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On Steam Workshop and ‘Premium’ Mods

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 24-04-2015


I’m really not entirely sure how I feel about this – I have conflicting opinions so until the dust settles and we all see what happens, posts like this will just be full of vague thoughts based on what we know right now.

On the one hand, I would hate to see terrific mod communities fragment over this, on the other I would have to be quite miserly to say that content creators shouldn’t be able to seek recompense for their work should they wish.

The issues as I see them, boil down to these:

  1. Specifically in the case of Bethesda, is a 25% cut from mod sales to the mod creator(s) reasonable?
  2. Is a 24hr window for refunds sufficient for mods which can often cause conflicts with other mods, bork save files, etc – in other words, cause you problems which don’t become apparent within 24hrs?
  3. How will this affect multiplayer gaming?
  4. Will premium mod creators be obliged to provide tech support?
  5. Will this create a climate of mod-cloning? Will we see a scenario where popular premium mods are copied and then either undercut on price or given away free? How would such a scenario impact mod communities?

Point (1) is horribly subjective. Game creators are providing the game and the mod tools – without the popularity of Skyrim, for example, and therefore the development and marketing costs which went into making it your mod would never reach the potential consumer-base that a game like that offers. In other words, get 100% of the sales from a mod for a game with a handful of people playing it or get 25% of sales from a mod for Skyrim – you’ll do waaaaaay better with the second deal. However, there is already a mechanism for Bethesda to recoup the costs of marketing and development – it’s the price tag of the base game. So why should the value of the pre-existing tools factor into this in such a sizeable way?

Mods can sell a game to those who otherwise would not buy it. How many people bought ARMA 2 exclusively for DayZ? Old games can be rejuvenated by great mods. It’s not infrequent to hear people talk of mods “fixing” games which were considered “broken” or “unbalanced” at launch. Many a game has a set of, so-called, “essential” mods. If an old game finds itself climbing back up the Steam charts on account of a handful of incredible mods, is it fair if the game’s publisher sucks in 100% (minus Steam’s cut) of the sales of the game (sales generated entirely by those mods), and then a further large slice of the sales of the mods themselves? Or is it not reasonable to be happy to see your game generating sales again, the small slice of the mod sales you take the icing on the cake – thankyou very much mod creators?

Fact is, were I employed by some developer and in my spare time I created a huge expansion and the studio decided to package that as DLC, I would expect to see 0% of the sales personally. But that’s a situation where my salary already compensates me for my work and I’ve signed a contract which stipulates that any work I do in my spare time technically belongs to the studio. I’d still feel a bit aggrieved and under-compensated though. In that context, then, a 25% cut isn’t bad considering that publishers have every right to deny you monetising content for their copyright works entirely. Perhaps these large publishers consider 25% to be incredibly generous – and perhaps it is if we look at it through the eyes of big business.

As far as I know, the exact percentage which goes to the mod creator is determined by the publisher so we’ll no doubt see a great degree of variation, ultimately. However, were I going to pick a value as a base-line – a ‘don’t take any more than this’ guideline for all games then given that the percentage must compensate the publisher for the value of the tools/tech/consumer-base, we should also consider the value that Steam brings with its tools/tech/consumer-base. Steam Workshop provides you with infrastructure, 80 million or so potential consumers, and easy download and integration. How much is that worth? Way more. So take whatever percentage Valve takes from the mod sales and match it – no more*.

* Edit: Of course without knowing the specifics of the percentages it’s quite possible this is what the 75% already roughly reflects – but if we presume Valve takes a 30% slice (which would be in line with what many digital distribution services take), then this would leave a more meaty 40% to the mod creators.

