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I’m still amazed by the rise in popularity of pen & paper RPGs

June 20, 2020

Amazed and pleased. I should note that I was a huuuge D&D (as well as Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and a few more) fan in my youth. Discovering D&D was transformative to my life. As well as giving me a lifelong love of gaming (of all forms) it also put me on the path to becoming a games designer. But while back in the 80s, D&D became huge, it didn’t last as competition for the ‘mind-space’ of kids arrived via technologies such as video games, as well as business woes of some of the main players in RPGs such as TSR (the company founded to publish D&D) who went bankrupt and was sold to Wizards of the Coast (WotC), who in turn was sold to Hasbro. What is interesting is back then during the sale D&D was not at all what Hasbro was interested in:

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

The same fall in sales and waning interest also hit other then big RPGs such as White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade games. I’m in a way emblematic of that loss of players during that period, I was now playing video games more than RPGs. When I did play an RPG it was Call of Cthulhu. I remember in the early 00s in Bristol going along to an RPG gaming group, asking what all the other people played, it was almost totally Pathfinder (a D&D-like fantasy RPG that did while D&D struggled). I didn’t really get back into RPGs much then.

Back to our story; So while D&D bumped along as part of Hasbro, now a small fish in a big pond, watch what happens as the 2010s get underway;

So the question becomes – what happened in 2014 to see a rise in sales? 5th Edition is released and to cut a long story short, the developers got lots and lots of things right with it. Then in 2017? On July 15th 2016, Stranger Things debuted and with it’s nostalgic love of D&D put the hobby in front of many, many more people.

What is interesting about the re-rise of D&D and RPGs is that now technology, far from killing these games, is giving them a new life. People play games using video-chat systems like Roll20, the connectivity of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter (I mean this campaign for dogs in D&D grossed over £350K!) has allowed creators to make a whole bunch of new, re-born and odd RPGs that explore every possible niche of the hobby. Meanwhile D&D just gets bigger – one count being that there are more than 13.7M players worldwide. (This podcast episode does a good job of showing the range of RPGs around) We’ve seen a return to form of classic titles such as Call of Cthulhu, new editions of Runequest as well a new titles that explore very different worlds such as Tales from the Loop.

RPGs are back and are only going to get bigger.

Mars Horizon is in Steam Festival

June 20, 2020

Just a quick note to say Mars Horizon (our space agency management/tycoon/strategy sim) has been on the Steam Festival since Friday and it runs for a couple more days, so now is a good time to try the demo out! We’ve been so pleased to have the support of both ESA and the UK Space Agency throughout this!



How reliance on one system or approach creates vulnerabilities

March 22, 2020

As a game developer we have a number of key systems that we rely on to function; that can be engines (Unity, Unreal) or distribution stores/platforms (Steam, Switch, Xbox, Playstation etc). However either by success via one route or lack of resources to expand to more, we’re, as game developers, all too often on a limited path (say one engine and one store?). That can be an efficiency that makes sense, but it is also a potential vulnerability as if one of those critical systems make a change that impacts you, you can be in serious trouble!

Here’s an example of how that can pan out:

For a few years, Ben Cohen was living the dream. His political opinion site, The Daily Banter, was growing in leaps and bounds, generating enough traffic and ad revenue to support several full-time writers. At its height, the site was getting upwards of 6 million unique visitors a month, fueled in large part by readers sharing his content on Facebook.

But you probably know what happened next. In January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was pivoting away from news, and that publishers would see a decline in exposure in the Newsfeed. Virtually overnight, Cohen saw his Facebook traffic drop by 90%.

We’ve seen how this can happen in games too!

Here’s the graph:

So as we’re seeing in the world around us now, a good tip is aim to build resilience and redundancy in your game-dev practice where you can, as you can never predict what will change.

Review – Color Out Of Space film @colorspacemovie – it is very good and now in my top Lovecraft media list!

