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

Why valve should give jobs to journalists.

I do not know a single developer who has not knocked back a neat whiskey and, in the manner of someone who has seen things no man should see, when discussing the woes of the battlefield and the horrors of war…found themselves mumbling to their comrades, wiping the dribble of 100% neat alcohol from their chin and expressing the common sentiment… “fucking steam reviews eh?” before sobbing and falling off their bar stool.

Its not just a problem for steam obviously, or games in general, biut all online reviews. Anyone who runs a restaurant or a bed-and-breakfast or small hotel will tell you that ‘consumer reviews’ are not the panacea they are sometimes described as by businesspeople who run online portals.

In a sense, the theory behind reviews given freely by users are perfectly sensible. By definition, the seller of a good (me) is only going to promote it in a positive light. We are going to tell you our game is amazing (even if it isn’t) and we will not draw your attention to defects or bugs, because we have a financial interest not to do so. The other side of this, obviously is the consumer, whose interests (in the short term) are the complete opposite. They have a financial incentive (they do not wish to waste money on an inferior product) to know all the faults of a product before purchase.

So to quote pretty much every character in a Tolstoy epic. “What is to be done?”


The uniformly accepted decision is to allow customer reviews. Theoretically the customer is unbiased, and only interested in reporting facts, Thus the customers have a shared objective and can trust one another, as nothing is to be gained from leaving an unjustified bad review. Thus, sanity prevails, reviews are free, and everyone is happy.

The system described above is based on what is called ‘classical economics’ or what, when I was at the London School of Economics was called ‘Economics’, because back then, we didn’t know any different. Thankfully since then, the whole field of behavioural Economics has grown up, and we know now that Classical Economics, at least at a micro level, is 50% bollocks.

Classical Economics makes assumptions that turn out mostly to be wrong, and the design of customer reviews makes many of those assumptions.


Assumption #1: The customer has nothing to benefit from dishonesty. This is 99.9% true, and thankfully I do not see it as a problem on steam (at least not personally), but the area of restaurants, books and so on suffer hugely from this error. Where reviews are anonymous, chaos reins! As a seller, in theory I have much to be gained from reviewing competing products badly, and theoretically, from creating shill accounts to review my own games positively. More likely (thankfully also rare) is the possibility of extreme fanboys of game A giving negative reviews of game B, because its a ‘rival’ game, or because the developer supported gamergate, or because the developer is female, or whatever…


Assumption #2: The customer has perfect information. In terms of steam reviews, this would mean that the customer is fully aware of the product they are reviewing. To do this, they would need to experience it on multiple PCs, on Windows and Mac, and Linux (if supported), also in multiple languages, and to have completed the entire game, plus tried modding, co-op, multiplayer and so on. In short, they would have to dedicate several weeks of in depth research to completely evaluating the experience. In practice, many reviews are based on one PC, one platform, one language and a relatively short playtime of limited features. This is a partial experience, not an in depth evaluation.


Assumption #3: The reviews represent a representative sample of players. I’m tempted to just type HA! at this, but it requires more explanation. A game that draws people in to play for hours and hours may well get negative reviews in the first day of release, simply because the only people leaving reviews are people who hit a bug, or otherwise stopped playing. In other words, the silent majority who like the game are too busy playing to review it. This is definitely true on steam where you are forbidden from encouraging reviews from the app itself (unlike on mobile), and where there is no minimum playtime AFAIK.

Of the Democracy 3 sales, I can tell that roughly 1% of players have left reviews. The chances of the 1% being a poor cross section is very high. Angry people are more motivated to write reviews than happy people. People with time on their hands (kids & students) are more likely to leave reviews than busy gamers (20+ 30+ and parents).

So what is to be done?



I think if you want to keep reviews you have to accept that the only real way to fix 1) 2) and 3) is to have at least some paid reviews. If I owned steam (I’ll get this on a t-shirt one day), I think I’d take a chunk of the sales profits (steamspy suggest roughly $200 million this sale, so say 30% is $60 million, lets spend 2% of that, $1,200,000) and hire a bunch of reviewers, full-time. I’m sure the world of games journalism has a bunch of unemployed writers that would love the job. Lets pay them $60k each, with admin & health insurance and all that, we get 12x$100k reviewers. So that’s 12 full time games reviewers working for valve.  Not a lot, but not insignificant. They don’t have to review all the shovelware, just the games selling thousands of copies.

Suddenly we have a bunch of ‘pro’ reviews mixed in with the wider range of existing ones. Now a big part of the problem is solved, but I’d go further and do some weighting based on another metric.

Time played.

