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

Designing a system of orders for units in a war game

So… I am sort of working on a game as a hobby. It may never be released. But anyway, lets pretend its a Napoleonic war game.(its not). That allows me to at least talk in non vague terms. I am stuck slightly in the way I am designing a core part of the game.

Imagine a game where you have to place down a large number of units, on a map, and give them orders. The game then plays out the resulting battle against a pre-placed AI enemy. These days the kids call that an autobattler, but AFAIK I made the very first one (Gratuitous Space Battles), so I didn’t have a name of it back then. Anyway…

The goals in the design for such a game are actually quite complex. The system needs to be intuitive, so it can be played easily by a fairly casual gamer, but also provide depth where possible, must ensure that the way things play out goes as expected by the player (they feel like they had real control over events), and must result in a visual outcome that looks appropriately cinematic, and not just like a bunch of idiots in a bar room brawl. (This is my #1 critique of all the total war games, that seem to descend into this). These goals are actually quite complex and conflicting, and I have spent a lot of time and code trying to reconcile them.


One of the clearest places where stuff falls apart is when it comes to formations. If you have a long line of units, and declare them to be a formation, then you are expecting them all to operate as one. My solution for this was to make all the units but one the ‘dumb followers’ of this one independent formation ‘leader’, which would be free to care about other orders. If the leader moves forward, everyone in the line also moves forward. Sounds simple enough to design & code right?


Firstly, the leader may die. In that case we need a new leader, so the system has to hold an ‘election’ to pick the most appropriate replacement. Initially I chose the largest unit at the time of election, but you then encounter issues where the lead ‘unit’ may weaken down to 1% health, but is still the leader. Ideally there are periodic elections to ensure ‘leadership’ is tied to current strength, but this needs to take into account units healing and not result in leadership ping-ponging etc. Also in my game the ‘strongest’ unit does not necessarily visually make sense for deciding who leads and who follows. Just picking a leader is complicated as it is.

Its amazing what good condition the grass is in after a thousand soldiers have cartwheeled around on it to form patterns.

Secondly, how is the formation maintained? A line of units that represents a column in the Y axis looks good at the start of battle, but is the formational-consistency based on the initial x/y offset or does the line ‘wheel’ around the leader? If the leader turns to the left are we now doing a wheel adjustment? and if so, shouldn’t the leader be the unit in the middle, not the strongest?

Thirdly how do we handle gaps? If half the formation is destroyed, does our line now close ranks to form a thinner line? a shorter line? or do we just ignore the holes and continue as a depleted sparse formation? What would the player expect, and what looks coolest?

Engagement Range

This is the one that has just stumped me and made me write this blog post. For example, lets presume that your unit is not in a formation, but it has an ideal range to engage the enemy, due to its weapons, of 800 meters. How do we take into account this engagement range (and maybe a minimum range of half this?) when deciding where on the battlefield we need to be. So for example, a unit of cannons is looking all over the battlefield, thinking ‘where is the place I should head to now?’. How does it decide where to go?

The first system I have coded looks ahead and slightly to each side, and evaluates every square it could move to and gives them a score. For each square, it looks at all the units, in all the nearby squares to this potential target site, and counts up the values of all the potential targets for each square. There is then some minor tweaking to penalize far-off squares, and a hellishly complicated system of ‘reserving’ and ‘occupying’ squares so that the units don’t all end up stacked on top of each other. All of this code is written, and to some extent it seems to all work but…

…you then get the Total War bar-room brawl situation because it turns out that with this algorithm the ideal place for every unit is to be slap bang in the middle of the battle where it can shoot at absolutely everyone. Hence the big furball of messy collision in the middle of the map.

My first thought is that this is just something needing a minor tweak. If units heavily prioritized locations where enemy units were within a certain percentage of the engagement range (in this case say between 600-800m) and actually penalized places where enemies were within that range (say under 600), then you would get the long range units more sensibly placing themselves at a nice aesthetically pleasing distance where they could shoot at each other in a classic war movie style.

