Category Archives: game design

I’m writing some Democracy 4 code today, and looking at how we display the in-game political compass. This is a graph that shows you how your political position has changed over the course of the current game.

This was in Democracy 3, and definitely back in for D4. This time around I’m stretching it to fill an entire window, as there is no magical reason why both axes have to be the same. For those unfamiliar with the concept of the political compass, it maps a political party or individual or government on 2 axes. The first axes is left-> right (communism to capitalism, or sometimes described as socialism to capitalism) and the other is up-down which is conservative to liberal.


Allow me to expands on this: There are basically TWO axes of politics, not one. In many places, people get this confused and assume liberal == socialism and conservative == capitalism. This is WRONG. There may be countries, societies, communities, and parties that make very strong associations between these two, but other positions very much exist around the world. The biggest confusion is the way US commentators use ‘liberal’ when they mean socialist, mostly because the mcarthyesque history of the US has made socialist an insult in many peoples minds (especially middle aged and older).

For example, its perfectly possible to be a liberal capitalist. I know this because I consider myself to be in that quadrant myself. I am a supporter of a (regulated) free market, a believer in entrepreneurship, and generally a supporter of lower taxes and extremely free trade… NONE of which has anything to do with my positions on..(for example)… same-sex marriage, legalizing cannabis, free-speech, equal pay or religion. Its also perfectly possible to be entirely in the opposite quadrant where you are both conservative and socialist. In fact, a LOT of 1970s British politics was in that quadrant, with very socialist (extremely high marginal taxes, opposition to free trade, very high levels of nationalization) policies mixing freely with the racist, sexist, and deeply conservative attitudes to religion, drugs, same-sex relationships etc that we would now associate with the american right. I grew up in a very strongly pro-union labour-voting community. It was not a liberal paradise.

To put this another way, you can take a far left 1970s british socialist / communist and persuade them to embrace legalizing drugs, same-sex relationships, gender-equality and LGBT issues…and that moves them on one axis but not the other.


The game automatically analyzes every decision you make and plots your government position each turn on the political compass automatically, which is kinda cool to watch. For Democracy 4, I thought it might be interesting to have that compass pre-loaded with the agreed (ha!) positions of a number of historical figures. For example, maybe plot President Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Obama and from the UK Thatcher, Blair and David Cameron. Maybe Angela Merkel should be on there? Maybe Trudeau and Trump?

I think this would be cool because it would be funny to to find yourself thinking ‘hmmm I may have gone a bit right wing economically here? and then realize you just swept past Reagan :D.

Of course the HUGE problem here is going to be coming up with locations for these people that don’t get me stoned to death by angry steam forum people. Lets be clear…everyone will; hate me for making this game at all…its pretty much locked-in as being the most divisive game ever made already. I just don’t want to DELIBERATELY annoy people, so I’ll probably do some research, plot some of those figures, then ask for feedback during Early Access :D

Its very tough because to people in the US, Bernie sanders is hugely left wing, but in Europe, I’d say maybe not so much… And to left-wingers in the UK, David Cameron was horribly right wing, but by US standards he was probably a member of the Democratic party. And the problem is…the STRONGER your political views (regardless of axes), the more you get outraged and want to push everyone who disagrees with you to the far extremes of the other side.

I know communities online where people argue that UK labour party deputy-leader tom watson is a ‘dangerously right wing blairite traitor’, despite being frankly hugely left wing by US standards. I’ve seen political compasses that put Hilary Clinton just slightly to the left of Reagan…

Fun times ahead…

This is a round-up blog post covering lots of things:

Firstly some meta-stuff. I haven’t been super-frequent in updating this blog recently, and I also have been tweeting a lot less (in fact the wonder of analytics allows me to say my tweets are down 36% in the last month). I also un-followed a lot of accounts, I removed a lot of facebook friends, and I’ve quit some other online stuff. I’m trying to avoid the harsher, more serious, depressing net.

Frankly social media, and much of the internet in general is making me unhappy, and I’m reducing how involved I am with it. I have never been one of the ‘hip’ indies that knows everyone else, and I’m moving more towards being an ‘offline’ kind of person, for my own happiness.

Obviously that doesn’t affect tech support, PR, or blogging/tweeting about what I’m working on, so here we go…

NEW DLC! is coming to Production Line. I have not settled on a final name for it, but its likely ‘Design Variety Pack’ or something like that. Basically every car design in the game gets a duplicate, purely for cosmetic reasons. This is so you can have more variety in the game, and also so that you can more immediately tell which cars are the ‘expensive’ SUVs etc, without having to always resort to selecting a color for each design (Which I tend to do, but it feels a bit of a hack…).

Here is a tiny tiny short video clip of the new sedan.

And here is another tiny one showing we toggling between two designs of the same type.

All the code for this is now DONE, and I am thus just awaiting final artwork before I add this as a new piece of DLC. It has to be DLC because actually the art costs are PRETTY HIGH for this sort of thing, because it basically involves redoing a*all* of the car art for the game, as every new design variant may need a different position for each wheel variant, each seat, and so-on, and thats a LOT of art layers, modeled in 3D and rendered in 2 different directions.

