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

Many minor improvements Plus…reusing old content?

So I am still busy working away on Democracy 4. I am currently at the ‘play lots of games, find stuff that seems broken, or not correct, or improvable… …and just work through that list’ phase of development. The game is perfectly playable, but has the odd crash, and a lot of little tweaks that are needed to make it reflect the reality of politics in 2020 instead of 2013.

The majority of these tweaks are super-minor, but they make the game so much better. Some of them are tiny UI things that people will only subconsciously notice. For example, we have ’emergency powers’ in the game now (a boost to political capital), and during that mode the central political capital icon now turns red :D. Something I coded just an hour ago was a change in the UI color of the policy slider to remind you when you cannot raise (or maybe lower) a policy slider due to lack of political capital. Its right there in the UI on the right, but coloring the actual slider bar is also a nice reminder I think:

I’ve also been going through a lot of the policies and tweaking the starting values for the UK, and making sure the numbers make sense. We added a policy of ‘state broadcaster’ for the UK, and some research showed me that I was vastly overestimating how much the BBC cost in comparison to total government spending. Stuff like that all needs a lot of tweaking.

Another thing you can see in that screenshot is the background color for minister profiles now ALWAYS shows the color that represents how happy (green) or sad (orange, then red) they are, so you subconsciously are always aware of their loyalties.

Plus there are a ton of links between policies that need tweaking, adding or removing. I have concluded that foreign investor tax breaks should improve foreign relations. This makes sense. You tend to be fairly kindly disposed towards governments that are helping you grow your own economy, and giving your companies good deals on investment. I had to vastly alter the equations for the ‘air strike’ event too. I had too many playthroughs where seemingly randomly some foreign country accused the UK of having WMD and bombed us. Oh dear…

Some things come as sudden inspiration in a ‘Why didn’t I do this before way’ like adding illustrative socialist/capitalist characters to the political compass:

Anyway… something I need to consider very soon is what to do about some old data from democracy 3 that I might like to include, but worry about players response to. For example, one of the policies in the game is the governments approach to handling automated trading on the stock market. Basically this makes GDP go up a bit, capitalists love it…but there is a slight risk of a disastrous ‘flash crash’ if its too lax. This is already a policy in ‘clones & drones‘, part of democracy 3, and thus its now in democracy 4 too.


To include that, means it will HAVE to mean including the ‘flash crash‘ event. This would be (believe it or not) the ONLY event that I am copying from D3 to D4. All the others are new. I sort of worry about this, because some people are bound to complain about ‘re-using content’, but TBH I’m reusing a bunch of content in other areas of the game already.

Frankly, the dictionary definition of socialist has not changed since 2013, so why rewrite it? Same for the basic descriptions for stuff like income tax, or police force. We ARE adding a ton of new policies, and all the character and event art and UI art and so on is entirely new, as are all the SFX & music. The game is overwhelmingly new content… so I really shouldn’t feel bad about including just ONE event from D3…

I think the problem is that 1% gamers are louder than the other 99%. Its my belief that society online has become much worse in the last five years. Social media has ramped up peoples urges to be abusive, to criticize, to complain, to accuse, and to general act like a dick. Part of me really dreads being accused of just ‘reskinning the old game’, which is not what the last few years of work has been about… But on the other hand…

…I am clearly NOT re-skinning an old game. The OVERWHELMING majority of players will see that, and in any case, the really angry obsessed 1% who disagree can refund their steam game if they really genuinely are not going to play it… so why should I feel so worried about upsetting them? especially when even if every single byte and pixel of game content was created anew in a clean room, they would still cry #lazydevs! at me for daring to even release a new game ;D

I guess I am just sharing typical developer angst. Its a pity, because I LOVE early access, and player feedback, and sharing design debates and concerns and ideas with players. However, I am not someone for whom really angry criticism just washes over me. It *does* get to me, both depressing me and angering me, in a way I know it shouldn’t.

Not *that* long now until we have a playable alpha that we get into the hands of actual customers who can tell me what a horrible game i’ve made :D

BTW we now have forums for the game where you can tell me how much you hate me and everything I stand for. Here they are.

