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

“Attention marketing” is making us all look stupid.

I was watching a UK chat show last night on TV, with Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch on, and it struck me how ‘freaked out’ JD seemed at the way the crowd would whoop and holler at him, for seemingly doing very little. it was like he had suddenly realized how crazy fame was, and wondered what the hell was wrong with everyone. Fame sure is a weird thing. it always has been, and always will be. Am I wrong to think its getting *worse*?

Let me explain…

There is this buzzword out there called ‘attention marketing‘. Its basically a way to describe the way people and brands use social media to try and grab peoples attention, but I think its linkable to the phenomena of everyone seeing themselves as ‘a brand’ and the idea that attention is the new currency. Online, the chances of you earning any actual money are minimal, but if you can generate enough attention, then apparently that leads to fame and thus money in some nebulous way. It sure worked out for pewdiepie, and people who own amusing cats, or that woman who makes youtube tutorials about how to put on makeup.

And in a nutshell, the whole ‘makeup tutorial fame’ thing is about the pinnacle of what I’m writing about. After all, what does everyone want? ATTENTION. How do they get attention? well for women, there is some belief that makeup will get them attention, so what could be more ‘meta’ than getting attention for a ‘how to get attention’ video. And here I am, giving that whole concept much desired attention…


The trouble is, we as humans can’t cope with this in 2015. In 1800, getting attention was easy, and yet mild. You stood in the town square with a red hat on and said ‘listen to me!’ and everyone in the village listened. You were recognizable, its you! the red hat dude! hey, what is that you are saying?”

But in 2015 the village is the internet and its population is mind boggling. Not only that, but everyone in the crowd has realized that the dude with the red hat did very well out of his attention, so now everyone has red hats, and some people invented pointy hats. Then some dude realized he got more attention because he had impressive teeth, then everyone got impressive teeth. Then you needed an unusual name, because everyone was called ‘John’. And then before you know it, you have to be called Benedict Cumberbatch or PewDiePie or Yngwie ‘J’ Malmsteen. Be honest, list all the famous John Smiths you can think of. List all the famous Mark Johnsons. Show me the actual famous people who look and behave normally. I spend a non trivial part of my lfie worrying my teeth are not white enough, because they are the color of teeth, not bleached white foglamps which have become the norm. How did we get here?

These days you have to dress ridiculously, act outrageously and basically push the limits of decency/sanity/coherence before people will even glance in your direction and go ‘meh’. There are exceptions out there. I’ve never seen pop star ‘Adele’ do or wear anything especially nuts, but she is the exception in a land of Grace Jones and Lady GaGa and whoever else I am too old to know the names of. Not that this is a new phenomena in pop music. behold the Crazy World of Arthur Brown:

…anyway…My fear is that this is ‘leaking out’ from the world of popular entertainers into…everyone. It seems like you cannot play a game any more, you have to record yourself doing it, and upload it to youtube with your ‘hilarious’ commentary track over the top. You then need to beg your friends for hits on the video, and likes, even though you won’t get any because they are too busy doing exactly the same thing.


We have a generation of kids who think ATTENTION is what they need, even though its harder to get it now than it ever has been. Fame is considered desirable with no caveats, even though there should be many, not least the fact that failure and poverty are almost certainly the truthful outcome of desiring nothing but fame. This is a betrayal. It’s a betrayal of the young to teach them that they must aspire to something that few will achieve and is almost certainly fleeting and unsatisfactory in any case. I don’t have kids, but if I did, the LAST thing I’d want for them would be fame or attention. Success, sure, but success based on achievements and skills, and doing good work, and learning things, not just fame because you star in a tv show where other people watch you watch tv. (yes really, and it won a BAFTA.).

This desire to be noticed affects everything. David Starkey is famous, not as a historian, but as someone who gets angry in TV politics debates. Scientists on TV have to have quirky appearance or be good looking, and spend a lot of time being photographed on mountains wearing sunglasses. Whatever you do, try not to look ORDINARY. Look like an exaggerated scientist!, like these:


I’m pretty sure all three of those dudes are actually respected scientists in their own right, so why the desire to dress up like children’s TV characters? isn’t getting a phd and becoming a professor good enough any more?

I find myself now finding ‘outrageous’ people to be paradoxically boring. Every youtuber sounds the same because they are all trying to be zany. Every music video is the the same because they are all ‘shocking’. In the desperate bid to get noticed, everyone has become predicable, fake and ridiculous.

