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

Two orders of magnitude thinking

So… I just watched the neuralink video with the monkey playing pong, if you havent seen it already, watch this:

Now you picked your jaw up off the floor, lets think about how stuff like this can even happen, and what we can learn from how things have got to this point… The main takeaway here is not that neuralink have managed to vastly accelerate progress in the field of curing paralysis (or I guess…working around it), but the approach they are taking. They often talk about some seemingly minor things in their presentations:

  • There is no visible scar on the monkey.
  • The device is charged wirelessly using a baseball cap!
  • The surgical equipment that puts the implant in is very fast, and should be a very simple procedure (relatively).

This is a BIG deal, because its what we might call two orders of magnitude thinking. This seems to be something that Elon Musk does all the time, and I think its amazing and worth learning from, regardless what field you work in. When you look at spacex, neuralink and tesla, the thinking behind the company strategy is absolutely different to the strategy behind every other company I am aware of, because its this:

Don’t work out how to go from where we are to the next thing. Work out the ultimate impossible goal, even if its 100x harder, then make direct plans for that, regardless what it takes.

SpaceX is the clearest example. All other rocket companies had an idea that they would try to make a rocket as good as, or better than the current examples. maybe slightly cheaper, maybe slightly larger, maybe a slightly bigger payload. If they were really ambitious, maybe double the payload, or half the cost. The spacex solution was not along those lines. It was ‘given we need to establish a self-sustaining colony on mars, whats needed to achieve that?’ and the ridiculous answer that comes back is 100% reusable rockets, that land, refuel then take off within an hour.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy successful in commercial debut – Spaceflight Now

Looked at from the POV of NASA, thats absolutely insane, yet they get closer every year. reusable rockets (at least 1st stage reusable) are now a reality, in fact the norm, and totally reusable rockets should be perfected within a year. Nobody would even begin to attempt this, if they took a standard “where do we go from here” approach.

Neuralink is another example. They are not trying to push forward current tech regarding solutions for the paralyzed. They are thinking ‘how do we make a neural lace from the Iain M Banks novels’, and then working on the tech, the infrastructure, and the processes required to make that a reality. Elon musk wants every human on earth to have the option to have a brain-computer interface. It has to be safe, invisible, affordable, routine. This seems impossible and yet…here we are…

Tesla is a third. They were not aiming to make a few electric sports cars for rich jerks. They were aiming to completely transform the entire car industry. Thats why they moved as fast as possible from the roadster to the model S, to the 3, to the Y and soon to an even cheaper model. This is the plan all along, not even secretly, its been posted online years and years ago. And now? not just building one insanely big factory but two, at the same time, Not aiming to boost sales by 5 or 10% but 50-100% each year, every year, because *thats what it takes* to achieve an impossible end goal.

Tesla Texas Gigafactory drone construction update - DroneDJ

So how does this mindset help anybody reading this?

Its a mental trick. And it works. I use a lot of mental tricks. I used to have a slide in talks I gave showing the troops in a landing craft at the D-Day landings. These are people I visualize when I’m stuck, or feeling slack, or demotivated. I put myself in their position and compare whatever relatively trivial challenge I have to theirs. This mental trick is different, and probably less harrowing, but its similarly effective.

This mental trick is in thinking backwards. You do NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES frame your decision making, your motivation, or your plans based on where you are now. Thats irrelevant, whether it be money, location, knowledge, whatever. You totally ignore where you are now, and work backwards from where you absolutely HAVE to end up, in the timescale of your choice. You plot backwards, writing down the decisions that must have been taken, the action that must have taken place in order to explain how you ended up achieving your goal.

So for example, you want to make a comfortable career out of indie game development. Thats fine, but work out what that looks like and go backwards. Maybe in your country that means earning a reliable $200,000 a year before tax. Ok, fine, whats needed in terms of sales for you to do that reliably? how does that gross up to give a figure before steam/apple/googles cut? How much more is needed to account for hardware/software/subcontractors etc?

Do not compare where you are, to whats needed at the end goal, because if you do, you will give up. its natural. The trick is to assume its already happened, and that you have no say in it. Maybe when you progress back and back and back from the $200,000 a year in 5 years to today, you realize you need to ship a game that sells 5,000 copies THIS year. without fail. Maybe that will take you 2000 hours to make this year and you have a full time job. So thats maybe 8 hours a day you need to find every day this year. How is that even possible?

