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

Its not just you that feels demotivated.

There is a bit of a misconception among people who are struggling to get ahead in any industry, that all of the people they look up to, and see as a success, and who have in some way or another, by some metric ‘made it’, live their lives 100% of the time like this:


(I just googled for ‘TED speaker’. Apparently that guy is a ‘renowned leadership expert‘.).

Anyway, thats bollocks. And its also slightly destructive bollocks because it can be harmful to your motivation, your ambition, and your belief in yourself. Here is a little secret that people who have ‘made it’ don’t often admit… (I am putting myself rather embarrassingly in that slot, because I have a life which by a lot of peoples metrics is very good, no boss, comfortable income, blah blah. This isn’t generally how I describe myself…)

We have really really bad days too. Sometimes lots of them. Sometimes they are really bad.

I do not leap out of bed each morning and jump into my office chair and start coding flawless neural networks with one hand whilst dealing on the stock-market and making a fortune with the other. In fact this only happens about half of the time. In fact, most of the code I write has bugs and is broken and slow the first time I write it. A LOT of my code gets thrown away. A lot of my ideas get thrown away.  My current prototype project folder that I’m creating my potential next game in, is called ‘Research Cats’. Its not about cats, and its not about research. I ditched both ideas. Nor is any of the three other ‘really cool ideas’ I had, which I have also thrown away. Nor does the current game even look like it did two months ago. (It was a side-scroller then, its isometric now).

Plus my path-finding code is currently getting stuck under certain circumstances. My coder art looks HORRIBLE. I am not even sure this is a good idea for a game, and it may be a total waste of time and money.

The last game I coded and released made *some* money, but not that much. Certainly not a hit. The game before that was a HUGE hit, but every day I code I worry that maybe I just got lucky with that one, maybe I have no actual ability whatsoever, and was in the right place at the right time. Maybe I’m an idiot to not code in java or use unity. I could be wasting the next year of my life on a game that will *lose* money, plus I’m investing in three other games, all of which could potentially lose me money. Plus all the savings that I have are in investments that could go badly wrong. That iron-pellet factory in the Ukraine now looks like a dreadful investment, and the last tech company I invested in was actually in the news headlines for technical failures that wiped out 50% of its stock value.


I have mood swings that are so rapid and variable that I’m basically impossible to work with, and I’m such a workaholic I sometimes think I have ‘no idea’ how to ‘have fun’. I could talk for hours about my various fears for the future.

Now the thing is, *you don’t see that*, because like anyone who is selling something, I put forward an ‘image’ of super-confidence, success, motivation and ambition. Nobody wants to hear someone whining all day about how things are going wrong. We want inspiration, and we want to look up to people. Thats perfectly understandable. The trick is to realize when we are going too far, and expecting to live up to an idealistic vision of how people should feel/look/behave. Women have endured this for ages with the looks of airbrushed supermodels being demanded of them. Men get similar pressures in other ways (You MUST have a job, you MUST have muscles, full head of hair, fast car blah blah). What I’m saying is the same thing happens in business.

samething(There is actually no difference between these)

When you look at a successful developer, or indie game studio owner, you are seeing the vogue cover-model image of them. All the failure, the doubt, the stupid decisions, the drunken sobbing at 3am about how they are wasting their life… thats all kept from view. In short, we all fuck up, we all get it wrong, we all get demotivated and miserable, and wonder if we are doing the right thing. Or hopefully we all do, because if its just me, I am so fucked :D. So anyway, on your off-days, hang in there. That person you think has all the answers is probably having one too.



Games industry Return on Investment

I was chatting recently to some other devs, and the topic of ‘return on investment’ and more relevantly, the time to recoup the initial investment came up. It occurred to me that the attitude that indie devs have to these values are very interesting, and often completely fucking mad.

Just to clarify how I’m thinking about these terms. Lets say you spend $200,000 to make your game, and after a year from when you commit that money, you have earned $220,000. The game then explodes and can never be sold again. You made a return-on investment, of 10% by getting that extra $20,000 back. That assumes you paid out the whole 200k on day 1, and had no access to any of that money.