Frankly if you play a game for 40 hours then give it a negative review you need therapy, or a job. That makes no sense. Also, TBH if you play a game for 40 minutes, you really shouldn’t be reviewing it *at all*. The beauty of ‘time-played’ on a game is that steam already calculates and stores this for ALL the players, not just the vocal 1% who leave reviews. The stat is not perfect (some people ‘idle’ a game to get trading cards’, but its not bad. Presumably steam *could* write some code that detects a player being really AFK and fix that anyway.

I think some combination of pro review scores (let them give 0-100% not just positive or negative) combined with user review scores combined with player time will be a far better (and harder to ‘cheat) version of what we have now. Just my opinion, and I’;d like to read your thoughts.

BTW before anyone starts yelling, I’m not complaining specifically about my scores, I have generally good reviews, and to state it for the billionth time, my games sell fine. You can criticize without ‘whining’ if you lay out your arguments sensibly :D.

Democracy 3: Electioneering is out AT LAST!


Phew! after staying up till 3.30AM last night fidgeting with builds and ftp sites and doing emails and other madness… We reckon we have Democracy 3: Electioneering all done and on sale direct from us, with steam, GoG and the Humble store all following later today. Lets face facts, we are bound to have screwed up something, its just a matter of exactly where!

First things first, here is the rather fun launch trailer which I am especially happy with:

Now some more general thoughts. This is the 4th expansion for Democracy 3. It comes LONG after we stopped doing them, and it happened because the one area that modders could not really flesh out the game was the area of elections. The first 3 DLCs were concentrating on adding new policies and simulation data, but that can only go so far before you want to get in there and change the code. Thus, Democracy 3:Electioneering is not at all like the other DLC it adds new mechanics and graphics and a ton of new code to the game. This is why it took so long to design, code and test.

In practice what this means is that you MUST have the latest version of the base game for the DLC to work correctly, it simply wont function otherwise. Thats easy on steam, but if you bought through humble or GoG or from us, you may need to re-download and reinstall the base game to ensure you are up-to-date. I really need to have more robust auto-updating in future games (I’ve done it before, but not quite to my liking, I want a system more like steams). Also I should point out that no, its not automatically included in the collectors edition that comes with the original 3 DLC, this is a totally new thing, and its worth the price of a large coffee :D

Anyway…the PC & Windows versions of the DLC are done but the linux version may take a little bit longer. Jeff, my porting hero needs some sleep! You can buy the game using the link below, and please, if you like, it, post a positive steam review, or better still, tweet about it or facebook it or snapchatwhatsappspotifyinstawaze it or whatever the fuck people do this week :D

Animals, Corruption & Electioneering

Sooo! I have two things to tell the world today. First and foremost is that we (or rather…squeaky wheel) want to talk to YOU, yes YOU about politicians in your country. Political Animals, the Political strategy game by Squeaky Wheel that I am publishing, wants your input to make its ‘events’ in the game as varied, international and cosmopolitan as possible. I think the team pretty much have the whole range of Philippine politics nailed down, but do you have some funny/shocking/unbelievable stories about politicians in your own country? In that case the animals want to know:


Click here to suggest your political events for political animals.

I’m sure you will have a lot of ideas. Even just in the UK we have politicians who claim duck houses and moat cleaning on expenses, who get their wife to pretend they were not speeding, who get drunk and set fire to curtains, who nip out of prison for a spot of lunch, and so on… I’m sure readers in Italy will have a long list involving mr B :D.


In unrelated news…Democracy 3:Electioneering is out soon…this Friday in fact, so with that in mind I put together this snazzy guide on gameplay that walks you through everything new coming to the game, just in case you missed these four videos about the new DLC :D.

On the infantilization of politics

Warning: political post. (But not party political, so its ok!).

I am, as someone very interested in politics (mostly because I’m the designer of Democracy 3) Increasingly distressed by the phenomena that I notice both in the UK, and the US, of what I’m going to call the infantilization of politics. What I mean by this, is the way in which political argument and debate on issues is reduced to a level where critical thinking and analysis is non existent, and becomes based entirely around personalities, appearances, memes and humour. The phenomena has got worse in recent years with the spread of twitter and facebook and reddit, and similar sites to the extent that most political discourse now seems to be reduced to short form (in twitter, alarmingly so) one-liner jabs and jokes, rather than actual analysis of any topic.

Why actually bother explaining why you disagree with the tax policies of Donald Trump when you can just post this:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares

Why bother dissecting the economic policy of George Osborne when you can just paste this:


This is how children behave, but increasingly its also how adults who think they are making political arguments behave. Why?

As I see it, there are three forces at play. One is the development of the professional politician. The second is the shortening of political argument required by social media, and the third is the reinforcement of social bubbles allowed by selective ‘blocking’ and ‘friends-lists’ that is a feature of social media.

The Pro Politician.