The point is, it doesn’t matter, you have to assume it is possible, and then everything else is irrelevant. Maybe you work on your game every lunch hour, and every morning before work, and late into the night every night for a year, and thats how you do it. Maybe you remortgage the house, sell the car, sell a bunch of other stuff and take a six month sabbatical instead? Your circumstances dictate the path.

The point I’m trying to get across, is that if you work backwards, taking extreme measures to achieve your goals starts to feel justified, understandable, and expected. If you work forwards, the same actions seem obsessive, extreme, even insane.

99% of people reading this will think I’m nuts, and that nobody should be that obsessed with work. Thats absolutely fine, its aimed at that 1% who keep failing to achieve big goals and need a trick to help them do it, and absolutely want that goal enough to do whats needed.

Six months in Early Access (Democracy 4)

So yup! Today is the day, according to my calendar. Six months into Early Access on my political strategy game; Democracy 4! Thats quite a milestone, and a good time to reflect on how things are going so far.

The big thing to note is that this is the first of the ‘Democracy’ games that has been in Early Access. In the past, I did listen a lot of user feedback, and released patches and updates to the game, but that was all post-release. Of course, these days the change between being in early access and post-release support is very blurred, and to be honest totally arbitrary. I doubt I will stop improving and tweaking the game just because we declare it to be out of Early Access at some point. I guess the only real difference is the point at which you want to signal to potential buyers that the game is fully playable and content complete enough to enjoy.

Frankly, that point is now. We have committed publicly to adding Italy as a playable country, and that brings the total countries in the game to 9, which I think is pretty reasonable. This is an indie game, with mod support and I don’t think 9 countries is too small a number.

I’ll almost certainly add more anyway…

The thing is, I don’t actually mind being in Early Access. I guess there is a bunch of ‘deferred sales’ from people waiting for me to flip that switch, but I am in no immediate hurry to do so. Having the game in EA encourages feedback and lets players know you will read it, and thats definitely a good thing.

Something else that suggests that we may be complete enough to declare the game done, is our language support. We entered early access with just English but we now support a total of 8 different languages. I am tempted to add Chinese or Japanese at some point, but TBH there isn’t a particularly strong business case there, and translating from English to these languages i quite expensive…

One thing we have not done yet is an OSX port. TBH apple have done absolutely everything possible to put me off ever considering this, even though the game uses opengl and is not tied to windows. Frankly, apple change what they are doing, pull support for things, and redesign their entire business model and dev platform so often I don’t even *know* if they even support opengl any more, and whatever API they support now will change next year, so whats the point? Maybe at some future point when apple have settled down, stopped charging devs for having the honor of making OSX games, and stopped changing the min specs, maybe it will make sense, but until then my advice to mac gamers is to buy a PC.

Anyway, people like stats on anniversaries of game releases, so lets look at some. Here are some juicy steam stats.

  • 1,177 reviews
  • Roughly 58,000 sales
  • Roughly 88,000 wishlists right now.
  • Current review score: 86% positive

Now a bunch of more fun gameplay style stats:

  • Games per day: Roughly 4,000
  • Most popular screen res: 1920px
  • Average framerate: 58.4 FPS
  • Most common event: ‘Share IPO success’
  • Most triggered situation: ‘Technological Advantage’
  • Most triggered achievement: ‘ShuffleMeister’
  • Average Socialism: 39.1%
  • Average Liberalism: 80.9%
  • Average Voter Cynicism: 1.55%

I suspect real world voters are more cynical :D

I know lots of indies would have done a super-complex analysis of that units sold chart with arrows and breakdowns of what each spike was, but frankly I’m too busy and don’t care. My experience is that a HUGE chunk of getting more sales is just improving the game, and that the spikes tend to be steam sales or discount weekends etc. I’m more interested in growing that lower line (regular daily sales) than the spikes. YMMV.

