Category Archives: Ramblings & Rants

Where Free To Play Fits In The Race To The Bottom

So, you have probably noticed with any luck that we are making two games currently. One of them, Basingstoke, is taking years to make, and has a level of development, content and polish that we’d hope from some actual professional studio, and it will absolutely cost an appropriately large sum of money to purchase when it is released. Don’t hold me to this but it is almost certain to be more than $20.

The other game we are making is Battledroid, and this is also taking years to make, and has a level of development, planned content, and eventual polish that we’d hope others are generally envious of, and it isn’t going to cost anyone a penny to play.

Both projects are pleasingly progressing well, by the way.

But isn’t it strange that we can work on both a game at the high-end of indie premium pricing and the absolute bottom at the same time? How do we justify the business models of each, given that usually the proponents of either model are usually scathingly critical of the other?

Background: the Race to the Bottom

Much has been said about the so-called “race to the bottom”. The situation is that as more and more games are released, and more and more people enter the industry expecting to make a living, two main factors seem to come in to play to control the pricing of content.

Firstly we have our old favourite, supply and demand; a basic economic theory that is often bandied about relating to the value of things dropping as supply exceeds demand. It is not, however, a perfect theory, because it is originally rooted in the world of physical goods. There is, in effect, an infinite supply of digital goods these days – it costs nothing to actually supply individual units. There’s a different model in play, which is a large up front cost of research and development, followed by an infinite-length but zero cost production run with zero lead time or inventory costs, in order to attempt to recoup the research and development costs. It’s subtle but it’s very different from having to actually continually construct things and sell them on physical shelves. The effect is still there but manifests itself in different ways.

Secondly we have the perennial visibility problem. The visibility problem is again subtly different to the issues usually traded in traditional economic theories which deal with physical shelves, cost of stocking inventory, and so on. Essentially, instead of a short, blazing hot stretch in the limelight on a shelf for a brief period of time, digital products such as games are now available forever… on an infinitely long shelf, with all the other titles now available forever occupying the same shelf. How on Earth does an indie developer get their title into the limelight now?

Back in 2008-2009 or so, Steam was actually just the intrusion of its 4D self into our 3D universe, occupying 3D space rather like an ordinary store front with ordinary shelves. It was just the the tip of a multidimensional iceberg. There were a limited number of titles. New things appeared on the top shelf under New Releases and had their 2 weeks in the limelight, and so everything that got released made a mint and everybody got fantastically rich.

But in the fourth dimension, if we’d cared to peer, we would have seen that the Steam store shelf stretched off in to infinity like the daft ending to Interstellar. The future was there for all to see if you peered through the looking glass: the Steam store is infinite in size, and infinite in duration. What has come to pass was inevitable, and obviously inevitable.

So what do developers do to get noticed now?

Why, they put their products on sale at increasingly massive discounts. Hell, why bother with a sale. Let’s just make them cheaper to begin with too. Reductio ad absurdum: eventually games are sold in a pricing structure that guarantees they will never make a profit and mostly everyone goes out of business. We have reached the bottom.

How Do We Fix This?

Well, our take on it is, you have to go either way: aim for the moon, or forget pricing at all. Nobody really agrees which is best of the two, so we’re hedging our bets and doing both. You definitely can’t stay on the bottom, selling games for a dollar.

But both ways have their drawbacks.

The Drawbacks of a $25 Game

The current fashion for consumers is to play something for hours and then whine like a spoiled Californian teenager who just got given an iPhone for Christmas in the wrong metallic finish. “$10 for 5 hours gameplay! Rip off!” And that is the mentality of the herd these days: somehow being totally entertained for $2 an hour is no longer value for money in exactly the same way that coffee is.

As developers we have to live with this sort of thing on a daily basis cropping up in Steam reviews and so on. The rookies’ mistake is to take any notice of it. If you try to pander to this, you will go out of business – end of story. You cannot keep producing content for less and less. If customers are getting just one hours’ entertainment from a $10 game, I think you’re doing just fine. Especially as many of these customers will pick the game up on a whim in a sale for considerably less. So don’t sweat it. Don’t forget that you can only really look at the three averages of time played to draw conclusions from, not individuals. Individuals are always posting bullshit about how they completed a game in just 1 hour and so on. It’s bullshit: they don’t. If they do, ignore them: they are like pigs gorging on swill. They don’t really care what they’re eating so long as they’re eating. Look to your Steam play time stats to get the real truth.

If we think that $10 for 1 hour is fine it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to design a game that should hold about 2-3 hours entertainment in a $25 package. And that’s where we are with Basingstoke: we’re aiming for a median play time between 2-3 hours, and pricing it accordingly. Don’t forget this covers a large number of people who put in only an hour of time, and a smaller but infinitely more grateful number of people who really dig it and play it for 20+ hours.

Which brings me to…

The Drawbacks of a Free Game

The first and biggest drawback to making money on a free game is that it’s free. People generally don’t pay for things if they don’t have to, and so, they won’t. One of the most important aspects of free game design is to be absolutely sure that the entire game can be played absolutely for free by everyone. Taking this to its logical conclusion means that nobody would ever pay for it, ever, and that is indeed what would happen…

… if it were not for the fact that there are other currencies than money that people pay with. I’m too lazy to link to the large number of articles about free-to-play that discuss this but I’ll focus on one particular currency which I recently realised was probably the most valuable one of all, and that is time.

Nobody has much time these days. People with time are people that probably aren’t working very hard on much, and that means they’re probably not particularly rich. Not particularly rich people are not great customers, especially when the money side of things is optional and you’re about to run out of weed. Being skint means they don’t like buying things that cost $25. They are however rather generous with time, and spend it freely on things like Battledroid. This is good.

If, like me, you work every night till 3am and then do a 9-5 day job the rest of the time, you’ll know a bit about how valuable time is, but you probably also have some money as a result of your toils (heh, unlike me, bah).

