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

GDC 2018 Diary: Thursday afternoon.

Nearly at the end now… which is kinda cool, although I have 2 micro-events tomorrow I am looking forward to. Frankly five nights living out of a hotel on my own is more than enough for me.

Today has been pretty cool it started bad with me having to drenched on the short walk to get in a queue to buy a coffee because again… US hotels seem to be resistant to providing coffee machines. Are they part-owned by starbucks FFS? I then handled emails and social media stuff before I headed off for lunch with Jake (Grey Alien Games) and Tommy (Super Meat Boy), which was cool, and good fun, from that…it was off to ichiros cool micro-GDC thing to discuss the good and the bad of steam, and questions we had for them.

During the chat, prompted by ichiro very sensibly pointing out that its better to be positive than negative, I realized that many of the ‘toxic community’ problems that steam has can be solved by carrot, not stick. Sometimes, especially in early-access, players mention really good ideas, or give great feedback, or reply to other users tech support requests and solve problems for you.

Right now… I have no way to reward those players. Maybe we should take just 0.1% of steams cut, and covert that into ‘gems’ or whatever the best way to generate a steam ‘currency’ is, and allow developers to give that out on the forums? Nice steam guide you created there… here are 100 gems. Thanks for answering that users tech request… here are 5 gems. People who act like total asses, swear a lot, are rude or abusive… yeah they aren’t going to get any gems. Carrot, not stick.

Anyway… GDC 2018 has already been good, from my POV. I don’t feel ill, I’ve had some great times, some fun meetups with fellow devs, discussed some interesting industry stuff and learned some interesting industry news, and am confident it was worth my while in a business sense, as well as a sociable / personal sense.

I am looking forward to seeing my wife, my own bed, tea! my cat jack, and to get back into coding mode though.


GDC 2018 Diary: wednesday morning

So yeah… not feeling 100%, maybe its the dreaded GDC flu from so many handshakes and talking close to people in noisy bars. Maybe its just waking up tired and thirsty in a strange city. Hopefully I’ll shake it off.

Yesterday I didn’t go to a single GDC thing, and this is the final nail in the GDC conference coffin for me. The interesting stuff is the meetups, the parties, the lunches, the hanging-out and talking about games. Next year, if I come, I’m not getting a pass.

I went to a few events at a side-conference thing that I am rally keen on, where I told people my own experiences with advertising strategy, and then was in a cool discussion of sim game design, and artificial life. The AL one was especially interesting. There are  lot of cool, talented coders who are working on, and experimenting with interesting artificial life ideas, but translating them into games people want to buy is much harder. The trouble seems to be that the coder, and the CPU have all the fun, and the ‘player’ just gets a cool screensaver. Someone will crack this problem one day.

Its funny the extent to which the more game devs you know, the less you talk about game dev. It sounds weird, but listening to people talk about the house house they bought / are renovating, or their pets, or their holidays or whatever, becomes the standard thing after a few years. I’m sure some people for whom this is their first GDC and have been in the industry for just a year or two find it weird to overhear me and a bunch of dev veterans talking about solar panels, deer hunting or growing super-hot peppers.

In the evening I went to the humble party, traditionally the best party of the show, albeit one thats still a little too busy and loud for me:

A bigger venue, with more of a ‘video game event’ vibe than the Monday night thing. Everyone is here, and its great to catch up, although TBH I’m not envious of people who have anything ‘riding’ on this event. Imagine having to justify a flight, hotel and GDC pass on the basis of the value of business-contacts made in a loud, dark sweaty nightclub. It definitely CAN be done, I’m just glad I don’t feel like I need to do it any more. I’m old…

Today will be much more chilled for me, which suits me fine as its a day to recover, maybe even look around SF a little bit, who knows. Hopefully I’ll feel better later today.

GDC 2018 Diary. Tuesday morning

GDC, after you have been a few years, certainly is a big change from normal indie day-do-day development. From being someone sat in a room mostly alone, mostly just typing, you end up in conversation pretty much all the time.  I chatted to developers on the plane, on the BART train from the airport to my hotel, and then all through the day and evening. Its more than a bit tiring.