I can throw a banana further than this. WTF is their engagement range set to?

The Bigger Question

However, I am starting to wonder if that is all a load of bollocks.

There are three different scenarios under discussion here. The military reality of what makes sense in a real war to win a battle. The movie version, where the goal is to look cool, and the game version where the goal is to be fun, and intuitive and satisfying to tinker with as well as watch. I have definitely been starting from a real military position, which is at the total other end of the spectrum in terms of where I need to be (a fun game!).

One of the primary drivers of the code I have written so far is that it is supposed to seem like it makes sense for military units to do this. But as a game, I kind of don’t really care. Games are not vaguely concerned with the inconvenient truth of military history. We want things to feel fun, even if that means the choices make little sense. It might be TRUE that a line of 10 gatling guns on a hill could obliterate an entire roman legion, but after seeing it once, is it still fun? Not really. What wargames like this focus on is a sort of block-puzzle game, where carefully mixing and matching and positioning units ‘unlocks’ a solution, which is a complex feat of ‘combined arms’ resulting in a close victory.

One of the great things about modern gaming is we can make some really cool special effects, and use massively powerful video cards to draw amazing spectacles. That takes a bit of the pressure off of designing a game that is so intricate in the abstract. I used to play a tabletop war game called Starfleet Battles. Its LUDICROUSLY complicated, and a single turn can take an hour with a group of players. The ‘fun’ comes from the complex interactions of highly detailed systems. It has to, because the actual experience is just hours staring at pieces of cardboard on a map, hoping nobody sneezes.

I was ludicrously obsessed with these games back when I was young and before electricity was invented.


I’m not exactly known for simple games. But there are certainly companies that outdo me. The Hearts Of Iron games are just way beyond me, in terms of the amount of stuff to keep track of, and Eve-Online has become a game seemingly more involved than life itself. These games also have 100+ developers working full time, and this game is a hobby project I am spending an hour or so a day on, so its not going to go in that direction…

…and genuinely I am starting to consider the idea that my game should more resemble a simple puzzle game more than a complex uber war simulator. The amount of variables will still be high, and the outcome very pleasing. I think the cool ‘fun’ element of games like this is ‘I tried this… it failed, but was an awesome battle. I’ll try again’. It shouldn’t involve multiple hours of tweaking individual units decimal points in the AI decision making. Maybe the whole army is always just ONE formation, and it just moves right at the enemy as a single cohesive pattern? Maybe all the complex route-planning AI is utter bollocks? There are definitely a ton of much simpler games out there that seem to do this. I wonder if thats what a ‘roguelike deckbuilder’ game is? (I am sick of the term, but still don’t really understand what it means tbh).

Anyway, it might all be academic, as I might get bored and make something else. But I might not :D.

Emotional game design

It might seem weird for a self-diagnosed autistic game dev to talk about emotions in game design, but that would be incorrect. Its not like I don’t have emotions, in fact I have way too many of them, way too unpredictably! Like Vulcans. Anyway, this is a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention when discussing game design, so I thought I would have a go at it.


Not quite the classic ‘always emotion is the future’ yoda catchphrase, but close enough. For a very long time I have been aware that all entertainment is about emotion. It seems to be what we need as humans. We want to trigger positive emotions, and have controlled release of safe amounts of negative ones. We eat cakes to get the happy feels, we go on rollercoasters to get a safe dose of fear. True of all music, all books, all movies. Some make you cry, some laugh, some scream with fear. Time spend trying to be entertained that is not accompanied with an emotional release likely means the creator of that piece of entertainment has failed.

When you get quite into learning how to create entertainment in a field, you can very rapidly descend into very technical analysis and very clinical and seemingly unemotional advice regarding how best to do that thing. Novelists read about foreshadowing and ‘show don’t tell’, filmmakers learn about color-grading and dolly-zooms, and game designers learn about ‘player verbs’ and ‘design pillars’. To some extent, its all necessary, as you do need to know the basic building blocks of how most pieces of entertainment are made, but I do fear that people get so stuck into the weeds of the technical aspects of game design that they forget the core aim.

