Category Archives: business

So you may have missed it, but we launched Production Line out of Early Access almost exactly a week ago. It looks like we have had a pretty good launch. We were in various charts in various categories, sold a lot of copies, got some good word of mouth coverage, and a fairly minimal amount of bug reports. I have remained relatively calm, and relatively sane, and am still motivated to improve the game and continue to do (some) work on it for the next few months. Woohoo.

TBH this is the smoothest game launch is Positech’s history. This is the first time I’ve done early access, so its the first time I’ve had literally tens of thousands of people hammering the game code *before* I officially declare the game *done*. Frankly, these days most indie games get a way bigger EA launch than a final product launch, so its not as gentle a ramp up as it sounds, but it still resulted in a pretty bug free departure from Early Access

Something I was very happy with was that I could set the ‘final’ build live for all the EA players, not touch the game *at all* for a few days, and when I was absolutely sure everything was fine, just literally click the ‘release out of early access’ button knowing that things were pretty stable. I highly recommend this!

So far we have had ONE patch since release, which fixed a short list of things, and there is another one on the way in maybe a week or so, which will be the accumulation of a bunch of bug fixes (even some pretty rare crashes) and some UI features people have asked for like a camera speed slider, autosave interval slider, and some extra stats. It feel so good to be in a position where people are saying ‘the game needs a better UI for feature X’ instead of ‘the game needs feature X’.

I definitely have plans to do some paid content for the game (DLC) alongside regular updates. I’m obviously not in a position to even tease anything like that yet, but as I prefer content-heavy DLC to code-heavy DLC (its just optimal given that I am the only coder), such things do not take *much* time to do (although there is of course a big art budget cost).

Right now I’m pretty happy with how Production Line has gone. Even if the game makes NO MORE MONEY AT ALL, I’ll be happy (but amazed!), and I think over the long tail of the next 2+ years there is a good chance of it making at least 50% of its current earnings again, which I’d be very happy with. I’m currently minded to *not* go mad with sales and discounts, as I think this is getting a bit out of control and games are being devalued, but I may think differently about that in a years time.

Anyway, this is nothing but good news, which is a change from the usual indie ‘I sold no games and have eaten my pets’ stories, but I’m not going to pretend things went wrong when they didn’t. I always blog openly about my screw-ups (2 recent games still in the RED for me :(), so I may as well be honest when things go well.

Thanks to everyone who bought the game so far!

My super-complex spreadsheet which I use to track the spending and income for my latest game (Production Line) informs me that I have been working on it for 3.12 years, and have spent a (very roughly estimated) total of 9,115 dev hours on it. The game is leaving early access tomorrow!

In truth I have probably spent a lot more hours than that, as I tend to overwork, and spend a lot of time in evenings checking forums and reddit/facebook etc to reply to people, but anyway you look at it, 3.12 years seems to be quite a long time to work alone as the only coder and designer on a game.

Bizarrely, I am still very much enjoying the games development, and have a list of extra things I would like to tweak and improve after release. In many ways the decision that the game is ‘released’ is a purely arbitrary one. In marketing terms it encourages people who dislike the state of most EA games to try the game out, and it also signals a potential slowing down in the addition of new features.

I still have a lot of ideas for stuff that could be added to the game, and I suspect we will have some paid DLC once the dust has settled. I wont rehash my pro-DLC arguments here, but I’m in believer in it both as a developer and a gamer. Why will DICE not sell me panther tank DLC for Battlefield V? TAKE MY MONEY. (also new hats please!)

Speaking from a personal point of view.. I am TIRED. I’ve felt like it for a while, and I think I do need a brief period where I scale down my work slightly. We are currently working on Democracy 4 (I’m not coding on it), and helping to manage that is an imminent concern. I currently have NO PLANS for any other game after Production Line (as a coder), so I’m pretty free (assuming it sells ok) to relax for a bit.

While I relax (Maybe for an HOUR!), here is the new launch trailer for Production Line. I really enjoyed getting this made. I hope you like it :D

Oh and if you have suddenly decided to buy the game, you get a steam key and we get 95% of the money if you buy using the widget below!