There was a time when politics was not a career that people embarked upon from the very start, but something they swapped to late in their career. US president Jimmy Carter served in the Navy, then ran a farm before entering politics.  Ronald Reagan was 56 when he became governor of California. UK politicians like Alan Johnson and John Prescott had careers before parliament, and this was not considered unusual, but recently, especially in the UK, politicians have come from an extremely narrow social group. That group in the UK is so narrow that you can describe it not only as a single pair of universities, but also a specific course (PPE, or politics, philosophy and economics) and in some cases, membership of a specific university drinking club.


In short, the pool from which politicians are being chosen seems to be shrinking. The US is no different, we get a Bush, then son of Bush, a Clinton then Wife of Clinton, and need we even mention the Kennedy clan? A vast country with hundreds of millions of citizens, but the voting options are often the wife/son/relative of the last leader.

This seems to be a problem because these people do not understand a life outside politics. That sense of total detachment from the ordinary voter is leading voters to feel that all politicians, be they left or right or anywhere in-between, are from a ‘political class’ that neither relates to the, or understands them. As a result, politicians are despised, hated and treated as the enemy. because of this, there is no need to ‘engage’ with politics on an intellectual level. The average voter now thinks its fine to mock, ridicule and treat politicians like idiots, and its actually considered weird to take any other view towards them. When respect for politicians nosedives, we all get dragged down into the gutter.

The Short Argument

Would you like to hear my views on the top rate of tax? I could tell you, but I need more than 128 characters to do it in. In fact I probably need several pages, but of course, you wouldn’t read that because frankly, who does in 2016? There is a reason so many people add ‘TL;DR’ to articles (too long, didn’t read). Political points of view are often nuanced, complex, and in need of expansion and clarification, but sadly our attention-deficit society cannot cope with this any more. We killed of true journalism by refusing to pay for it, so what we get now is clickbait. The pound/dollar drops a bit? THE SKY IS FALLING! it reverses slightly? ECONOMY SOARS! Nothing less will get any clicks.


Most arguments are nuanced. There is a reasonable argument to retain nuclear weapons, and a reasonable argument to disarm unilaterally. Perfectly rational and sensible countries have taken each route. The trouble is, try explaining either argument in 128 characters and you basically get “I love nuclear war” up against “I love peace and flowers”. It’s not that simple, and it never was. Soundbites were bad, but twitter makes them even worse.

Added to this, people are not simple stereotypes. I know some people online think I’m an Ayn-Rand reading free-market loving libertarian fruitcake. Some others think I’m a tree-hugging communist. I’m neither. I’m probably 75% capitalist, 25% socialist,  90% environmentalist, 50% libertarian, 60% liberal and 100% atheist. That isn’t a viewpoint you can condense to a single article, let alone a page, and don’t even consider making it a tweet. Even my views on Nuclear power (I’m against mostly in practice, but not in theory, and mostly relating to time v climate change, cost & waste, and also depending on liability, proliferation concerns and security provision) don’t fit easily into a tweet. The chances of really learning what an individual feels about political issues unless you are a close friend who regularly discusses such topics with them are close to zero, but we have forgotten all that. We simply put people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and make no attempt to reach out and change minds. Politics should be about nuanced views, but people treat it like football teams. And if you dare move a few centimetres away from your team, its amazing how rabidly the team turns on you.


The Social Bubble.

And that leads us to the third depressing factor in all this: The social bubble. Reddit is a perfect example. The consensus amongst certain subreddits is that Jeremy Corbyn is going to lead the UK Labour Party to victory. He will not (the polls make that clear), but if all your friends think he will, you will tend to start believing it, and its never been easier to screen out the views of dissent. People live in geographic bubbles as it is, but combine that with a facebook friends list and a twitter-follow list of only people who think like you and your ability to listen to opposing views will diminish to the point of extinction. Lets also not forget the whole ‘no-platform’ movements, deliberately opposed to letting other views be heard. When it become so ‘dangerous’ to let opinions be heard?


I think we all need to be on guard against a new type of cognitive bias. Not just a confirmation-bias as we have understood in the past, but a turbo-charged confirmation bias where we are not only actively seeking out confirmation of our views, but have set up filters so we do not even know a contrary view exists. Walking out of a bar because some people in it have opposing views is bad enough. Turning on a filter that renders those people invisible to you is way worse. This is dangerous. Not being open to hearing the views of people who disagree with you is a route towards loss of empathy, and not to get all yoda, but a loss of empathy leads to cruelty, indifference, and much worse. Dehumanizing people because they are not in ‘your tribe’ is a terrible way to behave, and only fear of the cliche of godwins law prevents me joining up the dots here.

Everyone should make it their mission to cultivate some friends who hold different views. I follow people on twitter who make my eyes roll every time I see their political tweets, but doing so is good for me. If you auto-block and unfriend people because their politics is different you are only hurting yourself. And if you outsource the blocking of people to online lists of ‘bad’ people, thats even worse.

Lets all try and actually listen to the other point of view for a change.