If the game went on sale on day 1, and you get $200,000 back on day thirty, I’m saying the time to recoup your money there is one month, but note this is a ‘totally different thing to look at’. I think this is widely misunderstood. For example, one game may cost $200k, earn $50k a year and sell for a decade. Its time to recoup investment is a depressing 4 years, but in total you made $300k profit, and a ROI of 150% which is good. That is, however over ten years, so not as good as it sounds… Game two may cost the same $200k, make $300k in the first week, and then never sell a copy ever again. Thats a really quick and awesome profit, but in the long run…I’d prefer game one thanks… :D


This is what makes looking at steam spy a bit problematic. What you really need in there is a ‘average income per day’ which for obvious bundling/price reasons is entirely inaccurate too, but at least it allows you to make vaguely sensible comparisons over time.

One of the reasons its important to keep these distinction is mind is that often the strategy that gives you the most immediately pleasing result may be in your worst interest. If we go back to our hypothetical $200k game again, and imagine the decision process when it comes to launch discounts or pricing… Arguably game one was priced too high, it didn’t sell that well, didn’t get into the charts, it bumbled along as a failure. for THREE YEARS after that game shipped, you have to admit to your parents each Christmas that no..the game has still made a loss…


Meanwhile game two sold like gangbusters on the first day. WOOHOO! it was maybe a bit under-priced…but who cares. It made its money back and then some profit in a WEEK! OMG riches await, order a ferrari… Except, we may have priced it hilariously too low. Literally everyone even vaguely interested in the game now has it, and paid $1 for it. In the long run, despite us enjoying a smug Christmas meal this year…we will eventually find ourselves at a bus stop in the rain when game developer #1 roars past us in his Ferrari bought in year eight.

Ok, so is this a real issue? and do people make this mistake? I think it is, and they do. A lot of new indie developers are YOUNG. Its just pure maths. to an eighteen year old, the idea of earning money over a ten year period is kinda unappealing, thats like 55% of your whole life AGAIN. To someone who is 45, 10 years is just 22%. I can handle that. In other words, if I’m older than you, I am probably better at thinking longer term.

This whole topic came up because it occurred to me that breaking even in a month on an indie game is seen as ‘average’, which is insane. When you invest in a solar farm or wind farm, you are looking at breaking even within five to eight years. Five years would be AWESOME. Games have a long tail, and its sensible to think of them as long term investments, not one-night stands.

Thoughts on Ethical Capitalism

Heres an unusual post from me. Warning: politics ahead…

I am starting to worry about just how mad some of the wealthy elite in society have become. Maybe as a geek, I am slightly more attracted to rationality than most, and I certainly agonize insanely over every decision I make regarding spending my own money. Maybe I take it too seriously, or have too much time to think about implications, and over-analyze peoples purchasing decisions… But here comes a bit of a rant.

Some, and I have to stress with enormous underlining and boldness here to say SOME of the super-rich are acting like dicks on an unprecedented level. I think we can sum it up with stuff like this:


That’s a Chanel “Diamond Forever” Handbag and it can be yours for just $261,000. A bargain! This, to me is partly the sign of the end of times. Now generally speaking, I am one to say that if you work hard, take risks, have talents and abilities, and you leverage all that to make a lot of money, then good luck to you. Thats awesome. (I am *much less* of a fan of people who are simply handed a bucket of cash by their parents…but thats another rant…). People who know me well, would not describe as a socialist, or a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I am not someone who supports what is sometimes called the politics of envy, and I am not someone who feels that my life is worse because me neighbor earns more than me. I have even read a few chapters of an Ayn Rand book. (in my defense, I’ve also read the communist manifesto, I try to keep my mind as open as possible). I say all of this not to make the internet hate me, but to give the rest of this blog post some context…

If you have a spare $261,000, and the ONLY use for it you can imagine is to buy a handbag that frankly, looks like its $19.95 from some high-street store, then you have lost all sense of perspective. You have lost all touch with reality, and you need to come back down to earth as soon as possible. You clearly have NO IDEA what that amount of money means to people who are worse off than you, and you need to think about what the hell you are doing.

I think earning money is great, but money is not just a magic ticket that lets you buy cool stuff, I think its much more important than that. How you spend you money makes a difference. When you are on average income, there is little ‘discretionary spending’ and thus you have little influence in the marketplace, but as your income rises your ‘consumer & economic power’ rises along with it. To quote a common phrase ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. or a more interesting quote, from an Iain M Banks book: “Money is power, Money is influence, Money is effect”.

