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

Democracy 4 goes on sale…OMG

So yup, this was a long time coming and I feel worthy of a proper blog post about it. Actually, TBH there is not much else to do in the hours after hitting the big old release button. For those who just want the link, you can now grab the game here.

Now on to some thoughts about the process of making the game.

Democracy 3 is positechs most successful game by some margin. It came out a long time ago now, and we did four (yes FOUR) expansions to the game (Social Engineering, Extremism, Clones & Drones and Electioneering) and one semi-sequel (Democracy 3:Africa). There was then quite a lull before the release of Democracy 4 today, so what actually happened?

The coding in this game is HARD, and the design is super-hard. The number of interconnected things to balance, combined with the fairly whacky way in which its coded around a neural network means this is real headache inducing stuff to work on. Towards the end of Democracy 3 I was seriously burned out mentally from the stress of it. I am a workaholic, and work is fine for me, but the constant debugging-hell of the complexity of the beast was gruelling for such a long period and I needed to switch focus.

So I met Jeff Sheen, and he agreed to make Democracy 3 Africa, and meanwhile I got involved with game publishing in a bigger way, which led to Big Pharma, Political Animals and Shadowhand. I cant cope without coding, so I started coding a totally new game, the car factory simulation: Production Line.

That game took a while, and did very well, and spawned 2 expansions too, and all the time I was doing that, Jeff was improving the core engine of Democracy 3 and working on the new UI for Democracy 4. As a result we updated D3 with unicode support, which meant it could work with other languages much better.

So when I finally switched from Production Line to D4, we already had an engine that was doing vector graphics (yay! crisper UI) and unicode support (yay! Russian and Chinese translations without any problem!). The main work on Democracy 4 was related to mechanics-related stuff, like a redesign of how voters handle money, support for coalition government, and the addition of new ways to get political capital, plus news reports, situation warnings, a new UI to examine stats in the game, and the complete redesign of the main screen and the way icons are sized/positioned/rendered.

This was TRICKY.

And then we had the last few months of stuff which has been adding in all the up-to-date stuff like fake news, polarization, border walls, police body cameras, UBI, a private space program yada yada. Politics has changed since Democracy 3 and we really needed to represent that as much as we could.

Frankly, it has taken us too long, and we have become a bit obsessed with the UI design, and getting things to look crisp, and for the core simulation to be WAY more accurate and less buggy than D3. I would say 75% of the work on D4 is under-the-hood improvements the player cannot immediately point at. I *do* think it has been worth it. Also, this was my first ever project as an indie where I was working alongside another coder, which is something I have nmot done since my lionhead days, and never as ‘the boss’ so that was a whole new skillset and experience to worry about as well.

(And you can probably tell by all this that it means Democracy 4 is the most expensive game positech has made, in terms of dev cost, which adds an extra level of worry and stress all of its own)

And that brings us to today, which is exciting because its more the beginning of a journey than the end because D4 will be in alpha, and then in steams Early Access. We NEVER HAD THIS IN D3, which meant that some parts of D3 were flawed, and we didn’t have enough feedback early enough to fix them. With Early Access, this will be much, much better. The Democracy community is awesome, and I expect to have a really cool conversation with players about what needs to change, expand, be improved upon, or even removed. The wisdom of crowds is a real thing!

I should also point out that this is scary, and stressful, because OMG politics. We released Democracy 1,2,3 in relatively stable times. There was no fake news, no Donald Trump, no allegation of election hacking. No coronavirus, no black lives matter protests, politics was actually more polite (although we didn’t think so at the time).

Reporter's Question, Repeated, Sets Trump on Latest Media Attack ...

Most importantly… social media was barely a thing. Now, Social media is THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. That means a more angry, divided and tribal playerbase is to be expected. Moderating forums will be…interesting. Handling abusive emails from players is something I really hate. Unless you are someone selling creative works online, you cannot imagine the impact of strangers randomly sending you abusive messages 24/7 has on people. Its bad.

But hopefully the good outweighs the bad. So far, commentary on the developer blogs has been awesome, and I’ve been very clear that we know our own biases are bound to be in the game somewhere, and are open to constructive criticism. With any luck, we can avoid the game starting all out civil war, with blood on the forums!

