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

Two orders of magnitude thinking

So… I just watched the neuralink video with the monkey playing pong, if you havent seen it already, watch this:

Now you picked your jaw up off the floor, lets think about how stuff like this can even happen, and what we can learn from how things have got to this point… The main takeaway here is not that neuralink have managed to vastly accelerate progress in the field of curing paralysis (or I guess…working around it), but the approach they are taking. They often talk about some seemingly minor things in their presentations:

  • There is no visible scar on the monkey.
  • The device is charged wirelessly using a baseball cap!
  • The surgical equipment that puts the implant in is very fast, and should be a very simple procedure (relatively).

This is a BIG deal, because its what we might call two orders of magnitude thinking. This seems to be something that Elon Musk does all the time, and I think its amazing and worth learning from, regardless what field you work in. When you look at spacex, neuralink and tesla, the thinking behind the company strategy is absolutely different to the strategy behind every other company I am aware of, because its this:

Don’t work out how to go from where we are to the next thing. Work out the ultimate impossible goal, even if its 100x harder, then make direct plans for that, regardless what it takes.

SpaceX is the clearest example. All other rocket companies had an idea that they would try to make a rocket as good as, or better than the current examples. maybe slightly cheaper, maybe slightly larger, maybe a slightly bigger payload. If they were really ambitious, maybe double the payload, or half the cost. The spacex solution was not along those lines. It was ‘given we need to establish a self-sustaining colony on mars, whats needed to achieve that?’ and the ridiculous answer that comes back is 100% reusable rockets, that land, refuel then take off within an hour.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy successful in commercial debut – Spaceflight Now

Looked at from the POV of NASA, thats absolutely insane, yet they get closer every year. reusable rockets (at least 1st stage reusable) are now a reality, in fact the norm, and totally reusable rockets should be perfected within a year. Nobody would even begin to attempt this, if they took a standard “where do we go from here” approach.

Neuralink is another example. They are not trying to push forward current tech regarding solutions for the paralyzed. They are thinking ‘how do we make a neural lace from the Iain M Banks novels’, and then working on the tech, the infrastructure, and the processes required to make that a reality. Elon musk wants every human on earth to have the option to have a brain-computer interface. It has to be safe, invisible, affordable, routine. This seems impossible and yet…here we are…

Tesla is a third. They were not aiming to make a few electric sports cars for rich jerks. They were aiming to completely transform the entire car industry. Thats why they moved as fast as possible from the roadster to the model S, to the 3, to the Y and soon to an even cheaper model. This is the plan all along, not even secretly, its been posted online years and years ago. And now? not just building one insanely big factory but two, at the same time, Not aiming to boost sales by 5 or 10% but 50-100% each year, every year, because *thats what it takes* to achieve an impossible end goal.

Tesla Texas Gigafactory drone construction update - DroneDJ

So how does this mindset help anybody reading this?

Its a mental trick. And it works. I use a lot of mental tricks. I used to have a slide in talks I gave showing the troops in a landing craft at the D-Day landings. These are people I visualize when I’m stuck, or feeling slack, or demotivated. I put myself in their position and compare whatever relatively trivial challenge I have to theirs. This mental trick is different, and probably less harrowing, but its similarly effective.

This mental trick is in thinking backwards. You do NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES frame your decision making, your motivation, or your plans based on where you are now. Thats irrelevant, whether it be money, location, knowledge, whatever. You totally ignore where you are now, and work backwards from where you absolutely HAVE to end up, in the timescale of your choice. You plot backwards, writing down the decisions that must have been taken, the action that must have taken place in order to explain how you ended up achieving your goal.

So for example, you want to make a comfortable career out of indie game development. Thats fine, but work out what that looks like and go backwards. Maybe in your country that means earning a reliable $200,000 a year before tax. Ok, fine, whats needed in terms of sales for you to do that reliably? how does that gross up to give a figure before steam/apple/googles cut? How much more is needed to account for hardware/software/subcontractors etc?

Do not compare where you are, to whats needed at the end goal, because if you do, you will give up. its natural. The trick is to assume its already happened, and that you have no say in it. Maybe when you progress back and back and back from the $200,000 a year in 5 years to today, you realize you need to ship a game that sells 5,000 copies THIS year. without fail. Maybe that will take you 2000 hours to make this year and you have a full time job. So thats maybe 8 hours a day you need to find every day this year. How is that even possible?

