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

Democracy 4: Resizable GUI

For the last week or two I have been working on what seemed like it might not be too bad…but actually turns into a lot of work. This is a resizable GUI for Democracy 4. The current version of the game has fixed size UI elements everywhere which works fine for the old school screen res from maybe 1280×768 up to 1920×1080, but starts to get a bit annoyingly small text at 2560 plus, and frankly the UI can be a bit too big and blocky at the lower res too. I finally got around to fixing this.

The first day or so was wasted trying to find an automated solution. Democracy 4 uses SDL2 and OpenGL, and I was hoping some of SDLs scaling functions would handle this simply. I could easily implement a scaling slider in the game, and then SDL could just handle a final stretching up or down at blit/flip time of a fixed resolution image.

This failed to work. partly because of some messy implementation at my end perhaps, but also because screen aspect ratios can change. Even if it DID work, it would basically mean throwing away the core UI upgrade of Democracy 4 over 3, which is super-smooth fonts and pixel-perfect vector-based icon and UI element rendering. If the player set the render scalar to anything but 100%, any sort of stretching would give a slightly blocky look. I couldn’t live with that.

In the end, I did implement all this as a simple percentage slider on the games options screen. Changing this requires a reboot to see the effect:

In order to get all this to work I just had to make a LOT of small code changes. Probably every UI file in the project got changed in the last week. What I needed to do is get rid of what coders called ‘magic numbers’ and replace them with values that could be scaled up or down based on this slider. For example code that said this:

int iconleft = Area.left + 120;

Would be changed to something like this

int iconleft = Area.left + WIDE_SIDE_PADDING;

The all-caps value could then be coded as defaulting to 120, but be scaled up or down by a global value for RenderScaling, which is decided when the game starts. This way I could reuse that value anywhere in the game and know it would always be the right value. Because I’m not entirely useless, luckily I HAD actually defined and used a lot of named values already like this:

int iconleft = Area.left + STYLEGUIDE_BLOCKPAD;

So in that case no code change was needed, and that value (10 as a default) could be easily scaled at app startup. The problem was… I had not stuck to this, and actually used a LOT of magic numbers (ie: actual numeric values) many, many places in the code. I ended up just having most of the common ones defined as pixel constants:

int iconleft = Area.left + STYLEGUIDE_PAD50;

For example. A bit kludgy, but some values really are used in random places and giving them stupid names like STYLEGUIDE_MINISTER_)SCREEN_TOP_WINDOW_HEIGHT would be overkill if you ask me. In any case, after a LOT of typing and also a LOT of testing, I am very close to declaring this done, and letting users play with it. Its not perfect, because a lot of combos don’t work. If you are playing at a small res like 1280×768 and set the slider >100%, things will overlap and look rubbish. But I’m hoping people are sensible. This is a FIX for people who dislike the default layout for high or low resolutions. Its assumed 95% of players will not touch the slider.

Anyway here is the game in the current (unscaled) view in 2560 resolution and default 100% scaling:

(Its reduced by 50% for here). Check out how small the text is for the finances, and how much space I waste on the timeline at the top. Now here is the exact same screen resolution, but with a 133% slider:

To me this looks WAY better, but you are only REALLY going to appreciate the change if you have a high DPI but smallish monitor, or an insanely high res monitor and poor eyesight. At first glance, you might not be able to tell the difference, but then check out that timeline at the top to see just how things are re-arranged. or check on the far left near the top, the ‘POPULARITY’ text.

Anyway this is coming to the next update for the game. it took a while, but it really needed doing!

Japan’s economy in Democracy 4: making sense of irrational economics

So… I am currently working on adding Japan as a playable country to Democracy 4, which is still in Early Access. Although I think Japan is super interesting in many ways, especially cultural (very conservative on prisons, super-generous on maternity leave, amazingly high percentage of retired people, very high tech, super-low immigration…), its economics are absolutely batshit crazy. Lets look at some numbers.