My GDC adventure started with high stress. Having teased a fellow dev mercilessly about him ‘worrying about nothing’ that it *might* snow a bit the day he left, I woke up at 7AM to discover this:

at 7AM, where I live, the roads are unused, let alone not gritted. I basically half drove half slide and skidded the first 20 miles, getting out to help push stuck cars in heavy snow, and keeping one eye on the wrecked cars and vans that littered the roadside on the way to the airport. Its a small miracle I got to the airport both in time for my flight, and with no dents in my car.

I flew virgin, rather than British Airways. Their in-flight-entertainment and seats kinda sucked, but the layout was good. I think BA wins overall. I did not sleep at all, whereas I sometimes do with BA.

I’m staying right in the very heart of San Francisco, asked for a ‘quiet’ room rather than one that lets you hear the vintage trolleybus bells from the street. They are cool and touristy the first time, but no the eighth. The weather here is best described as ‘meh’, but at least I don’t need a scarf, hat and gloves like the UK:

Day 1 (Sunday) is basically just saying hello to fellow devs and putting off sleep. I order some ‘chips’ in a bar for $8 and get given crisps. Fuck that.

Monday is GDC proper, and likely the day where I am most likely to attend the actual show. I attended 2 talks, of the maybe 5% of the show that my cheapo indie-pass gives me access to. They were good, interesting talks, but if they were PWYW would I have paid $50 each for them? Nope. I need to stop wasting money on a pass…

If you do enough social media, even hiding your GDC pass makes you someone who will get recognized a lot, so there is a lot of admitting I am me, shaking hands and saying hello. I finally have got over the shock of realizing just *how many* game devs there are in the world. I long ago gave up on Tea in California, and am resigned to spending money in Starbucks on coffee all the time. Their monopoly position here makes steam look like amateurs.

The evening is nice, drinks with a bunch of devs, talking about identity politics, movies and TBH anything but games, then a quick hello at an indie meal, followed by a proper sit down meal and trading war stories and old-man stories with a bunch of industry veterans. Eventually, its time to uber to a party so loud I wonder what the point is. As always, everyone holds their events at the same place every year. Anything over polite restaurant volume makes an event pointless for me, and I need sleep anyway. I could uber back…but I know SF now, and I hit my 10k steps on the way back to my hotel.

US hotels provision of coffee machines is abysmal, so I have to physically leave my hotel and go to Starbucks to get a reasonably priced hot drink. Madness. I don’t need a TV in my room, I just need a fridge with milk in it and a coffee machine. Why is this so fucking hard? 10k steps means I can justify a donut, something I never eat back home. If I judge it just right, I wont actually put on any weight :D.

Jet lag is still my constant companion, waking at 6AM the next morning. Again…no hot beverage, I must leave the hotel room to fetch one like some sort of feral indie beast. Arggghh,

19 years of legacy bullshit.

We lost our cat jadzia this week to kidney problems :( we had her 16 years. I mention this because something I notice about my website is that there is still a picture of her in the root folder of at this link. This is the image of her from when we got her 16 years ago, when I already had that web address. Through about 5 different ISPs, several different web-hosts and plenty of website redesigns, that link is still live, mostly because I hate having 404s on my site. There is no technical reason to ever kill off a web link, we have redirection tech, its just laziness for when people redesign their sites.

In the same week our cat was put to sleep, my website domain expired with zero warning from my domain name registrar. Suddenly positech was unreachable, and was theoretically up for grabs. Cue very angry cliff on the phone, and in web-chat demanding to renew the domain immediately, no matter what that involves, for the longest time imaginable, no matter what that costs. You will now find is mine until 2028. Bwahahahaha.

