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

For the love of god… PLEASE use your own product

There was a bit of scandal recently involving Elon Musk’s potential purchase of twitter, where it became apparent that a number of people on twitters board of directors, never used twitter, or did not even have an account. In people’s mad rush to find a way to criticize Elon musk for everything, this was defended as being perfectly ok.

Its not ok. In fact is absolutely stupendously fucking stupid.

Now obviously, with certain hipster silicon valley companies, fueled by an endless supply of dumb-money venture capital from coked -up idiots who got lucky once with uber, and think they rule the universe, the idea of making a profit, or even having a decent product is seen as passé, but back in the real world where people live and work, if you run a business, its in your interests to make a decent product. This is business 101. In fact this is kindergarten level business. And yet… this seems to be a radical idea to most people.

It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that everyone involved at any level of making a product, has used that product a LOT. You need to know how it feels when that product fails, or works poorly, or slowly, or gives unexpected results. If you make videogames, you need to play your game a LOT. You cannot simply rely on someone else to filter all the data. You cannot understand what makes your product suck, or seem uncompetitive, just by looking at a spreadsheet. You do not really know WHY people buy your product. Maybe there is some regulatory capture that gives you an unfair advantage. Maybe they just haven’t heard of the rival products yet. Maybe they got your product cheap, so are making-do with it until they can afford the better product. maybe it was a gift.

Anybody who just used twitter for 30 minutes a day can tell you its swamped with hatred, anger, arguments, abuse, impersonation, trolls, scams, spam, bots trying to manipulate the news and much more. Anybody who has ever set their timeline to ‘recent’ and seen twitter secretly swapping it back to their algorithm without you asking, KNOWS its horrendously awful UX. But of course if none of the people in charge ever use it…what do they care?

It seems on a day-to-day basis I am increasingly coming into contact with businesses that have no idea how frustrating their product is to use, how impossible to navigate their processes are, and how absolutely infuriating it is to contact anybody. Do we honestly think any call-waiting queueing system would exist for one second if the chief executive was forced to communicate with his own team through the external-facing phone-bank?

This sort of thing drives me absolutely insane, but its also why I have a successful business, and multiple million-dollar selling games, over a 25 year period. Its actually *really easy* to do well in any business. You just make a decent product, work hard, listen to customer feedback AND try your own product and keep refining until you and they are happy with it. It sounds too easy to be true, but the reality is 99% of people are not working this way at all.

An additional; problem, which confounds this lack of experience with their own product/service, is that people at the top in most businesses make it absolutely impossible to contact them. Look up any big company such as apple, google, facebook, reddit, twitter. Show me the way of guaranteed contacting a human being at one of those companies in the next 15 minutes. Impossible.

Every barrier between you and your customers is another step you are laying on the path to failure and bankruptcy. Companies who totally blank their customers and consider them to be peasants, not worth talking to, are companies who have absolutely no clue what their customers actually want.

Do customers really want an 8k TV? No, but people are making them. Does anybody really want the metaverse? No, but its getting invested in. Does anybody really want to sign up to 8 different streaming services? No, but here comes another few… Does anybody really want to remove the headphone socket on a phone? no, but there it goes… again and again and again.

Sometimes a companies management isolation is so laughably bad, it can go years, maybe even a decade without realizing it has no idea what its doing any more. Adobe probably think people REALLY like having to subscribe to a monthly service just to edit some graphics files. Whoever runs CBS probably thinks people are really excited to sign up for their streaming service. Microsoft seem to think we are excited to know exactly what random redesign the windows taskbar and explorer gets next year. These companies are all absolutely delusional.

So my top tip, if you run a company: make it REALLY easy for people to talk to the management, Even the CEO, even you. You will not get anywhere near as much email as you think you will, and the best thing is you hear about (and fix) problems immediately, not after sales drop for 3 consecutive quarters and none of the geeks in the accounting team understands why. Video game players are notoriously argumentative, aggressive, passionate and prone to outbursts, and yet my email address (cliff at positech dot co dot uk) is all over the web, all over the place, and it all goes to me, totally unfiltered.

