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

An indie strategy game translation business case. lets do the Math(s)

(My wife is triggered when I say ‘math’ because its American. we say maths here in the land of Monty python)

I have a bit of a rule that I try to follow, that when I am trying to make a business decision, I always calculate forwards not backwards. What I mean by that, is I try not to think ‘I’d like a Polish translation of Democracy 4. is it justified?’. That already sets you on the foot of WANTING it to be. The best way to do this is to set out the number that justifies a greenlight, then to work out the equations as best you can, then unemotionally go with the result.

Democracy 4 is currently in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. The classic strategy game translation pattern is EFIGS. I have added Brazilian Portuguese because it was done by someone who got in contact with me direct, so was affordable.

Anyway. Lets look at Russian, Japanese and Polish.

If I look at Democracy 3, which was translated into Russian and Polish but not Japanese, I get the following full-history revenue breakdown. Note that the game did not *ship* initially with those, the languages were added later.

  • Russian revenue $91k gross
  • Japanese revenue $45k gross
  • Polish revenue $89k

Democracy 3 sold super well, over 6 years with 4 expansion packs, so the total revenue is really good, and obviously Democracy 4 revenue right now is WAY lower, but I’m trying to plan ahead.

Steam take 30%, and there are refunds, chargebacks, and sales tax, so we actually get about 60% which gives me:

  • Russian net income $54,600
  • Japanese net income $27,000
  • Polish net income $53,400

The cost of a translation for the game is roughly $7-9k. It can go higher with more interesting languages like Japanese, so lets say the high end and assume $9k. We are likely to add a fair bit of extra policies etc. over time, and need to keep everything up to date so lets budget for a final $10k per language. I also have to implement it, play test it, and deal with any problems that might come up that have not been seen before in earlier languages. This generally isn’t taking me more than a few days each time, but lets push the complete implementation cost for each one to $12k.

This currently assumes that Democracy 4 sells the same as Democracy 3. This may not be true due to the following negatives:

  • People might be sick of politics due to real world events
  • Much more competition in the games market in general
  • Players of democracy 3 may have ‘had their fill’ of politics and decide not to upgrade

However there are also positives:

  • Young people seem much more engaged in the Bernie sanders / alt-right / Jeremy Corbyn / AOC era than they were during the relatively bland time when D3 came out.
  • Steam is bigger, with a larger addressable audience now
  • D3 was a hit, and some people will be easy to persuade to get D4 if they enjoyed the previous game.

I’m not super risk-taking, so lets be pessimistic and assume that the balance of these factors means that the long term income of Democracy 4 (which I should have mentioned is a MUCH better game btw) is likely to be about 66% of that of Democracy 3. That gives us these values:

  • D4 projected Russian net income: $36,036
  • D4 projected Japanese net income: $17,820
  • D4 projected Polish net income: $35,244

There is a big assumption here, and that is that people playing Democracy 3 in country X…were playing it in the local language, and would NOT have bought an English-language version. The way to check this is to look at the percentage of sales in the first year of release that were Chinese for D3, and compare it with the percentage in the most recent year (where Chinese was translated). This is not perfect, and china specific but we get this:

  • Percentage of D3 sales to China year 1: 0.16%
  • Percentage of D3 sales to China last year: 4.33%

Same for Polish:

  • Percentage of D3 sales to Poland year 1: 0.53%
  • Percentage of D3 sales to Poland last year: 2.7%

So we can see that the effect of a native language version boosted Chinese sales and Polish sales, and the relative native-language-applicable revenue was 96% and 80% respectively, so lets split the difference and assign a value of 88% to the revenue:

  • D4 projected income from native Russian: $31,711
  • D4 projected income from native Japanese: $15,681
  • D4 projected income from native Polish: $31,014

This all makes a super-convincing case to do Russian and Polish, and a slim, but arguable case for justifying Japanese. There are of course other factors, and huge margins for error. One factor is the multiplier-flywheel effect. If I could sell an extra 10,000 copies of Democracy 4 tomorrow and get no money at all for it…its kind of in my interests, because then it climbs up the ‘top sellers’ lists and gets more visibility. Also, I may already be selling copies of D4 to english-speaking players in Polad/Japan who cannot recomend it to their non-english speaking gaming friends yet. Thus, the word-of-mouth of the game is currently not at full capacity.

PLUS! Democracy 4 is not just sold on steam, but direct from us (via humble widget), through GoG, Humble Store and the Epic store. Epics royalty rate is famously higher, and that then changes the figures slightly again in my favor…

I shall mull this over, because no indie dev suddenly commissions $30k more contract work without being 100% sure and sleeping on it, but I thought people may be interested in seeing the thought process.

I know that crowd-sourced translations are a thing, we even started it with D4, but progress is too slow, and also too unpredictable. It also runs the risk of multiple contributors having different translations for the same word in various places throughout the game. I think professional translations are a better system. YMMV.