The point is, it doesn’t matter, you have to assume it is possible, and then everything else is irrelevant. Maybe you work on your game every lunch hour, and every morning before work, and late into the night every night for a year, and thats how you do it. Maybe you remortgage the house, sell the car, sell a bunch of other stuff and take a six month sabbatical instead? Your circumstances dictate the path.

The point I’m trying to get across, is that if you work backwards, taking extreme measures to achieve your goals starts to feel justified, understandable, and expected. If you work forwards, the same actions seem obsessive, extreme, even insane.

99% of people reading this will think I’m nuts, and that nobody should be that obsessed with work. Thats absolutely fine, its aimed at that 1% who keep failing to achieve big goals and need a trick to help them do it, and absolutely want that goal enough to do whats needed.

Some thoughts on the evil that is… *comments*

I think a lot about how I think. I’m ridiculously obsessed with this topic, and it kinda screws up my brain. I often have no idea what I think, or what I want, because I am so busy over-analyzing my decisions. Back when I was super into marketing, I read a fuckton of books about decision making and influence, to see what makes people decide to play, or click or buy. I probably got a bit too into it, because now I find it hard to just *want* a thing and then just *buy* it, without analyzing if I really need it or if its irresponsible, or if its good value, yada yada…

Anyway, despite that annoyance, it does yield some benefits in terms of me noticing changes in my own behavior and my attitudes over the years. One of the more weird things I have noticed is how successfully silicon valley billionaires have persuaded me to think differently about information.

Back in the pre-internet days, I would read a book or a newspaper, and think about what it said. I would turn the topic over in my mind, dwell on the facts, or the arguments made, consider how persuasive they were, or were not, and think about how this new opinion/commentary/information could improve my life in some minor way. Maybe I just read something about physics. Now I know a bit more about physics! maybe an opinion piece on tax rates…now I have a more refined sense of my own views on tax rates… whatever.

I think the important thing here is…the time. The actual reading of new information is only the gateway into learning from/absorbing it. If what you read is good, it will stimulate a lot of thought. Some reflection on what the deeper implications are, maybe discovering links to other views or information in related areas. You have *improved* from reading the information, but also mostly from the post-reading consideration and analysis of it.

Say for example you read ‘the communist party manifesto’ by Karl marx/Engels or ‘Capitalism’ by ayn rand. (FWIW I’ve read both! … sort of, got bored with 2nd one) You probably get triggered by the opinions in one or the other of these books, maybe really angry, maybe you think those views cannot hold up to scrutiny etc… But left alone with a paper book, you cannot *react*, you have to consider. You have to analyze, you have to allow deeper thought, and reflection.

But not now.

Now we read everything online, and even if there are NO comments on the article we read, you can bet a site like slashdot/hackernews/reddit/facebook is where we saw the link, and there will be tons of comments for us to join in with there.

There is now NO TIME set aside for considering what is being read. You MUST comment. You MUST read other peoples comments. I feel it too, this is not me being superior, I feel that pull too. I have read something that I have an instant opinion on. I MUST SHARE MY HOT TAKE IMMEDIATELY. In many cases, who really needs to RTFA (read the fucking article) when you can post your half-baked instant reaction simply to the buzzwords in the headline. Do NOT think, COMMENT!

Someone Is Wrong On The Internet. - Pellet On Pellet - Field Target

Of course this is bad, because it means 5% of what we read is thought-out and researched, and considered, and 95% is hot-takes responding to (if we are lucky) the content of the article. I wish there was a way to auto-track how much of what I read is journalism vs random strangers reactions to journalism. I suspect the ratio is very worrying. (BTW I am not elevating ‘journalists’ here, I am referring to any considered, thought-out piece of writing, and actual *article* instead of a single-paragraph hot take).

Much of what is true feels wrong. We tend to overlook this, but some thought shows it to be true. Here are some things that I am led to believe to be true, but which I subconsciously suspect must be wrong, intuitively.

