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

Your corporate communication policy is bollocks

I’ve had the misfortune recently of having to deal with two gargantuan and completely terribly run clusterfucks of inefficiency recently here in moving my mothers TV network from one company to the other. I will not bore you with the details, but the process of quitting company A and enabling company B was, at a conservative estimation, 100x as difficult, and costly (to them) as it should be assuming a simple baseline of a competently run company.

At the same time, I am also running my little one man games business, AND overseeing the construction of a solar farm, which involves at least 5 different companies including mine. Having all this happen at once makes for an interesting comparison, and its even more interesting to do this while I’m also reading the Elon Musk biography, with lots of discussion of Twitter/SpaceX/Tesla etc.

Its no great revelation that big companies are often run badly. I think the situation has got worse, especially in the UK (or is that just the western world in general?) in recent years. We seem to have completely forgotten about free markets and competition, and the role of governments in ensuring that oligopolies and monopolies do not exploit their market position, and this has made things much much worse.

Having dealt directly with both google and facebook, I can tell you both companies are incredibly obtuse, bureaucratic disasters with absolutely no idea how to do anything any more. Its impossible to communicate with them, or get anything fixed. From the point of view of a customer (in this case for ads), both companies seem 100% computer-run, with no humans at all. At any level.

Running a company is about efficient communication. Companies that cannot communicate with their employees, or customers degenerate into inefficiency. The most obvious example is when something is fundamentally broken, but you, as the CEO of a company do not know about it. With my mothers TV, there was a simple mistake on their part. They had set a limit of phone call costs at which point the TV and phone would be disconnected. You could pay the costs to re-enable the account, but their website failed if you tried to pay in the first month, before the first bill. So there was an infinite loop on non payment, and non-connection.

In any sane organization, there would be actual humans who would respond, understand the problem, and fix it immediately. Instead it took 3 days and about 6 hours of my time, numerous furious phone calls, dozens of emails, a complaint to the government regulator, you name it. I was not a happy customer… But me being an extremely angry customer, and therefore the complete destruction of any potential goodwill is only 1% of the cost to the company. They now have to respond to, and deal with an official complaint with a government regulator. They have tried to call me to apologize 6 times, and left messages and sent emails. This has taken them time, effort, money. In theory the regulator could fine them, costing even more time, effort, money.

The fix is obvious, but unfashionable. You simply hire staff to deal with complaints. The obvious rebuttal is that this would cost money, but the cost of NOT dealing with a complaint will always be higher than the cost of dealing with one.

The compounding error for large organizations is that even when their staff do communicate with customers, they are not empowered to do anything. Nobody you ever speak to on a phone call to a large company has any discretion, authority or power to do anything. They have to fob you off with excuses or use tools like long wait times, annoying hold music and no ringback, and infuriating AI chatbots pretending to be typing… all to hide the fact that even if you get to talk to a human, they cant fix the problem.

My email address is cliff at positech dot co dot uk. I make no secret of it, and give it freely to people who ask. I don’t put ANY barriers between me and people who want to talk to me. Its my decision whether I reply, and some emails I do decide not to respond to, but the idea of making it hard for customers and potential customers to contact you, when you SELL things, is just insane. Amazingly, I am not overwhelmed by email, nor annoyed by it. Many, many times, I have got emails that have been VERY helpful, or profitable, that I may never have got if I tried to screen my contact with the general gaming public.

One of the best sizes for a company is one person. This doesn’t just mean ‘smaller than 2’, its an actual qualitative difference. There is something special about a company where every role is handled by the same person. My game designer and game programmer and engine programmer and QA lead are all me. That means we can have a 4 way meeting to evaluate the potential of a idea while I’m making coffee. We communicate between us at the speed of thought, and there are no egos. Sometimes the game designer gets their way, sometimes the QA dude. Its all me.

This is absolutely fundamental, and something very few people seem to really understand. Going from a one person team to a two-person team not only doesn’t make things much faster, it may actually make everything slower. Maybe much slower. Even if there are no egos and both people get along, and they never interrupt each other and never disagree, communication moved from the speed of thought to the speed of speech, or typing. Incredibly slow.

