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

You are unimportant. This is ok.

How psychopathic narcissist CEOs teamed up with money obsessed statisticians to trick gamers into thinking they are heroes

I recently watched a video about dark matter, which casually threw out a reference to a particular group of about 100 galaxies. I also recall seeing one of the first images from the James Webb space telescope, which covered a trivial, tiny piece of the night sky, and showed hundreds of galaxies. Galaxies are HUGE, and we can’t even see all of them. Even our tiny little solar system is huge, its hard to get your head around the distances involved in space. Mars is a LONG way away. Hell, I’m impressed with how big my country (the UK) is. I certainly would not casually walk from one end to the other. Even walking to the nearest shop seems a long way away.

I’ve sold over 3 million games. Even as I type this, it seems ridiculous. Its taken a long time to do it, about 20 years, but still its a pretty good record to have hit. In comparison to a lot of solo indie devs, it seems staggeringly high. But guess what… My business is irrelevant, a rounding error. Activision have no idea I exist, nor do they worry about me as a competitor, I’m sure Epic, or Microsoft and Apple also would consider me an infinitesimally small and irrelevant speck in the world of software.

The thing is, I am kind of fine with that. It is the absolute stunning height of arrogance to look at a world of billions of humans and assume that in some way you are one of the most important ones there. Absolute insanity. And yet… this seems to be an attitude that is getting more and more prevalent in society.

Video games have definitely played some part in this. Video games are totally different to movies, books, plays and operas. These are tales of other people. There is a Hero, or Heroine and they are special, and what they do shapes the story, and the story is basically THEIR story. They change the world, they save the world, they explore the world. And we read about it, and are impressed.

Video games let you actually be the hero, and then let you make decisions so that you really FEEL like the hero. This is a big difference. You are not witnessing great events, you are shaping them. Go you! You must be so awesome. Everyone else is just a ‘non-player-character’ (NPC), and their contribution to the universe is to help you on your epic quest. Their lives are irrelevant, as you can see from most MMOs now. They just stand there, waiting for an interaction with YOU the hero. You are the reason they stand in that marketplace all day hoping to find someone to give a quest to. Don’t worry, they wont give the quest to anybody else, only you. Everyone else is just filler. Its all about YOU.

And this would not be too bad a thing, as a little bit of escapist fun. I’ve played my fair share of video games and still manage to function in society (more or less). I think the problem is, that this is spilling out into society at large. Mostly because of our old nemesis: social media.

The idea that we all have a ‘feed’ and ‘stories’ that we must update on an hourly basis is laughable. Social media firms tell us we need to keep our timelines populated with interesting stuff so that our followers (yes we actually call them followers, a bit like disciples) can keep themselves informed about the minutiae of our lives. Its somehow EXTREMELY important that we keep our vast crowds of followers informed.

Twitter is currently in a furious legal dispute with Elon Musk over whether or not twitter lies about how many of its accounts are bots, and therefore likely fake. Some bots are to be expected… but more than 5%? Some say its vastly higher, and when you think about it, twitter has a huge vested interest in artificially inflating follower counts. Why on earth would you bother tweeting when you know you have 0 or 2 followers? Give a man 1,000 followers and they will feel special. Give them 10,000 followers and they will feel amazing.

Last time I looked I had about 10k followers, but I’m determined not to care. If they swept out fakes and it turns out I have 100 followers I’d just find it funny. I’m just a middle aged dude who makes computer games and plays guitar as a hobby. How do I have *any* followers? I’m not a famous philosopher or the prime minister. Why should anybody care about my life unless they actually know me? Do you REALLY want to know what meal I ate yesterday? or what I think of some new TV show? Why?

Luckily I am 52 or 53, can’t even remember now. This means I’m not in the peak target demographic for social media, where billion dollar businesses are desperate to give you body-shape dis-morphia, or a worry about skin blemishes, or a need to have urgent plastic surgery to make your nose 1% more attractive. We have a vast sprawling empire of businesses who exist based on a single premise: “You are unattractive”, and now we feed into the whole beauty industry with a new feeder-industry called social media. Instagram makes money by telling your your friends are more attractive than you. Then the skincare/cosmetics industry swoops in to make more money by claiming to fix it. Problem and solution wrapped up in one nice self-reinforcing money-machine.

