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

Political Animals Teaser


Greetings Mr/Madam president! And welcome to the land ofcCorrupt crocodiles and meritocratic mice! Yup… we finally have our first teaser video to show political animals to the wider world. This is a political strategy game being developed by Squeaky Wheel, the studio founded by ex prison-architect & spacechem artistic genius Ryan Sumo. Its being published by me! Who would have thought I would choose to publish a political strategy game huh? SYNERGY BABY!

Anyway…here is the teaser video. Nothing is final, as is normally the case with teasers…

Why release this now…? well partly because <insert drumroll.wav> Political Animals is in the Indie Megabooth (technically the minibooth) at PAX. Details on the megabooth are here:

Indie MEGABOOTH PAX West 2016 Line-Up!

That means the intrepid Ryan will be propelled around the globe to stand there and talk to members of the press and public alike about how Mousey and Croccy will battle it out for political control of the island. I’ll be honest… we are a bit of a disadvantage on the US press/PAX stakes. Ryan is from the Philippines, and I’m from England and I will not be at PAX (I’m not keen on too much long distance flying for tree hugging reasons), so we don’t have a ton of contacts in the local press. This means we are relying on Ryans intense charm, and my own ability to shout loudly on twitter to persuade members of the press to go check out the game.

It is the ONLY game featuring politically motivated mice in the entire show. So that’s one scoop right there. Plus I’m not sure how many other Philippine dev studios are showing at PAX but I suspect not many, so there is the whole ‘covering international dev scene’ angle to it all too. Plus…in case you have not noticed there is an election coming up soon in the USA (Seriously, its been quite low key, but I assure you that it is this year), so what better way to reference current affairs than through the prism of cute mice with megaphones.


Seriously US voters…if mousey ran as a third party candidate right now, he would win right?

Feedback on our teaser is most welcome. Its obviously not our final trailer, loads more details to follow, plus I intend to finally get the hang of youtubing to the extent that I’m going to do weekly playthroughs of the game to get people in the mood as it approaches release. For UK press…do not despair, we are at EGX as well this year, so we recommend you pop along to that. More details on the Political Animals Website, plus we are on facebook and Twitter as you would expect.

Shadowhand update! (Plus new video)


So…. ShadowHand is getting closer to release. Ahoy there! Stand and Deliver! May I have the next dance? etc… Shadowhand is a game Positech(me!) is publishing, its a card-battling RPG/Visual Novel/Puzzle mashup thing with cool art and frighteningly addictive gameplay, focused around the dual identities of an aristocrat/highwaywoman. I just recorded another video of me waffling whilst playing it. Sadly this one omits my amazing face due to a fuck up off dumb proportions, which I shall rectify in future. technology eh?

First things first…here is me playing the current build of the game…

Publishing shadowhand is interesting because the way the game is being made means that a load of content goes in really quickly towards the end, which means I get cast in the traditional role of publisher which is to bite nails, have sleepless nights and send constant Skype messages to the developer saying ‘yes yes yes…but when the fuck will X be in the game???? when???’, which is what publishers always do while developers who are coding ‘under the hood’ stuff think ‘For crying out loud, its all ready…it will all go in in a week once we finish this code thing’.

I hate to break with tradition.


In any case…I’m rather excited about shadowhand. I like the gameplay,. its just bite-sized enough for me to have a ‘quick’ game without spending 20 minutes waiting for it to load or working out what I was up to, and yet it has enough complexity that it tickles my ‘hmmmm what to do next?’ bone. Plus I really like the art style and sound effects in the game. I’ll be honest…the original plan was for shadowhand to be simpler, smaller, and released much earlier, but once we started playing around with the way RPG elements could work with a card game like this, we realised that it was potentially a bit of an indie hit, and well worth taking the extra time (and as publisher…money) to really polish it and deliver something really good.


The last game positech published was Big Pharma, and that was a big hit, so I want to make sure the same time, care and attention is available for this game.  I really enjoy making videos of it, so expect lots of these in the run up to release. Also remember we have a website and facebook page for it. yay.

Be the best in your (small) niche.

Have you watched The Bridge?

