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

Announcing: Production Line

When you really look at things in terms of what people bought… I’ve made 3 games. Kudos (Trust did well at the time), Democracy (ker-ching!) and Gratuitous Space Battles. I’ve also made spin-offs, sequels and side ventures such as Gratuitous Tank Battles, made some DLC, and published 2 released games (Redshirt and Big Pharma). But in terms of positech-owned IP, I’ve made 3 games of note. Hopefully this is number 4. its definitely the plan…


I never used to care about cars. Then I bought a nice hybrid one (Lexus) then I bought a stupidly flash electric one (Tesla). I started to realize cars had become interesting to geeks, not just petrol-heads. I then read a book by Henry Ford about the Model T, and how it was made, and his philosophy for business. I found it absolutely fascinating, not least because it is basically being copied to the letter by Elon Musk. The way production line efficiency transformed the way cars were made was fascinating. It also involved something that until recently was hugely out of fashion – vertical integration (essentially owning your own supply chain). When reading the book, I realized there was an opportunity for a new take on ‘production line’ games. Essentially, they are all about building more, building bigger. What I wanted to do was build more-or-less the same, but build it better, build it more efficiently, make the same product cheaper, make the production line better (which means breaking down the tasks and making it longer).


I took the idea pretty seriously. I even visited Detroit, specifically to get a tour of a modern car plant, and also visit the Henry Ford museum. Originally, my games was set in Fords era. At one point it was a side scroller, at another it was black-and-white and top down. Eventually it became color, and isometric, then got changed to the modern day. And I’ve been secretly working on it for ages.


For me, the big changes here are that its an isometric game (never done one of those before, but already coded my own engine, seems ok so far), and that I’m planning on really open-development. Its not in alpha yet, let alone beta. Big parts of the game are not finished. Coder art is everywhere. None of the sounds are final. There is no music. Its buggy. There is only one type of car, and half the research-tree stuff isn’t done. No text is final. Its really early. Its not shipping in 2016, and likely not in Q1 or Q2 of 2017.


However…I’d like to get people playing it early, in a direct-with-the-developer prison-architect style early access way. I’ll blog about it more soon, and do videos. I’ll probably bore you to tears with the details. I have come full circle on the idea of early-access and would like to see how it works for me. I recently got addicted to factorio (Long after starting work on the game) and I admit I am attracted to making the game support BIG factories. (I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of Teslas gigafactory). I also like a lot of options, and huge research trees, so you should expect me to be putting that sort of stuff in, if people agree that they would like that in the game. We shall see…

Right now, I’m at the ‘I’m making a game about this topic. Do you like the idea’? stage. I’d love to know what you think. Does the topic suck? what would you like to see in the game? Would you grab an early-access copy? Comment below!. And if you are press, you will find that the website for the game has a presskit link. Plus we set up a facebook page already, so please go join that :D. Oh and yes, those are screenshots of the current build :D

Palmer Luckey behaved abysmally, but not because of his politics

So in case you are not aware, the guy who ran oculus took some of the roughly $700 million he is worth and spent it on a ‘shitposting pro-trump meme organisation. Details courtesy of Eurogamer here. Because politics is politics there was a lot of anger directed at him, and no doubt some abuse,. and sides were taken, and shouting was done, and twitter was alive with outrage because…politics.

As the guy who made Democracy 3, you can imagine I am very interested in politics, I have views on the US election (I’m broadly pro-hilary) as an individual, and I dislike what Luckey has done, but my criticism of him comes not from the point of view of someone who opposes a political view, but from someone who is…disappointed.

Roughly 60% of my facebook/twitter buddies are Liberals, 40% of them conservatives. I hear both sides of all arguments. Inevitably, a lot of people act like there is NO WAY there can be merit to the other POV. people assume they are all in their ‘safe space’ and that if I like them/follow them/are friends with them, then OBVIOUSLY I agree that Hilary is crooked, or Jeremy Corbyn is the second coming and that taxes are too high/low <insert opinion here>

The problem I have with Palmer Luckey’s action are not his politics. Everyone is entitled to their own political view. The problem I have is what he DID, and how he did it.

To quote:

“I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time,” he told the Daily Beast about the shit-posting organization.

Thats not why you drag political debate into the gutter. For laughs. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, and how small a percentage of your wealth you give to such a cause. To do so is a disgrace. The billboard put up saying Hilary is ‘too big to jail’ is a disgrace. This is not political debate this is not political discussion. This is not how we choose the best people from hundreds of millions of citizens to be given the ultimate, terrifying, overwhelming responsibility of control of Nuclear Weapons and  the worlds largest economy


If you believe that Trump is the best choice of candidate, and are prepared to change peoples minds, by all means put up a billboard explaining his tax plan, and how it will is good for America. or some stats on immigration, and stats on terrorism and how you will reduce terrorism by building a wall. Put up some coherent statements and some facts, and some detailed policy ideas.

