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My Bumpy Road THROUGH Game Development

[Preface to the preface]

This is the first blog since I started writing that I failed to deliver in the month that it was for. I wrote the preface but couldn’t finish the body, so I posted a ‘coming soon, sorry for delay’ notice in its place (so I could still have the January date for the post once I edited the content in) figuring that nobody would ever see it anyway. After all, nobody ever comes to read my new blogs until I go promote them, or so say my analytics, at least.

Figures then, that over 130 people, multiples of times my average blog readership, would come to read this post and see nothing! Sorry about that, folks. If you did come back, I hope it’s worth the wait. Sorry for the delay. I haven’t the same free time as I once did (it used to be ‘little’, now it’s ‘extremely little’), but mostly I just found this getting very lengthy, with me often having to go look things up, and overall it was just difficult to write at times.

In terms of length, I could easily have made this a 2 or 3 part post, but actually it just had to be one thing. I needed it done in one go. You can read it in 2 or 3 parts if you wish, of course. I also decided not to edit too much for length because this isn’t exactly an ordinary post, and everything in it is worth being said in one way or another.

[End of preface to the preface. Beginning preface.]

As promised in December, this month’s post is a follow-up to my June 2015 blog “My Bumpy Road To Game Development”.

It’s to serve as a check-in with my supporters (and with myself), a personal exercise in gratitude (and a learning experience), a case-study in games entrepreneurship, a peek behind the curtain for aspiring game dev students (or those wondering if they should just skip the degree), an update on Sons of Sol, or just whatever you get out of it.

Hopefully it’s at least a good story. I was loathe to write the original piece (talking about yourself?! Ewww!) but it proved very popular and people thanked me for sharing, so this one should perhaps be a little easier to write… sort of…

If you haven’t read the original, I’d encourage you to do so, particularly if you’re wondering whether you need to study to become a game developer, or if you want to see what life can be like for a ‘child of the recession’ in Ireland. Today’s opening section will make more sense if you’ve read the original, but the post as a whole can stand on its own.


Then ‘til now

As I read the original post back, it’s amazing to see how much has changed in 2 years and 8 months, and what’s stayed the same.

  • I’m still sitting in the same office as I write this post, but now it’s also my bedroom.

  • RetroNeo Games is now a Limited Company (Ltd in Ireland, LLC equivalent for USA).

  • Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest is still the game I’m trying to make, but now it’s called just Sons of Sol. It certainly should have been done by now according to my initial plans, but that’s the way indie game dev tends to go.


  • I got Sons of Sol trademarked in the USA, so it’s now Sons of Sol™.

  • The game passed Steam Greenlight one year ago, before that system was done away with by Valve. We also appeared on Square Enix Collective, though made less of a splash there.

  • I was blogging every single week in 2015, and I didn’t miss a single one despite taking 3 weeks of holidays. I set the goal and I did it. This was exhausting and a bit of a waste of time though, so through 2016 and 2017 I dropped the target to 1 a month and even then I often struggled to think of something to write, but I haven’t missed one since then either, until this post. Now for 2018 I might drop the obligation that I’ve held myself to entirely, but that remains to be seen. I certainly felt that I owed people this update, especially anyone who pre-purchased the game during our Greenlight campaign. Blogging is still good for SEO and it’s been my experience so far that every time I thought of quitting the blog I was given one good reason to keep going, whether that was a retweet by John Romero leading to thousands of readers on this post, or my first (or subsequent) Gamasutra Feature(s).

  • I’m still making games, but I’m no longer an indie, at least, not primarily. There is still no commercially released game in the world that has my name in the credits – a goal I’ve held for years, though that should soon change as long as certain titles aren’t cancelled.

  • Imirt, the Irish Game Makers Association, was one month old when I wrote the original piece, and it’s been going quite strongly since. I’ve even become involved enough to write the Newsletter each month.

  • I see a photo in the original blog post with John and Brenda Romero. Little did I know then that I’d get the chance to work with them in the future!

  • I see mention of Gunman Taco Truck, a fantastic game designed by their son Donovan, which I was the first person ever to livestream on launch night. I believe anyway… I’ve also seen Donovan’s first public talk on the game live at Ship It Con in 2017.

  • Games that I name-dropped before, Darkside Detective, and Guild of Dungeoneering, have since launched and become small indie hits. Though I’ve nothing directly to do with them, I know the devs fairly well by now, even witnessing work sessions on Darkside by Dave & Tracey McCabe while we all sipped cocktails in both Siem Reap and Dubrovnik. Also, my team on Sons of Sol eventually came to involve both Dungeoneering’s incredibly talented artist and its composer.

  • The DubLUDO meetup in Dublin is a far less frequent affair these days. To fill the gap, I started The Games Co-Op (TGC) monthly meetup, which has since rolled in with the 1GAM (One Game A Month) meetup, which was basically responsible for the success of my self-directed game dev education. 1GAM gave me deadlines, a theme, and people to critique my work, and I’m happy to help keep it going.

  • One thing that hasn’t changed at all is the importance to my life of the game dev community for their advice, support, and most recently, for my employment. It’s why I started TGC. It doesn’t matter who you are in game development, you’ll have an easier time of it if you get out and meet people. In-person is far better than online, though where in-person is problematic, online is certainly better than nothing.

  • Where once I just knew local Irish developers fairly well, I went to conferences and now am friendly with devs and other games industry personalities all around the world. I especially enjoyed meeting people whose work I’ve admired for years; Cliff Bleszinski, Rami Ismail, Brett Douville, Mike Bithell, Scott Manley, Dan Vavra, Ben Prunty, and interviewing someone whose music I’ve loved since I was a kid; Frank Klepacki!

I found all of that from the original post quite interesting as I re-read it, but I was struck hard by a paragraph near the end of it:

I’m going to make “Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest” as RetroNeo Games and I’m going to give it no less than everything I’ve got! This post has been the first half of a story. The next two years might make it a triumphant success story or just a sad, boring one…

I know I could fail. I know I have to steel myself against the possibility of a huge let down and further financial hardship, but at this stage, I’ve survived worse, and I can’t look back now!

[Laughs ironically] Yep. Okay, enough foreshadowing. Let’s get on with it.

What full-time, unpaid game-dev life is like(/was like for me)

Initial Designs and timetable

So I started off in May 2015 with my little prototype and big ideas. I wanted to create a unique (yet hopefully also nostalgic) game feel through the Asteroids-inspired controls, but to recreate the feeling that 3D space games like X-Wing and Wing Commander inspired in me as a kid. I also wanted the game to be replayable, and less scripted, so I planned for an XCOM-style strategy layer to connect each mission into the meta game. Early designs for this layer featured territories, fleets, spies, a nemesis system, multiple resources… yeah, now you just have one fleet and it’s all planned to be much simpler and compartmentalised, though without having compromised much on my core idea that each mission result matters, and the strategy layer is more than just a glorified level select screen.

 An early prototype of the strategy layer in Sons of Sol.
An early prototype of the strategy layer in Sons of Sol.

Having boarding craft board capital ships is a pretty cool staple of old space games, but they were always just a matter of waiting for a timer to run out, while some text or audio played. I wanted to make this an actual game mechanic instead.
In the first week or two, I thought I could conceivably have some interior ship-boarding levels, based on my Teluma or MIC’s Paintball games, but I quickly scrapped the notion, realising that I’d effectively be making a whole other game on top of the first one. Even for an ambitious know-nothing indie, I knew that would be too much.

I knew I had two years until the start-your-own-business scheme/grant that I was on ran out. I’d have to be making money by then; at least enough that I’d be better off than having stayed officially unemployed. Importantly, I’d heard that when it comes to making games you need to plan out exactly how long everything will take, then double it!! So I made my plans for release in one year, and drew up a roadmap (development timetable) based on that. Seriously.

Working Hours

I’ve never been one to forego sleep, but with a heck of a lot of enthusiasm, financial & time pressures, and no real money to spend on regularly going to the pub or cinema with my friends, I did at first work something like 10-12 hour days, then some more on Saturday if I felt like it. On Sunday I’d “quickly” write my blog, which in reality tended to take about 4 hours on average. In 2015, as I’ve said, I wrote every single week from the time I started in April until the end of the year. I was definitely working over 60 hours a week at first.

This was pretty unsustainable, and I tried to maintain a more normal schedule before long, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that my partner was a yoga teacher, working at crazy ends of the day with long commutes. Sometimes she’d be up at 5am to teach the 6.30am class two counties over, and others she wouldn’t have to leave the house until 2pm. Some days she’d be home by 2pm or not until 11pm. Some who work from home may be able to keep time-discipline by synchronising with the timetables of the people that they live with, but I wasn’t able to.

A further difficulty is that when you’re trying to keep to a roadmap, and a feature is meant to be done this week, but you didn’t foresee all the bugs it would create, or just how difficult it would be to do, or the fact that the feature just isn’t fun, then when evening time comes, you’ll still feel that you have work to do to keep to that roadmap.

It can be quite damaging to your lifestyle, health, and your relationships to keep giving in to this extra work, but at the same time, messing up your roadmap will result in a failed or delayed game, which costs you money that you probably can’t afford. So you’re either under time or financial pressure. This is basically the curse of being self-employed. It’s not unique to games, but industries with more reliable/measurable income (say, a retail shop) can weather these stresses a bit more easily. The best advice I can really offer here is to be super-conservative with your roadmaps, and build in buffer time. Aim to finish by Thursday, with Friday being the catch-up day. If you’re already finished, you can use it for research, polish, or just a day off!

I did quite well for a time (two times, actually) when I set and kept the following daily schedule:

·         8am – 9am. Wake up and exercise/breakfast. Check emails.

·         9am – 11am. Work in-engine only. No other distractions. The game must progress.

·         11am – 12pm. Emails, game design, or just a game-playing break.

·         12pm – 1pm. Work in-engine only.

·         1pm – 2pm. Lunch and a walk.

·         2pm – 2.30pm. Emails/tweets/Facebook groups

·         2.30pm – 4.30pm. Work in-engine only.

·         4.30pm – 5pm. Wrap up. Commit files. Plan next day’s tasks. Communicate with team, etc.

·         5pm onwards. Free!

I’d usually read a Gamasutra article or something in the evening and send a couple more emails, but I’d protected the most productive and awake ‘brain hours’ using this timetable. If I wanted to I might work in the evening, but I was free to be with my girlfriend or play games or just do whatever. This was quite a good approach.

The problem comes when you get out of the habit. Cold winter mornings make it harder to get out of bed when nobody’s making you (and your partner isn’t getting up at that time) and deadlines force you to work late sometimes. Then sometimes having to go shopping for your lunch tends to make it take more than the hour. The important thing is to have a schedule to get back to even after it breaks. The months where I adhered to this were more productive and I felt less stress overall. I was restoring a quality of life that had been missing at first.


My advice here would be to not blog every single week like I did in 2015, and when you do blog, keep them short. In 2016 I allowed myself to write one a month, but I was still averaging 3,000 words. More recently I’ve tried hard to get them down below 2,000, both for myself, and for the reader’s convenience (today is an exception). Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can be important, and the blogs I’ve written do generate very small numbers of recurring traffic, but I’ve never had someone say “I Googled [x] and found your site, then I saw your game and thought it was awesome and now I’m a fan!”. Never happened!

So know that you don’t necessarily have to blog for your website, but there are intangible benefits from being known publicly, at the same time, such as being asked to speak at events, or becoming an accidental hub for information flow. If you are blogging, a few hundred words (with good keywords) every two weeks is (from what I hear) plenty for SEO anyway.

My Roadmap(s)

Back to the game! I’ve had at least 3 roadmaps during development. I’ve none now, and haven’t had for quite some time (not that they’re not super-important. I just have none currently). I’ve found the old ones periodically and looked in horror at how far I’d blown past them without getting even half of the features completed. Once I had the team together we worked towards a few more immediate deadlines (Eirtakon convention in late 2016, then EGX Rezzed indie submission, Steam Greenlight campaign, Reboot Develop conference, and Square Enix Collective campaign in early 2017) but things started going wrong again after those. Roadmaps are critical, but I hadn’t much luck with them due both to my inexperience at making games, and due to how I had to build the team.

The Artist(s) / The Profit-Share dilemma

Initially I remember that I wanted to have a profit-sharing artist on the team by August 2015. This was one of the biggest early failures. It was a fine goal; it just didn’t work, as it wasn’t something I could exactly control. When you’re asking people to invest in your vision, and not in money, it’s far more difficult to find motivated and talented people. This is completely fair, but it’s a wrinkle in your (my) business plan. However, I couldn’t avoid that as I hadn’t the money to pay an artist properly.

I think I started with about 6 or 7 artists for different lengths of time before eventually finding the amazingly talented Fred Mangan and starting with him around September 2016 (so I was 13 months late on a roadmap that was only 12 months long anyway). Fred had worked on Guild of Dungeoneering. I knew the rest of that game’s team from the 1GAM meetups in Dublin and I guess (though I don’t know for sure) that they vouched for me to Fred as at least being someone who took game dev seriously and had a business plan.

 Sons of Sol with my 'programmer art'
Sons of Sol with my ‘programmer art’
 Sons of Sol with Fred's art.
Sons of Sol with Fred’s art.

Around this time, I also got Steve Gregan on board, also from the Guild of Dungeoneering (and The Little Acre) teams, as sound designer and composer. He was working with a great guy named João Luís Gonçalves who worked on the music for the demo and trailer.

The other thing about working for profit share is that it doesn’t pay until you’re done, if at all. One usually has to take paid work as it comes up and put your profit-share project on the back burner – making it part-time or even leaving altogether. After a few months, Fred was down to one day a week on the game. It gave us a more deliberate focus, but things definitely slipped again with less hours being put in.

One bit of advice if working with friends or anyone else for profit-share: Make sure that you both treat it seriously, and communicate! Those artists that I started with who were already my friends tended to communicate less and less as they decided that they didn’t want to be on the project, and just didn’t want to disappoint me by telling me! On my end, I tended to give them extra time (a week instead of a day, then two working weeks instead of one) before I’d follow up with a message requesting the assets or a mockup or simply an answer to a design question ‘because I don’t want to be pressuring my friend when they’re working “for free”’. This caused serious delays and frustration and eventually ended the same way as if they’d just said “hey I don’t want to work on this any more and we haven’t signed anything so I’m done. You can keep the art. Thanks”.

Don’t be overly-forgiving just because you’re friends or you’re not paying them. If they agreed to profit share, then they agreed that that has potential value. They’re not working “for free” in the same way that “doing you a favour” goes. You’ve offered them value and they offered you work. Stick to that agreement, or walk away, but don’t let it fizzle out and waste your time. It’s not like you’re getting cash that they aren’t. You’re in the same boat and you should all be rowing together.

Also, do contracts! It’s not to trap anyone. It’s to protect all parties, and it also gives things an official weight that means the game is taken more seriously, which is only a good thing.

This is just my advice based on my own experiences, but know that working with your friends puts your friendships at risk – no question.

On Interns

Be careful when a college says “can I place a student with you for their work experience”. I said I could use one as long as they’re an artist, but I can’t pay. They said that’s fine and they have just the person in mind. No offense to the guy, but he was a worse artist than I was! I think I was duped by the college who just needed to get kids assigned. Lesson learned.

Being a solo dev, I was the only one around to teach the kid how to do anything, and since he couldn’t really do art and I was doing the rest, I basically had to invent busy work for him to do (some of it helpful, some not) but also had to take the time to communicate it and check it.

Overall, progress slowed when I got the wrong intern. At least it was only a couple of days a week for a couple of months.


There are different types of person, but I’m someone who hates to let others down, whereas I find it easier to let myself down. I still hate doing it, but if you look at results, I’ll never (typically) someone down who’s counting on me, but (while I actually have pretty good self-discipline) it’s easier to sometimes fail to meet goals that I set for myself.