UPDATE: According to Nexus Mods (link), the percentage split is as follows: 25% to mod creator, 40% to Bethesda, 35% to Valve. Of the slice Valve take, this can (optionally by the mod creator) be split further – 5% to one or more “service providers” which, in Skyrim’s case, include sites like Nexus Mods themselves. With this in mind, I find Valve’s cut to be quite reasonable considering that the cost to Valve in providing the Workshop service and handling the financial side of things is sizeable. It’s the 40% to Bethesda which raises my eyebrows considering that each and every mod creator has already paid for the mod tools as part of the price of Skyrim. 15% – 25% strikes me as a much more reasonable publisher slice.

All this being said, there is one tremendous up-side to all of this: The prospect of generating income from mods may be the push developers and publishers need to provide modding tools – in the future, perhaps a game being modable will be the norm.

I’d Rather Kill Humans Than Animals*

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Stuff | Posted on 09-02-2015


*In videogames

Human-shaped polygonal surfaces in videogames are not people, no matter how well rendered, animated, and voice-acted. They are literal shells. They do not think, nor feel – they just react according to their programming. They are not Cylons where their programming is so complex that one could posit that they are alive, because computers aren’t that good yet – not by miles. Obviously. Nor are they complex enough that they “appear” to be alive, because computers aren’t that good yet either. It’s going to be a while before a videogame NPC is going to be able to pass the Turing test inside the context of a believable game world.

I find it odd that there has been discussion about certain NPCs being described as “objects” given that all elements within a game are objects. Everything is there for the benefit of the player, to use and interact with as a play-thing. The fact that some toys say, “I lub yoo” when you pull a string does not make the act of throwing the toy across the room, or pulling its leg off, unconscionable because it’s just a toy. It’s not real. When we pull the string, the toy is not thinking it’s just repeating one of a number of pre-recorded messages. When we interact with NPCs in a videogame, all we are doing is pulling on a more complicated string.

Were it possible to develop game characters which could convince us, to some degree, that they were people – with sophisticated A.I. and reams of dialogue such that each and every character had a fully fleshed out life story, hopes and dreams, then the concept of killing anyone in the game would suddenly become horrific, as in Austin Powers when a henchman dies and we’re treated to a scene presenting the grief of the henchman’s family. While there’s room for a game which explores these concepts, these would be the exception not the rule.

Which brings me back to animals. While we can’t get close to convincing players that videogame humans (or human-like characters) are real people, we can get a glimpse of how it would feel to murder them were it possible with animals. If, like me, you’re rather keen on animal welfare and hate the concept of hunting for sport then, like me, you might feel a pang of discomfort when instructed to kill an animal in a videogame.


Far Cry 4

The reason I feel this way, is because with animals you can program behaviours for them which make them really rather believable. All the problems associated with believable humans disappear – animals are less complicated, bird flocking code is easy to write and can be convincing. Fur rendering has reached the point that animals can be rendered with close to photographic quality. All the uncanny valley problems associated with humans are not present – a well rendered and animated tiger could, in theory, trick you into believing it was real if you weren’t aware that a game was being played.

We arrived at photo-realism first with static environments. We’ll get there next with (so-called) “lower” lifeforms and we’re pretty damn close already (with pre-rendered effects, we’re already there). So being forced to kill an animal in a game (when that animal is rendered and animated well) makes me a little uncomfortable. Your brain knows it’s not real, but those morality chips get activated regardless. It’s a peek into the window of what games would be like, were we able to create humans as believable as we can create animals. It would be horrific.

So when we talk about videogame characters being objects, yes they are – and a flupping good thing they are too. So let’s get back to dragging them across the floor and pulling their arms off.

On Patreon and conflicts of interest

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Useless Advice | Posted on 30-11-2014


I must admit, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Patreon – is it okay for me as a developer to fund a games writer who potentially in the future could write something about my game? I don’t know – you’re certainly not, in that simple act of Patronage, entering into a binding contract where they must write something favourable about you. But at the same time, without intimately knowing the person you’re supporting you also can’t guarantee that it won’t predispose them towards you.

