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

Deliberately frustrating fun

A lot of words have been written on the topic of flow in game design. Mentioned frequently alongside ‘mastery’, the general concept is that players enjoy a feeling of relatively stress free-calm travel through an experience where they encounter little resistance or setbacks, and preferably no ‘hard stops’.

With one aim of commercial game success being tied to keeping people playing longer (often because the highly connected gamer effectively ‘broadcasts’ their choice of entertainment to logged-in friends), creating and maintaining a sensation of ‘flow’ within the player is seen as highly desirable.

A typical game design that works well with this system is the match-3 puzzle game, or tetris. A never-ending game with a simple, but satisfying mechanic that rewards mastery yet will allow uninterrupted play in relaxed, stress-free state.  Such games can be very popular, no doubt very popular. Obviously, we have lots of them.

My latest game ‘Production Line‘ is a weird hybrid of two different design goals, to create a sense of flow, but to interrupt, pause, disturb and frustrate that flow, deliberately so as to create the endorphin rush as that frustration is fixed. Effectively what I’m doing to creating a design where the enjoyment comes not just from the state of flow, but the satisfaction and catharsis of fixing an impediment to that feeling.

Creating a ‘well-oiled machine’ creates a strong sense of satisfaction and happiness in many gamers. Its perfectly natural to look upon something you have arranged and see it work flawlessly. For some reason, this seems to appeal particularly to Germans. It also appeals strongly to me, I enjoy the sense of scale, control, to be honest- POWER that come from having built a large impressive, complex, working… *thing*.

But watching something you created do its job is only half of the pleasure. Something in our brains seems hard wired to want the next challenge, and the next, and the next. To this end, Production Line is designed as a deliberately unsolvable puzzle, an impossible balancing act. A simulation of a system so complex it has no practical perfect solution, only progress towards perfection, but no risk of attainment.

As a car-factory simulation, this feels both natural and believable. Producing something as complex as a car requires a huge number of tasks, many of which have dependencies, and none of which will take the exact same amount of time. As a result, regardless of production scale, bottlenecks are absolutely inevitable. Flow is impossible, a dream to aspire to, an unachievable goal, but one where the struggle to achieve the goal is nonetheless enjoyable.

I suspect that the general consensus of game designers is that frustration is the enemy of fun. Frustration is a negative feeling, and one to be avoided, but games balance out the good and the bad to achieve greater pleasure all the time.  The satisfaction of finally tracking down and counter-sniping someone in an FPS who shot you six times in a row is far greater than it would be without the frustration of being picked off by them again and again and again…

I’m sure some people will look at my best known game (the political strategy game Democracy 3) and my newest car-factory sim (Production Line) and think there is little in the way of a common theme, but in design terms there definitely is. Economics is a system so complex pure balance can never be achieved. Push here and the system pulls there, just like fixing a bottleneck on a car production line, or improving the effectiveness of a part of your fleet in Gratuitous Space Battles.

Positech. We make frustrating experiences fun :D. (Hopefully)


At the time of writing, a quick check of stats on steamspy for player unknown:battlegrounds reveals this chart:

A very basic analysis suggests 500,000 copies this month, at $30, minus maybe 40% for refunds/taxes/steams cut gives us:  roughly $9million this month. Total sales stand at 3 million, for a total estimate of $53 million so far since release 3 months ago. Assuming a lifetime doubling of that 9conservative) that gives us about $100,000,000. income.

The developer is listed as bluehole inc, who apparently have about 90 staff:

So the average income per employee there is a million dollars. original team size was 35, so assume that half the money goes to equity holders and its split equally between the 35, that gives them roughly $1.4 million each. In practice thats bollocks, because more likely 80% would be going to the equity holders and I’d guess 90% of that belongs to maybe a handful, at best 4 people? (I have ZERO idea, this is my guesswork), which means company founders are probably getting about $22 million from the game. Include sequels, potential DLC, merchandise and so on, and you can probably round it up to 25 million.

Thats a fuck-ton of cash.