I’ve been reading a book by Henry Ford, and he seemed to believe this too, and saw the purpose of business was to maximize the efficiency of production so that the benefits of technological progress could be brought to the common man. In his world, earning profit from a business was not the objective, this was merely the system by which the business was able to re-invest and further drive down the price of its products for the benefit of all. A worthy attitude, in my opinion, and one that has been lost.


Another businessman I’ve read books by is Warren Buffet, who always asserts that if a business has no idea what to do with its surplus cash, it should give it back to its investors by means of dividends. In other words, companies hoarding cash and just sitting on it are being dicks. And the same is true with people.

Apple currently has cash reserves of $203 billion. They don’t know what to invest it in (otherwise they would be spending it), and they weirdly refuse to pay it out as dividends, and even more annoyingly, they want to keep it in tax havens to avoid paying tax. This infuriates me not only as a taxpayer and citizen, but as a ‘fellow corporate citizen’. To be exceedingly British about it, this strikes me as ‘impolite’.

Too many big businesses seem to be managed these days by people who act like extremely immature individuals. Regardless of age, they seem to be competing for the sake of it, wanting to ‘win’ by having the biggest profits and biggest market share or market capitalization. They may even compete on who has the biggest yacht, or salary. Frankly, I don’t care, its fine, if thats what drives people who are ultra-successful to keep working, then so be it, but they have forgotten the responsibilities of controlling such vast wealth, and on a tens-of-billions of dollars level, they are behaving as madly as the people buying $261,000 handbags.

Now maybe I am a huge hypocrite, as I recently ordered a geeky sports-car (lets not pretend it isn’t one) that cost a relatively big pile of cash. Maybe that hunger for new cool glitzy stuff just never goes away, and I’ll read this in ten years time in my gold plated office and laugh at my innocence. I sincerely hope not.


The thing is, I’m not suggesting that the rich should be taxed more (I don’t think they should, personally, although I understand the arguments in favor), nor do I think companies should be taxed more. Obviously I think tax avoidance should be made harder, but much more importantly than this (and in fact, I suspect HUGELY more effectively), we need to move as a society to a situation where people are more lauded for their accomplishments that their possessions or bank balance. Steve Jobs is massively lauded for creating a rich, powerful company, but we hear less about what Bill Gates did with his money (some incredibly good things, as it turns out). Politicians need to praise and support companies that act like decent corporate citizens, and we need more people starting businesses who have a heart and a soul as well as a desperate tiger-like desire to kill the opposition.

It also strikes me as just ‘bad business’. We all know a few things about apple: They make very cool phones and tablets, and they invented the ipod, and they are very hip, and a big company that makes lots of money. They are famous also for avoiding taxes, and making all their actual products in china in factories plagued by horror stories and suicides.


How much would it cost to fix the last sentence there? A billion dollars? I doubt it. Lets go crazy and say ten billion dollars. Or roughly 5% of the current available cash… It would be different in the company was barely making a profit, but come on…

I could never run a business that way. It just feels the wrong way to do it. How the hell did we get to this point? (and lets forget, its not just apple, such practices are commonplace).



Update on positechs school in Cameroon :D

Soo…if you read this blog a lot you may remember that positech is funding a school being built in Cameroon. I’ve just got an update on progress that I thought I’d share. I love hearing about this, I am so proud of it.

Anyway…originally we had one site for the school, but for various reasons that then shifted to a different site called Salle. To give you an idea of where this is, lets look at it in google earth:


So..yeah, not exactly urban. This is a great place to do something like this, because they just are not going to make an economic case for a country with Cameroons GDP to pay for a decent school there. Anyway…zooming out a bit…


So…it’s there. Progress on the school actually seems pretty darned good, although progress in camera phone quality in Cameroon seems to be less good :D Here are the pics:


So we have walls! Proper ones, made of brick, rather than wood, and built properly by proper builders, meaning this school is going to be a LOT better than the small wooden construction they had before. The timeline shows that plastering and flooring should be done this week painting by the end of the month, and the handover to the community by early November.

When its all finished the school will provide:

  • Construction of 3 classrooms and an office
  • Construction of a 3 compartment toilet block with hand washing facilities
  • Provision of 27 benches and
  • Provision 3 tables and 3 chairs

The previous school enrollment dropped from 72 to 52 children over a year, almost certainly due to the condition of the building, so this should fix that, and I suspect boost overall enrollment a lot, plus there should be a big boost to the children’s health from the improvement in the facilities.