So this is how a true, properly designed free-to-play game really makes its money: it roughly segregates its players into time-rich and money-rich castes, and each pays with the currency it has available in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. The time-rich players fill the game with enemies, interaction, visibility, reputation, and life. The money-rich players accelerate their progress or standing in the game with money and keep the whole outfit afloat. The more they like it, the more they want to pay for it, unlike with premium games, where the most money they can give you is the amount that it cost when they bought it.


Blog post already too long! So I’ll wrap this big old rambling rant up here with a conclusion:

Fellow Indies, race to the bottom if you like, but it’ll get you nowhere but another stint at a day job. You must either go premium or go free, or if you’re able, do both (in separate products) and see what works.

Fellow game playing customers, give up whining about the price of games versus the hours and hours of play time they give you. There is nothing close to a game in terms of value for money. Not one other form of entertainment comes close in entertainment time per buck. Well, maybe books. You won’t get cheaper or bigger games by whining – you’ll just end up putting developers out of business and have less interesting games to play.





Long Live the Demo, or Why We Can’t Have All The Things

It’s been a  little while since I stood on the soapbox to serve as a distraction for the ire of the masses. Allow me once more to entertain you with news of the exciting events of our times.

Big time 800lb gorilla monopoly stakeholder Valve announced a week ago a wonderful u-turn on their famously awful refunds policy, and frankly, about fucking time.

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Cockroaches, Games Development, and You

Hmm… it’s been a while since the blog had a new entry. It’s been even longer since I opened my virtual mouth to make commentary on the industry (and what fun that is!). But, the tripes are heavy, and thrice has the cock crowed under a full moon. The portents are good!

I recently had the good fortune to babble away in a thread on Facebook with Old Guard Indie Derek Smart, one of the very first and most prominent indie developers around. I got onto a subject which has been nagging away at me for some time, which I shall now dub “The Roach Theory of Indie Games Development”.

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Well, that went pretty much as expected, didn’t it?

I’m now peeping back out of my bunker and it feels safe enough to remove my flame-resistant underpants. This time around, I’ll give the polite version sans rhetoric and sardonic speech forms that confused so many people. Bless the Internet, but it seems that so many readers turned up to the blog post actually wanting to have a fight and somehow read the post as if it had been specifically written about them, for them. I’m afraid this is not how sardonic rhetoric speech works, and none of us are so important as to seriously believe somebody would write a random blog post on a two-bit backwater indie game developer’s site that was actually addressed directly to us, now, would they? Exactly. Now everyone’s calmed down I bit I’ll explain the post.

First of all, I be playin’ ya

My apologies for that.

I deliberately wrote the most invective, filthy, shit-stirring post I could to ensure that it would, indeed, make lots of people angry. Angry enough to repeat and respond to it all over the internet. Unfortunately in this day and age, well-reasoned and sensible posts such as those made by the wonderful Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software are received in hushed tones, nodded sagely to, discussed in high-brow intellectual circles and then disappear like ships in the night. Everyone goes back about their business and the next day everything is the same as before. Spiderweb is probably better-known than we are having been around for many more moons and made many more games, and still, people really aren’t taking a lot of notice about what’s going on.

So my little missive was designed to ensure that it spread far and wide, hopefully virally. Which it pretty much did, thanks to the power of Twitter. The site was flattened for a few hours. The plan was that Angry Internet Man would misunderstand the post, start a fire somewhere on the internet, and then someone with a few more braincells and the patience to actually read the whole article would respond and pour some sense on the discussion. Which by and large is exactly what happened. In this regard it’s been absolutely successful, bringing it to the attention of a far, far greater audience than we’d have reached if we’d just been nice and polite about everything.

And once again being absolutely honest: I didn’t do the post absolutely for altruistic reasons. It’s been said that it was a desperate bid for attention disguised as truth; in fact, it’s truth disguised as a desperate bid for attention. I knew beforehand about the total roasting that the internet was going to dole out to me after posting it. That’s exactly why no other developer wants to say what I had to say. So I’ve tried to mitigate the damage it was going to cause by at least getting Puppygames into the consciousness of as many people as possible.

Comments closed on this post. Anyone still somehow insulted by the previous blog post is simply not capable of reason and there is really no point in you venting flames about something you don’t understand; those who understand and/or support us, you have been well appreciated over the last week and we send hugs and kisses in your general direction.

I wish I hadn’t invoked Phil Fish

It seems that Phil Fish is some sort of bogeyman in gamer circles and the mere mention of Phil Fish causes all sorts of random and spurious bullshit to erupt. Unfortunately this seems to have deflected a full third of the conversations about the deeper meaning of the post onto rants for and against Fish. Next time I’ll pick someone more low-profile to use as a poster child, like Zoe Quinn or something.

It wasn’t about Puppygames

An awful lot of people wrongly thought the post was a desperate rant on behalf of a failing developer whose business is going down the tubes. I’m afraid you’ll have to reformulate your entire line of thinking and conclusions for two fairly solid reasons. Firstly, we’re not going down the tubes; we’re doing OK and we’ve got two games in development and all sorts of irons in the fire. Even if we did run out of money we’d still be making games because that’s what we like doing and we did it for 7 years before we made anything beyond a few beers.

Secondly, the post was simply not about Puppygames. It was about the entire indie game industry. Actually it probably applies to the AAA industry as well, or at least all the mid-sized studios kicking about that make AAA quality games but without the marketing budget that defines the AAA industry. All developers are in the same boat. All developers are having to deal with this problem – the problem of having worthless customers. I’m not even sure why there’s a pretence that we even have customers any more: they – you – all belong to Valve. We are unable to issue a refund for our games. We have no way to directly contact a customer after they’ve bought a game from us. But that’s ok, because you can get games for a dollar now, eh>?

There’s nothing wrong with our games

The next most prevalent response was to incorrectly assume, as a conclusion based on the incorrect assumption that we were going out of business, that there’s some problem with our “shitty” games. Again, I’m sorry to pop your bubble but you’re going to have to draw some other conclusions. Our games have grossed over $1.5m in the last four years or so and continue to sell (although not as well as we’d hope they’d sell but then again – we are a niche interest and we’ve had very little exposure from Valve relatively).