  • The Earth is a sphere.
  • Aeroplanes, made of metal (which is heavy), can fly.
  • Quantum entanglement is a thing.
  • You can raise a tax rate, and then take in less money from that tax.
  • The earth is hurtling through space at an incredible speed.

If I was not aware of any of these things, and saw them posted on the internet, I would likely have to fight an immediate urge to respond with my ‘hot take’. “FFS metal is HEAVY, no special shape, or strapping it to an engine will make it fly like a bird. Have you ever SEEN a bird? the article is clearly BS. This so-called aeroplane doesn’t even flap its wings FFS. what bullshit. Downvote.

Exaggeration for hilarious comic effect indeed. But there is a nugget of truth here. We have been conditioned, by the clickbait seeking engagement-time metric maximising billionaires of silicon valley, to ENGAGE with content, but not to critically consider it, or appraise it. That 95% vs 5% metric is why this is the case. There are simply not enough ad-views generated by reading a single article, but if we can twist that into a 50-page comment thread where people post hot takes, we can get hundreds of ad views of ‘engagement’ for the cost of a single piece of clickbait!

Comments are sometimes good, and the point. A forum about a video game where people share feedback or discuss strategies. and make suggestions is good. Thats a deliberate decision to set up a forum to discuss a topic, but comments on the news are often cancerous and awful. Facebook, Reddit, Slashdot and the rest provide ZERO actual content, they just link to other people’s work, and then monetize peoples hot takes, with a built-in voting system to encourage partisanship and arguments. People get so invested in the comments, they forget what the article was about. The article was the hand-grenade thrown into the room by silicon valley so they can monetize the bloodbath it generates.

We should fight the urge to comment on everything we see. I struggle with this every day. You can never know the pain I suffer of reading an article suggesting hydrogen powered cars make sense, or that writing your own game engine is pointless. *must resist*. Yet I think its better if we all do so. Do not comment. blog your own rebuttal. Think about it. put the effort in. Generate real content, not hot takes.


This blog post isn’t about democracy 4. I live, breath, sleep and think Democracy 4 all the time, so I need to escape from it and talk about life stuff for a bit. Don’t worry, I’m still working on it (including weekends!) and jeffs back next week…

I turned fifty years old last year. That means I’m very likely half way to death, even being optimistic. I’m not *unhealthy* but I’m not super-fit either, but frankly I think I’m WAY more likely to be killed by climate change than old age. BTW so are you. You really should do something about that. Like now, super urgently. The world is literally burning.

The 2019 California wildfires caused less damage than the last two ...


So fifty is a weird age to be. Its not really old enough to think about retirement, but you are definitely old enough to be bored with a lot of young people’s concerns and things. I’m married, my career has gone very very well, and I have paid off the house and car. These are things that people fight to achieve their whole life, and I seem to have done them. Normally, someone my age would have kids at university or starting their career, and would obsess about that, but we don’t have kids.

I see a lot of people around me, a similar age or older, who seem to ease very comfortably into this position, and spend their time getting involved in the minutiae of local politics, or stuff like the best village competition (yes its not a hot fuzz joke, its REAL), or they take up golf, or more likely where I live, shooting pheasants or going horse riding etc… None of this is for me.

I spend an hour a day playing Battlefield V with friends, chatting about politics and TV and games and work/code as we gun down the enemy. I’m am definitely the oldest in the group, and am aware that I am basically straddling two social circles. Relatively young game developers, and retired countryfolk who are drawing their pensions.

This is strange, and makes me feel ‘disconnected’, which is something I feel in general anyway, for long tedious medical reasons I wont bore you with. I am in a the bizarre position of being more of a workaholic than anybody I know, despite being quite capable of retiring, thanks not least to the amazing performance of my stock-market picks. When I wrote this just over a year ago:

Tesla stock was about $220. Its currently $2,080. Thats just amazing. And other stocks I like (nvidia, paypal, square, microsoft, amazon) have all done well too (not AS well but…).

