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

Lets gamify paying taxes, or get valve to collect them.

Its corporation tax payment day for me. Yay? Well maybe. I have the money set aside, because I’m not one of those frankly crazy people who forget to do that. How is that even possible? I’m a capitalist at heart, but not an extremist ‘taxation is theft’ kinda guy, but on the day I hand over a big pile of gold coins to the government each year it does amaze me how badly the whole process is handled.

From the governments POV, they have a problem, and that problem is that they want companies (and people) to pay tax, but they continue with the mindset that we all hate paying tax, and its something we do grudgingly, because we fear prosecution otherwise. Its also a process that is as leaky as a sieve. My company is registered in the UK, but it could easily be based in the Bahamas, with an employee (me) subcontracting from here. In short, the government s trying to persuade people to pay tax when we don’t want to, and can avoid doing so.


Now if you think about it, this problem is pretty similar to the problem of music/game/movie piracy. In short, we all know *someone* has to pay for these things, we know its easy to avoid paying. Paying makes us feel bad, how do we get people to overcome all that and pay anyway?

Well steam fixed a lot of that. They did it mostly by convenience, but also by massive gamification. If you pirate a game, its not on your steam profile. You don’t get achievements and trading cards and other such goodies. You are ‘outside’ the club. You don’t earn points towards…I dunno how it works…extra emoticons or whatever is involved. I don’t really get into that stuff. The point is…almost everyone does, and although I don’t get the steam version, I admit I am totally obsessed with my Battlefield 4 player stats.


By comparison the HMRC (Her Majesty’s revenue and customs, believe it or not), who we pay our taxes to, is a fucking amateur. Do you now what you get in return for paying your corporation tax? even if its a big phat sum? NOTHING. Sometimes you get a letter saying ‘we acknowledge receipt of your payment’. Thats it. I checked, and the word ‘thanks’ isn’t even on there. I get a ‘thanks’ when I buy a $1 game, but not if I hand over a pile of gold coins you could bury Smaug under.

Now sure, I know the tax pays for *good things*, and thats great, but why not remind me of this on pay-day? Why not send me a letter saying exactly how many nurses, doctors, police officers and so on I have helped to fund. Why not make the letter a nice glossy thing with a picture of smiling public servants, and a breakdown of government spending? Why not give me a fucking steam achievement, is what I’m basically saying!


The UK government has a ‘nudge’ department, the only half-dozen people in government who understand behavioral economics, but clearly HMRC won’t talk to them. I’ve paid my full whack of corporation tax, every year, without any off-shoring nonsense, any ‘non-dom‘ status or any attempts to game the system. You would think that would earn me a nice little badge I could put on my website to announce that Positech Games is a proud 1st class corporate citizen, but nope. Frankly you only know I’m not a tax-dodging scheming ‘predatory capitalist’ because I’m typing this and you believe it. I don’t care if a company considers itself an ‘investor in people’, but I would care if they were paying their tax or not.

Behavioral economics is a thing. Can someone explain basic psychology, behavioral science and sales techniques to the people we pay our taxes to?


Why buying advertising is so frustrating

You think you hate ads as a consumer? You should try actually being an advertiser, especially running a small business. It’s chaos. Lets run down the ways in which this theoretically efficient industry is so full of crap…

#1 Adwords. Adwords is great in so many ways, apart from the inability for your ‘adwords account manager’ to even convince you they have read the help files, let alone have any real idea how it works. Plus the GUI you got used to last week? we changed that. AGAIN. Plus, make sure you set aside 200 man-years of effort to work out how the hell it works. Oh..and ads have to wait to be ‘approved’. No time scale is given. Good luck running something last minute. Why is my ad not running? nobody knows. The complexity has basically rendered the system self-aware and confused.

#2 Adblock. Yup, you think you are cool running adblock, but all you are really doing is depriving the site of revenue and hastening the day when it closes. In some cases, they darned well deserve it. flashing, blinking ads of half naked women with sound deserve to die in a fire. I’d like to see ‘allow some non obtrusive advertising’ to be expanded greatly. Any simple image without animation, which is SFW, runs no scripts or active content and doesn’t obscure content should be allowed.

