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

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?

20 thoughts on Global gaming competition and the collapse of western cultural advantage

  1. I have to disagree. Your arguments about cost etc. have been true for a long time and apply to software development as much as game development. But even though many have tried to replicate Silicon Valley’s success, none have succeeded to the same extent despite all of them having cheaper property values. California has an excellent university system and powerful networking effects pooling the greatest talents in the world – not just the U.S. – to the area. You also seem to buy in too heavily to Silicon Valley’s nice speech about respecting unions and mental health. But those corporations speak those words with their mouths while ruthlessly extracting value with their actions.

    The only reason that the Chinese market has developed its own software alternatives is that the Chinese government has a thousand regulatory hurdles, censorship requirements, and requirements regarding partnering with Chinese companies, all to stop U.S. companies competing in China. Now that they’re finding that countries in the West are no longer willing to play ball with them, their companies will similarly find it impossible to sell in the U.S., just like Huawei.

    If you think this is going to end with Trump, I highly doubt it. The U.S. political environment as a whole, left and right, is increasingly united against China. Warren’s regulatory measures and sanctions, while not tariffs, would hurt China more lastingly than anything Trump has done.

    In addition, I don’t think China’s cultural environment will ever compete with the U.S. Their artistic works are heavily monitored and creativity is stifled due to the government’s censorship. Outside of China it is rare for any Chinese works to sell well. Your comparison using Crazy Rich Asians is ridiculous. Do you forget that the movie is made and starred by Chinese-Americans? American nationals, not Chinese nationals.

    It’ll be a long time before China’s cultural influence reaches even a tenth of South Korea’s or Japan’s, nations with much smaller middle classes and economies yet outsized cultural influence. Reaching the U.S.’s level is a distant dream for China.

    1. Interesting points. FWIW I dont think china’s censorship will last forever, and even if it does, many, many video games would not fall foul of any censorship restrictions. There is nothing preventing a big sprawling sci fi or fantasy epic being made by chinese devs that offends nobody in the communist party.

      FWIW when discussing the unions/mental health/safe spaces stuff, I’m specifically referring to the more idealistic indie developers. I think that the more ruthless, arguably evil triple-A megacorps are actually better placed because the reality (not the public image) of their dev process is closer to the chinese work ethic.

      Sure, there are americans in crazy rich asians, and the movie even has some parts filmed in new york. Thats great… but its still a huge step towards showing that 100% asian focused movie blockbusters cant succeed without any caucasian stars. I’d take less notice if CRA starred tom cruise or Keira Knightley, but it doesn’t.

      1. For Crazy Rich Asians it does not focus on Asian stars in terms of nationality. The two protagonists are Asian-Americans. it’s about Asian-American identity and the immigrant experience, and the difficulties in dealing with your more traditional family members. It’s a fundamentally American story even if it has characters of Asian ethnicity. It didn’t do very well in Asia because it wasn’t meant for Asian audiences. It’s not an example at all of how the “western cultural advantage is eroding” because it is a Western cultural product created by, starring, and focusing on characters who were brought up in Western cultures.

  2. People with 30+ years of experience are BETTER at stuff. How is that even up for debate.

    I would actually like to make an attempt.
    Programmers require insight into the business and technical aspects of a project to be successful.
    I think that’s key for engineers of all ages.
    I’ve worked with a number of younger (20s) devs as well as a few that are 50+

    The thing to keep in mind is that technology and business both change. Your experience with C++ game engines might be unrivaled but what about modern entity framework in .Net core? Or python AI?
    Older devs have even written some code I’ve refactored for clarity and correctness. I’ve also seen (and sometimes been) the younger dev who doesn’t know what a thing is or its workings.
    Db optimizations by our 50 somethings might be done in 10 minutes that I wouldn’t be able to do in 10 days. i just don’t know how to do it and need to learn. TDD however I think I’m ahead in that regard. I think the real question is interpersonal behaviors and what a person learned, it isn’t so much age dependent. So 50 somethings can be experts and write great code. 20 somethings less likely to but the gap isn’t always that wide. It even goes to the youth in some cases. It really really depends. Ask me about cobol you’ll get a Wikipedia article and a blank stare. Ask someone else about functional programming and you’ll get the same.
    TLDR; age discrimination is just discrimination. The person is the key element.

  3. Before starting, English is not my mother tongue so I will try to be as clear as possible. I would also like to add that my knowledge of Chinese culture is quite limited.