Ongoing language support for Democracy 4

I have been doing a bunch of work on language support for Democracy 4. The game is still in Early Access, and I’ve been adding new content (mostly new countries, and some associated policies and situations for them) as well as play balancing and tweaking stuff, and fixing bugs. Out of all of these, the language support one is probably the most invisible to the majority of players.

Initially, like most games, Democracy 4 was just in English. We had gone to VAST expense and trouble to make it natively support Unicode text and rendering any text imaginable, which meant that we really did need to leverage that investment by supporting multiple languages. Right now, the completes supported language list for the game is as follows:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Spanish
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Brazillian Portuguese

Generally speaking, in the old days of shipping stuff to retail, people used the term EFIGS, for English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. That was considered the ‘sensible’ list of languages to support. I think in 2021 its worth expanding into Polish (they love strategy games) and Brazilian Portuguese. There is a strong argument also for Japanese and Chinese, although the sales chances for a game called Democracy in China may be lower than normal.

I know a lot of devs use crowd sourced translation services like localizor, and I *started* doing that,m but basically its hellish because the work is hard to verify, can get stuck at 95% complete, and you cannot easily be sure that everyone is using the same terms. This really matters, because using president in one sentence and prime minister in another and chancellor in a third…all as translations from the same English source can be a confusing nightmare.

So we ended up getting paid translations, either from individuals, or from a professional translation service (which is more expensive, but I guess easier to manage and ultimately sue if they were to just send you a badly done mess.

As with every translation ever, done by anyone, at any point in human history… people always complain that some phrases or words are badly translated. As someone who only speaks a single language (C++) I really have no idea. I have to just read every comment and in extreme cases do a reverse google translate to see if everything looks legit.

Of course, getting text translated is just part of the battle. In most cases, the other 99% of this blog post would be about Unicode, and rendering languages that have so many characters you cant fit them in texture memory (joy!) but actually I’ve handled that before, and Jeff managed all this for me using things called pango and cairo and other magic, so actually this is a ‘solved problem’ in many cases.

So now I am down to the final part of the puzzle, which is making sure it all ‘looks’ ok. As expected, there are lots of places where things go wrong. For example here:

And also here:

I’ve already those, and a bunch of others, but its by no means exhaustive. I guess the lesson learned here is to assume that ALL text may be 100x as long as expected (or 10x as small), and code defensively at all times to accommodate this. It feels like 99% of devs currently use unity and unreal, so you are relying on the 3rd party vendors to have automatically fixed all this for you I guess. And if it isn’t fixed…well good luck?

The only problem with going through and doing this is that its hard to persuade players that this is valuable work. Someone who speaks English and bought the game in Early Access is not going to care that certain screens (that look fine to them anyway) now look better in Polish or Russian. Because EA players can be VERY DEMANDING in terms of expecting the developer to work 24/7 throughout Early Access, my only worry is that people think development slows down as I fix all this.

Thats probably unlikely as I already have a bunch of stuff listed as going into the next update:

[1.26 (in development)]
1) Removed duplicate effect from firearms laws to armed religious communities.
2) Removed duplicate impacts on luddite riots.
3) Fixed some harmless debug warnings about missing neurons.
4) Intel readouts are now inverted for situations where a policy reduces security effectiveness, such as Press Freedom.
5) Fixed error where a total ban on handguns actually reduced security, instead of boosting it. Ooops.
6) Fixed support for names for each slider setting in modded policies.
7) EU situation now renamed to EU membership, also now boosts stability and foreign investment.
8) EU countries now benefit from the Erasmus programme, which boosts youth income & happiness and also education.
9) Import tariffs can now not be implemented by EU members.
10) Made some impacts of banning low mpg cars scaled by EV transition, and introduced support for inverse variables and 6-variable equations.
11) Cyberbullying Awareness Policy now slightly reduces Internet Crime.
12) Universal Basic Income (UBI) cost now quadrupled so it reflects the correct figure.
13) The Polarization situation now explains its effects better.

I think ultimately tweaking the UI for multiple languages is very worth doing, because its a BIG world out there, and frankly the majority of humans do not speak English. At some point, (maybe we have already crossed it?) the majority of strategy gamers will not speak English either. If you want a game to be around a while (I hope to still be selling this game in 2028) then you need to plan ahead and look at who will be playing it.