But the problem is, the chances of Joe Indie game developer achieving this are close enough to zero as makes no difference.  There are 348 pages of ‘top sellers’ on indie games on steam. Taking the mid point, and looking at the top game (I wont pick on it publicly, so lets not name it). Its an RPG with Zombies in apparently (that shouldn’t narrow it much :D). Steamspy says…. *drumroll*

3,500 owners. Top price has been $9.99, been out 9 months. Maximum conceivable income is $20,979 to the developer. In practice, as its been on sale, lets multiply that by 50% and get about $10,000.

This game isn’t exactly World Of Warcraft but it has a proper 3D graphics thing going on, positive reviews and a decent capsule graphic. lets depress ourselves with the numbers:

Assume the developer is a single person with no other costs and keeps all the money: $10,000 a year, or roughly 1% of the revenue/employee as PU:BG.

Assume they are the founders/owners/creators and keep all that sweet cash, they earned roughly 0.04% of the equiv person behind PU:BG.

Yes…these figures are very very rough, but I didn’t deliberately pick something bad, in fact I picked half way through the indie top sellers. Are we really thinking they sound so out of whack? This is a WINNER TAKES ALL market. You are either in the top 0.1% of indie game developers, or you are unemployed, with an expensive hobby where you make effectively free games.

This is nobodies ‘fault’. Steam didn’t cause it, Unity didn’t cause it. games got easier to make, and more people got access to PCs, development kits, computer skills and broadband. Its really no different from waiting tables whilst pretending to be an actress, or avoiding admitting you are unemployed by claiming to be a writer. There is virtually nothing I can do about this, and nothing you can do about this, but there is something we can collectively do to at least minimize the collateral damage:

Lets admit that the default position for an indie game developer is pretty much poverty. If you want to make money, maybe one day buy a house, start a family, have a pension, why are you making indie games? You KNOW you are almost certainly screwed right? or to put it another, simpler, TL;DR way:


Now, *some* people don’t flop, and do well. And that *might* be you, but I urge you, go into this job (like any other) with your eyes WIDE open. Your chances of success are incredibly, incredibly small. This is not a sensible career. This is not a wise career move. This is almost certainly personal financial suicide. You may (like me) feel compelled to make games regardless of success or failure, but ALWAYS know the odds. ALWAYS. (Han solo is wrong about his topic). I know people get inspired to make games by reading about the success of some developers (including me), and that’s great, but always know what you are doing. Do not remortgage your house to do this. Do not both quit your job and live off savings to do this when you have kids to support. Do not assume you are different or special.

Treat this as a disclaimer for my blog: You are reading the thoughts of a guy who was coding since age 11, has 36 years coding experience, has shipped over a dozen games, several of which made millions of dollars, got into indie dev VERY early, knows a lot of industry people, and has a relatively high public profile. And still almost NOBODY covered my latest game (in terms of gaming websites). Its extremely, extremely tough right now.


How to fix research in Production Line’s design…

Although in general I’m pretty happy with the design of Production Line, its clear that there are some issues with the way research is implemented in the game. Something I really like is the idea of a BIG tech tree, and players making decision as where to concentrate their resources in terms of competitive advantage. For example, you may focus on production efficiency, or maybe on product range, or maybe on costs, or on high-technology to making high-end cutting edge cars. Different strategies should work.

The trouble is, despite the big tech tree and different approaches, the research-choice decision (which should always be *interesting* as every decision in a decent strategy game needs to be), tends towards more of a nuisance in the late game than a joy. The reason is that research seems to get quicker and quicker, and the costs of doing it become trivial.

At the start of the game, I really need the player to be able to buy some research facilities, otherwise they cannot progress. The problem is, as we go from a tiny little factory to a big one, the cost of ‘one more facility’ becomes relatively trivial. Of course, I can make later techs more expensive in points to research, but you can’t go ‘too far’ in that direction without it automatically herding the player towards doing ‘lvl 1′ techs first and removing that initial flexibility. The flip-side is that if you *not* scale the tech costs, then later in the game, someone who has ignored a specific branch of the tree can normally just go click click click’ and research it in seconds. again: unsatisfying.

FWIW I note factorio has this problem to some extent too, although generally it works better overall because the mechanics of research there are way more involved, rendering the ‘cost’ of the facilities fairly minor compared to the manufacturing of tech ingredients.

Anyway, how do I achieve the following in my design?