    I will start with the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”. You have to put the film into context. “Crazy Rich Asians” is located in Singapore whose culture is heavily influenced by British culture and the English-speaking world. The same film would not have been possible in China. Where I live I see a lot of wealthy young Chinese people and it’s very difficult to interact with them. With young wealthy people from Singapore, it is very easy to connect through British cultural heritage. And Crazy Rich Asians had an impact in Asia but less in China. So this film is not a good example to demonstrate a cultural shift towards Chinese or even Asian culture.

    About China’s “censorship”, I think you are misled if you think that China’s “censorship” is not going to last. Chinese “censorship” is not perceived as censorship by Chinese people. If you talk to young Chinese people, they are more scared by their mum than by Chinese “censorship”. Chinese people never really experienced free speech as we understand it. There was a certain openness under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but this is over since 2012. In the last seven years, Xi Jinping destroyed every possibility to use free speech in China (he relied a lot on Confucianism and legalism to do it). For the last 5 000 years of their history, Chinese people have only experience autocracy. It is common for Chinese people to joke and say “The empire of the Communist Party” like they would say the “Zhou empire” or “Ming empire”. So, “censorship” is here for a long time and I am pretty certain you and I will be dead before we see the end of it.

    If we come back to the field of video games, obviously Chinese gaming studios will develop games tailored for Chinese censorship, but this doesn’t mean that those games will make it big on the world stage. Far from it. And I know that many people think that the Chinese market is huge thanks to its huge rich middle class. As in our societies, I would be careful with the word middle class. It is always hard to define the middle class. As you know a lot about car production systems, I will use the car market as an example to show that the Chinese middle class is not as wealthy as we think. In Europe, the average middle-class car is a compact model (saloon, hatchback or SUV) which cost around 23000-25000 (£ or €, no difference for now). In China, the most sold cars are compact saloons and SUVs whose price is around 12000-14000 (£ or €). A 23000-25000 price tag will get you the most expensive Chinese brand models. So, in the end, the Chinese middle class is huge but its purchasing power is not on par with ours. When a Chinese gaming studio makes a game that meets the state regulations, its costs are no relatively cheaper than a game made by a Western studio and only sold in Western countries.

    The only way for a Chinese gaming studio to make a big hit is to export the game to our countries. At that stage, it will have to comply with our customs. This will be a difficult exercise and the way it would work according to me is if Western societies have integrated part of Chinese culture. That is only possible with soft power. It’s not on the menu for today or even tomorrow. Many Japanese learning students start because they have an interest in Japanese culture, the Same for Korean culture. Chinese learning students do not learn Chinese for its culture and civilisation, but money. Chinese culture is non-existent in our countries, so I don’t know how a Chinese gaming studio would make a lot of money by selling in our countries a game made in China. And I don’t see it happening in the next 10 or even 20 years. But I may be wrong.

    So am I scared by the Chinese gave development industry or software development industry? No. I am more worried about potential Indonesian gaming studios.

    1. Its awesome to read so many great comments here. Like I say, I’ve never even *been* to china. This is my theory I’m putting out there, and happy to be corrected and better informed.

      I agree, that the middle class disposable income re china/US is a huge difference, but even if you only look at the *wealthy* chinese…there are now lots. To go with your car example, Tesla have just completed a factory there to sell the $35,000 model 3 electric car in huge numbers. A tiny proportion of the chinese population is still huge compared to many western countries, in absolute terms.

      And yes, I’m probably being optimistic on the censorship thing to an extent, but with all my points, I’m looking not at the current situation, but the long term trend. When I was a kid, the idea of a mcdonalds restaurant in china was ridiculous. Change takes time, but it still seems to happen. NOBODY was a western tourist in china when I was a kid, things change.

  4. Asian(not only China) games started to appear all over my Steam blocks when browsing without any connection for a while. They are more active at western digital stores as anyone can observe. New generations are enjoying oriental cultures more than ever. Especially anime like games(not only hentai ones..).

    I felt like Japan and Korea developing quite nice when it comes to creative and intuitive productions but they are still too domestic, like really good game designs don’t have English translations and played a lot inside so we have no idea.

    And China, investing huge to western, maybe more to East EU companies or products with reasonable and honest offers such as Poland, Ukraine, Turkey as those developers suffering finding local investments for long term projects. Low cost creative production and high value($) income is tempting.

    And 3rd world countries(almost) realized that situation even if it is too late, started to support digital productions/companies with potential of bringing foreign money to country. Giving them to bunch of bonuses such as tax discounts, supportive benefits such as office, consultant, software expense etc.. Unstable economies and human resource is still huge question mark as they are directly connected with development and finance. Qualified potential developers migrated to west. If they will have hard times like you mentioned, maybe more will come back, in 5-10 years meanwhile new gen young developers become 30+.

