Category Archives: business

I recently showed off my latest game production Line at a big UK games show (EGX), and not long after than, I took a trip (my first ever) to Boston to meet up with some Boston devs and talk to some nice people from valve. I also had a look around the local Boston indie games festival event while I was there, and talked to a bunch of indies about various stuff. In-between this I visited the Boston tea party museum, which you kind of have to do if you are very English and in Boston right?

Now I am finally recovered from jet lag, and back working on cool new stuff for Production Line, I have time to reflect on the indie scene as I see it now in September 2018.

I think this is a good time to do this, as a number of people are talking about this article about the reality of indie game dev, and there has also been debate about this article, about the experience of some fellow indies (who also happened to be next to us last year at EGX). Its probably also worth mentioning that Limit theory’s developer seems to have quit the project.

Anyway…

yeah its not getting any easier, and I don’t see any immediate reason to believe it will. In theory, eventually enough indie developers go bankrupt in a saturated market so that the self-correcting methods of capitalism kick-in, people realize that its no different to writing a novel (in terms of success chances), and the people who are currently ‘chasing the indie dream’ get jobs in banking or business app development. In practice it seems that indie development is still seen as attractive enough that there is another decade or so of new entrants coming in to replace every developer who drops out when their finances run dry. I really cannot see the ‘number of games released on steam this week’ metric dropping a lot in the medium term.

Another potential solution or equilibrium would be a more even and less hit-driven distribution of revenue from stores could make indie devs more sustainable at the margins. Every RimWorld or Prison Architect, of for that matter every PubG is making so many bazillions of dollars of pure profit, that if it could be distributed over 100x as many games, there would be a lot more solvent developers and maybe a handful fewer multi-multi-millionaires on steam. Arguably that would be a good thing, but not something I think you can really force.

Ultimately there a few forces that are naturally causing the current state of affairs to persist, and I dont think any of them are evil, or corrupt, or bad per-se, they are just the reality.

Force #1: people want this lifestyle so much they are prepared to take unnecessary risks. That means the price is driven down. Its simple supply and demand, and because many people are as happy to live on noodles as a game developer than they would be to apply the same skills to biz-app development at a $90,000 salary… then the average developer is going to see their wage driven down. Thats simple supply/demand economics and that is not going to change.

Force #2: Barriers to entry have dropped hugely. We can argue the pros and cons of the $100 steam fee, but the simple fact is unity and similar engines & asset stores mean its easier to make a game than ever before. That vastly increases the pool of people able to compete in the market.

Force #3: There is a massive skill disparity in the range of ‘indie’ game developers. This is the one that requires more explanation:

A really AWESOME bricklayer may be able to lay bricks at double the rate of a bricklayer who learned the trade last week. Maybe even three times as fast. Thats awesome. But a really AWESOME programmer is likely 40-50 or even 100x as productive as a newcomer to programming. It sounds like bullshit but its true, and the sad thing is, you really need to HAVE that much experience before you truly appreciate this reality. The same is likely true for artists.

If you are a newcomer to programming, think of all the time you spend debugging, the time you spend googling the answer to something, the time you spend refactoring, the time you spend on skype or discord asking people for help, and then remove ALL of it, and thats how it is when you have coded *that kind of thing* 10 or 20 times already. Once you know what you are doing at a certain level, programming is just typing. I can create new user interface code for Production Line pretty much at the speed I can type this blog post, and to be frank, using whole tomatoes improved intellisense, its actually quicker for me than typing English.

In many ways I am the *WORST CASE* scenario as a competing indie developer. I have 37 years coding experience, and 20 years indie dev experience. I learned to type before home computers even existed, and used to get a book and type out the text from the book on a manual typewriter *for fun* as a child. I’m married, and have no kids so I’m not constantly socializing or dating, and have zero distractions. I work from home in the countryside in a 100% distraction-free environment. I can afford the most comfortable chair imaginable, the fastest PC imaginable, I am healthy, I love my job, I have no boss, and no financial worries. Add to this… I have no major hobbies, I hate most TV, the majority of books I read for fun are about programming or business or marketing.

If you imagine designing a robot to take human form and churn out as much productivity as possible as an indie dev… its not *that* much better than me. The only things working against me are the fact that I guess I’m older than average so theoretically less energised? (I made a a developer blog video on Boxing day, so I cant see the lack of energy myself…)

Anyway my point is… I am your competition as an indie dev. You may not like to think like that, and I certainly like to be helpful to other indies, and encourage people, but the fact is, I exist and I’m making games 60 hours a week and I love it. I am not the only one. You are also trying out-code Chris Delay from introversion, Jonathan Blow, Jamie Cheng, Ryan Clark, and a bunch of other indies who have WAY more experience and WAY more technical ability than you (probably), simply because of age and time.