An amazeballs chart of Democracy 4 playtime since initial release.

Thanks to the wonders of excel, and php etc, I can present this amazeballs chart showing both the number of games, and the number of hours in total playtime each day for Democracy 4, my indie political strategy game.

I think people can overanalyze this stuff TBH, and I don’t think there is anything especially amazing to note. This is ALL playthroughs, not just steam copies BTW. There is a very nice bit at the end where the hours played decouples upwards from games played, implying people are playing for longer sessions (which generally you equate with better balance, and happier customers).

I have quite a lot of Democracy 4 stats, but they are much more interesting to me than most people, and the data can be a bit complex. Probably the most interesting stuff is player feedback on what they think the developer should work on next (taken from in-game voting). Here is the data from the latest version:

I do find stuff like that pretty helpful tbh.

Updated Democracy 4 to build 1.19

Here is a full list of changes in this version:

1) Fixed bug on retirement age selecting top slider value.
2) High corruption now impacts the cost of the military.
3) Fixed a bug that caused an unneccesary error message when selecting a language that exists purely in a mod.
4) Re-balancing of some event triggers.
5) Road building changed so that it no longer appears to boost car usage at minimum policy level (moved to default value).
6) Added mouseover information for each point on the historical finance chart.
7) The global economy fluctuates more randomly now.
8) Improvements to some internal balancing systems should make the game swing less suddenly between success and failure.
9) The next turn report now includes a warning that the voters have detected a policy reversal.
10) New policies: Religious Tax, Religious banknotes, State Religion and Ban Women from driving.
11) New country: Spain.
12) Certain event windows such as donor changes, credit rating changes and assassination attempts now have a details button.

Hope ya like em! Some more balancing and country specific tweaks coming over the next few weeks. Don’t forget to vote on your priorities from the main menu, and thanks for supporting the ongoing development of the game!

If for some crazy reason you don’t have a copy yet, grab one here, comes with a steam key:

Thoughts after 5 Years using a pure electric car

I’ve written in the past about buying an electric car, and running it, and what I think, and today to the day is five years since I took delivery of it, so a good time to write down how its been to be driving pure electric all those years.

I drive a 2015 Tesla model S 85D. They don’t make that precise model any more, its kinda of mid way between the low end and high end dual-motor model S. That means its very high performance, but its not ridiculous high performance like you see in youtube videos. For those who care, its 0-60 is 3.8 seconds, and its 518 horsepower. Thats a lot of horses.

When I bought it, this was not only the most expensive car I had ever bought, it was TWICE the cost of the most expensive car I had ever bvought. It was the second time I’d bought a new car, going from a small hybrid lexus to a big pure-electric tesla. I absolutely loved it the minute I got it.

The first thing to mention is that its not exactly the same car as when I got it. I had a few people use my referral link to buy cars so I got given 2 kids-size teslas (one I gave away to charity, one is in my office) plus some ‘arachnid’ wheels, which I guess look a bit cooler. I mostly got em (for free) because it was a plot point in an episode of silicon valley.

As well as getting new wheels, very very recently I gave in and upgraded the screen and the media-computer in the car. TBH this is overpriced (£2k), but in my personal experience was worth it. The graphics chip in the original 2015 model S was just too crap given the insane size of the screen, and it also meant that the screen could be buggy, voice-response was spotty, it was prone to the odd bug (unconnected to the actual car, you can even reboot the media unit while driving…)

Early Teslas like mine have a tendency to flake out due to an old chip that needs replacing. Theoretically you can pester tesla to replace it under warranty, but that leaves you with the same GPU and screen, and I was happy to pay for an upgrade.

During the time I’ve owned the car, thats pretty much all its cost me. Its been serviced twice (in FIVE years), and both times nothing was wrong at all. They check brakes and so on, but with a pure electric car the brakes are used very rarely due to the regen braking. The car has been for an MOT test once, and passed perfectly. It *did* need the front door handles replacing in the first year, but that was under warranty.

TBH the biggest cost of owning the car has been accident-prone driving and having it cleaned. I got a bunch of scrapes and a small dent in the first year, which needed a specialist body shop because the body is aluminum. Then last year I spectacularly screwed up by reversing when the front of the car had settled (air suspension down) onto a kerb by a parking space, which practically pulled the whole front of the car off. Ooops. That was pricey. My fault… BTW insurance is still stupidly low, about £470 a year, even after I recently made a £2k accident claim for the bumper thing. (I’m 51 BTW which likely reduces my insurance cost, also rural UK has less auto-thefts).

shiny body, fancy wheels…

The only other issue I have had is that the glue that the number plate is stuck on with started to fail slightly after four years, so it slightly bent outwards (not really visibly), and this interfered with the calibration of a parking sensor. I ended up just screwing the number plate on myself instead of relying on glue (you cant really tell). The cleaning cost is due to it being aluminum and not really safe for automatic carwashes. I get someone to come to my house, to save me time. Its expensive but super worth it.