So what to do? Well, here’s a thought…


Set your Patreon account to “private”, you muppet. You can do that dead easily. For extra fun, set up another email account with a meaningless address and don’t put your actual name (or common internet handle) into the Username box (those are the only two mandatory fields). That done, there is no way that the person you’re supporting, or the public at large, could ever know you support them – and therefore there is no way at all that this act of Patronage could be perceived as a cash for coverage situation.

If the person you’re supporting doesn’t know (and can’t know) you support them, how could this possibly change anything? The other way round, press supporting devs… that’s a little different and I bow gracefully out of having an opinion on that matter since it’s not an issue I have to concern myself with, not being press and all ūüėČ

Generating Normal Maps from Textures

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Useless Advice | Posted on 30-11-2014


It’s not infrequently that I stumble upon forum posts on hobbiest game dev sites where someone proclaims in response to a question, “no – you can’t make normal / bump maps from textures”. The logic being that there is absolutely nothing in a texture map that would in any way yield useful depth information. This is certainly true – and it would be also be true to say, “you can’t make really really good normal maps from just a diffuse texture”.

But you can make normal maps which serve a purpose – you’ve got a texture which had no bump map packaged with it, you’re not an artist, and anything half decent is better than nothing. It’s also staggeringly easy and requires no skill, yet I almost never see it mentioned on the internet in these discussions.

So I present to you, Photoshop’s “High-Pass” filter:


Take your texture, and do:
Filters -> Other -> High Pass

Play with the slider until you get something bump-mappy (usually quite low values), desaturate the image, done. You’re welcome :)

Campaign for Less Stern Videogame Characters

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Campaign for less stern videogame characters, Games | Posted on 20-10-2014


Videogame art always features angry, stern, or grumpy looking people because dark or something. I don’t know. Let’s change that, eh? So I present my Campaign for less stern videogame characters which began way way back in December last year, and then stopped because I got bored. So I’m presenting it again here and I’ll edit this post if I see a really stern videogame character which will take less than 2 minutes to badly edit.

Lords of the Fallen

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Speedball 2, HD

Rome II, Total War

Alien: Isolation

Risen 3: Titan Lords

Dreamfall Chapters

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – Test of Wisdom DLC


Campaign for Less Stern Ubisoft Publicity Photos

Jade Raymond, already not stern. Alexandre Parizeau, needs desternulating…

Early Access and DLC

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 20-10-2014


Before I start, I should probably preamble that I’m not talking about Zomboid here. We’ll probably never do DLC for Zomboid, but i use the word “probably” because it’s not inconceivable that way after we’ve released a 1.0 build, done a few patches and what-not, that we might do some sort of off-shoot extra entirely unrelated to our plans for the game. Probably not though, I just wouldn’t want to rule anything out. But probably not. Almost certainly not, actually. Maybe 99.9% certain that we wouldn’t. But never say never, just probably not ever. Have I made my point yet?

Anyway. Should Early Access games have DLC? I’m not talking about ‘games which were once Early Access but are now finished’ because these aren’t Early Access games anymore. No, I mean games which are still in Early Access.

I think it’s a bit of a grey area, really – and while I’m inclined to scream “God, no!”, really it comes down to the slightly squidgy nature of Early Access games and their various funding models:

  • Alpha-Funded – sales in Early Access fund the game’s development in an extremely direct way.
  • Kickstarter – Initial Kickstarter funds development, E.A. sales basically profit
  • Traditionally Funded – Developer / Publisher funds game, E.A. sales recoup investment earlier

This is extremely broad categorisation done for the sake of simplicity. Basically, I think you’re in iffy territory with DLC in the first category and half of the second. For example, with a Kickstarter project DLC may have been one of your backer rewards which would then make delivering that reward by a given date a fair priority. So doing the DLC before the game is out of Early Access makes some kind of sense. For alpha-funded Early Access games, though, I think it ought to be pretty much a flat, “no”. Your customers are buying your game, in part, to help fund its development – not to help fund some DLC they might not want or care about.

For the traditionally funded games, well, if the publisher wants to spend money developing DLC it’s kind of their call – especially given that the DLC team might be an entirely separate set of people to the main game team, and therefore funded separately. In other words, DLC development has not impacted on the main game’s development in the slightest.