Anyway, the reason I mention these two things is that they are two symptoms of the ‘problem’ of having a long lived indie games business. First… what kind of muppet uses the root of their website to store an image of their cat? Don’t we have at least a flipping ‘images’ folder? What a dork, and yet it, and a bunch of other files are forever stuck there (yeah I could redirect but meh…) Secondly, and more relevantly, what the hell am I doing with a custom-coded (HTML) website rather than word-press anyway, and why for the love of all that is holy, is it sat on a dedicated server that is madly over-specced for it:

Of course the reason is…legacy. Virtual servers were a ‘bit dodgy’ back in the days when I first got a dedicated one. The inability to easily reboot the server if things went wrong was an issue. And I needed bandwidth, and a lot of it, because serving up thousands of copies of game demos that might be 100MB soon adds up, and because I was getting a lot of traffic to my site for my games, my forums, my blog, my GSB online stuff, and metrics & sales reporting,, and so-on. Plus I was selling my own games, plus Big Pharma, and redshirt, and it looked like that may expand. I couldn’t trust all that to run on AWS in the early years of AWS.

And back then… youtube was not a big deal for game devs 9which is my my youtube channel is my name, not my company, and used to have silly videos of me shooting arrows at melons on it), and facebook for business wasn’t a thing either, and thus a much larger proportion of gamedev-related stuff about *my games* came to *my site*. Back then you HAD tto have a site, and it had to be FAST, because it was a vital part of your business. Thus…fuck wordpress, lets do hand-coded html, and lets use a CDN account with Amazon S3 etc etc..

These days would I bother? TBH, if I was starting out as a gamedev now… I would probably have a simple wordpress blog for my game, with a buy link to sell direct (always sell direct etc), but would probably make youtube my #1 route for talking about my games and communicating with customers. Maintaining your own internet forums is a CHORE, yet I have forums with 74,000 posts on, so scrapping them now would be nuts. This means I have to split my time interacting with the community between reddit/facebook/steam/youtube/my forums/my blog/twitter. I get *some* value from each of those, but TBH, its way too many. I would like to prune that at some point, but am not sure how. Either that, or get a proper, trained-up community manager and have them deal with it all (but people much prefer talking direct to the dev anyway).

This isn’t just a problem with websites and web-interaction though, it also happens with biz stuff, and  publishing. I have some games on itunes. TBH if you put a gun to my head and asked me which ones… I’m not 100% sure. I have some on macgamestore too, I even sell the odd game through outdated fastspring links. I’m now so busy I only settle up with my old mac-games partner at redmarblegames pretty much annually. I have contracts with almost everyone, deals with almost everyone, and some of them have been worth it, and many have not. Over the years… it thins out, and I dont release new games on platforms that bring in too few sales. I just wish I’d been more fussy from the start. I should cancel my YMLP account and my S3 account for starters.

My advice on avoiding all this mess? make decisions about new channels, new websites, new forms of interacting with people, very seriously. Don’t just try and muddle through like me. After 19 years it gets messy as hell.


Money is not the objective of growing a big business

This is something I think about a lot. As someone who is very analytical about everything, especially thoughts, I find myself thinking the question: what is the point of running a business? At a small level, when the business makes the average (or simply high) personal income, the objective seems pretty obvious. Running your own business brings creative freedom, and freedom from people telling you what to do (something I struggle with). Its also possible to achieve a higher level of income from running your own business than it is (easily) from being an employee. Multiple indie devs have earned > $1million a year, but unless you look at hedge fund managers or top, top, top lawyers, you would be hard pressed to find anyone earning that as a salary who is not also the CEO. To a certain level then, the ‘objective’ of running and growing a business seems pretty simple and obvious: Money.

I think there are two misconceptions around the issue of making money from running a business once you get above the $100,000 a year level, which many psychological studies have suggested is the level beyond which extra money does not translate to happiness. I’d like to offer my take on them both. They are:

1) Nobody needs more than $X, so why do these people keep working?

2) The point of growing the business is so you make much more money.

