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

Trying to avoid the small indie valley

Whenever there are business stats released about games, I always find myself fascinated by what seems to be the huge gulf between the amount of money (and sales) the big games make, and…everybody else. Increasingly I get the impression that the mid-tier games, developed by 3-30 people, are just disappearing due to becoming financially nonviable.

In an ideal world, there would be a perfect path that led from part-time bedroom coder with a day job, right through to full-time bedroom coder, to bedroom coder with a few contractors, to smallish studio, to medium studio…to epic/activision/valve.

I don’t think this is the case these days, but I think its especially bad for the ‘small indie’. I think there is a valley between part-time indie and the BIG indie. lets call it the difference between the $10,000 budget game and the $400,000 dollar game.

At $10k budget, you are likely holding down a day job, or doing contracting part-time. You don’t bother with a website (you just use steam or the apple app-store as your exclusive store front). You likely use coder art, or free art or royalty free art, or a friend helps out. Your marketing budget is zero, you attend no shows. You use the PC you owned anyway, and the game is made in less than six months.

Image result for game developer tycoon
screenshot from gamedev tycoon

At that level, even a few sales can help you break even. Even a cheap $10 indie game *can* sell a thousand or two thousand copies without any marketing whatsoever, as long as you are skilled, you picked a decent genre, you did a good job, and you optimized your store page, did some social media marketing, and generally did the guerrilla ‘no-budget’ marketing thing in evenings and weekends.

At the mid-tier (in the valley). Things get tough. You are full-time, and have an office with 2-4 other people. You suddenly need separate work PCs because of the office, and office furniture, and need to pay rent, and office internet costs, and power, and likely some admin/insurance/employment related costs too. You now have a proper accountant charging at least $1,000 a year. You probably have a lawyer if you are American. You are now paying for webhosting, some unity subscriptions, some money each month to adobe, and to a few other bits of software that in 2020 are inexplicably subscription based.

Your 3 people now have no pension in the UK and in the US, no healthcare, so add another $1,000 a month minimum on top for that, and together with the rent blah blah, you are probably paying $2-$3,000 a month before anybody gets paid. Assuming nobody will actually starve, you can easily look at paying $150,000 a year for your people, and you need to get that back.

But hang on! a 3 person team is NOT 3x as effective as a single dev. They have discussions, disagreements, arguments, confusion. They are demotivated by implementing other peoples ideas. They are distracted by someone who slurps their coffee in the office. They want the office cooler / hotter / lighter /darker than anyone else. They are sad because their cat is no longer at work with them…

I guess a 3 person indie team is the equivalent of maybe 1.5 solo devs (at best). But they don’t cost 3x as much, they cost maybe 5x as much.

Eventually, as you scale UP and UP and UP things work out. Your 200 developer team now has 5 people working FULL TIME to make hilarious / amazing / exciting video and social media content that gets your name EVERYWHERE. Your game design and code is top notch because its got dedicated people working on everything. The number of devs who can compete with you is smaller because they simply do not have the scale or the marketing firepower. You can suddenly employ full-time professional HR and business-management experts who can actually handle people properly, so fewer arguments about heat / light / cats. Productivity has been achieved.

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Blizzards WoW team

I think WAY too many indies are stuck in the valley of financial impossibility. I’m not sure you can survive with a 3-5 person team any more. if you get ‘funding’ from somebody then maybe, or a grant, or some dumb hardware company has no clue and throws cash at you…yeah sure. But purely on the basis of the free-market… i’m not sure it works.

So how am I still going? (before you ask). Well I am a weird edge-case that is VERY hard to replicate. My magic powers are:

  1. Rural location so no sky-high-rent / distractions etc.
  2. Solo dev for most of career so working from home
  3. Back-catalog of pretty big hits, so cash not that much of a problem
  4. Actually earning decent money from stock trading so…see above.
  5. Age 50, child-free, 39 years coding experience, workaholic. Impossible to compete with that combo tbh..

BTW TOP TIP: people often make a critical business mistake. They look at other people doing X at a company and think ‘they are doing X it must be viable’. It often is not. That other company may be in debt/a multi-millionaires hobby/funded by a spouse/some sort of money laundering scheme. Do not think all those 3-5 person indie teams posting online are surviving. They may well be in serious trouble.

Are my numbers in this post COMPLETELY insane? let me know. Whats the running cost of your 3-5 person indie studio?

My year => 2019 <=

I’ve really taken to trying to avoid social media use lately, which came to angry prominence once during the year and again recently during the UK election, so I’m likely going to blog more, and continue to tweet less. Anyway, here was my 2019!