I’ve sold 3 million games on steam alone. Today so far (midday) I got 2 emails. What are people so afraid of?

The eventual erosion of the middlemen

Recently I had to communicate with a landowner about a potential site to build a solar farm, because yes, thats what I do some times. Because the discussion might involve some technical aspects I am not aware of, I went through the company I have a relationship with to build these things. However, on the other side of the negotiation, the landowner also went through a third party. A land agent.

Many of you have experienced this if you try to move house, and buy a new property. You want to sell your old house, and buy a new one. But you need to talk to an estate agent (or realtor in the US?) to communicate with the people you are selling your old house to, and talk to a second estate agent to buy the house you want. They are also talking to a third middleman to buy their property…

The problems here are massive, not least the fact that all of these people expect some percentage of the cost, but they also are SLOW, because frankly, they are quite happy where they live. Whats the hurry? And also their incentives are misaligned. An estate agent might take 1.2% of the sale price when they sell your home. You get the other 98.8%. If the house costs $300k, They can expect to make $3,600. If they can get a 5% better price by negotiating harder, they get $180 more. But you would get $15,000 more. Of course they don’t give anywhere close to a damn about you getting a good deal as you do…

Of course thats just when things are going ok, and the actual objectives are aligned. So you want to sell your house, and the estate agent has an incentive to sell it too. In theory, the estate agent is on your side. A bit. But a lot of the time, we deal with middlemen who are NOT on our side.

If you have ever bought a non-tesla car, you have probably gone to a ‘dealership’. There is a good reason that the slang term ‘stealership’ exists in the US. These are middlemen. Their job is not to help you buy a car, their job is to trick you into paying as much money as possible for whatever they want to sell you, and their loyalty is firmly to themselves. You may THINK you know what model car you want, but if they get better commission on another model, then they will say ANYTHING THEY LIKE to try and trick you into changing to that one.

And don’t for one minute think once you pick a car its over. They will then try to sell you add-ons, extras, extended warrantees and other crap. The last time my wife bought a (diesel) car, I remember having to warn the dealer that if he even mentioned a single more thing related to optional add-ons we didn’t ask for, we would walk out and abandon the deal. (she is more polite than me).

As you may know, the stupidly-fast-growing car company Tesla, has no dealerships. They have ‘showrooms’ where you can see the cars, but these are rare, the staff there do not push you to buy, and in fact if you decide you do want to buy, they will basically tell you to use the website. They also do not get commission. The cars have long waiting lists. I’ve been waiting for my new one since October, and its expected by the end of this year. A years wait to buy a car direct from the manufacturer…

Dealerships used to serve a purpose. Information. In 1970, if you wanted to buy a new ford, you would have to go to a showroom, and have the staff answer questions like ‘how fast does it go?’ ‘what colors are available’? and ‘how much luggage space is there?’


Its 2022, and ever car company has a whizzbang website with videos, multiple images, and online configurators where you can see every possible permutation of how your ideal car would look. Every possible statistic is listed. You could also go to YouTube and watch any of the thousands of youtube channels about cars, where impartial real-world tests are carried out and you get to see exactly how each car handles each situation. You can now be ludicrously informed about a car before even leaving your sofa.The information gap between you and the car dealership has shrunk, maybe even reversed. I suspect I know more about the Tesla model Y (my next car) than most of their staff. They have to know about the whole range, whereas I can be laser focused on the car I want. The entire reason for car dealerships to exist is now gone.

The same is true for estate agents. The role of the estate agent is basically to show you what houses are for sale… and maneg the process of buying the one you want (or selling yours). There IS some hassle involving lawyers and mortgage providers here, but actually not very much. The vast majority of the time, estate agents are doing one of two things.

  • Showing you around a house
  • Playing telephone tag or email with buyers and sellers

The first of these is patronizing as hell. They open a door to the bathroom and say “this is the bathroom”. I know, I’ve seen one before. We even have one in our own house. Thanks buddy. There is an argument that they need to be there to keep an eye on you, sure, but the extent to which they need to facilitate viewings is now vastly lower than before.

