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

Trying hard to embrace change

Change is hard. And change gets way harder the older you get. There is probably a lot of research about brain plasticity or neuron replacement or other clever ways to explain why older people are often less accepting of change, but I think it comes down to basic maths. For example if you are 65 years old right now, for probably 63 of those 65 years, the idea of school children wanting to change gender was laughable, just not a thing. Basically 96.9% of your experience of the world is that kids stick to the same gender they were born with. Changing an assumption you have held for 96.9% of your life is HARD. Our brains seem hard wired to work with ‘common sense’ and believing what we have known to be true for a long time.

For someone aged 18, those 2 years are 11% of their life, and if we ignore the first five years of both parties, we get 3% versus 15%.  In other words, there is a simple mathematical basis for the fact that its harder to accept (or notice) change as we age. This is also probably partly the cause of Brexit. If you are 18-24 Britain doesn’t seem to have changed much socially in your life. Aged 65? its changed a LOT.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that what’s true in life in general is also true in game development. Gaming changes, rapidly, ALL THE DARNED TIME, and as indie developers get older and more experienced, we have to be absolutely sure we see change coming, and we change with it.

I started this blog over a decade ago using ‘blogger’. Then it changed to ‘wordpress’, then it became my own hosted wordpress install on my site, then it got a custom theme. I wonder if in the future, this blog will exist, and if it should eventually just become a place to post blog videos, of the type I do for Production Line. Youtube, and video content in general is HUGE, and increasingly I get the view that young people (the next gen of gamers) would rather watch and listen than read, sadly. (by any reckoning reading is better. You read at your own pace, and can copy and paste text into messages and so on).

A 2017 study showed that:

“The 25-34 (millennial) age group watches the most online videos and men spend 40% more time watching videos on the internet than women. ” 

That demographic is pretty much my audience, and my games do tend to skew slightly male. Video is not ‘the future’ video is now, and last year, and the last few years.

So video is king. Why do I even type stuff any more? Am I being resistant to change. Here is another study conclusion:

“Blog posts incorporating video attract 3x as many inbound links as blog posts without video.”

Also.. who is the audience. I make games that appeal to people in the UK,USA,Canada and Australia/NZ and to a growing extent Germany. This is not by design, its just that I’m English and I tend to translate my games after release, not on the day of release. I’ve never sent out a Chinese Press release, or hired a Chinese PR firm. but maybe I should? The most popular language on steam is now Chinese. I am, restricting my games to a small niche because I am targeting a niche language (English). Does anyone reading this really think that this will swing back the other way in their lifetime?

The future is doing blog posts as videos by fluent mandarin speakers. Thats just undeniable.

We are still ironing out some technical issues, but even with some annoying bugs, the % of revenue for Democracy 3 that comes from China each month has risen from 1% to 8%, because we now have a Chinese translation and unicode support. It also looks pretty cool:

As an established indie in his late forties, I can pretty much ride the current wave and retire (just about). If you are 18-24 and starting to work on a career as an indie game dev, your future is a mandarin video about your game. Get learning.

War Child armistice 2017: Raising money for Children affected by war

Long time blog readers will remember that we did this last year too. Basically Democracy 3 was in the armistice sale on steam, so over that period in November, 100% of the money positech earned from steam during the armistice is donated to war child. I just got Novembers sale reports and it looks like we raised $10,167.51 for the charity. if you bought the game or any of its DLC from 6-13th November, all your money (well, our cut of it anyway) went to helping refugees and victims of war.

Here is a video from war child aimed at gamers that shows why they are needed:

Last year we earned $15,166, so its lower this year, but then Democracy 3 is an older game now, and there are a lot more games on steam. Next year I challenge games like PUBG to join us. If a solo indie dev can do this, so can the big names. 7 days income is not going to put them out of business, but it can make an enormous difference to people who really need it.


Post-release shadowhand thoughts…

So we did it at last! Positech & Grey Alien Games managed to push the gargantuan project that is shadowhand through the big shiny gates labelled ‘release’ and put shadowhand on sale a few days ago on steam, humble store and GoG. Plus of course direct from us, although the percentage of people willing to buy a game from a developer is depressingly small, even though my own website has been around longer than…hmmm..let me see….steam, gog or the humble store. I guess they are worried I might immediately go bust (nope).