In terms of experience, the car still feels like new. If I’d never seen one, and it was delivered to my house tomorrow, I’d assume this was an amazing cutting edge high tech supercar released in 2020. Its still pretty much unbeatable. The new model S has more range, and you can pay more to get the 0-60 time even quicker, but honestly who cares. This one is dangerously fast as it is. The range in practice is about 240-250 miles, given British weather and roads, and TBH thats fine for me. I’ve never really found myself cursing its range. Supercharging is fast!

When we first got the car, the supercharger network was very limited. Since then they have added a bunch, especially on the M3 and M4 motorways, which I use now and then. Sadly the really new superchargers use a different standard, and although I *could* pay to have mine adapted to the new ones, I likely will not bother. In addition to the supercharger network getting better, they have also released a stupidly long list of software upgrades to the car. It has numerous silly and cool features I won’t bore you with it. All software updates are always free.

Elon Musk Promoting "Lifestyle" Not Climate Help, Says Singapore - Bloomberg

Luckily, as an early buyer, my supercharging is also free for life. This sounds amazing until you do the math. Filling up my car paying retail (5p/kwh) electricity costs me £12.75. That gives me about £0.05p a mile to run. Superchargers cost more, but you use them really rarely. I reckon that perk earns me about £100 a year tops. I also get free premium connectivity (free Spotify with voice control!) which is actually more valuable I think.

In terms of reliability, performance, and general driving experience, the car is as awesome as when I bought it. There are no discernible squeaks or creaks or bumps. It feels new. An app I have on my phone (tesla core) says my battery degradation after 5 years is 2.69%. Yup, 2.69% of battery capacity lost over five years… BTW I’ve done 38,000 miles so far.

I guess the best question to ask someone in these circumstances, is would you make the same choice again, and will you keep it? To the first, The answer is actually….not sure. I Bought mine because the Tesla model 3 was not out in the UK at the time. I live down single-lane dirt track roads and the model S is WIDE and LONG for rural UK. But thats the ONLY reason that would make me choose the 3 over the S. I also really like the big dual-screen setup for the model S.

We do not yet have the Tesla model Y in the UK, but when we do, I may be very tempted to trade in my car for that. My model S has lost roughly half its value in 5 years, which means its still quite a chunky trade-in value if I wanted to swap to a new model Y. I’d do this in order to get the new autopilot hardware (something too involved to upgrade for mine), and dramatically longer range and charge time, and also the much smaller car. I would miss the dual screens though, and probably be a bit sad to lose free supercharging and connectivity. ho hum. Mine is also a ‘panda-nose’ early model, might even be considered vintage one day…

I do have to say that there is NO CAR on the market other than a tesla that would vaguely tempt me away from what I have. If I won a Porsche taycan in a lottery I’d sell it the next day, same with the Audi e-tron or anything else. The supercharger network + autopilot is a complete game changer, and only Tesla has those. I’d never even consider a non-electric car of any make or any value. Smelly, unreliable, expensive to maintain, awkward to fill-up, less safe and more expensive to run, plus they belch out fumes and contribute to climate change. No thanks.

Hollywood and Gaming is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing

Look at me, I know some shakespeare. Actually I probably got it from star trek, whatever.

For my sins, I enthusiastically agreed to watch a movie on the Disney channel (gotta make that Mandalorian subscription worthwhile) for kids called Artemis Fowl. Its a sort of harry-potter meets enders game action adventure about faeries. yeah. I didnt know that when I agreed to watch it. But apparently a popular series of kids books, so there ya go. Harry potter was ok, even His Dark Materials is kinda ok, in a generic lord-of-the-rings clone kinda way so this will be fine right?

No, it was BAD. it was REALY REALLY BAD. I’m not the only person who thinks so. I could whine about the plot, and the script and the casting and the voices (TBH the actors did their best), but what really ruined it for me was the budget. The budget was way TOO BIG.

Judy dench and her army of faerie shocktroopers err…?

You might not think having a big budget can ever be a problem, but maybe its an age thing, when you hit my considerable age (older than Elrond), you have just seen SO MANY CGI BATTLES and so many ‘amazing’ computer generated worlds that they actually start to become bland. After a while you just stop seeing it. The familiar becomes invisible.

We have a really nice view out of our front door, and occasionally delivery drivers on a summers day will say ‘its an amazing view isn’t it?’ and we are momentarily confused, thinking what? However good something is, however amazing it is, familiarity breeds dismissal. Economists call this ‘diminishing marginal utility‘. It applies to movies too, and to video games.