Before we bought this house 12 years ago, we drove a LONG way here to look at lots of options. When we got there, it turned out one of them was right next to a sewage treatment building. The estate agent had not mentioned this, because they are bastards. These days, in 2022, we can all easily browse google street view, and check out dozens of photos, maybe even videos of any potential house and its surroundings before bothering to go ‘visit’ any which we can now tell are non-starters before we even get in the front door.

Again, information has destroyed the vast majority of the power of the middle-man/woman.

In my own file of computer games, this is also happening, but we are currently only half way there. The original business model was bricks-and-mortar stores, where you walk in, pick a video game from a shelf and buy it. That horribly exploitative model collapsed with the internet and buying online. For a few years, people tended toi sell online from their own website, paying very little commission. 5% would be considered a lot, as you are basically just paying credit card fees and chargeback/fraud protection, plus some absolutely trivial disk storage and bandwidth costs. This is still an option today, and you can buy Democracy 4 semi-direct from me, at 5% commission here:

Most people do not do this, because there are super-popular online stores now like Steam, Epic and GoG and Humble. In the mobile realm, this is totally controlled (many would say illegally) by apple and google. The middlemen who facilitate buying something from someone went from physical stores to online, but did not go away. The commission they take dropped from over 60% down to 30%, buts its still very much there.

I actually believe this may be changing. The EU and the US are both currently looking into legislation to combat monopoly practices by tech giants which no doubt include the idea that they can take 30% of every transaction. Personally I believe this is way overdue. The same forces that have started to crumble the car dealership module will eventually force their way into the online realm too.

Hit hard by digital sales, GameStop is looking to close up to 150 stores  this year - The Verge

When I started selling video games online in 1997, one top tip people had was to put your phone number and address on your website (yikes). People would NEVER hand over their credit card over the interwebs, but they would feel much safer if they could use a telephone to speak to a human. People also HAD to have the option of having the product snail-mailed to them on a physical CD as a ‘backup’ in case your fly-by-night website went bust and they had no way to get the game again! For what its worth, My company has been selling online since 1997. Steam was announced in 2002, 5 years later., I’m still here.

Many of the ‘value-add features that game-store-middlemen provide have ben eroded over time. They provide the bandwidth to re-download the game! This costs virtually nothing these days, especially for smaller indie games. They provide an online message board for the games players! but so does reddit, facebook, and a billion other places. They provide hosting for trailers and videos about the game! But so does youtube…

There is definite *value* to customers in having a single place where they know they can find all this, but increasingly the actual ‘location’ of information on the internet is becoming moot. I no longer have to care what the web address of a specific site is (and I remember the days when we laboriously typed h t t p : // on front of every address…). Since virtual assistants became a thing, I can now just yell ALEXA, READ ME REVIEWS OF GAME X, and it can do it. Are those reviews from site X or Y? I don’t care.

Its an interesting time to be in selling games online. There was a brief period of stability where it was established, firmly, that games got sold through the apple store, the google play store, or through steam. That was it. But this may now be changing. Its likely changing in other industries too.

Middlemen need to be absolutely sure they are providing some value that is not just ‘information’. Information is everywhere, available to everyone, trivially, all the time. There is still value in curation, and convenience, but its eroding, and its probably not going to hold its value for much longer.

Positech homepage mobile re-design

I don’t sell mobile games, and I don’t play mobile games, but like it or not, most people spend most of their time on their mobiles now, not a desktop PC< which is the target market for my games.

With that in mind, it makes sense for my website to not look a total and utter train-wreck on mobile. Historically, it has always done so. I have redesigned the homepage today so it serves a slimmed down version for mobile which looks basic, but not a total usability nightmare:

This is the ONLY page with that redesign, so clicking on any game will quickly ruin the experience, but that is surely a project for another time, when I am less busy with Democracy 4 updates. FWIW, the desktop website has a different, more appropriate layout:

I used to do some fancy responsive design that filled up all that black space, but currently I am not doing so. At some point I will likely do a complete redesign of everything.