#3 Account Managers. The #1 worst thing. The whole concept is a mess. I’m busy. I want to book some ads now, on Saturday morning GMT. Whats that? your ad manager is on honeymoon? Oh great, I’ll keep my money then. Lets be honest, these people only exist to try and trick you into paying more. I want the same CPC and CPM as the next person please. I don’t want to star, unpaid, in a re-run of a monty python haggling sketch. I’m busy. I take your first offer as your best, then use someone cheaper because you lied. Thats easy.

#4 Being ignored. Hey guess what. Some indies make millions of dollars, sell more games than some ‘proper’ studios. If we email you asking you for your ad rates, because stupidly you are employing technique #3, then reply. Not next month. Now. You think we can’t afford your precious ad space? we will spend the money with your competitors. Dumbness. This attitude is why adwords makes billions.

#5 Lack of targeting. This isn’t rocket science. If you have a video games site and won’t let me target strategy gamers in the US, you lose. You are a failure. I don’t care how cool your site is, a 12 year old teen girl who loves pokemon is not the target for Democracy 3. Either learn how to code, or just use adwords. And while we are on the subject, decent reporting helps too please. And yup, your feeble attempts to auto-renew a weekly ad to con me into spending more are noticed too. Don’t even think about doing that.

#6 Overdoing it. If I advertise on a site, I always check out a few pages first. If its intrusive enough to make *me* turn on adblock, then no sale. I assume 95% of your ‘massive readership’ do the same. Get the balance right.

#7 Media kit. These are useless. So your audience is mostly male and loves games. Wow, such insight. I had no idea. Not to mention the fact that I don’t believe any of it. If you did, you’d assume the average household income of a gamer is $1,000,000 a year and they have plans to buy 500 PC games this week. People really believe this stuff? Your media kit should contain your targeting options and your CPC/CPM and CTR, plus ad specs. Nobody cares about the fancy art design your graphic designers wrap the useless information in.

I’ve read a shedload of advertising books. It’s a hobby. I conclude that not only are many people working in the ad business awful, awful businesspeople (not bad people, but just not good at running a business), but they actually have no idea how ads work. No idea. NONE. Neither do most people. If I worked in an industry, I’d try to at least be familiar with the latest research on how that industry’s products actually worked, but nope, not a flicker. BAH.




Gaming deserves neither tax breaks, or arts funding

Yeah…nobody will agree, but sod it, here is my argument. Talk me round, tell me I’m wrong, I’m always interested in having my mind changed.

When I read about demands for tax breaks for the games industry, or more arts funding for the games industry I cringe, and I find it totally embarrassing. I wish people would not do this, and I feel bad when they do, and when such things happen. I think its actually not only a bad idea, but I genuinely believe this to be morally and ethically *wrong*. Here is my argument:

I love games, I think games are great. I love the games industry. I think both are a force for good in the world. If more people could make games and play games, I’d be happier. I think thats a pretty widespread view amongst readers of this blog. The problem is… I think government money should be spent on more deserving causes. As someone who studies politics a lot (no surprise given that i made this game), it interests me that the argument that the industry should have both tax breaks and arts funding generally comes from the left of the political spectrum. I find this slightly odd. In some respects, its understandable, as the left is generally pro-state-spending, and you can see the argument that the right opposes all government spending and the left wants to spend more, so its natural that the left hold this position but I find it strange because of the opportunity cost.

To put it another way, every government penny that gets spent on lower taxes for game developers, or on funding to make games, is a penny not spent on something else. Here is the UK, there is much debate about the huge rise in the use of food banks, and the reductions in benefit payments. Can we really make an argument that when the government cuts benefits that it should still ring-fence money to provide for game developers?


I often think that tech-savvy games people live in a bit of a bubble. I found the whole idea of ‘giving the poorest children in Africa laptops’ a bit ‘let them eat cake’. There are many problems in the world far more basic than access to portable IT. Education, decent roads, clean water, safe and cheap energy to name a few. I think the problem is that many well-meaning people who campaign for such things can only empathize with people ‘not having decent computers’, never with ‘actually hungry or in need of clean water’, because its just not in their experience.

