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

The new inequality wont be downton abbey. it will be worse

A lot is written about coming increases in inequality, driven mostly by technology. Basically robots will replace almost all low-income and middle-income jobs, leaving a society where wealth accumulates with those who have access to capital and an understanding of high-technology. In short, those who own the robots will own the future, and everybody else is fucked.

This is bad news for the vast majority, and comparisons are often made with previous instances of inequality that have led to civil unrest, revolution, or just plain old suffering. However, I think this time it will be worse because it will be perpetual, and for two reasons.

Reason one: Poverty wont be too bad.

That sounds awful, but what I mean is… “you have nothing to lose but your amazon prime, your netflix and your smartphone” is not much of a rallying call. As technology gets cheaper and the provision of basic services becomes even cheaper, allowing everyone, even the very poorest in society to have a ‘livable life’ becomes almost trivial. I’ve already seen this in my lifetime. My grandfather had an outside toilet (basically a shack) a black-and white TV and a house with no kitchen at all (he built one from spare building material he swiped from sites when he worked as a builder). His house had only a tin bath, no telephone (obviously), and was tiny, even by modern standards.

These days that would be awful, and he would be considered to be living in poverty, eligible for all sorts of benefits etc. In other words, life for people on my grandfathers level of income is vastly better now than it was then, and even back then, we had no workers uprising. I simply cannot see any revolution or popular uprising from people as long as they have facebook, food, a warm house, TV and a smartphone. People now have too much to lose.

Reason two: We won’t know any poor people (or maybe rich people, depending which group you are in).

We may think that situations like downton abbey show inequality at its worse. The rich landed gentry living a life of luxury while the poor servants live a life of near poverty and servitude, but there is actually something very beneficial they had which increasingly we are losing.

They had integration across income levels. Lord Grantham may well consider himself vastly ‘superior’ to his butler and his valet, but he chats to both at least ten times a day. he knows his butlers personal opinions, his concerns, and his thoughts. Ditto, the butler and valet know what troubles Lord Grantham has, how he feels, what he cares about etc. They all live in the same house, albeit in very differently furnished rooms.

In other words, even in a land of masters and servants, there is human contact, maybe even some understanding, some empathy. It really matters where we have personal *human* interaction with people. Its very hard to ‘dehumanize’ people we know really well. Racism, Sexism, Classism, whatever form of exclusion you name, it all relies on keeping ‘the others’ at arms length. This is why religious extremism tries to separate people from outside influence. Its hard to be a suicide bomber when most of the people you will blow up are people you feel like you know and understand. Its no surprise people didn’t like the idea of ‘marrying down’, it blurred the important distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Shockingly, I recently realized I don’t have any close friends (who I see weekly or monthly) who are non-white, nor any who are gay (to my knowledge). This is quite a shock to me, but its true. Also…an increasing number of my friends work for themselves, and are fairly (or considerably) financially successful. In other words, increasingly I seem to associate with ‘people like me’. We all see this as a problem with social media, ‘blocking’ and ‘share with friends’. Admit it, how many of your friends hold strongly different political opinions to you? Now more interestingly, how many of your friends earn more than four times what you do? or less than a quarter of what you do?

As technology increasingly dominates our lives, we no longer integrate with people across financial boundaries. I do most shopping through amazon, never meeting even a cashier, and even when I go food shopping the UK has a fairly strictly defined stratification of grocery shopping destinations by income level. Restaurants even get graded online as £ ££ or £££ to ensure you pick the right one for your income. Cars are now cleaned by robots, soon even taxis will be driven by robots, and parcels and post even delivered by robots. How much random interaction with people not of your choosing will you have in 2020?

A lack of interaction with people from different groups means a lack of empathy for those groups. The age of the hyper-rich and the relatively poor majority is coming, and if we expect the hyper rich to care about anyone else we have to wonder how they will even understand the rest of us if we never meet them. Even their few remaining employees will be bussed in to work to avoid contact with the masses. The new Mr Carson or Mr Bates is a robot or a disembodied AI voice, and the new Mr Grantham won’t care.

An age of huge inequality and technological isolationism is coming, and I cannot see it ending any time soon.


Production Log Dev Blog#10 Level Editor and Upgrades/Font change

You may have thought I’d give myself a week off doing video blogs for Production Line, but you would be wrong. That line of thinking leads to failure, mediocrity and generally not succeeding, whereas doing it anyway is more in the tradition of Elon Musk and other stupidly ambitious people…so here we go.