Positech has enough games now that it can really be laid out more like a traditional store such as GoG or epic, with a consistent theme across each game, but to do so would mean re-arranging a ton of content, as each game has a FAQ, some modding information, a buy page, and maybe pages for DLC or for educational purposes (site licenses). TBH some of the real old games like redshirt or Democracy 2 just don’t sell enough copies to really care too much about how modern their sites are…

In other news I have a big update on the solar farm likely happening this week, so lots to write about soon :D.

The sad (but fixable) state of gamer discourse…

To be honest, using a polite term like discourse to describe this is probably unfair, as the general level of communication online by pc gamers should more accurately be described as ‘sarcastic, aggressive, abusive unjustified screeching and yelling’. That feels more accurate.

I guess in-between major game launches I forget just how bad things are, but perhaps this is not the case and things are actually getting worse. I do know though, that now I am 52 years old, and having made over a dozen games, I am absolutely ready to give up on communicating online about games.

I have friends who are writers, and the difference between the discussion of novels and the discussion of games is like night and day. The discussion around writing seems to be more constructive, more reasonable, and approaches the tone of conversation you might have in a pub, or a restaurant, or when hanging out with friends. Some books are considered badly written, and described as ‘disappointing’ or even ‘boring’, but it rarely, if ever approaches the level of rabid antagonism that is associated with PC gaming.

To be clear, I am not just talking about my own interactions as a game developer. Reviews of my games are generally pretty good, and my sales are pretty good, and things are going fine. What I find depressing is how commonly you encounter people who are just professionally abusive, angry and aggressive. Believe it or not, you can actually click on steam reviewers and see other posts they have made about other games, and all too often you encounter these people who are frankly just professional assholes, about every game, and to everyone.

If 95% of your comments in a community (ha! the word community is so abused, when in gaming terms, its more often a rabble or a scrum) are negative, sarcastic or abusive, then really why the hell does that community need you as a member? I cannot imagine any business case for keeping the 1% of the most abusive, offensive members. It seems like a no-brainer to just take that 1% of steam ‘community’ members who have been warned or banned in the most forums and just close their accounts permanently. The only reason not to do so is probably that they spend some money.

This is the problem, sales income is associated with their accounts, but the destructive impact they have on the community as a whole is not being measured.

This is a major economic failure, and is a classic problem that economists refer to as an externality. (Cool fact: I actually studied at the London School Of Economics, unlike 99% of the abusive commenters telling me I am thick, stupid, clueless and don’t understand fuck-all about economics when they criticize my politics games…sigh…)

Externalities are major problems, and economists spend a lot of time trying to devise systems to solve them. A classic externality is pollution. If you have a paper mill, and the by-product of making paper is dumping thousands of gallons of pollution into a nearby stream… then this pollution can destroy the livelihood of a fishing business on the same river. This means economic activity is damaged, but unless the paper mill is fined, they have no economic incentive to act any other way. We see this globally with pollution, especially CO2 being a major problem. (Huge shoutout to the ‘special’ people who send me abuse for daring to represent climate change in a video game here…)

Abusive people in a gaming community cause an externality in two ways. Firstly, they drive away people who do not want to wade through trolling, abuse, fights, arguments and hatred, so that those people no longer contribute to the community, and thus reduce the economic value they get from it. (put another way, people just check out of the steam forums, considering them unusable, and thus find it easier to shift to rival stores like epic, as the lack of community is no big deal). Secondly, they drag other, normally quite civil people into abusive arguments, making the community more and more toxic, enraging the remaining posters until the ‘community’ becomes a place to be angry, providing no utility to anybody.

Social media is basically a big fat mistake, because it was designed around a broken mechanic: engagement. All social media seems to based on the checking of a single metric: how much time are people spending in the community. And how many posts or votes are there? This seems to be the only metric, whether this is because it enables more ads to be seen, or because there is a misguided view that this is all that matters.