Normally at this point in an article like this, the writer would go for the classic phrase, perhaps in large bold type;


But Actually I think that is bollocks.

The problem with ‘find the fun’, is that it assumes that the game’s purpose can be summed up as ‘fun’. Games are apparently ‘fun’ and ‘fun’ is the most important thing. When assessing a game, people often ask their friends ‘is my game fun?’ because its assumed that this is the purpose. Maybe not. Is chess ‘fun’? its arguably a game that teaches you how to wage war. Is watching Schindler’s list fun? I definitely hope not. Is ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ fun? Is reading Anna Karenina fun? Is listening to ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer fun?

Games are no better or worse or more worthy or less worthy than any other form of entertainment. Its fine to make playing a game stressful, or harrowing, or to make a game that makes someone cry, or furious. If you make a game about the holocaust, it SHOULD make the player furious. Making a game that gives people nightmares is a perfectly reasonable decision. We don’t criticize other media for a lack of ‘fun’ by default, and we should treat games no differently.


A game will fail if it does not generate an emotion. That emotion can include a sense of ‘flow’ which is basically the emotional state that combines relaxation with satisfaction. I am currently playing ‘Regency Solitaire 2’ by Grey Alien Games. It makes me feel relaxed, and also gives me slight happiness or sadness boosts depending how the cards fall. The game is crafted, from its art to its sound effects to its music to convey a non-threatening, relaxing and familiar mood, and it does it well. No surprise that the game’s creator, Jake Birkett is a very calm almost zen-like guy.

Far too many words are written in academic circles about game design, which focus on the mechanics. People say things like ‘Primary Ludic Structure’ and are not laughed out of the room. There are lots of diagrams, and lots of spreadsheets, and numbers, and lots of advice on how to BOOST PLAYER ENGAGEMENT and how to design TIGHT GAMEPLAY LOOPS. I feel a lot of this stuff is misplaced.

If you have the time, seek out the introduction to ‘the trilogy suite‘ by Yngwie Malmsteen, and also the first guitar notes in ‘shine on you crazy diamond‘ by Pink Floyd. I’m a guitar player, so these are natural choices for me to make a point. Yngwie packs about a thousand times (at least) as many notes into a minute of music as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Both of the approaches ‘work’ and have become classics, not because of what notes they pick, or what the time signature is, or what chords they are played over. They both work because holy-fucking shit they are emotional-as-fuck, but in wildly different ways,

Yngwie’s guitar is super-fast, super-accomplished, and incredibly showy. Its a testosterone-fueled display of ability, the equivalent of standing naked on a pedestal and yelling proudly I AM DEFINITELY FUCKING HERE. By contrast, David Gilmour uses a tiny handful of notes. Subtle bends, very clear tone. Its both powerful and sad. It sounds like someone expressing grief, or huge emotional conflict, but unable to express themselves openly. Its the guitar version of sobbing in anguish.

Now you can just google for the notes of both those pieces of music, and given 20,000 hours practice, you can probably play them. Youtube is littered with people, often about fifteen years old, annoyingly, who can do just that. Here is one:

But the point is that ITS NOT ABOUT TECHNIQUE. The aim is of course to be something fresh and new, and special in the way that the original composers of those pieces of music are. How do they do that? How can you create something like that? Will cliff get back to discussing games soon? The thing is, both pieces of music are definitely hugely emotional, and personal and they come from the very sincere, very confident, very intimate desire for their creators to broadcast their emotional energy at the world. If you watch an interview with those two guitarists, you will immediately know who wrote each piece. Trilogy suite is not ‘written by’ Malmsteen, it IS Malmsteen. Shine on you crazy diamond IS Dave Gilmour. They didn’t try to put together popular pop songs by studying what was popular, or catchy. They just transferred their emotions from their heart to the world directly and unashamedly through their music. These musicians did not ‘pick hot genres’. Yngwie couldn’t play country and western if you put a gun to his head. Dave Gilmour couldn’t write a kpop song for a billion dollars.