Before I had a team, I let the roadmap slip and slip. I’d redesign, I’d scope up and scope down, and even around the 2015/2016 New Year I almost ditched Sons of Sol to try turn Teluma into my main game (might have been good – who knows). Or to develop an RTS instead because that suddenly seemed more fun.

Once I had team mates to communicate with, who expected something finished on a given day so that they could do their work, I was far more likely to finish a task in the right way at the right time. You might too. If you aren’t working with team mates, keeping a public dev log will give you a similar sense of accountability. I do recommend it.

Partner-Funded Development

There are lots of ways to fund your game, all with pros and cons associated. In an ideal world, my preferred method would be to get funding from a publisher and pay all team members a salary. I spent a lot of time trying to interest publishers in investing in the game. I met them at GDC, at Reboot Develop, and just did some regular cold-email or referrals. I did at least get answers back from a few but nothing ever came of these interactions.

So apart from the social welfare that I received… I feel dirty writing that somehow. I don’t like getting it, but I don’t begrudge anyone who needs it either. I could write a whole other piece on the ways that the Irish government has f*cked me/my generation over (actually the original blog from 2015 probably touched on that) but I don’t have a victim mentality (any more) and it’s not relevant. Suffice it to say that I can argue that I deserve the support that I took… So, apart from the social welfare, which isn’t enough to live on with rent prices for living anywhere near Dublin being as high as they are (I live an hour away) the other thing that enabled me to enter and continue development was the support of my partner, Claire.

We’d been together over 5 and a half years when I started development. We’d emigrated to Australia together, come back, separated to put time into developing careers (in yoga and in tax), come back to living together… Anyway, there’s more about all that in the 2015 post. But where once I’d been earning more and paid more of the bills, and also invested in her training, now I was the one without income. My investment in my tax training hadn’t paid off, but her yoga training had and had led to a career. Now I needed the support, and Claire stepped up fully – no hesitation. In fact the only hesitation was my own, thinking that pursuing a career in games might not be the best financial move. Claire was there not just with money, now paying a bigger share of the rent and bills, but she is the only reason I felt brave enough to follow my dreams. Everything I’d done previously; emigration, returning, taking shitty jobs with massive commutes, taking the tax exams – it had been for her/us, and it had ended in heartbreak and a long period of anger and depression. If I could now pursue something that wasn’t necessarily the smartest idea, but that was one that would make me happy, and if she could be happy to see me do so even if the money might not follow, then it was the right move.
She constantly had my back and was encouraging and enthusiastic to see me doing something that I loved. On this she never faltered. She believed more in my abilities than I did myself. I would have quit several times over had I been with a less encouraging partner, and I’ll thank her forever for this.

There’s a photo in the original post of the cupcakes she had made for me with my game’s ships on them. When I turned 30 in March 2017, this was the birthday cake that she had made (it was delicious!) featuring Fred’s new art for the game’s ‘Arrow’ fighters. I couldn’t have asked for a more loving or supportive partner, and I couldn’t have even begun without her. Thank you!

That said, she didn’t earn much from her job either, we just managed to live fairly inexpensively in our damp, cold, old, but cheap(ish) apartment in Bray. Day-to-day, I was definitely living below the poverty line, especially by the second year, and she wasn’t doing much better, but we managed to keep it ticking over, spending only what we earned, normally. Any big business expenses like conferences or the trademark process came out of my meagre savings, which I managed to avoid dipping into otherwise. I’m good with money, I just didn’t have much coming in, and the savings had to cover the game’s whole development costs. They were for business investment and nothing else.

Pressure placed on your relationships

The only real point of friction with Claire, even when the game was running over time, was that I’d often decline to go things because I felt that I hadn’t the time or money. As I’ve explained, that was usually true (or felt true), but it’s certainly an area I should have done better with, and actually I did do better with it when I was keeping to my daily timetable. That said, it wasn’t a major friction point anyway – just the number one issue.

But mind your relationships! My friendships especially declined as I hadn’t the money to go out to the evening showings of new movie premiers on the far side of the city, or to Airsoft, go-karting, dinner, or down to the pub regularly. I tried, and I feel I was still good at attending house parties, but I definitely drifted apart from my group of friends during this time. I’ve reconnected with many since, but for a long time it felt like Claire was the only person I saw much of. She was my best friend at least… also, that’s kind of just how relationships go I think, but still, be mindful. You need your friends and it’s not good to be all about/all over one person in general (not that I was. I’m just saying).

So we didn’t go out together as much as we could, but I tried to involve Claire in my world more, to make up for the things I felt I couldn’t do. We’d of course watch Netflix series together, or the Bond movies, or Schwarzenegger ones. The Player Too series that I wrote was my attempt to interest Claire in games and have that to share with her. I really wanted to be able to play some co-op stuff with her, or talk about what choices she made in a Telltale game or whatever, but while that went well for a while (she indulged me, I think, rather than actually being very interested herself) it kind of ended in failure when she got hooked on Stardew Valley and then swore off games completely after that. Anyway, I tried, and fun was had all the same.

After Two Years…

I mentioned that I was on a government scheme for starting your own business, and that it paid you a decreasing amount of social welfare for two years. Less than half-way through the second year, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to ship the game on time, and later, anywhere-close-to on time!

I didn’t know if I could get back on regular unemployment relief afterwards, though I was informed that I would be reassessed and should get it (you can just never believe anything that they tell you, is the problem). Even if I could, I’d be in a position where you have to go collect, sign on, etc, which takes time, and they can also oblige you to do certain jobs or courses that take up all your time and really give you no better chances of getting paid work. So I tried to see what else I could do for money while continuing development. I did a couple of paid blogs but it never really took off. I started asking around for part-time work and applying to accounts/admin roles if they were part-time but didn’t get any before the time was up.

When May came I did reapply for welfare and got it after a few weeks, but now had to go sign on every week and I really started to feel like a failure again. Getting off welfare in 2015 was huge. I stopped identifying as an unemployed person who makes games, and started identifying as a currently-poor self-employed indie developer. The difference to my frame of mind was huge, and this all reverted in May 2017.

All the same, I kept going. The game’s design had been pretty well nailed down, I had a strong team, we had a prototype of the main gameplay that was in people’s hands, and we just needed time to get the remaining work done. It was at least all laid out before us and the team was together.

The Side-Hustle / Workshop

Being more on the lookout for ways to earn money sooner, I started to realise that I’d been giving a lot of friends and game developers free advice regarding tax, contracts, setting up companies, and that sort of thing. I figured that if I just ran a one day workshop and charged people for the advice then I might save myself time helping people individually, and actually make some money.

I did a survey in the IrishGameDev Facebook group to see if people would be interested in such a workshop. There were enough people to make it worth exploring, so I hired a room, prepared slides, did a lot of revision, and ran the workshop on July 8th 2017.

 The opening slide from my first-ever official workshop. I'll be running more in future, no doubt!
The opening slide from my first-ever official workshop. I’ll be running more in future, no doubt!

It went well! I was pleased! I’d earned my first actual self-employed income as an educator, tying together all of my previous industries, careers, education, and game dev experience. If you ignore the extensive prep time (which you could do for any future workshops on the same topic), I earned as much in one day as I’d get from 4 weeks of unemployment payments. I figured if I could run a workshop every month (on different topics, kept in rotation, and in different parts of the country), I could have a healthy income. Technically I didn’t get paid myself, mind you. The company got paid and the money only went to reduce losses for the year. There was still no profit, but since the losses/expenses were always paid out of my personal savings, this did in-effect protect my pocket, even if I didn’t get the money. Were I to run a lot of workshops it probably would turn into profit, and therefore be taxable income for the company and/or myself. Details, details…

Anyway, I was feeling good. Game dev was still a hard career. We’d failed to interest a publisher with the last demo and I’d sunk a lot of time into that effort. Our Square Enix Collective campaign hadn’t generated good numbers or interest (though the comments left were generally quite positive), and progress on the development felt like it came in fits and starts, rather than a smooth forward momentum. But I could deal with ‘hard’ as long as I could actually eat and pay rent. Also, it feels good to earn money, not just be given it. I felt like I’d solved a major problem, and the rest would fall into place.

The next day, everything changes

On the evening of July 9th, 2017, Claire and I broke up. For me it was very unexpected.

I think I’ve been very open so far with this post, but I don’t feel that it’s correct to go into much detail here. However, I simply can’t complete this story without covering this event. It should be enough to say that we weren’t fighting, we could always talk about anything, and that we still loved each other, but Claire had decided that I couldn’t provide what she now knew that she wanted for her life. She made the best move for her, and she believed it was also the best move for me – heart-breaking though it was for us both. I can’t fault her for it, but I find it hard even still to say if it was for the best. It was a tough decision, and a tough aftermath.

I haven’t directly worked on Sons of Sol since that weekend up until the time of writing; 7 months.

I don’t feel that I’d neglected Claire, but as I believe I’ve made apparent, self-employed game development has a cost on your relationships – not to mention a cost to your ability to put money away for the future, or to create a feeling like you’re making progress towards something, like a house or family. Let this serve as a cautionary tale, I guess.

I spent the first few days in total shock and anguish. I think I had my first panic attack. I couldn’t make sense of any plans for the future. They all seemed so abstract or worthless, while all my mind would do was replay every moment of our relationship and every decision, big or small, that had led us here. I couldn’t initially accept it and thought about what would have to change to get us back together. I had no qualms at all at that point about leaving the entire gaming industry behind and going back to regular boring jobs if it would help. But I also tried to respect Claire’s decision and visualise the outcomes that she’d chosen to move towards as being positive and possible. It was a very tough first few days. I met up with a few of my friends (the ones who’ll always be there for you no matter what) and they were fantastic for keeping me company and talking through this stuff. Thank you all.

I decided that I couldn’t let Claire go without fighting for her, and one night we explored all the ‘what ifs’ but she was resolute in her decision. It had been hard enough to make and it wasn’t on a whim.

At that point, I could at least begin to move forward without wondering forever “what if I’d said the right thing?”.

I know we’re getting a bit off-track for a gaming blog, but I reread the last section and decided it does all align with what I said this would be at the start, so it can stay. It does at least serve as an unofficial final entry in the Player Too series.

New Priorities

The game had been my main focus for nearly two and a half years. Now, immediately, it meant nothing to me. The ending of an almost 8 year relationship just… I don’t know how to complete this sentence, but I’m sure you get what I’m trying to communicate.

In practical terms, without Claire and I acting as a single financial unit I’d have to pay more rent and bills, and turn the office where I worked from into a bedroom and rent it out. At worst I could move home to my parents’ but I knew I couldn’t work well there (often too noisy and broadband is extremely unreliable) and I certainly knew that I didn’t want to re-enter the dating world living with my parents.

This meant that I needed more income almost immediately. The Dublin rental situation being in the shameful crisis state that it is, Claire had nowhere ready to move out to, and so moved into the spare bedroom/my office, and kept our financial arrangements the same, but clearly this would only be temporary (she was gone after a few weeks and I eventually found a nice new flat mate, moving into the office myself at that time). Needing more income meant that developing Sons of Sol full-time was no longer an option.

A matter of days later, I unfortunately also learned that our audio guy would have to leave the team for his own reasons, so now the project’s future was even more in question. I was in no condition to work on it even part-time anyway. I couldn’t look at the game just then without thinking of what it had cost me (as I interpreted the situation. It’s true, indirectly at least).

So I spoke to Fred and we agreed to put the game on indefinite hold until the situation had evened out, rather than decide to cancel or continue.

In one move, I’d lost my relationship, my job, and would quite possibly lose my home (rented, but it’s been my home for 3 years so you know what I mean). It was a hard-reset! The old way of indie game-dev life was now over for me, maybe forever.

Look After Myself

As shocked as I was, I wasn’t really feeling yet, but I knew that some rough depression was coming, possibly to be accompanied by suicidal thoughts. After all, that’s how I’d been after the last major upset in 2014 (see original post), and this was far worse. I had the presence of mind to sign up to therapy sessions for the first time. I choose to mention this precisely because I don’t want to. It’s not spoken about, so you shouldn’t speak about it, right? Well, no, that’s bullshit. Mental health needs more openness and to be less of a taboo. So there’s me doing my part for today.

But looking back, the next several months weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. Frankly, I put this solely down to a new healthy routine because I didn’t rebound quickly, I haven’t met someone new, it took me ages to find work, or a flat mate, I was collecting unemployment, and just lonely. The only major thing that changed was my lifestyle.

I went for some extremely long walks in the first few days and lost a stone in weight before long, returning to the weight I was when I was a late teen (and healthy). Then when things got more normal I started getting up every morning at a fixed time, meditating, having a cold shower (because everything you do after that is easy), getting in 20 minutes of walking and 20 minutes of stretches, press ups, back and leg stretches (that I’ve been told to do by my chiropractor, but didn’t always complete before) then eating a healthy breakfast and ‘starting the day’ then around 10am but with my health already looked after.

Physically I soon felt great, and that had an effect on my outlook and mental health. It’s all tied together. It didn’t make the loss hurt less, but it kept me from moping around too much and getting just worse and worse. It also helped me look forward to the future (eventually).

Advice I’d give anyone doing anything, but especially to game developers spending long, lonely, stressful hours in a chair staring at a screen, is to prioritise your health. Do it! It makes everything else easier.

Fight Like Hell

So look. I’m a gamer. You’re a gamer. You’ll get this. I’m also a fan of metal music. This Doom trailer has become my mantra, and touchstone. I have it bookmarked for whenever I need a motivation boost.

Whenever I’d feel sorry for myself, or not feel like getting into the cold shower, or feel like the world has gone to shit, I watch this. It may be ‘just a game’, but take the metaphor. The Doom Marine is always moving forward, always fighting! He gets battered and takes some insane hits, but he never stops moving. Then the music drops out, the Marine lands hard and is breathing heavy. Is it over? No! The Cyberdemon’s gigantic mega-cannon charges up and points straight at Doom Marine! This is the biggest, baddest adversary yet (and the smaller ones nearly killed him). So what does Doom Marine do? Does he quit? Does he run and hide? Does he stand still and wait to get taken out? No!! As the guitar riff explodes back in he runs straight at the fucking Cyberdemon!! You know right then that he’ll never stop fighting until he’s dead and gone.

That’s my touchstone.

The music is a tight edit of New Noise by Refused. I took the audio from the game trailer and cross-mixed it with the original song to try edit out things like “rated M for mature” and to extend the final section (where the trailer ends) to loop out longer. I then made this my new alarm clock sound! Every weekday I kick off the covers, hop into a cold shower, and come out awake and pumped to take on the hardest that day has to offer.

Something more important than games

Since well before the breakup, I’ve been very upset with the state of the world since Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, and many other things. The absence of reason and decency is totally unacceptable to me. I didn’t want to live on this planet any more, essentially. But I had no outlet for the anger until I made ‘Fight Like Hell’ my mantra. It pushed me to keep energy high, to do the extra press ups, to go power walking in the cold and rain, and overall just not to let anything make me act as if I’m dead until I’m actually dead! And I know now that I won’t shortcut that with suicide. I lost the only thing I was truly afraid to lose and I survived it. I’ve been through a crucible and I know myself better now.

Idiocy, racism, and nationalism may be on the rise, and I may have no (romantic) love in my life right now, but that’s not the end of the story, is it? There’s still beauty, happiness and truth. I can make things better. I can keep fighting, always. I joke (kinda.. I hope) when I say this but I’m going to die fighting Nazis some day. No other way.

What does that have to do with games?

That’s been a big question on my mind for the last while. I found it hard to justify making games as distractions for increasingly entitled man-children, hiding from an increasingly upsetting world without contributing anything to it. Some gamers exhibit extremely scummy behaviour on a daily basis, and in no way do I feel like ‘serving’ them. While the truth is that I make games for myself, I still sometimes feel that I’m just distracting myself from what’s going on instead of dedicating myself to helping fix the problems that make me so upset in the first place. Someone needs to teach these guys (and it is invariably guys) what being a decent human being is about. They need to graduate from the crèche into the real world and feel responsible for something outside of themselves. I’ve given serious thought to making that a career focus of mine – basically mentorship coupled with tradition-based rites of passage into adulthood. To improve the world one man at a time. Games are art, and you can communicate messages like this, but I don’t think it helps very much. I mean actual real-life work. Blood, sweat and tears. Nothing changes in your comfort zone.