We do love our customers

…and it even says so explicitly in the previous post, but it seems a lot of people either didn’t actually bother reading it at all, or just made up what they wanted it to say and then got angry about that! No, we do in fact love our customers, even if they’re only worth 10p. What we don’t love is customers who demand that we fix their computers, threaten us with lawyers, chargebacks, violence (yes, really), and general hate, sometimes before they’ve even asked us for help getting their games working – and worse, sometimes even after we’ve gotten their games working.

That sort of crap is not good. Check out this sort of thing we get:

You fucking piece of shit, yeah you Cas make sure you read this, this is so funny for you to moderate something you don’t like right ?

It’s about your complaint “you re worthless”, you re just the same asshole just like Phil Fish, always bitching and insulting people who like your games, no have no motherfucking respect, you insult people because they are not happy with the game or because the game isn’t working ? They gave you their money and you re acting like a little bitch ? You know I hope for you I will never see you in real life at a convention because I swear I m gonna fuck you Cas you little bitch you and your stupid blog posts, it’s so easy to rant behind a screen, we will see if you re so tough, just like the fucking Fish.

and this:

Those dollars i spent on your shitty game will shure come in handy when you get cancer(hopefully)and have to pay your medical bills. O wait, i pirated that shit and i hope you’ll end up broke in a ditch.

And this stuff is minor compared to what a lot of developers receive. And none of us are exempt; it’s almost as if this sort of thing is “par for the course” once you get to a certain level of exposure. Just like “being a woman in a man’s world” meant at one time you had to just “suck it down” when you were groped, slobbered on, leered over, or just plain talked down to. It’s exactly the same issue with a different target: it’s about a total lack of respect for a relatively defenceless minority. There are hundreds of thousands of customers to every one developer. The odds are not on our side, and as we’ve noticed, the group IQ of a crowd is inversely proportional to its size, and it sure does help when the target of such behaviour has very little support or sympathy.

In conclusion

Next time you feel like getting enraged at something, have a read through it again to make sure you’ve not misunderstood something, or missed something rather important in the post that changes its entire meaning. Especially if you’re getting enraged.

Now, I wonder what we’re going to do about the actual situation? That’ll be the subject of some other blog posts.

Because You’re Worthless: The Dark Side Of Indie PR

There are unwritten taboos on the internet. There are things you Don’t Say. There are replies you may not give. There are comments you may not make. There are truths you may not tell, in the world of public relations, for the public are fickle, and behave as a mob. A mob in all its feral, brutal depravity, lacking any and all of the qualities we laud upon humanity that allow us to feel so smug over all of the hapless animals that we raise ourselves over. And we are all, whether we admit it or not in public, under strict censorship of the mob. Even admitting that the mob censors our thoughts and feelings and the expression thereof is risky. Be careful! The mob may notice.

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The Demo Is Dead, Part 2

Because my previous blog post was not a complete academic essay on the subject, nor indeed intended to really go any further than the few people that visit our blog, it seems that a few people are deconstructing the arguments and poking some big holes in the assertion that “The Demo is Dead”, which is fine, but the article is not at all complete, and contains no hard data (of which I have a lot). At the time, I just thought I’d pen some musings on the subject talking to people who already didn’t care (existing blog readers, who are generally customers and therefore unaffected by what we do with our existing titles).

Anyway, the internet sort of exploded in rage and disbelief that a tiny indie developer could become such a cruel, heartless, candy-snatching killjoy.

As a general reply to various comment all over the place, here are some further musings:

99 Reasons To Not Buy Your Game

This was clearly an exaggeration for literary impact, and if that’s not obvious to you, for shame. But instead of just asking me what those reasons are, maybe you could engage in devil’s advocacy, and think of some yourself. Here are some I thought of, spuriously:

  1. I got my fill of gameplay already from the demo. (Our demos typically gave away 25% or so of the full game progression)
  2. I’ve had 90% of the initial delight of the game for nothing. Paying some money for the remaining 10% is a waste of money. (Note disconnection between “delight” and actual content)
  3. I can’t be bothered to pay for it when I can go and play another free demo somewhere else.
  4. I’ve already got a bunch of games I’ve paid for but not yet even played. Maybe I’ll not bother getting this one yet.
  5. I played the demo ages ago and forgot all about it by the time payday came because something else distracted me in between.
  6. I only buy games through Steam.
  7. I’m a poor student/waster/single mum and I don’t spend money on games especially when I can be entertained endlessly by demos for nothing.
  8. I loved the game except for this one small thing that I didn’t like like I can’t remap the fire button to X and for that reason alone I’m not going to buy it.
  9. I thought the game was too easy but that’s because the demo can only show the first 10 levels which have to be easy to not put off the 95% of people who find it too hard.

You’re Just Using Yourself As A Single Data Point!

Some have accused me of using myself as a single data point (“I’ve never bought a game in the last 5 years from playing a demo”) and drawing my conclusions based on this, which is fallacy. This is not the case; my own, singular experience was what got me to look at the data in the first place. It was just a hunch, that I got to thinking about actually a few years ago. It’s only in the last year or so that the data has become impossible to ignore (see below for some figures).

The Nature of Puppygames Demos

Few people were aware of the exact nature of our demos, or even our games, and it’s probably worth researching because our games are of a particular ilk and available only on a particular platform. We make desktop arcade games mostly, and that’s a pretty strange niche to begin with, which substantially effects the way demos work.

Our demos were “full” versions of the games, which could be unlocked by registration (no further download). They tended to let you play the first 25% or so of the game unfettered before expiring on a cliffhanger (eg. first boss appears, or you’re just about to see the next “world”, for example).