…Yeah but games?

This is why I think we have a lot of soulless, uninspiring, even bad big AAA games now. When a game costs $400 million to make, then there is ZERO chance you let a single individual call ALL the shots. Everyone has to weigh in. The next big mega-franchise is not the distilled emotion of anybody. Its just a focus-group-designed and committee-approved venn diagram of core market segments. It lacks soul. If you are trying to make a decent piece of entertainment, you need to avoid becoming this!

I’m not a good game designer by traditional measures. I suck at balance, I suck at introducing mechanics to the player in a nice way. I have very little sense of what fits together in terms of clashing art styles. I have not played a whole bunch of classic games that are often referenced in game design circles. I do somehow manage to keep making games that sell lots and lots of copies though, and I think its because my games, even though they seem like they are not, are extremely emotional and passionate.

Democracy is far too complex a game. It does not slowly introduce concepts to the player. It is unforgiving. It has death-spirals and virtuous circles. Some levels are too hard, some are too easy. At first glance, its an impenetrable nightmare of overwhelming complexity. THATS THE POINT. The game is designed to mimic, as closely as practical, how it would feel if you actually did become president. Thats a job that *is* overwhelming. Often unfair, sometimes impossible to win. Some countries must seem like they are on stupid difficulty settings. The thing is, it encapsulates how I feel about politics and economics, and how complexity is fundamental to the experience. As a designer, I LOVE the complexity. The player often feels like everything is insanely interconnected, and that they are barely managing to put out fires and hope for the best, with all their hopes and dreams dashed to ashes the day after an election victory. That feeling of it all being a bit of a nightmare, is not a game design flaw. Its the point.

Gratuitous Space Battles is also too complex. And too big. There are too many ships, and ship modules, and its all too complicated due to the staggering amount of combinations. Its ludicrous. It is, at its heart, totally and utterly gratuitous. It is not a serious game, its one that should awaken the 13 year old boy who has seen star-wars a hundred times in grown adults. The point of the game is not to carefully strategize your way to victory. The point is to amass a ton of ships with different color lasers, watch them explode and then shout FUCK YES at the monitor as an adolescent expression of energy. Its puberty with lasers.

Maybe you like one of those games, maybe not, but when they ‘work’ they work really well because they are PURE. They are what one person (me!) wants the game to feel like. Not ‘play’ like, but FEEL. There is no POINT to games but to make you feel, or help you feel. Thats what entertainment is for. I’d rather my game’s angered people than just left them emotionless and untouched.

The most successful game I published by another designer was Big Pharma. The designer was young, chirpy, happy, upbeat and optimistic. His personality was not mine. He liked games by nintendo. I had only ever played one (a star wars one on gamecube). I thought the art style for the game was too simple, too flat, too symbolic. I thought the simple way in which the gameplay elements clicked into neat place was unrealistic, felt too easy, felt too ‘resolved’. The player could feel happy, and content and satisfied. This was not me. But I let Tim make the game he wanted to make. Its a Tim Wicksteed game. You can tell. Playing that game does not feel like a game I made. It’s also a very popular game, and did very well. I could have waded in there with my strong opinions and insisted on a less cute look, a more industrial feel, and changed the mechanics, but I deliberately let Tim make the game a Tim game.

…of course I then got all of my ARGH about how I would have made it out of my system by doing my take on the factory-sim idea, which is called Production Line :D.

Anyway. This is my way of trying to convey that you can NEVER put too much of YOUR emotion into your game, and you should NEVER let other people try to mitigate, or dilute the emotional content of it. If people say ‘this part of the game is too depressing’ or ‘its a bit fatalistic’ or ‘I hated seeing this character die’, then you should think VERY carefully whether or not to listen. Also, right from the very start, you should know what emotion your game primarily conveys. It doesn’t have to be a positive emotion, its fine to make a sad game, a stressful or harrowing game, or even a game that makes you angry about injustice.

Just be very careful of the game-design equivalent of having produced Schindler’s list, and then someone pipes up and says ‘couldn’t it be a bit more upbeat’? All entertainment should be driven by the emotional force of a single creator. Anything else risks becoming mediocre.

