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

Looking back on 2015

So how was 2015 for Positech Games and err…me? Well it was pretty busy I guess… Lets see…

I released Gratuitous Space Battles 2 to thunderous indifference, although enough sales to justify making it. I didn’t have the ‘best’ launch ever, and launched it amid so many space strategy game releases I cannot even count them all, which was extremely bad timing. Nevertheless, I enjoyed making it, and I’m very proud of the engine I built for it.


We published ‘Big Pharma‘, our second published game, and that was a bit of an indie hit. It proved to me that publishing games by a very select few other indie devs was something I enjoy and makes sense for me to do. Champagne all-round!


I bought a very silly toy.


I then bought an even more silly toy.

CWhjB48WoAEEqOR.jpg large

I made the decision to publish shadowhand, a very interesting ‘card battling’ game, which is outside my normal genre, but I think has huge potential. So thats kept me busy.


I also decided to publish another game that I have not publicly announced yet…

Positech also started work, together with Jeff From stargazy on Democracy 3:Africa, which I’m very excited about.


Positech also funded the construction of a school in Cameroon.


Thats enough for one year surely? I’m taking next week off :D.

They gamified my sausages, and I love it.

Gamification. Either a word that fills you with dread, or with I guess…maybe…love? Probably not, but actually I love it. I find that some things, such as steam trading cards and emoticons just pass me buy. Why do I care what ‘badges’ I have crafted on steam? I mean seriously…why? But then other stuff I get obsessed with. I quite like achievements, but I REALLY like scores and leader-boards and stats. Overall, I like gamification.

I think I have one of those brains that is just hard wired to stats and numbers and evaluating things that way, even non-numbery things. I am not autistic, but I exist somewhere on that spectrum, I suspect. I even made a game that reduces relationships between people to numbers. It was used to teach social skills to autistic kids, as well as being fun.


So its no surprise that I actually quite like it when things in my life get gamified. My local cafe/pub/farm-shop has a ‘reward cards’ system where you get 10% of your spend stored as points you can redeem. They have had this for months. Every sausage or coffee or glass of wine I’ve had there has been racking up points…more points…more points.

Someone less mad than me recently persuaded me to spend those points when ordering Christmas stuff. So I did. And it was SO WEIRD. I actually felt a small sense of ‘loss’ spending my points. And then, I suddenly realized there was a DOUBLE sense of loss, because not only did I just *reduce* my points balance, but I actually spent ‘money’ there and did not gain new points. Double the blow! Don’t get me wrong, I dealt with it. I wasn’t all…


But it *is* interesting. I wonder if people get a lot MORE affected by this. How many people have >$1,000 stored on some loyalty card that they can’t bare to spend?



Hi, I’m from the games industry. Governments, please stop us.

This may not be popular, but its how I feel. First, some background and disclaimers. I run a small games company making games for the PC, strategy games with an up front payment. We don’t make ‘free to play’ games or have micro transactions. Also, I’m pretty much a capitalist. I am not a big fan of government regulation in general. I am a ‘get rid of red tape’ kind of guy. I actually oppose tax breaks for game development. I am not a friend of regulation. But nevertheless.

I awake this morning to read about this:


Some background: Star Citizen is a space game. Its being made by someone who made space games years ago, and they ‘crowd-funded’ the money to make this one. The game is way behind schedule, and is of course, not finished yet. They just passed $100,000,000 in money raised. They can do this because individual ships in the game are for sale, even though you bought the game.  I guess at this point we could just say ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’, but yet we do not do this with gambling addiction. In fact we some countries have extremely strict laws on gambling, precisely because they know addiction is a thing, and that people need to be saved from themselves.

Can spending money on games be a problem? Frankly yes, and its because games marketing and the science of advertising has changed beyond recognition from when games first appeared. Games ads have often been dubious, and tacky, but the problem is that now they are such a huge business, the stakes are higher, people are prepared to go further. On the fringes we have this crap:


But in the mainstream, even advertised in prime-time TV spots we have this crap:


And this stuff works. ‘Game of War’ makes a lot of money. That ad campaign cost them $40,000,000. (Source).  Expensive? not when you earn a million dollars A DAY: (Source).

Image2Now if you don’t play games, you might be thinking ‘so what? they must be good games, you are jealous! But no! In fact all the coverage of games like Evony and Game Of War illustrates just how bad they are. They earn so much because the makers of those type of games have an incredibly fine tuned and skillful marketing department bent on psychological manipulation. You think I’m exaggerating? Read this. Some choice quotes:

“We take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom.”

Lets think about this for a minute. A company hires people to stalk its customers and befriend them so they can build up a psychological profile of each customer to allow them to extract more money. This is not market research, this is not game design. This is psychological warfare. Lines have been crossed so much we cannot even see them behind us with binoculars. We need to reign this stuff in. Its not just psychological warfare, but warfare where you, the customer, are woefully outgunned, and losing. Some people are losing catastrophically.

You know how much you hate those ads that track you around the internet reminding you of stuff you looked at but didn’t buy? That is amateur hour compared to the crap that some games companies are pulling these days. The problem is, we have NO regulation. AFAIK no law prevents a company stalking its customers on facebook. We live in an age where marketers have already tried using MRI scans on live subjects to test advertising responsiveness. You think you are not manipulated by ads? Get real, read some of the latest books on the topic.We are only a short step away from convincing AI bots that pretend to be our new flirty friends in game that urge us to keep playing, keep upgrading, keep spending.