Men need to embrace feminism, for sure, but they also need a place in the world; a mission. A lot of them seem to need help finding this.

Now, in terms of helping the world through games, they are a business, and you can sustainably give business profits to worthwhile causes as charitable donations (usually tax deductible too), but that still didn’t feel good enough to me, especially as an indie where I might never make a profit, or just not enough of one to make an impact.

I do enjoy making games, and at first after the breakup I applied exclusively for games jobs (anywhere in the world) but wasn’t getting any. I wanted to lean more on my workshopping for money sooner. In September 2017 I was to speak at the Galway Games Gathering alongside John Romero, Mike Bithell, Brett Douville, and many others. It was great, but a strange experience too as I was still one-foot-in-one-foot-out of the games industry. Anyway I set up my second workshop to be in Galway for the Monday following the conference. Now, Monday isn’t a great day for availability for people, but it was the only day possible, since the conference itself was on all weekend. By one week before, I only had one sign up so I cancelled the workshop before I would owe the hotel for the room rental. So that failed.

 My talk at the Galway Games Gathering
My talk at the Galway Games Gathering

Teaching unemployed people and students isn’t very scalable, even if my first Dublin one was profitable. Ideally I wanted to do workshops for people who had money who could then hire me for individual consulting and coaching.


I was applying for games work but getting nowhere. Note this: I am and put myself forward as an entrepreneur: someone who is creative, and likes to be self-directed, with ownership of the outcomes (and profits). Regular employers don’t really like to hire this kind of person, because they’re quite likely to abandon their job and go start a new business.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t find a job if you’ve started your own businesses, but it is something to consider. I became convinced that this was what was getting in the way of me getting any of the games, or even admin and accounts jobs that I was applying for. So, while I still applied for work, I decided I’d have to get back into self-employment, just in a more profitable area. This would have the added bonus of allowing me to help the world more directly through whatever I did next than I could if I was just doing games.

I spent a lot of time from July to November learning more about coaching, selling, motivation, psychology, nutrition, biohacking, writing, running webinars; you name it! I learned that you can’t just be a generalist when it comes to coaching, but you have to go several layers deep if you want to successfully find your niche. E.g. You’re not a ‘dating coach’. You’re ‘a dating coach for women over 40 who have their own kids, or whatever. You have to get specific.

I wanted to do one of two ideas, both of which I felt qualified to do, but with pros and cons each way.

  1. A “level up your business” coach, for small business owners who are running viable businesses (and so have money) but who feel too busy or overworked to actually put in extra time to move the business to the next stage. Essentially I’d use goal setting and productivity techniques to allow the owner to set up the business so that it runs itself, allowing them to start a new branch, or product, or retire!
  2. A “crucible coach”. Note that I hadn’t names decided upon for either approach. But this would be me helping people to channel the dark and destructive (but powerful) energies that come with major life upsets into positive life changes, like I’d done with getting fit, healthy, and starting a new business (almost). Essentially, change never happens inside your comfort zone, and uncomfortable upsets in life are unavoidable. Therefore, we will sometimes have these ‘outside your comfort zone’ moments for free, and we can learn to use them positively.

I was leaning towards the second idea when things changed again.

By the way, if anyone is interested in talking about some coaching in either area, do contact me through the ‘Contact’ tab at the top of this page. I’m happy to set up a 20 minute call pro bono and see if we both think I can help you.

“Real” Work in Games

So at this stage, it’s November 2017. I’d spent nearly 5 months drifting away from games. I was playing far less of them, not making them (I hadn’t even opened the Unity engine in this time), was failing to get responses from most of my applications (I did do two coding tests and one interview, mind you), and I generally thought that my future no longer lay in the games industry.

The only things I was still doing was my monthly blog (though I wasn’t really sure why), and the Imirt Newsletter, at Brenda Romero’s request.

Then within the span of a few days in mid-November, a months-old application that I’d made to Black Shamrock in Dublin was answered and I did a coding test for them. Then Brenda got in touch to offer me some QA (game testing) work out with Romero Games in Galway on a contract basis until Christmas (so 5 weeks).

 Galway at Christmas.
Galway at Christmas.

I of course wanted to go work with the team! Most game developers or older gamers will know John Romero (the creator of the original Doom – the trailer for the reboot of which was now my personal mantra), and working alongside him surely carries certain bragging rights, but there are other reasons I wanted to go. So much of the Irish (and world) game industry and networks seem to revolve around Brenda and her work, and I wanted to get closer to that epicentre and see what I learned. I also knew at least half of the team at Romero Games already and knew them to be extremely likeable and talented game developers. Working with them would be a treat! I also love Galway and would take any excuse to spend more time there. Lastly, this would be my first paid job in the games industry, working in a real games studio with a real team, and I knew I’d learn a heck of a lot. If I was to leave the industry, I had to at least take the chance to work with Romero Games for a few weeks!

 Sunrise each morning on the walk to work in Galway
Sunrise each morning on the walk to work in Galway

While we were setting that up, Black Shamrock got back in touch and asked to interview, based on my having done a good coding test for the Game Programmer position. I interviewed the evening before I had to catch the first train over to Galway (and had to host the Games Co-Op AND give a talk that I’d had no time yet at all to rehearse. Busy day).

 I do love Galway.
I do love Galway.

A few days later, I was offered the job in Black Shamrock to start in January after the Romero contract ended.

Wait, where am I?

The Romero job was great, and will look great on my CV for as long as I stay in games (everyone knows who they are) but getting a full-time salaried job with Black Shamrock has been transformational. I no longer feel in danger of having to move home, or feel like my next call for an interview might lead me to working in another country (though I’m totally up for this, it does make it hard to rebuild a life around such uncertainty). I now have the money (and the proximity, via a job in the city centre) to go back and do hot yoga again, and take up self-defence classes and salsa lessons. I can get take away or go out for drinks without stressing over the cost.

 First thing you see when you enter Romero Games offices. Awesome.
First thing you see when you enter Romero Games offices. Awesome.

I’ve been poor a long time, so I still record absolutely everything in a budget and track my spending, but that’s just me. I actually find it fun to balance the books at the end of the month and measure my spending. The things that I mentioned above were seriously outside of my ability to do before on a regular basis, though they probably sound normal or boring to most people.

This is what graduating from an unpaid indie dev to a paid game developer feels like.

Rising above the poverty line feels like coming up for air after a deep dive under water. To be valued for skills that I taught myself is also quite rewarding. It feels the same as when I got my first full-time job after college, or when I did the same in Australia after months of eating into my savings looking for work.

I’m a month into the job and I enjoy it more than any other paid job I’ve ever done (there are no phones to answer there either. Yay!) but it’s still a strange reset. I’d mentally already left the games industry. It was a hard sell to myself because it’s so fun, so creative, fairly lucrative (if you’re in the right places) but I just had to convince myself that there was more important work that needed doing. I made that idea a part of me in my healing process since the breakup, and now it’s there largely unaddressed while I program games all week.

I have plans to volunteer, at least. I give a lot more change to the homeless now. I’ve been helping a friend through a situation, and I could still take one or two clients on for coaching and help them to make the world better.

I also got recycling bins into the office in my first month and set up weekly fruit deliveries so everyone can eat a bit healthier. Entrepreneurial traits when used inside an existing organisation are called intrapreneurship. I’m very happy to have supportive management who encourage that, but we’re part of a large multinational group, so there’s only going to be so much that I can do. I think that to satisfy any philanthropic endeavours I’ll have to do it outside the workplace.

Anyway, it’s been a hell of a few months, but I feel like I’m finally coming in to land, now.

Sons of Sol

We come now full-circle to the game that started it all. A large reason that we put the game on hold was that if I took a job in a games company, it would likely have a non-compete clause in the contract that might mean that I couldn’t work on my own games. This might have forced us to cancel the game anyway, so working on it was pointless until I found a new job/source of income.

As it stands, we’re legally able to work on it, if I can find the time for it.

I want to finish the game. That’s clear to me now again, which it honestly wasn’t before. I was too burned out on it and too upset to look at it. Time has made me appreciate the game mechanics again and I see value in it as a unique game that some people love playing and that others just don’t get. It’s worth finishing and putting out into the world.

The trick is, of course, how to find the time to develop a game alongside full-time work. It’s the topic of countless GDC talks or Gamasutra articles. It can be done, I know, but I also know how demanding it is. I’m also trying to reclaim my life and meet new people and old friends more regularly now that I can afford to. I don’t want to give up one of my two weekend days right now to give over to developing a game for another year or two. I know that it will never get done on weeknights, at least not with my commute being as long as it is currently. Working a long day and then starting another brain-heavy job is just folly. You can’t make a good game using only your least productive hours. You may as well rest weeknights and do a productive Sunday morning or something.

The game will also need to be redesigned to its simplest possible (but still worthwhile) form. Any notions of modability, multiplayer deathmatch, or local co-op are now totally gone. We’ll likely further limit the number of ships and mission types planned (they can always be patched in later if the game is going well).

The coming weeks or months of game design will be a real exercise in trimming the fat. I won’t start any coding until I have a modest number of tasks attached to a roadmap that I can keep to. If I can’t reach that stage then the game can’t get made right now. It’s that simple.


During our Steam Greenlight campaign last year I offered some limited €5 preorders of the game. I have the emails of everyone who purchased and I’ll be in touch to offer them refunds. With the game’s future in question, and certainly a major delay involved, it’s only right to offer the money back. I say it here just in case anyone has ditched an old email address and would otherwise not hear of the offer. Well, also for transparency.

The real winners here, of course, are Paypal and Stripe, who naturally get commission on the money as it’s sent both ways. That’s the real business to be in! 😛

In Conclusion

I can’t even… I wrote ‘in conclusion’ because it’s always the last section of the blog posts but I’m not going to attempt to summarise all of that.

I hope that the story entertained. I hope you’ve gained something from an open, honest case study of one indie game developer’s career, and some of the struggles you could face.

Mixed with that of course, was my personal story, and I hope it didn’t bore you, but it was too tied up in the indie dev story to really separate it. I found it very hard to write, but I guess kind of therapeutic too.

Thankfully my ‘Fight Like Hell’ mantra really protects me from stressing over things like “what if people think I’m self-indulgent for writing about myself”. For one thing, I know that most people won’t think that. Maybe a couple will, and they likely won’t ever say anything, but if they do; so what? It’s such a trivial concern, yet it would have loomed large in my mind just a couple of years ago (like when I wrote the original piece). Now I just have a different perspective. I know that what I’ve written will have some value to some people (even in this almost 10,000 word form – seriously, well done for reading! Thanks!), and that’s why it exists. It’s not for anyone else.

Blogging in Future

I’m officially releasing myself from my ‘one blog per month’ goal. As this latest post has really shown me, it takes considerable time to write and edit even the short ones. One day a month to blog could now be one more day per month to work on Sons of Sol. SEO won’t increase sales of the game through accidental traffic in all likelihood. I know that. It started as ‘one of those things you should do’ and it kept going. There have been benefits, like getting asked to speak at certain events, but I think at this stage that I’m better off reclaiming the time and blogging when inspiration strikes, or keeping the topics related purely to Sons of Sol’s development.

I will write again though, so I’ll use my usual sign off:

Until next time…

2017’s over! So… games…

What a crazy year! For the world, for the game industry, for games culture, in my own personal life and for RetroNeo Games.

I really can’t pick a topic for this month so I’m free-styling a bit.

There’s no shortage of topics to choose from.

  • It’s been the year of the Loot Crate, but that’s been done to death. Even my blog of lost month dealt with it indirectly.
  • Relatedly, EA has been seeing nothing but negative headlines all year even apart from the Loot Crate issues, due to Mass Effect Andromeda, closing Visceral Games (and shutting down the single-player Star Wars project),  and more, but I don’t really see the fun in rehashing that out.
  • Reportedly, the new Assassin’s Creed was great and sold twice what its predecessor did (proving the benefit in breaking the yearly release cycle), but I haven’t played it so I can’t really talk about it.
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the top games of the year, but I haven’t a PS4 so I can’t speak about that either (borrowing one is top of my to-do list though).
  • The Nintendo Switch is doing far better than anyone expected, and Zelda and Mario are another two game of the year contenders, but I’ve no Switch so I haven’t played them either.
  • One thing I can say is that I was wrong in my predictions of this time last year that the big shooters would be 50% off again this Christmas. The sale prices this season on Battlefront “2” (it’s 4, really) and Call of Duty are decidedly more conservative, with only Wolfenstein 2 being discounted all the way down to 50%.
  • Today’s news that a man was killed in Kansas during a swatting “prank” is very newsworthy but I don’t exactly want to end the year on that note. Though I will link to the PC Gamer article. An arrest was made, at least. Conventional wisdom is to keep your business channel quiet on anything political or controversial, but I don’t fully subscribe to that idea. If something is plainly wrong and needs opposing, then staying silent helps the offenders, not the victims. I hope the perpetrator goes to prison for a very long time. I personally can’t believe that the ‘set an example’ harsh sentencing of another swatting case last year didn’t stop swatting in its tracks. In that case, police non-fatally shot the swatting victim. The perpetrator, a teenager, was charged with domestic terrorism and given a heavy sentence (if I recall correctly. I can’t find the older articles today as the current tragedy is dominating the search results). He cried for his mother as he left the court room.
    Anyway, now a man is dead, and we have toxic gaming culture and manchild streamers to thank.
  • That segues into a personal note. I like coding, and I like creating, so making games is a great fit for me, but looking at the problems of the world this year, and then looking at the types of people I’m creating disposable content for (whiney sexists & racists and swatting scumbags) really turned my stomach all of a sudden. I’ve struggled with feelings of anger, frustration, and depression on and off for years. While I’m coming through it, I used to use playing games as escapism, and making games as my way of fitting into the world productively.
    Lately, though, I’ve felt an urge to help the world more directly. To stop contributing to distractions and start taking positive action – whether that be for charity, fighting toxic gamer culture, or something else. I’ve wrestled with the idea of leaving this industry (that I’ve fought very hard to become a part of – more on this next month) and beginning a coaching practice to get unhappy young men out of their gaming escapism and give them meaning and purpose. Then, as fate would have it, a couple of amazing opportunities came my way from the games industry and so I’ve stayed – though I still feel the call to do more. As I said, more on this next month.
  • I want to update the world on what all of that previous bullet point has meant for Sons of Sol, but, next month.
  • I’ve also barely played any games in the last 5 months (reasons next month, again) and when I do I’ve only managed to enjoy the ones that I know I can beat in an evening, like What Remains of Edith Finch or Tacoma. Just why this is, I’ve a few ideas on, but that’s a blog I’ll write another time.
    I was seriously looking forward to Wolfenstein 2 as I loved the original remake, but after a few hours playing it over Christmas, I was just stressed by playing it, which defeats the purpose. Great game though, and I’m all for its themes and marketing. Would like to hear if other non-parent gamers (because the reasons for parents not having time are obvious) experience the same thing.
 Click for short video.
Click for short video.

My main goal for Christmas (and my reward for the year) was to play through XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, along with several other games, but with it more than half over I feel I’ve barely started.

I asked a friend who’s staying over what I should blog about, and she said to write about “how to find more time to play games”. Together we joked that the first thing in the article would be “stop writing blogs”!

So, I’m actually just going to go with that and stop this one here!

Happy New Year to all of you fine readers, especially the regulars. Thank you. Your support is greatly appreciated, especially the notes or the comments when we meet in person. They keep me going.

