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

Healthcare cost and benefits in democracy 4 (kind of)

I read the infamous article yesterday that a lot of UK people are screaming and hurling abuse at over twitter. Basically a commentator wrote about the tradeoffs between continuing with a lock down in the UK due to COVID19, or letting people go back to work, and the relative impact on health in the short and long term.

99% of people hurling abuse did not read the article, and if they did, they did not understand it.

Here is a shorter & simpler version of the argument:

  • The UK lock-down will prevent X deaths from people with an average life expectancy of Y and a general state of health of Z.
  • The economic cost of the lock down will result in W extra deaths from suicide/obesity/other factors and K extra deaths due to the reduced funding for healthcare over P years as the economic cost of the lock-down bailout package is repaid
  • Therefore it MIGHT be the case that the cure is worse than the disease and we should stop it, allowing X people to die.

Now pretty obviously, whether or not the argument is right depends MASSIVELY on the values for X,Y,Z,W,K and P. These figures are all highly speculative, and open to interpretation and re-evaluation, and we cannot be sure of any of them…but thats fine, it doesn’t change the core of the argument, an argument which we already have enshrined in UK government in an organisation called NICE.

Britain's National Health Service Continues to Struggle | Neil ...

NICE is the national institute for health and care excellence, and its job is basically to look at drugs/treatments the NHS might like, and work out if they make economic sense for the NHS to use them. Given non-infinite money, and cash spent on treatment Y cannot be sued on treatment Z, so obviously NICE has to do a balancing act to ensure that the most lives are save for a given health budget.

Sometimes, people get upset about NICE refusing drugs, and thats understandable when it affects you, but I cannot help but see what NICE does as logical, and essential. Budgets are never infinite, choices MUST be made.

In Democracy 4, the player makes these decision all the time. If you set the state healthcare (or alternative policy such as vouchers) budget to maximum, then health will go up. The link may not be linear, but it will definitely go up. However, the budget for this needs paying for, which if you are unlucky, can mean a debt crisis, or cutbacks in other areas leading to recession, thus unemployment, obesity, poverty…all things that will…reduce the standard of health…

This feedback mechanism, where in some cases raising X to boost Y, also reduces A, which causes B which then paradoxically REDUCES y… is a common theme both in the game, and in real world economics. Basically…real-world-shit is complicated! Its also something that is intuitively hard for us to grasp. As primitive mammals we didn’t need to think 6 moves ahead. We barely needed to think 2 moves ahead, which is why Democracy 3/4 is an interesting challenge and feels interesting to play. Its also why most people suck at chess, and go. We are not good at this.

Sadly this is disastrous for public policy. NICE *HAS* to exist, despite peoples anger, and the calculation as to the economic cost of a healthcare measure OBVIOUSLY has to happen. Modern political discourse (shit-flinging on twitter about comparing this to eugenics) means that it can never be openly debated by grown up politicians. We force them to lie…

So a politician may say we will do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get the virus under control. This is a lie. You also hear people say “If the only effect of this $50 million policy is that it saves one persons life…its been worth it.” This is also a lie. But modern sound-byte culture means the truth can never be discussed.

I think I need to work on reflecting this a lot more in Democracy 4. Maybe we need event to pop up and say more media-style things like this:

“Lucy Matthews, age 24, has died due to breathing difficulties partly resulting from the high level of pollution on our streets. She leaves behind a daughter Emily, age 4. Her death could have been avoided if the country had introduced emission limits on cars.”

That might be a bit harrowing, or distressing, or maybe a bit…manipulative, but I think it would accurately reflect the dilemma for real politicians who have to balance the knowledge that they are absolutely choosing to let some people die, with every decision they make. Thats just inevitably part of the job.

Should I add that sort of thing?

We donated another £9,416.88 to war child. Yay!

For the last few years Positech has done this thing where we basically take all of the money we earn from steam sales of Democracy 3 or any of its DLC during the War Child Armistice, and give all of that money to them. We just got our royalty reports and crunched the numbers, and this year that sum is £9,416.88, which I think is pretty good.

