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

Democracy 4 – Multi Party Support

So I had a sudden mad rush of adrenaline this past weekend and decided I should code multi-party support into Democracy 4. This is something people have asked me for over a very long period, but I’ve always resisted it. I thought it would change the game into some horrible three-way negotiation and back-room dealing simulation rather than be focused on actual policies and theories which is what I am more interested in…

Actually I’ve always found it weird people WANT the game to be basically more like the corrupt, undemocratic bullshit that a lot of western multi-party politics has become. Surely in our heads what we want is a trial of ideas and philosophies where the best policies for the people win? nobody fantasizes about having to implement policies you hate because you need to haggle with some other party leader?

The sheer optimistic joy of coalition government

Anyway…eventually me and Jeff got chatting and decided that there WAS a way to include some elements of multi-party politics, without totally breaking the way the game works, and which could work within the existing framework of political capital and policy decisions. But first, I had to sort out the UI.

Democracy 3 has always had 2 parties, and because I never intended to change this, there were actual hard coded ‘pointers’ to the player and opposition parties everywhere in code. Essentially this just meant a lot of donkey-work going through code and changing this to an open ended list everywhere, and checking everything would save and load ok, and that we didn’t have any legacy stuff referring to ‘the opposition party’ in the code.

Then I needed to re-jig a lot of GUI code. There were basically three places where parties get referenced, the party screen (showing members/activists over time), the fundraising screen (this was part of the D3 electioneering DLC but now integrated into the game) and the election results screen.

As I write this, I’m done changing all the GUI apart from the post-election breakdown of each voter group and how they voted (it needs different colors for each opposition group too). So right now, the post-election screen in a 3-party game looks like this: (work in progress BTW)

shiny new user interface (work in progress)

I’m thinking (for now) that a 3 party limit makes most sense. To explain that, I need to delve into the two areas that are needed to make this work within the simulation: Joining parties, and coalitions.

In the current game (Democracy 3) party joining is simple. Players build up over time a sympathy to a party if they are super happy (player) or super unhappy (opposition) eventually joining that party. A weakening of sympathy for a party over time results in the player leaving. I decided to keep this system, but to position the new 2nd opposition party as a ‘centrist’ party between the player and the opposition. In other words, if a value of 100% happiness means joining the players party, and 0% means joining the opposition, 37.5% means joining the new centrist opposition. Why 37.5%? because we still see 50% happiness as being the point where you will vote for the player (if you vote…)

Let me explain the term centrist. I’m not referring to politically centrist at all. In fact the game makes no explicit assumption about the political position of either opposition party. Basically the ‘opposition’ are the party who absolutely oppose your party position on everything, and the ‘centrist’ party (the new 3rd party) are midway between you and the opposition. In theory, your party could be centrist, the opposition right wing, and the new opposition mildly left wing. The key point here is that the new opposition is *closer* to your position than the old opposition is.

random image of yang for no reason

So…I’ve done all the code for this and modeled correctly voters joining and leaving all 3 parties over time. So thats in the game and working (hurrah!). The next thing I need to do is to code in the effects of a coalition.

If your party gets >50% of the votes in an election (ignoring absent voters) then you win just as before. If you do NOT get that, but you ARE the largest party…then you go into a coalition in government with you sharing power with one of the other parties. At first sight, this makes no difference to how the game is played…

…but actually it reduces your political capital each turn dramatically. In other words…you really cant get much done. HOWEVER, you will be regularly offered deals by your coalition partner, where they basically say ‘implement/cancel/change THIS policy, and we will give you X political capital’. Obviously we will engineer code that will always make that an *interesting* decision for you to make. In other words, to reference my own countries recent coalition government, this is ‘give us a referendum on political reform and we will stop blocking your economic policy’. Obviously in real politics this happens all the time (in >2 party systems).

yet another group of happy politicians in a coalition! compromise feel so great!

