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

Server Downtime

The GSB server, and my website will be down at some point tomorrow for about 30 minutes as physical server moves take place. You can still play GSB then, but not download or upload challenges, rate them or anything similar. The forums will also be offline for that period.

Unavoidable really, unelss you use fancy cloud stuff, and although amazon and google are gerat, I like hosting companies that answer the phone when things go bad. Google aren’t big on that.

Campaign AI stuff

I am working on the various chunks of code that determine the strength of AI opponents in the GSB campaign game (currently being developed). The game takes existing challenge fleets, as well as other players campaign-fleets to use as the enemy, in massively-singleplayer style. However, it needs to select an appropriate fleet, in terms of strength, to fight against you, either as a defending fleet when you attack, or an attack on one of your systems.

The simplest method is just to assign a fleet size value to each planet, and let that be the strength there. Simple, but dumb, because nothing prevents the player sitting back and building up a larger fleet. A refinement would be to gradually ramp up a scalar for the enemy fleet sizes over the game, but that would mean it could spiral into insane difficulty, and doesn’t allow for different skill levels.

A system I’m working on is a ‘reactive-arms-race’ style approach. The nearby enemy worlds have their fixed starting values of fleet strength. When battle is joined, the Ai will start to build up larger fleets in nearby systems when it loses, and not bother if it wins. There will be some lag here, to represent building times.

The idea is that once you think you have a slight fleet-size advantage, you need to get all expansionist and start conquering, before the enemy realsies how mighty your fleets are, and builds it’s own countermeasures. If you just sit back and build up, the enemy will be doing the same. I may introduce an additional ‘anti-turtling’ scalar that starts ramping the enemy fleets up even faster if you have gone a long period without expanding your empire.

All this takes ages to code and test, and you never notice it’s effects on the surface. It is important to get this stuff right though (more important than adding more shiny or features) because it’s what drives long term playability.

Known unknowns

Lots of people mocked Rumsfeld for his classic ‘known unknowns’ and ‘things we don’t know we don’t know’ speech. It was an easy target, but it’s also an interesting topic. Although in theory, the older I get, the more I know, in fact I think the older I get, the more I know I don’t know.

My politics changed a lot between ages 18-30. When I was 18, like most 18 year olds, I could put the world to rights and know I was definitely correct. I was totally wrong, and I just didn’t know it. Now, I have different political views, but I know enough to know I’m not sure I’m right.

It’s not different with my job. Ok, I rant about me knowing more about customer interaction than big companies, and I’m pretty confident there, especially after this, but that whole episode just went to show that what I thought I knew about piracy (all pirates are cheapskates) was just wrong. It is very very difficult to change your views on a topic you feel strongly about. The chances are, everyone reading this has some views that are not based on their objective evaluation of the situation, but views they got from their parents, their friends, from TV, religion,  from an experience as a child, from irrational fear or emotion.

I used to be very anti-fox hunting. I was bought up that way, as a city dwelling son of trade unionists, and never questioned it. I knew nothing about fox hunting, or the countryside, it was just the de-facto position for me. I became less and less fussed about it over the years (It’s now banned in the UK, at least the fox-killing aspect is). Very shortly after moving to the country, I actually saw (for the first time ever)  a bunch of people on a hunt (I think they just go through the motions now), and it is quite a spectacle. I can see why people feel its part of their culture, community and history. It gave me a different perspective, and one I really lacked. I’m not neccesarily pro-hunting now, but I am at least aware that my teenage views on it were colored by my surroundings and not the facts. I now know what I don’t know. Experience has actually made me less certain.

Here is a scary admission. When I started working at Elixir, I didn’t know how to use a debugger. I’d heard of them, but never known how they worked. I was gobsmacked that you could step through code and look at variables. Holy crap that looked really cool. And I had already shipped 4 games at that point (yes, they were damned hard to make). I was suffering from that classic problem of unknown unknowns. It’s not that I didn’t know how to step through code, I didn’t even know it was an option.

I’m still learning how to code, learning how to run a business, how to design games , how to balance games. I always will be. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s what keeps life interesting. Try to find out what it is you don’t know you don’t know :D

Epic opinions

I’ve mulled over whether to say anything at all, but if you can’t say what you think about the games industry when you own your own company, when can you?

I was part of a panel yesterday at Develop, the games conference for developers in Brighton UK. I was speaking about ‘microstudios’ with Robin Lacey(Beatnik), Sean Murray(Hello Games) and Mark Morris(Introversion), all of whom are good guys. As a one-man outfit, I’m the real baby studio there, but at 13 years of experience, also the grandfather, so I guess that makes me middle aged. Anyway… all was cool, and there was much joking and mutual silliness. Apparently I am the Barry Manilow of game development, and a mug to spend £75 on jeans. And the topic then came up of how indies can respond directly to gamers on stuff like messageboards. Basically I started making the point, and mark was also agreeing about how someone can email you as an indie dev, and you can reply personally back to that potential customer, and hopefully, that way you have converted that guy to buying the game.