The trouble is, of course, that all these varying funding methods are invisible on Steam. Unless you do a fair amount of hunting, it’s not possible to distinguish between an Early Access game funded directly from sales, and those which were once Kickstarter or publisher-backed projects which had a juicy cash injection pre-Steam.

So while DLC for Early Access games does kind of smell a bit whiffy, it’s really difficult to make a statement on how reasonable or shockingly awful spending development time on DLC while you’re in Early Access actually is.

Conclusion: Inconclusive.

On Games Industry Ignorance

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 11-10-2014


When I was a kid, you could pretty much ask me about any game, any developer, and I’d have had quite a lot to say on the matter. The number of games released was comparatively tiny and the number of people involved in production also comparatively tiny. On the C64, you could name a musician and any true gamer could pretty much rattle off a list of their work. Because you were so restricted by choice on these early platforms, you pretty much took anything you could get. You’d buy a game because Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Chris Hulsbeck, et al did the music – balls to whether the game was any good.

Given this dearth of choice, you were pretty much able to convince yourself something was great even if retrospectively it was a bit shit. I spent a lot of time swooning over Dragon Breed on the C64 not because I particularly enjoyed side-scrolling shoot-em-ups, but because they did some incredibly fancypants stuff with the graphics – more sprites onscreen than seemed possible on the C64, rapidly alternating colours to produce impossible hues, giant boss characters. It was this general vibe of loving pretty much all games ever which led me to pursue a career in videogames.

But the games industry kept growing. By the time I had graduated University and was looking to get my first games industry job, the games industry was already a bit of a monster. The PlayStation 2 had just been released so despite this ballooning, games – and particularly games graphics – were starting to get a bit exciting. But chatting to co-workers, some of whom had been making games since the Spectrum days, it started to become clear quite how small a grasp anyone had on games as a whole. Nobody knew about everything, no-one even knew about most stuff. These people had encyclopaedic knowledge about everything pre-1996 or so, but after that? Impossible, there’s just too much data and time is limited.


Not to scale: Diagram on the left should be a microdot

By May of this year, more games had been released on Steam than in the whole of 2013. You can argue for tighter curation, but whether or not all these games should be on Steam it is an indication of the vast number of games being made. Add to that console games. Then add mobile / tablet games. Then Facebook games… The ridiculousness becomes staggering. Nobody can have a grasp of this behemoth any more apart from in a statistical sense.

So the point is, nobody is an authority on the games industry as a whole. Nobody represents all game developers, or all gamers. No movement can be easily pigeonholed as about X, or Y. Nobody can sample a statistically insignificant set of games and draw broad industry-wide conclusions. All anyone is representing is their own opinion regardless of how dressed up as ‘fact’ it’s presented, in the context of the tiny fraction of the games industry (or even indie industry) which they’re interested in and know anything about. There are a handful of well-known and vocal developers in an ocean of people you’ve never heard of who’s opinion is unknown. Number of followers/subscribers does not indicate righteousness, just popularity or contentiousness.

This is my ignorance: 99.9999% of the games industry and games and I’m not an authority on anything. I suspect everyone else, no matter who they are or what they’ve made, of similar general ignorance and I try to read and watch commentary and interviews with this in mind.

My Response to some Responses to my DF-9 Response

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 22-09-2014


Original blog post on alpha-funding and Spacebase DF-9 here.

You can’t seriously expect a company to relocate somewhere cheaper and still retain their staff!

Well… no, probably not. That said, if that’s what it takes to produce an alpha-funded game in terms of “money it’ll likely (not hopefully) make” to “money it will definitely cost”, then that’s what it takes. Companies move, people move with them. This stuff happens in industries all the time and to expect the games industry to be any different on the basis that it’s not really very pleasant having to relocate is naive. But the point is not that you should have to move to a cost-effective area in order to run an alpha-funded project, but simply if you are not based in a cost-effective area then alpha-funding is probably not an appropriate development model for your business.