Hopefully this strikes an interesting and acceptable compromise between having all the machinations of multi-party government, while still keeping the game playable and understandable to people who enjoy Democracy 3. I do intend to make this totally optional as a parameter when you start a new game, so you could (for example) play the USA as a true 3 party system, or Germany as a 2 party system, whatever appeals to you.

This is the first big ‘gameplay’ change that makes Democracy 4 different to democracy 3. So far its been tech changes (multi-language text rendering and vector graphics) and UI changes (OMG it looks so much nicer). We also have a lot of content changes planned (policies,events etc). More on that over time…

Democracy 4 GUI update

We are still working away on Democracy 4…although I have not blogged about it much. This is partly because Jeff is doing a lot of ‘under-the-hood’ debugging and GUI support stuff, so there has not been that much to show for it yet. Unlike many sequels we are doing this GUI first and Mechanics / Content second, so for a while, it will look like a beautifully re-skinned democracy 3, until we start adding all the new events and policies etc.

Anyway… I sometimes forget how much slicker and cleaner the new UI is because I stare at it a lot, but here is a side by side comparison of the electioneering ‘perceptions screen’ for both games:

(BTW we likely will not use those same Democracy 3 icons for those 3 things, they are placeholder).

Re-sized screenshots do not do the GUI justice really, because its vector based and super-super-crisp. I do think that having a proper UI style guide, and vector graphics is going to make the new version feel SO much nicer to use. The previous game is from 2013 and starting to look like it…

There will be a lot more updates to come once we start putting in the new events. We just ordered all of the event graphics (and there are 95 of them this time, for even more actual events) and I’m looking forward to blogging about the new stuff we are adding.

Oh and in case you didn’t realize from the above screenshot, ALL of the content from Social Engineering, Extremism, Clones & Drones and Electioneering will ship in Democracy 4 as standard.

Reboot red (Banff)

So recently I went to Canada for reboot banff, although tbh half my reasoning was to go to the games conference, and half was to go on holiday with my wife as we had been there a long while ago and loved it, so we knew it would be a great place to go visit. This was a pretty small games conference (500ish people), when you compare it to the likes of GDC, but it was worthwhile, the talks were mostly good, and the atmosphere (in every way) was just so much better.

One of the things I really dislike about GDC is its price tiers. You are literally barcode scanned when entering a talk to check you are sufficiently wealthy enough to hear what is being said. The top tiers are stupidly pricey. I’m a bloody successful developer, but I’m not paying thousands of dollars just to sit in a few room and hear people tell me about the way they used shaders in their AAA game, or to give us a post-mortem that is 50% advertising and pitching for a better job at another company…

Everything in reboot is the same price, plus you get FREE coffee and buns/cakes/yummy things in the morning and afternoon and a FREE buffet lunch. Everyone mingles, everyone is chill. There are no torturous queues to be able to spend $5 on a crap cup of coffee… its ace.

Plus for fucks sake…banff. I’m sure we all know about the insane homeless problem and literally shit problems in San Francisco. and here is a picture I took at banff from my hotel window:

I was celebrating something while I was there, so we did something truly insane and went on a helicopter trip to the nearby mountains, and I cannot convey the awesomeness of this with a mere photo like this:

But trust me it was amazeballs.

The hotel that the conference was at is very nice, although you need deep pockets to eat there each night, but luckily the town is way cheaper and a very pleasant walk 15 minutes along a clear glacier-water stream. Hardly a chore. We saw a fair few deer on our walks there, although TBH living in the UK we have deer in our garden now and then but still…its pretty cool.

The talks were a nice variety, a fair few businessy ones which I found interesting. Some slightly avante-garde ones too, but I chose mostly business and industry ones. I went to probably 4x as many talks at this as I do at GDC, which is amazing really, given GDC has about 50,000 talks (about 5 of which you can go to as an indie…).