I’ve a lot more life changes coming up shortly and some Sons of Sol questions to be resolved in the next month, so I’ll fill in all the blanks next time. It’ll be a sort of a follow-up to the quite-popular first blog I wrote after starting full-time development on Sons of Sol.

So, until next time…

AAA needs to adopt ‘Conscious Capitalism’

 Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions in a single player game... ffs
Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions in a single player game… ffs

Everyone’s talking about loot crates and gambling mechanics sneaking into games. Even $60 full-price games. It’s a bit too obvious to make that the topic of this month’s blog, so let me just say this: Loot boxes are terrible in all their forms. Even cosmetic. Even free. Even in Free To Play.

That’s my personal opinion on the flashy flashy “dangling your keys over the dog’s head” (as I think of it) ‘mechanic’. At their best, loot crates break immersion and treat the player like they’re an idiot. At their worst, they teach children how to gamble and can lead families into some serious debt very quickly.

So, as someone trying to be an ethical human being, as a player, and as a game designer, I think loot crates should just die. They should have no place in games.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Conscious Capitalism

I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book that resonated with me on so many levels.

It’s called “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” and it’s written by John Mackey (the CEO of Wholefoods) and Raj Sisodia.

It speaks to how taking a more holistic view of your business’ activities, and its long term sustainability can demonstrably be a better way of doing business.

The book is filled with case studies on how profit-driven CEOs ran once-successful companies into the ground by striving solely to create shareholder value, and not caring about the other stakeholders (meaning anyone who has any interest in the business, including customers, employees, the government, and even the environment) of the business.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with how EA, Activision, and Warner Bros. have been milking their once loyal and enthusiastic customers to the point of maximum frustration and past ethical boundaries. They’re burning bridges with former fans in the hopes of maximising returns this fiscal year, and to the smug satisfaction of many, we’ve just seen EA’s share price take a $3 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) drop in value as a direct result.

I have a Commerce degree. I’ve studied economics. I understand capitalism (you know, basically), and I believe in the free market and (for the most part) lack of government intervention, at least in normal trade. But I’ve also been hugely affected personally by the Global Recession since the day I graduated college and continuing even until the present day. This has given me very socialist sympathies. It’s also soured me (and so many others) on ‘capitalism’, yet this book argues, quite correctly, that what we think of as capitalism is more often perverse ‘crony capitalism’ that is ultimately unsustainable as it exploits parties to the business (including the environment) and poisons the environment that it operates in. It’s not what capitalism means at its core, and it’s not how it has to be.

 Milton Friedman. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Economics.
Milton Friedman. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Economics.

In the 1970’s, economist Milton Friedman argued that a firm’s sole responsibility was basically to maximise profits for shareholders. This doctrine has since been taken as gospel by the corporate world at large and has been hugely damaging to the environment and the stability of poorer nations from which we get so many of our resources (see last month’s blog on Venezuela, though I don’t get very political in it).

Another book that I haven’t yet read, but intend to, is Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. I heard him speak on a podcast and (as well as some other startling confirmations) he mentioned how, before Friedman, corporations were presumed to have a responsibility to their local communities. That responsibility was (apparently, though I haven’t looked it up) even mentioned in the original Declaration of Independence.

Wait, isn’t this a games blog? Get to the point!

Okay! So clearly EA and other AAA publishers, judging by their actions of the last few months and years, still subscribe to the Friedman school of business ethics, and they’re losing their supporters in droves. Even those that stick around and pay are hardly becoming ardent fans of the companies.

Then take a company like CD Projekt Red, creators of The Witcher series, who, to date, have seemed perfectly happy to offer outstanding value to their customers and who truly invest in the intangible ‘Goodwill’ line of the Balance Sheet (yes, it’s a thing on the balance sheet, but how do you really calculate it? (rhetorical question)).

Their core $60 experience in The Witcher 3 was over 70 hours of gameplay with no microtransactions. Then along came two expansion packs (pay once, play forever model) of 10-20 hours each! Not a microtransaction or loot crate in sight!

They clearly care about customer satisfaction to a degree that the other major games publishers can’t claim. This gives them so many intangible benefits, including customer loyalty, more predictable sales numbers, and free marketing via positive word of mouth. 

Note: CD Projekt aren’t a perfect example because they’re known to have some internal problems with crunch time, and employee welfare is a core part of the Conscious Capitalism approach. Still, they’re still probably the best example.

“Games Cost More To Make”

AAA likes to argue that games cost more to create now, so they have to charge more somehow, but I don’t buy this at all – not as the only option. Undeniably, the games become less enjoyable when compromised by loot crates and microtransactions. The experience is soured, at least according to a huge subset of gamers. When disenfranchised gamers stop buying the games at all, they cease to be customers, and that’s a huge additional cost to doing business.

The best approach is to grow the market, not to exploit the current one to the maximum possible level.

Many would say that loot crates are the business model of the future so get used to them! I say ‘why’? As a gamer, I hate them, and know that many others do too. As an entrepreneur I know that there are countless alternatives and ways to innovate. The “games cost more” excuse only keeps getting used because some gamers have started to believe it.

 Battlefront 2 (well, it's '4' really) undeniably looks amazing, but it didn't have to cost as much as it did to make. Who'd have missed one less level, or one less character? Budgets are variable.
Battlefront 2 (well, it’s ‘4’ really) undeniably looks amazing, but it didn’t have to cost as much as it did to make. Who’d have missed one less level, or one less character? Budgets are variable.

Games have budgets. Conscious Capitalism argues that you budget for all stakeholders, including, very importantly, the final customers. If they don’t want loot crates, you can plan not to give them to them. Rule them out completely! After that, your budget adjusts. Now just don’t make a game that exceeds that budget and projected profit levels. It’s actually quite simple business. You can sell to more final consumers if more of them would be happy to buy your product.

Many, such as myself, just won’t touch a game with loot crates. But I bought Wolfenstein 2 and the XCOM 2 expansion happily. Firaxis have fostered so much intangible goodwill from me over the years that they’re the only company I’ll pre-order from. At this point I won’t even buy Battlefront 2 if it went 90% off.

In Conclusion

Hey, I think this is my shortest blog ever! I’ve been trying to cut them down. I’d better get back on point, quick!…

My conclusion? Don’t support business practices you don’t like, and don’t presume that the example set by EA, Activision, Warner Brothers, and others, is the only way forward. Vote with your wallet as a consumer.

As a game developer, use your conscience and innovative spirit to think outside the box. Trust in goodwill as a long term pillar of your business strategy.

And yeah, consider buying the book ‘Conscious Capitalism’. I’ve no affiliation with it whatsoever, I just really enjoyed it. My apologies to the writers (yeah, like they’re reading this blog..) if I misrepresented any of its ideologies in my paraphrasing.

Until next time…


Bonus Content!

I saw this a few days later and had to add it 🙂

Gaming to EAT in Venezuela!

The initially apparent absurdity of this topic may be bewildering to some, but on further investigation and understanding, it should be of interest to everyone. Also, the inhumanity of certain scumbag first-world gamers you will find infuriating in the extreme. But then, it’s 2017, and the world is a messed up place.

Not a happy topic today, folks, but an important one that raises many questions about the world we live in.

 Credit: game development studio Jagex
Credit: game development studio Jagex

Venezuela in crisis

Not to dwell on the history or political details here, but the facts on the ground are that Venezuela’s economy has been in a critical condition for years, and it continues to slide. With inflation rampant, their currency is close to worthless. Unemployment is widespread. Protests frequently turn fatally violent. Crime is an epidemic. Murder rates exceed those in war-time Iraq. Food shortages abound. People are eating out of rubbish bins (or often not eating at all). Three quarters of the population report involuntary weight loss, and deaths through malnutrition are common, particularly amongst infants.

Gold Farming

For the uninitiated, ‘farming’ gold involves playing a multiplayer game (usually a Massively Multiplayer Online game, or ‘MMO’) and deliberately collecting large amounts of the game’s primary or secondary currencies, which can be exchanged for in-game items. Let’s refer to all of these currencies as ‘gold’ for simplicity’s sake.

The farming players then go and sell in-game gold for real world currencies like $US or Bitcoin, thereby turning gameplay (albeit usually very unenjoyable parts of the game) into a paying job. The payout isn’t very much, typically, but Venezuelans at the moment report earning $2-3 per day, which can be enough to buy some food and stave off starvation.

The problem with doing this is that the introduction of more and more currency into a game’s economy has the very same effect as just printing unbacked money in a real economy – inflation! This can destroy a game’s balance/difficulty curve, and since that’s kind of the point of playing, it can ruin the game for people. If left unchecked, this kind of activity can collapse a game’s economy and potentially drive away all its players, basically ending the game and potentially putting the company out of business.

Gold farming by (predominantly) Chinese farms has been a major problem for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, that readers may have heard about before.

If you’d like to learn more, Extra Credits did a very informative episode on MMO economies that I would recommend.


So what we’re seeing at the moment is a very large number of Venezuelan players choosing to farm gold in the 2001 MMO Runescape. Personally I’m not sure why they chose this game in particular, though it seems to be that, being an older game, it can run on cheaper, older hardware. I’m reliably informed that electricity in Venezuela is cheap, but computer components are fairly expensive, so this would make it preferable to modern MMOs for new farmers 

Importantly, the game also has dedicated players spending money in the game. That’s the key. The game is alive and money is changing hands.

Runescape’s regular players are understandably upset about their game becoming unbalanced. Their hobby fantasy world is being invaded by new ‘players’ who don’t care about the game at all and are just there to farm their gold and log out. This ruins immersion for the players and is just generally disruptive of their hobby. The game gets easier and less fun as stat-boosting items get cheaper due to more of them appearing on the in-game market.

First world problems!

We’re talking about a situation where these gold farmers are trying to feed themselves or their children, choosing to ‘work’ inside instead of risking mugging or murder on the streets of Caracas, and even still they have to queue hours for food that might have run out by the time they get to the front of the line.

One can understand anyone being upset if their hobby is being ruined, but an ounce of human empathy (an increasingly rare commodity) would surely put these concerns in perspective. Sadly, this is beyond certain people.

One should rarely read ‘the comments’ or certain seedy corners of Reddit, but what can be found there on this topic is a vile new low (well…let’s just pretend that it’s a new low, shall we?). Guides have been posted on how to identify and attack specifically Venezuelan players deliberately! Not only that, but some useful Spanish phrases have been shared so as these loyal Runescape players can insult the starving Venezuelans while they do so.

Okay, PvP (player versus player) is all part of the game, and virtual death is a risk associated with farming the gold in these PvP areas of the world (that’s why the gold holds any value to begin with, because it’s not that easy to obtain), but to deliberately jeopardise a starving person’s sole source of income and mock them while you do it is sadistic in the extreme. It’s not good fun. It’s fucking sick.
Side note: this post is, to my knowledge, the first time that I’ve committed profanity to print on this blog, but there’s a time and a place for it, and this is it.

I’m not saying to let the farmers away freely. There has to be a risk to their players’ safety or the farmed gold has no value because everyone can get it, then the gold decreases in real $ value, and then nobody can make a living from it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s the racist insults and, more than that, the sheer glee exhibited by some of these first-world players (including YouTubers) at being able to cause real people real pain that sickens me. “That’s what makes it so funny” writes one Reddit user.

I’d like to quote from a Kotaku article on the topic:
“I was expecting people to empathise and for once realise that games might just be a way to change people’s lives,” said Yasser, a former Runescape farmer who moved to the US a year ago, in a DM. Instead, he said, “the whole thing just made feel rage. Not your normal ‘political debate’ kind of rage but something more personal, especially because my family is still [in Venezuela], and I know what starving feels like. To see these guys that had the luck to be born on the right soil dehumanize Venezuelans, man, that tore me.”

Me too, Yasser. Me too.

 Credit: Reuters
Credit: Reuters

You might argue that they’re killing ‘bots’ and not players, but according to what I’ve been able to discover, most of these farmers seem to be just one player farming away themselves. Not an army of AI bots designed to enrich one human person/company through nefarious means that more directly violate the Terms of Service.

Fiduciary Responsibility

So, let’s be clear. Farming is bad for the game, and is against the Terms of Service, but this is also an unprecedented situation that has some very interesting considerations.

The game’s UK-based developers Jagex are reportedly banning a whopping 10,000 farming-related accounts per day!! That hurts those banned, but that’s fine. Frankly, it has to be. Jagex have a fiduciary responsibility to keep their company afloat, and banning farmers is an important part of that. If they were to allow the farmers to operate unchecked, they’d lose their actual playing and paying community, gain more and more farmers, and then there’d be huge amounts of gold to sell with nobody to buy it, and the game would be dead.

Getting banned is just part of the calculated risk of operating a farming scheme. These farmers know that they’re ruining (or contributing to disimproving) the game for people, but, to again quote the Kotaku article, a farmer by the name of Fhynal said “When you don’t know what the future promises, and you fear for your life and the lives of those you [care about], you kind of don’t care about people’s opinions.”

True enough.

In Conclusion

There are a lot of issues tied up in this one topic. I’ve mostly written it as if I’m trying to explain to non-gamers such as my parents (or the Irish government – still waiting on that investment and tax credit..) just how important a role games can play on the world stage.

Games aren’t just ‘pew pew’ time-wasting. They can literally be life and death for people now. That’s the world that we live in.

I’d like to thank my Venezuelan friends Carlo and Claudio for fact-checking this article.

Until next time…




Focus for your Game Dev Career

 Unity's Survival Shooter tutorial.
Unity’s Survival Shooter tutorial.

Today I want to share some tips aimed to maybe help focus game developers (or those thinking of getting into it) on worthwhile goals for the various stages they might find themselves at in their careers (or non-careers).

I want to examine a few situations that the developer themselves may be in, rather than focus on game genres, just to be clear. At each stage I’ll look at some worthwhile goals, as well as your challenges, and unique freedoms that you may have.

Hopefully people will get something useful out of this. Setting goals and focusing is key to success in any aspect of your life, so let’s get started!

I’m a hobbyist

Let’s say, like a lot of modern musicians and indie developers, you have no intention of making game development your career. You finances are stable, and you do what you can in your free time purely for the love of it. You have a half dozen or more abandoned projects because as soon as something becomes boring you move on to the next fun idea. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s your hobby! But let’s just say that you decide, maybe as a bucket list item, that you want to finish and release a game properly.

Example Goal: Release a finished game for sale to the world within the next 3 years.

Challenges: You have limited time to put into development, and this may be further hindered by life things like weddings, vacations, family events, etc. You also have limited expertise and (probably) an environment sparse of other experts to help you out or to playtest your game. You’re unlikely to dedicate a whole lot of time to marketing or community management, either.

Freedoms: You don’t need your game to make money (this one is huge). You can make anything you want that will keep you interested (though be careful of feature creep if you actually still want to finish the game). Your ‘deadlines’ can be moved (though this can be a disadvantage if you’re not disciplined enough to keep the game roughly on track). You may have the spare cash from your day job to pay contract artists, voice actors, modellers, etc, thus vastly upping the quality of your game for little time invested.

The best advice I think is to choose a game idea small-ish in scope that you can make, that you want to see the light of day, and that you want to give up your free time working on. These considerations are true for most of the people on this list, but especially so for hobbyists. Without peers around you, maybe try to find (or create) game dev meetups in your local area. An example would be The Games Co-Op that I organise each month in Dublin, Ireland. The goal is to give developers a regular date on the calendar that they know they can bring a game build to and get feedback on (a second goal is to network and find others to work with).

I’m a student

 Image from an original article on game student employment prospects. Click image to read.
Image from an original article on game student employment prospects. Click image to read.

Students are a funny breed. They often have the loftiest of goals, but are also probably enjoying their college years and don’t necessarily see these things as being at odds. I’m not for a second saying that they should not enjoy these years. On the contrary! They should make the most of them and cut down the expectations of what they’ll build in college during this time.