Communication between everyone working towards a common goal is absolutely vital. The idea that people in dept A cannot talk to people in dept B is lunacy. Strict unskippable hierarchies and org-charts are nuts. In so many companies, barriers to internal and external communication are put up by managers who want to be left alone. The impact on the company’s success is colossal, but individual managers in huge megacorps are not invested in the success of the business so rarely care.

It should, in theory be absolutely impossible for a single individual like me to commercially survive making and selling video games when huge companies like blizzard and epic exist. And yet here I am. I think a huge part of this is due to the huge huge gains in efficiency when a company is basically a single individual. It MIGHT be possible to replicate it with an extremely driven, loyal team of super-like-minded people led by someone who is super-inspiring, but thats amazingly rare. Maybe space/tesla are one example.

So whats the conclusion? Corporate communication is critical. Its almost impossible for it to work in large companies, unless you fight hard to ensure information flows freely. If you are thinking of growing your company think very hard if thats the right decision. And communication with customers is vital. You want to hear when there is a problem immediately, so its fixed immediately. Putting barriers between you and your customers is insane.

Kudos 2 is now on steam! omg.

So here is a bit of a random thing but… I just put a game on steam that I made a LONG time ago, and was never actually released on steam….drumroll… on steam.

Its called Kudos 2, so obviously its a sequel. Back in the early days of indie gaming, before steam was a thing, I was already making games. I’d already made a bunch before this one, namely Asteroid Miner (Star Miner), Starlines INC (Starship Tycoon), Rocky Racers, Kombat Kars and Kudos. Then eventually came Kudos 2. Kudos 2 was the first game that was a proper success for me. I remember when it was on all the casual game portals, like iwin and yahoo games etc, getting a check for $20,000 one month, which was insane for a ‘shareware’ game developer. These days thats 10minutes royalties for Rimworld :D.

Kudos 2 is a pretty interesting game. It was one of my actual good ideas. The sims was a great game, but it was mostly a game of urgent problem solving and time management. It was a life-simulation game, but it was only ONE way to do the idea of a life simulation game. Nothing is set in stone that lifesims have to have 3d worlds and an animated character. The way I saw it, a life sim was about decisions.

If you think about your life, its not really a time-management or arcade game that comes into mind, but a series of decisions made throughout your life that impact how things turn out. The decisions might be huge (who to marry) or minor (do I eat healthily tonight?). The point is, that life can be seen as merely a series of decisions.

Weirdly the concept for this game came from the movie Donnie Darko. A great movie, that I can never rewatch because it really freaked me out. This is before the term ‘triggered’ became a thing. For me, Donnie Darko is a film about the struggles of mental health. I wanted to make a game that took the struggles inside a person’s mind, and made them a strategy game.

Many years after releasing Kudos 1, a teacher emailed me to tell me she used the game in a school for students with autism to teach them how to maintain friendships and relationships. I thought this was amazing. It still didn’t occur to me that I may be autistic, and wouldn’t do for another 15+ years. Madness. I literally made a game where friendships are represented by progress bars and stats, and didn’t realize what that said about me :D

Anyway… I think its a cool game. Its very different, and its obviously something you can just play on a laptop. I have NOT updated the game at all, but it runs on my windows 10 and 11 PCs ok. The screen resolution might be a tad annoying, but its playable. I don’t expect the game to rush to the top of the bestseller lists, but some people who like life sims are going to really enjoy it.

Also, I’m really not going to go through all the process of getting steam keys for old customers etc. Its just a huge admin nightmare, because the game was sold through so many different services and sites, and I’d just be spending all day doing that. Its only $5.99 on steam, so I guess anyone who actually genuinely wants to play it again will happily pay that.

So there you go, another new game release from positech games haha. Maybe I’ll release my space shooty game this year as well. Anything to keep busy when I’m grinding my teeth about solar farm delays :D

A longer perspective on the unity pricing fiasco

So everyone in the games industry by now is aware that unity, the company that makes a very popular game engine, announced a new pricing scheme, whereby as well as charging you monthly for everyone who you wanted to employ to use their software, they also felt that you should pay them every time anyone, anywhere installed any software that had been made using their engine.