I should get much better pics in a few months, as a representative from the charity is going there to take a look.

For anyone wondering, doing this costs roughly £18,000.

Is Indie PC gaming the next Mobile?

I try not to be *too* doom and gloom, but I’ve been keeping an eye on things, industry wise and lately a few things have darkened my mood. I’ve been ‘hearing reports’ about fellow indies new releases doing very badly, and a quick glance at some titles on steamspy seems to confirm those rumors. Because we are, in effect, just apes with keyboards, we are very vulnerable to following the crowd, and few indies who know *anything* about marketing will admit on twitter/blog/gamasutra that their game has flopped and they are looking for contract work unless they have completely given up hope.

I suspect a lot of indies are currently coasting on savings, sitting depressed and hitting F5 on the steam sales figures…


..hoping its all an error.

I don’t think it is.

Lots of people have speculated on the possible reasons for this, and they include the prevalence of easy-to-use tools like unity, and its asset store, the many tales of ‘teh indie riches‘, the opening up of steam with greenlight, and so on. These may all be contributing factors. There are also various theories on how to survive and thrive despite this going on, such as concentrating on owning a small niche, slimming down development costs, hedging your bets with multiple games, or just gritting your teeth and riding it out and hoping other people go bust before you do. Again, these may all be sensible strategies.

But what occurs to me today is not ‘is it bad?’ or ‘how do we make it through?’, but the slightly more ominous question of how ‘how bad can this really get?’. To quote silicon valley, is it ‘apple maps bad’?


Maybe it really is.

In a situation of perfect competition, prices drop until ‘normal’ profits are generated for the people supplying the product.  perfect competition doesn’t exist, but lets be honest, PC gaming is quite close. Almost anyone can make a game, almost anyone now can get it on steam, you can set whatever price you like and sell to the whole world. Thats pretty close. That also means that there is huge downward price pressure for commodity goods, such as generic shooters & platformers & clones of existing games. It also means that ultimately, all the games get made in China or India, where the cost of production is lowest. In theory, this means that developers in the US and Europe making indie games are kinda fucked. Why did you think outsourcing to china wouldnt work for PC games?

Lets forget for a moment the indies with established fan-bases, their own recognizable IP, or sufficient scale that they can throw around big marketing budgets, and lets look at the ‘new’ indies making their first game, maybe 2-3 people working on it. My question here, is how is the situation over the next few years for such a developer going to differ *in any way* from the situation with iphone apps?


Depressingly, I do not think it will. We have an overloaded media, who have neither the time, or the staff (thanks to everyone using adblock) to actually cover new games and tell us which ones are worth checking out. We have a ‘popular myth’ that you can make a game and become a millionaire overnight. We have almost no barriers to entry at all, and we have a marketplace based around deep discounting, sales and bundles that are driving prices through the floor. Oh…and lets not forget that there are AAA publishers with huge back-catalogs they can dump on app stores for pennies, despite them originally costing millions to make.

The popularity of free-to-play facebook games, and other web games show that its delusional to think that people gaming on a beige box are any less-likely to demand ‘free’ as the price, than those same people are on mobile. Just look at the money made by world of tanks, or DOTA or LoL. Free is the new price, whether you like it or not….in almost all cases. At the other end is Star Citizen and its associated craziness…

The big problem with that, from a small business POV, is that the ‘free’ marketplace does not scale *that easily* down to indie size. The popular F2P games tend to be rather large affairs, backed by hedge fund money and run by big publishers who may have a dozen or more such games in their portfolio, happily leveraging this scale to populate databases of customer behavior between games. Indies can’t do this. I can email Democracy 3 buyers and tell them about big pharma, but its small beer. Very small beer.

When I look around at games that seem to punch through all this and make mega-bucks even now, I struggle to see any new names there. Lots of names I already know, but who is new? Who is the latest PC indie millionaire? All the names of my mental list of indie success stories have been around 5 years or more. I have to conclude that the ‘smart money’ is not on making an indie PC games right now. A bit of a bummer, as I’m making one, partly outsourcing another, and funding two more. Yikes.

FWIW I think the ‘smart’ money is in renewable energy, electric cars and biotech.