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

Hollywood and Gaming is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing

Look at me, I know some shakespeare. Actually I probably got it from star trek, whatever.

For my sins, I enthusiastically agreed to watch a movie on the Disney channel (gotta make that Mandalorian subscription worthwhile) for kids called Artemis Fowl. Its a sort of harry-potter meets enders game action adventure about faeries. yeah. I didnt know that when I agreed to watch it. But apparently a popular series of kids books, so there ya go. Harry potter was ok, even His Dark Materials is kinda ok, in a generic lord-of-the-rings clone kinda way so this will be fine right?

No, it was BAD. it was REALY REALLY BAD. I’m not the only person who thinks so. I could whine about the plot, and the script and the casting and the voices (TBH the actors did their best), but what really ruined it for me was the budget. The budget was way TOO BIG.

Judy dench and her army of faerie shocktroopers err…?

You might not think having a big budget can ever be a problem, but maybe its an age thing, when you hit my considerable age (older than Elrond), you have just seen SO MANY CGI BATTLES and so many ‘amazing’ computer generated worlds that they actually start to become bland. After a while you just stop seeing it. The familiar becomes invisible.

We have a really nice view out of our front door, and occasionally delivery drivers on a summers day will say ‘its an amazing view isn’t it?’ and we are momentarily confused, thinking what? However good something is, however amazing it is, familiarity breeds dismissal. Economists call this ‘diminishing marginal utility‘. It applies to movies too, and to video games.

The original Star Wars movie probably had about the right mix of amazing special effects and….not special effects. The number of shots in that movie involving ILM is not that high. As a result when something SFX-like happens, you can legitimately feel the need to go WOOOO. Like when the millennium falcon enters hyperspace. The vast majority of the film is based around characters, plot, and cool production design/costume design.

To quote a famous expert in chaos theory:

“so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should

Sequel Bits: Harry Potter Prequel, Jurassic World 2, and More

Which is so true of SFX and CGI in movies, and also I think games as well. Sometimes you just have TOO BIG A BUDGET, and a desire to just hose it all over the screen. I still remember my confusion, and frankly disgust at playing one of the civilization games that instead of having a simple text-based tutorial, came with a jankily animated ‘virtual sid meier’ to explain things. WTF? Who asked for this? who needed this? where were all the comments complaining that the game was too complex, but would be fine if a 3d animated version of the designer slowly talked through each dialog box?

This is a big problem for ANY part of life where money is involved. Apples market cap has accelerated like crazy since steve jobs died. They have SO MUCH MONEY and have thus slowed their pace of innovation to practically nothing. Oh look, now the iphone has no headphone socket. Now its a bit bigger. Now its a bit smaller. Errr… guys shall we splurge it all on a big headquarters building instead?

Inside The $5 Billion Apple Headquarters - YouTube
$5 billion of shareholders money spent well I’m sure.

Compare the catastrophic waste, failure, delays and nonsense that defines the US governments efforts to fund space exploration through the likes of the ‘space launch system]’ (swimming with cash) versus the scrappy ‘we have no budget’ spacex. Who has made more progress?

Sometimes too much money makes people do crazy things, makes them so keen to prove how big their budget or market cap is, that they act irrationally. Not only could artemis fowl have been made for a tenth of its $125 MILLION budget, it would almost certainly have been a better film as a result. More room for character development, more room for decent plotting. You cannot have a nice emotional scene that deepens the characters motivations when they are surrounded by a million dollars a minute of CGI. Just ask George Lucas. Same director did A New Hope and The Phantom Menace…

I think its worth considering how this applies to videogames. We too have entered an era of fantastic budgets, huge development teams and incredible spectacle… but although we probably don’t have the problem *AS BAD* as Hollywood does in terms of just shoehorning budget in front of our customers to impress them, we are certainly heading that way and occasionally flirting with it.

I have NO IDEA how much it cost to make Minecraft before Microsoft bought it, but you can bet its not a lot. There was no 300-man art teams designing those cubes. There was no symphony orchestra making the music (did it have any?) there was no army of Hollywood actors doing voiceovers…. and yet bizarrely it become a staggering success.

Is Minecraft good or bad for kids?
This did not cost a trillion dollars

For the price of a mere $100 million, you can make an amazingly high budget video game, or I dunno… a hundred REALLY well funded video games. Maybe one of them will take off, angry-birds style. The choice is between an all-eggs-in-one-basket strategy, or diversification. I know which would help me sleep at night.