The trouble is, deep down we are all pretty primitive animals. If we forget that, and tune our society purely towards engagement, then our society is going to resemble the Roman colosseums where gladiators were torn apart by lions before a cheering exuberant crowd. I suspect colosseum user-engagement metrics were excellent.

AT&T Switches Customers to More Expensive Plans Without Permission -  ExtremeTech

You might think this is hyperbole, but I urge you to consider it further. We already have numerous examples of people committing suicide due to abuse they received through social media. Squid game (a show I declined to watch) seems to prove that we have an appetite for watching horrific abuse as ‘entertainment’. Sure… squid game was just escapist drama right? but imagine if J K Rowling (a controversial figure in recent social media) were driven to suicide by social media. Do you really think there would not be hundreds, if not thousands of people cheering this on, and gloating on twitter? It is, at the same time, both true, and shocking to accept this to be our new reality. We are a mob rejoicing at the suffering of others.

We, as a society, MUST turn away from the mindless encouragement of ‘engagement at all costs’. Nothing makes people more curious than a car crash where people died. Just slowing down to enjoy viewing the carnage causes major traffic jams. This is our nature, and one that is clearly bad enough, without it being weaponized by social media in a competition to drive ever bigger profits for silicon valley companies.

It IS perfectly possible to improve the state of a community. Its pretty simple really. There is only one rule change needed. You just make it super clear that abusive posts, personal attacks, and trolling gets an immediate lifetime ban, without exceptions. You might think that’s crazy, but I’ve done it on my own forums for decades, and people still post there frequently. I’d say the level of discussion and debate is way, way, way better than reddit, facebook, the hellholes of youtube and twitter or anywhere else. Moderation is not evil, its not censorship, its just sensible. I’ve banned multiple users on steam from my steam forums for being abusive. The world did not end, it was not a slippery slope towards fascism after all.

Of course I know things will never change, nobody cares. Nobody has the slightest inclination to fix this problem. I’m in some private communities that are really nice, friendly places to be, and I’ve been in others where, due to a lack of any rules or moderation, people behave like they do on reddit or twitter and are abusive. I spend way less time there… In fact I spend no time now on facebook, and hardly any on twitter. I only use reddit for a handful of communities, and never read steam forums apart from my own games.

I feel that things have gotten so bad lately that when you read a friendly discussion where people are civil and thoughtful, it almost feels weird, or like a joke. When people are enthusiastic, helpful and appreciative, where they thank people for insightful posts, or for sharing their experiences… we can STILL do this, we can all be civil, friendly, understanding and appreciative. It just takes the tiniest bit of effort to do so.

So I offer you this challenge.

To make it clear, I want you to do this for OTHER developers. This is not self serving on my part.

Take the time today, it will be less time than it takes to play wordle… to find 3 games on your steam library that you enjoyed but did not review, and go leave a positive review for those games. Not a one-liner, but a paragraph or two, that is helpful, sincere and positive. YOU will feel better having done this. Think of it entirely as self-serving to boost your own mood.

Do it right now. I’m doing it too. (BTW have steam changed this? it seems there is no way to leave a review unless clicking the game prompts you, based on recent play time… seems…unhelpful?)

Democracy 4 Leaves Early Access tomorrow! (a look back…)

So… on 13th January 2021 at 10am GMT, barring critical illness on my part or a meteor hitting the earth, my political strategy game ‘Democracy 4’ will be released from Early Access into the arms of the wider gaming world! Its as good a time as any to reflect on the games history and development.

Firstly…obviously this is not the first in the series of Democracy games. Imaginatively, I named the first one simply ‘Democracy’, and according to wikipedia it came out in 2005. It was GameTunnel’s 2005 sim game of year! go me! The game was the same basic structure as it is now, but with a horrendously worse UI and much, much lower budget, with me basically doing everything. Feast your eyes on this screenshot:

Democracy 1. Yikes

Like Democracy 2 and 3, it had the voter groups as a big chunk in the middle, but I had not realised all those sim values at the top could be placed in with the policies. Also… the bottom of the screen is kind of a disaster of poor UI decisions and incredibly rubbish stock icons. Still… the basic gameplay mechanics were pretty much all there, and I definitely sold quite a few copies. There were even retail versions in some countries as I recall.