Students often underestimate just how much hard work goes into making a game and how hard it can be to work with other people, especially when it comes to their friends. They should plan their projects accordingly.

Example Goal: Finish your assignments and get a good grade for them (I wouldn’t go any further than this. Don’t think of your assignment as being Chapter 1 of your epic action-RPG).

Challenges: Your ambition can be your undoing. You have other assignments that need your attention but which might be less interesting. Give them all due time! Young students especially will likely have plenty of party nights not working and then plenty of crunch sessions where they’re doing inferior/buggy work. You are assigned to work in groups (this is a major one. It’s actually an advantage long term as it trains you for real life and work in companies, but for college projects you often can’t choose who you work with and necessary skills might be missing from the group. The group will need a leader or there’ll be a too-many-chefs situation.) The college probably technically owns anything you create, and if not then you’re still sharing ownership with your team mates and you likely haven’t signed any contracts, have you?

There are exceptions to this advice, like if you find yourself in a prodigious wunderkindgroup then maybe you should continue with them post-college, but generally the aim should be to get good grades on assignments, have a portfolio of finished or at least presentable projects, and to graduate as a strong individual. Presume to find some good collaborators and weed out some bad ones. After college maybe start something up with the good ones, but don’t presume to finish a particular project ‘after college’ with the same team. The members will disperse, get jobs, lose interest, or just not want to work with you again, but they’ll all own a piece of whatever you created together. Be prepared to let all those games go, but learn what your strengths were and prepare to build on them later. Remember that game mechanics can’t be copyrighted but the characters and assets you created do carry ownership, probably split between the group members. After college, rebuild the fun ideas if you must, but leave behind the names, models, and other assets.

I’m a recent graduate

The logical next step. You’re probably looking for work, and finding it very hard to get some. What will help? Well, unless you have to, don’t necessarily go straight into a job at GameStop and spend all your free time spending your hard-earned money. That’s not the path to becoming a game developer (though it is fun for a bit in your early 20s if you must). Instead:

Example Goal:  Keep building projects. Release some solo mobile games (finished and shipped titles are the most impressive thing for your résumé).

Challenges: Basically life beginning, and all the demands you’ll feel on your time. Make sure to keep up your craft or your’ll lose it. I’m thinking of this period as somewhat transitional. Pay some attention to areas you need to improve (like modelling or pixel art for me) but also start moving into your speciality and building a portfolio that shows it off. This is the time where some recent graduates will go into paid work in other fields, never again to return to game development. Others will drift, doing a bit of game dev, a bit of other things, and in a year they’ll be competing with newer graduates without having gained a head start on them. The most driven ones will use this time to sharpen their skills, prove their worth, and either find good paid work, or find funding and start their own companies!

I want to make games on the side

 Now that is a nice home office!
Now that is a nice home office!

This is a bit like the hobbyist, but with more of a profit motive. It requires goals, discipline, market research, and a proper accountant (good thing you can afford one (also, if you’re making money in any of these categories I’ve mentioned you probably need to be filing tax returns – just my little disclaimer – I’m not giving financial advice here today)).

Example Goal: Release a mobile game every 6 months, waiting for a hit.

Challenges: Most of the same ones that the hobbyist faces, plus trying to compete on the App Store(s). Trying to make the game stand out.

Freedoms: Same as hobbyist. You don’t need to make money, but you are hoping to at least make development worth your time (Some of game dev is very enjoyable, but the hobbyist stops short of the gruelling testing, accounting, and legal hurdles that come towards the end of a game project. You’ll want to feel that this is worth doing.)

This is possibly the most/only sensible way to tackle the mobile games market without millions of dollars to spend on marketing. Examine the market, make something, hope for a hit, don’t get one, learn from it, make something else, and repeat. But don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Personally I chose not to compete in mobile because I didn’t have an interest in mobile games that would sustain me through the hard parts, and I also didn’t think I had a reasonable chance to stand out and make money. For me, game dev wasn’t going to be ‘on the side’ (at least when I started out) so this isn’t a route I took, though I might do it in future.

The 6 month goal is achievable, and also gives you two chances at a hit each year. Not too bad..

I’m employed in the games industry

Congratulations, you’re living the dream!… maybe. In bigger studios you may feel like you have very little agency over what gets created, and in smaller ones you may fear more for job security long term (though you should always be concerned with this in the world today, especially in a games studio funded by profits). So what should you focus on?

Example Goals: Sharpen your expertise to the max, utilising the mentor-rich environment that you’re now in. Build your professional network. Get your name in the credits of some big titles.

Challenges: Depending on where you are, you may be experiencing horrible crunch conditions (Don’t allow this to destroy your quality of life. Stand up to this lose-lose practice). You may be working somewhere that forbids you from working on your own stuff on the side (for some terrible reason. So, know what you’re allowed do, and push for internal game jams if this is the case. Creative people need a break from working on just one thing). You may have low morale if you’re not making something that interests you, especially if you haven’t other creative outlets.

Freedoms: You’re being paid to make games and are surrounded by people who can make you even better! Many companies will pay for or subsidise a trip to games conferences for you. Absolutely take advantage of this!

This is one of the best places to be, but don’t assume that your job will last forever (it might, but studios suffer lay offs or close completely all the time). Use the time to become amazing at your craft, and network and go to conferences so you meet people that know you’re amazing. Your professional network of people you’ve met in person(!!) is the single best way to find work in the future. These may also be the people that you form an indie studio with, if that’s your goal.

I’m thinking of leaving my job and making a game full-time

 The day Retroneo Games was born. Click for link to that blog post.
The day Retroneo Games was born. Click for link to that blog post.

This is where things get serious and you have to really start thinking like a business. This is kind of what I did except that I didn’t get to choose to leave my previous job (just as well though – tax advising isn’t as fun as game dev).

Example Goal: Release a profitable game on Steam within 2 years. Maybe follow to consoles.

Challenges: Budgeting accurately/ not running out of money/savings. Keeping to a timetable (they say plan how long your game will take and double it. I did. Then I had to double that, then life happened and the original schedule is irrelevant now). Creating a game that will compete on Steam (easier than mobile, but still incredibly difficult). Targeting a market gap (eg. I picked single-player space games) that will still be a gap in 2 years (or so) when you finish the game.

Freedoms: Full time hours to dedicate to development (careful not to waste them by doing too much ‘research’ or adding unnecessary features). It’s possible to gain financial grants (varies from country to country) to support your game. Being full-time and putting your own savings in gives potential partners (profit-share artists, composers, or publishers) more confidence in your project and may help you build the team you need, even if you can’t afford to pay them directly.

A lot of PC indies are in this full time development/ full time panic state. Money is a stress, but with solid business plans and some game development experience, you can make an honest go of it. Most games lose money, but a long sales tail on a decently-made, worthwhile game can be a good foundation for a business. Watch this great GDC talk on the ‘No Hit Wonder’. You are also in with a real chance of making good money (odds are better than winning the lotto, and can be improved by having a streamer-friendly game that’s excellently polished and stands out from the crowd).

I’ve had a successful game and I’m growing my company

I can’t speak from experience with this one, but here is where many companies staff up and build a second game. Many build a game that has little or nothing to do with the first game, and maybe they don’t know how to manage larger groups of people, or budget at these higher levels, and it all falls apart. Others succeed beyond their wildest dreams! My advice would be:

Goal: Create a new game that builds upon either the IP, the mechanics, or the essence of the original (that’s what your fans want. Five Nights At Freddy’s is a great example of a developer maximising the value of the IP they’ve built).

Challenges: Usually you staff up, but hiring the wrong people can be a real challenge (remember: hire slow, fire fast!). Trying to keep fans happy – there are expectations now! Deciding what made the first game successful and building upon that without treading all over it (it’s a fine line to walk).

Freedoms: Your track record (and sales of the original) should make funding/raising new finance/finding a publisher easier. You should be able to hire and pay more staff directly, and also attract better staff because you’ve proven that you can successfully ship a profitable game. It will be easier to get console dev kits or get special access to exclusive launch deals, as well as press and streamer attention.

This is the position we probably all want to find ourselves in, yet none of us can start here. It requires mastering multiple (not all, but many) of the previous situations and also requires a powerful drive and resilience inside yourself. There will be many failures and many hard decisions to be made to get here, as well as sleepless nights and anxiety caused by having your work viewed, reviewed, and torn apart by the (voracious) gamer community. You might even get here and discover that it’s not what you wanted, but I think that for many of us, the financial freedom to spend our days doing what we love is the Holy Grail. For anyone reading this blog, what you likely love is making games. Best of luck to you! I hope that I’ve been able to help in some small way.

In Conclusion

I’ve recently begun moving into part-time business workshopping and coaching, aimed largely towards creatives, artists and game devs. I still make games, and Sons of Sol is still happening, but I ran into the budget problems mentioned in the ‘I’m thinking of leaving my job and making a game full-time’ section. So now I’m moving into the ‘games on the side’ section, but with finishing the PC game as my goal instead of the mobile games (for now, anyway).

Most of you will probably find yourselves hitting several of these stages over your careers. Personally, I kind of skipped the student one, but self-taught through 1GAM projects.

If this guide was helpful or if you’d like to ask me anything related to game dev business, do get in touch through the comments or the RetroNeo Games contact page.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time…

Does Inventory Management ruin RPGs?

So, my biggest problem with RPGs is that I don’t have time to play them. In the last few years I’ve started but not finished The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Dark Souls, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and numerous others. As I wrote about two months ago, I also started Mass Effect: Andromeda and have since finished that (I think I just get more immersed in space opera than fantasy RPGs). And I’m not someone to abandon a game lightly. I even now keep a spreadsheet of games bought vs started, finished, and abandoned or dropped in favour of watching a YouTuber finish it. There’s just been an increase in releases, sales, and bundles, and a decrease in the free time I have that’s taking a toll on my game completion, especially in RPGs.

This problem, though, is exacerbated by my second biggest problem with (most) RPGs – inventory management. Actually, this would apply almost equally to most survival/crafting games, but I’ll focus on RPGs today.

RPG stands for role-playing-game (or rocket-propelled-grenade. Just for the sake of pedantry). You’re supposed to get very involved with your character, whether they’re an original creation of your own, or a given hero like Geralt of Rivea. You’re meant to come to see the world through their eyes and get totally immersed in the experience of deciding what that character would do in hundreds of given situations.

Designers go to great lengths to make actions and dialogue choices affect the world around you minutes, hours, and even years later in the case of the original Mass Effect trilogy, where some minor choices could resonate into the sequels. Huge budgets often go into making the worlds vast and sprawling, with dynamic weather, super-realistic lighting and shadows, and natural NPC and animal AI. This is all to make us feel more invested in the world; like it’s a living, breathing place that we’re really escaping to for a few hours.

The problem is that (and I’ll take The Witcher 3 as a recent personal example), every time I do get a few hours to come back to my save file, I take a look at my inventory and between the dozens of clothing items, clubs, swords, foods, potions, and wolf guts that I’m apparently fitting inside my pockets, I can’t remember if I’m wearing optimal armour, or checked to see if I’m using the best weapon, and the first thing I get, before any gameplay enjoyment, is the frustration of choice paralysis. I’m certainly not immersed, yet.

Then I think to myself, if I’m role playing a demon hunter riding around the countryside on horseback, why am I even carrying this much stuff? I should be travelling light, with only vital supplies and potions. You could argue that it’s my fault for picking stuff up, but that’s a pretty central tenet of all RPGs, which is actually my main problem with the genre (me not having enough time isn’t really the genre’s fault). In fiction, Geralt even repeatedly mentions that he carries two swords. A silver one for monsters, and a steel one for humans or animals. Why, then, would he pick up and carry a dozen clubs and maces (that he can’t even wield in the game), ten other steel swords, and whatever else he’s got?

Don’t say ‘Economy’

It’s an RPG trope to just hoard everything until you can get to a shop to sell it, so you can buy new things. In most games there’s an ‘overburdened’ mechanic that slows you down or otherwise impedes your abilities if you carry too much, but that’s a weak ‘fix’ to the issue of being incentivised to carry around half of the world’s economic resources in your backpack.

Just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean that it’s good design, or even that players would miss it if it was gone. Yes, if you gave less ‘loot’ for kills and treasure chest raids, then shop items would be harder to afford. There’s a very simple fix to that. You either lower the game’s prices for items, or give more gold for quests and less for selling loot. Solved. That’s part of the game balance process during production anyway. Players will never see it.


I see The Witcher 3 praised (and rightly so) all the time for its story, gameplay, animations, etc, but nobody that I’ve seen has ever talked about why Geralt would/could carry so much stuff around and raised that as a negative. Each time I came back to the game this got in my way and ruined my immersion a bit. In a game that has magic as a world element, you could argue that the items are shrunk, and that’s okay, but I don’t think they do it here (correct me if I’m wrong). And either way it’s not fun. In a sci-fi game you could say that nano machines instantly form the item you want when you want it, and return to a dormant state when you’re finished so you’re carrying around less mass but have access to several blueprint items that form and reform on command. But still, inventory management is just not fun when compared with the main game’s activities. Why must it take so much time?

Magic bags and nano machines are ‘okay’ answers by themselves, but I do think that they need to be addressed by the story in order to be acceptable, and I still think it’s preferable to make the player make interesting decisions about what to carry.

I would like to see you carrying less items in most RPGs. Elements of RPG design (specifically experience curves and customisation options) have snuck into most other game genres in the last decade, especially first person shooters, but not as many action elements have come into real time RPGs.

For example, a lot of shooters like Spec Ops: The Line or Gears of War will only let you carry two main weapons (and maybe a pistol as a third), plus grenades. Ideally you’d want something for close, medium, and long ranges, and probably something for heavy targets like an RPG (grenade, this time) launcher. This makes it impossible for you to hoard items and instead has you make interesting decisions about what you think is coming and what your play style is.

In Fallout 4 I wound up carrying so many different weapons that I thought I was playing a 90s FPS, and I often got overburdened.

Steal everything!

Another symptom of this problem is that because the game is balanced (presumably) to have good items available in shops for lots of money, you’re encouraged to loot everything from everywhere just in case that last cooking pot represents the last few credits you’ll need to afford the gold plated armour in the next town.

I actually hate this about RPGs. It’s fine to role play a villain or nefarious character, if that’s your thing, but I usually go paragon/good, and it’s totally at odds with the character I’m role playing to do a side quest to save this poor, starving person from the gang who’s threatening to rob her apartment, just to turn around, break into her home, and take everything myself, as she thanks me walking out the door. I didn’t even want her vase, I just took it because I could.

Someone will now tell me I’m playing it wrong. Well, I’m not, really. What’s the right way? That’s the point of RPGs, isn’t it? But it does feel wrong to me. Gamers become experts at min-maxing game systems. It just becomes second nature to find the most efficient ways to do something, and stealing to get free resources is just good gaming (because an NPC isn’t going to care or be affected the vast majority of the time), but it completely ruins the game’s immersion while you’re doing it, and when designers are trying to have people reach flow states, that’s a cardinal sin! It needs to be designed against.

As a side note, Fallout 4 is actually the first game I’ve ever played where I was more immersed  as a result of not looting everything that I could. I started out that way, but found quickly that there were actually too many locations (and shopkeepers had limited funds) for me to bother hoarding items just for currency. So, kudos there. And that’s not even in survival mode, where your inventory is vastly more limited. In Deus Ex games, the levels are far more linear and so you can quite easily do every side quest, help every NPC, then rob every item. The interesting choice about what to buy in a store is usually lost because the decisions becomes not “item-A, or item-B”, but “let’s steal items C-Z then come back to sell them and buy both A and B”. It basically generates busy work (to go steal C-Z) and artificially lengthens the game. That could almost be seen as a plus if you can stay immersed while doing it, but I can’t.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda I didn’t even look at what I was picking up any more after a few hours. I rarely went to shops and when I did I’d buy the most expensive stuff, sell all my ‘junk’ in a single button press, throw in a few extra shotguns and rifles I had lying around, and walk out with more credits than I went in with, plus the new vehicle upgrades. I like a lot about that game, but I had utter contempt for the inventory and the god-awful layout of the research and crafting trees. I just found weapons and armour early on that I liked and pretty much used them for the rest of the game, without ever feeling like the enemy were too powerful for my current gear level. How many hours of work went into just a couple of mechanics that only got in my way and made me feel contempt for that part of the game? Not worth it! Simplify! Cut the fat!