March 22, 2020

I’ve had a chance to see the new Color of Space film by film directed and co-written by Richard Stanley. I’m going attempt to give a no spoilers review. The film is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space story. The TL;DR review is – it’s really good, go see it! Here’s the trailer:

The film updates the setting to modern day and also changes the narrative to focus more on the interactions of the family at the center of events. What director Richard Stanley has done really well imho is show how a family of people respond to the unfathomable events around them in a range of ways, as humans tend to. As events get odder and odder, so too thier reactions become more and more incongruous. Lovecraft’s work is well known for its focus on the encroaching madness of his characters as the crushing nature of the universe is revealed to them, and what this film does so well is a very human and character-based study of how that might actually look.

The events of the film swing between horror and farce – which I think is its great power – that in the midst of the most terrifying events or in the face of death we can act with the laughter of resilience, defiance or denial.

In addition the portrayal of being itself, the color out of space, is odd in the sense that it is hard to understand how it is functioning and what is it and what is its impact on the ecosystem around it. That odd-ness is good, great even as that was at the heart of what Lovecraft portrayed in the story, a being working on a plane of reality that is utterly alien to us (and I’ve written about this before).

So the film is really good, I enjoyed it a lot and it is clearly one of the best Lovecraft adaptations out there and I’d love to see more by Richard Stanley in this setting. As such I’m now adding it to my ‘Top 5 best of Mythos, Cthulhu and Lovecraft Film, TV, Games, Stories and more… (A Work in Progress)‘ list.

With that all said a few easter eggs from the film:

One of the characters (Ward Phillips, the hydrologist) is reading ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood, which Lovecraft thought the finest supernatural tale in English literature.

Indeed the name ‘Ward Phillips’ is an easter egg, being a reference to Lovecraft himself, also a character in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ and also a character in Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold. He is also wearing a Miskatonic University sweater.

We also see the character Lavinia Gardner reading a number of books including The Necronomicon….

As you can see she is reading the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon, published in 1977. You can also see there The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley. Crowley and Lovecraft are often connected in theme or fiction;

Kenneth Grant, the British occultist, disciple of Aleister Crowley … suggested in his book The Magical Revival (1972) that there was an unconscious connection between Crowley and Lovecraft. He thought they both drew on the same occult forces; Crowley via his magic and Lovecraft through the dreams which inspired his stories and the Necronomicon. Grant claimed that the Necronomicon existed as an astral book as part of the Akashic records and could be accessed through ritual magic or in dreams. Grant’s ideas on Lovecraft were featured heavily in the introduction to the Simon Necronomicon

Before I go … important announcement! Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics is now out on Steam and console!… plus if you wanted our ‘Vote Cthulhu’ card game (aka Elections), it’s available now 🙂

How BlitzFail applies to game companies

March 7, 2020

I’ve been reading this interesting article on BlitzFails – where one moment a company is a rising star and the next, they are all done:

In this post, I identify the top reasons why fast-growing startups go off the rails (or “BlitzFail”). The issues have three things in common: first, they are existential; they are capable of derailing a startup. Second, they are surprising; they tend to go undetected for awhile, then manifest suddenly. Third, they are common enough to occur across many startups.

Some of this applies to games and games companies:

Nothing can give a startup the illusion of success like negative unit economics. This occurs when a startup is selling a product for less than its variable cost.

This applies, but not right away as most games companies take time to make that first title and get it out on sale. However (in premium) once there you need to shift enough to not only make back what you’ve spent but also make money to make the next game. The recent dropping of Steam’s average income to record low levels means that most games (around 75% of them) will be selling games at, given the sales numbers they have, at less the cost to make them. By this I mean if a game cost you £100,000 to make and you’re only selling 3,000 units then they need to sell for around £50 per unit (so you’re getting like £33 net) which is clearly not going to happen. Not only that but many of the ways to fix the issue post-release (adverts, updates) cost more money putting you at risk of sunk cost fallacy.

Next point..

Churn is a well known problem but remains a time bomb for many startups because of the lag between customer acquisition and renewal.

Our issue as developers is that, for the most part, for all the time and effort we go to in the search of customers they may buy our game,but the are and remain the customer of the platform we use to distribute.

Next point..

About once or twice a decade, a macro shock affects the startup ecosystem, causing a re-evaluation of fundraising criteria. High-burn startups that are caught flat-footed are often wiped out.