What business is it of yours, where a company is based or how their business is run?

None. But alpha funded games rely on consumer trust. How much do they trust you to finish the game you’re selling? And there are three factors primarily in play:

1) The game idea (obviously)
2) Reputation of the company developing it
3) Price

When an established developer is working on the game, this counts an awful lot on the “trust” gauge. This is why the most successful Kickstarter campaigns tend to be from the likes of Chris Avellone <3, Brian Fargo, Tim Schafer, David Braben, Chris Roberts. All people with tremendous games to their credit - what could go wrong? These guys know how to make games and know how to run studios, right? Right. Except, while on paper you'd be correct to trust established devs what isn't so transparent is the immense gulf in development costs compared to the more bedroom codey indie developers. So yeah, the experience these people have counts hugely in their favour in terms of trust, if you change the question and instead think in terms of this:

“Which developers are the most likely to continue developing their project in the event it performs very badly in terms of sales?”

Now you can see that the larger established developers with the large running costs are the least likely to be able to see through the project if things don’t go according to plan. So it’s not quite the simple proposition as established == better. It’s swings and roundabouts. There will be circumstances when the bedroom coder is a safer bet than the company with AAA games in its softography.

So it does matter how much of the revenue is going to be swallowed by running costs. Right now (and despite the inevitable “mixed” Steam user reviews) Spacebase DF-9 is the 58th best selling Early Access game on Steam, out of 265. That’s in the top quarter of all currently available Early Access games. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a failure. But because those running costs are so high, the top quarter is not sufficient – I wonder what would be? Top ten percent? Top ten? Would have been nice to know this given that continued development depended on it.

Of course Kickstarter is different – those high running costs are factored into the amount asked for. So for Kickstarter you would be right to trust established developers in general. But with alpha-funding those costs are intimately entwined with the project’s chance of success and this is why alpha-funding is not a simple “alternative” to other funding models.

Why no mention of the burglary? You don’t exactly have a flawless track-record either. People in glass houses etc.

That’s a fair point and I didn’t mention it partially because I didn’t really intend to write that much about us in my blog post – just enough to put things in context. But yeah, we screwed up there and were heavily criticised for it at the time (and still occassionally to this day). But I’d argue that the event actually proves my point. Our running costs were low enough that despite that happening, and despite the inevitable plummet in sales that went with it, we were able to carry on regardless – and we’re still here years later. That is the advantage with low cost developers.

With all this in mind, we updated the information on our Store page to include some pertinent information regarding costs associated with where we are based. Frustratingly, I can’t just link directly to it so you’d have to click the “read more” button on the big blue ‘Early Access Game’ panel: here.

Finally in conclusion, here’s m’colleague Lemmy on price points, etc

The cost is very much a big factor in our issues with some Early Access games these days. Consumers are meant to be compensated for buying an incomplete game with risks associated with it. The price is that agreement between dev and customer ‘I know it’s a bit cheeky me asking for money for this, but I just need a financial hand getting it done. So how about I only charge you a fiver? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You get a game much more ambitious than I could fund normally, and at a super cheap price, and in return I get to make money from this game while I make it.’

With the normalization of Early Access a lot of devs seem to have forgotten that this is a rather unorthodox and contentious thing to do, and instead of being thankful and humble in being permitted to conduct business in this unorthodox way, or remembering that this inherently puts them in a situation where they are more beholden to their customers wants and expectations than in traditional funding models. Instead many have accepted it as the norm, and started to creep the initial alpha prices up to release value (or sometimes, bewilderingly and sickeningly, ABOVE the release price) and the acceptability of releasing earlier and earlier more broken or lacking in gameplay builds to the point where it all becomes very problematic.

If DF-9 was $8 I doubt there would be 1/100th of the backlash. Of course if $8 was a completely impossible price point then this again goes to point out that the location the devs operate in is a BIG factor in the game’s failure and needs to be noted.