There is a lot of online outrage, and justifiably so, and to be honest, there is not nearly enough outrage enough. My perspective on this is different, because I’ve never used unity (I tried once and despised it), and have nothing at stake here. Every game I have made has had its engine coded by me, and I pay nobody anything for the privilege. I thought it might be worth blogging my view, because I think its a different one to everybody else. I’ve been thinking it over, and reckon the best way to articulate my thoughts is a series of separate points

Point #1: You probably don’t even need a commercial engine

A lot of people who read this will be indie game developers like me. A lot of you probably make 2D games. 2D games are great, they sell well, they can be very commercially successful, and there is little to no stigma making a 2D game. Some of the most popular games you can buy are 2D. 3D games are harder to make, from an engine POV, but if you don’t want to pay for a commercial engine, then there is a lot of mileage in 2D gaming. I’ve had a 25 year indie gaming career doing entirely 2D games, sold millions of copies, made millions of dollars. Production Line was isometric, but still just a bunch of sprites. None of the games I have shipped needed a commercial engine. Prison architect was a smash hit without needing a commercial engine. If you are wondering how successful you can be before needing to license an engine, the answer is: Hugely fucking rich and successful.

Point #2: If you need an engine, lots of free ones exist

Unity costs money, but many other engines do not. A good friend of mine paid $80 for a simple 2D game making program and has shipped 10 games with it, and made a living doing so. He is not the only one. There are more game engines than would possibly fit in a normal blog post, and no shortage of reviews from developers to guide you in making a choice. Free engines also have the bonus of coming with source code, so if you don’t like something, you can just change it.

Point #3: Lock-in is always a nightmare for consumers. Why are you surprised?

Every time a company talks about walled gardens, what they mean is they want to screw their customers. Starbucks will blatantly open a dozen unprofitable coffee shops in one town to force every competitor out of business, then shut the excess ones down and milk that profitable local coffee monopoly. Its a known business strategy, and its evil as fuck. Apple HATE the idea of shipping a USB connector with their phone (a supra-national government had to force them to do it), because they want to keep their customers locked into their ‘ecosystem’. The same was true of itunes, which they deliberately made crash, and buggy and slow on anything that wasn’t apple hardware. Its all about the ‘ecosystem’. Let me help you recontextualize this. When someone in a suit (or a black turtleneck) talks about their ‘ecosystem’, they actually mean a different word: Prison.

The ideal for these predatory businesses is to make it impossible for you to leave. Governments always have to intervene to prevent big business acting this way. Unity was VERY keen to force you to be reliant on them for everything. You buy your art assets in the UNITY store. You use the UNITY engine and the UNITY editor, and sell ad space using the UNITY ad system. Steam is similar. Steamworks is not a charitable gift. They want you to lock your achievements, your stats, your community, your interactions with your players all within steam. This way you will never leave. You can’t, they have you. Unity owns all your tech, steam owns your community, youtube owns your video channel. What do you own? Your office chair maybe? Expect to see Herman Miller asking for a share of your game revenue soon.

The actual walled garden apple execs enjoy thanks to us.

Point #4: Engine coding isn’t that hard

I knew we were heading for an apocalypse the minute we started seeing job adverts for ‘Unity programmer’. Thats not a language, it a proprietary product by a single, private company. If you really want to be 100% dependent on the whims of a private company for your future employability, go work there! Do not pretend that you can ‘exist independently within the ecosystem’. Unity LOVED the idea that people would stop being AI programmers or C++ programmers. Unity programmers have no place else to go..

..but actually, when you look at game engines, especially 2D ones for indie games, they are really *not that hard*. Its not 1990 any more. We are not having to worry about makes of mouse or video card. Directx makes things very simple for you. Its just a few hundred lines of code, at most, to have access to the graphics card, to be able to load in textures, play sounds, and respond to user input. This stuff is super-well-documented and TONS of sample code exists. Reading user input is really, really easy. Creating a sprite, loading a texture from a folder, and drawing it onscreen is actually pretty simple stuff. Particle systems and multithreading are NOT simple, but also not rocket science. Do not underestimate how much FREE stuff there is out there explaining how it all works…

Point #5: Software subscriptions were the line we shouldn’t have crossed

I remember back when adobe started trying to get people to subscribe to photoshop, thinking that this must be an April fools joke, or the rambling of a delusional coke-fueled imbecile who staggered into the board room. The idea that SOFTWARE was something that had to be rented instead of purchased was a joke to me.