Not ‘ha ha! we made Hilaries face look fat’ billboards.

This is the act of a child. A spoiled rich child, to be sure, but still, mentally a child. To be fair, he is apparently only 24, but even at 24 I’m pretty sure I knew that this is not the way for CEOs worth $700 million should behave. Its insulting to the electorate, it drags America as a whole DOWN, it drags politics down, and it celebrates and encourages lazy, ignorant tribalism. It also makes the games industry look like a joke and makes oculus owners feel stupid for contributing to such base level crap.


The thing is, its really very EASY to do good things when you have a lot of spare money. I built a school in Africa for £18,000. Thats $23,000. I tried to work out what that was as a percentage of 700 million but my calculator goes into exponential results. Its fucking trivial. By the way, it involves zero effort just an email and then a bank transfer. You don’t get to have ‘a real jolly good time’, but you help people in the developing world get an education.

There again, if you are trying to win political arguments using memes, maybe you prefer the general population to be as ill-educated as possible?

I strongly believe that money comes with responsibility. Its taken me a long time, and reading the thoughts of a lot of people to really develop my view on this. YES I earned the money I have, just as Palmer did. NO I was not ‘lucky’, and YES I deserve that money, it is MINE. I didn’t rip people off, dodge taxes or use any loopholes. I am perfectly within my legal right to do what the hell I like with my money, as is Palmer.

But forget the law and think about your moral duty. I’m an atheist, but still believe strongly in a sense of moral duty. if for some reason it offends you to give money to charity, then at least use that money to start some business enterprise that helps society in some way, even if its just creating jobs. The very least you should do…the absolute BARE MINIMUM you should do is to *refrain* from using the money that you have to make other peoples lives *worse*. For someone in a creative industry, there seems to be an astonishing lack of creativity going on here. $700 million to spend and to effect positive change in the world, and you spend it on billboards that photoshop a candidates face?



Fun with investing

Soooo.. I’m a bit of a fan of financial management and planning. I know…I’m a veritable babe magnet. I basically enjoy financial decisions, or to put it in stock-market terms ‘gambling’. To this end, and partly because I used to work in the city on and around city trading floors (in IT), I’ve always dabbled on the stock market a bit.

Like most investors I am an absolute mess of jelly-like emotional irrationality. Unlike many I’m aware of it, and try to manage it. I *TRY* to sell losers early and let winners ride. believe me it is HARD, but I am getting better. In the last few years I’ve actually analyzed my performance more than usual, with proper spreadsheets and so-on. its amazing BTW how hard share trading sites make it to work out if you have LOST money overall, or what your annualized ROI is. Obviously a lot of people lose money and they don’t want their customers to notice.

I have an ISA and a dealing account, and also positech invests too. When I look at my snazzy spreadsheet it tells me that my annualized return (ie: calculate every day I have had with each penny in the account, get a total of day*pennies, then divide by 365 days, and look at the gain/loss) is…. *drumroll*


Thats for my company account. My personal account does better at 9.88%. My other account is definitely lower, maybe even a loss, but it involved transfers of really old investments and I don’t have accurate data for it.

So is 8.88% pretty good? This is starting on 1st December 2014, so lets look at the relative performance of the FTSE and NASDAQ since then

FTSE: 0.451% (climbed from 6656 to 6710 over 656 days)

NASDAQ 6.1% (climbed from 4725 to 5244)

So whoohoo! I am the next warren buffet etc. Maybe…probably not. Firstly, thats far too short a time span. if we look at ten years the FTSE has grown 1.4% a year (still shit, but better than my short sample). At 20 years its actually less (0.76%). Clearly a simple FTSE tracker is fraught with issues, just check the chart:


So how am I beating it?

Well I’m picking a mix of funds, corporate bonds, individual shares and ETFs. My big winners (really big) so far are Tesla, Facebook & the robotics ETF (ROBG). These have done well. Also my funds, specifically Global Equity and Asian Income have done well. I also do ok with a Bangladesh pharma company (Beximo) , Intel, and national grid bonds. Obviously I have had disasters too. ITV was one, A Ukrainian iron mine was another, Devro (sausage casings) another, and I’m badly down on Go-Ahead group.

