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

Designing the QA system in Production Line

This is a big feature in my car factory game Production Line that I have been putting off until I could really set aside some time to think about the design seriously. I think I’ve finally reached that point in Early Access where I need to flesh out the design for this part of the game, and also importantly, to listen to feedback from current PL players about how they think this should work.

The current system is pretty simple. cars have work done to them on the production line, and then at the very end of the line, just before export, they go through a pre-export QA process that is broken down into emissions test, visual inspection and performance tests. All cars are assumed to be thoroughly free of defects, and are sold on the basis of their features and their price relative to the perceived value of those features.

Obviously in the real world, defects and car quality is a thing. You wouldn’t expect any defects on a $150,000 car, you would expect very few on a $70,000 car (unless its panel gaps on a tesla…dig dig…), and probably be more tolerant of minor things on a cheaper car. High end car companies (Rolls Royce etc) probably go overboard on quality assurance to ensure a reputation for zero problems (Lexus are also good at this), whereas at the lower end, its probably less of a concern. How to best represent this in the game in a way that both feels reasonable, and makes intuitive sense, and also works within the existing game design, and above all feels interesting and fun?

For a while, I have wanted to combine the idea of defects with the introduction of an area-of effect mechanic. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the designing the layout of your factory, and at the moment, apart from making sure importers and exporters are in the right place, and ensuring that you only place office slots (like research) in office zones, there is not that much *positional* decision making involved in the game. I thought I could introduce this with the advent of new QA slots, that had a radius effect.

The system would work by generating defects at every point along the line. there would be a base level of defects that would be generated each time a task was carried out on a vehicle, including tasks generated through upgraded slots. For example, adding the rear axle = 1% chance of a defect. Adding a tire pressure sensor… 1% chance of a defect… and so on. Some cars would go through the line entirely free of defects, but many would not. Eventually, if ‘untreated’, those defects would make their way into the final cars which would be sold.

For every car sold with defects (depending how many), there would be a negative impact on the reputation of your brand, a new, lagging indicator which would affect the purchase enthusiasm of your customers. Obviously this would be something you would want to keep an eye on, so as to ensure customers were not turned away, so how do you prevent defects? and how do you treat them?

To prevent defects, you can place down QA stations, which would be area-of-effect based, and would essentially reduce the percentage chance of a defect occurring at any specific point on the line. Covering the entire production line with regular QA slots would be a way to keep production quality high and defects low, but obviously would have a cost in terms of employee pay and the floor-space required to add those QA stations. This would be a ‘prevent defects from ever happening’ approach to QA. The second approach would be to introduce a new ‘re-work’ slot right at the very end of the line (maybe just before the current QA section) which would examine each car, and take whatever time is needed (maybe 2 minutes per defect?) to fix the problem and allow a perfect car to travel beyond that point. Clever players would eventually use smart junctions (which would need defect-based rules added to them) to ensure that cars that randomly seemed to be defect-heavy did not cause a major slowdown. As I understand it, in real factories, cars that need re-work are immediately taken off the line and dealt with separately so as not to cause any real bottleneck.

This is my first attempt at designing a QA/Quality system for the game. I’m very interested to know what existing (or potential) players of the game think. Essentially it boils down to this:

  • Defects are randomly generated on cars as they are constructed
  • Area-of-effect QA stations reduce the likelihood of those defects when placed on the line
  • A re-work area can optionally be placed to fix defects at the end of the line
  • Defects will affect the brand image of the company, and thus customer eagerness to buy.



Improving the marketing design for Production Line

If you aren’t already a player of Production Line, you probably dont realize that there is a part of the game where you can place down marketing facilities (once researched). These allow you to generate a flow of ‘ideas’ which are basically marketing points. Those points get spent on new marketing campaigns, in TV, Print or Movie form. Right now the only target for these campaigns is ‘brand awareness’ which essentially means more people will come into your car showroom and consider buying your cars. So far so good… This system has been in the game for a while, it works, there are no bugs, everything is kind of working as intended.

But yet it isn’t really, because it turns out that generally speaking people just don’t use the marketing features at all. They get excited when they research them, throw them down, and then run some campaigns (which cost a lot, but due to balance issues, some players at this relatively late stage of the game have LOADS of money, so its not an issue), and just kind of assume they worked, without really bothering with them any more. The major problem was the lack of feedback to the player on the progress of the marketing campaign, and its effects, PLUS there were balance issues meaning they may have been relatively pointless anyway.

