Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Developers Failing to Reply to Steam Key Requests

As a small insignificant maker of videos games, it is mildly panic inducing to open Twitter and see this:
Consider the probabilities. What is more likely? Have I said something mildly interesting, or ragingly stupid? The former is much harder than the latter. Fortunately in this case someone else had said something mildly interesting, and I was just the vector for its delivery to the public domain:
Among all the discussion that followed, an interesting question was raised. Why had I not replied to this individual in the first place? Is it not a bit rude to just leave a response hanging for over a month? This is a tangential issue that could do with some explaining.

Like so many other game developers, I receive a torrent of emails requesting Steam keys. Most of them appear legitimate, and can be quickly and readily verified as such. They are 'legitimate' insofar as they appear to be a request for a key for the purposes of informing an audience about the product.

In some cases, the audience is too small to justify a response. For example, a YouTuber with less than 1,000 subscribers is unfortunately unlikely to receive a reply. This is not because I think small YouTubers are not legitimate, but because if I reply to every small YouTuber I will spend all my time in my email inbox.

A further proportion of messages are ignored because I cannot quickly parse them. Every individual message gets a little bit of brain-time, perhaps a few seconds. Sometimes there is a language barrier between the sender and myself, sometimes there are spelling, grammar, or length (people writing essays to request keys) issues preventing me from understanding the request quickly.

Then there is a special subset of emails. These set off a little alarm in the back of my head. Sometimes words like 'deal,' 'giveaway,' 'partnership,' or 'in return for' pop up. Sometimes I can't quite put my finger on it. Whatever 'it' is, the objective of the sender appears to be something other than to inform their audience about the product. Like messages from small YouTubers and messages I can't parse, these get ignored.

Many of the emails that are ignored might well be legitimate. I imagine a significant proportion are. The volume of them means I can't devote more time to verifying my two-second determination. The email that sparked this particular episode appears to be an example of a time when the determination was correct.

It upsets me to know that I must surely get that determination wrong many times. If you ever email me asking for a key for a game and I don’t reply, please don’t lose heart or think I have decided you are a scammer. Instead, perhaps consider re-wording the message: Making it shorter, having an English speaker help you out (I wish I could speak more languages!), including a clear link to your outlet, and avoiding any suggestion of a pre-determined review outcome.

This post was adapted from a reply originally made on Reddit.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Subnautica Gameplay - The Early Dev Days

Subnautica is now available, quietly, on People willing to get their hands dirty in a super early development can now get 'Special Edition'

  • Access to development builds on Steam (daily!)
  • A limited edition 'Hull Plate' to place on submarines
  • 7 gameplay prototypes
  • Original soundtrack
Beyond what's in the box, there's a wide array of other stuff on offer to those interested in Subnautica. People can look at what the team is working on, on our Trello board. Soon, it will be possible to see all our repository checkins. Almost every team member is active on Twitter. 

That's all very exciting, and one day, everyone at Unknown Worlds will look back on this time as a bit cringe-worthy. Here's why:

In a week, Subnautica won't look like this anymore. In a month, it will be unrecognisable. This is the nature of open development: Your work is out in the open way earlier than many games (especially publisher 'AAA' games) would ever allow. For ever after there is a trail of stuff on the internet reminding you of the time when your game looked and felt nowhere near as good as it does now.

Of course, the other way to look at this is that a historical record is being created. The first ever Natural Selection 2 video I ever made makes me cringe with absolute horror when I watch it today. But looking back at it, it reminds me of how far Subnautica could go.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Subnautica at Day of the Devs

This post was originally written for and published on the Subnautica blog.
Steve showing off Subnautica at Day of the Devs
Today is Melbourne Cup day. For those that do not live in the promised land (Australia), the Melbourne Cup is a horse race. Race horses often run with 'blinkers' on them. Blinkers are pieces of material aligned so as to prevent the horse from seeing what is going on behind it, or even sometimes to the sides. Fitting blinkers to a race horse may prevent the horse from being distracted by stimuli like the crowd, or other horses.

Game developers are very much like horses. We are both mammals, breath oxygen, and tend to snort at startling things. We also often wear blinkers. Our blinkers, however, differ in one key respect: They don't just stop us looking to the side or behind, they also prevent us from looking at things right in front of us. Things staring us in the face, as it were, are invisible.