Its an excellent TV series. Its a Danish/Swedish crime series, with some fairly creepy storylines, thats likely either dubbed or subtitled for you. That means that it contains NOBODY you have heard of. Its complex, and not trivially easy to get into. You have to pay attention ALL the time. You have to read all the time. It can be a bit dark. It has a low budget, and doesn’t make any effort to be accessible. It’s fucking amazing. Plus commercially very successful. Almost 2 million people in the UK (note: no Danish or Swedish speaking) watched each episode, despite being hidden on BBC4.

Why? Because if you like serious foreign-language drama series about serial killers with a clearly autistic female protagonist and don’t mind reading subtitles it is THE BEST. Also because… there isn’t a hell of a lot of competition there.

Have you tried Holopoint?  It’s an archery training game for the Vive. It uses the proper room-scale setup. You need an $800 vive plus a $1500 PC to play it, plus some space to swing your arms around in. It has apparently, according to steamspy sold 31,000 at $15. Assume only $10 for discounts and thats $300k. I hope the makers won’t mind me guessing that it cost a LOT less to make. It is not Call of Duty, it is not No Mans Sky, it is not <insert name of blockbuster game here>. For the majority of the time your ‘enemies’ are blue cubes. Yup, Blue cubes. Sometimes you get orange cubes. Later you get an animated soldier. Its not exactly Elder Scrolls. BTW the game is AWESOME and you should buy it.


What links these two (and many other examples)?

They are the best X that money can buy, where X is something extremely specific.

I happen to own the IP of the best political strategy game you can buy (there are many election games, but few actual government ones). It is VERY profitable. This means two things:

  1. I have a very nice car and
  2. You would be nuts trying to make a political strategy game to compete directly with it.

OK, maybe not *nuts* but you are making things hard for yourself. In short, there is a lot more low hanging fruit out there. In the past, people were annoyed that those ‘Deer Hunter’ games made money despite looking dreadful. The target market didn’t care, they were the only Deer hunting games, they aren’t comparing it to Call Of Duty because COD is not about deer hunting. The same is true of Farming Simulator, or Street-Cleaning Simulator, or <WEIRD FUCKING THING> simulator. Those games can be ‘the best’ in their niche without spending 10 years, the unreal engine and a ton of features/polish/cool stuff.


Developers tend to commodify games in their mind and treat them as substitute goods, but they rarely are, unless they are complete clones. Nobody who has just added Democracy 3 to their shopping basket will remove it for Death Bastard Knife Massacre IX because they notice its cheaper. Nobody is going to swap Holopoint for Prison Architect, or The Bridge for The Waltons. If you make something that serves a specific niche (VR archery game or nordic noir with autistic crime fighting), then there is no competition. You get to sell to them merely by saying ‘Look, a game about this thing’ (which is cheaper than traditional marketing) PLUS you get to charge more for them.

If you want to make a successful game, think about the very specific niche thing you REALLY like, and make a game about that. Trust me, there are 10,000 people out there who WILL be looking for it and WILL buy it. maybe even 100,000. There are currently 35 million active users on steam. If your niche is so fucking obscure only one in 1,000 of them will like your premise, you potentially have a commercially viable game with zero competition. Thats just on steam.

One of the questions about your game that you SHOULD struggle to answer is ‘what is the direct competition?’

Defining profit

When you are the only person taking a salary from game development, the simple question of whether or not a game has made a profit becomes a bit fuzzy. Normally everyone takes their salary, and after other costs are paid, if money is left over, there is profit. The thing is, as the company owner, you normally take a tiny salary and thus working out if ‘game x’ made a profit is not as simple as it seems. Do you consider a game profitable if it makes more than the bare minimum salary you pay yourself? or if it makes ANY money at all? or if it earns more than the average salary you would get in a comparable job elsewhere? and WTF is a comparable job anyway?

Democracy 3:Electioneering is new DLC for my political strategy game Democracy 3. It was released just over a month ago. So far, total revenue from all sources for this DLC is $18,600.  The total development and marketing cost of the DLC stands at $21,500 so I have (so far) lost $2,900. Thats a ROI of -13%.



But that’s kinda nonsense. Firstly, that’s for 1 month. if I look at the one month sales for Democracy 3:Clones & Drones, then compare it to the one month of D3:Electioneering and project to a year out, I should earn a net of $87,042 from the DLC. YAY!

But again, that’s nonsense because it doesn’t take into account my work. I put roughly 3 months full time work into the DLC (over a longer period), so how much should I be charging myself for the purposes of working out if this DLC was a good move? This brings us back to the whole ‘what do I pay myself question.