At this point, there was this derisive snort from this guy in the front row, who said something to the effect of ‘one guy? who cares, that’s a waste of time’. He then started to lecture us on how that’s a silly way to do it.  I’m 95% sure that all four of us on the panel thought ‘what the fuck?’ as well as ‘who is this guy’? compounded by Robin asking him if he worked in marketing.

Anyway… it turned out this guy was Mark Rein from Epic, although he seemed to assume everyone within earshot knew exactly who he was, and why he must obviously be right. I got the impression he was there to laugh at the little guys, or to just inform us how we are all wrong. Interestingly, it seemed there was someone from sports interactive (one time indies, as I recall) there, who seemed more on the indie wavelength than Mark. It would have been cool to chat with him.

So… I’ve given this a lot of thought, and weighed up the pros and cons of just putting this down to misinterpreting someone, and so on, and I have reached this conclusion.

Mark Rein is a jerk.

Now I suspect this is not groundbreaking news, although it is to me, because I’ve never met him or even seen him before. However, this experience seems to confirm my opinions on Epic and companies like them in general. Now Mark may well look down on humble indies like me. He may well think I’m doing it wrong. he may laugh when me and Mark discuss the pitiful money our companies make, and giggle at the fact that we reply to gamers on a one-on-one basis… But fuck him. I would rather earn minimum wage making indie strategy games for the PC, as my own boss, with an original game, satisfying a hardcore niche of friendly customers (the one-thousand-true-fans-philosophy), without a publisher telling me what to do, and without having to leave my house to go to work, without having to do ‘crunch time’ (because, dude… its like so macho to work until 3AM and never see your family)… Than I would work at epic for megabucks. The sheer overwhelming stench of testosterone would probably give me a headcahe, combined with the dizzy excitement of exactly what shade of grey our next game’s space-marine would wear as he kicked alien butt. (I feel bad working on Gratuitous Space Battles for almost 2 years, but it seems like that old ‘wisecracking space marine with big muscles and chisel-jaw’ idea has been stretched out longer than the hundred years war).

I have absolutely no doubt mark would just naturally assume me feeling like that is jealousy, which, as anyone who knows me personally would testify, is just fucking funny. I really don’t care about Epic, and their games, as they are way way too macho and ‘dude’ for my liking, and don’t have demos, so I just assume they haven’t changed since Unreal Tournament. I try not to comment on games I don’t like, as each to their own tastes etc.  The only reason I’m moved to give a damn enough to state my opinion, is that I resent having some triple-a studio jerk come and tell someone whose run a microstudio for thirteen years that he is doing it all wrong. If Mark from introversion suggests I’m doing it wrong, thats cool, he does what I do, and has some serious experience, ditto anyone on that panel, or anyone with long indie experience. And I listen carefully, often over lunch.

But Triple-A studio bosses trying to lecture me on how to communicate better with gamers? Fuck off.

Cliff Harris (

When adsense isn’t worth it

I was reading an article on a games blog recently, and noticed our ever-present strobing friend, the ‘evony’ ad.* Apart from the ubiquity of the ad, and my lack of interest in ‘saving my queen’, what I really noticed was the prescence of a google ad on such a low traffic blog.

I can see how a lot of people would think it makes sense for people to stick small google adsense (or similar) ads on their blog, or maybe even their indie developers website to ‘bring in some cash’. I think it’s a bad idea. (I am selling stuff too, and need money, but ads on a site can be a step too far. My games are here, feel free to buy one to support my blog, I won’t mind :D)

There is a tradeoff happening here. You are basically giving up a bit of your creation (in this case, screen-space on your website) in return for some revenue. I think a lot of people get the calculations dead wrong.

Does your site get 10,000 page-views a month? That’s a ‘not bad’ amount of traffic for someone who is actively trying to build a web business (although positech gets more :D). If all of those 10k impressions result in an ad view, then that’s 10 CPM, as the hip-cats say online. How much is a CPM costing an advertiser?

I actually pay about £0.20 for a thousand impressions when I buy ads. So assuming you get that, and google takes 70%, you get £1.40 a month in ad revenue, or not enough to buy a coffee. If you are not based in the US, currency conversion swallows the first 6 months income.

Is it worth it? I reckon not. The point of my rant, is not to say that it isn’t worth it for people running those ads, it may well be worth it. You might get more than 70%, or a higher CPM, or way more traffic. But have you done the math? Is that banner ad on your website actually making any vague economic sense?  The big name popular, succesful and much loved games studios don’t stick an adsense banner on their site, and it just reminds people that you aren’t in the same league when you do it. If you can make the numbers make sense, then fine, but it really is worth checking the numbers.

* I know about adblock, but I tend to leave it off. Some websites really do run purely from ad revenue, and I’m happy to support that, unless it’s entirely overdone.