Personal stuff!

We had a few short mini holidays this year, one of which was to Bruge (Belgium) which is a great place to go to because you can just get a train there (no flying! yay!), another to the southwest of the UK (which I drove to), and one long flight, which was to Canada. I always offset my flights, and try not to do it often, but it was justified as a combined holiday, and 50th birthday and biz trip to a games conference. Somehow, I have flown in 2 different helicopters this year. Thats just ‘indielife’ I guess.

By far the best thing I did was fly in a helicopter over the mountains near Banff. Truly amazing, and impossible to convey in mere pictures. It was an expensive treat but worth every single penny. Cannot recommend it enough.

Also somehow, in a drunken moment of panic, I booked a balloon trip (near where I live). This was a bit scary for me, as I dont like heights, but actually it was fine, a perfect day, and good fun. Something I always wanted to do.

I played the guitar more in the last year than I have in the previous ten years (at least). I got back into it a bit. I used to be pretty good, now I just cant physically keep my hands moving that fast, but its still something I find a nice distraction from constant work, and its a cool thing to be able to do now and then.

Charity Stuff.

Our second school in Cameroon opened, and I also re-did the war child thing at Christmas where we donate about $10k a year to children affected by war. Really proud to have done this for so long.

Eco stuff

I took part in an environmental demonstration locally (very low key), and also joined the extinction rebellion London protests, although did not get arrested, but did have a very heated ‘exchange of views’ with a fairly famous climate change denying media-whore who I will not dignify by printing his name. Really glad I attended. Current news makes it pretty clear that events are happening exactly as scientists told us they would. Future prospects depress me :(

Stock-market stuff

I still trade a lot on the stock market. I made some very optimistic trades as a day trader about a year ago, which forced me more and more and more into the red over the last year, resulting in a shockingly expensive margin call where I lost a bunch of money. I have now made every penny of it back, all on a single stock. This is an epic story worthy of its own HBO mini-series but is summed up in this simple chart :D

I am glad I stuck with it :D


Oh yes…I also run a games company. LoL. 2019 was a fairly stressful but definitely improving year. It was the year in which I made a shocking number of updates to my car-factory game Production Line, and also released not one but two pieces of DLC for it: Doors That Go Like This and the Design Variety Pack. Both have sold well, and broken even, but these things only really pay off over a few years.

As of this moment, the base game has sold a total of 114,000 copies on steam, plus a fair few pre-steam and on some other platforms. Its a $25 game, so thats not bad, plus I have a large back catalog of other games that continue to sell well on steam. We have sold 150,000 games roughly this year, a 24% drop of the previous year, which was boosted by being when Production Line was initially added to steam.

The stress of 2019 company wise has proven to be Democracy 4, which was originally slated to be shown to the public much earlier, but some stuff under-the-hood proved to be harder than expected, so although the current version of the game is now awesome and looks crisp and has some l33t new functionality, we are behind schedule, and probably going to go over-budget. However, I’m now working on it quite a lot, and have currently 1 SFX person and 2 artists working on content, and will very shortly be showing it off to people both on video, and in March at a show in London, which will be interesting.

Its hard to stay objective about Democracy 4. Lost of signs point to this being a successful game, and the ideal game for 2020, but I hate to be too cocky about how a game will do, and the release of any sequel is always plagued by people (normally the loud 0.1%) upset that you have dared make a sequel, or saying its just a re-skin, or whatever. I do dread having to deal with that sort of thing… but its part of selling to the public I guess :(

I expect 2020 will be just purely the year of Democracy 4. its a HUGE game (we rolled 4 expansion packs into the base game), and will likely be our biggest release ‘event’ so far, in terms of people wanting to play it. It will certainly be the most expensive game I’ve ever released. Fingers-crossed it works out, and I don’t look an idiot :D. I am optimistic though. Democracy 3 already looks old, clunky and tired compared to the new game.

Social Media & other Stuff

2019 is the year I clashed badly with social media, and the internet. Not in the usual sense, that if you have known me over the years you will know I have got involved in controversy a lot and drawn the attention of people a lot… This year, I actually managed to avoid that, at least in public.

Certain events during the year (nothing related to me) made me realize just how AWFUL social media is. The angry hate mob was out in full force, directing righteous furious anger at whatever individual or group was determined to be the hate-figure of the day. I’ve seen online hate mobs practically salivating over the potential to drive people to suicide, and its just horrible. Combine this with the mess that is modern politics and ‘fake news’ and people happily sharing stories that are not true, and I think 2019 is the year the internet broke, and became a torrent of abuse, not an amazing place filled with information.

