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

The unintuitive GUI

There are a lot of games on steam.  Those games are also cheap, PLUS steam has a refund policy. As a result, gamers don’t have to be patient. To be blunt…if gamers get confused or frustrated playing my game(s), they can refund them, or forget about them, and play something else. This is so different from when I was a kid, games were EXPENSIVE, there were far fewer of them, and you had to sit there and try things until stuff made sense. If you were really lucky, there might be a manual. These days, even if there is a series of explanatory videos, an illustrated manual, pop-up tooltips and an in-game tutorial, most players will ignore ALL of that, and just try to wing it. If things don’t make sense… your game is toast, your review score drops, your refund rate goes up, your sales go down, and you find yourself practising ‘do you want fries with that’ in the mirror ready for your next career move.

Obviously this is suboptimal.

I make innovative and fun games that have historically been a bit confusing to play and a bit buggy. This is the year where I try to address my game production shortcomings. Early Access is a godsend to me, as is collecting metrics on gameplay usage (anonymously). I can tell when people do not use a feature, and collect a lot of opinions from people on what sucks, and what needs work. I’ve made real progress in the last few weeks on reducing the bug count in Production Line, and I know I have a fair bit of work to do when it comes to the GUI and the ease with which players understand the game mechanics. In short, I need to give some more thought to a lot of my first-pass GUI choices.

A few screenshots illustrate a ton of minor things I need to give some thought to. Take this example:

Theoretically thats a fairly obvious and simple piece of UI that shows you information on the imports to a production slot in the game. The player uses this tab to adjust where those imports come from, presuming they have researched the tech that allows such configuration to be made. Each line shows a different resource item that comes in, the percentage of the last 100 items to be used that were locally produced (within this factory) and 3 mutually exclusive buttons to set the import mode for that resource.

There are potentially loads of issues here. The game tracks the last 100 items used by this slot, but if 90 of them (in this case) were Door Panels and only 10 were Chips, then the sample size for chips is way lower, and the ‘local’ percentage is not as accurate or granular. Does this matter? Does the player know what ‘local’ means? should there be a tooltip for that part of the GUI (there is for the buttons, but the player may not hover-over those). This entire tab is also hidden (grayed out at the tab button level) if the player has not researched the tech. Should they still be able to see the local percentage in this case? or are we fine hiding that from the player until then?

Then we have those selectable buttons. Firstly, do they look like they are clickable? They change the cursor and highlight on mouse over, is that enough? And is it obvious they are exclusive to each other? they don’t ‘look’ like conventional radio buttons used in multiple-selection. Should I change the UI? Finally, whats with the text? it explains things but isn’t it a bit clunky? Should I have column headers with text and then just radio buttons with green check buttons to illustrate selection on each line? would that make more sense? Does all this text even fit in German?

Lets take another look at the same bit of UI in a different circumstance:

In this case, the entire efficiency tab, which normally contains a pie chart, is completely blank. Why? because nothing has actually happened in the last X seconds of game time, meaning that there is no data to display here. However, this is surely a GUI bug, we should be drawing a pie chart anyway and showing the last state the slot was in surely? Thats easily fixed… Meanwhile the entire slot is effectively paused, because the stockpile is FULL, and there is no room to export more product. Effectively, we are on hold due to a lack of component usage or storage elsewhere in the factory. The ONLY clue to this is the ‘Status: No export room’ text. This is woeful. The immediate state of the slot is not even that obvious to ME.

Possibly I should highlight that status in red, or have it flashing, or maybe both. Perhaps the grey progress bars should be red, or flashing?

While I’m at it, on the stockpile strip, those numbers show the currently in stock value PLUS the number of requested items currently en-route in brackets. Nowhere is this explained. Can I explain it easily in the space provided? I shouldn’t make those icons any smaller, but maybe instead of numbers I should just have 16 slots for icons and a different color or shape to show which ones are en-route? Would that make more sense? would it be visually cluttered?