Combine being very lucky on the stock market with being a workaholic who loves making indie games, and has been around the industry for over 20 years, and most people assume I would spend my days like this:

Great Gatsby Decor

Which to an extent… I do, but frankly covid has really torpedoed that. Even though I’m happy to go to restaurants now, many of my friends are not. I wouldn’t go to the cinema, there are no plays or outdoor events happening (although we did go to see 2 drive-in movies), and foreign travel is pretty much on hold right now. (not a bad thing, given climate change)

Something all this makes me realize is that the benefits of various parts of life are valued very badly, and it takes a long time (50 years!) for me to really re-evaluate them. A lot of people value financial success very highly, but beyond a certain point, its impact on your actual quality of life is negligible. If positechs income doubled tomorrow, it likely wouldn’t make any impact on me at all. I love where I live, and have no real need for a *bigger* house. I already have my dream car, and I’m not one for luxury watches or bespoke suits or whatever the fuck people spend money on. I suspect the real equation is like this:

Once you are not in poverty, and you are not thinking about how to pay the bills… your happiness races up, but once you get to be a fifty year old guy running his own company with some decent savings… what more is there? Global domination? a super-yacht? why?

When I look at the things I’ve done in my life that I’m really happy about, or remember fondly, or proudly, very few of them are related to any form of conventional ‘success’. I was very pleased with a talk I gave at GDC once, mostly because it went well by the standards I had set for it (people laughed), I have no idea if it helped me sell any games or made money. The charity stuff I’ve done has given me a huge amount of happiness, disproportionate to the money spent. I do miss going to games events in the US, mostly because I miss some friends I have made over there, not really because of any business reasons.

Realizing you are at least half way to death is a strange experience. You start thinking in concrete terms about what else you really have time for. You also think about your youth and how wasted a lot of it seems. I spent a CRAZY amount of time in pubs getting very drunk and talking about…god knows what. Certainly nothing interesting. I have spent a phenomenal amount of hours just playing scales to a metronome on my guitar.

I have come to the realisation that one of the best things in life is to be good at a thing, and to do that thing. Whether or not that leads to huge success, critically or financially, is almost irrelevant as long as you can pay the bills. There is a sense of calm, happiness and ‘flow’ that comes from being skilled, and using that skill, that gives you a zen-like experience of inner-joy that no rolex watch of ferrari can replicate.

…which is kind of why I am working on Democracy 4. I am good at this. In theory, I don’t have to do it. Unless the stock market suddenly crumbles, I could just take a few years off, play golf, and argue about thing on the local village council. I could mow the lawn, very often (god it needs it…). I could sunbathe in the garden, and read novels. But, this is just not me.

This is also a year in which I’ve come to realize that yeah, I’m definitely on the autistic spectrum. Thats cool, I don’t mind. I was once told that I was ‘probably a high functioning autistic’, and I think thats true. Rather than let it bother me, I’m happy to lean into it a bit. If I want to spend time optimizing the rendering code in a game where 99% of player-votes say ‘the framerate is fine’, then thats fine. I can write C++ to relax, no point in fighting that, or denying it.

It seems crazy that it takes 50 years to learn to just be yourself, but we are surrounded by so much social pressure to behave/act/desire one thing or another, that it can be really hard top just sit and think about what you actually want. Its definitely worth doing.

Positive by default

I read a few replies to some tweets recently…and ended reporting half of them for abuse. Not replies to me, but to pretty famous people. Apparently nobody with over a certain threshhold of twitter followers can say anything without hateful abuse, insults, death threats, and the like being pasted to them. Some people stalk a celebrity and reply to every tweet of theirs with the same post, hoping to get the orgasmic thrill of thinking that person will see something that upsets them.

These people are sick, and need treatment, but mostly they need banning from twitter. Twitter of course doesnt care, because the platform is deliberately built to encourage hate.

This is a choice, and a bad one (for society) because it could quite happily have been based on a theme of positivity and inspiration and community instead. There is an assumption that all online communities collapse immediately into a horrific hate-fest because of human nature, but I don’t think people have seriously tried to do the opposite.

It would be trivial to train an AI (or even simpler) to bias the promotion of social media posts based on some analysis of tone. At the very least, you can hide, ban or even just auto-downvote posts containing negative terms and swear words, or in all-caps. If anything, twitter does the opposite, but thats a choice.