Tokyo: the latest stock market darling | Business| Economy and finance news  from a German perspective | DW | 16.01.2018

The current GDP of Japan is 559 trillion yen and its debt is currently 1.328 quadrillion yen, which gives us a debt to GDP ratio of 237%. The country in 2019 (pre-covid) had a deficit of 17 trillion yen. Compare this to the USA in 2019 which had a GDP of $21 trillion, debt of $22trillion, which is a ratio of 104% and a deficit of under $1trillion.

The USA has the dollar, which is the reserve country of the whole world, and I think its fair to say both countries have fairly similar stability in political terms. They are both monetizing this debt by using some form of quantitative easing. The US flirts with helicopter money, but the amounts are relatively small. I think its fair to say the biggest difference between the two is that the US debt to GDP ratio is dramatically lower than that of Japan. In other words, its riskier to lend money to Japans government than the US< by quite a margin, as the economy of Japan looks way less likely to repay that debt than the US. This *should* be reflected in the interest people demand to lend to Japan. lets look at 10 year government bonds:

United States 10 year bond yield: 1.59%

Japan 10 year bond yield: 0.09%

HELP. At this point I feel that someone like me with a decent (but hardly expert) understanding of economics is basically in this position:

Pied Piper

This makes no sense. Would you lend any money to the US government for just 1.59% return? me neither, especially when just splatting the money onto the S&P500 would get you 13.6% a year over the last 10 years, but OMG why on earth would anybody lend money to the Japanese government for 0.09%. It makes no sense, and much more fundamnetally than this..it breaks the simulation for my game Democracy 4!

Basically the game has hard coded into it the attitude of the international bond market when it comes to government debt. The general principles of the code are that every six months the bond market evaluates your country and looks at the debt/gdp ratio, the deficit/gdp ratio, the level of ‘stability’ and inflation in the country, and then decides on what the credit rating should be. The interest rate on the debt is then applied, based on that credit rating. The game assumes that the maximum conceivable debt/GDP ratio is 250% (Japan has broken this!). As the game stands right now, a few turns into a new game on Japan instantly triggers a really bad debt crisis:

The game also assumes that this upsets everybody, really badly, but in fact, this may be outdated because it seems that people generally seem very unconcerned by the size of japans debt. This is possibly because right now the world has other concerns with covid, and also because we have had a post-2008 general global credit crunch which has meant global use of QE to the extent that global interest rates have collapsed. Every country has bad debt and low interest rates, which maybe makes japan look not so crazy…

But it still should be WAY worse than the USA. Japan *is* in a debt crisis, and the way in which it seems to be given a free pass on staggering levels of debt is baffling…and yet this needs to be somehow handled in democracy 4… Hence we reading a lot, and looking for some justifiable ‘fudge factor’ I can code into the game that justifies all this. By any standard Japans credit rating should be something like D right now. In fact… its A.

The clearest explanation i have found so far is “A large portion of wealth is held by seniors who lack financial literacy and prioritize stability rather than return” (source). This also states that most Japanese govt debt is owned by Japanese citizens. This kind of implies I need to hard-code in something that says ‘Japanese tendency to not realize they are making shit investments’, as a modifier to boost the credit rating of Japan. That can’t be right!

There is an argument for saying that the country is more stable, and less vulnerable to external pressure on its debt because its mostly owned by its own citizens. The current economics of the game are actually giving Japans super-high debt about the right impact on the finances, so the problem is mostly that the debt crisis is triggering when it probably should be put off a bit by these factors.

So I suspect my actual solution here is to add a special modifier (domestic debt ownership) for the debt crisis situation , but leave the credit rating and interest rate stuff alone. I suspect this works because although the current bond yield on japans debt is super low, some of it will be much older and potentially paying out higher amounts.

Anyway….fun fun fun. I guess its different to balancing games with laser guns and magic spells.

