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

Selling peacock feathers to sexually frustrated gamers.

There is an economic concept called a Veblen good. This is a product which is desired *because* it is expensive. Like a rolls royce, or a gold plated apple smartwatch, or other frippery. Its ‘utility’ if it can still be described as such, is a price signal to other people. Its basically the same as a hat that says ‘I have lots of money’, and in a more primitive way, its a peacock, or one of those monkeys that shows its buttocks at potential mates. Its purpose is external, to tell other people about your worth.


Most goods, thankfully are not Veblen goods, but goods that provide utility. My keyboard provides the utility of letting me communicate. It has a logo on it, but frankly nobody is going to have sex with me because I own a corsair keyboard, so its primarily being sold for what it can do.

This subject occurs to me today because in my various musings about DLC and micro-transactions I realize that what I hate is ‘Veblen DLC’. In other words, if your micro-transaction gives me some convenience feature, or some new content, the ability to play on new maps etc, I’m cool with that, but if its just a vanity purchase then…I kinda hate that. I noticed it when browsing the in-game ‘store’ for company of heroes 2. I’d happily buy new maps and some new tanks etc, if available, but the focus seems to be on silliness like different textures for my tanks, or even a gold-plated ‘faceplate’ for my stats banner. I am not short of cash, but the idea that I’d pay money to announce this to some random person over the internet through the proxy of a different ‘faceplate’ texture is kinda sad.


And yet… the gold-plated apple watch. This is a real thing. And ultimately, its all peacock feathers. Big companies, worth real billions of dollars put together marketing plans to persuade us (subconsciously) that members of the opposite sex will throw themselves at us if we have high status, and this high status can only be achieved through this car/handbag/sunglasses.


Although its less clearly about sex, groups of males together competing to be the best are ultimately competing to show dominance and strength to attract a mate. Ultimately, unless conflict and competition is about food, its probably subconsciously about sex. This is no different to what all animals do, its just with humans, some of us ‘monetized it’, presumably so we can earn higher salaries and do the same thing ourselves. That £1.59 faceplate is actually a peacock feather, a way for a sexually frustrated young gamer to show they are the alpha male.

So next time you see someone wearing a gold apple watch, remember. its just a monkey showing their buttocks.

Overcomplex mechanics can be a *good* idea.

Something I like in games, but see very little of, is over-complex mechanics. Some people will suggest that ‘it is by definition the case’ that over-complexity destroys fun and leads to a worse game. I would like to disagree.

To me, a good game is either trivially simple and thus a time-waster (nothing wrong with that per-se), a game of reflexes and agility (most FPS games), or a simulation so complex that the actual rules and mechanics become background noise. This is, I believe, one of the keys to the success of Democracy 3.
D3 models about 2,000 voters, each of which has varying memberships of 21 voter groups. Each voter group has inputs from maybe a dozen decisions (policy sliders and situations) and ANY one of those objects can have an impact on any other, with an equation that might be linear, quadratic or more complex than that. Plus there are variable starting conditions, mods and DLC.

Lets put it another way.

You CANNOT master Democracy 3. You just cannot. Not in a million years. Nobody adjusts a slider knowing the effect it will have, they make a guess. They have a hunch, they have a gut feeling, and they go with it. They *feel* their way through the game, they do not think it. This is good.


A game that is complex, but not complex enough, can be ‘mastered’. You can work out how to ‘beat’ it, if you put the hours in. Assuming there is no fuzziness, it becomes merely a matter of solving a very very complex equation, which ultimately, all strategy games are. Once the equation is ‘solved’, all other strategies become moot, you have ‘beaten’ the game, and robbed it of any remaining fun.

When a game is so complex this is not an option, you do not strive for it. You aren’t trying to crunch the numbers and keep a model of the simulation in your head because this cannot be done. As a result you go with a more emotional, more touchy-feely approach to true strategy, instead of number crunching. I am a believer in the idea that all games are really about emotion, and if I am simply playing to work out what the numbers are, I’m doing maths homework, not feeling like a general, or a city-planner or an emperor or a politician.

I’m thinking about this now as I develop my next game design idea, and its in my head when I play other peoples games. I think designers have become far too scared of complexity, assuming that because there are lots of games, all games have to be casual, so as not to scare people off. We are getting less Grand Complex strategy and more games like cow-clicker. I don’t think its an improvement.

And I also think we can cope. Life itself is incredibly complex. We juggle so many millions of variables in our lives, but we don’t end up with decision paralysis or an inability to enjoy ourselves. We routinely shop at stores with 100+ types of biscuit, but we cope with the variety and the options. We can cope with it in games too. Give me more options, more mechanics, more systems, more biscuits.


Less is not always more.