I carried out a few steps to isolate myself from all this crap this year. I quit a newsgroup I’d been in for many years, quit a forum I’ve been on for over a decade, removed all my posts from one I’d been in for fifteen years, deleted 75% of my facebook friends, and left every single facebook group and page that wasn’t for one of my games. I vowed to tweet less, not discuss anything contentious online, and reminded myself I should freely block and mute anybody who is rude or abusive.

I just don’t need, or want any of this. Also its totally optional. A friend of mine has a VERY successful indie games biz and he tweets maybe once a month, and he does write-only, he never even reads twitter. He is a hero.

One of the reasons I intend to blog more and tweet less, is that this blog is mine. Its not even hosted by wordpress, its on a dedicated server. if you are abusive, you get blocked for life, no come-backs, no exceptions. ah… *bliss*.

Things I enjoyed

Succession. TV show loosely based on a fictional Murdoch family. Amazing. Watch it

Silicon Valley. TV show, final series was this year, fantastic, loved it.

The Goldfinch. Great movie. I didn’t expect to like it…not my kinda thing. but it was a very nice surprise.

Samsung stupidly wide monitor. Absolutely amazeballs. Couldn’t imagine gaming without it now.

Company of one. Business book, the joys of staying small.

So yeah…thats my 2019. Hope yours was cool :D

Stability == productivity

I have had to update and change a few things lately, and will be changing a few more things, and it leads me to use on the fact that I generally do NOT change things and how that is *a good thing*.

Due to changes to the pricing of cpanel, my server (yes for historical reasons I still have a dedicated physical server for all my sites) has to switch to a different physical box, and that means a lot of checking, and fiddling with hosts files, and rechecking, and panicking about php and so on…

Also recently my company bank changed their user interface and made a total and utter hash of it, that has caused me no end of admin hiccups and annoyances getting everything to work fluidly again…

…and me and Jeff (co-coder on Democracy 4) will shortly be switching to use git, as a mutually agreed source control system. This will cue no end of gnashing of my teeth and moaning that I don’t know how it works…until I get the hang of it.

In general I have found that from a productivity POV, change is BAD. It is REALLY bad, and you don’t realize how bad it is until you have gone multiple years without changing anything. Production Line is developed with my same trusty engine as years ago, in directx9, with visual C++ 2013, perforce for source control, visual assist, and nothing else changed for years other than my monitor, and my PC a few years ago. I use the same sound engine middle-ware as I use for most of my games, without change, and no other middle-ware at all.

…not quite THIS old…

With a certain level of code experience, and a rock-solid stable setup that *never changes*, making video games i actually kinda EASY. Its just typing. Literally just typing. I started typing for fun around age 8, so you would be amazed how stupidly fast i type now. My wife thinks I’m being sarcastic when she hears me typing but thats the real speed.

When I hear people talking about how an (unwanted) update to their middle-ware has broken their game, or how upgrading to a new O/S or maybe a new dev environment has lost them a day (or more), I just wince. Thats totally unnecessary pain. You do NOT need to port your code to the latest engine, or the latest operating system version, or the latest API. Unless you are working on the frostbite engine, this stuff should not bother you.

I don’t have a vulcan API path for my games, in the same way I don’t have a ‘mantle’ code path either. Why would I? Why would I even use directx 10, let alone 11 or 12. I make isometric strategy games or iconic top-down games. I don’t need ‘ambient occlusion’ or ‘subsurface scattering’. I’m not 100% sure what they are.

has that much really changed?

Nobody will buy your game because it uses the latest API, or because it uses some cool graphical feature (unless…frostbite). Nobody will buy your game because you developed it on the latest IDE, or using the newest coolest system. And your in-house productivity tools? did you change those too? did you start using slack? why?

I chat to Jeff using skype or *gasp* email. When I work on spreadsheets I use Microsoft office, the old school purchased version from 2010. Tell me what features are in the new cloud-based tools that you NEED to make better games… BTW my software subscription cost is trivial, just malwarebytes and….oh thats it.

So my top tip from an old grizzled but stupidly productive game dev… Find a dev environment that works *for you* and then look at changing it maybe once a decade. If you HAVE to. That goes for everything. Get a decent office chair and you will have it for a decade. Get a decent keyboard and you will have it for ages. Don’t change anything, don’t install anything, don’t even move anything, just TYPE :D

Reboot red (Banff)

So recently I went to Canada for reboot banff, although tbh half my reasoning was to go to the games conference, and half was to go on holiday with my wife as we had been there a long while ago and loved it, so we knew it would be a great place to go visit. This was a pretty small games conference (500ish people), when you compare it to the likes of GDC, but it was worthwhile, the talks were mostly good, and the atmosphere (in every way) was just so much better.