Anyway, the real value in these things is the over-dinner and after-party chats with fellow devs. I met some new people, re-connected with old friends etc, and it was cool. I definitely learned some things, and its good to take the pulse of other indies in person. Would I go next year? Maybe… I don’t know what to do about GDC. I’m thinking NO, mostly because of flying, but it will be Democracy 4 launch year so maybe I should? Still undecided.

But I give reboot 5/5. You should go.

Positech’s Cameroon School #2 photo update

As you might know from previous blog posts, in partnership with the charity ‘Building schools for Africa‘. we have funded the construction of two schools in Cameroon. The first one was completed ages ago, and the new one should be opened real soon. Here are some new pictures:

To recap earlier posts: ” The project is just the three classrooms, an office, a latrine with hand washing facilities, 27 benches to seat 54-81 children (depending on their age and size!) and 3 tables and chairs for the teachers, tools and seeds for the school garden, project management and monitoring costs. ” Cost to us: about £24,000.

Global gaming competition and the collapse of western cultural advantage

Right then… I’m in Canada for #rebootred, so on a laptop, and this will be a simple blog post with no images, but hopefully distills a lot of careful thinking…

I am worried that western game devs, (mostly indies) are totally and utterly fucked. I am super-worried (and confident) that western indie game devs who are based in California (esp san fran area) are so hugely utterly fucked that its like a disaster movie. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, but soon. Here is why.

The mindset of many california/west coast USA indies seems ridiculously optimistic. In talks, many of them talk about game design, company culture, personal development, aesthetics, mental health, safe-spaces and how they are anti-crunch, pro-union, and want to create idealistic creative environments, but rarely touch on economics or money. All of this sounds wonderful, and positive and desirable in a happy, optimistic ‘wouldn’t it be great if star trek:TNG was real’ kind of way. The trouble is, I think its idealistic naive insanity and that historical chance is currently lulling people into thinking this is going to continue.

There are basically two points to make here. One is how exactly I think this is naive insanity (I’m trying hard to avoid the word bollocks), and the other is why nobody has seemingly noticed yet. Onwards with point one:

Its stupidly expensive, and inefficient to make video games using middle class American twenty somethings working in California or Vancouver/Seattle. If you asked me how to lose money by writing software, I guess three of my best ideas would be to hire people with as little experience as possible, ensure they were only vaguely pressured into working real hard, and also place them in the most expensive office space I could find. That should do the trick.

Newsflash: You get at better at programming with experience. You get better at art with experience. You get better at almost EVERYTHING with experience. I am vastly, hugely, hilariously better at coding now than when I was 40 (I’m 50). The code I wrote when I was 30 was embarrassing. The code I wrote when I was 20 was a joke. I started coding aged 11. I am still learning. The code in Production Line is way better than Democracy 3. If I was hiring coders now (I’m not), someones advanced age (assuming equiv experience) would be a HUGE factor in selection. Your grey hair might not be a huge boost for your prospects on tinder, but they are a boost for your prospects as a potential employee at my company. Why? Because I’m not a total idiot. People with 30+ years of experience are BETTER at stuff. How is that even up for debate.

But the average age of indie developers seems to be going down each year. Its crazy. Your first attempt at making a game is usually awful. You think its better than it is because unity superficially makes stuff look better than it really is. The western attitude of praising youth over experience is a crippling flaw. The flipside view in many asian countries makes vastly more sense. Its 2019, much work is now mental, not physical. A 20 year old laborer is more productive than a 50 year old laborer. But coders….lol no.

Modern western millenial (or zoomer???) attitudes to work are different to the boomer/genX attitudes. Thats in many ways an improvement. I am a huge workaholic. I will work myself to death in order to win. I LOVE finding myself in a situation where the person who works the most wins, because then I know I will win. This is very unhealthy, and very bad, and rightly looked down upon. Its also the predominant attitude still in a huge swathe of the world, especially the ‘developing’ world, or to put it another way: China.