Gratuitous Space Shooty Game released!!!

And you probably thought I wasn’t still making games right?

After the long and intense development of Democracy 4, which is a HUGE sprawling game with a LOT of code, and a ton of content, and is now in about 10 languages and has 3 expansion packs… it was nice to be able to make something small, and simple, and not at all commercial or serious. With that in mind I started messing around making a space-invaders style vertical shooter, using the art assets I have from an older game of mine: Gratuitous Space Battles.

GSB is pretty old now, but TBH the spaceship graphics for it still look incredibly good to my eyes. I generally think its very wasteful that the games industry hires so many people to make music, SFX and graphics, and then makes a single game with them, never to be re-used in any way. Frankly a spaceship is a spaceship, whether its used in an RTS or a shooter or a turn based grand strategy game.

I know some people worry that gamers will bombard you with abuse for daring to use the same artwork in another game, because they will feel ‘cheated’. This strikes me as utter nonsense. Sensible re-use of assets just makes sense. As a general principle I hate waste, and I love efficiency. Also, not doing something because a tiny, tiny percentage of vocal gamers may complain about it is definitely a losing strategy in gamedev. There are always people who complain about any choice you will make.

After working on this game for a bit, and initially thinking it was a little throwaway thing I’d probably keep to myself, I started to really enjoy its development. I have never made a vertical shooter, but I loved Star Monkey, which is very old, and I am old enough to remember the first space invaders arcade cabinets as a kid, as well as Galaxian (far superior imho) and then Phoenix and the rest. I also spent a lot of time playing Astrosmash on our intellivision console as a kid.

Gratuitous Space Shooty Game is a bit of a mashup of a lot of those shooters, with some extra ideas that occurred during development. My wife playtested it a lot, and HATED the asteroids, so I added a repulsor beam to keep them away from you. Once implemented, it became a very cool new gameplay mechanic, as it allowed you to ‘balance’ attacking ships above you to get some extra shots in before they leave the screen.

During development I experimented with a bunch of ideas, and after a lot of playtesting, I’m happy with what I chose to do. The fact that you can accidentally shoot ship bonuses gives the player an incentive to keep moving and not risk a volley destroying a bonus. Penalizing you for every ship that escapes, INCLUDING the left-right ‘saucer’ ships also adds to the challenge. Making it so that the best power-ups are only dropped by those ships was also a good move from a design POV. Adding friendly ships you have to avoid is an evil mechanic, but its still in there!

In the end I went with 25 levels, and the levels get slightly longer as you go along. I don’t do any adaptive difficulty stuff, although I considered it. I do offer 3 difficulty levels from the start though. The top one is seriously hard. In-between levels you get to spend your cash, earned from shooting aliens and collecting bonuses (and a cool 10% bonus if nobody escapes) on upgrades for your ship.

Right now the game is only on itch, for $3 with a suggestion of $5 if you want to. It will not be a big financial success :D. Because I was doing it for fun, its currently windows only, and fixed aspect ratio of 1920×1080, or scaled to fit fullscreen. Windowed option literally went in the day before release :D. Its English only for now. I may try a google-translate for the limited text at some future point if I do an update to it.

So there you go, its another game by me! the first non-strategy one for a long time. I’m quite proud of it. Its a fun short laptop-friendly game you can play in lunch hour or multiple coffee breaks. If you like the look of it, get a copy!

Making a hobby game!

I’ve been getting very motivated about a little hobby game I’ve been working on in-between dealing with solar farm stuff, and playing the guitar. I have a lot of really cool space-game assets from my old game (some might say classic!) ‘Gratuitous Space Battles‘ and it just feels wrong to have all the art to make a space-invaders style game and not just do it! I decided to call the game ‘Gratuitous Space Shooty Game’.