There are no trivial answers to any of these questions, they all need some careful thought and experimentation. I may end up changing all of this, or none of it. Maybe some of my ideas would make things worse…its hard to tell without trying. the really painful thing is that the end user who buys the final game post-release wont see any of this. They will see a GUI layout of a window with some text and icons and think that it all sprang into existence fully formed. It really isn’t like that. To get the level of UI polish I want (and need) I’m going to have to iterate on this stuff a lot. This is tricky when you are the only programmer, and only designer. There is much to do…




Twenty Years Old

Not me…hahaha! I wish. My company is now twenty years old. That isn’t twenty straight years of indie game development with no breaks, but its twenty years of existence. Our first ‘real’ game was ‘asteroid miner’ which was released around 1998 and looked like this:

You cant even buy it now, it used directx5 and doesn’t work on many PCs. It was ok, but kinda sucky by today’s standards. Multiplayer asteroids with mining, basically. I did the art myself. Impressive huh? It sold a few copies in shareware, and then it got bundled into a collection by a retail company called egames. After that I made a game called StarLines INC, which eventually got renamed Starship Tycoon, and got revamped and improved graphics. I think I actually used some paid art for that one. it did much better, and it looked like this:

I still like the idea for the game. maybe when i retire I’ll do a re-make?

I then got distracted by doing some really bad top down racing games called Kombat Kars and Rocky racers, I even made a minesweeper clone, and some space shooty things called Space Battle 3001, and Saucer Attack. Not long after all that I think is when I ended up working at Elixir, then left there and made ‘Planetary Defense’ which looked quite reasonable:

Then I got a job at Lionhead. I think by this time I’d already made Democracy 1. I quit lionhead, and made Democracy 2, and Also Kudos and Kudos 2. These started making proper money, to the extent that I didn’t vaguely regret leaving my job. I then made Gratuitous Space Battles:

Which was a big hit, my first game on steam, my first game to earn a million dollars. Then came Gratuitous Tank Battles and GSB2, and the publishing of redshirt, my first 3rd party game. At roughly this time I made Democracy 3, which was an insane hit and also made millions of dollars, and not that long after that I think I published Big Pharma (I think this was the third million dollar selling game), then came Shadowhand and Political Animals, and Democracy 3 Africa (The first game where I employed someone to write code)

Along the way we have twice donated a chunk of earnings to war child and built two schools in Cameroon. Positech has made a profit every year and made enough to live on since Gratuitous Space Battles, which I guess is quite an unusual feat. I’ve avoided growing the company at the rate at which most people would. At one point I was developing (coding one game) managing the coding of another and publishing two others, all without any help on the admin side, and that was too much for me. Unless I was to hire a personal assistant or someone similar, I’d never be able to scale to that many games at once again.

So now in 2018 my focus is on first-party games (not publishing). We are developing one game (Production Line) and there is another game that will be announced once there is something to show. I have a full time coder working on that project. In terms of people management and time-management and project management I guess I’ve learned the following things:

1) At a certain level, time really is money. I’ll pay very high amounts of money for software or services that save me time. I’ll also not waste any time. Unless you are Gabe Newell, or someone who I KNOW is going to earn me lots of money if I talk to them, I’m never going to ‘hop on a call’ or ‘catch up’ with someone for ‘networking’ purposes. I’ll not schedule a meeting with any company whose business I haven’t already skimmed by an emailed proposal. I pay people to clean my car and my windows, because the opportunity cost of me doing is > the cost of hiring someone.

2) Dealing with people is the most stressful part of expansion or development or project management. No technical bug, hardware issue or monetary/scheduling problem is anywhere near as tricky as dealing with humans with emotions. I’m a bit ‘on the spectrum’ and not good at dealing with people anyway, let alone people I’m paying money to. I’d hire someone I could get along with with an average skillset over someone who is a pain in the ass but with l33t skillz.

3) You have to speculate to accumulate. its a cliche because its true.

4) Don’t feel bad about just saying ‘no’.

5) Some things that make money just aren’t worth the hassle to make that money. This includes porting a strategy game form PC to ipad, or…linux in any of its forms. If you prot games ‘for fun’, thats different, but I don’t.

6) Unicode is hell.

Two things I’ve managed to do that effectively grow my company but don’t require me to hire people is to invest the income, and to spend on advertising. I can double my ad budget with a mouse click, whereas doubling my games dev output requires interviewing hiring and managing another person. I know which is easiest. Over the years, Positech has invested in other indie games (in a hands-off capacity), Solar & Wind farms, tidal energy projects, a number of US tech stocks and ETFs/Funds, some commodity ETFS, UK & global equities, P2P lending to both businesses and individuals and corporate bonds. I even dabled in shorts and leveraged investments, even did some day trading of CFDs. This has gone on long enough that right now its fair to say that Positech is 80% Game Development, 20% investment vehicle. I enjoy picking stocks and shares and average 10% return per year, over the last 4 years, which is pretty good.