Improving accuracy of state employee & unemployment effects in Democracy 4

One of the problems with making a vidoe game with one person doing the development, where you try to model the entire world in inter-connecting detail…is that its impossible, so you end up doing a lot og guessing and thinking ‘yeah that looks ok to me’. Then eventually you find the free time (ha! its the weekend, who am I kidding?) to go back and check that the wild ass guesses you made were just wrong, and not OMG emebarrasingly badly wrong. Its a low bar, but i’m determiend to hit it.

My game Democracy 4 has a lot of policies that affect two important variables in the game – The membership of the ‘State Employees’ group, and the level of unemployment. For hopefully obvious reasons, these numbers are important in a government/ politics sim. They have to make some vague sense. Until now, the numbers in the game have kind of been guesswork, and result in equations like this:

StateEmployees_freq,0.02+(0.05*x)

That means that the effect of that policy will vary between a 2 percent and 7 percent boost to the number of voters who identify as state employees, depending how the policy slider is set. In other words, this policy assumes that at max capacity, this policy represents a seven percent higher chance of any voter joining that voting group, although in practice its much more complex than this, due to internal algebra that I wont bore everyone with…

The problem for me is that although I do not mind that seven percent figure being possibly inaccurate, I DO want the games model of this stuff to be internally consistent. To put this another way, if in the real world, a state health service employs 10x the people of a state postal service, the game should attempt to get that ratio correct, at the very least. With this in mind I have done some research, using the USA as my base case for the policies most impacting state employees:

These figures are NOT 100% accurate. This is mostly because the US does not have a state health service in the same way the UK does, so I had to take NHS figures and then adjust for population. I also had trouble getting energy figures, so I extrapolated from the top 10 companies employees and adjusted on a per-household basis. The point is that although the figures (like all figures) are a bit wrong (probably) they are massively less wrong than my guesses!

So now to make the game values make sense, I need to work out how to adjust those values in the second and third columns, which are my current effects (at max slider) on state employees and unemployment. Given that I do not want top massively unbalance the game, I thought it was prudent to keep the total combined effects of all of these policies the same (93% and 126% respectively) and just adjust the figures internally to fix the relative impact,

The way I’ve done this is to use the employment percentage (the actual percentage as a portion of total employment of all these policies) and multiply that by the total current in-game effect (93 or 126) to give me the new adjusted effects. That looks like this:

In some cases its not too big a change but in others its hilariously different. Currently the game is giving a HUGE (18%!) boost to state employees from armed police when it reality it should be about 3%. On the other hand state schools were set to have a 10% boost to employees, and should be having a 29% boost instead! So many teachers! Its also evident that in the grand scheme of things, prisons and a state broadcaster employ virtually nobody. (I scaled up the BBC employment figures to USA size to get that data too).

I have just done the data so far, but later today I’ll go through all the policies and adjust the values in each equation. I guess the takeaway from all this as a player is that if you really want to cut unemployment when you spend money on public services, you want to splurge cash on the health service and schools/universities. Everything else is trivial.

Keen-eyed economists might note that the REAL employment impact would be different. For example, the direct employment from the US military may be 1.3 million, but defense contractors etc will employ many more, and the knock-on effects from the contractors CEOs buying new ferraris is even higher. I agree, but that is best dealt with through a GDP boost I think.

Modelling the limits to growth in Democracy 4

Game design hates virtuous circles. If the player does well, throw a bigger monster with a +5 sword of game-balancing at them. If the player has too much gold, make the cost of health potions rise. Thats the way our forefathers designed games. Sadly, the game I am making (Democracy 4) is based on real life, and not J R R Tolkien, so I cant cheat like that. Plus, Democracy 4 is more of a sandbox than a traditional ‘beat level 6!’ style game. How can I solve this?

ITS ALL ABOUT GDP, STUPID.

Bill Clinton had this phrase, ‘its all about the economy, stupid’, to remind him what mattered. Bill was a big player of Democracy 4. If GDP is high, tax income is high, so you can cut taxes (happy people) or ramp up public services and welfare (happy people). Get the economy (GDP) higher, and re-election is trivial. This is all modeled with some accuracy in the game.