Coders talk a lot about technical debt. here is a rough definition:

“Technical debt” (also known as design debt or code debt) is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.”

It’s often used in the context of justifying redoing some work. As in… “we have a lot of technical debt. The best thing to do is rewrite all this properly from scratch”. To some extent that can be justified. The engine for your games is effectively your house foundations. Don’t start building a house without ensuring you have decent foundations, and all that sort of thing. The problem with this mindset is that people (or rather…computer programmers) often get into the situation where they want to re-code everything from scratch again, and again, and again.

The thing is, the more experienced you get, the more you realize that the big, messy, patched, complicated looking smorgasbord of code that you are working with probably HAS to look like that. it probably looks like that for a reason. Its not pretty, its not clean, it doesn’t make for nice diagrams but it WORKS and thats important.

If you think thats not true I point you towards the apache web server (literally a pun on ‘a patchy web server’) and Microsoft windows, an absolute towering pile of code mess that is the very definition of technical debt. How can I possibly view these as good things…?

The simple answer is: Practicality and commerce. Apache is not the most beuatiful work of art in terms of highly structured, elegant, perfectly designed code, and windows is literally the state of the art in horrible hacks. (Like this one, to ensure sim city still runs). To quote:

They reported this to the Windows developers, who disassembled SimCity, stepped through it in a debugger, found the bug, and added special code that checked if SimCity was running, and if it did, ran the memory allocator in a special mode in which you could still use memory after freeing it.

And it you are someone who considers code to be beautiful, who likes to describe themselves as ‘a software architect’ instead of ‘hacker’ (or code monkey), then stories like this will fill you with rage but…

…Apache sure is installed on a lot of servers, and a huge number of PCs still run windows. Why? Because accepting that your patchy, confusing, held-together-with-string piece of code is actually MORE reliable than new stuff you could code today is actually a sign of coding maturity.

I do not open source my engine, and TBH nobody would likely use it if they did, but part of my reasoning is that it would be embarrassing. I couldn’t even decide on a naming convention. At one point I didn’t care, and I had classes called things like IniLoader. Then I thought it would be cool to have a ‘G’ prefix to indicate game engine, so I have GArc GFile, GHashTable. At some crazy point I had my classes in all caps, hence DEBUGENGINE.h. Some of the code separates functions with /************/ some of it with //////////////////////////////. Pretty much the only coding standard was a member variable naming convention with FirstLetterCapped.

By far the two biggest embarrassing pieces of dodgy code in the ‘more or less part of the engine’ GUI code are the following. Please try not to laugh.

Stupidity one: I have a GUI_ButtonBase class, and a GUI_WindowBase
class . They are DIFFERENT things, with no connection, despite a button obviously being a derived class of a window in any sensible system. Thus my GUI_WindowBase class contains separate lists of buttons, and child windows. *sigh*.

Stupidity two: All my windows have a virtual function call CheckClick(int x,int y), which they process, then call on any children. You would think that this took the x,y of the current mouse position and operated on it, but for some reason I gave up bothering and use helper functions like IsMouseInside() to check such stuff, which ignores the passed-in x and y. I still go to all the bother of passing x,y, down the hierarchy, but its ignored. I’m just paranoid about it.

Sure I could fix this, I could rewrite my button code, junk that dumb x,y, thing and rename all my classes sensibly while I’m about it. I would then need to spend several days changing all the code in Production Line, AND checking it, and I *ASSURE* you, I would miss something. There would be a new crash bug. I wouldn’t spot it, and maybe after a dozen players encountered it, someone would tell me about it. I would have achieved nothing, but frustration for my players, and a smug feeling that my code was less embarrassing.

I’m not giving into that. My current code WORKS, it has less bugs than it *ever* has. My current game (Production Line) is more stable than ever, and more stable than any game I have ever shipped. Going back and changing parts of my engine because they look messy, or because modern code fashions have changed or because there is a new API or code pattern would be MADNESS.

Don’t be too hard on your old code. Sometimes age brings wisdom.