Heres the thing: Microsoft are actually pretty fucking good at their job. Windows 11 will still play a game I made in 1998, without errors, or compatibility screwups or grumbling. If there ARE any issues, there are tons of compatibility options to make it work. Why mention this? Because its evidence that its pretty clear that you can write software that just keeps working, and working and working.

Software subscriptions are a joke. This is a way to force you to continually pay, without limit, for a package of software that should have been an affordable on-time purchase. Photoshop is an image editor, its not doing protein folding. Microsoft word is a word processor, thats it. This is stuff that we, as a technological society, kinda worked out how to do 20 years ago. The overwhelming majority of ‘new features’ added to Microsoft office in the last TWENTY years are useless, and go completely ignored by everyone. Photoshop was done, finished. So was Excel, and Word. But they wanted to find a way to make you keep paying…

I have no problem with unity, or any game-development engine/IDE saying ‘Hey guys! We just finished a BRAND NEW version of our popular and much loved engine. If you want to upgrade from your current version to this one, its $500!’. Thats a perfectly viable, perfectly understandable business. But I guess if you are TERRIBLE at running your business, stupidly think you need 8,000 staff at unity, blow a bunch of money on an ad-monetization company, buy a movie SFX company, then suddenly realize you are losing money like crazy, then you have no choice but to try and squeeze more money from existing customers on a regular basis. Don’t expect Unity’s CEO to understand game dev BTW. He is a pure-management type with a background at pepsi and Hagen Daz ice-cream, A golf company and sara-lee, the donuts people. He neither gives a fuck about, or understands the games industry.

Final point #6: Unity’s dysfunctional management and terrible business is their problem not yours.

Its pretty clear that the top management at unity do not code, do not make games, never have, never will, don’t care, and here is the very worst bit: are absolutely fucking clueless at running a business. Its laughable. My company is way, way more profitable than unity, and I manage that with just me. The important point is: THIS IS THEIR FAULT. Its not yours. People saying ‘to be fair, unity do lose money’ are implying that somehow game devs made them lose money. Nope. Game devs have been paying these people through-the-nose for years for an engine that is so bad that even unity could not make a game with it.

I really, really hope that this is a turning point and people tell unity to get stuffed. This is a company that cannot be trusted, should not be relied on, that you should not deal with. Now I know that they have ‘tech we wont explain’ to ‘track installs’ which no doubt phones home to unity, I am not even going to have any unity games installed on any hardware I own. This is a casino and F2P ad-tech company LARPing as a game dev tech firm. I do not trust them one bit. Asking for a subscription fee should have had them laughed out of the industry. This latest madness is just proof they will never change, only get way, way worse.

Using Democracy 4 to teach politics and economics

I’ve been selling educational site licenses for the Democracy series of games pretty much since I started making them, after people who taught politics started to contact me. I’ve always been very proud of the fact that a long list of educational establishments around the world have been using the game to teach so many people. It feels like a sort of vindication of the game’s design that teaching professionals think its accurate and reliable enough, that they will use it in education.

I have to admit, that I don’t really put that much effort into promoting the game as an educational tool. I have made a few attempts to do so in the past, but I found it quite frustrating to make any progress. It reminds me a lot of the sort of bureaucracy that I have experienced in trying to build a solar farm. The amount of paperwork, accreditation, form-filling and documentation required to sell educational software is enough to put me off.

Its ironic that teaching establishments, which should ideally be very future-focused (after all, you are teaching people at the start of what could be very long lives), are in fact incredibly slow when it comes to adopting new things. The minute you add a ton of bureaucracy or process to a system, you make adopting new technology or ideas more trouble than it is worth, especially if there is no pressure on the people responsible to update their teaching methods.