I think there is a very strong argument, financially, economically, from a business-strategy POV, that companies are better off making more games with smaller budgets. Clearly the heads of studios disagree, and given their bazillions, can I really claim they are wrong? But even if you think I AM wrong on that basis, then I still think there is an artistic argument to be made.

Huge budgets do make art better, and they can very very easily make it worse. Would handing an extra $10 million to George Lucas have made ‘A new hope’ a better movie? or would it have made it more like the phantom menace? Is the relationship between the star wars movie budgets and their value as art in ANY way positively correlated with the budget?

I find myself increasingly ANGRY when i’m watching a movie and I can see the money literally dripping off the screen. A character arrives in 19th century London. Ok cool…what do they do there. NO! WAIT! STOP! You do not understand, you have to be MADE to SEE just how much money we spent on this establishing shot. Did you not SEE all of the CGI horses and carts? did you not count how many actors had 19th century costumes on as they walked down the street? Are you not impressed?

single shot in death valley used to be THE mos eisley establishing shot

I just don’t need this. I was fine in the way Mos Eisley looked before the special edition added all the establishing stuff. It added nothing, except cost. But even that looks tame given the way Hollywood sprays cash around now. The tendency now is to have a million dollars (or way more) spent on an establishing shot while the titles appear. Why? What does this add?

My point here I guess is to encourage people not to do this with games. We don’t need it. We really don’t. By all means hire a lot of people to do better writing (most game writing sucks), or to do more QA, or to work on customer support, but the instant, automatic response to having a big budget is to splurge it on big-name voiceovers, ten hours of orchestral music, and FMW and cutscenes that go on for hours, and hours and hours.

And please remember, its not illegal, its not immoral, and it doesn’t make you a failure, or a fool for uttering the completely forbidden words ‘I don’t think we really need to spend that much to make this’.

Democracy 4 in Early Access (after 2 months)

So…. my political strategy game Democracy 4 has been in Early Access on steam for 2 months exactly today, plus on sale in a soft-launch alpha before then for a few months. How are things looking from the POV of one of those oh-so-predictable stats-dump indie dev blog posts?

Here are the headline numbers:

Net revenue (cash I get) about $500,000.

Gross revenue (headline dick-swinging number) about 800,000.

Before you go OMGZ how successful, I must also make a political strategy game ASAP, lets dig deeper and find out more about what that means in terms of profits. Firstly, the game is not actually even profitable yet, unless I count money that is in sales reports that I have not received. (Stores can take a while, usually 20-30 days to pay you after a month ends).

Everybody likes pie charts, so here is a breakdown showing where the NET money comes from. Note that the gross split is different as epic famously gives a higher rev share to the developer (as does the humble store). Direct sales came through and through the humble widget, both of which net me 95% of the sales revenue (woohoo). You can see how that pays off if you can get early, keen players to buy direct instead of through a store.

Of course, as I KEEP trying to make new devs aware, revenue, even net revenue after currency conversions costs and everything else are NOT profit. You have to spend money to make the game. So far Democracy 4 has cost $357,000 to make, including a reasonable but not exorbitant salary for me. Thats to get to *this point*, and there will be more spending to come because the game will likely need some more translation costs, some more time (quite a bit more), and just existing as positech costs me over $200 a month server fees and $150 month forum fees, and all sorts of other nonsense.

Still… it looks like I have a profitable game, and certainly one that should make a profit by the time it comes out of Early Access. Its a sequel to a very successful indie game so that’s not a surprise, but I didn’t take anything for granted. Its easy to get cocky and arrogant and then lose a fortune on a sequel.

So far I have not spent the majority of my allotted marketing budget for the game. My plan was to have a marketing spend of $150,000. So far I have spent just $35,000 of that. Part of that was to promote the recent autumn sale. Some more will happen between now and early access release, and then there will likely be a bit of a big ad-splurge when we come out of Early Access.

So far the game has been full price apart from the recent autumn sale on steam where it was 20% off. Its not a cheap game ($26.99) so its still likely at a price a lot of the more cost conscious gamers are not going to bite at. Also there are a lot of people who just *do not buy* early access games, so I am guessing there is a fair bit of pent-up-demand waiting for future purchasing opportunities.

In terms of wishlists the stats are like this:

D4 currently has about 60,000 wishlists. Conversion rate is 13%, total additions is 75k. I don’t get that obsessed with monitoring those figures TBH.

Because my strategy has always been maximum independence and resilience as a company, I try to spread my income as much as I can between different stores. I know a lot of indie devs think that PC == steam, and that’s just flat out WRONG. I got Democracy 4 on the epic store slightly later than I hoped for, so it missed the initial launch, but its still a nice source of revenue, and has not been discounted on that store yet, which is interesting.