So this happens in our industry more than twice a decade, new genres, new platforms, new hardware cycles, new business models. So mobile, F2P, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Battle Royale games, Crowdfunding, MOBAs, subscription models, Steam Greenlight/Direct – all of these have up-ended the model and all within the last decade.

Phew. Making games is hard. Making money from games is also a challenge.

One of the ways we’re looking to mitigate the risk at Auroch Digital is via data, and you can help!



Reputation and Gaming at YouTube (via @simonowens)

February 28, 2020

There is a good interview with Chris Stokel-Walker (who covers YouTube for FFWD) by Simon Owens. Here is a few quotes that caught my interest. One on the all-powerful recommendation algorithm;

The algorithm rewards high quality posts. So people have to like it, they have to engage with it. The videos have to be long — 10, 20 minutes or more, and they have to be uploaded frequently. That’s why the most subscribed channel is a Bollywood film and music TV channel. … It’s massively influential because it essentially puts your video in front of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. The reason that people complain about it so much is because it is dominated by traditional TV on late night TV hosts. There’s a reason for that. The trending page is YouTube’s showcase to the world and, having had so many problems in the last few years with its reputation, it wants to make sure it presents a squeaky clean face to the world.

YouTube has justly been under fire for the algorithmic promotion of both anti-science conspiracy theories and far-right hate speech. Plus we’ve all know for a long time that the comments on YouTube are basically garbage-magnets. So if this means they are taking thier role more seriously, then good.

Also noted (and a pressure point on YouTube) is that they are far from the owly game in town now when it comes to online video;

Why YouTube keeps offering lucrative contracts to gaming streamers
We are seeing guaranteed contracts being laid down for streamers, particularly game streamers, to secure their services for a prolonged period of time. And YouTube is having to enter that market because they are competing against Mixer, which is backed by Microsoft. They are competing against Twitch, which is backed by Amazon. They are competing against Facebook, which has billions of dollars to throw at anything. There’s a gold rush going on.

Anyhow, article and podcast links are here.

Cardboard AI and Solo Gaming

February 25, 2020

There is a good article on Dicebreaker looking at the design of solo boardgame AI, here’s the context:

Solo board games have exploded in popularity in recent years. In fact, the 1 Player guild on BoardGameGeek is the most populous on the site, having earned that distinction sometime in the last year or so.

This is interesting to me as I’ve played solo boardgames for a while; starting with, of course – Chainsaw Warrior! I interviewed the original designer of the cardboard game Stephen Hand, a few years back and this topic came up too:

In direct contrast to the evolution of videogames, the solo boardgame was a neglected beast. You had Solitaire (which I knew as Patience) and that was it. Some multiplayer games did contain variant rules for solo players but these were generally unsatisfying. So Chainsaw Warrior was a conscious effort to try to fill the void. I knew there were many players like me who, at those frustrating times when you couldn’t find another player, would have use for a solo game if only as a stopgap.

Back to the Dicebreaker article you can see the ethos in the design:

“The key phrase I keep in my mind is ‘playability’,” Royal says. “We often talk about creating an ‘intelligent’ opponent to play against when developing a solo variant. Developing this automaton is like working on a sliding scale, with simple and dumbed-down on one end, and complex and intelligent on the other. Somewhere in the middle is a Goldilocks zone where playability is king.”

Which I’d note is similar to how we design for digital too!

PS. You can grab great Chainsaw Warrior loot here! Oh and we did a deepdrive on Chainsaw Warrior in S2 E4 of the podcast.

Chainsaw Warrior Original Board Game

The future of RTS Games

February 24, 2020

RTS is a beloved genre of mine (along with TBS, see podcast S1 E4 & 5) – when I first discovered Dune 2 (and Warcraft 2) I ended up staying up all night playing each until I’d made quite a pile of digital skulls and was too tired to carry on. So I’m both interested in making them and playing them. Which is why this article on PC Gamer caught my eye…

Can real-time strategy come back from the brink of death? … It was Westwood, however, that would give us our first successful RTS, Dune 2, in 1992. … It took a bit more time for other developers to follow suit, starting with Blizzard. The first Warcraft borrowed plenty from Dune 2, but switched the setting from sci-fi to fantasy and threw in the now-standard online multiplayer. That’s when things got really exciting, beginning a rivalry between the two studios that would give us what are still considered some of the greatest PC games of all time, from Command & Conquer to StarCraft.