(This sounds horribly arrogant, but I’m not claiming to be any ‘better’ a person and certainly not innately any cleverer than anybody else. I’ve just done it a LONG time, and I am unusually single minded and focused. Essentially I’m tough competition due to time, age, and genes.)

..so what am i getting at here?

The excellent Lake Ridden post mortem includes this:

“35h work week. We measured the SCRUM points completed and was able to get the same amount of things done in 35h instead of the usual 40h. All while the stress number was staying the same or dropping. Everybody was actively encouraged to use this extra free time to see family or do exercise.”

Which sounds GREAT and I wish the whole world was like that, but unfortunately it is not. They are indie devs, and competing in the free market with the rest of us. I’m not working 35 or even 40 hours, and never will ( I am too obsessed with my games), and by mere fact of being much older and more experienced than that team, I have a huge advantage. You cannot legislate that advantage away, nobody can make a solo indie dev who owns the company work less hard. The playing field is NOT level, and its not going to be.

So whats my answer to this problem?

I absolutely accept that I do not have one. It is, simply put, really fucking hard right now, and probably always will be. Music, Writing, Acting, game-dev, they all suffer from this problem. Too many people want to do it for everyone to end up with a great lifestyle, working conditions and standard of living. I absolutely understand why people would like indie game dev to pay (on average) like a normal 9-5 job with normal 9-5 hours, but this is not about to happen, sorry. If you expect gamers to ‘pay more’ to subsidize better working conditions for indie game devs, ask yourself when you demanded the option to pay an extra amount to spotify to support indie musicians.

HUGE disclaimer: If you work for someone else in a big company like EA/Ubisoft/Whoever else, then absolutely you should NOT be working > 40 hour weeks. I ROUTINELY went home dead on 6PM from my jobs in AAA and never got fired for it. Similarly, if you are a super-experienced developer in those same companies then you should FIGHT LIKE HELL to get the pay you deserve. Absolutely some coders should earn 10x what other coders earn, and if they wont pay you that, leave.

TL;DR: Indie dev is really hard. The experienced devs have an advantage. This sucks if you are new. This will not change.

 

 

Announcing Democracy 4

September 14, 2018 | Filed under: business | democracy 4

Development has started on Democracy 4, the latest iteration of the political strategy game by Positech Games. Democracy 3 was released in 2013 and…quite a lot has happened in global politics since then, which we hope to reflect in the new version. We are still very early in the development of the game, so are not ready to show anything yet, but here are the answers to some expected questions:

Lead programmer and Lead Designer on Democracy 4 will be Jeff Sheen from Stargazy Studios, who also designed Democracy 3:Africa and worked on the Unicode port of Democracy 3 recently to allow support for Russian & Chinese translations. Cliff will help with design & testing and will be producer.

Democracy 4 will incorporate the extra features introduced in Democracy 3 Africa, which simulated corruption, limits to press freedom and other political phenomena from the extremes which are starting to become more common in western politics since the release of Democracy 3.

The game will be completely updated to reflect modern issues, so no more worrying about the ‘V’ chip and other long forgotten issues, and more worrying about fake-news, social media, and other social phenomena driving politics in 2018 onwards.

The release date is ‘some time in 2019’ and we expect to offer an early-access / playable alpha version to players before the games final release. Target platforms are PC, OSX and Linux.

The plan is to roll content from the existing 4 expansion packs (Extremism, Social Engineering, Clones & Drones and Electioneering) into Democracy 4 where appropriate and relevant to provide a single version of the game.

More details coming over the next few months :D

THE END OF DEMOCRACY? OR? …

September 08, 2018 | Filed under: business | democracy3

Democracy is the game I’m best known for. Its the ONLY game I have made three versions of. The very first version was released back before the invention of color television when I was really young. Winston Churchill gave it decent reviews, and the rest is history. It remains my best-selling game to-date, and the one that has got me by far the most press attention, as you would expect given the subject matter and title. The list of weird offers and proposals and deals I have discussed with people over the years (including foreign governments and military institutions) has provided me with enough interesting anecdotes to compensate for my inherent boringness. Its been a fun ride.