Claims that we’re “doing demos wrong” are from people who, I suspect, have not been doing this for as long as we have. The fact is, our demos were more or less no different from nearly every other demo I’ve ever seen. They weren’t even unsuccessful either – they converted at an industry-respectable rate, AFAIK. The problem is that rate is shit and the amount of money we can charge for a successful conversion has been eroded, which brings me to…

Context Is Everything

The context of pricing and market positioning, specifically. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the average price of an indie game plummet from $20 (sold direct by the developers) to $5 (sold on Steam or BigFish in a sale) to about $1 (sold in a bundle of some sort). Steam pioneered the price slashing in the market – I’m sure you educated types with economics degrees have a special name for this manoeuvre. In the space of a couple of short years, direct sales plummeted to less than 1/10th of what they used to be (and they were never great). Almost overnight, the chances of being an actual indie developer – and succeeding! – have dropped from “you’ll be lucky” to “you’ve as much chance of winning the lottery”. Not only had consumer expectation of prices been eroded from $20 to $5, but consumers were also taught by Steam to buy on the basis of video and recommendation and, most importantly of all, discounts.

Then, just as things didn’t seem they could get more crazy, along comes the Humble Indie Bundle, and we’re now becoming accustomed to picking up titles for a dollar or less. Again, demo unseen. We’re conditioned to buying stuff because it is cheap not because we necessarily want it. I say “we” – yes! I am one of you. I am a consumer. I’ve got a hundred games in my Steam library. I am doing all these things. I won’t buy a game if it’s not on Steam any more. I won’t buy a game if it costs over $10. And so on. This reminds me of an anecote many years ago when a friend of mine came bouncing into the room full of glee because she’d bought some mint essence. When I enquired what was so amazing, she told me that it had been 75% off so she just had to buy it. I can’t recall her ever before or since actually making anything with mint essence in it, but it was a bargain!

In this context, what we now see is that 95% of our incomeany developers income – comes not from conversions of demos, but from sales via gatekeepers and bundles. What the focus of my original article was really about is that there is a case for simply dropping prices through the floor and not giving anything away for free. There is “free” stuff everywhere, already. The differentiator we now have is that if you want to sample our stuff, it will actually cost you. Otherwise it is simply unavailable. It is out of reach. You can look through the glass into the shop but you can’t touch it until you spend a (paltry) amount of money. Just like with mostly everything else in the world these days.

Are We Right?

There’s no harm in being wrong. We can be wrong. We’re going on what the data tells us, and we have a lot of data. We’ve sold 481,529 games in the last 3 years, and 30,246 of those have been to people who played a demo. That means the other 451,283 sales were made without anyone ever seeing a demo. If you want percentages, that’s 6%. We’re quite happy to be proved wrong! If the data tells us we’re wrong, we’ll go back to using demos.

Our hypothesis is, we’ll make a bit more money if we ditch demos and drop the prices. As you can say what you like about the 97% of sales being without demos and argue till you’re blue in the face that you don’t buy games without playing a demo first, go on ahead. Argue away – you’re arguing that black is white. You’re not making us 97% of our sales. The bit you need to argue over is this:

6% of our sales are to demo players, direct, and they have made us $72,000. We think that if we drop our prices hugely, and ditch demos, that we’ll continue to make 6% of our sales direct, but that we’ll make a bit more than $72,000.

The Sands Shift Beneath Our Feet

And still that’s not the whole story. The thing that most beginning developers – us included – fail to take into account is how the markets change over time. As I said, when we first started, we sold conversions on demos for games that cost $20. We started just at the tail end of a golden era in independent game distribution (typical bad luck, huh). The internet had just revolutionalised developing games and the gatekeepers were just about to move in, along with a flood of other developers who suddenly discovered they could do it too. It is suprising in hindsight that so many developers clung to the $20 price model in the face of what was happening.

Things came to a head in about 2008 or so, when we released Droid Assault. Droid Assault was released to the sound of tumbleweed. No-one was even the least bit interested. It’s a great game (IMHO, haha), but when it was released, nobody wanted to buy it. Customers were already thoroughly in the pockets of Valve and BigFish by then. If you didn’t have a game on a portal, it simply didn’t sell. DA must have shifted literally a few hundred copies. By contrast on Steam, now it’s finally out on Steam that is, it’s shifted thousands of units.

And so we must realise that the market is changing, all the time, imperceptably slowly. Let’s look at those figures I just mentioned above, and instead, let’s look at just the last 12 months:

In the last 12 months we’ve sold 77,224 games, of which just 725 were demo conversions. The demos weren’t suddenly any different. The prices weren’t suddenly any different. Suddenly, after just 2 years, we’re only making less than 1% of our sales via demos. Nothing else changed except the entire rest of the market.

So actually what you really need to be arguing over is this:

1% of our sales are to demo players, and they have made us $5200 (yes, really). We think that if we drop our prices hugely, and ditch demos, that we’ll continue to make 1% of our sales direct, but that we’ll make a lot more than $5,200.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.




Guess How Long Ultratron Took To Make?

I was idly warbling away to fans on the Steam Community forums today when I had a little think about some of the facts and figures involved in making games. When I read it back to myself I realised it was actually pretty fascinating reading for people outside of the industry (that is, the players of our games). There were some amusing estimates of how much effort goes into making games from the fans, so here are the facts and figures for you all to see, and hopefully, tweet, reblog, and comment about, until all children are suitably scared in their beds and night and vow never to want to becomes games developers ever again, and some sort of massive JUST SAY NO style meme floods the internets and makes it to the very top of Reddit’s wonderfully insular and self-referential news pages.

Ultratron took 24 man months to develop, or if you want to put a financial figure on it, about $120k at ordinary salary rates. Ultratron has so far made a loss of $100k.

Titan Attacks took approximately the same amount of time. Titan Attacks has just broken even after 7 years, so that’s cause for a can of lager in celebration.

Droid Assault took quite a bit longer – about 36 man months, or $180k ish. Droid Assault has so far made a loss of about $120k.

Revenge of the Titans took about 7 man-years to develop, or about $420k. It’s only just broken even. Sandbox mode took 12 man-months and has so far cost us $56k. It is unlikely to ever break even.

For most of the last 10 years, I subsidised all the development of the games by working as a menial contractor in the IT industry and effectively putting every spare hour of my life into them. We started seriously in 2002. It wasn’t until 2010 that we actually made enough money to buy anything more than a celebratory curry!