The problem is… most of us are not actually going to be heroes. We will not save the day. Most of us will never be on the news. Most of us will never sign autographs, never trend on twitter, never be front page on reddit, and even if we do, its hardly world changing fame anyway. Its not all about us, all the time.

The reason I complain about this? because its come back full circle to video games and ruined them. There was a time, back in the distant rosy past where video games were cool and fun and the word ‘monetization’ had yet to be bastardized into existence. Back then, you just bought a game, and played it with friends. Some of the most fun gaming sessions of my life were playing as team in ‘return to castle wolfenstein’ when I worked at Elixir, or when I played against some serious hardcore gamers in the testing department at Lionhead for our lunchtime or after-work Call of Duty sessions.

Both games were very much team games. The aim was to work as a team. Are we defending the bunker tonight? or assaulting it? Emphasis on WE, not I. We worked together, picking roles that supported each other, and what mattered was which team won. Nicely balanced, pretty immersive. I could tell who is on my team, because tonight we are th Germans, or because tonight we are the Americans. Storm that beach!

This is all gone now

The trouble with the ‘saving private ryan’ concept of an online team shooter is twofold. Firstly, everyone is working together as a team, which means YOU are no longer the most important person in the universe. Secondly, I cannot sell you hats. If you are all dressed as the Wehrmacht, or as American GIs… then where is the opportunity for micro-transactions? How the hell are we supposed to profit off gambling addictions in the 1% of rich players if you all dress the same? madness.

EA/DICE have now completed their absolute destruction of what used to be a very successful, very popular, very highly-regarded and profitable gaming series: Battlefield. The same was done by Activision by another competing but equally huge franchise: Call Of Duty. Both games totally and utterly destroyed, robbed of all immersion, with all sense of teamwork blown to pieces, all sense of being part of a big event, a small cog in a big wheel… totally ripped apart so the guys in suits (who have never played a video game in their whole life) can sell you more expensive hats.

Of course its didn’t end with hats. You and I might think selling $100 virtual hats to people with addiction issues is a good days work, but you aren’t thinking as cynically as the people who took over gaming do. You can only wear a single hat at a time you idiot! Lets sell you masks, shoes, gloves, and DIFFERENT COLOR GUNS. Yes, for every gun, lets have multiple skins, for each part of the gun. You want a gold plated muzzle on your sten gun? well boy do we have a good deal for you today, 50% off at just 5,000 credits. Not Dollars of course, if we priced stuff in dollars you might see how ridiculous it is. Its all priced in a currency that never sub-divides into round numbers of items…

Now in a sense, I don’t care if other people want to be ripped off for such trinkets. I’ve bought a single hat in Battlefield V, mostly as an experiment. I grinded through 1,300 hours to unlock absolutely everything else. Why should I care if other people prefer to just shovel money rather than… play the game… in order to ‘unlock’ all of that content that we apparently did not pay for when spending $60 on the game…

The reason I care is that I am now in a fancy dress ball instead of a war. Its true, not all uniforms would have been identical. Some soldiers got separated from their units in battle and got drafted into fill gaps in existing units. Some may have got hold of some decent winter scarves or boots from the body of some poor civilian. Some of the soldiers would be carrying different gear, or maybe uniforms would be tweaked depending if you were a radio-dude or a line infantryman… But no. Nothing exucse the ridiculous fancy dress car crash that is a modern online shooter.

Do not be under ANY illusion that the people with any vague sense of artistic skill think that this is ok. NOBODY at a games company who actually designs characters is sat there looking at an American GI, Someone wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses, someone with a clown mask on, and someone with luminous dreadlocks holding a pink bazooka, thinking ‘Yup, this is how I imagine world war 2 looked’. Anybody with any artistic sense at all knows its just a huge, embarrassing kowtowing to the gods of monetization.