  5. Hi, I’m relatively new to game development but in my previous life I did a lot of economics. The key here is the concept of comparative advantage. Even if the Chinese are better and cheaper at every aspect of game development, there will be some parts they won’t do because they won’t be as productive at it as the parts they are the best at.

    For example, let’s say you hire an administrative assistant. You can do every part of his job faster than he can; you can even type faster. But you still hire him, because your time is best spent coding.

    In the case of game development, the same will apply; some aspects will (and probably are, right now) best done in the West.

    All that said, the case could be made that the Chinese aren’t better and cheaper at everything in game development. The best illustration of that will be to follow the money; if the market is still paying Western game development firms and individuals, then presumably there’s a reason for that beyond mere ignorance or parochialism.

    1. Ha! I did economics at the London school of economics. Hardly anyone online seems to understand the law of comparative advantage! I actually got flashbacks to uni reading your post :D

      I think you can follow the money to everyone buying western games right now *because* western culture is so dominant, that the ‘localism’ of western games is not jarring. I think as western cultural dominance fades, that localism will become more apparent, and we will see that in a financial shift away from the west, especially from the west-coast/new-york axis of exportable USA culture.

  6. Hello,

    I remember seeing a documentary in which a Chinese company tried to attract and keep young people into factory-working by building silicon-valley-like campuses and workplace advantages. Actually, it’s been so long since I saw it, it might have been during the Hu Jintao era, so it has probably changed a lot. So I believe they’re in the same slippery slope of tending to workplace happiness as the Bay Area, just with a time offset. After all, clothing factories have moved from China to Bangladesh because China became too expensive…

    I also remember reading that, before there was a real games industry in China, the Chinese used to play western PC games, as opposed to japanese and console games, so it looks like their studios are developing these kinds of games because that’s what their audience expects now. So western studios will continue competing with similar games, and, well, the big difference is that Chinese games won’t even need to be exported to make a large profit. I have a hard time noticing the influence of Chinese culture in this game for example:
    (Maybe it’s in more subtle details, like the way the story is written, or where it is going…)
    Actually I see more western studios tried to appeal to Chinese culture, all going with their own adaptation of the monkey-king story ^^’

    I can tell a story of a game that I worked on (I took part in ports of that game, it was originally released more that 15 years ago) that eventually became a huge hit in Russia because it basically was an adventure in former Soviet Russia from it’s author’s western perspective. With games as with everything, people love when we talk about them. We were asked to port it on some Russia-exclusives devices and mobile stores. So I think there’s still something to earn when you are interested in the culture of your target audience.
    I think it was worth trying to release your game in China 2 years ago more than now: nowadays, either you’ll lose a lot of time trying to comply with Chinese censorship, which has hardened, or your game will feature some innocent thing that will get it review-bombed by Chinese “patriots”.

    For developer’s age, I have a different experience that yours (well, I can’t say I have a real “indie” experience): companies I’ve worked in, that cut down costs by hiring continually young developers, don’t usually make successful games, and there’s usually hopefully one older programmer that can save the day so they don’t go out of business. (I also witnessed sometimes the opposite, where everyone listened the opinion of the wise-old programmer, even though it was someone who hadn’t made a success since the 80’s and can’t work properly in a team…)
    While companies that just manage to keep their developers inside for years seem to continually stay in business. There are still stories of experienced teams that fell apart, like Ultra Ultra…

  7. I think western AAA developers are still in business because games are a hit-driven, winner-takes-all business.

    In that context it doesn’t matter if your developers cost 2x, 3x, 5x or 10x what they might cost elsewhere, when you make 100,000x (winner!) or 0.01x (loser!) the development cost back. Development costs in Overwatch, Fortnite or Minecraft are rounding errors.

    For an indie game business there seems to be more ground for ‘middle success’, so cost comes into it more because you’re dealing with similar orders of magnitude on expenditure and income. You’re not going to survive on ‘marginal’ successes when you live in San Francisco or London, but you might manage elsewehere.

    1. I’ve got an artist friend who made a living by combining selling 3D models on game engine stores, and moving to Morocco, where the money went a lot further.

  8. I think you ignore the importance the culture of individuality. The west outcompetes in innovation and cultural creation partly because it is a “loose” culture which does not punish deviation from social norms.