I probably check my shares once a day, trade maybe once a week to ten days. A rough breakdown of investment types within my shares:



So how does this compare with other potential investments? because I love spreading the risk, I have invested over the years in some other stuff. Publishing games, Peer-to-peer lending, renewable energy and simple flat-rate bank accounts and term-deposits. Here is my geeky analysis.

investment ROI Risk
Cash Deposits 0.25% Almost Zero
Fixed Term Deposits 2.0% Almost Zero
Share dealing 8.88% High
Renewable energy (20 year term) 7.70% Low
Peer-to-peer individuals 4.9% Medium
Peer-to-peer companies 6.7% Medium

Obviously there are other considerations. I can’t lock away my savings for 25 years, what if my games do badly and I need money next year? P2P and Renewable energy stuff locks me in long-term. the Fixed term deposits are shorter but not so good. Theoretically all my shares are immediately liquid, but maybe not at an ideal price. However, given an 8.88% return I’m prepared to accept that. Something that is immediately clear is that cash is for suckers. Business savings accounts are a complete joke.

Although I sometimes come across a bit Jordan belfont, I’m not really, meaning that a lot of my ‘business’ and ‘investment’ decisions are actually moral and personal ones. There was NO business case for Democracy 3:Africa (A game that broke even this week, meaning so far I have earned almost nothing, and will hopefully make 10% ROI on it in the long run). My motivation for P2P lending is partly to undercut the bastard banks and payday lenders. My motivation for renewable energy should be obvious. My share dealing is all either ethical funds or shares picked by me. No weapons, no tobacco, no oil companies or airlines.

But anyway…to bring it back to gaming, how does all this compare with investing all the money in games instead? I’m a publisher too right?

ROI on Democracy 3:  1,215% assuming no salary for me.

ROI on Democracy 3:Electioneering:  21.24% assuming no salary for me. -64% if assumed decent salary.

ROI on GSB2: 64% assuming no salary for me. Equiv income of $24/hour.

ROI on Democracy 3: Africa:  1.24%

So yeah…Kinda variable. Note that these are the stats I have to hand. Redshirt & Gratuitous Tank Battles did not set the world on fire, but made decent money, but the ROI is not really up there.

Putting it all together: Games *can* be a good investment, or a great way to set fire to a pile of cash. *it depends*. Looking outside gaming, either learn to stock and fund-pick carefully, or invest in a wind farm.

What really *is* networking anyway?

I was in the far-off legendary city of London for 2 days recently.


I had been invited by the clever people at UCL to take part in a half day workshop, plus evening ‘debate’ on the role of Video Games in Democracy. Naturally this is totally in my wheelhouse as they say in America, so it was something I could attend and not feel like I had no idea what I was talking about, which is always a blessing. One of the good things about attending an event like that, and being on a panel, is that people know who you are and others introduce you, and frankly thats half the work done when it comes to networking. This is pretty much why I give talks, and take part in panels, because I’m a lazy coward who is shy and scared of meeting people. Mostly.

Networking is nothing new, its not like it was invented by linkedin. In fact some would say it was way easier and better before linkedin. To an English country gentleman such as myself linkedin is kinda crass. ‘I’d like to invite you to my professional network on linkedin’ is way, way too obvious and blatant. it really obviously means ‘I am hoping you can further my career and make me money’. To my mind, Linkedin is to networking what Tinder is to relationships. I was young and single before tinders time, so maybe I have an old fashioned view of things, but when I was young, you met people in bars, or at friends houses, or at a gig, or wherever. You chatted to people about random stuff, got to know them in a roundabout kind of way, and if that led to a relationship, physical or otherwise…and thats just natural and normal and feels…human.

In the same way that Tinder and stuff like that (from what I can tell) is basically scrolling through a list of potential sexual partners and pressing buttons, Linkedin is exactly the same thing but with business partners, and it feels to me just as soulless. There are probably algorithms that take the whole swiping and saying ‘hi’ in an app out of the hands of real people, and probably algorithms that do exactly the same through a site like linkedin.

In short, tinder is outsourcing romance so you can fuck someone. Linkedin is outsourcing your personality so you can make money from someone.


I don’t want to be added to anybodies professional network. I believe in free markets. You aren’t getting my business as an advertiser, or work for me as an artist because you have a database entry that reminds you the names of my cats or to make small talk about solar panels. That won’t work. In fact, its AWKWARD to work with people who you have a close personal relationship with. I actually do like a bit of a firewall between work and play. I never do business over the phone, I don’t need to ‘catch-up with’ or ‘have a courtesy call’ with anyone. Catching up and courtesy is for friends, not a business thing.

So networking is a minefield really. I’ve met some really nice people in this industry, some of whom probably are beneficial to my career, but its definitely a secondary thing. One of my favorite things about GDC/Dev days is meeting up with some really cool interesting people I’ve met in the industry. The VAST majority of them are in zero position to help my business or career. In fact technically most of them are technically competitors, but I don’t think like that. The truth is, many indies work alone, and being able to hang out in some sushi restaurant somewhere and chat with a whole bunch of people who know what you are talking about is just really refreshing.

