate heavy metal, or know nothing of guitar playing. The thing I’m about to share IS relevant. There are a lot of things you need to do to play fast metal guitar, and its very hard, and involves a crazy crazy amount of practice. However, one thing I was taught, totally changed the way I approached practicing. Until learning this trick, I would practice guitar scales at the fastest speed I could manage and still hit all the notes cleanly and in time. Lets call this 120 bpm (beats per minute). I would go through all the scales, in every key, to a metronome, for hours at 120 bpm. I would then try to do the same at 122 bpm, and struggle, and so on…for hours. and days and months.

Lets say my target was 200 bpm. The thing is… 200 bpm is NOT a faster version of 120 bpm. Its a totally different fucking universe. This is crucial. There are lots of things you can ‘get away with’ at a slower speed, that will totally fuck you up at high speed. At 120bpm you can flail your 4th finger about a bit. You can not have your left hand positioned correctly, and you can move your right hand wrist too much. These are all flaws, but they are flaws that can be excused at 120bpm.

Hopefully you can see where I am going?

Because those flaws are structural, you will never get beyond 120 bpm. It feels like you maybe *could* if you just tried harder. But you are fundamentally fucked. You will never get to 200. Never, because playing at that speed has zero room for error. This is absolutely transformative. You need to work out all the things that are stopping you getting better, and the only way to do that is to leap forward in time.


In order to work out what is going to screw you up at the faster rate, you have to imagine life at the faster rate. The only way to leap forward to that rate (or level of skill or commitment) is to completely jettison quality, temporarily. So what I learned with shaun was that to learn to play at 200bpm, I had to EXPERIENCE the reality. In other words I had to set the metronome to 200 bpm and just play at that speed, and finish all the notes on time, even if it sounded like a complete train wreck, and was stressful as fuck.

After the initial speed-bump of going “wtf? this is impossible, I cannot do this”, you eventually get the hang of making 600 notes a minute (triplets) more-or-less in time. Its a cacophony of errors, but you manage it. Its a mess, and you are fumbling everything, and it feels pointless…. and yet…

Doing this massively highlights everything you are doing wrong. You simply cannot wave that finger around if it needs to be somewhere else in a tenth of a second. You cannot be making exaggerated wrist movements with the guitar pick because your right hand will shake itself to pieces at that speed. All of the bullshit you got away with at a lower rate is suddenly staggeringly, blindingly obvious.

And then when you set the metronome back to 130 bpm, it feels fucking easy. You are totally in control, to the extent that you are able to work on all that stuff you now know was holding you back. Oh and was that a typo? NO. 130 bpm now feels trivial, whereas previously 122 bpm felt impossible. It helps massively to stretch your ambition. You will NEVER achieve a goal, if you cannot ever picture yourself being able to do it, and have no *feel* for what its like to be at that goal.

So thats great, but how the hell does that help me ship an indie game / write a book / learn spanish or whatever?

This is a universal technique! It works for everything. If you are trying to force yourself to walk 6km a day, try walking 18km one day. The next day will feel hilariously easy. If you are trying to write 100 lines of code every day, write 1,000 one day. The important thing is to set the higher goal WAY WAY HIGHER than the progress you want to make. You will find this works for everything. Writing 1,000 lines of code a day requires dedication, no distractions, a comfortable office chair, possibly complete silence, maybe a coffee machine in your office… who knows! but the point is, you will not know what optimisations and efficiencies you need to make until you push the process to its limits. Maybe you CAN walk 5km a day in your normal footwear, but walking 18km is agony unless you get new trainers/sneakers? Ok, cool, you are now in agony, but you have learned one thing that was holding you back.

Sometimes, it means a completely new approach entirely. The ‘marginal’ improvement approach might be fundamentally flawed. Trying to put a man on the moon by building bigger and bigger trampolines will not work. It always seems like the trampoline could be just a bit bigger… but until you try to get 5 miles high, you wont realize you need a bloody rocket.

There are a TON of reasons why some people seem to struggle to ever make progress in what they do. Some people mistake ‘putting the hours in’ with the much more important ‘deliberate practice’. Some people are experts at inventing justifications and excuses for why they fail their goals. Some people psychologically do not have enough self belief to ‘allow’ themselves to achieve their goals, and my god there are a lot of books that you can read on these topics as a displacement activity from actually getting stuff done…

…but I do think that this technique is especially under-utilised. When you try it, you realize what a game changer it is. You have no idea what prevents you 10x-ing your achievements, because you never think beyond 1.1x-ing the way you do things now. Another way to think about it is to treat your goals as something done in a factory. It doesnt matter how quickly you run around and slave away making stuff in a workshop, if you never realize that the ONLY way to make 1,000 widgets an hour is going to be a conveyor-belt production line with division of labor, then you will waste a ton of effort (and shoe-leather) sprinting between different bits of equipment. Only by envisaging the final rate of production and TRYING it, will you ever really have a chance of achieving it.

Good Luck :D

Solar farm 4th site visit: Substations!