To be fair, it is a day late. A lot of tiny things got fixed, mostly calculation bugs  and GUI layout stuff. The whole GUI style is very much placeholder, but I’m deliberately prioritizing design and gameplay, the GUI can get some shizzle later. I think most Sim/Tycoon gamers are far more interested in mechanics and balance and features than they are in shiny stuff.

My big dilemma, (But I think I’m sorting it as I type), is to whether upgrades should be things that happen to existing slots, of stuff that unlocks *new* slots. I think a goods compromise is to do a bit of either, when it makes sense. For example ‘leather seats’ and ‘heated seats’ are definitely an upgrade to the existing ‘fit seats’ slot, whereas ‘satnav’ is more likely something that gets installed as a totally new thing in a dedicated slot. This might lead to some confusion on the part of the player, but as long as I explain that some research unlocks new upgrades, whereas others unlock new slots, that should be simple enough.

The big problem is do I allow the player to do stuff like ‘heated seats’ before they have unlocked the dedicated ‘fit seats’ sub-slot. I am thinking maybe no… you have to have broken down the production line at least as far as ‘fit seats’ before you can get the option to fit fancy ones…surely? What do you think?

Democracy 3 raised $15,166.92 for War Child

A while ago we announced that from 21st November to 2nd December, all the Democracy 3 revenue from steam (including DLC etc) would be donated to war child. We finally did the maths and the total we are donating is $15,166.92. Yay! Biog thanks to everyone who continues to buy this game, and to Wayne Emanuel from War Child who talked me into doing it (I didn’t need much convincing tbh). For those people wondering what on earth War Child is, its a charity whose mission is…

To protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children caught up in war. 

I often feel guilt at having such a cushy life, sat in a nice office in the countryside in a country that hasn’t been invaded since people invented guns, having never faced real poverty or the threat of violence. I can’t imagine how it screws people up to witness war as children, let alone to lose friends and relatives to war. I know we all like our war games, I still play Battlefield One most days, but lets not forget that war isn’t just movies and cool games, but something that continues to blight peoples lives, especially in Syria right now.

Anyway…enough preachy stuff. We raised $15k, which hopefully helps quite a bit.

In other news, all our games are discounted by various amounts in the steam sale. Maybe a cute game about animals and politics will tempt you this festive season?

Happy Christmas.

Where did the extrovert game devs come from?

To cut a long story short, personal interaction with me can be pretty random. Some days, if you meet me I will be confident, outgoing, friendly. I will smile and shake your hand. I will probably be very sarcastic (tis my way…) and make jokes. I will try to be helpful. Other times, depending on the circumstances, I may be VERY shy. Its very unlikely I’ll start a conversation, or have much enthusiasm for keeping things going. At a lot of social events, if I haven’t seen someone I know within 10 minutes (max) I’ll leave, even if it took me an hour to get there.

Generally, when it comes to business, I far prefer email to all other forms of communication. I don’t need to meet you to sign a contract. I don’t even need to speak to you. Email is perfect for me, its excellent in all ways. Ironically, in groups of people that I already know, I can often be gregarious, maybe even loud. It is sooo random.

I do muse if people who are like me are naturally biased towards becoming programmers, especially in games. Games programming is about creation, and creation is about control. I wouldn’t choose to create a situation I didn’t want, or people I didn’t like, or locations that freak me out. As a coder, I have total control over the entire world, the entire ecosystem, I can see what everyone is thinking, because I coded their AI.

For a long time, I got the impression that almost all indie developers, and maybe most game developers in general were people like me. Quiet people. people who didn’t draw attention to themselves. hard workers, but the quiet studious types who beaver away in some dark corner of a room somewhere learning C++ or developing a game engine. In short…people like this:

Then after Indie Game:The movie came out, indie became cool, and it seemed the total opposite happened. The last game conference I went to, I recall seeing some distressingly stylish and attractive and confident young game developer strutting the stage with a headset mic on, behaving like he was a veteran of TED talks. What the hell happened? Where did all these extroverts come from? Maybe I am wrong, and being superficial about it. A friend told me that a famous game dev (who I’ve met a few times) is NOT AT ALL as outgoing and confident as he appears at shows, its all an act. if so, its a good one. Is that the case for everyone? Is there some genetic link between being an extravert and making a retro puzzle platformer game in the same way there seems to be between introverts and simulation game coders? (molyneux excepted). Modern game devs seem to be more like this:

FWIW, if you ever saw me give a talk, it was likely this one at the GDC rant (its the biggest audience I spoke to I think, maybe tied with steam devs days #1 marketing talk). Here is the talk:

I was so nervous beforehand you have no idea. I actually thought I might vomit. No, you can’t tell (hopefully), but there you go. Maybe we ARE all faking it?