    The Chinese have very many great qualities and will come to dominate economically. But radical individualism of the type that drives western culture is not a strength. They have much tighter enforcement of social norms and this ripples out into their culture.

    It’s not that there are not great Chinese creators, of course. But cultural averages have an effect.

    1. Very true. But in a sense, maybe thats my point? The rabid individualism of the west defines western culture, and also western stories and media. If individualism is not prevalent in china, then do chinese gamers want to play endless games where the protagonist is a rule-breaking individual?

      I remember reading many years ago about how the chinese government had made super-cheap or free use of chinese soldiers available to certain movie productions as long as the movie plot was in tune with chinese sensibilities. (IIRC hero and the golden chrysanthemum thingy are two). Those movies were examples of teaching that the state always prevails, something that is anathema to western culture.

      I guess I’m suggesting that when chinese devs start making games that are purely chinese influenced in terms of cultural attitudes (not so pro-individualism), that this lack of individualism, although it may make it harder to start an indie studio, may mean that the games design resonates more with the local audience.

      1. “The rabid individualism of the west defines western culture, and also western stories and media. If individualism is not prevalent in china, then do Chinese gamers want to play endless games where the protagonist is a rule-breaking individual?”

        I think you make a good point here, and I would extend it by saying that this is exactly why it will be extremely difficult for Chinese culture to spread in the way that US culture has spread via US Cultural Imperialism. US products and businesses can morph their presentation, message, and cultural identity to appeal to consumers in a variety of countries. This is one of the reasons that US culture _can be_ so virulent. Chinese companies, by comparison, have their arms tied behind their back and a gun to their head. They can only promote very specific state sanctioned cultural messages or they risk being put out of business or worse. Since those messages aren’t appealing to Western audiences, this puts them at a massive disadvantage when it comes to spreading their culture. And since video games are an entertainment product heavily steeped in culture and politics… you can see what I’m saying here.

        I’m not super worried about cheap Chinese labor pushing Western Dev’s out of the market. The competition I’m personally eyeing (and hiring) are out of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and other Central and South American countries, as well as competitive east Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand. They have a much more free pollination and crossover with the West. Based on other examples though, it seems very likely that at the point in which they develop world class video game industries (if they haven’t already) it seems likely that their standard and cost of living will have raised to the point where its harder for them to compete on that value.

        Though its worth noting that those folks aren’t dummies, and when they work for western companies they tend to charge _just under_ western prices.

    2. Also, this argument would apply to Japan which has a hyper-polite culture and yet Japan has been producing world-class games as long as anybody has.

  9. By the way, what is the development status of “democracy 4”? In what countries can I play?
    Also, I want to support not only ipad but also iphone.

  10. Good rant Cliff!

    The economical shift to china, doesn’t worry me… more governments should follow the US and negotiate better trade deals, or incentivize local industries… but the patricide of western culture is really sad.. and replacing it with racism, sexism and communism, but hey, it’s all okay, now that everything is a “social construct” :D

    Yeah the crunch and union argument makes zero sense to me!
    I blogged about it too, I found a local researcher that published the number of Uni students compared to local jobs, and yeah, a union isn’t going to help, well most likely send jobs to asia!

    Funny how you mention “indies”… for me, since 2013 it’s been a negative term, it started with the bandwagoning effect, then low quality, to loud indiedev’s with no games and evolving to just activism… I’m writing a blog on this! :P

    Anyway, that’s why I’d rather consume gamedev info (GDC, articles, etc) from 10+ years ago then 10+ days ago!

    Keep the blogs coming man! :D


  11. Looking forward to Chinese-designed awesome indie games – any month now, right? Or maybe it will be just a bunch of JRPGs, Panda Forest Adventure Bubble Pops and Supreme Super Force: The Battle Royals?

  12. This is what I don’t get, Cliff. Since the invention of the Internet and the paperless office, why oh why, are people still moving to work in expensive dirty cities, when they could live for cheap in the countyside, and work anywhere in the world online in virtual offices?

    Regarding China, I agree they’re a rising power, but if you grew up in the 1980s like me, you might remember they said at the time that Japan’s economy would take over the world. Well Japan caught up to the West, and then it began to stagnate, because you can’t lead if you only copy what the West already did.

    The other factor you haven’t considered is the imminent rise of robotics and AI in the next 10 years. Whichever country leads in that industry will rule the world. It won’t matter how hard their humans work, as most will be rendered unemployable. I expect the games industry will also downsize due to efficiency gains made, because of AI.

    Who do you think the world leaders in AI are? Some say Google.

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