Shadowhand had a pretty strong initial release, it rapidly piled up the positive user reviews, and as I type this, the store page shows 60 reviews and a score of 95% positive. We also got a special ‘recommended’ badge in an extremely positive review in Eurogamer, and we have other big name reviews that will hit the interwebs this week. We spent some money to promote the game on launch, mostly through PCGamesN, and through Facebook, but didn’t go completely bananas. We are still spending a bit of money on ads, but not *that* much, and I think the very high review score, and addictive nature of the game should give us a decent likelihood of getting a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations.

Right as we launched the game, being able to directly contact curators became a thing, and we duly did our bit, but it proved totally pointless, as invariably, every indie developer on steam seems to have spammed every curator they can find with copies of their game, regardless of genre or suitability. TBH pretty much any system that is available at zero cost to every indie developer becomes useless, as there are so many desperate indies, and so many indie games on steam now, that such methods get immediately swamped and rendered useless.

Yup, I’m one of those (many) devs who thinks that the opening of steam submissions to absolutely everyone has…not worked as well as it should.

I have no control over that, so its best to focus on what I do have control of, which is getting eyeballs on shadowhand, and making sure those eyeballs are the right ones, and that they are going to like the game. One theory I have is that our main steam capsule art may be putting some players off. here is the capsule in question:

In purely aesthetic terms I think this works pretty well. The main character is there, a prominent face (good), and a recognizable and legible logo. Colors look nice, its high quality etc. The only concern I have is that because it focuses on one character, the character is female, and we already list the game as being part visual novel, given the impression many people have of visual novels, the image *may* be giving the impression that its more of a dress-up/romance game than a strategy/rpg affair. Because 99% of steam browsing potential customers have not heard of the game, if that is the impression they get from the image, they will not investigate further if they are looking for something a bit more strategic and complex (which the game actually is).

I wonder if something like this would have a higher click through:

And we are debating whether to give this a try. Annoyingly steam does not support A/B testing on such images. The character in this new image looks more angry and threatening, whereas our current image, she looks a little bit like she is posing for a vogue magazine cover, rather than holding up a stagecoach… hmm…

Anyway, thats just one approach. The second is to double down on game-awareness through facebook promotion. Essentially the whole decision is based on two numbers.

X, which is the probability of someone buying the game once they have clicked through to read a glowing article about it and…

Y which is the revenue that we as developers get from the sale of that game at whatever price they end up buying it. For example, lets say that to get someone to read that eurogamer review that is so glowing will cost us $1.10 in ads.  Our profit from doing so is essentially

profit = (X*Y) – $1.10.

I’m guessing that in the super-long term, the average sale price of a game is 50% off, so given $14.99, * 0.6 (for steam cut, refunds, sales tax, chargebacks), the developer earns approx $4.50 per copy sold. At a purchase probability of 10%, we lose money ($11.10 to earn $4.50), At a purchase probability of 50%, we double our money.

Of course we have zero control over the conversion rate form that article, it is what it is, but what we can manipulate is that $1.10 value. At a (I think reasonable) 10% lifetime conversion, we are getting $0.45 per click. if we can pay less than $0.45 we should promote that article more.

This is the kind of calculation I do FOR FUN.

Anyway…shadowhand is awesome, and if you want to know how it plays, here is me fumbling my way through a duel fairly early on in chapter 6:


Last day before shadowhand releases

Tomorrow at 5pM GMT We release the latest positech-published game ‘Shadowhand‘ to the world, on steam, humble store, GoG and direct from our site at This is a scary time. The game has been longer in development than we planned, and this screwed up our timing a bit regarding PR, but ultimately I think its all going to work out because the final product is just so good. It definitely has that ‘one more game’ feel to it, and despite being married to a game designer, this is the ONLY game where my wife has been saying ‘lets just play one more level’ while I’m saying I NEED SLEEP NOW. This is a good sign. (Not that I’m annoyed that this wasn’t the response to my BAFTA-NOMINATED strategy epic Democracy 3…oh no…)