Dealing with the GUI stuff first, I have replaced the event pop-up in the bottom right of the screen (easy to ignore) with a central modal dialog for whenever a marketing campaign ends which prompts you to run another campaign, and also for the first time it now gives you a breakdown of the extra customers the campaign bought in, how many cars they bought, and the revenue that this generated:

I also changed the GUI for the market screen which shows the current number of visitors to your showroom, so that it has a tooltip which breaks it down into the ‘base’ number plus those who are bought in by your marketing efforts:

And finally I’ve changed the GUI for the marketing screen itself, so that for campaigns which are currently being run, you can keep an eye on those customer, sales and revenue numbers as the campaign is running:

So with luck, that has a major impact on encouraging people to use the marketing feature in the game. They should no longer be oblivious to the effects of the campaign (which is probably the biggest factor), plus they can no longer be unaware that a campaign has ended. Obviously a campaign ending does not automatically mean you have enough marketing ideas to launch another, and maybe I need more hints and pop-ups/GUI indicators to point out to the player that they now have sufficient ideas for a new campaign, or to prompt them to maybe invest in some more marketing facilities.

So anyway… thats just half the problem, which was UI/UX related. The other problem was balance/Sim related, and that also needed some tweaking. Like everything related to balance in a game this complex, it will probably require a number of iterations to get the numbers just right, as designing a game with so many inter-connected parts really is a massive number-tweaking problem. The problem here was that the player was essentially never reaching a point where the number of customers in the showroom was a limit, so they never saw any pressing need to spend on marketing to get more customers through the doors.

Obviously the player can always sell to every single customer that walks through the door, IF their prices are low enough, but this may entail selling cars at a loss. What I need is to ensure that the player sees that by enlarging the number of potential customers, the number of actual buyers is going to go up, WITHOUT reducing prices. This may be intuitively obvious to some, but maybe not others. If you have 80 showroom visitors per hour, and produce 20 cars per hour, would you automatically think you need more visitors? This is hard to convey.

Regardless of communicating this, it did seem like the number of customers was basically not enough of a constraint, so I have adjusted the numbers so that fewer customers show up, but they are more flexible on price. That *should* mean that balance is not vastly affected, whilst keeping customer numbers low enough now that the player sees an incentive to boost them with marketing. I suspect it wont be enough, and I’ll need to communicate this in other ways, maybe by showing the total potential pool of customers, and what percentage of them actually check out your cars? I have a stat already for market share, but thats sales, not views…

Anyway…. I think its all progress on the playability and balance of the game. Bit by bit, the game is getting better every day :D

The youtube dependence thing…

In case you missed the news, there was an ‘incident’ at youtubes headquarters recently… Here is a summary:

A woman shot and wounded three people at YouTube’s headquarters in Northern California before killing herself, police say.

Police have named the suspect as Nasim Aghdam, 39, and say they are still investigating a motive.

They say there is no evidence yet that she knew the victims, a 36-year-old man said to be in a critical condition, and two women aged 32 and 27.

Aghdam had in the past posted material venting anger at YouTube.

The more interesting part of the story is this:

She appeared often on YouTube and in one of her videos criticised the platform for discriminating against and filtering her posts.

On her personal website she accused YouTube of taking steps to prevent her videos from getting views.

“There is no equal growth opportunity on YouTube or any other video sharing site. Your channel will grow if they want to!” she wrote.

I know there is a ‘mental health’ angle here, and also a ‘gun laws’ thing here, but I’d like to focus on what I think is more interesting, and more widespread and more relevant to what i do, and the people who read this. In summary, this was a woman with an active youtube channel, who was obviously very invested in growing her channel and earning money from it. This was very important to her. This was SO important, that when she felt (rightly or wrongly) that youtube were preventing her getting the views and monetisation she expected, she actually went to kill people.

The scary thing here (apart from the obvious) is the huge disconnect people have between what they think the job of a third party company that they are uploading content to is, and what it actually is.