Basically if you bought democracy 3 or its DLC from the 6th-13th November this year, we gave all the money (well, our cut of it) to charity. This is the third time we have done this. The first time (which was the original armistice event), it was £15k, last year it was £10.1k, so its going down a bit, but on the other hand, we have contributed about £35k now, which isn’t at all shabby. To put all this into perspective,.. Positech is basically one full time employee (me!) and some contractors, although Jeff (D3:Africa,D4) is pretty much full time now). Imagine how awesome it would be if we could persuade some really big profitable games companies to do the same thing?

If you are wondering what on earth war child is, you can read all about what they do on their website here.

And if you are somehow here not knowing what Democracy 3 is, its a game we made about politics and elections and running the government, and we have a website about it here.


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.


Car design GUI, unicode and shadowhand…

…So I ended up concluding that rolling those two bits of GUI together was not unanimously a good idea, but I think changing the car design one so those horizontal tabs became left hand side list items is a bit of a no-brainer so I did that:

I’m currently working on supporting toggling slot upgrades to be on or off, to allow more player control. I’m in a bit of a ‘usability’ mode where I’m making the game easier to use, and more welcoming, because its easy to get caught up into an Early-Access vortex where all you think about is expanding the game for people who already know how to play it.

However, that doesn’t mean that I am *not* planning a lot of expansion. I have some more music on order (yay!) and am getting all those untranslated strings sorted so that its a smooth translated experience in French, German and Spanish. I’ve also got some more artwork coming probably in the new year, for stuff like making your own air bags, some new machinery to make slots more distinctive, new animations, and some components like chrome and wood to make plush luxury interiors (plus cabin lighting!).

Basically Production line seems to be going quite well, which is just as well as I have lots of other stuff making demands on my time, mostly Shadowhand and Democracy 3 unicode. We have some teething problems with the windows build of Democracy 3 unicode, in that some fonts are not displaying right. We are aware of this and desperately trying to fix it ASAP, although the earlier build is now available as a steam beta option. We already have some thumbs up reviews in Chinese, which I take as a good sign, and hope to have an official press-release about Chinese Democracy soon :D

Shadowhand has been announced to the world recently, and will ship on the 7th December on Steam, GoG and the Humble store (oops…must set that up…) We have been promoting the game a bit on youtube, reddit and facebook, and our wishlists are thundering higher and higher. The more I play the game, and read peoples comments on it, the more confident I am that its going to do well. If you are wondering what I’m on about, you should go check out the game from the link below…

The Democracy 3 unicode post. Oh yes

Right then…here goes…

A while ago, we decided that what we really needed to do was translate our biggest selling game (Democracy 3) into Chinese and Russian, and also probably some other languages too. This probably sounds easy but its not, because Chinese and Russian and other fancy languages use non-ASCII characters, so we had to translate the games engine to use unicode instead of ASCII. In theory this is easy, in practice not, especially because there are a LOT of Chinese characters, and you cant just whack em all in a phat bitmap like you do with western characters. This means a lot of assing-around which was all done by jeff from stargazy studios (of Democracy 3 Africa fame) who is my able assistant in such matters.

Anyway, the ups and downs of this process are enough to write a major opera over, but suffice it to say, we think its actually done now. As a test, we are dipping our toe in the water by releasing just now (OMG!) a new beta build of Democracy 3 on steam. (Windows only, steam only right now). If you right click the games icon/name and select betas there is a no-password beta to opt in to this version. This version will only be served to you if your steam language is set to English (we will be changing this…), but it now gives you the ability to change language in the game and select from:

English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Chinese.

You can do this under the options screen in a new drop down box. You can then enjoy wonderful screens like this:

And this:

Which excite me more than they should.

In practice what this means is we will be able to simultaneously support a bunch of new languages AND get rid of the silliness of separate builds for German French and Polish (WTF were we thinking…?). It also means we have some cool new rendering etch built into the engine which we have secret plans for…

ANYWAY… If you are an English speaker who also happens to be fluent in one or more (or even none!) of the above languages, and have Democracy 3 on steam, and feel like opting in to the beta and giving it a spin, we would really like to know what you think. Ideally you cannot tell ANY DIFFERENCE to how the game used to be (although perhaps the text is crisper). All we are really worried about is if it just fails or bugs-out on certain video cards. Any feedback is welcome!

Its so shocking that I’m posting about Democracy 3 again isn’t it? Next thing you know I’ll be telling you we have a release date for shadowhand :D