So now you know why a) you don’t really want to be an indie game developer if you can help it and b) why we’re not making any more arcade games 🙂

* probably. Unless a genius can think of some way we can make them for about a tenth the cost that’s palateable.

Musings on the Raspberry Pi

I recently acquired a Raspberry Pi, the £25 computer which is the brainwave of various UK industry luminaries, most famously including David Braben, the author of 8-bit classic 3d-space-shooting trade game Elite. I have a few thoughts about how it’s delivered, what it costs, who it might be aimed at, and what might be done to improve things for level 2.

The Raspberry Pi arrives as a naked circuit board about the size of a box of what we in the UK call fags. This always amuses Americans, but Americans are of course easily amused, albeit for an extremely short duration. The circuit board has as many connectors on it as you could reasonably hope for in a computer – two USB ports, stereo jack, Ethernet port, micro-USB power input, HDMI out, and composite video out. There’s even something called a GPIO which is a bunch of pins which you can connect “things” to that do “stuff”, but that’s for very clever propeller head types who understand electrickery, and not programmers like me.

Of the USB, Ethernet and stereo jack, we shall have nothing much to say. Or indeed the GPIO thing. They are as they are and I dare say no improvements could be made on them. The other outputs represent some rather odd thinking.

HDMI Output

HDMI is the future! HDMI is awesome! VGA is dying! … but unfortunately, HDMI is only available on the very latest monitors and newer TVs. So we’ve got a £25 computer, and the theory is that you’re supposed to pick up and use some existing mouse, keyboard and monitor that you’ve got, probably gathering dust in the spare room, to save you a pile of cash. Except, of course, your monitor only has the usual D-shaped SVGA input. Everyone I know has a spare SVGA monitor lying around. Not a single one has a spare HDMI capable monitor. A few people quite likely have monitors with DVI-D input, but I have a feeling that like mine it is already in use as the main PC monitor. The solution in my case was to buy an HDMI cable and a brand new HDMI-capable monitor. £115 vanishes.

Then there’s this thing about HDMI not exactly being reliable, like SVGA is. In my case, all I got was a black screen on startup. It could have been any number of things but fortunately I’ve got quite a diagnostic mind and I’m not 12 years old, like many of the prospective owners of the Pi are purportedly meant to be. Suffice it to say it took me an entire evening of Googling around to discover that you had to create a text file with HDMI configuration parameters in it to get the monitor to actually display anything. This is fun… for various values of “fun” which unfortunately lie somewhat outside my comfortable parameters. You see, I spend all day, every day, trying to figure out why the fuck stuff doesn’t work properly. I was rather looking forward to plugging in the Pi and tinkering with it straight away, but I didn’t even get that far. I had to wank about fiddling with it just to get a fucking picture. Yes, that made me cross.

Composite Output

A nice touch but pointless. Almost all composite-input devices likely to be found around the home are now rightfully in landfill and those that aren’t are generally massive and not the sort of thing you generally want cluttering up a spare corner of a small room. Not only that but they tend to be Jurassic power-guzzling dinosaurs and prone to going on the blink. The other day I spent a happy afternoon coding in CRT distortion effects in the new version of Ultratron. So anyway: composite output – might as well have saved the money on providing this output, no-one in their right mind needs or wants it who is going to own this device. Yeah, even you. You’ve got a spare old SVGA monitor in the garage too haven’t you? Throw that old black-and-white portable telly in the skip.

Micro-USB Power Input

Er… why? I’ve got about 20 different adapters lying around my house, all with sturdy jacks, providing voltages anywhere between 3v and 12v. I literally have a box full. I expect mostly everyone else does too, because over the last 30 years, nearly every widget you’ve bought came with its own. I bet amongst them all you’ve got a 5v DC input you could have already used. Well, it doesn’t matter, you can buy the flimsy microUSB input instead for another £5.

Supplied without an SD Card or software

Now, here’s probably the most controversial thing I’m going to say about the Pi. As it comes, it won’t actually switch on or do anything, even if you’ve got the spare keyboard, mouse, and shelled out £85 for a monitor and cable. You also need to get yourself a 4GB SD card to put on some firmware and an OS. Although this process is trivial, and the cost is nothing to worry about (literally, the price of a bag of peanuts), it’s completely unlike my first experiences of computing.

My first real computer was a Vic-20, back when they first came out. It cost quite a lot of money – a lot more in fact than all this Pi stuff has come to in real terms – but: I plugged it in to the telly, switched it on, and tuned the TV using the twisty analogue knob. And there it was: a BASIC interpreter, 3583 bytes of RAM free (though 2 went missing immediately somewhere). It came like this out-of-the-box. I could get coding on it within seconds. It’s this plug-and-play appeal that turned so many people off of PCs for gaming and on to games consoles in the first place and represents exactly why software engineers are so derided by mostly every other engineering principal.


Built to a Price, But What Price And Why?

So the Raspberry Pi commands all sorts of cool headlines like “a computer for just £25!” mostly because it sounds, well, cool. Except I’ve spent £200 on mine in total, which coincidentally is about what my Vic-20 cost me albeit in 1982 money. That’s clearly beyond typical pocket money for today’s cash strapped youth who of course absolutely, completely need mobile credit and, er, whatever it is that teenagers spend money on. Drugs I expect, as they can’t easily get booze any more.

About £165 of that cost was the monitor, keyboard and mouse; the keyboard and mouse were really just me being slightly extravagant (I have an awesome tiny Cherry ultra-compact keyboard), but the monitor… well, that was annoying, really, as I could have used one of several other devices kicking about the house if the Pi ditched its HDMI and composite outputs in favour of something more befitting its status as a cheap toy that is meant to be attached to stuff you have lying around gathering dust.

So with the Pi only about 12% of the total cost of the whole setup, why exactly is it designed like this? Why is it built to meet a £25 price point when a few bob here and there would barely change the overall cost but vastly improve the whole experience? Who buying one of these things actually gives a fuck that it’s £25 and not, say, £40? I really have no idea.