This is also the first game that positech will ‘release’ (if you ignore early access for production line) during the so-called ‘indie apocalypse’, where new games face incredibly high competition, and income from games has been falling at an alarming rate. Thankfully, due to past successes, positech is in no danger of suddenly having to flip burgers if nobody buys the game, but its still a tense moment to have invested a sizeable sum over years and finding out almost immediately if its paid off. Also its the first big step for Grey Alien games into the hardcore / steam game market and is obviously pretty career defining for these two:

Ultimately I think it will do well, because of play-time, and steam reviews. A game that people cannot put down, and which when asked, they say they loved is a game that *will* be a success. You can use advertising and PR as a multiplier effect to snowball that, but ultimately we all know it comes down to the quality of the experience. I think the quality of the experience is very high here, and to explain why, I need to be shockingly honest…

I’m not a very good game designer. I’m really not. Ultimately I’m, more of a Peter Molyneux (there…I said it). I have very good, very original BIG PICTURE ideas about what to make a game about and what it will like. I also know how to sell it, and make a profit from it. You would think thats all you need, but honestly its not. You also have to know whether a French blunderbuss should do 9 damage or 11 damage, and how much gold a pair of boots that give +10 stealth should cost. is it 200 gold? or 250 gold?

I really suck at that.

The amount of time I spent reading forum threads on Gratuitous Space Battles, with heated debates between players over whether some weapons or ships were under or overpowered, or whether or not restricting certain upgrades to a specific race was a really bad idea…is shocking. I was endlessly tweaking that game, and democracy 3, and also production line (although being in early access has been a GODSEND for this). Its only really in the last six months that I’ve really started learning how to get good at what you might call ‘low-level’ game design, the tweaking of the numbers and the arranging of the upgrades and the costs and the economy etc. This is a gargantuan task.

I mention all this because shadowhand does this stuff REALLY well. Much better than the other games I’m playing right now (like star wars battlefront). Also the interplay of the mechanics is REALLY clever. At the start of the game you think ‘ha! solitaire!…so just 1 higher or lower right?’ and then by the end mission your thought process is more like ‘I *could* play the 6, because I have a spare 7 (but should I save that for the next duel???) and the spare 7 lets me then play that 8, which will instantly power-up my musket…OR maybe I should play the 3, because thats a gem card which unlocks the gem lock on the card which i used my owl to detect is actually the torch to set the barrel alight and let me grab that smoke bomb…. hmm….’

In other words its as strategic as playing Civ V, and it really sneaks that up on you rather cleverly and expertly. Its extremely well done, and frankly I wish I’d made it.

I hope, and expect it will do well, but its kind of terrifying because frankly if it does NOT do well, something’s kinda going wrong. Anyway, you can see the game for yourself soon, and in the meantime here is a playthrough by quill18.

Is this the year I got old?

I’m 48 years old. Thats old for an indie game dev. However, its also an age where I find myself looking at the world and going ARGGHHHH. Not just in a ‘things are bad’ sense, which I think a lot of younger people would assume, but in other ways. For the record, ‘things are bad’ is always how people feel who look at the wider world, especially if you are political, or read the economist (or worse still…the ecologist). People often forget about things that have got better, and immediately discount them. Here, for balance is some of the stuff that has ‘got better’ since I was a child…

I live in a hugely less racist society than when I was young. Most of the words used to refer to non white kids at school, I cannot even bring myself to type here as examples. We had a single prominent black TV presenter (Trevor McDonald) and eventually a female black newsreader, and then a single black comedian (Lenny Henry). These were watershed moments. Racist humour was a regular prime-time TV event, thanks to ‘comedians’ like Jim Davidson, Jim Bowen and Bernard Manning. There were racist TV comedies about foreign people learning english, or being (OMG) your neighbour.

I live in a hugely less sexist society than when I was young. TV music shows had sexy dancers dancing to the music, game shows always had silent but pretty female assistants to do menial work for the main host (always a man), workplace inequality was huge, and men doing housework or cooking at home was mocked. Sexist humour was everywhere. The pay gap was way worse. We had typing pools (all women) and all nurses had to be women.