Pretty - But what our customers actually doing?
We acquire these blinkers through focus. At Unknown Worlds, we live and breathe Subnautica. Each morning, Charlie juices us up by forcing us to drink pure Subnautica seawater, mixed with ground Stalker bones, layered with Peeper Fish sashimi, and seasoned with eye of Hoverfish. As we engineer, animate, design, draw, and break Subnautica, we lose the ability to see it clearly. In one day, any of us might start Subnautica dozens of times, accumulating hundreds of hours of 'play' time before release.

All that exposure to Subnautica means it's very hard for us to see the game as a new customer might see it. Blinkers grow in front of our eyeballs. We mash the keyboard blindly, random characters entering our text editors, hoping we are still making a good game. Big game publishers get around this problem with focus groups and huge armies of paid playtesters. We don't do that, because indie. Instead, we go to Day of the Devs.

Subnautica was shown inside an old subterranean gold vault at Day of the Devs

Day of the Devs (DoD) is a cool little game show put on by Double Fine in San Francisco. It's a great opportunity to check out funky games, talk to players, developers, and press, and share flirtatious glances with Tim Schafer. Double Fine deserves heaped praise for their contribution to the gaming scene in general, and DoD is an obvious example of that contribution.

Watching people play Subnautica at DoD is an exercise in the forceful removal of blinkers. There's no surgical process, no anaesthesia: A member of the public simply walks up to the game, starts playing it, and in doing so rips the barriers off your face. A common reaction might be: "Why is the player swimming over there? There is nothing to do over there." The answer to which is: "Because we the game developer created an incentive for them to be over there." Followed by a facepalm.

Cory laying down an introduction to Subnautica
I genuinely enjoy watching people drown. To death. It's one of my quirks. You should try it some-time: Go to a game show where Subnautica is being shown, and stand near someone playing for the first time. They will look around for a developer, wondering if someone will help them play. Ignore them and just watch. Tentatively they grasp the mouse, then the keyboard (on the arrow keys, because we stupidly assume people will default to WASD), and then they drown.

The drowning process is not pleasant. I can see their oxygen bar dropping, and maybe faintly hear the audible warnings through the headphones (which the player is, naturally, not wearing). But they don't. They're focused on what we have presented to them most clearly, and completely miss the oxygen bar. The screen fades to black. They look around confused - "Why did my screen go black?" I stood there and did nothing. I let them drown. I am a monster.

What oxygen bar? Ooohhh pretty fish!
More monstrous though is to ignore this evidence. Players express frustration at not being able to pick things up because the game does not clearly communicate the fact that their inventory is full, or that they have an inventory at all. They spend half their time swimming on the surface to the inert crashed ship, because it's the most interesting thing in the scene. They stand in the escape pod, a helpless babe, unable to what to do with the giant constructor model blocking their view and making instruction text impossible to see.

We don't see these obvious things, because we are used to constructor placement rules, know about oxygen limits, and are aware that the only thing going on at the crashed ship is boredom. We tell each other we will get around to fixing the things that cause our customers to not have fun, but then we forget about it. The only solution is to watch people play: Have them rip your blinkers off.

Despite our multitude of similarities, game developers are not race horses. We do our best work with blinkers off. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go work on that damn oxygen bar…

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Stop thinking about Oculus + FPS!

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say they want to play some first-person-shooter or another on an Oculus, I would have a moderately large pile of useless coins. This is frustrating, because the Oculus really shines with different types of games, like racing simulators:

As more people become aware of this fact, the Oculus experience is going get even better.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Australia vs United States Income Tax

There's one question that everybody in the world is asking. It is the number one trending topic on Twitter and radio shock jocks will not shut up about it: How does income tax in the United States compare to Australia? Well rejoice all: Here are the answers!

Over the coming bazillion graphs, we will take a look at what elements make up Australian and US income taxes, and find our which country has the more greedy Government. But first, we need to set out some assumptions. Taxation is such a broad topic that without an extremely limited model, it becomes nigh on impossible to make reasonable comparisons. This is why the services of international tax professionals are expensive!