Its been a good twenty years so far. I’m happier as a person, and definitely calmer, and work just as hard as before. The industry has changed beyond all recognition, but its definitely possible to make a good (even great) living from indie games if you do the right things and make the right decisions and work like crazy.  UK retirement age is currently 67 but probably 70 by the time I retire, so I am likely only half way there.





An impossible bug. ARGGGH

Check out this code from production line for displaying pie charts of expenses.  I declare arrays of float totals for each of 3 pie charts.

 float totals[NUMPIES];
 totals[PIE1] = 0;
 totals[PIE24] = 0;
 totals[PIEALL] = 0;


Then I declare a 2-dimensional array of floats which I fill with some data. As I build up those amounts I also update the totals:


for (int r = 0; r < NUM_FINANCE_CATEGORIES; r++)
 if (r != FC_CAR_SALES)
 amounts[r][PIE1] = SIM_GetFinanceRecords()->GetAmount(1, (FINANCE_CATEGORY)r);
 amounts[r][PIE24] = SIM_GetFinanceRecords()->GetAmount(24, (FINANCE_CATEGORY)r);
 amounts[r][PIEALL] = SIM_GetFinanceRecords()->GetAmount(-1, (FINANCE_CATEGORY)r);

totals[PIE1] += amounts[r][PIE1];
 totals[PIE24] += amounts[r][PIE24];
 totals[PIEALL] += amounts[r][PIEALL];


Then some simple resetting of data, which is irrelevant for this bug, and a check that I am not about to divide by zero:


if (totals[PIE1] <= 0 || totals[PIE24] <= 0 || totals[PIEALL] <= 0)


Then the final code:

 //now create
 for (int r = 0; r < NUM_FINANCE_CATEGORIES; r++)
 if (r != FC_CAR_SALES)
 for (int p = 0; p < NUMPIES; p++)
 float perc = amounts[r][p] / totals[p];
 assert (perc >= 0 && perc <= 1.0f)

Hold ON STOP!. How can that assert ever trigger? EVER? (it does for some people). Its driving me mad :D. It can ONLY trigger if one of the amounts in the array is less than 0% or more than 100% of the total. I KNOW that the total is greater than zero, so the amount must be greater than zero. The total is only comprised of the sum of the amounts. There is no way these numbers can be out of synch, PLUS, they are all floating point vars so there is no rounding going on… or is it maybe a tiny tiny quantizing thing? (I’ve update the game with extra debug data for this error so I’ll find out soon). Surely thats the only explanation, and perc is something like 1.000000001%?



Coding your own ‘middleware’ is easier than you think

I have a system in the early access version of production Line that when an error happens that I assert() on, it logs that error out to a debug file, along with a timestamp, and the file name and line number of code where the assert failed. This is easy to do (google it). I recently changed this code so it also posts the error message, line number and filename data to my server (anonymously, I have no idea which player triggered it). That code basically just uses the WININET API to silently post some URL variables to a specific php page. That page then validates the data to make it safe, and runs an SQL query to stick the data into a database on my server.

IU can run SQL queries on the server to see what bugs have happened in the last 24 hours, which ones happened the most, what the version number of the game was, and how often they are triggering etc.

This has proven to be awesome.

The default solution these days to this kind of stuff is to buy into some middleware to do this, but thats not how I roll. I also have some balance-tracking stats analysis stuff that does the same thing. I can tell if the game is too hard, or too easy, or if players dont get to build electric cars until hour 300 in the game…and all kinds of cool stuff. This is the sort of thing that middleware companies with 20 staff, a sales team and a slick marketing campaign try to flog to you at GDC in the expo. Its really not that hard, it really is not rocket science. I get the impression that the majority of coders think that writing this sort of stuff is an order of magnitude harder than it actually is.

Oh also, production Line checks once per day on start-up to see if there is a newer version, then pops up a notice and a changelist if there is (for non steam versions). Thats home-grown code too, and its easy, EASY to do,m once you actually sit down and work out whats involved.

I know the standard arguments in favor middleware ‘it comes with tech support, its faster than coding it yourself, it allows you to leverage the experience and knowledge of others’, but I reject all of them. The only reason I know how to use WinInet, php and SQL and all that sort of stuff is because I taught myself. I taught myself ONCE in the last 36 years of programming, and I know how to do it now., I have my old code, and my own experience and skills. I dont care if XYZ Middleware INC is going to go bust, stop supporting my platform, double their prices, or stop answering emails, I have all this experience in house.