I live in a society which has much more opportunity for entrepreneurship than when I was young. There was no concept that you could start a business and build it up and make money, at least not without help from your rich relatives who would first give you a job in ‘the family business’. When I was young, working class people going to university was extremely rare, and class-snobbishness was rife. Yes its bad now, it was worse then. I’m a working class kid ‘done-good’ living in a relatively wealthy rural community, and nobody gives that a second thought now. They would have done so back then… As a kid, the TV example of a small businessman was considered a joke (del trotter), now we have dragons den, which has actually spun out some very successful businesses. Owning shares and investing is easy now. When I was a kid…nope.

Technologically, life is absolutely incredible compared to my youth. We had a sony walkman (if you were lucky) which you could listen to your poor quality cassettes on, and that was it for personal entertainment.  TV had just 3 channels, and it was not broadcast between around midnight and 9AM. Obviously TVs had small screens and weighed about a ton, plus we had no remote control. My grandfather had a black and white TV right up till his death. We had no washing machine, certainly no dishwasher, and no microwave. Coffee was instant coffee, there was no other option. Obviously there was no internet. We had libraries instead. I can see more amazing tech from my keyboard sat here than I thought even the super-rich would ever enjoy in my lifetime, and its all pretty cheap.

I grew up assuming there would be nuclear war before I reached this age. It was pretty much a given that  the USSR and the US would nuke each other, and that living in London I’d be vaporised along with everyone I knew. This was a popular TV drama at the time, and its terrifying. This wasn’t fear of a short exchange of nukes between US and N Korea, this was an assumption of Armageddon. I had regular nightmares about it.

So things are pretty awesome right? And certainly things have worked out well for me, with my own business, some stuff in my past I’m very proud of (the African school and war child being the most obvious examples), so why am I worried about the world?


Its common that people accept the findings of studies that show that younger people are more accepting of change, and that people become more conservative as they age. Its another thing entirely to experience it. Frankly if I could press a button that froze the world in 2017 right now, I’d be tempted to hit it, even though I know we have problems and a lot needs fixing. Why? what on earth am I so worried about. Heres the less good-news list :D

Climate Change. This is the big one. Unless we do some pretty drastic stuff, we as a society are fucked. People just glaze over when you look at the evidence, and dont want to hear the reality. Ignore the temperature change and the sea level rise, they never seem *that bad* to us intuitively (whats a few inches of water and a few degrees right?), think through the deeper implications. Much lower crop yields and more extreme weather leading to food shortages and massive food price spikes. Mass emigration (and thus immigration) as land becomes useless for agriculture. Think about all of the cultural, religious and ethnic tension you get when a few tens of millions of desperate people try to walk into their neighbouring countries. I would be amazed if we dont see border disputes with countries gunning down migrants at the border in the next 10 years. Am I’m talking Europe, not Africa.

Inequality. Jeff Bezos is worth 100 billion, and wants to build a space business. Thats great jeff, but how about paying your fucking workers decent salaries and letting them take breaks first before you play around with rockets? The sheer lack of empathy at the top of many silicon valley firms baffles me. Again, in the next ten years I think we will see this spill over into violence. You can only kick the poorest in society so many times before they tear your leg off and beat you with it. The recent tax changes in the US point to this amazingly getting far WORSE not better.

Technological change. Stuff is going to change REAL FAST. In fact it already is. Robots, self-driving cars, AI…we are looking at a sudden massive upswing in technology that wwill change everything, put tens or hundreds of millions of people out of work and nobody is prepared for it. This is scary. I like the benefits of the new tech (amazing electric cars, fast computers, VR), but oh my god its going to transform society like crazy, and our elderly and tech-illiterate politicians are too busy with Brexit to even notice.

Political Partisanship. With the rise of social media and more of our lives spent online, everyone lives in their carefully curated echo chambers and polite debate with people who have different views is now rare. Cross-party co-operation is now zero, leading to stagnation or regular wild swings to left and right which benefit nobody. Politicians are either saints or sinners, depending which team you are on, and this is getting worse and worse. The next elections will be won by the best media teams, the actual candidates and policies are now irrelevant. This is a disaster.

So yeah, I feel conservative, and scared. I try not to be, but holy crap, there is a lot going on in the world right now. I feel I could spend my whole life sat reading the news, biting my nails and getting miserable. Apparently its called middle age. Probably all of the problems IO list above can be fixed if everyone buys Shadowhand on the 7th December on steam :D