Consequences in Democracy 4

As discussed in an earlier blog post, I think what democracy 4 needed was a way to bring home the true consequences of actions to the player. This has always been an area that was missing from the democracy 3 design. You can give the police machine-guns, you can legalize heroin, you can put in place all the apparatus of a police state, or a religious theocracy, and the only real consequences you see are some numbers going up and down.

Of course, the democracy games are known for being interesting complex simulations, not for whizz bang visuals or for feeling like ‘yuo are really there’. Thats a deliberate design decision, in that I would rather spend the time (and money) making a complex like graphics-lite sim than making a shallow, simple game with some 3D people doing limited things. Its a foolish indie developer indeed who thinks they can ever compete with triple-A studios in terms of graphics.

However, I think I can have some of that feeling of emotional resonance, just by using text, if the text is worded right, and if it fits within the style of the rest of the game. As a result, I’m introducing this new ‘media reports’ feature into the game. Here is an example:

These are new things that crop up on the next turn screen now and then. They are not called ‘events’ internally, so I’m avoiding that term here. An event is something like a change in your credit score or a factory closure, which has actual measurable consequences wwithin the simulation. They can be great news or disasters and can shift the simulation in a way you have to respond to. Here is an ‘event’:

By contrast, the media reports have no consequences whatsoever. They are simply putting into words the impact of decisions you have made (or in some cases not made, such as policies not implemented). The idea behind them is that they make you stop and think about the choices you have made, and have to accept thoughts like ‘Yeah, shes going to die because of my policy, but I guess thats acceptable’.

In the real world, this sort of stuff does happen. The media is generally rubbish at doing analysis and taking a broad view and educating the citizens on what is going on in an accurate way. I would be astonished if one in a hundred UK citizens have any idea what our GDP is, or even what our current unemployment rate is, or be sure if they knew if crime, and violent crime had gone up or down in the last 5 years, ditto pollution, or productivity.

Basically the media knows most people will not choose to take in data that way, so they pick ‘human interest’ stories that they think reflect broader trends. This is the classic case of the war reporter zooming in on a child’s teddy bear in some rubble. it tells us nothing about a war, apart from reminding us that children are affected too, but that can have a huge political impact.

So anyway, I now have a system for adding this to Democracy 4. Its basically a folder full of text files that contain data that describes the circumstances under which it triggers, and some text templates I can populate with citizens names (so they will be suitably local). Example:

Name = labourlaws
Text = "A special report tonight on the closing down of one of our oldest manufacturing 
between her tears, CEO [FEMALEFULLNAME] tells us how heartbreaking it is for the family 
firm to close down.
'Its just impossible to run a business in this country with
the state of our [POLICYNAME]?' She told us. 'The unions are
running us into the ground. We cannot compete any more'."
Policy = "LabourLaws"

This is a media report that triggers if labour laws is a policy currently implemented, and if its set somewhere between 65 and 100%. It also requires GDP to be below 60%. This is so that we don’t have a media event about a business closing when the economy is going super-well.

All thats required to add these is just some time and imagination, and some spell checking :D. Its just text, and there is no problem adding hundreds of them. The only reason the game is unlikely to actually ship with hundreds is that it means HUGE translation costs, because a proper professional translation is maybe $0.10 per word. So that media report is $6.70 to translate. This probably seems reasonable, but if we have 100 of these, it means $670 to translate them…

…into one language.

If we do the bare minimum for a strategy game (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish). Thats over $2,500. We definitely want to add Chinese, Russian, Portuguese to the game, and this pushes it close to $5,000 just for this feature. Its probably a tenth of the games text at most, and I anticipate a proper paid translation of the game to my target languages is going to cost $50-60,000 at this rate.

maybe I shouldn’t care about this, after all its a mostly text-based game, isn’t that an acceptable chunk of the games budget? Also I do know that a lot of indies (even big name successful ones) rely on fan-translations. I am tempted to consider this, because the professional costs are just crazy, and I’m not sure the quality is any different. My only concern is liability. I need to know the translation is correct, not some random angry political rant snuck into my game by someone else…. hmmm…

Oh BTW yes, we will eventually support this being trivially moddable too, so people can add their own :D.