I am so disorganised that its simpler for me to code a new game engine from scratch than find the hard drive with GSB code on it (or at least all of it), but luckily I have time plus experience, and I can type stupidly fast, so I’ve basically written a new game engine for this little hobby project. Its nothing amazing, the game currently only uses 2 shaders, no clever effects, no amazing visuals, just a simple ‘shoot at static sprites and enjoy some primitive particle effects’ style game:

Obviously its 2023, so just making simple ‘space invaders’ wont cut it even for a hobby game, so there is a lot of influence from stuff like galaxian, and pheonix, and all the other space shooters out there. Right now, the alien movement is very generic and simple, and nothing to shout about. No fancy splines, just left right and down!

The thing thats motivating me about this game is the small scope, and ease of adding new stuff. When I work on a giant commercial game of mine like Production Line or Democracy, every single line of code or change to a single data item needs to be checked and balanced for 11 different languages and every conceivable screen resolution and hardware, then uploaded as a patch to itch, gog, epic, humble and steam. The amount of admin, and busywork required to make marginal changes to a large project can be pretty overwhelming.

With this game, its 1920×1080 res or nothing (stretched to actual resolution, and bordered if necessary), only in English. And right now its not even on any store. This means I can have a cool idea, start typing code, and be testing it within minutes, which makes the development process pretty fun.

I don’t want to put up a public build for it quite yet, because so much of it is just totally broken, or half assed. The current font sucks, and doesn’t even display percentage symbols :D. The gameplay is unbalanced, and there is no high score system that actually stores anything anywhere yet. I reckon I need to code a primitive online high score system, and include music and sfx volume controls before I make it public. Oh and a pause button might be nice too!

I have to say though… its already very very fun. There is something very adrenaline-rushy about playing it on the harder levels, where everything gets a bit hectic. In these days of F2P, monetization, competitive e-sports, multi gigabyte patches, and achievements and so on… there is something very pleasurable about a simple game where you move left and right and hit the fire button!

When I stick it on itch or the humble widget I’ll post about it here :D.

Democracy 4’s overcomplexity is by design

When I first started to make games back in the middle ages, there was very little in the way of academic discussion regarding how to do it. All existing games were designed by people who were pioneers, just ‘winging it’ and putting stuff into a game because it was ‘cool’. That child-like excitement and enthusiasm lasted a long time, but eventually the video games industry got large enough that companies needed more design staff, and people had to start teaching game design in schools, colleges and universities.

Academia has its own language, and its own way of doing things. Personally, I hate academic language. I often find that reading academic papers on a topic is 5% information and 95% display of how clever the author wants people to think they are. There is a lot of inherent snobbery in language, where people think that discussing concepts in an academic tone makes them appear cleverer than they are.

This is backwards.

It takes skill to explain a complex topic in simple language. Its also way, way more helpful. Its 2023 now, and we live in a hyper-connected world, and very much a multilingual one. A non trivial percentage of people reading this bog post will not have English as their first language. If I try and show off my vocabulary, I would impress hardly anyone, and infuriate almost everyone. Simple language is good.

I think a lot of modern game design discussion is over academic. It gets obsessed with ‘player verbs’ and ‘tight loops’ and ‘core design pillars’. That sort of language looks good in a game design document that you can show to your boss at a performance review to make them pay you more. I’m sure it has its place. However, I think this obsession with the academic analysis of video games is often destructive as it actually kills off the freewheeling experimental ‘lets just try this’ attitude which often leads to the most interesting game designs.

My most famous game is the Democracy series, of which Democracy 4 is the latest incarnation. Its a political strategy game where the player runs the country. Its 2D and icon-based, and looks like a giant super-complex and uber-connected infographic that the player navigates. The main UI screen for the game is a symphony of information-overload and looks like this:

I suspect anyone who was submitting this screenshot as a mock-up in a game design course at a university would get a D minus. Its clearly overcomplex. It puts too much burden on the player to identify whats important. Its messy, its confusing, it has too much data in one place. Try harder next time.