Define the problem

I think I’ve been pretty clear so far, but when trying to solve a problem, it’s good to be very clear about its definition. So allow me to suggest:

“The glaring weak point in the RPG genre is its looting and inventory systems, which slow the game’s pace and break immersion”.

For me, that statement is complete enough. As an example, I find that in many RPGs I spend about half my time (or at least far too much of it) considering what to loot, reading item descriptions, going back and forth between different gun stat listing to weigh the pros and cons of changing my primary weapon, and generally not playing the game!

Talk about solutions

 Must every RPG Protagonist's fatal flaw be that they're a KLEPTOMANIAC?
Must every RPG Protagonist’s fatal flaw be that they’re a KLEPTOMANIAC?

This is just me talking, but I know from pervious chats that others agree with me. There are dozens of us! Dozens! I’ll confess that I’m not traditionally an RPG guy. I didn’t get into Baldur’s Gate back when it was big, I haven’t played Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity, or any Bethesda game before Skyrim, and I don’t think I’ve ever played a table-top RPG yet (though I really want to). So I’m an RPG-pleb coming from the shooter world into this great genre, which really first captivated me when it went sci-fi and first/third person. So maybe there are purists who love the systems exactly the way that they are, but I think there are improvements to be made.

I’m not about to tackle making an RPG myself, but I’d encourage any designers reading this to approach their next RPG from the ground up. Take out looting completely and see if the game is fun. Then add back in interesting decisions around looting, weapon management, and the economy, with a very deliberate focus on “what would our lead character do in this world?” instead of “it’s an RPG so you have to be able to loot lots of stuff”. Have looting and weapon management for good, synergistic reasons, not just because it’s a genre norm.

In Conclusion

I think I already concluded, really. But I don’t hear others talking about this much, especially not in relation to The Witcher 3. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and whether you’re a classic RPG player, or a recent blow-in.

Until next time…

They say “Jump”. I say “I was right!”

Jump is a brand new monthly subscription service for playing a curated selection of indie games. “Think of it like Netflix” says company chief Anthony Palma. It will support PC, Mac, and Linux games, as well as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR titles.

In March I wrote about this very topic. So I get to say “I was right”. It wasn’t a radical guess or anything, but my fridge is all out of humble pie so I’m going to take that prediction as a win.

Well, is it a win though? Wasn’t I arguing that this would bring on the end times… or something? Well, sort of. I invite you to read that article, and its follow-up in April on potential Alternate Payment Models of the future. To summarise, change is inevitable, so fighting the tide is ultimately fruitless, but the direction we appear to be heading is to devalue games to the point where they’re not worth making any more, and only the most generic, risk-free games will be invested in and made in future. That is worth resisting.

Tell us about Jump

Okay so there are a few things I like about Jump.

1. Its price and revenue share

Your one monthly payment of $10 gets you access to everything on the platform. It’s a little more expensive than Netflix, and I like this. Games are pricier than movies and TV shows already. However, games are constantly going on sale and approaching worthlessness. Jump itself might make games worth even less, true, but that’s happening anyway and at least they’re not racing Netflix to the bottom. $10 is a respectable fee. I’d pay it.

One of my key complaints about Spotify in that blog was that artists apparently get a terrible share of revenue. I might be wrong, but I think it’s a predatory percentage share of the revenue that Spotify take, and if I am wrong, it’s still a worthless payout that most artists actually get.

Jump are taking a 30% cut and leaving 70% to the developers. I like this. Either they’re nervous about how they’ll be perceived and accepted, and by extension their success, or more likely they’re just happy to maintain the status quo. Steam take 30% of the cut on all game sales on the platform; why should Jump go lower? Good that they’re not going higher either. 

So 70% of all membership fees go to the developers, according to how muchtime players have spent on their game. This means that if players just try out your short game and (if it were on Steam) would have just refunded it, you still get paid.

2. It’s a meritocracy

Just to drag that last point out, if your game is better and gets played more, you get paid more. The hidden danger with this is that it might encourage developers to make the game artificially longer, by having excess grinding or backtracking, just to run up the minutes spent, and thus the pay-out. In the same way that Free-To-Play models negatively affect game design, so too might this. However, it’s counterbalanced by two things. Firstly, people said the same about games needing to be particularly engaging and polished in the first two hours after Steam brought in refunds, and I haven’t really noticed much change being reported on there. Secondly…

3. It’s curated

Jump will launch with 60-100 games and add 10-12 more each month. It is not going to be an open platform. Apparently, only games of a certain quality and popularity will be allowed on. This solves Steam’s major problem of discoverability and quality, but only for a select few.

You can be sure that the platform will be inundated with requests for access from developers. Maybe we’ve come full-circle, back to before Steam launched Greenlight and opened the flood gates. This is good for developers who get on the platform, but bad for those who can’t. It is pretty good for consumers though, which will be essential to the adoption of this platform.

You also don’t disappear just because your game is a few months old. In their algorithm, older games get jumped back up to the top of the discoverability queue periodically.

How do they pick the games that make it on the platform? Apparently they’re looking at 3 things. Critical response, peer response, and market response. Basically, are there good reviews, any awards, or good sales? Apparently having one of these things is enough for consideration, with two or three being better. I would guess that the vast majority of games will have either none, or all three. Good reviews lead to good sales and awards often follow (or precede, like getting Best In Show at EGX or PAX).

4. It’s just for indies

On Jump, a user is there to play indie games. They pay for that, so you can be sure they’re there for you, and maybe less interested in what EA are doing over on their subscription service. It’s great that a user here isn’t choosing between the newest AAA launch and your indie darling, as they would be doing over on Steam. It really is somewhere that indie games have a chance to shine, and this is one of the big fears that I brought up in the March blog, originally.

5. It’s not exclusive

Being on Jump doesn’t mean you can’t also sell elsewhere, which is great for fans who want to have their own copy of a game, and great for devs who’d still like the option of trying to win big on Steam. It’s been stated that a developer can launch on Steam and then come to Jump after six months if they wish, when they’re starting to see sales really die off. Good for devs. I like.

However, if you got lukewarm reviews and didn’t sell, you may not have the option to get on Jump anyway.

6. It’s an online service

I’m actually not sure if I like or dislike this, but I’ll leave it in this group, anyway. There is no download and install of the games. That’s a big plus if you’ve a slow connection, and great if you want to try out a game immediately. But it’s not a streaming service either (where the game runs on a server somewhere else and you get sent the results to your device) which can also have latency issues, especially with slow or unreliable connections.

Instead, it pulls enough of  the game down from the servers within about 20 seconds, that you can start running it locally, but without storing it locally or constantly checking in with the server. It’s not a Unity-exclusive platform, but if you’re familiar with Unity’s Web GL builds – that.

 That's an impressive looking group of advisors
That’s an impressive looking group of advisors

But there is one thing I really don’t like.

Unity WebGL

WebGL is the future, but speaking as a developer I’ve still found it to only suck hard! I did a blog (now partly outdated) about migrating older Unity projects into WebGL-friendly formats and getting around certain inexplicable bugs people were having.

Many improvements have been made since, but even still, the last time I tried to put Sons of Sol into a WebGL build (last week), it wouldn’t even build, let alone run. I do believe that it’s due to having XInputDotNet stuff in there, which I use to make the controllers vibrate, but how can it be that this futuristic platform doesn’t support vibration?

Actually, Unity doesn’t support vibration in controllers normally, anyway. Sort it out, already, please!

In addition, all the old Unity Web Player (since deprecated in all major browsers) games that I’d updated to WebGL and replaced on this website have since broken. I discovered this yesterday. I don’t know how long they were out for. I monitor game news and Unity blogs for updates on this sort of thing. It’s possible I missed it, but I was unaware of any newer Chrome, Firefox, or Unity updates that should have broken these once-painstakingly-fixed game builds. I’ve had to remove them or provide only PC builds for download on the site. It’s very frustrating to try and keep up with.

I’ve just found WebGL to be a nightmare so far, though I know it works for some people with no problems, so your mileage may vary. A developer will have to get their game working in this format, with a reportedly simple Jump plugin, to get on the platform. I’ve actually no idea if Sons of Sol will ever get on the problem. At one stage I made myself a WebGL expert and still couldn’t get that game to work on it, though there is a lot more going on in Sons of Sol’s code than there is in the other game jam games that I fixed.

My message to any devs is this: “If you think you’d like to get on Jump, test today if your game actually works on WebGL. If it does, keeping testing it regularly. If not, good luck to you”.

Other Thoughts

This will be a very interesting one to watch. I would like to see everything remain as it was a few years ago, with people paying for games they wanted, and games holding value enough for serious, dedicated developers to actually approach game development as a business. But the only constant is change, as they say, and this is the way the winds are blowing. Given that, I think Jump is looking like a fairly benevolent new force in the marketplace.

I’m actually unsure if a drop in your wifi would boot you out of your game. I don’t think WebGL would, but maybe Jump’s proprietary software might. I don’t think so because they seem to be fairly measured in a lot of their decisions so far, and an always-on connection would be a deal breaker for a lot of people. Having to log into the site at the start of your game session each time isn’t much better though.

How frustrating is it those times when your router goes down and you realise that you’ve suddenly nothing to watch, listen to, or play, because you can’t get onto the servers to start a movie, album, or game? I do like to own copies of the things I want to use.

Or what if you lose a job and all of a sudden you’ve all the time you want to play and watch everything you couldn’t before, only to realise that you’ve to cancel all your subscriptions and you don’t own hard copies of anything any more because it’s [current year argument].

I would like to see the option to download locally and play without internet access during the month of your membership. I just don’t know how that’s going to turn out.

It’s telling, however, that I currently feel like I would probably subscribe to the service, and that I would want my own game on it. As a consumer and a developer, I’m cautiously optimistic about Jump.

Let’s see how it goes. What do you guys think about it? Do please let me know in the comments.

Jump is currently in Beta and launches in “late Summer 2017”.

So, until next time…

Mass Effect Affects EA’s Prospects


Sorry about the title. It’s a little inaccurate but I couldn’t resist. This article is about the game Mass Effect: Andromeda and the fact that it’ll never be fully appreciated because of bad management decisions.

Andromeda, the 4th game in the Mass Effect series, and supposedly the first of a new trilogy, released on March 21st, 2017 in a broken, bloody mess, and has factually killed the series dead (well, cancelled and “on hiatus” is as dead as a gaming franchise ever officially gets).

So it must be a bad game, right? Well, no! Not the version I played (v1.08).

In an era where “games as a service” is increasingly becoming the norm, and hardly any big game is ever finished on release day any more, we see more and more games releasing in broken states or missing features and getting patched later. A large part of the reason is a (I argue) misguided adherence to schedules, budget and targets set by marketing departments and management, rather than listening to development teams who actually have their hands on the product.

It’s very easy to criticise, of course. There are good arguments to be fairly rigid with deadlines. Maximising the value of expensive marketing campaigns that are planned months in advance is one. Not making the development team complacent and feeling like they’ve infinite time to “get it right” is another, but when reviews still happen in and around launch day, and review scores are permanent, surely it must be better to take the financial hit of delaying the game than releasing a travesty and killing one of gaming’s biggest franchises of the past decade.

Not the first time

EA, Mass Effect’s publisher, frequently seem to be one of the worst offenders in this regard, with the infamous Sim City and Battlefield 4 botched launches being among the worst examples of the last 5 years.  You’d think they might have learned a lesson. To a degree, they did, but not well enough. Andromeda was delayed once, initially scheduled to release in 2016. EA even said that they would consider delaying the game again if it made for a better experience. Evidently, they should have. It’s not clear how collaborative the decision to release was between EA and developers Bioware, but undoubtedly, the wrong decision was made. That’s evidenced by the fact that just 3 months after launch, I’m playing an enjoyable game that I’d rate 7/10. It has its problems, but has none of the embarrassing animation gaffes that defined the game’s release.

 This the 

 The stuff of legends, though these types of problems seem to be fully gone now.
The stuff of legends, though these types of problems seem to be fully gone now.

This is, unfortunately, how Andromeda will forever be remembered, and it’s something that was only in the game for a few weeks around release. You won’t see that now (or at least, I haven’t) but things like this predisposed players and critics to see the game’s other faults in a worse light. There are some cringe worthy lines of dialogue here and there, but there’s also tens of thousands of good ones. “My face is tired” is the one that will be remembered, though, because it’s early in the game and while it passed me by without major upset, anyone already totally unimmersed by the animations would just see it as another nail in the coffin.

Still not perfect

I must say that audio problems persist and playing with subtitles is essential in v1.08 or you’ll miss a lot of response lines from anyone standing more than 2 metres away. Similarly, the dynamic camera zoom, which supposedly focuses the camera on the speakers when a non-cutscene conversation starts, all too often fails to frame either speaker and leaves you staring at a desk or a wall.

Another early complaint was that planet exploration had these unskippable flying transitions between planetary orbits. While they look cool, they get tedious. You can now skip inter-planetary cutscenes, but not inter-system ones, and not ones for entering or exiting a planetary level. I can only presume that they’re necessary to hide loading times, but other games would allow you to skip after maybe 5 seconds when the loading is done, instead of watching the full 20-30 second identical cutscene every time you come and go from the Nexus (which will be a lot of times).

More playtesting and development time could have fixed these issues, led to positive reviews, greater sales, DLC, a sequel, and the continuation of the franchise. Instead, the game was sold at 50% discount less than 3 months after release, after the series was cancelled.

There are a few things I’m trying to say here

1. To developers & publishers: “Prioritise quality, because gamers care!”

From what you’ve read so far, I’m sure you’d agree that in hindsight (or if they had just learned lessons from other failing releases) the better decision here would have been a second delay of 3-5 months. Sometimes smaller companies have no option, financially speaking, but to release now, but this isn’t true of EA/Bioware.

Players forgive and forget delayed releases, but a bad launch is bad forever.

2. To gamers: “PLEASE stop pre-ordering games”

I feel a hypocrite to write this, so let me first disclaim that as a developer, I currently do offer Sons of Sol for pre-order on this very site. I don’t push it, and I don’t particularly encourage you to buy it (though I do appreciate the support if you did) but it was necessary to sell a few units to prove that we’re “in commerce” for business-y reasons.

 Come one, seriously! Who cares about this?!
Come one, seriously! Who cares about this?!

BUT! As a gamer, I never pre-order, and I always wait for reviews. You contribute to a culture of bad releases and broken games if you support this practice, particularly in the AAA world. When developers already have your money, they don’t need to make the product any better than ‘passable’. You’d think that, for their reputations, they’d want to deliver the best possible quality, but it’s not always the case. Look at Arkham Knight, Dead Island, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, No Man’s Sky, or now, Mass Effect: Andromeda. These are all games that you’ll find on lists of all-time bad releases, and all have earned their creators considerable scorn. It can drive gamers to piracy as well with the logic “I paid you for a good game. You didn’t give me one. I’m stealing your next one”. Never mind the illegality, and the paradoxical logic of ‘once bitten, go back for more’ – it happens, and it affects bottom lines.

The sad thing is, most of those games have gotten better with patching, and reached a state that gamers would have been happy with if they’d received that version at launch, even if launch were delayed.

If you don’t pre-order, developers will be more concerned with having good initial review scores and word of mouth, and will have to earn your money before taking it. Listen, forget about the horse armour, the classic skin for your character, or the unique handgun that you’ll never use in multiplayer. Just stop pre-ordering.