My 2016. A year in review.

Its not even Christmas yet, but fuck it, I’m typing this now. So how was 2016 for Cliffski/Positech?

Lets start with the easy stuff: Statistics! Oh how I love statistics. Looking at steam, my companies revenue comparing the last 365 days…

Steam revenue is down 19%. Steam units sold are down 16% suggesting not much in the way of price pressure downwards. Income from other channels, like direct sales, GoG, Humble seem pretty steady.

We released 2 games this year: Political Animals and Democracy 3 Africa. neither of them set the world on fire, although D3:A is currently profitable (yay!). PA may break even in the long run. We also released Democracy 3:Electioneering, which didn’t do quite as well as I hoped, but I’m still glad I did it, as I enjoyed making it, and it kind of ‘fleshed out’ an area that was missing in the games coverage of politics in general. Democracy 3 & Big Pharma continue to sell well, as do some older titles.

In other business news, we got a retail deal signed for Big Pharma and Democracy 3 in Poland, which was some cash & some nice shiny boxes for my shelf :D. D3:Africa was my first experiment at trusting someone else to write code that I would put the positech development name to, which was a big step. In PR terms, we were a bit too low key. I didn’t give any major talks this year, nor show any games personally at shows, although Jeff showed off Democracy 3:Africa. There was GDC, and a trip to Steam Dev days, both of which were worth doing personally, even if not really justified in PR terms.

We also invested in new games, notably shadowhand, which will be released soon, and despite being quite late development wise, may prove to be a bit of an indie hit. Its the sort of game that does very well through word of mouth. I have my fingers crossed for that one. Also… I started work on Production Line officially (I had been developing it slowly for ages secretly). Roughly a year ago it looked like this:

It now looks better.

In Business…but not games news…we carried on investing in renewable energy stuff, which gives about a 7-10% return, which is pretty good in these days of low interest rates. Technically my best non-games investment was probably a robotics tracker fund that is up 34% (yay!). I’m a big fan of diversifying investments and income sources, as I hate to be too dependent on just one business relationship. This does mean I now spend more time on the phone talking to banks and accountants than I would like, and I don’t consider either activity to be much fun, but its probably well worth my time.

In personal terms, my usual resolve to be ‘calmer’ each year hasn’t completely worked, although I do get less angry about things than I used to, especially in person. Due to hurting my arm just before summer started I totally failed to do archery this year, but have discovered the joy of casual puzzle games on an ipad attached to an exercise bike, which seems to be my best bet at losing weight. My BMI is 23.5, which is healthy, but I hate having any sort of belly. For years I was a boatbuilder, and we had muscles, not flab.

We raised some money for War Child this year, haven’t got final figures yet, but probably about $14k. We also finally met some representatives from the Cameroon organisation we built that school with. Hopefully we will do more of that soon.

One thing that *is* business related that I started doing weekly development videos for YouTube showing progress on Production Line. So far I have done 9, and I expect that to be more like 50 by the time the game *ships*. I’m well aware of how important youtube is, and how many gamers prefer content to be in video form. I don’t want to be one of those dinosaurs still updating their geocities page in 2016 and wondering where everyone has gone. I’m hopefully getting better at it, despite not having a face or voice for such things.

If I have learned one business lesson in 2016, its to take my time more with games, and to get opinions from gamers early. This was the first year we started using professional player research companies, and I intend to embrace this sort of thing more with a  paid-alpha program for Production Line. The other semi-business lesson I learned was related to the stock market, and thats to set a stop loss when my shares are high, but never sell them otherwise. I am very guilty of ‘banking my winnings’ too early.

If there has been any *theme* to positechs 2016 its been one of holding steady. We have not expanded to a great extent, and we have maintained a fairly constant release schedule and work schedule. Earnings took a dip, mostly due to a lack of a *big-name* first party release. With luck, that will be next year with Production Line.  On reflection, 2016 went very very quickly. It seems like only yesterday I was stood in a car factory in Michigan doing research.

Hope you all had a good year.