Democracy 4: A better economic simulation

For a while now I have been putting off addressing a problem in the economic simulation for Democracy 4. Basically we have no monetary policy in the game, only fiscal policy, and for a long time, thats been pretty much fine and nobody has complained.

To put things simply, fiscal policy is when the government raises money through taxes and spends it on stuff. Monetary policy is where government messes around with how much actual cash exists in the economy. They are different ways to do things, and there are fierce arguments (what a surprise) about which works best in which situations.

For the lifetime of Democracy 3, its been a moot issue, because outside of Zimbabwe, nobody has made any major monetary policy decisions for a very long time. Inflation has not been a hot political topic for ages, and the terms ‘deflation’ and ‘stagflation‘ have not been in the news for probably forty years. Thus nobody objected to them not being in D3.

But 2020 is not 2013. Since the global financial crisis, a number of policy instruments have become more popular, and the discussion of monetary policy is suddenly very real. The two policies that have been active and also discussed are Quantitative Easing and helicopter money. Both are now in the game…

If I'm Holding Cash, Where Should It Be? - Osbon Capital Management

Quantitative easing is basically printing money, although policymakers pretend it isn’t, to avoid comparisons with the Wiemar republic or Zimbabwe, because it has a very bad reputation. QE is a special form of money printing where the central bank pushes a button and gives itself (for example) 100 billion dollars, then buys bonds and other relatively safe assets on the stock market worth 100 billion dollars. No ordinary people see any of this money, but it pushes up the stock market, resulting in higher business confidence, more wealth for stockholders, and with any luck, a more stable and maybe even booming economy!

Obviously this has side effects. This basically causes stealth inflation (possibly not visible because it is used to prevent deflation (prices falling) as a last resort. There is no way to avoid the fact that any form of money printing creates inflation. This makes people will cash deposits worse off (people with some savings) and can drive up prices. It also makes your currency weaker. However, if you have shares on the stock market, you are better off, and arguably it can cause an asset-bubble.


Helicopter money is similar. Its another form of money printing, but you basically hand the money in envelopes to every citizen. This has a similar effect in stabilizing the economy, but it makes the poorest better off (typically everyone gets the same payment), and is not skewed towards wealthy stockholders. The problem with helicopter money is you cannot reverse the process if it goes too far, whereas with QE, you can basically sell the bought assets, then destroy the imaginary money you bought them with, thus reducing the money supply, and stopping inflation going mad. FWIW I am lumping in ‘Peoples QE‘ with helicopter money to simplify things.

So…with those two very quick-and-dirty explanations out the way, how does this fit into Democracy 4?

18 Curious Facts You Didn't Know About Hyperinflation – Len Penzo ...

Both QE and Helicopter Money are ways to IMMEDIATELY boost GDP, and either make the rich/poor happy/sad depending which you pick, that do not cost anything at all. (You printed the cash remember!). Obviously there has to be a catch right?

Well yes… inflation and the eventual risk of hyperinflation (which is catastrophic and rarely recoverable). This means I have had to model both inflation and hyperinflation (I also added a border wall policy at the same time btw :D). These are now in the game, with a variety of inputs and effects and I’m still fiddling with getting the balance right which is HUGELY difficult. (The true economic theories here are amazingly complex and often contradictory so you can imagine what a mess it can all be…).

I have found (so far) that the best way to model the negative effects of inflation is through prices on food and oil. Most countries do at least some importing of oil and food, and this is a way to reflect the broader globalization trend and the impact of your currency weakening against the country from which you buy stuff. (For the US this would be china). To put things bluntly, if Donald Trump gave everybody in the US an extra (printed) hundred thousand USD, then the USD / Yuan exchange rate *should* change, making goods imported from china more expensive.


I am sure there will be very many long, multi-page debates on my forums once the game goes into pre-alpha sales and people with economics degrees, MSCs and PHDs p[lay the game and argue if certain effects make sense or are too strong/weak. This is tough stuff to model in a video game.