William J. Clinton quote: It's the economy, stupid.

However… its not balanced right yet in the game (hurrah for Early Access), because far too many hardcore players of the game shout at me that their GDP is 100% and will not go any higher. This is because there are not enough effects that reduce GDP, to balance the game, and the boosts to GDP are likely too linear…

There are a LOT (79 distinct things) of inputs to GDP in the game, but to list some of the biggest ones:

  • Worker Productivity
  • Corruption
  • Oil Price
  • Global Economy
  • Foreign Investment
  • Corporation/Carbon Taxes
  • Business Confidence
  • Income & other taxes…

There are also some good, and bad situations that can have huge effects, such as a debt crisis, hyperinflation, corporate exodus and strikes, or technological backwater… GDP also has a LOT of outputs (80) the largest of which are:

  • Currency Strength
  • Foreign Aid Inflows
  • Air Travel
  • The Environment
  • Costs and income from many different policies/taxes etc
  • Unemployment
  • CO2 Emissions
  • Obesity

There are basically three ways to fix the problem I have where GDP gets too high. I can change some of the inputs to GDP so they follow more of a curve, declining towards the top. I can boost some of the negative impacts of high GDP, maybe accelerating at the top, and I can imagine new links/situations/impacts that are negative, yet associated with high GDP.

For example, if we look at one of the strongest impacts that boosts GDP (Worker Productivity), its equation in the game is as follows: GDP,0+(x*0.44). This is, to put it bluntly, pretty simplistic, and maps onto a curve like this:

I know how simple this looks, but don’t forget there are THOUSANDS of equations in the game. They are not all works of art :D. The obvious solution to avoid the kind of game-design problem I have is to make that curve less linear. Maybe adjusting it to GDP,0.4*&x^0.76) which looks like this in comparison:

This feels a bit better, because it implies that the earlier productivity gains have a stronger effect (which sounds true… worker uses horse instead of ploughing by hand!) and the impacts taper off as productivity rises (horse replaced by tractor).

The big SCARY thing about doing stuff like this, is not working out how to do it, or having the idea to do it (both fairly easy), but the balancing. You can see from that graph that a change to this equation has boosted the GDP of all those countries with lower productivity, and reduced the GDP of all those with higher productivity. Have I gone too far? Does this make Italy too easy? France too hard? The USA? UK? South Korea… and so on. Even changing this single equation is possibly going to affect dozens, maybe hundreds of other policies, situations and so on. If GDP falls, tax takes fall, immigration falls, maybe racial tension then falls…and so on and so on!

Because I’m only one person, and time-bound, there are always going to be negative impacts of GDP growth that I have no thought of, and I welcome suggestions. Frankly, the game is so complex that its hard to keep track. Only this morning I had the sudden realization that yes, all things being equal, it does seem like high GDP will raise inequality, and I should model that…only to discover its already in the game :D.

Oh and I recently made changes that allow me to use 5 variables instead of 3 in each equation and to automatically calculate and use values like (1.0-GDP) as a single variable, which means I have more flexibility now to introduce complex links between values…

Over the next day or two I’m going to be going through the GDP effects, inputs and outputs to make them less linear and more sensible. Then I have some other tweaks to make to the game, and a lot of testing to do, and eventually we get around to doing another update. The current changelist already shows a LONG LIST of updates for the next version before I even look at GDP… so hopefully the next build of Democracy 4 will be noticeably better balanced :D.

Ongoing language support for Democracy 4

I have been doing a bunch of work on language support for Democracy 4. The game is still in Early Access, and I’ve been adding new content (mostly new countries, and some associated policies and situations for them) as well as play balancing and tweaking stuff, and fixing bugs. Out of all of these, the language support one is probably the most invisible to the majority of players.