And yes..I get the irony here. I have a nickname that is this blogs domain name ( and there is a posed photo of me at the top. Somehow, long ago, I started a blog before it was too fashionable, and I am now better known for this blog than my actual games. This is kinda weird, and yes, I feel very strange when strangers know who I am. In my defense, in my photos I am not dressed up as a chicken and I don’t deliberately exaggerate my ‘personality’ to make myself more ‘interesting’. I never care what I wear when I go to industry ‘events’. In fact, I find it encouraging that an average looking forty-something dude from England with no real distinguishing features can still even be noticed. At least for now. If not, I’m hiring a twenty year old model to run Positech and naming him Zackslicer Thunderpants. He will wear a Fez and have a strong mexican accent. Wish me luck.

Indie game developers move on. Or they fail.

I’ve been asked if I am still working on Gratuitous Space Battles 2. And I am not. I’ve been accused of all sorts of stuff as a result. I wont repeat that here. What I want to talk about is the economics of this question, why people get angry, and why it makes sense that I am not working on Gratuitous Space Battles 2 right now.

First some facts. GSB2 started work around November 2013. It was released on the 16th April 2015. So the dev time was about 17 months.

Now the game was in beta for a while before release, with sales from my site, and is on sale also at GoG and the humble store, but most people wont have any idea how well it sells on any of those, so lets just look at the steam sales as reported by steam spy:

Owners 10,876. Assume average of 50% off maybe? so assume $10 a copy? so lets say it made $108,000 and add in another $50,000 from other sources. However steam take their cut so thats really only about $120,000. Actually thats a bit shy of the real figure, which is just over $150,000. So I guess some people (mostly kids) are screaming at me at this point for being a greedy scumbag and so on, because I am implying the game failed or I can’t afford to keep working on it.


The development & marketing cost for that game was $115,000. The *profit* so far is about $40,000. If I look at the hours I spent working on it, I earned about $12.74 per hour. That is assuming I stopped work on it when it shipped, even though I did not, and continued to add patches, fix bugs, add new features and polish existing ones for months after release. Something that made zero economic sense.

If you think $12.74 an hour is good for a software developer with more than twenty years experience you are flat out wrong. If you think that you can run a business in the UK earning £17,549 which is the sterling equivalent, you are flat out wrong.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 failed, partly because it was released into a sea of space strategy games that are so numerous I cannot possibly list them all. I still think its a darned good game and am very proud of the engine that was coded for it. I think it is superior in every way to the game that came before it. I’m sure it will continue to earn some money in the long run on steam, but not nearly enough to make it anything other than a relative flop.


And yet…people will still hurl abuse at me for moving on. Of course I am moving on, that is why I am still in business, and that is why I am able to pay the rent for the server on which this blog post resides. Some games are hits, some are flops. Almost all indie game studios have flops and it normally puts them out of business.  I am not asking for any sympathy, I do not want any, I am not blaming anyone but myself, and …oh for fucks sake, why even bother typing any further, as I know I will get nothing but abuse and vitriol for even posting this because many teenage gamers think that I should be working from now until my death bed to implement every possible idea, tweak, or change that they can imagine for the game because they paid $10 for it once.

That makes no economic sense, and when you harass and bully and scream at the devs of ‘your favorite games’ to do this, all you do is accelerate the date at which they go out of business and stop making games. If there is a way to turn off comments just on one post I’m going to do it here, but I expect abuse on twitter and so on anyway. Apparently thats what you have to put with for $$11.74 an hour in 2015.

FWIW positech overall is doing just fine, I’m developing a new game and publishing others. I am also personally fine, I just know many devs feel this way but are too scared to say so, I’m doing their venting for them :D


Battlefield 4 still *wins* at achievements

The battlefield 4 ‘meta’ game is a thing of beauty. You only really notice it when you start looking at Battlefront: Star Wars. I consider BF4 to be a standard I one day aspire to. Not in terms of the length of its grind to unlock, which is frankly nuts, but in terms of the wealth of stats, and the freedom you have in self defining your own metrics for success. Here is my Battlefield 4 main stats page.


There is SO Much stuff here, and every tab has additional data in excruciating detail   Its just awesome. What really makes it work for me are the multiple streams of data. I never care about my win/lose ration because I routinely swap sides to keep a game balanced (I hate one sided slugfests), but I can ignore that and focus on my unlocks, or my assignments, or awards, or maybe the leaderboards or kill/death ratio. It basically says ‘here is a whole bunch of cool stats, have fun with it all, and gives you a great gui and some shiny graphics to show off when you reach a milestone.

Basically, even the worst BF4 player in the universe has probably got a bunch of awards/icons/scores that they are proud of, and everyone’s style is different. This contrasts massively with the approach of far too many games which is “Game is done, throw in some achievements before launch and we are done.”