Modern advertising is so powerful we should be legislating the crap out of this sort of thing. How bad do we let it get before we get some government imposed rules? We are in the early days of mass-population study and manipulation, the days where us, the gamers describe a game as ‘addicting’ as a positive. Maybe it isn’t such a positive after all. Maybe we need to start worrying about if a game is actually good, rather than just ‘addicting’. Maybe we need people to step in and save us from ourselves. We are basically still just hairless apes. We do not possess anything like the self-control or free-will that we think we do.

Like alcohol, gambling, smoking or eating, most of us do not find gaming addictive. Thus we fail to see the problem. it depends how you are wired. See this ‘awards screen’ in company of heroes 2:


To most of us, thats just silly, and too big, and OTT. But if you suffer from OCD, that can be a BIG BIG problem for you. They KNOW this. Its why it is done. it works. Keep playing kid. keep playing. KEEP PLAYING. This sort of thing doesn’t need to work on everyone. If it works on just 1% and we can get them to spend $1,000 a month on our game (who cares if they can afford it?), then its worth doing.

I hate regulation, but sometimes you need it. Stopping a business dumping waste in a river is a good idea. Stopping companies treating their customers like animals that can be psychologically trapped and exploited is a good idea too. This stuff is too easy. Save us from ourselves.

Procedurally generated blandness

There was a time when the two buzzwords guaranteed to generate hype and news coverage were the words ‘procedural’ and ‘generation’. They were most popular as ‘procedural generation’, less exciting when describing people as the ‘procedural generation’…anyway…

I’m not sure it really lived up to the hype. There was a time when we really needed this stuff. Elite couldn’t have generated an entire universe within 16k without it. And when you are doing a small indie game on a budget but want a large world, it can make sense. the problem is, you hand over control over design not to designers, but to mathematicians. Sure, some of the best developers come up with hybrid systems, where the designers are still in charge, but I do worry that we have gone too far down the road of ‘look lots of randomly generated stuff!’ and not enough down the ‘this is a wonderful hand crafted world’.

I love big open-world games, but I hate it when I start to recognize the maths behind it. Yup, another little fishing village I haven’t been to before but…isn’t this just the last fishing village with the houses at different angles and positions? is that *really* all we can do these days?

I find myself thinking about this because of Democracy 3. If you have played the game you might recognize the ministers screen. It has randomly generated minister portraits like these:


Before that, in Democracy 2 they were individually drawn like this:


I think D2’s look way better than D3’s. I think the random generation thing went too far. The problem is, with D2, you kept seeing the same faces again and again. I couldn’t afford the variety.  It wasn’t exactly game-wrecking, but even so, it was annoying. For Democracy 3: Africa we are going with a hybrid. The artist created all the assets and we are selecting a big bunch of individuals:


I think thats a good compromise. D2 had 13 ministers of each gender. Democracy 3 Africa already has 70 each, and will likely have more, and I think they will still look better than the base game truly random ones. Am I right?



Everything about business is messy

I’ve always known this, but it hit home recently, for various boring reasons. I’m a bit of a maths and stats and numbers geek. I’m actually not that good at pure maths, but I do love spreadsheets and statistics and so on. Can you tell from my games? I thought so. Anyway, because of that, I do a lot of planning, and strategizing, and thinking and extrapolating about business. The holy grail of course, is to think you have found a ‘formula’ that means you can make something for $X and sell it for $X+1, and thus earn billions and be a success. yay!

The trouble is, although it never seems it when you look at spreadsheets, nothing is reproducible in a linear fashion in the world of business. Say my ad campaign costs $0.40 a click and I estimate (through complex formula) that I get $0.44 value for that. That doesn’t mean I should double or quadruple my ad spend. Not vaguely. It just means that I am making money in these exact circumstances right now today. Doubling the ad spend widens the market and dilutes the targeting. it could then *lose* money.

In the rare circumstances where there is a huge market for generic product X, and the market is unfulfilled by others, and nobody else is looking to enter the market, and you can double your output of X with the same cost per unit, and currently X earns you money, then that is a done deal, but this NEVER happens.

Gratuitous Space Battles was a huge hit, back in 2009 or whatever, so a sequel is a no brainer in 2015. Although it isn’t because the market is totally different, the game has to (by definition) vary from the original, so the product is different. The economy is different, and so on…

This is why Positech is basically just me, in terms of full time game production people. Expanding sounds easy. I would like to expand. I have the capability to expand and make more games, definitely not short of ideas. But that would ideally mean cloning me, and sadly thats not possible yet. I have to find someone who likes the same kind of games as me, is VERY good at C++, speaks English, is looking for a job, is willing to work for someone else, who is affordable, who I get along with,  who is trustworthy, who works hard, who is reliable and will do what they are employed to do.

Future positech employees
Future positech employees

If you think there are lots of those people, you have never tried to hire one.

Business is messy, messy,messy. People are unreliable, or they decide to quit and work elsewhere, or they get ill, or divorced messily and lose focus, or they win the lottery, or their partner gets a promotion and they have to relocate, or they are argumentative, or they are less experienced than they claim or…one of a billion things.

If when running your games studio you think ‘omg this is a nightmare, why am I dealing with all these crappy problems that you never see Elon Musk or Steve Jobs moaning about’, don’t panic. Business is always really messy, and fiddly and frustrating. Thats why most people take jobs with someone else.