Fast forward to the futuristic sci-fi future of 2007 and we released the much more polished Democracy 2, which we still have a website for, complete with amazingly improved screenshots and UI! This time there was an actual proper paid artist with a proper budget, and it starts to look a bit more professional. This version of the game, unsurprisingly sold much better. Feast on this improved UI!

Democracy 2. meh

We still have all the voter groups in the middle, but I worked out I could interleave the sim value icons with situations and policies, and stick all the menu-stuff in one consistent place at the top (although weirdly I still have your popularity under the voter groups). This game was definitely a relative success, although thats only in 2007 terms. Steam greenlight didn’t happen until 2013, it was 2005 that steam started very very very slowly adding 3rd party games. Online games sales were trivially small by modern terms.

I took a break from indie games at some point around here because I worked at Elixir and then Lionhead, but eventually, after having surprising success with Gratuitous Space Battles, I eventually decided to return to making political strategy games with Democracy 3 in 2013. And that when the game really took off and went bananas, especially on steam, where so far its now sold 780,000 units. There was also humble bundles, and retail sales, and ports to IOS, and a total of 4 expansion packs (social engineering, extremism, clones & drones and electioneering). This game had a proper marketing and development budget and looks like this:

Democracy 3: woo!

Hurrah! We now have a UI thats pretty close to the latest version, although voter groups are still in the middle, political capital is top left, and all of the icons and the icon group zones are the same size. This proved to be quite a limitation for modders, and also made it harder to find stuff (there was no text based search capability either).

Democracy 3 did REALLY WELL, and is my top selling game ever, combining with its DLC it beats even Gratuitous Space Battles and Production Line. Its the game that most people know me for, and got me invites to give talks at places like GDC. It also paid for me to develop a love of fast electric cars, which was nice.

There was then a LONG GAP, where I made other games, most noticeably Production Line, and I also became a games publisher, publishing redshirt, political animals, big pharma and shadowhand. Eventually I turned my attention back to the Democracy series to make a better, ultimate amazeballs version of the game, which is Democracy 4, and is being released tomorrow. Yay! Here is a relevant screenshot:

Democracy 4. Woohoo!

This is WAY better. The important icons are larger (configurable), everything is vector based, so looks crisp regardless of screen res. The voter groups are on the side, which makes them a sortable list, and the icons can all resize smoothly in different game modes. We also now have dark mode and palette support, unicode text support built in, and a ton of other design changes.

Some people are very cynical about game sequels, suggesting its all a cash grab etc, but I defy you to look at these 4 screenshots and think 4 is not an improvement on 1. It took 3 sequels to get there, but any coder or designer will tell you that they can make a MUCH improved version of the game they just finished if they get the chance to do it again.

Democracy 4 is released tomorrow, but its not the end of it. I am determined to improve the game balance, and have some more ideas of stuff to add. I am also obsessed with making mod support easier, and steam workshop support in this version is dramatically better than before. Sales in Early Access have been very good, but its hard to know how to compare it because Democracy 3 never had an early access release, and the entire concept did not exist for earlier versions of the game.

I suspect Democracy 4 will stay relevant for quite a long time. Politics is an evergreen topic, and I’m pleased with the fact that its UI is very adaptable to bigger monitors, and also supports unicode so we have decent language support in Japanese, Russian South Korean etc. This should ensure the game finds a decent sized audience over time.

Personally… I have found that this game leaves Early Access at a time where I really need to force myself to take some time off. For me that just means not working (at all!) on weekends, and maybe building up to being able to step away from work one day during the week too. Because I am a workaholic, I already have another company I run alongside this, which builds solar farms, so I am unlikely to not be busy. And I should play the guitar more too…

A big thanks to everyone who has supported the Democracy games over the years, I really do appreciate it.