Only part of the ‘true cost’ of producing a game is the narrowly defined ‘development cost’, as it should also theoretically include an allowance for ongoing studio costs over the lifetime of making the game. The cost of heating my home office, the accountant, the webhosting for all my sites (including this blog) and depreciation of my PC should all play a part in calculating the *true* cost of producing Production Line. (My car factory strategy game for the PC).

With this in mind I thought I’d briefly add up some estimates of the paper-cost, the estimated cost if I was paid a regular salary, and also the true, true cost.

So the basic cost, if I break it out into categories gets me a breakdown like this:

If I assume as lead programmer I should be earning £60,000 (first result I found. Note that I’m the only coder and have 20+ years coding experience), then things change a lot to look like this:

Then I need to add in the office costs. Firstly I’d get a pension as an employee, so I should add that in over the dev period (3 years of contributions), 3 years of accountancy, 3 years of webhosting, and as I replace my PC probably every 4 years, I need to allow for 3/4 of a new desktop PC. I also have 3 years of office internet and phone bill to include. There is stationary, heating and other bullshit, but lets just call that $200 a year. New chart:

So is anything learned from this short little exercise? Well there are many ways to interpret it. Firstly, It really looks like I may be undervaluing music and SFX in my game. Surely combined they should be more than 5% of my dev budget right? And translation, although the costs scare the fuck out of me, actually seems relatively small in terms of the big picture.

It also brings home just how important personal productivity and time management is. If I messed around on twitter less, got distracted less, and maybe got up a bit earlier each day, a 10% increase in my productivity would have a massive impact on overall costs, probably saving me enough to make a huge boost to the art budget.

It also shows me that trimming the art budget if the game is not doing well is absolutely the wrong target. Its all about the code.

And finally its worth keeping an eye on the external dev costs such as webhosting etc. Each item is small, but together they are virtually the same as the art budget. Also worth noting: I deserve an absolute monster PC every 4 years, thats for sure. Even if I doubled the price I pay for a PC, the faster compile times would probably pay for themselves.

I updated the version of the game today to build 1.66, on Steam, GoG and the humble store / direct. The latest update is 1.66, a build whose major feature is the introduction of the late-game ‘world events’ feature. That was THE feature that I was determined to get in before I could describe the game as feature complete. it may need some tweaking and balancing, but now its in, i’m calling the game ‘beta’. You can read the full list of changes in this version on the forum here.

There will still be a good few weeks of tweaking, adjusting, balancing and checking before we actually take the game out of Early Access and declare it ‘released’. And even when that is done, its very likely that I will continue to spend a decent amount of time of improving and balancing the game. I don’t have any firm plans for expansions yet, but I’ll have time to think about it, and to ask people what they might like to see.

Production Line is the first game I’ve every released in early access on steam, although I’ve done low-key betas before (Big Pharma was one). I definitely have enjoyed the EA experience, but I think it could possibly be facilitated better within the steam platform…

I used my own system to gather data from players within the game to find out what the player-base thought my dev-priorities should be. I also had to use the ‘artwork’ upload part of steam a lot to share screenshots of stuff that was a work-in-progress or ideas for improvement. TBH it felt clunky, and not fleshed out.

There is also no way to tell (without collecting your own data) how many people have played a beta build on steam, making it a bit tricky to know that the ‘unstable’ branch had got enough testing before rolling out changes to everyone else.

Anyway… Its been great fun, and a lot of effort (and time!) has gone in. I even got into the habit of doing almost-every-week video blogs to document work on the game, here is the latest one:

I’ve really enjoyed doing those too, and will probably do a few more to highlight any post-release tweaks and ideas for expansions that might crop up after the game leaves early access. After that, it would theoretically be time to think about what game I would work on next (or consider ports of PL to other platforms). The thing is, we already have Democracy 4 in production, and as that gets closer to its initial Early Access (or even pre-EA), I’ll need to devote more time to producing that.

Finally its worth mentioning that the price of Production Line will go UP before release from its current $19.95 to $24.95. I’ve pencilled that in for 12th February, so if you were considering buying the game at some point, don’t wait too long :D And yup, we get the biggest cut of the money when you buy direct:

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