If you gave me a hundred million dollars on condition I gave it away, I would not use a single penny of it to fund a non commercial indie game. Not one. This is because its very very far down on the list of prioritizes as I see it.

(You might think this makes me a hypocrite, because I invest in other games being made, but thats a commercial enterprise, not charity. The money earned from any games Positech makes gets taxed (and unlike most companies we absolutely 100% pay our taxes by the letter AND the spirit of the law), and hopefully spent to do good things. If I knew how to run a business that did something more worthy, I’d do it instead, but sadly it seems the thing I’m best at is this.)

If I was Prime Minister, and you insisted that I spend a hundred million pounds, it could not go to charity and had to be spent in the UK, then I’d probably spend it on a combination of Green Energy projects and Education grants for people from poor backgrounds. In some ways this looks again like hypocrisy, I’ll subsidize green energy, but not games? why? Mostly because the threat of >2 degree warming for the climate is potentially devastating, and the people who will be hurt first, and hardest are the poorest. Even if we took away every single game development job in the country, nobody is actually going to die. Its a matter of priorities.

This isn’t restricted to games though, I’m not ‘anti-games’ in some weird way. I’m against any major distortion in markets created by government which claims to be done for the ‘cultural good’. Although I think the people who back such moves are well-meaning and nice people, I think the outcomes are warped. One of the main reasons for this is I have become (in my forties) exactly the sort of person who benefits from this activity, and I see it as hugely unjustified, not to mention not needed.

In 2010, the London Royal Opera House received a government subsidy of just over £27m. Thats roughly $40,000,000. The royal opera house is not a food bank. Here is a picture:


Sadly I can’t find up to date figures for the subsidy but I doubt they are any lower. By the way, if you want a ticket for tonight a brief check shows they range from £147-£184. (They make a huge play of the tiny number of ‘cheap tickets’, which was a concession to justify the subsidy). The idea that a country that has food banks subsidizes people like me to go watch Don Giovanni is just staggering, and frankly, quite disgusting.

Now you might make the argument that opera is valuable and enriches the spirit and soul of the people, and thus must be subsidized….yeah maybe, but how about we wait until everyone is warm, educated and not hungry first? And lets see if that argument plays well in the queue at a food bank, or if it plays well with homeless people? I suspect not.

Now obviously if you disagree with me, by this point you are fuming that I’m equating the excesses of the royal opera house with funding indie games or giving tax breaks to games companies. But I am going to go ahead and tell you they are the same thing. they are the ‘great and the good’ clamoring for public money (in other words, taxpayers money) to pay for something that they enjoy because….. they think its great.

This, to me, is undemocratic. Deeply. We have a way of deciding what entertainment people prefer, and its the free market. More people listen to Gangnam Style than go to the opera because that is what they prefer. The idea that the great unwashed masses would love opera if only they could afford it is bollocks. If it were true, TV shows about opera would be ratings-busters. If it was true that what people really wanted in games were experimental arty games, then those would be top sellers. There are plenty of such games available. I believe it is morally wrong to not only tell people what they ‘should’ like, but also to tax them to subsidize things they clearly do not want. This is definitely the case with such luxuries and frivolities as entertainment.


Now I *know* that other countries subsidize games, and we have to compete, and thats the only argument I currently grudgingly accept, but I’d rather we lobbied to have others subsidies removed than add some of our own. The idea that there is a government department deciding which video games get funding is incredibly distasteful to me, and it should concern you too.

So yeah…I’m pretty opposed to arts subsidies for anything. If you want to spend your time as an experimental street-art troupe that depicts 1920s Romanian family issues, then thats great. Go for it, but don’t think I’ll applaud my tax money going to subsidize that. And if you want to make an experimental game with no interest in commercial appeal, then that sounds like a great hobby project, but again, don’t expect my tax money to subsidize that either.

Am I wrong? And if I am, argue me round. Don’t tell me I’m a fascist or an idiot. My politics are very complex, and not hard left or right. I think about these issues all the time, this isn’t an opinion I’ve picked off the internet :D.