  1. Make tech tree choice interesting from the start, with multiple paths accessible.
  2. Allow tech to continue to be researchable at a reasonable, but not annoying rate.
  3. Prevent tech-spamming where the research cost becomes moot.

I’ve mulled over a lot of possibilities. here are some solutions that I have considered, either together or separately:

  1. Have hard caps on the number of research facilities that can be built before some other (expensive) admin tech unlocks ‘advanced’ research, thus putting the brakes on research in the mid-game
  2. Have variable costs to run or buy research (probably let scientist wages rise as more are hired), making research spamming non-viable in the late-game.
  3. Allow research queueing, so that the player can ignore research for longer periods. (Not ideal, as each research SHOULD be a catalyst for production line and car model re-evaluation).
  4. Have different ‘types’ of research require purpose built facilities. Maybe design-related research requires dedicated design studios? Maybe super-high tech research requires very expensive dedicated and large labs?
  5. Reduce or prevent the immediate construction of any research facility, but require a construction or hiring people for staff. Maybe placing a research facility means it takes 3-4 hours before the staff can be located to fill the facility and start work?
  6. Maybe introduce licenses, or patents that act as gatekeepers for research. To research reversing cameras perhaps you need to license a patent for it ($400,000) AND then research it once you have put that money down.

The problem with 1) is it seems very ‘gamey’ and arbitrary, and not intuitive for the player to understand. 2) sounds like it would actually make sense, although I need a decent way of letting the player know about the changes. 3) seems a quality of life improvement in general, but its also treating the symptom (research-popups are annoying) rather than the true cause (research happens too quickly in the late game, and does not seem to have enough of an impact to demand attention.

4) is interesting, and certainly one I’m attracted to. I like the idea of having to place down a design-studio facility, and to effectively research car designs entirely separately. I like the idea of a purely ‘design’ based arm of research for stuff like interior styling changes, new paint colors and types, and so-on. It also seems unlikely that someone who helps design the tire-making press is also working on voice-recognition software.

5) Sounds like its acceptable because build times for facilities are quite common in games, but then how do I justify the fact that everything else in the game is placed down instantly?

6) Could be interesting, and probably plays into a wider revamp of the research system where I need research-pre-requisites not to be limited just to other research items.

I need to get this right, so I don’t want to rush into a solution. I also feel this post is way too designy, I haven’t even tried to pimp the game. QUICK! Add a steam widget!

Settling into Early Access

So Production Line has been in Early access on GoG and Steam now for about three weeks now. We were in pre-release pre-order thingy for a long while before that. I’m almost at the point now where steam sales equal the number of pre-EA sales, and things are ticking along quite nicely. At one point there was a BIG discrepancy between the review scores of pre-order direct customers (97% positive!) and Steam, but the overall steam review score is creeping up (76% positive as I write this).

Basically we went into EA with an under-done tutorial and poor game balance, and although you can say that about absolutely every single EA game I have ever played, apparently we shouldn’t have done that. Thankfully improving the tutorial was fairly quick, and although the game is far from balanced, its much better than it used to be, as is the GUI.

Interestingly the game is phenomenally popular in Germany (our #1 sales country) despite being only in English, hence today’s update provides all the code support required to enabled multi-language support, and I know a bunch of players are already keen to help out with a fan-translation, so that should be something we can get into the game pretty quick.

I’ve been using keymailer to send out youtube keys, which is revealing in just 1)How many people with FUCK-ALL followers and viewers think they will get free keys, 2)How few people who even request keys actually accept them and 3) how few of those even install, let alone cover the game. I am close to thinking that the traditional ‘send out youtube keys’ part of PR is close to useless. Most of the youtubers who have actually driven traffic are people who presumably bought it, as I never sent them a thing.

My strategy for Production Line has revolved around two plans:

  1. Try to be as responsive as I reasonably can on youtube/twwitter/reddit/facebook/forums/steam to everyone with questions or comments about the game
  2. Regular updates and regular developer blog videos.

This is all FREE, but it takes up a lot of TIME. Fortunately as a workaholic whose job IS his hobby and who lives in a field with few friends, I have lots of time. Hurrah? In all seriousness I do wonder if the true equation of indie game success is something like this:

GameSuccess = ((Experience + Originality * (1.0 – SocialLife)) – (0.1f * NumberOfChildren)) * (AdvertisingBudget + GenreProfitability).