Youtubes job is to make money for alphabet shareholders. They are a private company, not a government organisation or a utility. When you upload videos to youtube, you are quite clearly stating that you agree with their terms and conditions, terms which that company has the right to change at any point. When you talk about YOUR youtube channel and YOUR subscribers, or YOUR facebook page or YOUR facebook followers etc…. be aware that this is just a fantasy. This is an artificial construct put together by marketing experts because long ago they discovered that implying ownership where it was not true (for example ebay referring to YOUR item, before the auction ends) gives you a greater sense of investment in the ‘product’. The accounts on facebook belong to facebook, not you. They might have a database of connections on THEIR servers which allow you (at their discretion) to communicate with other accounts that they also OWN, but do not in any way kid yourself that you are in control or have ownership of your facebook page, your twitter account, or any other third party social media site you are ‘invested’ in. That goes for twitch too, obviously. Youyr streaming career is a single mouse click(by someone else) away from being obliterated, and you would have ZERO recourse.

I love being indie, and unlike a lot of newer indies, I understand the meaning of the word independence. True independence is way, way trickier than the false sense of independence you are given by social media firms who are basically just using you as social data contribution vectors. Unless you PAY for something, its not yours, and youtube lets you have an account for free…

I’m fairly ‘invested’ in youtube, as I have 60+ Production line blog videos up there, but I am fully aware that I cannot make it a cornerstone of my business. I have 10k twitter followers, but I also value those at close to zero, as ultimately I have no control over them, or my access to them. This blog, is a notable exception. It runs wordpress (which is free) but its hosted on MY server, which I pay monthly rent for. Nobody can discontinue my wordpress account and shut down this blog. So even if twitter, facebook, youtube all turn the screws and close off my access to ‘my followers’ I still have this blog, my forums (remember… ‘your’ steam foruns, belong to valve), and my email mailing list. How independent is *your* community?

Never confuse the illusion of independence and control with real independence and control.


So yeah…ill…

I was ill. It started on the Friday at the end of GDC, and I still have a bit of a cough now. I wont catalog all the symptoms, but yikes… I was not a well or happy chap. Thats the last time I ever go to GDC without a biohazard suit and a large vat of hand sanitizer. Its a real pain, because normally I come back from GDC all motivated and keen, and excited to work on stuff, yet I ended up going virtually an entire week without writing any code, which I think is the longest non-holiday pause for me in 19 years…

Luckily I got some new artwork while I was away, and plugging that in (mostly animations of new characters) required very little concentration or health, so I was still able to release a patch a few days ago with some worthy updates. I’m not operating at 95% of my usual efficiency (although have another enforced day-off due to family commitments today….), and hope to be back in full bug-fix/balance/feature mode in a day or two.

Production Line continues to sell very nicely, and we have a lot of wishlists. I have finally taken the decision that the game price should go up to $19.95, probably at the weekend. This has been something I’ve put off a long time. I can see arguments both way, and I have certainly analysed the decision a lot. PL is not ‘finished’, but its pretty feature-rich, especially for a game currently selling at $17.99. I’ve mentioned price rises a few times in my videos and the last time I did it, literally nobody cautioned against it, so I think the time for a price rise is kind of overdue. Will it affect sales? TBH unless you are making >$100k/month from your game, its really hard to tell any changes from the statistical noise that accompanies all game sales.

In other news, I finally bought myself one of those big green-screen thingies, so I can have a slightly-more-professional look to my blog videos, and I also finally got to witness this amazing image:

Which is like some sort of promised land. I shopped around for an ISP and discovered the following:

  1. My current (biz-focused and overpriced) ISP didn’t reply to me in 2 days, after we emailing and saying GIVE ME THIS NOW.
  2. BT, who actually run the darned lines, had a pop-up box that just gave me a blank dialog with a close button when selecting my house (and yes…i tried 2 browsers), so I couldnt order anything.
  3. Zen, who get good reviews and have great deals, wanted me to PHONE (yes phone) them to order, at which point I was put ina¬† queue. I enabled ring-back, but didn’t get one.
  4. IDNet, who actually let me click buttons and order a fucking product. So I did.

So there you have it. We assume that in a free market, a careful comparison of customer service history, reputation, features and pricing is what determines success. In reality, just having a product that fucking works (in this case an order system) gets you the custom… I ordered 220Mbps down, 20Mbps up, because tempting though 30 up is…. its kinda nuts. I currently have 1Mbps up, so I think I’ll still detect a difference… No idea when they actually come to install it though. I get a new router delivered, then someone from BT is going to have to come drill holes in the wall…