It would appear that there have been engineers involved in the market research. Oh dear.

No-one buying computers cares that it costs £25 or £35. Especially when you have to buy a bunch of other things to make it work anyway, and then waste an evening trying to get it to boot. There are of course a few electronic engineering types having gentlemen’s accidents over the GPIO port and that’s great, but I seem to recall that the Pi was all about getting a generation of kids into computing as we used to know it, back when we had Spectrums, 64s and Amstrads. The problem is that price was only a small factor in the choice of whether we owned one of those home computers back in the day, yet it seems to have been absolutely the driving factor in designing the Pi.

What I’d Do To Make Me Happy

Were I to think about the successor to the Pi, apart from the usual guff about making it a bit faster and giving it more RAM through the inevitable march of progress (nabbing the chip out of a Galaxy S II would just be incredible), I’d ditch HDMI and composite out in favour of a technically obsolete SVGA connector. I suspect the cost would be as near as identical as to make virtually no difference to the prospective buyer’s financial situation – as we’ve already established, the cost of a Pi is only actually a fraction of the total cost of actually using a Pi. Not only would this mean you can use that old Dell monitor, it’d also work, unlike the HDMI port, which doesn’t.

Secondly, I’d supply the Pi with a 4GB SD card plugged in to it already, with an OS on it, that boots. In fact I’d probably consider wedging the thing inside a keyboard casing with a trackpad and then you’ve literally got something just like one of those home computers of old, the spirit of which the Pi is attempting to capture. If you sold the bundle of things ready assembled for under £100 you’ve got a no-brainer for any prospective parent thinking about getting one for his or her geeky kids.

Lastly I’d switch from using microUSB power input to a standard 5v DC power input. And then I’d supply the device with one anyway, in the box.

The choice of Linux as an OS is unfortunate but a bit of a necessity given there’s bugger all alternatives yet. Linux is incredibly complicated. Just look at the BASIC interpreter command prompt startup of a Vic-20 compared to the Pi. Eek. This isn’t really going to help a new generation of geeks get in to programming; it’s likely to make them think, this is just too much effort for too little gain. Well done for creating the sort of barrier to entry that filters out all but the most heavily bespectacled and introverted propellerheads but is that really what we need? I believe that the barrier should be as low as absolutely possible in order to hook people into fiddling before people need to get into the nuts and bolts. Look at Mac OS. It’s got Unix underneath but even an idiot can use it after switching it on. I think the Pi is going to need something like that.

Anyway, more ramblings about the Pi later, as I get to grips with the horrors of Linux and C programming (Python! You must be joking). Eventually I’m hoping to get some Java code running on it.


You might think I’m being a little negative about the Pi so far. Actually I’m having a reasonable amount of fun tinkering with it; my fears are really more meta-fears; I suspect that the Pi will turn off more people from software engineering than it will turn on, supplied as is. It is the very raw roots of modern computing. Unfortunately those roots are ugly, messy, nasty, clunky things; and one of the chief reasons I don’t use Linux as my main OS, and also one of the main reasons I use Java as my weapon of choice.

Talking of Java, seeing a bit more of an effort to support Java on the device wouldn’t go amiss. After all, it’s very, very likely that Java is what they’re going to be actually exposed to in higher education. Not Python.


Mac users – help needed!

Cas has a Mac. It is broken. I’ve done a .icns with a 512px square image for the Mac dock thing or whateveritscalled – but no way to test. As far as I’m aware the 512px image in the .icns is only used in the dock thing and should look something like…

… so Mac users, your challenge is – can you get to preview a .icns file in your dock wotsit, is this the only place a 512px icon is used, and does it look any good, or does it look a bit poo? You can download the .icns here. Winner gets a brand spanking new yet-to-be-seen signed wallpaper with your name scribbled on it! Or something.

oh and ‘Arm of the Lord’… just the first image i grabbed from google 🙂

What Makes Me Buy A Game?

Over on a secret forum where the illuminati of indie game development hang out, someone asked this question (I say someone because technically we’re not allowed to talk about Fight Club, but this is a benign and often-asked question, and I think that this won’t upset anyone):

What REALLY makes someone buy a game? I think we should brainstorm this. I get the impression that people are too quick to rush to very simplistic judgements about this. We are clever people, what do we think?

I’ve read a ton of psychology / microeconomics / neurosciencey stuff that leads me to believe that game buying decisions are almost entirely irrational and entirely emotional.

So I had a little think about it, and fortunately I have a fresh, current experience to relate to.

I’ve just played the demo of Defense Grid, and I’m about to buy it.

I’m even writing my own tower defence game right now and I’m utterly sick of playing it already!

I want to think a bit more about what made the decision for me.

Firstly, I’m going to be flush again in a few weeks. I just landed a contract in Folkestone, 220 miles from home, but I’ll be earning £275 a day (a crap rate, far worse money than I earned over a decade ago, but still way more money than most people earn). A $20 or even $30 or even $50 purchase is now pure whimsy. I won’t even notice it – whereas before, as an unemployed bum, I’d have reluctantly said no, I can’t afford it. Even though at £13.99, which I could easily spend on a takeaway and a couple of bottles of beer last weekend when I didn’t have any money.

The takeaway and beer is an important comparison – people often get to thinking that the takeaway and beer lasts only a couple of hours, and is therefore maybe a tenth the value of a 20-hour game experience. That’s wrong. I need to eat, so does the missus. The beer is immensely enjoyable. I’d take beer over games any day. Really.

A comparison with cinema tickets is usually what follows next. And actually I think it’s almost valid, for certain kinds of game. But the fact is, a cinema outing is for the two of us, we’re paying to have the experience together. It’s (sadly) a Big Thing (especially now we’ve got a 6 month old baby). £14 of cinema tickets buys us a whole evening of different. It could buy me a game, but we won’t be playing it together. Even a multiplayer game. Even a multiplayer game that we play on one screen together. It’s not the same. There’s no occasion. So we value the cinema tickets considerably higher than the game experience. This is the emotional draw from this form of entertainment.