We live now in a society so corrupted by social media, that it has spilled over into life in general, especially the media. I recently watched (at my wifes suggestion) the disney film ‘moana‘. Not my kinda film, but it was ok, and a few days later I satill have this catchy, chirpy ‘your welcome’ song in my head. Whats notable about that film for me, is that its upbeat. Its positive. There is a happy ending, and not a lot of suffering or depression or hatred in it. Its sad that this sticks out, but a simple browse of whats trending on netflix shows you how unusual this is.

Dwayne Johnson's Moana-Obsessed Daughter Is Still Unaware Of One ...

Sadly we take these attitudes into our daily lives. We carry around the moods and thoughts and opinions of social media and netflix into social interactions. When I chat to my buddies each day they often say ‘whats todays twitter drama’ and we know that means accusations, or hatred or abuse. Its never ‘whats hilarious and exciting and awesome on twitter today’. We are all looking for todays 15 minutes of hate, not thanks, or celebration.

Its difficult for someone like me to preach about how everyone should be positive because 1) I’ve done very well out of life financially and 2) I actually have depression, so it can seem kinda ironic :D. However I shall try!

I read a good book last year about how everything in the world is getting better and better for all of us, and how things are amazing. Its sounds like bullshit but its true. By almost any metric, society just keeps getting better. Less hunger, Less disease, Less poverty, More education. We live in a time of relentless progress and awesomeness. This never gets on the news, but thats a CHOICE. We can choose to focus on whats good and awesome in the world if we choose to.

Even if you are on a low income, or unemployed right now, things are really not too bad compared with almost any point in history. Even given my own life, I would DEFINITELY prefer to be poor and unemployed right now than in the very early 1990s when I was both those things. We didnt have the internet to entertain/amuse/inform or educate us. Unemployment in the UK was pretty bad then (way worse than now). I had to learn computing by trips to the library as I couldnt afford the books. I’d listen to music on a casette player as I walked to the library. No mp3s, no spotify. shitty, poor quality clunky casettes.

Audio Tapes Vs. HD Audio?

The thing is, we DO live in great times, if you can brush apart the waves of monetized negativity and try to be positive by default. We are actually making phenomenal strides in renewable energy. Computers have got so laughably fast we all have a personal supercomputer we can talk to and it talks back. wtf! We can even carry them in our pockets and communicate with our friends wherever they are.

Just pause and imagine covid lockdown in 1990. No internet. No mobile phones. You cant see your friends, you cant even talk to them unless your parents let you use *the phone* for a short (expensive) period. You have to amuse yourself with books, a very, very primitive games console if you are super-lucky, or watch whatever your parents choose to watch from the 3 or 4 channels of terrestrial TV. And no, its not HD.

TV Whirl - ITV Teletext

Things are awesome now. People are landing rockets on boats to re-use them so even rural people can have super-fast internet soon. You can buy solar panels and use them to partially power your own house. Take that energy companies! There are a bazillion channels of entertainment in superb picture quality, and endless fun entertainment on youtube for everyone. You can make and sell video games FROM YOUR HOME, and you can learn how to do it from home too, for free.

And yes… believe it or not, you likely live in a society that is WAY less sexist, WAY less racist and WAY more accepting of people of all kinds than twenty or thirty years ago. Its telling that its totally unacceptable for me to even mention the derogatory words used for people of color routinely when I was a child. Sure, sexist, racist and transphobic people exist, but oh my god, the progress on these issues has been amazing.

But lastly, the thing that REALLY annoys me is that saying ‘hey, life is pretty cool isn’t it’ is something you will get ABUSE for posting on twitter. Its literally described as a ‘bad take‘. This is fucked up. People are so obsessed with doomscrolling and ‘calling out’ and hurling abuse they are actually subconciously banishing positivity from their lifes. This is nuts.

So yeah, life is good. Not perfect, but then it never was and never will be, but life is good. Dont be afraid to think it, or say it, or even tweet it. Its not a ‘bad take’ if its what you think.

Heres a final feel-good thingy. I love solar panels, and I like doing the odd charity thing. We just handed over a check for £10k (yes an actual check!) to our local primary school (which has an eco-school group and have been protesting about climate change), so they could have 32 solar panels installed on the roof. They gave me this cool certificate :D. I’ll take some drone pics of the fitting of them in a month or two when they get installed :D.