Initially, like most games, Democracy 4 was just in English. We had gone to VAST expense and trouble to make it natively support Unicode text and rendering any text imaginable, which meant that we really did need to leverage that investment by supporting multiple languages. Right now, the completes supported language list for the game is as follows:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Spanish
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Brazillian Portuguese

Generally speaking, in the old days of shipping stuff to retail, people used the term EFIGS, for English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. That was considered the ‘sensible’ list of languages to support. I think in 2021 its worth expanding into Polish (they love strategy games) and Brazilian Portuguese. There is a strong argument also for Japanese and Chinese, although the sales chances for a game called Democracy in China may be lower than normal.

I know a lot of devs use crowd sourced translation services like localizor, and I *started* doing that,m but basically its hellish because the work is hard to verify, can get stuck at 95% complete, and you cannot easily be sure that everyone is using the same terms. This really matters, because using president in one sentence and prime minister in another and chancellor in a third…all as translations from the same English source can be a confusing nightmare.

So we ended up getting paid translations, either from individuals, or from a professional translation service (which is more expensive, but I guess easier to manage and ultimately sue if they were to just send you a badly done mess.

As with every translation ever, done by anyone, at any point in human history… people always complain that some phrases or words are badly translated. As someone who only speaks a single language (C++) I really have no idea. I have to just read every comment and in extreme cases do a reverse google translate to see if everything looks legit.

Of course, getting text translated is just part of the battle. In most cases, the other 99% of this blog post would be about Unicode, and rendering languages that have so many characters you cant fit them in texture memory (joy!) but actually I’ve handled that before, and Jeff managed all this for me using things called pango and cairo and other magic, so actually this is a ‘solved problem’ in many cases.

So now I am down to the final part of the puzzle, which is making sure it all ‘looks’ ok. As expected, there are lots of places where things go wrong. For example here:

And also here:

I’ve already those, and a bunch of others, but its by no means exhaustive. I guess the lesson learned here is to assume that ALL text may be 100x as long as expected (or 10x as small), and code defensively at all times to accommodate this. It feels like 99% of devs currently use unity and unreal, so you are relying on the 3rd party vendors to have automatically fixed all this for you I guess. And if it isn’t fixed…well good luck?

The only problem with going through and doing this is that its hard to persuade players that this is valuable work. Someone who speaks English and bought the game in Early Access is not going to care that certain screens (that look fine to them anyway) now look better in Polish or Russian. Because EA players can be VERY DEMANDING in terms of expecting the developer to work 24/7 throughout Early Access, my only worry is that people think development slows down as I fix all this.

Thats probably unlikely as I already have a bunch of stuff listed as going into the next update:

[1.26 (in development)]
1) Removed duplicate effect from firearms laws to armed religious communities.
2) Removed duplicate impacts on luddite riots.
3) Fixed some harmless debug warnings about missing neurons.
4) Intel readouts are now inverted for situations where a policy reduces security effectiveness, such as Press Freedom.
5) Fixed error where a total ban on handguns actually reduced security, instead of boosting it. Ooops.
6) Fixed support for names for each slider setting in modded policies.
7) EU situation now renamed to EU membership, also now boosts stability and foreign investment.
8) EU countries now benefit from the Erasmus programme, which boosts youth income & happiness and also education.
9) Import tariffs can now not be implemented by EU members.
10) Made some impacts of banning low mpg cars scaled by EV transition, and introduced support for inverse variables and 6-variable equations.
11) Cyberbullying Awareness Policy now slightly reduces Internet Crime.
12) Universal Basic Income (UBI) cost now quadrupled so it reflects the correct figure.
13) The Polarization situation now explains its effects better.

I think ultimately tweaking the UI for multiple languages is very worth doing, because its a BIG world out there, and frankly the majority of humans do not speak English. At some point, (maybe we have already crossed it?) the majority of strategy gamers will not speak English either. If you want a game to be around a while (I hope to still be selling this game in 2028) then you need to plan ahead and look at who will be playing it.