Feedback on the game has been GREAT and last time I checked the average review score was in the 90s, which is fantastic. Obviously these are keen, early-players so that review score might be skewed high, but I can live with that :D. Its also worth pointing out, when assessing potential sales, that the game is currently PC only, and in English and (90% done) Italian languages. By the start of January I expect to have French, German, Spanish and Portuguese translations, which should open up the games potential market quite a bit.

A final note: My personal opinion, with a LOT of years indie experience (selling since 1997) is that new indies get WAY TOO OBSESSED with comparing their own games to those of others in terms of stats. Unless you have the exact data on 50,000 indie games (including their budgets) and a machine learning AI, its NOT going to predict whether or not your indie game will do well. I think devs should spend less time analyzing sales stats and more time analyzing player feedback and player stats. I spend a LOT of time trying to balance and optimize and improve the GUI for Democracy 4, and thats a far better use of my time.

I hope this was of some interest.

One month in: Democracy 4 in Early Access. Phew. We survived!

Sometimes I get so caught in the insanely complex todo list that is my public trello board for democracy 4, that I forget to occasionally taken a breath, take stock, and analyze how things are going. So this being two days after the US election, (A still undecided one as I type this), its time to catch that breath and reflect.

Firstly. OMG we did it. Democracy 4 is in Early access, and being played by thousands of people who got it through the epic store, GoG, Steam, Itch and the Humble Store. We are properly 100% out there and launched. For a game that has had a pretty long (for positech) dev process, it does feel good to actually be out there in the hands of actual gamers. From a business POV its also good to have a project flip, so that it brings in money each month. Game dev is a terrifying business where expenses go up and up and up in hope of some future reversal of the process :D

From a biz POV, the game is selling pretty well. Nothing earth-shattering, but we did have a bit of a weird relatively-soft launch, in that when the game launched on steam Early Access, there was ONE country, ONE language, and the game was $26.99 and had no discount. (The price is the same now). Since then we have added a crowdsourced Italian translation, and have added the USA, Canada, France and Germany, but still… there was a lot of reasons why people may have wishlisted the game thinking to grab it later.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the way things are going, from a wishlists and sales POV. As I type this, we have 50,000 wishlists for D4, which is quite good, especially as approach Christmas.

The next thing to reflect on is… we made it to the US election without major meltdowns. Nobody has screamed at me and called me a fascist (well…they might have done that on twitter, I block a lot of idiots…) or a communist. The games website/forums and steam forums have not been completely besieged by political extremists hurling abuse. There have been no major political arguments on my forums, or the steam ones, and the number of bans and moderstaion events have been pretty low.

I think in general, the game attracts an audience of people interested in political philosophy and economics and strategy. Its thankfully not acting as a ‘meme’ game attracting lots of twitter mobs and qanon style conspiracists. This is a good thing :D

Obviously there have been some bugs, but I think I have just about kept up with things, so that the games reviews have stayed pretty good (I expect them to climb later as more content is added, balance gets better and the last bugs get squashed). We got some press coverage and some popular youtubers played the game, but we also got pushback from some people saying “no way am I touching politics on youtube” and so on. I expect after the US election is settled, that will change.

We *have* had some tricky moments. There was some issues with some pre-order customers not being able to find their free steam keys, and we jumped from the humble widget to itch, then back to humble again as a result. We had hoped to simultaneously launch on steam, gog, humble and epic, but epic was actually about ten days later. I did have a bug (election day crashes for 3 party systems with colorblind mode) that went unfixed for a few days longer than it should have… but thats actually about it.

I sometimes think that these sort of blog posts can be dull, because lets face it, its more entertaining to read about how the developer was trapped in a canoe in a blizzard while terrorists stole the servers with the source code, and then the publishers turned out to be Chinese military who sold the source code to the mafia, but frankly, its been uneventful. Thats likely because its something like my twentieth game release, so TBH I should know what I’m doing by now.

However if you DO want to read about absolutely crazy-ass shenanigans going on in tech companies that make you shout ‘wtf?’ then I am currently enjoying this book.

Its amazing the absolute maniacs that run companies some times.

Communication. The secret weapon of one-person companies

It amazes me how many businesses are just totally and utterly hamstrung by poor communication. Games companies, Payment companies, Stores, and outside of games, Telecoms companies, Governments, Car companies, Any large organisation. Communication fails and the business is in tatters.

I would go so far as to suggest that having easy, clear and effective communication between people in an organisation is pretty much the most important factor in the success of a company. More important than technological advantage, more important than branding, more important than the ad budget or the intellectual property… its vital.