New projects coming…

So I’ve signed on the dotted line for a new publishing thing, and am close to signing another one. That means that positech will this year have shipped Gratuitous Space Battles 2, and Big Pharma (as publisher) and will possibly ship another 2 smaller titles before the end of the year. Awesome.

I *may* get around to starting work on some new IP myself too. I might just fiddle around improving and tweaking GSB2 for the next six months. I’ll certainly be doing that for at least two more months anyway.

And I also have a little side-thing that I’m excited about, but nothing has happened yet, so I don’t want to announce it before I’m sure it actually will…

Also, hilariously this is supposed to be my ‘calm’ year where I chill out a bit and work out how to relax. So far I’m not doing that well, but then I had a tooth extracted this morning and am in agony, so maybe that’s not the best time to assess my relaxing skillz. From tomorrow onwards I’ll be gently easing back into the work I’m doing on adding linear campaigns to GSB2, then I plan on doing some extra feature support to the ship customization.

Where did the relaxed online worlds go?

When I was very very young, i remember reading some dead-tree magazine talking about online ‘chatrooms’ where people played a role playing game like dungeons and dragons. Its was probably a role-play chat room where people dialed in with their modems. It sounded amazing.

Imagine a whole alternate world where you could be a wizard! a space captain! a ferengi. A completely different existence free of the worries, stresses, concerns and hassles of the real world. Even as a kid I thought it sounded awesome. As I grew up, I found the idea even more appealing. Imagine a world with no boss, where you hang out in a space bar with aliens drinking weird space cocktails and talking about space stuff. No boss, no TPS reports, no income tax, just existing like a giant shared dream.

And then along came MMOs like everquest and killed my dreams.

Te way I imagined these online worlds were pure sandbox. No quests, no missions, no score, no rank, none of the status-chasing and accumulation targets of the modern world. I wanted an online bar. I wanted to be Quark, or morn…


One day I thought I may even get my wish when they did a star trek MMO. it was AWFUL. They were so scared, so paranoid, so terrified that the attention-deficit generation wouldn’t love the game, that the VERY FIRST few minutes of the (hugely goal-driven game) involve an attack by multiple borg cubes. Talk about skipping to the end. This was existing in another life, another world, another place I could call home, this was just a multiplayer LAN style game full of people shouting at each other to join quests. Amazingly, considering it involved real people, the average modern day MMO is LESS human than a singleplayer game. In a singleplayer game there is some voice acting and some interaction with the player. An MMO is a series of bland NPC quest-vending machines stood repeating the same offer like a speak-your-weight machine crossed with spam email.


The standard reaction to my kind of sadness about the state of MMOs is to point out that you have to play with people you know. To me, this misses the point. If there is a group of people I know, and can arrange to do something at the same time as me, I’ll go meet them for a drink or grab some food in the real world. The idea for me of an online existence is to meet new people, to chill out, to maybe explore the world a bit, but to feel no pressure. But this is impossible. I’m only Level 322 and everyone else is level 892, and the cool hats are only available at level 500+ unless you buy one on the market with 23,000 AddictionBucks.

The nearest thing we have to mazes full of human test subjects are MMO games. They are skinner boxes where not only are we all experimented on to extract more and more money from us, but we actually pay someone for the honor of being a test subject. I feel more ‘attacked’ and pressured in a F2P MMO or most MMOs than I do in the real world.

This is backwards.

Star Wars Galaxies (when it first came out) was as close as I got to that Zen State. I was a wookie, I didn’t join clans or go on quests. I knew a few people playing but not many. I spent a lot of time on Tatooine crafting stuff, building up my little hovel with its moisture vaporators. It was fun. I’d go into town now and then to sell stuff, trade a little, see what was going on. It was kinda relaxing.

Where is the MO for relaxed people who don’t want to grind. Is there ANY MMO that doesn’t have scores/ranks/missions? Maybe just Second Life? Is it not really built yet, because game makers don’t realize a lot of us are 30 or 40+ and have jobs and want to chill-out, not get into another rat-race?