California/Seattle/Vancouver are rich. The middle class kids who lightly rebel against their parents by having dyed hair, a mac book air and a copy of unity need not fear too much that they will end up in the gutter hungry. The game dev thing is their dream, but if it fucks up, they can get a job at facebook/microsoft/amazon for a high six figure salary anyway. Their parents likely own houses that have quintupled in value and will bail them out anyway. Do you think the average seattle indie dev has the same hunger to work on their game as a kid from a poor family in Shenzen who sees this as their ONE CHANCE to escape life in a factory?

Poor people have an added incentive. Harsh but true. I’m not exactly ‘from money’ (to put it mildly), so I know this. Nothing encourages you to work harder than hunger, and west-coast indie devs dont have it.

I could look up relative apartment/office rental costs in China versus Seattle/SF here, but why bother? you already know the answer. A dev in India/Russia/China/South America has a trivial office rental bill compared to you. Guess what… a $20 strategy game royalty buys a lot more *stuff* in mumbai than it does in san francisco, but the developer still earns the same $20 regardless of where they coded the game. Steam doesnt deduct income from chinese developers because they *cheat* by developing games somewhere more affordable.

So yeah… pure economics mean that western devs, in western cities, with western attitudes, and work-life balance are fucked. You cannot compete. Its over, you lost. Poverty awaits. You*are*fucked. Point one ends here.

Now point two… if this is really true, how the hell is ANYONE still in business making indie games in SF/London/Seattle?


Anyone who has witnessed triple-A devs outsource art or design or code to the developing world will say its CULTURE that *we* have an advantage on, and *they* don’t. Chinese devs cant make art that appeals to the precious artistic sensibilities of all the people buying games, which is rich westerners, hence, they might be ok to model the odd tree…but chinese devs can never compete with western ones for creating real IP, or whole games…


Yeah maybe…in the past. But thats bullshit now. Firstly, The chinese economy has been transformed, and there is now a HUGE middle class. There are a staggering number of chinese gamers, playing everything. The idea of Chinese outsourcers making content for rich westerns is seriously out of date. If anything, its now hungry western indie devs asking how they can ‘break in’ to the huge and lucrative Chinese market.

Secondly, the whole ‘cultural advantage’ thing is about to become bullshit. In the past, people had a point. Thanks to WW2, my own country (England) was economically kicked in the nuts a while ago, and became effectively subservient in economic terms to the USA. As a result, US culture invaded and dominated our own, to the extent that English people know what Hamburgers, High-School, High-School proms, Little-League, Baseball, Cheerleaders, Trick-or-treat and Pretzels are, even though none of this is English. You can make a video game in san francisco about a pretzel-munching cheerleader at the high school prom, and thats just fine, because US culture has basically conquered the world. US culture dominates, and thus people 100% immersed in it in San Francisco get an advantage over kids in rural China.

Not any more.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Gangnam Style’ was the tipping point towards Asian dominance of global culture. Maybe instead its ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Maybe it will be some movie/game from next year. Hard to tell, but everybody can see the direction of movement.

In economic terms We have ZERO defence against domination by asia of almost everything. We have got away with ignoring this for a few decades because of the cultural overhang of western (esp US) media that created a narrative of needing to get IP and art from the west if you wanted to be a success in the media. That cultural advantage is collapsing right now.

To clarify: I dont see this as a BAD thing. Or a GOOD thing. Its just a thing. Its the gears of history. Britain was good at shipbuilding and built a trading empire based on naval might that let us get away with punching above our weight culturally and economically for a while. Then the US had their turn, after WW2 basically fucked everybody else. Now its time for Asia to take both the the cultural and economic crown. Stuff changes. All I’m trying to do is spot when changes might cause me, or people I know, to have to adjust.

TL;DR: There is no safe space to protect from the economics of Chinese game development.

This is just my view. I could be totally wrong. I’ve never even been to India, China or Russia. Am I wrong?