Probably not far off anyway. The amount of indies I meet who seem to know EVERYONE, who are very extrovert, who have been to every show, and have played EVERY game, and are incredibly well travelled and love to party…whose game you can then look up on steamspy and realize they are living on food bank donations is non-trivial.

Anyway, I am in the happy position to be able to work on PL in a relaxed and fairly calm way, because believe it or not Democracy 3, our politics game from 2013 is still making enough money to keep positech running even now. Speaking of Democracy 3, I have EXCITING news that is coming soon, although for horribly technical reasons its not *quite here yet*. Anyway… expect version 1.23 of Production Line today, its a cool update featuring touchscreens, cameras, a better car-sales design, and multiple language support.

Production Line: towards a better financial model

The hardest part of game design for Production Line has been the sales model. Not hard as in technically hard (frankly after 36 years of coding, not much is *technically* hard), but hard as in balancing the various needs.

The current system for selling cars in production Line works like this:

Each feature in a car has a ‘base value’, which is essentially derived from the resources and time/power/research required to make that component, plus a normal profit margin. That gives a value of say $100 for the feature, and if we include that feature in our car, we will get $100 for it when it sells, assuming we sell cars at a ‘normal’ rate.

If we are wildly profitable, more companies will enter the market and put general downwards pressure on prices, squeezing the profit margin thats considered normal, and forcing us to reduce prices. The reverse is also true.

The value of a feature decreases inversely with its ‘rarity’ as more and more competitors make that feature available. Some features (most) can eventually be considered ‘universal’. There is a multiplier applied to the final value of each feature based on how rare or common it is.

Finally, ‘customers’ appear on a regular basis and shop for cars. They have a probability based approach to buying. So a cheap car is likely to sell immediately, an expensive one will get passed over again and again until eventually a customer buys it.

So that is the current system as it stands, in build 1.22 of the game. Its not bad, it achieves a lot of my objectives. Competition acts a a balancing factor, research is incentivised, and mass market production means you need to lower your prices to compete. However, its not perfect because it assumes that basically there is just one model of car and one type of customer. This needs to be fixed.

My current thinking is that I need to reflect a number of new characteristics in the model:

  • Demand for your cars need to be scalable with marketing (not implemented yet)
  • There needs to be different overall demand for each body type (sedan, compact, SUV etc), which I can control with events.
  • The ‘rarity’ of features needs to be associated with final price. Everyone expects sat-nav in a $50k car. Not so much in a $10k car…
  • All of these factors need to be clearly presented to the player so that they understand how the market is working and WHY cars are selling or not selling.

So in other words, if our car showroom has a dozen SUVS where we set a 20% price premium, all of which have the rare and modern climate control, but none of which have electric windows, and competition from other car makers is currently extremely high, we need all of that to be displayed in a way that shows the player why its taking so long to shift those SUVs, and what they can do about it. The current system does none of this.

Also, because the game is in early access, I can’t just take months off to faff around, I need to make steady progress on this stuff. So with that in mind:

The current sales(showroom) GUI does nothing to show the level of price competition with other car manufacturers. This is already in the game, but not being shown. Maybe a pie chart or bar chart showing our current market share would be a good indicator to add to the showroom?

The number of customers who visit the car showroom that do (or do not) buy a car is also currently modelled but not shown. I should probably get some GUI added to reflect this, even if its just (for now) a percentage indicator showing the number of people who did/did not buy a car. (Plus I could also show the average length of time each car was on the showroom floor?

Once that is in the game, I can start thinking about modelling those per-body-style markets. This could be a multiplier that reflects the needs of each customer, so instead of being open-minded, they could now be SUV buyers or Sedan Buyers. This would allow me to show a breakdown of the visits to the showroom by each customer, and also breakdown showroom-times and sales percentages for each body style (or each car model) in an additional stats tab in the showroom window?

And then phase III would be modelling the different expectations of features on a car-price based model (electric windows expected on cars above price $X…). That would require a fair bit of internal code wrangling PLUS some fancy GUI changes.

Anyway, I’m interested to hear peoples views on all this, does this sound like its going in the right direction?