On social media…

Social media is awful.

Not exactly news, but something I’ve been mulling over a lot lately. I’m old enough, and techy enough to remember the very early days of the internet, where you dialed in with a 28k modem and paid by the minute to be online. In many ways the experience sucked, slow downloads (google was initially popular because its homepage loaded quickly), no possibility of video, and only real maniacs bought and sold stuff online.

But in many ways, it was much better then than now. There were few people online, and very little commercialisation, so nobody tried to monetize the net. Accessing it was slow and expensive, so encouraging people to be online all the time was impossible. There was no social media, and there was a thing called ‘netiquette’ that people actually (mostly) took seriously.

In 2020, the internet is an absolute cesspit, bringing out the absolute worst in human behavior. Its almost impossible to enjoy surfing the web without being sucked into social media. Every site wants you to log in with your social media usernames, so you can be tracked, analyzed, categorised and above-all, monetized. Clearly at some point, someone realized that the one thing that keeps people online (and thus seeing ads) was anger. Anger is the ultimate emotion. Get people angry and they will keep posting, retweeting liking, replying, hating.

The lack of moderation on youtube, twitter, reddit, facebook is not an accident. its not penny-pinching or ineptitude or cost cutting. It is deliberate. Its trivial to have a blocklist of 1,000 most common abusive terms, and shadow ban anybody for 24 hours if they use >1 of those per day. Trivial. 5 minutes coding. no cost, easy. But that might reduce monetization, so it will never, ever happen.

I know people with 100+ word blocklists for twitter who say they still find browsing the site infuriating and abusive. This is insane. We have all got addicted to anger, fury, yelling at strangers online. It affects all our mental health, and achieves nothing. How many people’s opinions are changed by twitter hashtags? if it was >0 Bernie Sanders would be president and Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister.

The weirdest thing is I have found it affecting my own thinking in a stupid and unproductive way. Not only do I sometimes see something or do something that makes me think ‘ooh! this would make a great tweet’, instead of just enjoying/laughing at it, I actually feel a real *pull* now to ‘engage’ on social media.

A few nights ago I watched a fairly good(ish) thriller movie. Last night I rewatched The Rise of Skywalker. I could tell you what I thought about both of them if you like… but honestly why do you care? There are professional movie reviewers out there. I’ve almost forgotten what its like to read an article/listen to music/watch some TV and NOT tell the whole world what was good/bad/interesting/silly about it. Look at me! I watched a TV show, here is my HOT TAKE that you all NEED right now. How bad does it get? I ate a sausage roll this lunchtime. it was ‘meh’. OMG HOLD THE FUCKING FRONT PAGE.

In some ways, this is harmless, but in others its just a massive waste of human potential. How much time in my life has been wasted reading random stranger’s hot takes on the new X men movie, or hearing what they think of Socialism/Superhero movies/Elon Musk/Cats vs Dogs? How has my life been enriched at any point, in even a small way, by seeing hashtags? Why do I care what Sylvia in Chicago thinks about Trans bathroom rights? Why should I care if Donald in Michigan is a ‘proud trump supporter’, how the fuck is it neccesary for me to know what random strangers think about fringe issues and conspiracy theories…?

I’ve had a blog for a long time (a REAL long time), and I think its a much better place for writing down thoughts. They can be long form, actually edited (omg imagine the technology), they can’t be taken down by some silicon valley dicks who think they can censor the internet (this is my own wordpress install on a server my company rents), and if I dont like peoples replies or comments I can just fucking delete them, or even ban the commenters. I think I vastly prefer blogging to social media.

So I have totally abandoned facebook, (I have an account purely to message people in my village, and manage my existing pages for games), and am trying to restrain myself from using twitter. (I have zero belief that using twitter really gives you any kind of real business benefits in 2020. All those game devs retweeting your game announcement are just gamedevs, they also are followed only by each other. Its not going to move the needle in terms of marketing.) In a perfect world, I’ll have disappeared from all social media in a few months time, and be happier and healthier for it. meanwhile people can continue hurling abuse at each other without me needing to know about it.

I normally tweet about new blog posts, but seriously, why should I do that?