Games, then, probably fundamentally have to compete with this extremely powerful emotional hold that “activities” such as “going out” have. The situation of being an unemployed bum counts towards the ultimate decision but I suspect we can totally ignore the financial status of prospective customers. Customers are either rich, or they’re not going to buy a game. Or a cinema ticket. They might buy beer and a takeaway instead with what frugal funds they have. So just forget them, and forget the money equation. I don’t want poor customers who reluctantly part with $3.99 for something I spent 6 months toiling away at. I want rich customers with an appreciation of the value of the really hard work we do (ie. other people who work really hard). That’s why I’ve put all my games up at $19.95 finally and that’s where they will stay from now on.

So what made me buy Defense Grid?

Well, first and foremost, it’s good. It’s a really good tower defence game, even though they spelled defence wrongly. It’s not innovative in any particular way (unlike, say, the one I’m working on, which is quite different to most TD games), but the basic gameplay has been executed perfectly, and when I played it, I enjoyed myself so much that I’m going to buy it because I know I’m going to keep playing it for at least a couple more weeks. I’ve not got any other games to play right now apart from Zatikon from Chronic Logic, which I limit myself to 1 game a day of because of its hellishly addictive qualities, and I need a break from my own game.

Secondly, it’s a piece of piss to buy stuff on Steam. I’d go direct to the developers except the Steam version is integrated with the Steam achievements stuff and also Steam takes care of auto updating and I’ll even be able to just download and install it again anywhere I choose to be without having to think about it. I like that. Steam got that stuff dead right. It’s value that I’ll gladly pay for. It’s the digital equivalent of owning a shiny box with a CD in it – it feels like I’ve paid some middleman some money for something I actually feel is worth something – totally unlike my feelings about buying stuff from BFG (oh look – no hyperlink), where I feel that I’m giving BFG all the money solely because they bullied their way to the top of the search engine charts and do their damndest to make sure the developers remain unknown. They’re pure middlemen. They add nothing I care to have. I’ll even pay an extra £10 for a game to get it direct instead of through BFG.

It may come as a surprise also but I’ve never actually played a tower defence game. Apart from my own game, this is the first one I’ve played, and it’s been done so absolutely perfectly and TD is such a great concept for a game, with all sorts of decision trees one has to go through and enjoyable trial and error, it couldn’t fail to sell to me. So it was the first game of its nature I’ve actually come across, and it’s a great implementation.

(Similarly: Faerie Solitaire was the first solitaire game I’ve played since the one that came with Windows 3.11 – I would have bought it if Brian hadn’t thrown a free copy at me).

So there’s my thoughts on the matter. What makes you buy a game?


This is the kind of thing I like listening to whilst I’m making games:

At least, when I’m not listening to Kool Keith, which is the current soundtrack during development of our forthcoming game. You should get yourself some Hexstatic – it’s great 🙂 And some Kool Keith.

How’s that new game coming on?

Chaz reckons he’s about 6-7 weeks away from finishing it. I suspect a bit longer now I’ve looked at the to-do list but it should be definitely out before the end of the summer.

Can I see some screenshots?

Not yet! We’re just a few days off of having something that we’d be comfortable with showing off. And if you’re extra lucky we might do a video of the gameplay instead!

Is it completely awesome?

Of course it is! But you’d better get an iron mouse because it’s going to take a pounding.

Big Thanks for Feedback

We’ve had a fair amount of feedback from the site recently, especially since the release of Droid Assault. The majority are positive, but we do get the odd angry sounding letter. People sometimes think we are to blame for having wasted their time, cos they downloaded a demo and didn’t like it. Fortunately they have enough time to write to us to tell us.

And that’s fine, we don’t mind. We’d like to say sorry that they feel that way, and respond to any questions they have. Sometimes though they think it better to leave a made-up and offensive email address rather than a real one, and that’s really not very grown up now is it?

Here’s one example of some of the positive feedback we’ve had…

Just want to say how much I love Titan Attacks, Ultratron & Droid Assault.
They are better than sex and a bargain at the price!! You guys are awesome for matching Steam’s general indie prices. Hell, your games are better than most of the indie represented games on their servers.

It’s still a little surprising that people take the time to write to us and say nice stuff stuff like that! Makes you feel all warm and glowy inside. So a great big thank you to Ryan in Australia for that, and for letting us publish it here. And thanks to everyone else who has written in with similar messages over the last few years, and all the suggestions and constructive criticism too. Keep ’em coming 🙂

Time to clean up the hiscores table

Lately we’ve been rather miffed by the amount of really bad language on the online hiscores table (and what we thought was cheating but turned out to be a MySQL driver glitch).

Now hear this: the online hiscores table is viewed by children and we’re really not going to accept any more of this stuff any longer. You will find yourself banned permanently (and all of your hiscores deleted permanently too) if you abuse the facility.

We get a lot of complaints from concerned parents about this. If you’re a concerned parent, you may be pleased to know we’ve finally implemented the hiscores cleanup feature to get rid of the stuff you don’t want your kids reading. Also, the latest versions of Titan Attacks and Ultratron now have an option to completely turn off online hiscores for good measure – see the Options screen.

Only an email of the most grovelly kind will get us to unban you.

You have been warned.

The State We’re In

We’ve been talking to friends in the industry about the state of play with regards to copying, warez, torrent sites, cracking, and people’s attitudes to what most people regard as “piracy”.

I borrow books from my dad; I lend him books. I don’t feel obliged to pay for my own copy to read it. He’s in close(ish) proximity to me and knows he’ll get his book back (sometimes, haha). But that’s about as far as that book is likely to get because it is a bulky piece of physical media. Funny how the oldest bit of technology is also the most future proof in this ecosystem.

Records were the same, 40 years ago, and then tapes turned up and people could easily give recordings to each other and the RIAA whined and moaned about it and levied all sorts of crazy taxes on blank tapes and yet mysteriously record sales went up and up ever since until they got replaced by CDs. This, I think, is because there was an inherent value in a record that wasn’t present on a recording on a tape – the physical medium was quite nice, and the recordings usually didn’t sound nearly as good anyway. Then some bright spark realised you could sell prerecorded tapes and actually have the existence of the medium increase profits.