The first one I think is easily addressed, and it comes from the differing experiences of people who run a business doing what they love, and people slaving away at a job they hate. For the former, the job is their life, is what they love, its what they enjoy, its what they do. For the latter, the job is a means to an end, and something they would like to do as little of as possible. If you are an employee, and you hold this view, think of it like this: Imagine something that you really enjoy doing, and would do all the time if you could. lets say its playing tennis. Imagine the opportunity to start a business where you played tennis and were paid for it, and you earned the same as your current job. Awesome right? Now imagine things go well and you get really good at it, its your full time occupation so you get so good at it, it takes over your life. You love playing tennis. Suddenly you are making $100k a year playing tennis. You are living the dream. Then things start expanding exponentially, you get offered amazing world tours to show off your tennis skills. People are always telling you how great is is watching you play tennis. You earn $1,000,000 a year playing tennis. This is amazing. You buy a nice house, car, maybe a boat, if you like that sort of thing. You get used to a decent life. The next year you make $10,000,000 playing tennis.

Why would you stop playing tennis? After all, you love it. Sure, people pay you way beyond what they would have to pay you to do it, but thats fine. Meanwhile, people who hate tennis wonder why you dont just stop being such a workaholic. Surely you have *enough* money right?

Now replace the word ‘tennis’ with ‘management consultancy’ or ‘engineering’ or ‘computer programming’. The same applies.

People often get to the top of their profession (and thus earn huge amounts) because they are obsessed with what they do, and they LOVE what they do. Wondering why they keep doing it when they don’t ‘have to’ is looking at the phenomena the wrong way.

So onto the second misconception. This is aimed at people who own big, serious businesses, probably worth a few hundred million, or a billion+ I’ve already established that these people are not going to stop work, and the business is, with any luck going to continue to grow. What I think goes wrong is that the people running these businesses tend to get obsessed with the profits as some sort of score card. They think growing the profit (or market cap) is ‘the point’. I suggest that this is definitely, definitely not ‘the point’, and if you are a CEO who runs a big company and thinks it is, you need to reassess your life.

I read a great book by Henry ford, who was a *complex* man in many ways, and had some funny ideas, but one of the things he was very keen on was employment. He went to great pains to analyze every possible job in his factory to work out what jobs needed people to stand or walk, what jobs required just one arm, or one leg, what jobs could be done just by touch, and was able to employ a large number of blind & disabled people on his production line as a result. He was a bit obsessed (way too obsessed) with his employees home life, and their health, and stability of their relationships etc. He was actually pretty nuts… but in his mind, this all came from a sense that there was a *responsibility* of the large company to be embedded within society, to be a big part of society, and to improve society. Not as some sort of corporate PR, but as the actual driving goal.

Modern business has forgotten this.

You have to look no further than the idea of special employee-only buses to whisk your staff through the post-apocalyptic nightmare outside your ‘campus’ (sounds better than ‘compound’ right?) to their offices, to see how much modern business (esp tech) forgets this. Modern tech thinks that market share, profit and market cap is EVERYTHING and they dont give a damn about what they do in order to get there. Profits are to be spent on ludicrously expensive corporate headquarters, to keep the 0.01% of society you care about (your employees) insulated from the world around you. This is WRONG, and a really *bad* way to keep score as an entrepreneur.

Tesla loses money, and Apple makes a fortune, but I’d wager more people look up to Elon Musk as a hero than Tim Cook. The reason is that you get the impression Elon is trying to achieve some social goal, with money just *a means to an end*. With apple, the ONLY goal is money.

Right now, if you run a big profitable tech company, the #1 best thing you could do to actually achieve some good in society (and my point is that *this* is the objective of running a company) is to hire some people. Pay them well, give them a decent quality of life. Amazon is an economic behemoth, it doesn’t *need* to treat its warehouse staff so badly. No tech company with more than a billion dollars in free cash should ever, EVER, keep you waiting on the phone for tech support or customer service. Those areas are a GREAT way to increase employment, keep customers happy and achieve some social worth. I’m a hardcore free-market worshipping capitalist. I even read a bit of ayn rand (its a bit heavy going after a while…)  I am NOT some jealous leftie moaning about other peoples wealth. I just realized, after a lot of thought, that giving people jobs, hiring people and yes… paying your taxes, makes you feel way way better than just adding another zero to a bank balance you are already having trouble spending.