Its been a long time since my last visit to the site, and work stalled for ages due to arguments and analysis regarding earthing. Finally at LONG LAST, that was agreed upon, and we could recommence work. I went up there with a friend yesterday in pretty bad wet weather to see what progress there had been. Hopefully this is the start of the final leg of getting the farm finished and connected. When I was last there, most (85%?) of the panels and frames were installed, and most of the inverters, but that was it. This time there was some more stuff done.

The most obvious progress on that day was that the DNO (distribution network operator) people were actually on site installing their substation which includes a transformer. There will eventually be two substations, one for the DNO and one for the site, which will contain the meter and ‘switchgear’. The substation is kind of built on site, out of 4 wall panels and a roof. Here are some cool pics:

Thats the roof being lowered onto the DNO substation, which contains their transformer and other stuff,

A shot taken from my drone (in high winds!) showing the location of stuff. The hole at the bottom of the image, filled with stones is the base for the site substation, which will be built any day now, with our switchgear, and eventually meter. This is where all the underground AC cables from each inverter will meet.

Another drone shot of some of the panels. It was windy and I wasn’t able to get a nice clear image of all of them. The gaps between them in the middle here are where the overhead high voltage cable goes. Once that cable comes down, those gaps will be filled with more panels so there will be nice long uninterrupted lines. Those dotted white lines are actually deposits of snow that have slid off the panels a few days earlier.

We also have a lot of ditches. There are ditches that have been dug for a new underground high voltage line (we queried why this had to be underground, as it costs us WAY more, but were basically just told we had no choice… grrr.), and there are lots of ditches (a ridiculous amount it seemed to me…) for the earthing for the site. The earthing as been a huge, monumental pain in the ass.

So in a sense, this looks like good news right? Not really. There are two huge problems still standing between me and this ever getting finished. The first one is an eight week delay that is being insisted upon before the power can be BRIEFLY cut off to 4 houses so we can remove the overhead line. This is beyond insane, and there is ZERO (I checked) legislative need for this, but as with anything relating to a DNO, you have zero choice. (private monopolies suck). That 8 week delay has not even started yet, because it is, itself being delayed because of lawyers. Yes. Lawyers. FFS.

But the SECOND big problem and nightmare is importing energy. We need (In theory) energy supplied TO the site in order to power the CCTV at night, and I suspect to also actually run the meter itself. This sounds trivial but ALL of the big six energy companies I talked to were incompetent, clueless buffoons who couldn’t even understand what I was asking for. The few clued-up energy companies who did offer a quote to supply energy are quoting a standing charge of £55 a day. Yes thats pounds, not pence. The actual energy usage will be under £50p a day. Yes, I have checked. Yes, this is absolutely totally and utterly insane. There are other charges added too which mean the bill would be about £28,000 a year to run 4 CCTV cameras.

Now you might ask “how the fuck can the standing charge for a business at location X be over a hundred times more than the standing charge for a house at X?”. You might also ask why the fuck the DNO can not provide the power. You might also ask why the fucking fuck we cannot use the power we generated ON SITE and use a tiny backup battery to ‘buffer’ some of it. These are all valid questions, and its driving me insane. Let me explain a bit…

There are two types of electricity meter. A standard domestic one, and whats called half-hourly meters. These are for big businesses and stuff like my farm. They have a different system of standing charges, which are calculated on something called a line-loss factor (LLF). Basically companies stuff power into a line, and meter whats taken out, and note the difference. Remote locations will have high LLFs, as a significant amount of power is lost in transmission (also theft).

In a remote location, a high LLF will mean a high standing charge. Initially we were quoted £186 PER DAY. Now its down to £55 a day, because we had to remind them it was now LV not HV. No, they had not even made that change in their database. Anyway, this is irrelevant, because the whole idea of a LLF affecting a STANDING charge is nuts. I don’t care if 50% of the power on that line is wasted, thats fine, bill me PER UNIT OF POWER 50% higher, I understand. And also…I don’t care because I’ll be importing a trivial, trivial amount of power… but thats not how the UK energy pricing system works. Its for some boneheaded, stupid, illogical and insane reason being placed as a lump sum on the standing charge.

This is beyond stupid. If the LLF is 50% (stupidly high example), and I place an aluminum smelting plant in the Scottish highlands, then I will laugh at your £50/day charge as I demand 10MWH of power every day and you have to stick 20MWH on the line for me to get it. As a large, wasteful, remote high energy consumer, I laugh all the way to the bank. But a tiny, energy efficient company in exactly the same location will pay between 50 and 100x as much for their energy as they should. Absolutely bonkers, insane crazy nonsense. And nobody in the industry gives a damn, or shows any enthusiasm to change it.

Welcome to reason #349 why your UK energy bills are so high, but you can expect the daily mail to blame it on wind turbines or something…

Anyway… there is progress. Its super slow, and unbelievably frustrating and is driving me mad, but there is small progress. One day when all this is done I will celebrate by drinking so much alcohol and eating so many cakes I pass out.