In unrelated news, I’ve been working on some tweaks to the UI for the game, and the latest thing I added is this ability to toggle the showroom view to a ‘summary’ view that shows you how many of each car you have, rather than an endless stream of them. This is togglable with a button, but it auto-guesses which view to show you based on how full the showroom is when you first open that window:

I need to have that toggle in there to support both views because there is some functionality ‘lost’ in the summary view, as you then cannot select an individual car to see its views from customers, its applicable discounts, any defects or missing (uninstalled) features etc. Hopefully its all pretty intuitive and I don’t need any extra tutorial stuff for that? (I do worry about needing an extra tutorial window for that new toggle button for the DLC designs…not sure if its obvious or not…).

Anyway…thats Production Line stuff. I am also starting to help out full-time Democracy 4 programmer Jeff, who is doing great stuff on making the crispest, sharpest GUI for a positech game so far. (Its vector based, so smooth scaling and pixel-perfect UI is here!) I know Democracy 4 seems to be taking a long time, but it will be worth it, and we will have screenshots to show the world pretty soon :D

So…over the 3 games in the democracy series we have experimented with various ways to get artwork to represent the various ministers that you appoint in the game to run each section of the country. In Democracy 1 they looked like this:

In Democracy 2 like this:

In Democracy 3 like this:

That last game used some cleverness to kind of randomly generate ministers from a whole series of layers. It was a grand experiment which gave us loads of ministers to choose from but… I don’t think I was ever 100% happy with the results. This wasn’t exactly cutting edge procedural animation etch, but even so I think that on balance, I’d prefer to have a relatively *small* range of interesting, different hand-crafted images to choose from than try and go all procedural on the ass of this problem..

Obviously the only problem this creates is BUDGET, in that Democracy 4 will be happy to run on your 2560 (or higher) res PC, and thus we probably need quite detailed (large) images and thus we probably need to spend a lot of money on artwork for these… *gulp*.

The other issue is that the world is a DIVERSE PLACE, and we expect to sell the game all over the world so…its an impossible problem, and people will yell at us and call us sexist/racist and other terms regardless what we do so with that in mind…

HERE (below: click to enlarge) is a bunch of 30 reference images. They are all REAL world politicians. Some are nice, some are not nice. Some are famous, some really obscure, but I think they look different enough for you to recognize each one when used in a game. They will NOT be exactly like this in the game, these are just ‘reference art’ for painting the actual in-game images.

So what I’m asking is…does this look OK to you? Don’t forget that the world of modern politics is not a utopia. There are not 50% women, or accurate representation of each ethnicity. If you are governing mexico with these cabinet ministers it may look strange, it will also look strange to govern African states with this cross-section, obviously. I know that. If the game looks like being a big hit, I’d love to vastly increase the artwork range to include more diversity. Decent character art is NOT cheap! Be aware that the majority of players will be American or from Western Europe.

I just want initial feedback. Do these look like a bunch of politicians to YOU?

BTW I don’t care if you don’t know WHO they all are, or if you HATE those people…that goes without saying :D I just want feedback on the general ‘tone’. (I’m braced for being a target for absolute hatred from every angle as we develop this game. politics has never been so ANGRY)

In a recent conversation with fellow indies about how I can make production line look better, someone effectively said ‘why are you not using mip maps’, and at first I laughed because, LOL, I use mip maps, and then I remembered that the geniuses at Microsoft decided that D3DXSaveSurfaceToFile should not generate mipmaps so actually…the game didn’t use them for many of its props (the stuff in texture atlases, basically).

So obviously I immediately thought what a dork, generated mip maps and…

it kinda looked way worse. Or did I? I have stared at the pixels so much now I am starting to see things. Here is the game as it currently looks (mip maps enabled in engine, but most of the car graphics and prop graphics not generated with any). (click to enlarge)

And here is it with mip maps enabled. (click to enlarge)

From a distance does it look any BETTER to you? I’m not sure I can really tell much of a difference until I zoom in. Here is evidence of how blocky the current one looks when zoomed in…

versus the mip-mapped one.

Which obviously looks better, but its not *that* simple, because the mip-mapping also creates some artifacts. here is a montage of the current, and lots of mip-mapped styles, with different settings from mip map creation filters, sharpening and softening etc. I just can get those door lines to vanish…

Which possibly means that I need to adjust how those cars are being drawn, or means I have not yet found the perfect set of render options for generating dds mip maps. There is also the possibility that the way I render out my car-component atlases (with a black background) is bleeding onto the mip maps at lower levels, and that this is where the problem is.

Of course all of this is absolutely *a matter of opinion* and thus really annoying, as I am a data-driven guy and like hard facts,. so stuff like this is where I fall down a bit. I don’t like pixellated graphics ( I despise the look of minecraft) but on the other hand I also REALLY hate over-blurred images, which make me think my eyesight is failing or I need new glasses. Its also very tempting to give in to the mistake of zooming in to a static image and declaring the best one to be the one where a zoomed in screenshot looks best, which is WRONG because obviously when zoomed right in, the mip maps are irrelevant anyway. here is the current (non mip mapped) car zoomed in.

Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Is it even worth continuing to fuss over this stuff…does anybody really notice/care? Or should that time be better spent on adding new features to the game?

People do not want to hear this. It will not be popular. There will be denial. I have spent a long time, in phases over the years, in denial about it. I have wanted to believe it was not true, because realizing the truth is often very depressing, and if you are like most passionate and committed indie devs, you associate a lot of your personal self-worth with the success of your game, and you absolutely do not want to hear what I’m about to type. You may disagree, you may REALLY disagree, and for all I know, I may be wrong, I’ve certainly been wrong many times, but I assure you that when I type this, it is absolutely what I believe to be the case right here, right now in 2019 making an indie game for the PC.

The #1 metric for your indie game, in terms of determining its success is how good it is.

There. I said it. Unleash the rage hordes.

There are a whole host of reasons why we may try to argue that this is not true. Maybe luck is the biggest factor (seriously? you can do better than that, especially as some developers,/studios then seem to be weirdly consistently lucky…), Maybe its marketing spend (definitely a factor, but not #1. what was minecraft and flappy birds marketing budget?), maybe its nepotism and who you know? (really? was notch super-connected? was he a regular at GDC parties before minecraft) Maybe its originality (seriously? is rimworld a huge hit because of the original art style?) Maybe its timing? (seriously? when did making a game about income taxes gel with the zeitgeist of gaming tastes then?)

Face facts, we WANT the reason for a games success or lack of success to be something OUTSIDE our control. We want it to be something that we can shake our fist at, and complain about to our friends down the pub. “My game would have been a huge hit, if only I was friends with Mike Bithell, or if I lived in San Francisco, or if I had a bigger art budget, or if I had released it a month/year/decade earlier/later.”

I’ve made loads of games. Seriously loads. Many more than people realize. have you tried Kombat Kars, Space Battle 3001 and Kudos: Rock Legend? Probably not, but I’m responsible for all of them. None of them did that well, and they all kind of suck. I did a game called Planetary Defense, which kinda did ok considering the super-short dev time. It was ok, but the gameplay was fairly shallow. Kudos:Rock legend couldn’t decide if it was serious or casual. Kombat kars was hampered by my total lack of understanding physics programming. Space battle 3001 looked like someones first space game, and played like it too.

There is an absolute art form, to which many devs acquire olympic style skills, to come up with reasons that your game failed. People could write whole books on all the various outside factors that were beyond their control, which meant that inexplicably their last game was not a success. Its quit impressive to see the mental gymnastics. The only factor that is never considered? The actual game. maybe the game is just not good enough. It might be good, but not good ENOUGH.

Its a topic for a whole blog post in itself to explain why if you game is 90% good enough you will get 10% of the sales, when its 95% good enough you get 20% of the sales and when it hits 100% you get 100% and buy a sports car. Just trust me, its true, I have long experience of each stage of that.

And now before you hurl abuse at me, I’ll explain the nuance of what I mean when I say ‘not good enough’. Its probably not polished. The gameplay is not balanced just right. The tutorial is not good enough. The player options are not comprehensive enough. There may not be enough content. The art style may clash. The sound effects may be annoying. The music may be too repetitive, or annoying. There may be big obvious missing features where players expected things to be in the game. There may not be enough tooltips or hotkeys. The translations may be of poor quality. The performance may suck for some players., and so on and so on…

Production Line was started over 3 years ago. about two years ago it was a good game I was very proud of. it got better and better during early access. it was released this year and I considered it to be a very good, polished, high quality game. It got extremely good reviews. I could easily have moved on, but I have not, and I’m still working on it every day. It is not good enough. It is very good, and has made a profit, and sold a lot of copies, but it is not good enough.

I’m on update 76 right now (started working on it today), which is based around changes to some charts and graphs that display data about the component import costs. This is a tiny part of a tiny part of the game, but I am aware that its a bit obscure and confusing and some players have said so. The games reviews are very positive and the vast, vast majority of players have no problem with those charts, or do not care, but some players think they suck, and dispassionately I agree. They need to be made better.

That wont be the last thing I improve or tweak. I’ll be working through my polish list for a long time. As I work more and more on the game, and finesse it more and more, the sales go UP not down (as is the curve with most indie games). I’m not awaiting the imminent demise of the games sales, but the absolute opposite. I’m 90% there and heading towards 100%. Quality is all that matters.

I know this isn’t an option for everyone because: experience & economics. Not everyone has 39 years of coding experience, not everyone has a financial cushion that allows them to spend a bit longer to make a game higher quality. I know this. I know the position I am in, very acutely. The reason for this blog post is not to criticize but inspire. I want people who are struggling as indie devs to do well, and I feel thats best achieved by pointing out the truth.

We all lie about ourselves, even to ourselves. I think I am much funnier and better looking than I really am. I also think I’m thinner than I am, and probably kid myself I have some hair. We also lie about stuff we do, and stuff we make. The problem is, when your own sense of self-worth and your own pride get in the way of seeing reality, you are doing nobody any favors. Your indie game is probably not good enough, and deep down, you know it.