Alpha Funding / Early Access is not an “Alternative”

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 21-09-2014


Please note:¬†Throughout this piece, I am going to be referring to “Early Access” a lot.
In the context of this blog post, by “Early Access” I refer to those games¬†which follow
the “alpha-funded” model whereby the first build available is pre (or very early) alpha.
“Early Access” games which launch with an open beta are more traditionally funded and
these games are exempt from what I’m talking about.


With the latest news about Spacebase DF-9, one thing has become very clear to me:

Alpha Funded / Early Access is not¬†an “alternative” development approach. It has a very specific use for a very specific set of games.

At the very beginning of Project Zomboid, when we released the first rough screenshots, outlined our goals, and asked for money to help us get there we had a discussion about the “what if” scenarios.¬†What if we don’t really raise that much money?¬†What if we do well initially but interest (and funding) dries up mid-way through? All these sorts of things. One thing was fundamentally obvious: If we¬†take money up-front from people for a shell of a game, we¬†have a duty to deliver the game regardless of how much money we¬†make.

That’s why for the first year or so, Chris and I shared the same cheap apartment in Hartlepool (there’s very few cheaper places to live in the UK and not get murdered on the streets). When we did eventually¬†move somewhere less horrid it was with the understanding that if things took a turn for the worse, we’d have to move¬†back to an equivalent situation. Just turning round at that point and saying instead, “sorry guys, we’ve run out of money, the game as it is¬†now is just going to have to do” was never an option.¬†And it never should be.

So what is very clear to me, is if you can’t guarantee this from the outset then Alpha-Funding / Early Access is not for you. It’s too risky and were it just your own reputation on the line, that’d be fine. But failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most.

Frankly, I find it bewildering that anyone would develop a game which relies on sales to fund development who is based somewhere with staggeringly high living costs (London, San Fransisco, Copenhagen, etc). You’re literally (metaphorically) burning that money. I know it’s easy to say but a lot more complicated to do, but you really should be based somewhere cheaper if you’re going to use this model. You need to be efficient and maximise the development you get out of every single penny that comes in. If you’re not prepared to do this (or are unable to) then, again, alpha-funded / Early Access is not for you.

So, I’m afraid, I’m just not impressed by this:

We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so.


Because that year and a half production could easily have been five years if only the studio were based somewhere which didn’t have an average $10,000 (!!!) per person per month cost. You are basically requiring your game to be one of the most successful Early Access games ever in order to have enough money to finish it. This is, frankly, an insane and (dare I say it?) arrogant assumption.

edit: A follow-up post here.

“Gamers are dead” is a flupping bonkers thing to say

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Rants | Posted on 20-09-2014


Yeah, I’m¬†hugely late to the party on this one, but since I’m¬†still seeing this discussed and argued on my Twitter feed I’m going to chime in. On the one hand you’ve got a load of gamers feeling like they were attacked and, on the other hand, a load of writers claiming bewilderment and saying, “geez, [x] is dead is, like, a super common expression. What’s your problem?”


1) There is an¬†ENORMOUS difference between saying, “[inanimate objects] are dead” and saying, “[group of people] are dead”. For example, “movies are dead” is less contentious than, “moviegoers are dead”.

2) There is an¬†ENORMOUS difference between saying, “[those people] are dead” and saying, “[you] are dead”. For example, “authors are dead” is less contentious than, “readers are dead” since¬†the people reading the article are, by definition, readers.

3) There is an¬†ENORMOUS difference between saying, “the term ‘[group]’ is dead” and saying, “‘[group]’ are dead”.

In other words,¬†show me a bunch of examples when this format of statement has been applied when the thing being called “dead” represents¬†100% of your readership¬†and you might have a point in saying that this is a really common thing to do. If you can’t then just admit that you were either being deliberately provocative and reactionary, or you really didn’t think through the headline.

Edit: …and the point still stands if you swap “dead” for “over” or any other similar word.