When I studied at the London School of Economics, it was a very dry, and very boring process. The cutting edge technology at the time was for students to place their own mini tape recorders or dictaphones at the foot of a stage where an extremely bored tenured professor would drone on about IS/LM curves until we all fell asleep. Lectures were not put online, for the very simple reason that there was no online yet.

I find economics, and Politics to be fascinating topics, but the way they were taught in the early 1990s was far from exciting or interesting. The topics were presented mostly as maths, and mostly as equations drawn literally in chalk on a board. There was no excitement, no attempt to make the subject matter appealling, interesting or memorable.

This is something that modern teachers like Scott Galloway are doing a lot to change. Its perfectly possible to make subjects exciting, interesting, even hilarious. I would LOVE to trade in my education back then, for learning science and business from scott galloway’s youtube videos, or veritasium and similar science channels. Youtube is the new lecture theater, and its way, way better.

Democracy 4 takes all this a stage further, because not only does the game present the topics of politics and economics in a much more accessible way than a textbook, its interactive. Its one thing to read a dry textbook description of hyperinflation, or sovereign debt crisis throughout history, but its another thing (and I suspect far more memorable), to experience them as disastrous events in a computer game you are playing, as they upset and derail all your plans for your country!

In general, its far better to learn things in a multi-sensory and personal way, than to have facts book-splained to you in a dry and academic environment. Interactive learning is orders-of-magnitude better than just expecting people to read dry descriptions and memorize theories and principles purely because they might come up in an exam, and that might have some impact on some future job interview that you might reluctantly apply for…

I didn’t set out to make edutainment, and I would definitely not describe Democracy 4 as an educational game. Its a game about a topic that is often taught in schools, and its as accurate as I can make it, while still being fun. I absolutely believe that this is the best way to about creating software that can be used in schools. Make something interesting and entertaining and fun, and then also make it accurate where it matters, and that way students will WANT to engage with it, and will take a real interest.

One of the most boring topics in economics is interest rates. What makes it worse is that a HUGE swathe of macroeconomic theory is about interest rates. I studied it for year and still found it boring. However, when you wrap the topic up in a video game where government debt interest becomes a variable that the player has to keep an eye on, in order to ‘win’, the topic suddenly becomes much more interesting.

I suspect we are heading towards a future where physics lessons are more like playing kerbal space program, where art classes are like using VR sculpting tools, where astronomy is taught using universe sandbox and where yes, economics is taught with Democracy 4. The only barriers to making education like this, is getting past the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome that has historically kept ‘games’ out of schools. Both teachers and parents still seem resistant to the idea that games can teach, and probably fear looking like they are slacking their ‘serious’ responsibilities by introducing something marketed as a game into a classroom.

I suspect I do not have the time, or the patience to work my way around the school-boards and educational departments all over the world to persuade them to buy Democracy 4 site licenses, although I would love it to be more widespread. If you are a teacher, or work in education in any capacity, I urge you to give it some thought. Ideally I’d do some deal with a country’s department of education to make it usable in every school, but my mind just recoils in horror at the number of meetings that would require :D.

Democracy 4 DLC now available to add to wishlist!

All the cool kids these days are trying to get people to add their upcoming games to their wishlist. Its literally the coolest game in town. You wouldn’t want to not be cool right?

In all seriousness, the reason indie devs do all that is because its widely believed that steams algorithm internally keeps track of what new games are ‘hot’ by how many people are following them or adding them to their wishlists, and this helps to determine how much visibility those games get at launch. I suspect the effect is much reduced with DLC because it sells to a smaller audience anyway, and perhaps steam prioritizes new IP over expansions and DLC anyway. We have no way of knowing.