Because Democracy 3 was built on Democracy 2, which was built on Democracy 1… there were some coding decisions made right at the start that effectively bit me in the backside years later. The most obvious two were the dependence on directx9 (meaning no cross platform capability) and the development in ASCII (well… MBCS) instead of Unicode. The game was incredibly popular, so not having mac or ipad or linux versions AND not being able to do a Chinese / Russian version was kinda silly and had to be fixed eventually.

With this in mind, I hired people to make a mac port of the game, and for a long time we had linux and OSX versions, even eventually ipad versions of the game. They make up about 10% of revenue (9% mac, 1% Linux), and definitely have paid for themselves over the long run (although I was sceptical at the start. The linux build existed purely as a humble-bundle price-of-admission at the time). The ipad build is *sub optimal*, due to the RAM limitations in the device, but still, it has turned out to be profitable in the long run.

A while ago now, I decided that it made sense to bite the bullet and have the game translated into Unicode, which would allow for non-western character sets, and thus Chinese and Russian support. Who could resist the opportunity to bring Democracy to Russia and China right? After all, as  Spock explains in Star Trek 6: “Only cliffski could go to china”. I HATE middleware, and hate compiler/development environment bullshit, so I had always avoided it, so it wasn’t until Jeff Sheen (Stargazy studios) offered to handle it, that I actually got around to making it happen.

The next part of this story contains so much grief, hassle, WTF moments and ‘how the hell is this even possible’ mini-stories that it is surely worthy of a Klingon opera, or a Netflix miniseries. The short version is that yes, its 2018 and still if you want to code a game and have it seamlessly support Unicode for both display and text entry, and support every possible language known to man AND also run on really old hardware (which often blatantly LIES about its capabilities…) then you are in for a world of pain. A lot of games *claim* to support Chinese and Russian character sets, but they are not doing so fully, they just create a huge sprite-sheet of the few characters they use, and dont allow for modding or user input. Modding is a huge part of Democracy 3 and we wanted to do it properly.

So anyway… today is the day I am declaring that yup.. its done. Finished. Finito. DONEZO, Completahontas maximus rex. IT.IS.DONE. TYhe updates to Democracy 3 we sneaked out (purely Unicode-related bugfixes) last week are the final ones. Development on Democracy 3 is FINISHED. After 4 expansion packs (Social Engineering, Extremism, Clones & Drones and Electioneering), Ports to Ipad, Linux and OSX, and translation into a long list of languages…we are done. I’m sure that it still crashes or wont run for 0.1% of potential players (which is actually a lot for a game that popular), but at a certain point, you just have to accept that PCs are VERY variable, and you will never have 100% compatibility.

Now you might think that with everything that is happening politically in the world right now, surely this would be a good time to be working on a political game, not a good time to finish working on one.

And I say to you people who think this… follow me on twitter or bookmark this blog :D.

 

I will never understand the obsession that modern companies have with reducing headcount. Its almost pathological. I totally understand that the marketplace can be competitive and that sometimes you need to cut costs, but this obsession with not employing any humans hits the hardest with companies that quite definitely have the available cash to take on a few extra staff.

The nature of may business (very long established one-man biz, set in a remote rural location, lots of legacy code, home-brew engine) makes hiring people very difficult, purely for practical and technical reasons. I am definitely not opposed to hiring people, and I actually think I’d feel really good about it. Every month I have to pay out royalty checks to 3 different people, and also pay at least one contractor, and it doesn’t feel bad, it feels GOOD, knowing that I’m contributing to the wider economy, and improving other peoples standards of living by creating employment. In some cases, those payments can help kick-start other small businesses who then employ people, and thats just awesome. Isn’t this the sort of thing we are supposed to be proud of as entrepreneurs?

To see whether or not you fall into the category of business owners who are really not doing their bit, take this simple test:

  1. Is it technically difficult, or practically difficult for you to hire new staff for some reason? If so, then I’ll let you off.
  2. Check your profit margin. is it less than 5%? are your company finances looking shaky? are profits falling dramatically? If so, then I’ll let you off.
  3. When you call the phone number for your company as a customer, do you get through to a real live human within 15 seconds? If so, then I’ll let you off.
  4. If you email your company as a customer with a technical support or customer services request, do you hear back from a human within one day? If so, then I’ll let you off.

I’m guessing this still leaves a very large number of businesses who could be doing amazing things employment wise, who instead are sitting on money in a bank and twiddling their thumbs.

Apples current cash hoard is 267 billion dollars. Their profit margin is 21.63%. I’m guessing that you cant phone up and speak directly to an apple customer service person right now, anywhere in the world. Why on earth not? (I just tried…and its a slow, irritating computer voice…to save hiring enough people…). The current total apple workforce is 123,000 people.