Thanks to everybody’s encouraging words as we have been working on the game so far. Its much appreciated :D. Onwards and upwards… I guess I should embed the widget here…

If anyone can do it, everyone will.

Every now and then I come across a story about how mid-tier youtubers are making an absolute pittance, or that indie bands on spotify earn less than minimum wage, or that writers (like my wife!) can expect to earn a really trivial amount for what they do.

This is totally and utterly expected, and its down to barriers of entry, of which there are a few.

Barriers to entry is an economics term that refers to all the stuff you need to have to produce a certain product in the market. Some industries naturally have small barriers to entry (busking only requires a guitar, for example) and some have huge barriers (spaceships, cars, silicon chip production). Generally speaking, barriers to entry are very bad, from an economics point-of-view, because high barriers-to-entry lead to ‘abnormal profits’ by people in that market, as its difficult for newcomers to enter the market and bid down the price of the product.

It might seem that this explains why indie game devs rarely make any money, because the barriers to entry for indie dev are tiny. You need an office chair, a laptop, an internet connection, and…a rudimentary skill in programming and game design. Thats a LOT of people, and its WAY more than it used to be, now you dont have to code your own engine and dev-tools are affordable.

SIDE-NOTE: YES amazingly cliff is aware that there are millions, if not billions of people who cannot afford a laptop and broadband. Well done! 10 internet points for you! But this blog post isn’t aimed at solving inequality. Not everything on the internet is aimed at everyone, or is a political statement!

Anyway… indie game dev does indeed have super-low barriers to entry and this should mean that nobody in that industry makes much profit, but hold on! some of them do! Jonathan Blow! Introversion! Me! The Factorio & RimWorld devs… how is this possible?

Barriers to entry can include personal ones as well, not just financial requirements. Sure, anybody can buy visual studio (my dev tool of choice, about $500), the same chair as me (aeron, about $1k) and a decent PC (maybe $1,500 tops?). They can then decide to make an indie game. This will not be profitable, as there are a LOT of people in this green segment below…

Some games are technically much easier to make a first-game in than others. Platform games come to mind, as do arcade games. If you are using unity or similar, maybe a primitive FPS. Some genres are harder. Strategy games are harder, as are RPGs, Simulation games can be really hard. By choosing one of the ‘harder’ genres, you are already putting up barriers to entry to prevent your market value being competed down. Of course your job just got harder, but thats to be expected. There are fewer people in the white segment below.

Where it gets more interesting is in leveraging barriers than cannot easily be broken down by any means. That comes down to what makes you…YOU. Leveraging that unique venn diagram of skills and interests that makes you capable of making the game that YOU can make, but its unlikely any other dev can.

In my case, studying economics at LSE, and the son of parents who were both trade union reps, someone who got taken on ‘fun trips’ to the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conference as a child (yes really), plus an aptitude for maths and logic (and clearly being on the autism spectrum) means that my venn diagram screams MAKE COMPLEX POLITICS SIMULATIONS. There are a handful of people in the white segment below. maybe me and Brad Wardell and half a dozen others?

Now in theory, anybody could try to clone Democracy 4 and force down my profits, but in practice its hard because you have to REALLY be a politics geek to spend the time and effort to make that sort of game, and the coding challenge is sufficient that it still gives me headaches after 39 (yes really) years of doing programming. Plus I have a special super-power that allows me to be even better suited to that exact project:

I’m pretty much a centrist. Politically I’m slightly right leaning on economics and slightly left leaning on social issues, but generally speaking I’m a moderate. That means I can sit down and have a meal and a chat with a hardcore bernie sanders supporter OR a trump-supporter, and get along with both as people. That means I’m not trying to have a big political agenda with my politics game, which broadens its appeal. (I’m not going to attempt to add another circle to that diagram…)

Every extra circle you can add to your indie game dev venn diagram of uniqueness™ is going to boost the probability of you earning decent money. Of COURSE…. you still need to work hard and make a great game, and make it appeal to enough players and do the other 999 things. This system only helps you maximise the returns WHEN you have an idea, and execution that results in something people want, and buy. I still think its worth keeping in mind.

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.

Image result for blizzard developers
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