3. To gamers: “Consider waiting for sale”

I don’t think this will do the industry any favours if you’re already waiting for release and not pre-ordering, but if you’re a thrifty bargain-hunter, know that EA in particular are showing that they’re willing to discount their biggest releases to 50% off within just weeks of release. In December, I wrote about how Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 (both critically acclaimed but released in a busy pre-Christmas cycle) were selling at 40% and 50% off respectively in the Holiday sales. The same has happened with Andromeda in the Summer/E3 period, and I would suspect that the same will happen with Star Wars: Battlefront 2 at the end of this year. If you want to wait to see how that game is reviewed, you may as well wait a little longer in case there’s a hefty discount at Christmas time. This seems to happen a lot with multiplayer games, which can die on the vine if they don’t get a critical mass of players fast!

4. To EA: “Is Origin Access really doing you any favours?”

EA, and so many companies like them, want to move their customers onto more predictable monthly subscription models. I don’t like this as a consumer (it’s basically the same as pre-ordering everything the company do, and losing access to everything any month you don’t pay up), but I can see why it makes business sense, too. EA’s version is called ‘Origin Access’.

So, one of the incentives they offer to members is to “try new EA games before they’re released”. Maybe those words sound good in a board room, but it’s actually a horrible thing! This is because it means either

i) The game is ready and you’re holding it hostage an extra week so you can try to lure people into anti-consumer subscription models, or

ii) The game is not ready, and you’re letting the internet(!!!) get their hands on your unfinished game and tear it to shreds with memes, scathing YouTube videos, and negative reviews.

This is the very definition (totally in the dictionary, just take my word for it) of a double edged sword. EA hoped to cut into the market with one side of the blade, and instead got sliced with the other.

Never ones to learn, though, this offer still remains on the Origin Access website at time of writing.

The motives I’ve mentioned above are of course just my opinion, but if you have another way to read the situation, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

In Conclusion

So I’ve barely talked about the game itself, and that’s kind of my point. Nobody knows Mass Effect Andromeda as the good game that it’s actually turned into, because you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and the internet has an incredibly short attention span.

 For me, this is what the old games felt like, and what Andromeda mostly succeeds in delivering.
For me, this is what the old games felt like, and what Andromeda mostly succeeds in delivering.

So, to give the game its due, my two paragraph review is that it’s quite enjoyable, and definitely worth the sale price I paid for it. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m well into the second Act, and it’s been reminding me a lot of the feeling of the first two games, of which I was a big fan. The breadth and depth of character interactions that you’d expect is there. Those awe-inspiring moments of stepping onto a spaceship bridge or a sheer cliff top and beholding magnificent vistas are the high points that make you feel the fantasy of being a space explorer. Andromeda didn’t lose that from the originals. The combat is a lot of fun. There’s less tactical squad management in combat (con, in my eyes) but it’s replaced with a verticality and movement focus that feels fresh (pro). There’s also nothing stopping you from hanging back and just sniping. The story is compelling (if a little too similar to ME2 in parts, so far). Unfortunately, excessive inventory management from ME1 came back, but I’ve been largely ignoring my armour pickups and R&D options and doing just fine at surviving. There’s also a fun co-op multiplayer segment very similar to ME3’s, though it has micro transactions so… look I just hate ‘reward crates’ in general, but the multiplayer doesn’t require that you buy and it is quite fun.

There are plenty of frustrations, though. Some still unskippable transitions, inventory management, poor menu layout for Research, some jarring dialogue, bad camera work and audio problems, but they all speak to merely a lack of polish, rather than a bad core game. The core game is good, and the polish has been improving with patches. I wouldn’t write this off if you haven’t played it yet, but don’t pay full price.

Concluding the conclusion

Game good. Silly corporate decisions bad. Hopefully both will get better. You can help by not pre-ordering or joining subscription services.

Until next time..

PS Sons of Sol (our game) has its final weekend on Square Enix Collective this weekend (July 1st & 2nd) and we’d love your votes and comments! Thanks!

Empathy For Pixels

 Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.
Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.

Truthfully, I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this. Turns out it’s about two things: ways to deepen game characters, and reasons why it’s important (as well as when it’s not.. so okay three things).

Let me tell you a story. It’s about a boy who was born into a fairly poor family who eked out a passable existence on a family plot in the mountains. When he was only 12 years old, his father was killed in a tragic farming accident, and as his mother was too ill to work, he became the sole breadwinner for a family of six younger siblings.

He had a talent for singing. His deep and melodious voice, paired with a deep well of emotion bought from years of personal sacrifice, won him many admirers in the taverns and dance halls around the local villages. It wasn’t long before the girls started to notice him.

As his younger siblings matured, he dreamed of leaving the farm and pursuing a career in music, until one day a paramour told him she was pregnant with his child. Dreams of a life of travel and singing were forgotten. They married and his love gave birth to twins some few months later. He was the happiest man alive!

Unfortunately, the harvests had been poor for years, and the bank reclaimed his family’s farm as the twins neared their first birthdays.

With not one, but two families to support, and no means of doing so, he joined the army, one of the few employers who was always hiring. He moved both families to the city as he began boot camp.

His first post was guarding a hydroelectric power plant. It was hard to be away from his family, but he knew that they were safe and provided for.

One day on duty, as he quietly hummed a lament, thinking about the night he first met his beloved, this happened…

 GIF recorded from tommytep's YouTube Channel. Click image for source.
GIF recorded from tommytep’s YouTube Channel. Click image for source.


Like that one? Let me tell you another (shorter) story.

A class sits idle in some code, waiting. Its name is Soldier 4. It’s basically frozen in time. It doesn’t even look like anything yet because its mesh hasn’t been rendered because the player camera’s frustum hasn’t come across it yet. Suddenly, the player enters a trigger area around the corner and the class springs to life in glorious pixelated detail. It starts playing an animation, shifting its weight back and forth on two legs. Then a raycast determines  that it’s just been shot 3 times. A rather slow and painful looking death animation is chosen from a small list of predetermined death animations. After a few seconds, Soldier 4 lies still, fades to nothing, and the garbage collector erases any trace of his existence shortly thereafter.


Okay, which story do you like better? Which is more true? Which is more believable?

Which would you tend to think of when playing a game? I suppose that would depend on how immersed you are, and what lengths the game goes to in order to inform you about non player characters (NPCs).

I used Goldeneye because it’s one of the earliest examples I can think of where my mom was a bit upset that I was shooting people in games, rather than speeding through checkpoints and jumping on robotic animals. It’s also one of the first games I can recall that put some real effort into showing pain in the enemies. You could shoot them in the foot, hand, or crotch, and they’d stop shooting, grab the injured area, make a pained noise and hop around (if they still could).

I was too busy at the time being blown away by the speed and the technology (I’d also never played Doom or similar 3D shooters at that time) to think of the enemies as anything more than obstacles to progression, but I can see now in games what my mom saw then. And it’s got nothing to do with graphics, or realistic animations. It’s partly a question of emotional maturity, of course, but also of storytelling. Where I just saw ‘baddies’ my mom saw me walk into a room and gun down a random young man in a Russian uniform with no provocation. Goldeneye didn’t really give you reasons to kill most of the game’s enemies other than “you’re James Bond and they’re Russian. Duh!”

Twenty years later, we have plenty of room on the disc to fit even a little audio that can precisely let you know why you should (or shouldn’t) want to kill these dudes. Yet in those situations where we have the opportunity to do better, how often do we actually strive to?

When to dehumanise

There are so many games of all sorts. I’m not at all trying to argue that we do want backstories for all game characters in order to make them better. That could often do the opposite.

  Brutal Doom 's ott gore doesn't exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!
Brutal Doom ‘s ott gore doesn’t exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!

Take Doom (new or old). It’s an unapologetic power fantasy, delivered through the medium of speed and violence. Killing demons removes any need for cumbersome storytelling. It’s black and white. Demons are evil. Kill demons. A game shouldn’t try to do too many things. If the extras conflict with the core idea, cut them.

We often dehumanise the enemy in games. Literally. Whether to simplify story, avoid moral debates or to sidestep local censorship laws, we turn our targets into zombies, monsters, robots, or aliens. It works really well. Robots and zombies can also relieve the impact of bad AI, since they’re not meant to be particularly intelligent to begin with. Great! Over the top violence and power fantasies can be fantastically fun, and I wouldn’t change Doom 1 or 4 one little bit.

The topic I’m addressing is what to do when we have human adversaries, who are meant to represent believable people. Because this is the greater challenge, and it’s likely that you seek to tell some sort of story when you’ve chosen to have human antagonists.

There are two types of games that use humans as enemies; those with either fictional or non-fictional settings.

Fictional Settings

GTA V is one of the most realistic, alive open world games that’ve ever been created. But players have zero empathy for the citizens of Los Santos. The game’s over the top satire, occasionally wonky physics, and amazing yet vastly imperfect AI, prevent any great depth of immersion. That’s not to say that you can’t get lost in the game for hours, but you’d never mistake it for a real experience, and you wouldn’t really start to feel for the characters. The emphasis on driving fast across a world populated by pedestrians is fundamentally incompatible with any sort of attempt to make you care about individuals in this world. And that’s fine. GTA V is incredible for what it is, and no game can be everything (though it’s not far off, to be fair).

Now take Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I just finished playing yesterday. As in most games, you’ll mow down hundreds of enemies, but narratively there’s something interesting going on. If you listen to the idle dialogue and/or audio records, you’ll come to appreciate a depth to the enemies. There are the core villains but also their paid and oblivious contractors. Trinity are out to do bad things and don’t care who they kill, but most of the enemy army are hired mercenaries who don’t know about or don’t believe in the religious fanaticism that drives their employers. Among these contractors, many start to realise that their bosses are nuts, and say that they didn’t sign on to round up and shoot local tribespeople. Some talk about trying to get out asap. Some other contractors are psychopaths themselves, and then Trinity are always evil. This approach did make me want to avoid killing certain guys, or at least regret having to do so. A little. It also made me more eager to hear what type of group I was about to go up against, by stealthily sneaking up on their positions instead of opening fire early. It’s a pity that there aren’t any non-lethal options or other mechanics to expand on this narrative theme. Once the bullets start flying, the good ones and the bad ones all want to kill you just as much.

Still, it was a good effort at adding some depth to the game, and I appreciated that it was there. Because personally I’m usually (when facing human game enemies) thinking that they’re probably not all bad and they don’t all deserve to die. It was nice for a game to respond to this.

Of course, other games have done this, and done it better. If you haven’t yet played Spec Ops: The Line then do it now! Even if you think you know all the spoilers, it’s a masterpiece in subverting player expectations. The whole journey through the game is brilliant.

Fundamentally, I think that most conflicts only occur due to a lack of understanding or empathy (including an unwillingness to share resources). With better communication and patience, most could be avoided. Games so rarely attempt to show this, but if narrative is a serious part of the game you want to deliver, then it should be strongly considered.

Games are such a powerful medium for delivering understanding and empathy because the player actively takes part in them. I’m not saying that every game should be doing this, but we could certainly be faring better as an industry.

Historical Settings

Real world armies have forever attempted to dehumanise the enemy in order to make it easier for your own troops to kill them. They’re all savages. They’re all baby killers. They’re all rapists, thieves and murderers, and God is on our side. War films are almost universally anti-war films (especially since Vietnam) and they usually tap into the folly of these lies. Yet war games still seem to find it more convenient to buy the lie hook, line, and sinker.

Maybe it’s because you’re asking the player to do the killing directly for hours on end that designers have felt the need to retain these lies. I remember that in the opening minutes of Call of Duty World at War you’re being brutally tortured by Japanese captors before being rescued by Kieffer Sutherland and his band of more morally upstanding brothers. It’s set up so that you will have no problems killing Japanese or German pixels for the next several hours. Of course, the Japanese and German armies were conducting genocide and torture, and stopping that is a fairly justifiable goal (as long as we’re clear that no side was squeaky clean), but I’m just saying that I’ve never seen a game take the opportunity to do what Letters from Iwo Jima by Clint Eastwood did.

This is why I’m a bit concerned that Call of Duty are returning to World War 2 as a setting this year. For the last several years they’ve been doing fictional settings and usually have some big opening set piece showing you exactly how evil your enemies are and why you should kill them all (they blew up your house and neighbours, usually). Their games are so formulaic that I’m concerned they’ll miss their chance to advance the genre of war games by just ticking all the same boxes in a new (well, old) setting and perpetuating the notion that Americans are always good, and Nazis are always bad. That said, they seem to be heavily influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan so maybe they will have some shades of grey in their narrative and do something new.

Battlefield 1 at least lets you play as both sides in a conflict and although human lives are reduced to mere ‘tickets’, I do admit that I felt remorse when sitting in a machine gun nest, mowing down a charge across the trenches by the players on the other team.

Yes, it’s a game, but it represents something. Yes, the players will respawn and so it’s more like a game of paintball or virtual tag than an actual battle, but this is where my empathy for pixels idea comes in. Real lives were ended doing exactly this kind of action that I’m doing right now. I sincerely hope that when you watch the last hour of Titanic you feel a lot more moved than when you watch Con Air. Similarly, I hope than when you play games based on the world wars or Vietnam, that a part of you doesn’t glorify the killing in the same way as you the glory kills in Doom.

They’re different beasts, I think, and deserve different treatments from the creators. I hope that Call of Duty: WW2 gets some of that.

Games with more moral weight

I’ve referenced more linear games here so far, but RPGs are traditionally much better at giving weight to your moral decisions, even if they are nearly always set in fantasy or post-apocalyptic worlds.

I recently played Westerado, an indie cowboy RPG/ murder mystery in an open world that you have a lot of agency over. It doesn’t take itself fully seriously, but because you can go anywhere and kill anyone, you feel like you’ve some real responsibility in the world. Because of this responsibility, when I found myself riding out with some US Army soldiers who’d been fighting with native American tribes, and we than happened upon said tribes in a sudden ambush, I said “oh fuck no I will not be killing native Americans and still pretending I’m the good guy”. I ran from the fight. I failed that side quest. I think the army were all killed but I’m not sure. But that was my story. The game didn’t establish that these natives were out of line in any particular way, just that the army were fighting them. So my own knowledge of history filled in the rest.  While I was happy enough to help the army bring food to settlers (or whatever we were doing in that quest) I was not taking part in any genocide. Pixelated or not.

Here is an example of an extremely unrealistic looking game reaching me on a real level. An historical setting (fictional as the specifics are) and a game where my choices can have a lasting effect can create real empathy even for pixelated characters.

Mechanics for deeper, more sympathetic NPCs

Assuming you want some moral ambiguity or emotional weight in your game, particularly if you’re making a war game, what tools could be used to advance this agenda?

Just having NPCs chatter together is a very simple way of humanising them (for better or worse) before you go in guns blazing or not. It’s tried and true in linear games, but challenging in open worlds where the dialogue inevitably can start to repeat, and feel insincere.

The opening level of Battlefield 1 had you fighting a pitched battle on the Western front. Each time you died (in this level only), as the screen faded to black, you got your character’s name and the year of their birth and death. What it would say on their tombstone, basically. You then respawned as a new soldier elsewhere in the battle. This gave a weight to death that most war games (and the rest of this one) usually can’t deliver. If you add to that system something like “loving father and husband” or “always dreaming” you’ve a better system already.

Valiant Hearts has you play as characters from both sides of the trenches, and actually never has you kill anyone. It shows your Franco-German family in tact before the war, then watches as, torn apart by circumstance, they struggle to reunite.

This War of Mine has you play a war game from the point of view of starving families trying to survive amidst the rubble, where you make decisions to kill innocents because you need food for your own kids. The shocking reality of the unseen other side of war games was powerful.

Apart from historical settings that bring their own moral weight (and ethical dilemmas in terms of storytelling) to the table, you could use procedural generation to fill out backstories for each and every NPC that lives or dies. It’s its own challenge, but it’s possible. Watchdogs had a system where you could hack the phone of anyone in the open world and get a little summary of that person as an individual. That’s not an end in itself, but it’s a tool in the box.