One of the things I really dislike about GDC is its price tiers. You are literally barcode scanned when entering a talk to check you are sufficiently wealthy enough to hear what is being said. The top tiers are stupidly pricey. I’m a bloody successful developer, but I’m not paying thousands of dollars just to sit in a few room and hear people tell me about the way they used shaders in their AAA game, or to give us a post-mortem that is 50% advertising and pitching for a better job at another company…

Everything in reboot is the same price, plus you get FREE coffee and buns/cakes/yummy things in the morning and afternoon and a FREE buffet lunch. Everyone mingles, everyone is chill. There are no torturous queues to be able to spend $5 on a crap cup of coffee… its ace.

Plus for fucks sake…banff. I’m sure we all know about the insane homeless problem and literally shit problems in San Francisco. and here is a picture I took at banff from my hotel window:

I was celebrating something while I was there, so we did something truly insane and went on a helicopter trip to the nearby mountains, and I cannot convey the awesomeness of this with a mere photo like this:

But trust me it was amazeballs.

The hotel that the conference was at is very nice, although you need deep pockets to eat there each night, but luckily the town is way cheaper and a very pleasant walk 15 minutes along a clear glacier-water stream. Hardly a chore. We saw a fair few deer on our walks there, although TBH living in the UK we have deer in our garden now and then but still…its pretty cool.

The talks were a nice variety, a fair few businessy ones which I found interesting. Some slightly avante-garde ones too, but I chose mostly business and industry ones. I went to probably 4x as many talks at this as I do at GDC, which is amazing really, given GDC has about 50,000 talks (about 5 of which you can go to as an indie…).

Anyway, the real value in these things is the over-dinner and after-party chats with fellow devs. I met some new people, re-connected with old friends etc, and it was cool. I definitely learned some things, and its good to take the pulse of other indies in person. Would I go next year? Maybe… I don’t know what to do about GDC. I’m thinking NO, mostly because of flying, but it will be Democracy 4 launch year so maybe I should? Still undecided.

But I give reboot 5/5. You should go.

Global gaming competition and the collapse of western cultural advantage

Right then… I’m in Canada for #rebootred, so on a laptop, and this will be a simple blog post with no images, but hopefully distills a lot of careful thinking…

I am worried that western game devs, (mostly indies) are totally and utterly fucked. I am super-worried (and confident) that western indie game devs who are based in California (esp san fran area) are so hugely utterly fucked that its like a disaster movie. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, but soon. Here is why.

The mindset of many california/west coast USA indies seems ridiculously optimistic. In talks, many of them talk about game design, company culture, personal development, aesthetics, mental health, safe-spaces and how they are anti-crunch, pro-union, and want to create idealistic creative environments, but rarely touch on economics or money. All of this sounds wonderful, and positive and desirable in a happy, optimistic ‘wouldn’t it be great if star trek:TNG was real’ kind of way. The trouble is, I think its idealistic naive insanity and that historical chance is currently lulling people into thinking this is going to continue.

There are basically two points to make here. One is how exactly I think this is naive insanity (I’m trying hard to avoid the word bollocks), and the other is why nobody has seemingly noticed yet. Onwards with point one:

Its stupidly expensive, and inefficient to make video games using middle class American twenty somethings working in California or Vancouver/Seattle. If you asked me how to lose money by writing software, I guess three of my best ideas would be to hire people with as little experience as possible, ensure they were only vaguely pressured into working real hard, and also place them in the most expensive office space I could find. That should do the trick.

Newsflash: You get at better at programming with experience. You get better at art with experience. You get better at almost EVERYTHING with experience. I am vastly, hugely, hilariously better at coding now than when I was 40 (I’m 50). The code I wrote when I was 30 was embarrassing. The code I wrote when I was 20 was a joke. I started coding aged 11. I am still learning. The code in Production Line is way better than Democracy 3. If I was hiring coders now (I’m not), someones advanced age (assuming equiv experience) would be a HUGE factor in selection. Your grey hair might not be a huge boost for your prospects on tinder, but they are a boost for your prospects as a potential employee at my company. Why? Because I’m not a total idiot. People with 30+ years of experience are BETTER at stuff. How is that even up for debate.