So…yeah…networking. What is it really? should I do more? I have no idea. I’m going to steam dev days, and there are a bunch of cool people I’d like to bump into and chat with. Theoretically I should be working my way through a master plan or professional schmoozing that ends with me playing golf with Gabe Newell…but thats just kinda weird to me. There probably is a difference between schmoozing your way to the top and sleeping there, but they are in the same kinda zone in my mind.

So in conclusion if I say hi and suggest grabbing a coffee with you at some industry event, its because I’m being friendly. I’m almost certainly not doing networking. I’d feel silly. Also buying me a coffee won’t get your game published, sorry :D

Re-thinking early access

When steam started doing early-access, I was not a big fan. I disliked the whole idea. To be honest, it sounded like everything I hate about kickstarter, in the ‘selling future promises’ style. There is a common phrase among older, grizzled game devs, that goes something like this:

“I’ve finished the first 90% of the game. Only the last 90% to go”.

In other words, getting something that looks ‘ok’ and plays ‘ok’ and runs ‘ok’ is fairly easy. Finishing something that is reliable, bug-free, polished, and high-performance is MUCH harder. There are a LOT of unfinished games out there. To make my concerns even stronger, it came around the same time as unity became widespread and everyone and their dog was releasing their first unity game. Behold, a huge swathe of ‘early access’ games that are basically a stock terrain engine, some stock 3D Models, some stock sound effects and a lack of anything new but its ok…amazing new features have been promised and will show up one day! In the meantime, we want your money…

I dislike anything that promotes making promises you can’t keep, or that makes game development look dishonest. We are already plagued by gamers talking about ‘greedy devs’ despite the fact that 75% of us are struggling or in debt:


The last thing we need is more excuses to tarnish game development as a field full of broken promises.


Over time I have re-evaluated things. A case that stands out to me is prison architect. I think they handled early access superbly. In the early days I thought ‘how the fuck can they get away with charging so much for an unfinished game?’ and yet they did, and they developed a core fan base. And as the weeks and months and eventually years, decades and aeons went on, I’d regularly bump into the introversion crew, tease them gently about the game *still* being in early access. Every time we met I was selling a different game, they were continuing to promote and sell the every expanding, ever growing Prison Architect. Eventually it made its way to release, and has proven to be a well known commercial hit.


High sales figures and vast piles of cash are great, but hardly the main motivation for most devs. What encouraged me more about the PA story is the way their relationship with the buyers seemed so close, and so good. I was slightly nudging in this direction when I took pre-orders and offered beta play for a few of my games, but nothing like on the same scale. I’d offer beta copies in the last month (or two) before release. That was nothing like early access. As a result, I’ve shipped games that had bugs, and far far worse, poor design decisions.

The truth of the matter is this. I am not a particularly good low-level game designer. By low-level I mean the stuff about how each mechanic is implemented, what level design looks like, what the cost of each unit is, or how many options of X and Y the player has. I’m probably about average at it. Nothing remarkable, nothing clever. I’m good (it has taken me about twenty years to realize) at two things:

  1. Coding really complicated bespoke engines and simulations from scratch and
  2. Top level ‘big picture’ ideas for how a game will work, and feel.

Given this slow realization, I reckon early access might be awesome for me. I know what my next game will be called, what its about, and generally what the art style will be. Its ‘sort of playable’ right now. I think its shaping up really well. But should there be X options or Y options? should feature A be prominent or optional? Does it need procedural maps? does it need difficulty options? does it need a minimap or a ‘schematic’ view? how much should tech-trees be part of the game? how much focus should there be on the money side?

I’m not sure yet.

And this is why I intend to do something ‘like’ early access. More like introversions model than the normal steam system. I’d like to keep things small and community-like before appearing on steam, at least until a lot of the early stuff is worked out. I may even start my whole early access thing with some *shudder* coder art in there (as placeholder). There probably wont be music, and placeholder SFX. When a game goes into Early Access on steam, too many journalists and gamers treat it as ‘released’ and start to form judgements about the final game. I’d like to spend a lot of time with me coding and implementing stuff whilst having an honest open dialog (probably through this blog) with the kind of gamers who would be interested in the game, to work out how it should develop. I quite enjoy video blogs now and would enjoy doing regular video progress reports on the game as it develops.

Part of me is even thinking about making the game a negligible cost during EA. There is nothera part of me considering making it free, and supported by DLC. Everything is up for re-evaluation. Whatever happens, it should prove interesting.