Then we get CDs and there’s a little golden era for the record companies because CDs are novel and taped recordings of them sound so inferior to digital media that tapes die off pretty fast too except for people who listen to music in cars. And then CD players for cars solved that. The RIAA is happy because CDs are actually valuable.

…And then along comes the internet and hot on its heels MP3 compression and they’re back to the tape/vinyl situation again and they start whining and moaning again in the face of increasing music sales on CD despite the amount of copying going on. Then some bright spark realises they can sell prerecorded MP3s on the internet. Does this sound familiar?

The situation is remarkably similar for computer games, in their somewhat shorter history.

First came tapes of games. We copied them (well I didn’t, coz I only knew about 2 other people with C64s in my year at school so we just borrowed each other’s games) and so they put copy protection in and that was cracked anyway. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Then came games on disk. They were copied, and then copy protection got put on them, and they got cracked and distributed via BBS to a wider audience. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Then came games on CD. They are copied, and then copy protection got put on them, and they got cracked and distributed on the internet to a worldwide audience. Mysteriously the games industry grows. There are lots of little casualties and the survivors consolidate.

Around this time though some bright spark realised you might as well distribute the games on the internet in the first place and the modern day Indie (indicus publishus developus) was conceived. Then the games got copied, so we put copy protection on them and then they got cracked and distributed on warez sites with powerful search engine mashups to aid people.

This is where we are now. There are many, many little ideas springing up all over the place to make money in the present ecosystem – which is basically the same as the record industry’s. We have all sorts of valid and working ideas:

  1. Encourage people to give full versions to friends and family (like borrowing books!) That’s the model we use, currently
  2. Ad-supported sites or software (and its derivative, websites full of Flash games that aren’t actually for sale, but with lots of ads). Yuk! But it works.
  3. Consolidate into being a publisher or affiliate retailer and stop developing games. This is probably where we’ll end up if we don’t figure out how to make more money soon.
  4. Portals. Haha. No.
  5. Client/server and various opportunities that entails (like total copy-proofing). Not necessarily multiplayer games either.
  6. Simply carrying on while the percentages make it worthwhile.
  7. Magazine distribution of full versions for specific territories (which I’m looking at in great detail!)
  8. Rant about pirates and waste time on tryign to educate them despite the fact there’s 1,000,000 times more of them than there are of you and if there’s one thing we know about economics it’s that might is right

What’s your choice?

Reviewing Games on Gametunnel

You may or may not have noticed that I now review games on GameTunnel’s monthly roundup nowadays. As usual I’ve been kicking up controversy with my reviewing style and outrageous review scores (2 out of 10! He can’t be serious!)

Well, I think I ought to set the record straight on the review thing as it’s spawned numerous grumpy decisions around the internet.

Gametunnel uses a marks-out-of-ten review system for the monthly round up, which I’m not a great fan of anyway. It’s got some advantages but mostly disadvantages in my humble opinion, mostly being that very rarely does anyone ever score anything much below 5, and also that scores just aren’t consistent from one reviewer to the next or even for one month to the next.

I wanted to make the marks out of ten system work for me, and be consistently reliable so that I could look at a game and know that I’d always rate it the same. And let’s be clear here, it is my opinion, not anyone elses, so I can justifiably come up with any score I want for a game, just like everyone else does,.

So here’s the scheme I settled upon:

  • 1 point if the game installs and runs painlessly
  • 1 point if it doesn’t crash or go wrong in some way at all
  • 1 point if it’s slickly presented
  • 1 point if it’s original
  • 1 point if I think the graphics are good
  • 1 point if I think the sounds and music are good
  • 1 point if I think the overall style is good
  • 1 point if I enjoyed playing it
  • 1 point if I wanted to play it some more later on even though I didn’t have to
  • 1 point if I’d actually buy the game either for me or for someone else

Now, I’m very lenient about my ratings for graphics and sound and style. Style is a combination of graphics, sound, presentation and gameplay which is where the whole thing comes together to create a consistent and immersive experience.

The first three points a game can earn are very objective. It’s not much to ask that a game installs fine and doesn’t crash, and that it presents you with clear and concise options and menus to let you start playing.

The graphics, sounds, and style are subjective but as I say, I am very lenient and have a critical eye for what works and what doesn’t. That’s why Lexaloffle’s Chocolate Castle, with its simplistic 16-bit style unantialised 640×480 graphics gets a point but Magi didn’t: Magi has nice icons but very weak particle effects and sprites which just don’t seem to work.

Then there are the absolutely totally subjective points of whether I actually enjoyed playing the game or not, and whether I wanted to play more than I had to for the purposes of a review, and whether I felt like actually buying the game. And mostly this comes down to plain old whether I like the game, not if I think someone else might like it. That’s the whole point of it being me that’s reviewing the game instead of someone else.

But the end result is a scale that works from 1 to 10 consistently. You know what you have to do to get 10/10 from me. It won’t be very easy at all, of course, but at least it means that if a game gets 10/10 from me I don’t think it could really do any better!

Titan Attacks Sales Stats

So you’re all dying to know how Titan is doing, I’m sure. Well, thanks to our friends at we’ve received unusually large amounts of exposure. did a little entry about Titan Attacks’ vital statistics that might be of interest to you.

It has to be said that without helping out this game would have gone the same way as all our other games, that is, a couple of sales here and there, and then petered out of existence again. Ah well.

The Next Game

We have decided what we’re going to do next, officially! Whereas we did have a plan to do a Japanese style game involving, erm, matching coloured things, we figured that what everyone really likes is blowing up monsters!

Our inspiration for the next game is Storm the House, which is a Flash game plastered all over the internet. We’re going to distil it, perfect it, and Puppificate it, along with a few of our old friends the multiplier, powerups, challenge stages and assault levels!

Let’s see if we can get this one done in under a year eh 😉

Maybe I can do a diary here and post the odd screenie or something.