I’m as bad as the next guy. Democracy 3 has some pretty cool achievements (especially after the recent update), but thats all it has. There are not separate stats to measure stuff like the average crime rate over all your games, or per-country achievements or stats, or maybe the number of countries each situation has been achieved in, or your highest ever election victory…etc. There is a lot more scope for me to improve on stuff like that.

I’m working on my next game now (release date: errrr maybe next year?) and I’m already thinking I need to be aware of how cool this kind of thing is from a much earlier stage.

Look into my gorgeous eyes.

Self promotion is a weird thing. I remember that as a young teenager I was very very shy. I remained a bit like that right up until I started playing gigs in a heavy metal band. Its hard to pull off the meek shy thing when you want to be yngwie malmsteen. I once read that metal leads guitarists were basically a mashup of musicians and strippers. Presumably only in the area of arrogance, and maybe leather trousers. Anyway…

What being a guitarist taught me is that people in ‘showbiz’ are so pushy and full of themselves that even people with no ability act like they are gods. So if you have actually knuckled down and learned to play guitar well you had to be AT LEAST as arrogant as them. Its not something that sits easily with a naturally shy English guy, but I tried. Anyway, here I am twenty five years later running a company and realizing that the public face of that company (me) is generally represented by five year old photos of me holding knives, bows or cats, and he really should get someone to take proper photos like these…

Positech Games, Cliff Harris

Which is kinda cheesy and embarrassing and probably necessary all at once. At least I didn’t do that typical tech CEO bullshit thing of having some photographer lie on the floor and take a pic of me next to a skyscraper. I think I have a long way to go before I reach ‘candidate on the apprentice’ levels of deranged self-belief, so thats good.

My accountant (jeez that feels weird to type) recently said ‘as your business has grown to a considerable size’ in an email, and it made me stop and think and go ‘yeah, I guess it has’. You don’t get a marching band show up at your door when your sales reach a certain level, all you get is a bigger tax bill, so its easy not to notice this sort of thing going on.

Anyway. I have proper photos now. I still cringe a bit looking at them, but if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be British.

‘Shut up and take my money’ as a business strategy.

A few days ago I saw an article about Star Wars Battlefront, saying its out this week. With super-slow ADSL, I wanted to start preloading, so went and ordered it right away. I think it was £50. That is about $80. For a digital game. Thats not a season pass, all I get for that is just one game. And it’s $80. Did I mention the $80?


How can a company in 2015 justify $80 for a game (standard edition) when so many indies struggle to get $9.99 for theirs? The answer is a combination of ‘brands’ and ‘animal spirits’. Animal spirits is a term by an economist which describes how in many ways we can be irrational and illogical. Its often a term thrown around on the stock market to explain all the irrational buying and selling that goes on when the fundamentals of a stock have not changed. Its basically people thinking with their emotions, and we do it a LOT with brands. You can even see it in brain scans.

You see animal spirits at play with purchasing decisions most obviously with big brands. Half Life 3 is available for download right now. It’s $100. Add to basket? y/n?. of course you do, how could you not, its HALF LIFE THREE. The same is true for Star Wars Battlefront, Fallout 4, the next (inevitable) COD game, and so on. I bet a lot of people do not even look at the price, especially if the marketers can generate a ‘rush’ mentality like they do with concert tickets, where you do not DARE waste time asking if 1direction tickets should cost that much, you must BUY IT NOW.

We probably underestimate the extent to which this sort of behavior works, as a business strategy. Lets take the example of a product that costs $10 to make, and sells for $11. Thats great, we are in profit! (obv. its not a digital product in this example). If we can spend a STUPIDLY BIG amount of money on that product to make it a ‘must have’ then we can actually charge $20 for it. We haven’t multiplied the profit by a bit, but by 900%. Even if we are spending an insane $5 PER ITEM to market it, we are still making 400% the profit we used to make.

I think there may be a ‘tipping point’ where the steam discussions about ‘is it worth getting full price’ basically evaporate. Very few people will wait for Half life 3 to be in a sale, or a PWYW bundle. Ditto the other games listed above. The trick is to have the confidence in your product (and a good enough product to warrant it), to try and push your game into that area.


Now you probably think thats bullshit, and impossible for indies because we do not have anything close to the required scale. True, we cannot make our game as *generally* desirable as Battlefront or HL3, but can we make it desirable within its niche? Can you hype up, promote and generate buzz enough about your game within its niche so people are excited on launch day and MUST HAVE IT NOW? Big Pharma was very popular on release day, people really wanted it, and paid full price for it. It can be done.

I think a lot of us could do it. I think most of us (including me) wimp out, with our fingers hovering over the ‘buy advertising’ button thinking ‘Jesus what if this is a waste of time’. I would like to make Democracy 3:Africa and Shadowhand absolute ‘MUST BUY’ products on their release dates next year.  Lots of work ahead…