When you look at most middleware, its vastly bigger, more feature packed and complicated than you need it to be. Middleware has to be, because it has to be all things to all people. My stats tracking and error-reporting doesn’t have to work on IOS or on OSX or on mobile, or XBox or Playstation. it doesn’t have to be flexible enough to talk to four different database types, or support Amazons AWS. I don’t NEED any of that stuff, so guess what… the code to do what I *actually* need to do, is incredibly, incredibly simple. Don’t think about middleware contracts and APIs and excuses not to write the code, ask yourself ‘what exactly does the code need to do here anyway?’

I think when coders do that you will find, its actually way easier than you think. I did my error reporting code, both the client side and the server side, and tested and debugged in in about an hour. This stuff is not complex. Stop buying ‘fully-featured’ bloatware you don’t need.

GDPR, Cambridge analytica and hitting the wrong target (again)

This isn’t the first time the EU fucked up. Oh no. Remember that terrifying, scary time before we had the EU cookie law? that time you would surf the internet not knowing that many of the seemingly innocent sweet sites you visited did not use cookies, and how wonderfully safe and happy you felt after the EU introduced that wonderful thoughtful law that demanded that every single site on the entire web (as almost everyone uses cookies) pop up an irritating, patronizing window telling you that they used cookies? Isn the internet not much, much nicer to surf, and much safer since we had an extra mouse-click on the ‘WARNING COOKIES’ dialog for every website in the known universe?

No, of course it isn’t, that law was a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time, millions of peoples time, and continues to be, every day, as we all click on patronizing messages telling us what we already know. Its just one level above the dumbness of a warning saying “DANGER THIS SITE USES HTML”. It was a typical dumb techno-illiterate law passed by bureaucrats who didn’t even understand what they were trying to fix.

Thankfully they would never make the same mistake twice right?

Enter the GDPR, a new astonishingly useless piece of EU legislation that has resulted in the largest torrent of spam in my inbox since the invention of gmail. Suddenly everyone who I have ever had an account with has to spam me to ask me if they can continue emailing me, assuming that somehow I am incapable of hitting ‘send to spam’ and thus have NO WAY to control spam other than this clunky law of the EU. The GDPR has, as usual created a ton of work for everyone who runs a business with an online component (this is 2018 so that means everyone on the planet), whilst achieving absolutely fuck-all.

Essentially, the EU are looking at scandals like Cambridge Analytica and political social media manipulation and…. grasping at the nearest thing they have to ‘an internet privacy thing’ and passing that, without it having ANY impact whatsoever on the actual problem (which is mostly fake news), whilst taking a  wrecking ball to the idea of personalized advertising. I’m going to spell out in one sentence why this is dumb as hell:

Personalized advertising to reach genuinely interested customers is awesome. Personalized advertising aimed at undermining democracy is entirely different.

Why can’t lawmakers understand this? Trying to equate deeply targetted, niche advertising with political manipulation is completely dumb. Knowing that I’m a 48 year old white English male who drives a car, lives in a rural location, likes star wars, plays video games and works as a programmer enabled the ads I see to be relevant to me. Show me an advert for a new electric car thats in my price range… i’m genuinely interested. Show me an advert for a new virtual reality headset and I’m interested, show me an advert for baby clothes and I’m not fucking interested. Show me an advert for ladies bicycles and I’m not fucking interested.

We have learned many years ago that advertising is annoying because 95% of the time it was being shown to the wrong person. We are finally escaping that situation, with ads being shown much more in line with the genuine interests of the viewer. If you are over 65 I don#t WANT to bother you with my video game ads. If you only play FIFA, I don’t WANT to bother you with my strategy PC game ads. By ensuring advertisers have no access to personalized information, you make advertising WORSE.

The solution to true scandals like the whole trump/brexit/cambridge analytica scandal is simple. You ban political ads on social media. We already ban them on British TV, we can easily pass a law that bans them on facebook. Thats fine, easy, simple, and it does not require us to take the entire advertising industry, attempt to wreck it AND at the same time make the experience WORSE for both advertisers and consumers.

Simply put, the people who think they will solve political advertising with GDPR are idiots. Its the wrong method, aimed at the wrong target, by people who have no idea how the modern ad market works. Its also hilarious to think Russian state-sponsored bot networks are going to comply with the GDPR. I voted to remain in the EU, but every time they pull something like this, they make the whole system look like a bunch of idiots.

I have a cold, I may seem grumpier than usual :D