Except…that is the whole point. Overcomplexity is a feature, not a bug in Democracy 4. This is something that a few reviewers, and a few players do not get, and I understand why. Modern game design has been sanitized and simplified to the extreme. The player is treated often like an idiot, with the information-processing capability of a puppy. We never give the player too much choice, or too much information at any point. That would be BAD game design, that needs ‘reworking to streamline the UX’.

God I hate ‘streamlining’.

Whenever big tech companies like google or Microsoft talk about how their new UI is ‘more streamlined’. it inevitably means ‘its way worse, but it looks simpler’. Whoever thought that we should start hiding scrollbars until you go hunting for them should be sentenced to life imprisonment. There seems to be some belief among UX designers that options and information are things that cause infectious disease, and need to be hidden away whenever possible.

Anyway… thats not actually my point.

Sometimes, a game is deliberately BAD by a conventional metric, because its trying to create an atmosphere. Thats intentional. Thats something all forms of entertainment or art does, at least if the creator has a vision for what they are doing. The Omaha beach level in the original ‘Medal of Honor’ game was catastrophically hard. Like mega-hard. Insane hard. You try at least a dozen times before you even make it to the first ditch hard. THATS THE POINT. If your game is representing something incredibly difficult, it needs to BE difficult. Being scared of triggering any ‘negative’ emotion in the audience makes for incredibly sanitized, tedious, unchallenging, and unrewarding art.

Running an entire country is nightmareishly complicated. Being President or Prime Minister is shockingly complex. Just imagine how many different topics you need to be familiar with in order to make the right decisions to run an entire country. Its insane. There is good reason that being US President seems to create accelerated aging. The amount of information presented to a President in just an hour is ridiculous, in 4 years its nuts. And ALL of it is absolutely vital. You don’t get to put a document in front of a US president unless its absolutely important and probably urgent.

The best thing you can do with any game design, or any book, or movie, or music is to generate emotion. If we want information, we will read/watch non-fiction. We open ourselves up to entertainment because we want to be moved emotionally into some state. That might be fear, in a horror game, or a sense of calm flow in a factory game, or a sense of excitement and adrenaline in an FPS. This is the ‘core design pillar’ if you must use such a term. The game must generate some feeling in the player.

I know some people dislike Democracy 4 because the icon-based gameplay is not what they expect. They expect to have a 3D avatar of the president (These tend to be US players who only want to be the USA…) that walks around a 3D oval office and see animated soldiers saluting to them etc… But to me, thats not what being a president is about.

Ultimately the only thing that makes a president good or bad, is what decisions did they take? and did they make the country better? Speeches are great, having charisma is nice, being good at shaking hands or tweeting is all good, but what really matters is what did they do. Given the situation, how did they act? and why?

This is what I try to convey in Democracy 4. You are the president and you have a LOT of things to pay attention to, and YES it s overwhelming, and NO you do not have enough time/bandwidth to process all this, and you need to actually go with your gut and make emotional rather than analytical decisions very often because there simply is TOO MUCH data, so you have to play the game in a different way to most strategy games you have played. There are just too many variables, and too many equations and too much data. Thats the WHOLE POINT.

With anything interesting, you are going to lose some part of the audience. I definitely lose players, and generate refunds among some, because they find the game ‘not fun’ and ‘over-complex’. Thats to be expected. I suspect I gain more players than I lose, because this experience is not on offer anywhere else. Other game designers would simplify, or streamline the game. They would try and ‘guide the player gradually through a tightly constrained path of easy decisions’. I will not do that, because its not the vision I have for the game.

You can make your game too hard, or too fast, or too weird, or confusing. Its all ok. As long as you have a vision for what you want the player to feel, and you deliver on the promise and generate that feeling then everything is cool. Sometimes its ok for the player to feel overwhelmed, or confused, or freaked-out. Sometimes thats EXACTLY what its all about.

Democracy 4 is not too complex. Neither is Dwarf Fortress. Dark Souls is not too hard. Surgeon Simulator’s control scheme is not too fiddly. Agatha Christie is not too formulaic. Star Trek doesnt have too much technobabble. Its all absolutely fine.

Democracy 4 is on steam, epic store, gog, humble store and itch.