And yet… it has to be in Democracy 4. Look at any online politics forum and you will find people (especially on the left of the political spectrum) arguing that the government can print money as an alternative to austerity, and people on the right saying thats nonsense and we have to live within our means. It HAS to be in the game, and I bet loads of people will argue that I’ve done it wrong.

I guess thats game design for you :D

Healthcare cost and benefits in democracy 4 (kind of)

I read the infamous article yesterday that a lot of UK people are screaming and hurling abuse at over twitter. Basically a commentator wrote about the tradeoffs between continuing with a lock down in the UK due to COVID19, or letting people go back to work, and the relative impact on health in the short and long term.

99% of people hurling abuse did not read the article, and if they did, they did not understand it.

Here is a shorter & simpler version of the argument:

  • The UK lock-down will prevent X deaths from people with an average life expectancy of Y and a general state of health of Z.
  • The economic cost of the lock down will result in W extra deaths from suicide/obesity/other factors and K extra deaths due to the reduced funding for healthcare over P years as the economic cost of the lock-down bailout package is repaid
  • Therefore it MIGHT be the case that the cure is worse than the disease and we should stop it, allowing X people to die.

Now pretty obviously, whether or not the argument is right depends MASSIVELY on the values for X,Y,Z,W,K and P. These figures are all highly speculative, and open to interpretation and re-evaluation, and we cannot be sure of any of them…but thats fine, it doesn’t change the core of the argument, an argument which we already have enshrined in UK government in an organisation called NICE.

Britain's National Health Service Continues to Struggle | Neil ...

NICE is the national institute for health and care excellence, and its job is basically to look at drugs/treatments the NHS might like, and work out if they make economic sense for the NHS to use them. Given non-infinite money, and cash spent on treatment Y cannot be sued on treatment Z, so obviously NICE has to do a balancing act to ensure that the most lives are save for a given health budget.

Sometimes, people get upset about NICE refusing drugs, and thats understandable when it affects you, but I cannot help but see what NICE does as logical, and essential. Budgets are never infinite, choices MUST be made.

In Democracy 4, the player makes these decision all the time. If you set the state healthcare (or alternative policy such as vouchers) budget to maximum, then health will go up. The link may not be linear, but it will definitely go up. However, the budget for this needs paying for, which if you are unlucky, can mean a debt crisis, or cutbacks in other areas leading to recession, thus unemployment, obesity, poverty…all things that will…reduce the standard of health…

This feedback mechanism, where in some cases raising X to boost Y, also reduces A, which causes B which then paradoxically REDUCES y… is a common theme both in the game, and in real world economics. Basically…real-world-shit is complicated! Its also something that is intuitively hard for us to grasp. As primitive mammals we didn’t need to think 6 moves ahead. We barely needed to think 2 moves ahead, which is why Democracy 3/4 is an interesting challenge and feels interesting to play. Its also why most people suck at chess, and go. We are not good at this.

Sadly this is disastrous for public policy. NICE *HAS* to exist, despite peoples anger, and the calculation as to the economic cost of a healthcare measure OBVIOUSLY has to happen. Modern political discourse (shit-flinging on twitter about comparing this to eugenics) means that it can never be openly debated by grown up politicians. We force them to lie…

So a politician may say we will do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get the virus under control. This is a lie. You also hear people say “If the only effect of this $50 million policy is that it saves one persons life…its been worth it.” This is also a lie. But modern sound-byte culture means the truth can never be discussed.

I think I need to work on reflecting this a lot more in Democracy 4. Maybe we need event to pop up and say more media-style things like this:

“Lucy Matthews, age 24, has died due to breathing difficulties partly resulting from the high level of pollution on our streets. She leaves behind a daughter Emily, age 4. Her death could have been avoided if the country had introduced emission limits on cars.”

That might be a bit harrowing, or distressing, or maybe a bit…manipulative, but I think it would accurately reflect the dilemma for real politicians who have to balance the knowledge that they are absolutely choosing to let some people die, with every decision they make. Thats just inevitably part of the job.

Should I add that sort of thing?