Indeed. I enjoyed C&C but prefered Starcraft personally. We used to play it for a while as MP over lunch in the office when I was at Hothouse.

Indeed, I’m even less confident than I was a few years ago, when people still seemed to be fans of a lot of the mechanics and design philosophy inherent in RTS games, as evidenced by the popularity of MOBAs. They’ve never been my cup of tea, aside from Smite, which is probably the furthest from the RTS origins, and Heroes of the Storm, because I’m a sucker for Blizzard’s character designs. But now the MOBA genre has coalesced around a tiny number of enduring games. The behemoths don’t appear to be going anywhere, yet, but fewer and fewer games are joining them.

There is a forum to discuss this too. Now, I’d argue that RTS has actually had a huge and ongoing life – but more on mobile. Until a few years ago RTS-like games such as Clash Royale and Clash of Clans were the top grossing games (and the many, many like them). What they had done is taken the formula and re-posted it into a more accessible gameplay loop and it has become huge. It’s also seen a range of spin-offs such as MOBAs and Tower Defense games, which owe their lineage to RTS games. But still, I get they are not quite the ‘classic’ mode of RTS…

I also suspect that the vast, vast amount of games now on Steam means that the genre is now divided and sub-divided into many, many smaller titles that each tweak the formula in different ways. But each is not big enough to rise to the individual level of a Warcraft 2 or C&C was before. For example Conan Unconquered which adds coop and survival as a twist.

But ahhh. Dune 2 please.


The Auroch Digital ‘How to Make a Game’ Podcast – with added Cthulhu, Space, Car Combat and Strategy Gaming

January 15, 2020

We’ve been doing a podcast for a while now, and the feedback has been positive. So I thought it was time to post about it here and point to a few episodes, below, you might find of interest?

Cthulhu Episodes

  • Season 0 Episode 4, 5 & 6  – The Birth of Cthulhu, The Function Call of Cthulhu (pun!) & The Momentum of Cthulhu – These three are all about Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics. The first episode focused on what Cthulhu is and who this Lovecraft guy is, so a good introduction.
  • Season 4 Episode 5 –  A potted history of Cthulhu games; from the original RPG down to the games being produced now, my personal history of Lovecraftian games.

Space (Mars Horizon) Episodes

  • Season 0 Episode 1 – All on Mars Horizon. Season 0 Episode 1, 2 and 3 Mars Horizon Mission Control Gameplay Explained & Translating Space Engineering to Games
  • Season 0 Episode 2 – Drama / Challenge, In-depth look at Mission Control & Meta Management Gameplay, UI design, and Meta Management playthrough
  • Season 0 Episode 3 – Andrew Kuh of the UK Space Agency chats Mars and the inner workings of an agency with Tomas, Steve talks Mars Mission, and the Brodster details Event Systems
  • Season 2 Episode 2 – Mars Horizon: Blast off! special episode about the spin-off boardgame we made.
  • Season 4 Episode 3 & 4 – Visiting the European Space Agency parts 1 and 2. (Really pleased with S4 E3!)

Cat Combat (Dark Future) Episodes

Strategy Episodes

If you enjoy them, please do rate them on iTunes, or however you listen to your podcasts!

Also we’re working on Season 5 now, so subscribe to get them as they are released.


(There is an index of other podcast episodes, indexed, that we’ve done before, here)

I’m at PG Connect London 2020

January 10, 2020

Hello all and happy new year! Happy to say am starting the new year off with the trip to London on 20th/21st to PG Connect. I’ve been invited to take part in a panel there:

This year our Design Director Tomas Rawlings is on a panel about Indie publishing so make sure to go give it a listen if you are attending. Further details on the panel are below:

Indie Publishing – How Indie developers deal with publishing in PC/console, biggest challenges and advantages and opportunities ahead

So if you’re there too and want to hook up, do ping me!