But you DO get notified by steam when a pre-release game you wishlist has been released, so if nothing else, its just a handy reminder to people that they were interested in X a while back, and its out now…

So here is the store page for the new expansion so you can do this right now:

This DLC has actually been really hard to make, and in many ways was tons harder than doing the voting systems expansion. I can imagine many people might think it is the other way around, given that the voting systems DLC added some new core functionality to the base game whereas this expansion ‘is just a few new countries’. There are two reasons why this was not the case…

Firstly its SIX new countries, which was a bit silly of me. It should have been 4 max. I had totally blanked out that part of my memory where we did all the research and balancing for all the countries in the base game, and also forgotten that many of the base game countries had been modelled before, so we already had a lot of the data. Secondly, I massively forgot how much research is needed to do a proper job of just ONE country. The game has all of its usual policies, plus a bunch of new ones, plus all the content that used to be in 3 expansion packs for D3, plus some new stuff that is specific to the previous expansion pack on voting systems.

Because no economic/political model can EVER really model the reality of a single country in all possible states, let alone model 10, and certainly not 16, there are bound to be a bunch of weird anomalies and inaccuracies in any new countries that get added to the game. Perhaps its REALLY easy if you play Poland as a super-religious libertarian who loves carbon taxes? Maybe Greece is unwinnable for people who want to play Environmentalist-Capitalists if you start with a global economic boom? The problem is…there are too many permutations to test.

I did actually code some AI that plays the game automatically, but the trouble is in extracting any useful data from it. The game does a lot of processing, and even if I get each turn down to under a second (I can get it below 2 seconds already, and thats without multithreading), that means a 5 year term with 5 terms is around 2 minutes of AI-modelling. This might sound quick, but if I can only do 30 playthroughs an hour (720 a day) then thats nowhere close to the number of playthroughs needed to accurately build up a statistical model of imbalance…

I’m not saying that I will not revisit that experiment later…just that the sheer number of combinations of decision in the game mean you really need several million games to be played and analyzed to detect any issues. In other words several years of dedicated processing…

Anyway… I do have a bunch of time set aside between now and release which is basically just me playing each country a LOT, and tweaking all the numbers so they are playable. Democracy 4 is more of a sandbox than a conventional game, so I’m not aiming to get every permutation perfectly balanced anyway. Thats an impossible dream. I do have to ensure nothing crashes or goes super weird in a normal playthrough on each of these six countries though…

That brings me to the price. I’ve set it at $9.99. I did a lot of agonizing about this, and talked to some fellow devs a lot about pricing. Both urged me to price it higher than this. One urged me to double that. Its a really difficult thing to get right, and a decision that I find really interesting.

We all know that the marginal cost of each copy is zero, so in a way, it doesn’t matter if I charge $0.01 or $100, its just a matter of picking the number that maximizes total revenue. This depends a lot on who I think the target market is, what they can afford, and how much value I think the DLC represents… All very difficult things to be exact on. Eventually I figured that given that the base game is $26.99 and has 10 countries….6 countries for $9.99 is a good deal. Its also worth considering that anybody even considering buying some DLC clearly already likes the base game, and has played it enough that they want some extra content. That implies that their play hours are high enough that their cost-per-hour for Democracy 4 is low, and thus are willing to consider any new content favorably with regards to expected play time.

I see this a lot in my daily multiplayer Battlefield V games with friends. I am a serious Battlefield V addict. I have over 1,200 hours in BFV and thousand more in the earlier games. My cost per hour for BFV is about £0.05. Thats insane for something I enjoy that much. Its like going to see a new Hollywood movie and paying £0.15 for it. Madness.

The irony is, that as your perceived playtime cost per hour falls, the value proposition of new content shoots up. If they added one new map to Battlefield V, thats maybe a 5% playtime bonus for me, or 60 hours of entertainment. Even if I will only pay £0.50 an hour, that map should be a good deal to me for £30. A 3-map pack should be £99.

Obviously not all Battlefield players are so obsessed, but with DLC *you are selling to the hardcore*, so the value proposition is way better than it seems to the casual player. This is why it makes sense in F2P games to have some really expensive stuff. There are definitely people who will not only buy a lot of it, but they will consider it a good deal. Thats assuming you aren’t tricking/exploiting people with dark patterns and other horrible business practices obviously…

So…Yup, this DLC will be $9.99 and I think its actually a pretty good deal for people who have played at least all of the maps in the base game once. Its also probably an attractive proposition for anybody who is actually living in one of those six new countries (Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, Brazil and Greece). I guess I’ll find out if people agree with me on that in about a months time :D