So the cash on hand for apple would allow them to give every single employee a windfall payment of $2,170731.

Yup, I had to check that several times to ensure its correct because it absolutely fucking cannot be. They can make every single employee of the company a dollar millionaire twice over. Or they could just spend HALF their current *cash* and make them all dollar millionaires. Lets look at it another way. The average salary in the US in the bay area tech firms is $142,000. Lets almost double that (yeah right) to account for employment costs, office space etc, and call it $0.25 million per employee per year.

Apple could afford to hire one million and 68 thousand tech workers for a year and still not burn through its entire cash hoard.

Or to put it another way, assuming all 123k people earn that crazy bay area salary, apple could double its current workforce, have them all sit on their ass doing absolutely nothing all day, and it would still take 8 years for the resulting cash drain to wipe out their *current* cash mountain.

PLEASE someone tell me my sums are wrong because they MUST be right? It couldn’t possibly be the case that despite Tim Cook being a ‘nice guy’ the first openly gay tech CEO who is trendy and right-on, and popular and seemingly one of the good guys, that he would rather sit on that vast obscene pile of capital and not spend a penny of it on increasing the workforce or improving the income of apples employees? Surely that would not be the case, Especially as Donald trumps recent tax changes are apparently designed to boost employment?

And of course, lets not forget that in the very home of tech-financial excess, San Francisco, there is a MAJOR homelessness problem. Its actually truly shocking. Apple could fix this out of their spare change. In the UK today there was an announced plan to completely eradicate rough sleeping which was put at costing £100 million. Say it should be £200 million instead, which is $260 million, and this would be for ONE city not a country. Apple could do that with one thousandth of its cash hoard.

These companies are not innovators who are making our lives better. They are like pharaohs and emperors treating the rest of us like peasants, beneath their contempt, not even worth saving.

 

EGX helper needed

August 09, 2018 | Filed under: business

I NEED HELP.

Or to put it more accurately, me and Jeff need help. We are showing off Production Line at EGX, the trade show in Birmingham UK on these dates:

20-23rd September 2018.

Its a big show, the UKs biggest by far, and has a ton of stuff showing there, including production Line (wahey!). We have a little booth with 2 PCs, and have to man it all day for 4 days. I cannot even be there the first day because I have such an amazingly busy social life, but will be there the remaining 3, as will my padawan Jeff (of Democracy 3:Africa coding fame).

The trouble is:    I HATE MANNING A BOOTH. Because I’m far too introverted, but I know I have to ‘be there’ to talk to people now and then, so I tend to be there ‘a bit’ and then wander off and seek solace in dark corners to muse on the existential pointlessness of it all. because we always need one person at the booth, and even Jeff has to eat and get coffee and lie down now and then, we need someone to come help us out part time. Is this you?

Ideal candidate would be 18+, an indie developer themselves who lives in Birmingham and would like to go to EGX for free, plus earn some moneys. (probably not a sack of money, maybe a small bag?). Obviously you have to be available on the dates given. The show is from 10am-6pm every day apart from Friday and Saturday when its 7PM. I dont need someone every day for the whole day, we can work out some rota where one or more of us slink off early or start late each day. I never need 3 people at the booth, frankly I only NEED one, but will often have two.

What I need you to do:

Just *be* at the booth, and keep an eye on it, make sure nobody swipes my cool miniature car and robot arms, and that if the PCs crash, or the games crash, reboot the PC/restart the game. I will give you a free copy of the game which you need to play for a good few hours before the show so you can answer any really basic questions people have. If press show up and need me, and somehow neither me or Jeff are there, you need to phone or email me or give them my details. Its not exactly hard work, by any stretch, and it gives you plenty of free time to wander around the show and see cool stuff. Also if you are an indie dev who has not manned a booth before, its a great way to see what its like at somebody else’s expense.

YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO GET TO/FROM THE SHOW EACH DAY. In practice, you need to be living close to Birmingham. The NEC is REALLY easy to get to, and its not in central Birmingham. Obviously you need to be a nice person, and happy to talk nicely to the general public who may approach you and ask for help. I genuinely dont give a fuck what your gender/age/height/race/shoe size is. Ideally you look more motivated than this guy:

IS THIS YOU?

If so, can you email me at cliff At positech dot co dot uk, and tell me a bit about yourself, and how many of my vast list of criteria you meet?

THANKS :D