Poor communication means you completely fail to convey both good AND bad news. With bad news, that news will never filter upwards to the people in a position to do something about it. Is your website totally and utterly BORKED right now? unless customers have a way to communicate that to you, how are you going to know?

And if a customer even does manage to tell someone in customer services about this, are they able to easily, effectively communicate with the person in charge of the website? Is any information going to be missed during that transferrence? is the web dev going to take what the customer services rep says seriously? Do they even HAVE a way to communicate in that direction?

When you are a one-man company, communication operates at an extremely fast rate. According to this site:

“Neurons, by comparison, fire at a rate of around 100 times per second or so”

So, the marketing department at Positech Games (me) can communicate with the Tech Support department (me) at about 100 times a second. Not bad. The communication speed between whoever mans the twitter account at Electronic Arts and the Lead programmer on Battlefield V is likely slower. Maybe a lot slower. Maybe weeks. Maybe never.

Laser mimics biological neurons using light – Physics World
strategy meeting at positech games

The failure to communicate critical failures is one thing, but this also causes failure when it comes to communicating good ideas, or new ideas, or excellent money-saving ideas. Not only do people like to be listened to, and have their concerns taken seriously by management, sometimes those ideas are fantasically profitable or awesome. When you have mechanisms that filter out feedback to the people in charge, your risk of losing out on those ideas.

I constantly encounter stuff thats broken. For example, I’m using chrome (latest version) on windows (latest version) and wordpress (latest version), and yet for no reason at all, the spellcheck does not work. I could report this… but where? how? and why? We all know nobody would fix it, so why bother? We have all learned that big companies do not really want feedback, and they dont read it, and NEVER act on it.

Twitters phone app (an abomination of evil) constantly suggests I can ‘see less often’ some absolutely unwanted crap, but it never acts on this. It lets me change my timeline settings, but never keeps them that way, because the huge megacorp doesnt actually care what I think, or have any interest in making the app better. Does Jack Dorsey even know this?

I’ve fixed bugs many times in Democracy 4 the same day they were reported. I’ve actually fixed bugs the same hour they were reported. The turnaround time is thus shorter, the customer experience better, the profits higher. Its easy.

The beauty of 2020 is that we predominantly use asynchronous communication. Your customer service people can be in direct high-bandwidth contact with everyone else in the company WITHOUT phoning or physically disturbing them. Slack is not real-time, email is not real-time, skype chat is not real-time. You can have everyone propagate important information through your company asynchronously but directly, ensuring communication is rapid and both good and bad news gets to where it needs to be.

Sure, some people need training on what is, and is not important enough to share, and people need to learn discipline on how to stay focused, but those are relatively simple challenges. Far worse to take the standard approach where nobody talks to anybody outside their own department.

Its easy for me. My company communicates 100 times a second with everyone. If you work in a company >1 people, you really need to focus on this as a core skill.

Democracy 4 crowdsourced translations now on localizor

I was musing about how on earth to manage the people who are keen to help out translating Democracy 4 when I was pointed at this awesome website called localizor which seems to be set up to do exactly what I needed: Localizor

This is so cool. Its basically an online database for you to share the translation keys for your game, and optionally a single reference language (in my case obviously English) and anybody who wants to contribute can enter text for any of the languages you have listed. There is a cool progress bar and it also shows you which users have made the biggest contributions. Its basically awesome.

This has cool features like showing you the google translate version of any string, so I guess you can check that people are not typing in absolute nonsense (or worse, something offensive), and people can vote on each others contributions etc. I think you can ban people too, if they are being malicious. Its basically a reall well-thought out system for doing exactly what I need.

There is a free trial, and then it costs a monthly fee, but its cheap, and a no-brainer really. TBH the biggest hassle was writing the code to output all my translated data (which is in csv files, and some ini files) into the right format to be imported into their database. It works on the assumption of KEY = VALUE as opposed to some of my stuff which has KEY,VALUE1,VALUE2,VALUE3 etc, for a bunch of different columns of data.

All-in-all it took about 90 minutes to write code to dump out all my text, and then manually submit the whole lot to the website. I also need to import the nearly-done fan-made italian translation I have, and eventually write my code in reverse to slurp up whatever format the site exports to and pump those values back into my own format.

Democracy 4 is, by its very nature, a global game, and its really cool to be able to leverage all the work jeff did regarding unicode, and vector rendering and fonts so we can support some often less-supported languages. I’m especially excited at the thought of Democracy 4 in Korean :D