Dwarf Fortress procedurally generates its entire world and history when you launch a new game. Co-creator Tarn Adams and Kitfox Games’ Tanya X Short have some great GDC talks and blogs about procedural generation, including a book they co-wrote called Procedural Generation in Game Design coming out soon. Do check some of it out if you’re interested in the area.

I’ve experimented myself with generating a small town’s size of population. Everyone gets a name, age and job. Every year people grow up and either die, marry, have kids, or do nothing extraordinary. Over a few seconds I grow this town by several generations and all of a sudden have a family history for every character still alive at the moment I start playing the game properly. I’m planning on using something similar to this in Sons of Sol to flesh out your wingmates’ backgrounds, though we don’t yet know the extent of player interaction with wingmates outside of the main missions.

In Conclusion

There are many more ways we could flesh out NPCs. Better AI is one. We could even get as far as giving NPCs the levels of interactivity that the hosts in Westworld have. Though I think the point of that show is that some people will just refuse to acknowledge the humanity in artificial things, while others can empathise with them very naturally; less because they’re fooled by looks or behaviour, but more because they’re emotionally invested in the story.

Humans have always loved storytelling, and creators have always found new and better ways of expanding our toolset for crafting them. We have amazing tools for creating empathy and understanding through interaction now.

Games are chief among the most consumed media in the modern age. Violence and conflict are a core part of many of our games, but also a significant part of the real world that we live in. In a world that too often seems to lack empathy and a willingness to understand our adversaries, games could be our best tool to foster a willingness to understand other sides in a conflict. I think it’s important that we start to do this more often. It doesn’t suit every game, but where killing humans is the main activity, and especially in historical war games, I think we can and should do better than we have been. We’re moving the right way, I think, but let’s keep it up.

Until next time..

Alternate Payment Models for Games

 Deus Ex Mankind Divided tried some new ideas... in a premium game... it didn't go down well.
Deus Ex Mankind Divided tried some new ideas… in a premium game… it didn’t go down well.

So I wanted to follow on from last month’s blog and continue to discuss the possible future of games monetization. To briefly sum up what I’ve said before, I’m concerned by an increasing trend towards heavily discounting games earlier and earlier (Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Titanfall last Christmas, for example) and the effect that this has on the perceived value of games.

The success of Spotify and Netflix’s models in other industries concerns me and we see a bit of a move in that direction with things like Humble Bundles, EA Access, and console equivalents.

If we’re not careful, we’ll get to where there’s no money to be made in games and only the most trite, generic, relatively low cost and mass-appealing titles (the Call of Duties and FIFAs) will be financially viable. We stand to lose so much as gamers if certain trends take root over the next decade or so.

The problem as I see it is that there’s a race to the bottom happening with the traditional pricing models, and while many, including myself, still prefer to pay for and own a copy of the exact game they’re looking for, the margins are shrinking all the time and in the future we may have far less games to choose from as smaller developers may no longer be able to afford to run studios, and even larger ones will be far less willing (even less than they are now) to innovate with their games.

I want to look at what is being done, and what might be done about this.

What’s Happening Today?

Library Subscriptions

This is where you basically pay a subscription and get access to a library of games as long as you’re still paying. The Spotify or Netflix model. In the last post, I mentioned how things like EA Access or a potential Steam equivalent could be disastrous for smaller games, but this is one way that EA is already trying to battle the downward trend in the perceived value of games. Hats off for trying, but I really hope they don’t succeed with this. Imagine you get laid off from work (as is quite the modern reality). Suddenly you’ve way more time to play games, but now have to cancel your subscription because you can’t afford it. You’ve got nothing.

End of Game Subscriptions(?)

 If WOW has gone Free To Play, that's saying something... then again, it's 10 years old so...
If WOW has gone Free To Play, that’s saying something… then again, it’s 10 years old so…

Eve Online and World of Warcraft have both been retreating a bit from their monthly subscription models, chasing after their dwindling player bases. Both now offer the game for free at lower levels of play, but retain the subscription if you want a more complete experience. Granted, these games are both over a decade old, but if these titans don’t think that a subscription fee for their games is completely viable any more then it’s doubtful that newcomers will adopt the model either; though it remains to be seen if this F2P/subscription blend will do the job for either of them.


AAA has been trying for years to squeeze extra pennies out of their fans by charging more for more content, and it’s gone as far as the total DLC costs sometimes now even costing as much as the core game. This was never a popular approach, but it did work, and it helped AAA games remain viable despite their massively inflated budgets.

Now, however, they’re beginning to realise that charging for extra multiplayer maps, and having only some players migrate over leaves all of their map servers underpopulated. We don’t have details yet, but Battlefront 2 this year seems to be saying that they won’t have DLC, or at least none that prevents all of their fans from playing together.

So we’ll see some changes to how DLC works, it seems, but it’s likely to stay around in some form for a long time yet.

Loot Crates

Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Battlefield and countless others are tapping into the dark side of human psychology by charging players to maybe win something they want. They’re actually working gambling into their games to keep the coins rolling in. Well, it had to happen eventually, and because it works, we seem to be stuck with it. The disgusting part to me is that they charge you money for the chance of winning one instance of a digital good that costs them nothing to produce. I hate this (which is ironic because of what I’ll argue for later, though it’s mainly the gambling element that I dislike). I have never and will never go along with it, at least not in a game I’ve already paid for, but this article is about how games are going to make money in the future, so this stays, and my personal tastes be damned.


Free To Play (F2P)

This is really looking like it may become the most popular payment model in future (it pretty much is now, especially in the East), but there are so many variations on it. On mobile it often means that you view ads or pay to unlock new levels, whereas in online traditional games it often means paying for cosmetics, XP bonuses, or in-game items.

We’re seeing that on YouTube, advertisers increasingly try to sponsor a video directly so that their message is given by the host, instead of in a skippable ad which usually isn’t worth their time. What will happen to mobile F2P when advertisers decide that they’re not getting the return they need in paying everyone else’s way? Because make no mistake; advertisers pay for the party, and we all hate looking at ads. Mobile payment models will have to change, and largely I have no problem with that. With the vast majority of mobile games that I’ve played, it seems that the payment model infects the game design and almost dictates that many of these games feel the same as one another. This might just be me, but the only mobile games I’ve truly enjoyed are ones that I’ve paid premium for; namely 80 days, Reigns, Monument Valley and some others, where I pay to get in and they cease trying to sell me things. I can get immersed then.

Players by and large don’t have a problem with these payment models except for when you can pay more to have better items than other players (“pay to win”) or when they’re mixed in with premium models (“fee to pay”. This is sadly becoming the norm, it seems).

Etc, etc..

Okay and there’s more examples and more combinations, but let’s move on.

Economics 101

 I drew it myself. You like?
I drew it myself. You like?

I mentioned at the start how the value of games seems to keep falling. In traditional economics, the price is set where supply meets demand. The problem we face in the modern age is that with digital goods, supply is infinite (for all intents and purposes. Ignoring potential server costs). Demand for games is still a finite number because it’s based on people, but since we’re not tied to a limited print of 1 million physical cartridges (or whatever), one extra game code has no inherent value in the eyes of many. It has even less when you consider the sheer volume of games on offer nowadays.

People attempt to justify piracy and theft on this basis, but others are also less willing to pay the asking price for their digital copy of a new game because it doesn’t cost as much to produce as the physical copy on the GameStop shelf (they’ve got a point, but that’s another topic).

Whatever the extent of the problem today (we could argue on that) I doubt you’ll disagree that gamers seem willing to pay less and less for games, but are still willing to pay the guts of $1,000 (those who can afford to) for a new iPhone. Physical goods hold value because their supply is limited. Classic vinyls or SNES cartridges are more valuable now than when they first sold, but people think nothing of pirating The Doors’ Greatest Hits or emulating Zelda digitally.

So how do we shore up the value of our wares to prevent a crash when supply is unlimited? Appealing to consumers’ generosity and sense of idealism isn’t the answer. Pay What You Want models are rarely successful and we’ve seen CryTek almost go out of business attempting it with their game engine.

Well, just for fun, let me throw out a few ideas and we’ll see if there’s anything to be said for them.

What Might Be Done?

Let me disclaim that I’m not necessarily hoping to see many of these in practice, and currently gamers would never stand for many of them, but since I’m talking about radical changes to how games are sold anyway, let’s just go with it. The idea that everyone should be able to afford a game and that all games should cost around the same as their peers is fundamentally flawed, doesn’t apply to many other luxury goods anyway (like sports cars, watches, hotels, food, seminars, online training courses) and will likely be something we leave behind in the future. Just saying.

Limit the Supply anyway

What if you announced that you would only sell 10,000 copies of your game, but that it would cost $100? Could you sell it to your true fans? Probably. They wouldn’t want to miss out. Okay it would depend on what the game is and the reputation of the creator(s), but I do think it would work. The economic theory is sound, anyway.

What if you built an online, living, open world like nobody had ever seen and made a bounty hunting game, but you only allow 100 access codes to the game at any one time? Access costs $2,000 and when you’re done with ownership you can auction off your right to play (so its value may rise) and the developer gets 50% of the resale? I’m only throwing around numbers, but the theory holds, I think. Could I find 100 rich YouTubers who would pay a premium to be one of the few broadcasting this historical new game? I think so. They’d make their money back on the stream, then resell their access and make more.

Virtual Real Estate

Let’s talk about the apartments in GTA V Online, but this could apply to any hub world. You pay in-game currency to buy swanky (or not-so-swanky) safe houses to store your cars in and launch heists from. The suburban bungalows come in pretty cheap but the penthouse apartments cost a lot more. You buy them with in-game cash so it’s more of a progression reward than a monetization, but since you can also buy game currency with real money the lines are blurry.

 It's a pretty nifty safehouse to be fair.
It’s a pretty nifty safehouse to be fair.

The thing is, the game just puts you into your own instance of the penthouse apartment. It might be the most exclusive high-end safehouse in the city, but pretty much everyone has it after a bit of play time or direct payment. What’s the value of that? There’s no exclusivity/scarcity. So what if they only allowed one instance of each safe house? Now, okay, since you can buy in-game cash with real world money then we would probably just have some entitled little troll lording it over everyone, and that’s not much fun for players, but I’m just trying to point out some lateral thinking. The game’s developers would be selling virtual property for real money. Real property holds value pretty well because it’s limited. Virtual property doesn’t offer real shelter, granted, but when limited in quantity it would suddenly be something that creates value. If it could only be transferred within the game, and the developers took a cut, then suddenly MMOs are still games, but now monetised by rules similar to real estate economics.

Say what you want about Star Citizen, but it’s proving that traditional payment models aren’t the only way to go. When they sell an Idris mini-carrier for €1,000 and say that they’re only selling a dozen of them, they’re snapped up in moments because the goods are (or will be when released – whatever) unique.

Pay for bullets

My friend Colm Larkin (Guild of Dungeoneering) suggested jokingly the other night that you could charge for bullets. Although he was joking, I’m going to address it earnestly. What’s the difference between a round of deathmatch and a round of paintball? Sweat and limited ammunition. That’s basically it. 

Airsoft is a hobby where those who can afford it buy all the best gear, sidearms, grenades, etc, and the others just rent the site’s bog standard gun and try to conserve ammunition over the day. Nobody really complains that it’s “pay to win”, yet it kind of is. What if you had an F2P shooter where you charge admission to the servers for a day, or a reduced rate for a month’s membership? Or if extra ammo cost real money?

Nobody would go for this because shooters are a dime a dozen, but fundamentally there’s not a whole lot of difference to the entertainment value of how you spend your Sunday afternoon. I pose the question: why couldn’t it work? After all, before home internet was much of a thing, my friends and I would often pay to hang out in the local internet cafe and play Delta Force, Unreal Tournament or Half-Life on a LAN. If you think that that’s a thing of the past, just take a look at South Korea, where going to a café with friends to play League of Legends all night is very much a common past time.

 Airsoft pay to win. Click for the video.
Airsoft pay to win. Click for the video.

Rent the hardware

Speaking of internet cafés and the like, I’ve recently heard how VR is really taking off in China and Japan. They love it, but the size of the average home or apartment is way too small to house a VR system, so they go to shopping malls and arcades that have set up high-end VR PCs that can be rented by the hour (or so).

Here we have a limited amount of real estate and hardware being rented, so it’s not the case that digital games are providing fixed value here, but we’re still fundamentally talking about games and, if anything, this just proves my point that limited supply is how value can be created, and infinite supply is a problem for the future of video game pricing.

Cloud Gaming is becoming a thing, too. It’s now possible to have your games running on high end PCs “in the cloud” and streamed directly to your smaller, cheaper device that could never ordinarily run them. You can essentially rent someone else’s gaming PC as desired, and stream the results to your TV or tablet. Again, we’re talking about renting hardware, but you can imagine how certain specific games or controllers could only be provided by one proprietary company, and they then charge for access. Here, supply is limited, and price well be set where that supply meets demand. Think of the hang-gliding VR tech or the Virtuix Omni which most people couldn’t fit in their home. Tying your game to custom hardware may be more difficult to produce, but it does ensure that you retain value in the units that you do supply.

Competition Entry Fees

Here’s another quite simple option. You run tournaments in your game. Fighting games, sports games, or deathmatch games seem likely candidates for this, but it could even work with single player games where victory is determined by the highest score or fastest completion time.

Let’s say 50 people pay $5 to play. There’s $250 in the pot. The winner takes $100 and the next two runners up take $35 and $15 each. The developer then has the remaining $100 per tournament to pay server costs, staff, and recoup development costs.

Would that work? Why not? Games are pretty social now, so I don’t see a whole lot of difference between this and going to bingo or a table quiz, especially if some of the money went to charity.

Be a Superstar

You know how most actors wait tables and earn very little from acting but Brad Pitt earns millions for the exact same job? It’s not because he’s a million times better than the next guy, it’s just because he’s not subject to the market forces of supply and demand for actors. He’s not in the acting business. He’s risen above that. He’s in the Brad Pitt business. He can sell watches or fragrances or cars. It doesn’t matter.

If the vast majority of games were being sold for 99c, and Hideo Kojima made a new game, do you think he’d also sell for 99c? No. He’d charge $50-$100 and (as long as the game reviewed well/was finished/etc) people would pay it. Gladly. Because his name carries weight. In a world where any simpleton like myself can teach themselves how to make games in less than a year, it pays to be a celebrity.

Jonathan Blow managed to charge over the odds (for an indie game) for The Witness because he’s the guy who made Braid. It didn’t have anything to do with The Witness being twice as good as the next indie game out there.

Isn’t that a little uh….?

Sort of. I mean, I’m happiest when I pay GOG a fixed fee (under $60) for a DRM-free copy of a game that I want to play and replay whenever I want. I’ll be very sad if this goes away, but things are shifting too. I hate Season Passes, most DLC, and especially fee to pay or loot crates, but I also don’t want to see my games on a service like Spotify-For-Games earning me $100 in their entire lifetime, because then I won’t be making games. I’m just trying to look ahead here.

We have to remember that games used to be extremely difficult and try to kill you off quickly so that you’d keep pumping quarters into the machines… and we loved it!! It was the birth of the modern games industry, but you could see that approach as being pretty nefarious, too. The fact that we want everything free now because it costs less (not ‘nothing’, remember) to produce each additional unit is a fairly entitled view and, I suggest, it would lead to the destruction of the  games industry in the same way that it’s gutted the music industry.

In Conclusion

This topic is wide open to debate and interpretation, but the core idea that got me thinking was “what happens to the Supply and Demand model when Supply is infinite”? Price has to drop. When the price drops too low, games will cease being made. There’s no arguing with that core logic, but what happens over the next decade is fairly wide open and hard to predict.

What trends do you see emerging or disappearing? I’d love to hear from you so hop into the comments.

Until next time..