And actually…thats bad enough, but its not even the worst thing. The worst thing is that for a sizeable chunk of modern game sessions… I’m not allowed to play. Not for any technical reason, but because the end of each round MUST contain a lot of mini cut-scenes where we show the victory animations of the clown, the dreadlocked bazooka kid, and the skateboarding panzergrenadier. Everyone HAS to have their moment, where the camera zooms into them in slow motion, where we all get to see in closeup that they spent extra money on that little silver pocketwatch strapped to their top hat. We are forced to spend as much time as we can bear looking at the amazing outfits of the other players, like we are fucking fashion correspondents at the paris fashion show. Modern shooters don’t have battlefields. They have catwalks.

Oh and those stupid victory poses, and the absolutely cringe inducing ‘sassy’ lines they speak? Yup, everyone hates those too, and they even silenced them after player outrage in Battlefield 2042, but they HAVE to be there, because after the hats, the masks, the dreadlocks, the skateboards, the gun skins, the victory poses… some idiot thought they could make even MORE money selling cringe-inducing victory quips.

Stop trying to pretend I am a hero, or more importantly I COULD be a hero if only I spent enough on microtransactions. I don’t care. I am fine with the concept of just enjoying an experience. I don’t need to be the center of attention. FFS probably half the world are introverts. Half of us (and we are clearly underrepresented in the boards of directors at games companies) are the kind of people who would DREAD everyone looking at what we are wearing and passing judgement.

Modern hero-shooters are a bastardization of decent games, driven by the unrelenting avarice of money obsessed suits who hate gaming, and by the narcissistic savior-complexes of the psychopaths who run games companies. I have advice for both:

Monetization guru: Please fuck off back to the stock market where you can play with numbers and be as cynical as you want all day without ruining peoples entertainment.

Game CEOs: Please get some fucking therapy. Not everyone wants to be you, not everyone is you, not everyone wants a thousand spotlights on them, not everyone daydreams about being on the cover of Newsweek. Blame that private school education that gave you an overinflated ego, and an inability to understand other people.

Yes. This is a rant, as all my blog posts turned into, but its a rant from the heart from a gamer who just despairs at how the industry he is a tiny tony (and happy to be so) part of has been ruined so dramatically.

Don’t forget to tweet and share this article. Its hugely important to my self worth to know that it is vastly popular*

*no it isn’t.

The unavailable gadget we badly need to invent

As a bit of background to this post, its worth noting that I am massively into solar panels. I have 10 in my driveway, and I even started an energy company to build solar farms. Bizarrely, I currently own over 3,000 brand new solar panels, and they are sat in a warehouse. Its a very very long story. Anyway…

Solar power has a problem. Its a problem that we are working around, but it also represents an opportunity, because if someone can seize the opportunity, its seriously going to help everyone. It will help energy security, it will help the cost of living, it will help equality, it will help fight climate change. An opportunity existing precisely because solar power has a problem:

Solar panels are things we all know about. You can get big ones, and small ones, even tiny ones that power something as small as a pocket calculator (remember those?) or that unroll and plug into your phone to charge on a sunny day. We all know about solar panels. What most of us are not aware of, is inverters, and how our home wiring works. The big thing I need to get across in this post is that right now there is a LOT of complexity and crap that goes in between those solar panels you see on someone’s roof, or in a field, and the wall socket you plug your TV into.

Solar panels generate DC power. Houses use AC power. Basically AC is safer. AC gives you a shock that throws you across the room. DC is the one that locks your hand in a grip, and makes you look like wile-e-coyote when he gets electrocuted. Its the one that will kill you. Because solar generates DC and we need AC, you need a gadget that swaps one to the other. This is an inverter, and in most solar installs its a pretty big box of electronics and wiring that is usually hidden in someone’s attic or a cupboard somewhere. Here is mine:

The solar panels get connected in one end, then you get AC power out the other end, that goes through a big DANGER cutoff switch and then onward to a meter that calculates how much of a feed-in-tariff I get (old discontinued subsidy), and eventually feeding into the main energy supply for the house.

There is a big bit missing (for another 6 weeks!) from this picture, which is battery storage. To be of any REAL use to me, I need to store that power somewhere so I can use it later. I need home storage. I have ordered 2 big 8.2kwh batteries that will get connected to all this, involving yet more cabling. Each one of those is about 50% bigger than the inverter, and they ALSO need their own inverter, and their own cutout switch, and will be wired up in the cellar.