The original Star Wars movie probably had about the right mix of amazing special effects and….not special effects. The number of shots in that movie involving ILM is not that high. As a result when something SFX-like happens, you can legitimately feel the need to go WOOOO. Like when the millennium falcon enters hyperspace. The vast majority of the film is based around characters, plot, and cool production design/costume design.

To quote a famous expert in chaos theory:

“so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should

Sequel Bits: Harry Potter Prequel, Jurassic World 2, and More

Which is so true of SFX and CGI in movies, and also I think games as well. Sometimes you just have TOO BIG A BUDGET, and a desire to just hose it all over the screen. I still remember my confusion, and frankly disgust at playing one of the civilization games that instead of having a simple text-based tutorial, came with a jankily animated ‘virtual sid meier’ to explain things. WTF? Who asked for this? who needed this? where were all the comments complaining that the game was too complex, but would be fine if a 3d animated version of the designer slowly talked through each dialog box?

This is a big problem for ANY part of life where money is involved. Apples market cap has accelerated like crazy since steve jobs died. They have SO MUCH MONEY and have thus slowed their pace of innovation to practically nothing. Oh look, now the iphone has no headphone socket. Now its a bit bigger. Now its a bit smaller. Errr… guys shall we splurge it all on a big headquarters building instead?

Inside The $5 Billion Apple Headquarters - YouTube
$5 billion of shareholders money spent well I’m sure.

Compare the catastrophic waste, failure, delays and nonsense that defines the US governments efforts to fund space exploration through the likes of the ‘space launch system]’ (swimming with cash) versus the scrappy ‘we have no budget’ spacex. Who has made more progress?

Sometimes too much money makes people do crazy things, makes them so keen to prove how big their budget or market cap is, that they act irrationally. Not only could artemis fowl have been made for a tenth of its $125 MILLION budget, it would almost certainly have been a better film as a result. More room for character development, more room for decent plotting. You cannot have a nice emotional scene that deepens the characters motivations when they are surrounded by a million dollars a minute of CGI. Just ask George Lucas. Same director did A New Hope and The Phantom Menace…

I think its worth considering how this applies to videogames. We too have entered an era of fantastic budgets, huge development teams and incredible spectacle… but although we probably don’t have the problem *AS BAD* as Hollywood does in terms of just shoehorning budget in front of our customers to impress them, we are certainly heading that way and occasionally flirting with it.

I have NO IDEA how much it cost to make Minecraft before Microsoft bought it, but you can bet its not a lot. There was no 300-man art teams designing those cubes. There was no symphony orchestra making the music (did it have any?) there was no army of Hollywood actors doing voiceovers…. and yet bizarrely it become a staggering success.

Is Minecraft good or bad for kids?
This did not cost a trillion dollars

For the price of a mere $100 million, you can make an amazingly high budget video game, or I dunno… a hundred REALLY well funded video games. Maybe one of them will take off, angry-birds style. The choice is between an all-eggs-in-one-basket strategy, or diversification. I know which would help me sleep at night.

I think there is a very strong argument, financially, economically, from a business-strategy POV, that companies are better off making more games with smaller budgets. Clearly the heads of studios disagree, and given their bazillions, can I really claim they are wrong? But even if you think I AM wrong on that basis, then I still think there is an artistic argument to be made.

Huge budgets do make art better, and they can very very easily make it worse. Would handing an extra $10 million to George Lucas have made ‘A new hope’ a better movie? or would it have made it more like the phantom menace? Is the relationship between the star wars movie budgets and their value as art in ANY way positively correlated with the budget?

I find myself increasingly ANGRY when i’m watching a movie and I can see the money literally dripping off the screen. A character arrives in 19th century London. Ok cool…what do they do there. NO! WAIT! STOP! You do not understand, you have to be MADE to SEE just how much money we spent on this establishing shot. Did you not SEE all of the CGI horses and carts? did you not count how many actors had 19th century costumes on as they walked down the street? Are you not impressed?

single shot in death valley used to be THE mos eisley establishing shot

I just don’t need this. I was fine in the way Mos Eisley looked before the special edition added all the establishing stuff. It added nothing, except cost. But even that looks tame given the way Hollywood sprays cash around now. The tendency now is to have a million dollars (or way more) spent on an establishing shot while the titles appear. Why? What does this add?

My point here I guess is to encourage people not to do this with games. We don’t need it. We really don’t. By all means hire a lot of people to do better writing (most game writing sucks), or to do more QA, or to work on customer support, but the instant, automatic response to having a big budget is to splurge it on big-name voiceovers, ten hours of orchestral music, and FMW and cutscenes that go on for hours, and hours and hours.

And please remember, its not illegal, its not immoral, and it doesn’t make you a failure, or a fool for uttering the completely forbidden words ‘I don’t think we really need to spend that much to make this’.