Looking at game developer salary surveys, it looks like a typical ‘lead coder’ earns around £47,000. I also run the studio, so lets assume I am a ‘development director’ and earn £59k. A salaried employee would have a pension too, plus sick pay and so-on, so lets add another £6k to that and say a reasonable salary for me is £65,000 a year. I’m 45, been coding on and off since age 11. I’m worth it :D. So 3 months at that rate costs me £16,250. Given exchange rates right now at about 1.3 £/$, lets plug it in…

Dev & PR cost  $21,500
Cliffs cost  $21,125
Projected total income  $87,042
Profit $44,417

Whoah thats more like it.  Of course that assumes that the sales of D3:E are the same curve as D3:C&D over time, which they may not be. On the other hand, this is a US election year, and a fairly crazy one, people might be really into a game about election strategy. Or they might be fed up with politics entirely. who knows.

Now before you all quit your jobs to ‘go indie’, its really not this simple. I also released Democracy 3:Africa recently and that game LOST money (so far). It’s close to breaking even, but right now, that cost me money, even assuming I personally earned zero from doing any work on it. Gratuitous Space Battles 2 DID make me a five figure profit (yay!) assuming I worked for free (boo!). Luckily other games, notable Democracy 3 and Big Pharma, are big hits and continue to bring in money, so it all kind of evens out.

The two takeaways from this are:

  1. its VERY RISKY to be dependent on just one game. It really is a hit driven business.
  2. If you have a contract with someone that mentions ‘profit’ relating to bonuses etc, make SURE you know how they are defining their costs. It really is open to interpretation.

My non games idea

I’d like to set up a company one day which solved an inefficiency in the market for consumer services.

Right now, in the UK and most countries individual consumers enter into deals with utility suppliers to provide them with Electricity, maybe gas, water, and telephony / internet access. This involves setting up an account, deciding on a username/password, some bank details, picking a ‘plan’ and so on. We are widely told that the range of deals available means we should shop around and change our providers often. In practice few people do this. (I do, but I’m…different). What bugs me is not that few people do shop around, but that the process is so clunky and manual.

Now I’m not talking about ‘making switching easier’. thats lame, and unambitious. I’m talking about making it automated. Not on a year-to-year basis, but on a second by second basis. Think less like a form-filling bureaucrat, and more like a high frequency trader.


When I switch on my PC, and it draws current from the mains, I want there to be a super-fast auction, right then, in the exact same way banner-adverts are traded, where my AI agent that represents me haggles on the energy market to get me the extra power for the next few seconds. And I want it to keep haggling all the time I’m drawing power. I also want my taps (faucets to some of you) to do the same thing, and I want my telephone, broadband, everything to work the same way.

Of course, this works WAY better when we can defer demand. A smart fridge can, for example put in a  request for power to its compressor *some time in the next five minutes*, but not care exactly when. As a result, it should get a darned good deal. On the other hand, a hairdryer needs power RIGHT NOW, and at the other end of the spectrum, my fancy-pants electric car can charge *at some point in the next eight hours*. I don’t care when.

This would make for a huge boost in energy efficiency. The demand curve of UK power would flatten out substantially, meaning less need for overcapacity to handle ‘spikes’. It used to be the case that the definition of a UK power spike was either the adverts at the end of the TV show ‘coronation street’ or the end of the queens speech on Christmas day. Why? Because thats when about 10 million Brits switched on a 240volt 2,000 watt electric kettle. I’m not kidding. Apparently after the ‘who shot Phil Mitchell’ episode of EastEnders, power surged by 2.6 GW. As I type this, demand is 32GW in total.


Anyway…what annoys me is not that we do not have this system in place (I understand it involves huge infrastructure investment and new appliances), but that we do not seem to be making ANY steps in that direction whatsoever. I have a big energy-guzzling car, which would be perfectly suited to negotiating a time to draw current with the power company, and yet there is, AFAIK, NO provider in the UK that even has a prototype for such a system. Why?

Sadly I expect this will never happen, and what we will end up is local co-operatives handling power management themselves. if I had a Tesla powerwall, I could save any excess from my solar panels, and either use it to charge my car, or to sell into a village-linked system to a neighbour. I suspect local systems like this, with a fraction of the potential savings are going to become commonplace before any of the big players in UK infrastructure take a step in this direction.