So to recap, to have a decent bit of renewable energy and home independence that lets me help prevent climate change, gives me energy security and independence, improves the resilience of the national grid etc… I need… *deep breath* Some solar panels, an inverter, a cutout switch, cables, a battery, another inverter, another cutout switch, more cables and a meter.

Actually thats not really the problem. This is the problem:

To even have THE OPTION to have all that, I need: A roof that I own (or in my case a yard/driveway), a cellar or similar space to stick a big box or three… oh and about £10,000 minimum. ($12,000). Yikes.

So what this means is… solar is really a nice handy, excellent option for middle+ income homeowners with a house and access to twelve thousand dollars. Great news for us I guess. Go team us! But hardly much help to people who live in apartments, or who rent, or who frankly are having to struggle financially as it is, ironically in no small part due to high energy bills. How can we solve this?

What we really need. What we REALLY BADLY need, is a way for people in any situation to be able to do their bit. They may not have $12k to invest in renewable energy, they may not even have $1,200 to do so, but they might have a few hundred dollars, or even fifty dollars. We need a way to dramatically scale DOWN solar power so that pretty much anyone, regardless of circumstances, can do something.

The big problem we have is that the entire solar and storage industry is designed to scale up. Just like with wind energy, it seems the easiest way to get costs down per megawatt is to go big. Bigger panels, better panels, bigger batteries. Big solar farms, Big battery storage. Not powerwalls, but powerpacks, or megapacks, or bigger. Bigger is cheaper, so bigger is better right?

The trouble is, this strategy is a way for the rich to get cheap energy, and leave the poor in the dust. Its great news that solar panel prices are falling and battery prices are falling, fantastic news for people who already have a pile of money. But where is the solution for people who are struggling? how do we avoid leaving behind everyone on average or low wages? Are we heading towards a society where energy bills only matter to the poor (who are crushed by them) because the rich generate their own power quite happily, and don’t know what the fuss is about. Maybe they don’t even know the price of energy any more…

What we need is a gadget most people probably already think is there. We need a gadget that you can plug a solar panel of any size into, and then plug it into your wall socket, and have your own micro version of the 4kw + big battery setup that those people with money already have. It needs to be really cheap, and really easy to use. It absolutely needs to be something that does not involve an electrician to install, and is totally safe. Just like plugging in your TV, although you plug in your solar panel instead, and it automatically sorts out whether to charge it’s little mini battery, or feed that power immediately into the house to supply anything that’s currently running…

The thing is… batteries scale down really nicely. My car (Tesla model S) is just a big fat block of small cylindrical batteries known as 18650s. They are used in EVERYTHING. I noticed our vacuum cleaner uses the exact same batteries. You can even just buy a bunch of them on ebay, they are not super obscure tech. And solar panels… they are pretty much a commodity. There are differences at the high end, when you build a solar farm, but you want a 400w panel? a 200 watt one? a 50w one? a 2w one? you can get anything you suit your budget.

The tricky bit is the integration with a small inverter, and the knowing what the house is doing. With current solar installs, this involves additional cables and things called CT clamps to work out if power is flowing in or out. Its complex, and messy, and annoying. Maybe electrical wiring means we just cannot do that, which means we have to go with a bit of a bodge solution, which is one of those small battery/inverter ‘powerpack’ gadgets that you CAN get on amazon:

These are obviously cool, but they are absolutely aimed at people who are going camping, and want to power a laptop or a small TV or whatever, while they are out of the house. Again…its a luxury product aimed at people who want to mess around with a mains-power TV while out on a camping trip. Its not designed to be something used as part of your house, and the assumption with most of these is that you are either charging from the house, or from solar… and then at some later time watching TV.

We need that…but as a permanent thing, in a fire-and-forget setup. In an ideal world you would output from this to a big powerstrip with a ton of devices that you use a lot on it. So TV, plus any speaker system, or streaming stick or DVD player…whatever, so it gets a bunch of use. Something you can buy once, and just use to reduce your household energy bills.

And we need this to ABSOLUTELY become a thing that people do. Not solar geeks, not environmentalists, not people who go on demonstrations, but it needs to become a thing that yeah…if you have $200, then you obviously get the powerpack+battery kit, you stick the solar panel in the window, and plug it in, plug some appliances in…and then your energy bills go down. Not a lot, for sure, and you would be WAY better off with 4kw of solar on a roof, but for someone in a small apartment who has high energy bills and a window that gets a ton of sun…we need this.