But the average age of indie developers seems to be going down each year. Its crazy. Your first attempt at making a game is usually awful. You think its better than it is because unity superficially makes stuff look better than it really is. The western attitude of praising youth over experience is a crippling flaw. The flipside view in many asian countries makes vastly more sense. Its 2019, much work is now mental, not physical. A 20 year old laborer is more productive than a 50 year old laborer. But coders….lol no.

Modern western millenial (or zoomer???) attitudes to work are different to the boomer/genX attitudes. Thats in many ways an improvement. I am a huge workaholic. I will work myself to death in order to win. I LOVE finding myself in a situation where the person who works the most wins, because then I know I will win. This is very unhealthy, and very bad, and rightly looked down upon. Its also the predominant attitude still in a huge swathe of the world, especially the ‘developing’ world, or to put it another way: China.

California/Seattle/Vancouver are rich. The middle class kids who lightly rebel against their parents by having dyed hair, a mac book air and a copy of unity need not fear too much that they will end up in the gutter hungry. The game dev thing is their dream, but if it fucks up, they can get a job at facebook/microsoft/amazon for a high six figure salary anyway. Their parents likely own houses that have quintupled in value and will bail them out anyway. Do you think the average seattle indie dev has the same hunger to work on their game as a kid from a poor family in Shenzen who sees this as their ONE CHANCE to escape life in a factory?

Poor people have an added incentive. Harsh but true. I’m not exactly ‘from money’ (to put it mildly), so I know this. Nothing encourages you to work harder than hunger, and west-coast indie devs dont have it.

I could look up relative apartment/office rental costs in China versus Seattle/SF here, but why bother? you already know the answer. A dev in India/Russia/China/South America has a trivial office rental bill compared to you. Guess what… a $20 strategy game royalty buys a lot more *stuff* in mumbai than it does in san francisco, but the developer still earns the same $20 regardless of where they coded the game. Steam doesnt deduct income from chinese developers because they *cheat* by developing games somewhere more affordable.

So yeah… pure economics mean that western devs, in western cities, with western attitudes, and work-life balance are fucked. You cannot compete. Its over, you lost. Poverty awaits. You*are*fucked. Point one ends here.

Now point two… if this is really true, how the hell is ANYONE still in business making indie games in SF/London/Seattle?


Anyone who has witnessed triple-A devs outsource art or design or code to the developing world will say its CULTURE that *we* have an advantage on, and *they* don’t. Chinese devs cant make art that appeals to the precious artistic sensibilities of all the people buying games, which is rich westerners, hence, they might be ok to model the odd tree…but chinese devs can never compete with western ones for creating real IP, or whole games…


Yeah maybe…in the past. But thats bullshit now. Firstly, The chinese economy has been transformed, and there is now a HUGE middle class. There are a staggering number of chinese gamers, playing everything. The idea of Chinese outsourcers making content for rich westerns is seriously out of date. If anything, its now hungry western indie devs asking how they can ‘break in’ to the huge and lucrative Chinese market.

Secondly, the whole ‘cultural advantage’ thing is about to become bullshit. In the past, people had a point. Thanks to WW2, my own country (England) was economically kicked in the nuts a while ago, and became effectively subservient in economic terms to the USA. As a result, US culture invaded and dominated our own, to the extent that English people know what Hamburgers, High-School, High-School proms, Little-League, Baseball, Cheerleaders, Trick-or-treat and Pretzels are, even though none of this is English. You can make a video game in san francisco about a pretzel-munching cheerleader at the high school prom, and thats just fine, because US culture has basically conquered the world. US culture dominates, and thus people 100% immersed in it in San Francisco get an advantage over kids in rural China.

Not any more.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Gangnam Style’ was the tipping point towards Asian dominance of global culture. Maybe instead its ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Maybe it will be some movie/game from next year. Hard to tell, but everybody can see the direction of movement.

In economic terms We have ZERO defence against domination by asia of almost everything. We have got away with ignoring this for a few decades because of the cultural overhang of western (esp US) media that created a narrative of needing to get IP and art from the west if you wanted to be a success in the media. That cultural advantage is collapsing right now.

To clarify: I dont see this as a BAD thing. Or a GOOD thing. Its just a thing. Its the gears of history. Britain was good at shipbuilding and built a trading empire based on naval might that let us get away with punching above our weight culturally and economically for a while. Then the US had their turn, after WW2 basically fucked everybody else. Now its time for Asia to take both the the cultural and economic crown. Stuff changes. All I’m trying to do is spot when changes might cause me, or people I know, to have to adjust.

TL;DR: There is no safe space to protect from the economics of Chinese game development.

This is just my view. I could be totally wrong. I’ve never even been to India, China or Russia. Am I wrong?