All the big tech companies are wasting their time, messing around with nonsense none of us asked for like ‘the metaverse’ or mobile phones that you can fold (why?) which cost $2,000. Or they are working out how to make your next unaffordable luxury phone just slightly thinner. Whatever…

Where is the apple iSolarPack? the google solarpack? the amazon solarpack? the brilliantly engineered (and produced in massive, massive volume) solution that helps absolutely anybody in the world feel like they can partake even slightly, even in a really small way in the revolution in renewable energy. We absolutely massively need this, and if you can make a thing that just unpacks and plugs in and saves everyone a bit on their energy bills, its going to sell like mad.

Even if we cannot do anything better than just make the existing idea of a powerpack much more affordable, and pair it with recommended solar panels in a nice easy package aimed at people whose idea of technology is plugging in alexa once… we really need to do this. Sadly nobody of any size seems to be bothering :(

Officially announcing the next Democracy 4 expansion

In the old days, I used to send press releases to news websites etc…and maybe I’ll still do that once I’m testing this and have some screenshots to show. Not that screenshots of Democracy 4 are exactly a visual feast that makes people’s jaws drop as they gasp at the photorealism…but there ya go.

There is to be another expansion pack for my latest game Democracy 4. It will be a straight data-only expansion, which will add six new countries to the game. Those countries are:

  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Poland
  • Turkey
  • Switzerland
  • Brazil

I think this represents a pretty good mixture. Greece and Ireland are fairly similar to some of the other countries in the game, but we have a fair bunch of players in those countries and people like to play their home country. Plus Ireland is a bit interesting because it is basically an economic disaster due to geography, which is able to work mostly because it has ludicrously good rates for companies to base their HQ there for tax purposes. Its basically the largest respectable country that serves as a tax haven.

Brazil is obviously interesting because of its size, and its rainforest, and its status as a relatively poor country with relation to the existing game countries. Switzerland has its own unique properties, such as being super mountainous, fanatically neutral in diplomatic terms, and its hyper-democratized system of voting. Its also famous for nuclear shelters everywhere and a high level of gun ownership, but low gun crime.

Turkey is a fascinating country, as it sits between two continents and has influences from both. There are obviously some unusual positions regarding democracy and religion there, that are not really explored in the existing countries.

Poland is also interesting, sitting between western Europe and Russia, one of the last green countries in terms of energy use, and a country very nervous (with good reason) about its borders.

Its going to be hard to really capture the flavor of all these different countries, and I expect at least one major post-release revision as I collate feedback from players. It should be interesting though, and hopefully widen the appeal of the game a bit.

I don’t have a final release date yet, or pricing, but here is the status of the current todo list:

  • Initial statistics for each country 100% DONE
  • Country descriptions 100% DONE
  • Map icon and flag icons 100% DONE
  • Initial policy positions: 55% DONE
  • Extra dilemmas TODO
  • Extra Events TODO
  • Extra Situations TODO
  • Country specific simulation overrides TODO
  • Translation of all text into all languages TODO
  • Testing TODO

…so still lots to do…

In unrelated news, I got covid, and omg it was horrible. I basically suffered badly for a week, but am feeling much better. I have also been avoiding social media, which I increasingly view as a mistake, a dumpster fire which anybody who values their sanity should run screaming from. I might use it in future only as a way of linking to my blog.

In even less related news, I finally moved positech’s entire online presence away from a dedicated physical server (a hangover from days long gone when I had a lot of direct traffic, and hosted forums on the server, as well as a site dedicated to indiegames), and to a simple VPS. Like any hosting company, I was recommended a server package that was stupidly overspecced for my needs, but politely declined that. As a result I managed to cut my hosting bill by more than 50% which is very welcome.

There is still the ongoing saga of the solar farm BTW. Its not abandoned, we are still hoping to get it done, but its going to be at least another 3 months of bureaucracy (don’t get me started on this…) plus a likely extra year of waiting for a grid connection even if we get it. If there is ever anything to report, I’ll blog about it…