  1. We are going to compare residency in any state of Australia to that of the state of California (CA). CA is the most populous US state, and the one I currently reside in. That makes running this comparison easier!
  2. We are going to assume that our taxpayer is an employee of a company. Not a partner, not a sole-trader, not anything fancy - A regular old employee of a bog-standard tax-avoidance free company.
  3. Our taxpayer has private health insurance. In California, this means ignoring the tax effects of the Affordable Care Act, and in Australia the Medicare Levy Surcharge. Under both systems, those without private health insurance face additional taxes.
  4. Superannuation (Australia) and 401(k)s (United States) shall be banished from this realm. For Australia, this might at first seem odd, given the mandatory nature of superannuation contributions. However, compulsory superannuation contributions are not a tax. Instead, they are a mandatory savings measure under which the payer retains ownership of their contribution, and contributions, not benefits, are defined. Therefore, they should be considered separately from taxes, which have defined benefits. N.B. that the US Social Security taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act are not comparable to Australian superannuation.
  5. Our taxpayer has no deductions. What? Again, a model must be limited in order to be useful. Delving into defining a set of deductions for a hypothetical taxpayer will make this article less generally applicable, and accelerate the greying of my hair.
  6. Australian dollars and United States dollars shall be referred to as AUD and USD respectively.
  7. It is the tax year 2014. This is important! If you are reading this article in a year other than 2014, all calculations, tables, and figures are likely redundant. Governments like to tinker with these things, you see. This assumption also means that we are comparing one Australian tax year (ending 30 June) to the United States tax year (ending 31 December) - The difference in year end has no effect on this model.
Without further ado, lets dive in to possibly the most entertaining article you have ever read!

United States

The United States is supposed to be a low-tax capitalist paradise, looking down on all the dirty socialist Europeans, and Australians. In reality however, Uncle Sam does in fact collect some tax. Income taxes are generally levied by both Federal and State governments, and we will start with the former. The US Federal tax agency is called the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and levies income tax through seven individual brackets:

Fig1: US Federal Marginal Income Tax Brackets
When applied to to gross income, these brackets produce a fairly flat effective tax rate that levies tax on the first dollar earned and works its way to just above 20% for an individual earning USD100,000.

Fig2: US Federal Income Tax on USD Income
The IRS uses a mechanism called the 'Standard Deduction,' ostensibly to acknowledge deductions the IRS deems too immaterial to warrant itemisation. In reality, the Standard Deduction simply shifts the Federal brackets upwards by USD6,200 for those with few deductions. The result is a lower and more progressive effective tax rate. Note that the Standard Deduction does not 'stack' with other deductions - Itemised deductions must exceed the Standard Deduction before lowering taxable income.

Fig3: US Federal Income Tax on USD Taxable Income (Standard Deduction)
There are two more components to US Federal income tax. The first is a tax on salaries and wages called the Medicare Tax, which pays for a portion of the US Medicare program. This program provides health insurance to those over 65 and younger people with disabilities. It starts at 1.45%, and rises to 2.35% at USD200,000.

In the graph below, note that we're not referring to gross vs taxable income anymore. Medicare Tax is levied on salary paid by an employer (There is also a payroll component, outside the scope of this article!) and therefore taxable vs gross income is not relevant to it. The Federal income tax component continues to assume taxable income using the Standard Deduction.

Fig4: Selected US Federal Income Taxes
The next component is US Social Security tax. This tax pays for a portion of the expenditures of the US Social Security Administration (SSA), a behemoth welfare system that accounts for 37% of US federal government expenditures. The most widely recognised function of the SSA is to provide defined-benefit pensions to retirees.

Like the Medicare tax, Social Security tax is levied directly on salaries and wages. The individual component of the tax (Like Medicare tax, there is also an employer component) is 6.2% of salary and wages up to USD113,700. And so the graph grows:

Fig5: Selected US Federal Income Taxes
The purpose of the is article is to compare a Californian resident and an Australian one. Now that we've completed the federal components of this hypothetical taxpayer's outlays, it is time to add the state ones. The Californian state tax agency is called the Franchise Tax Board (FTB), and its major levy is California Income Tax, which is broken into nine brackets:

Fig6: California Income Tax Brackets
Like US federal income tax, Californian income tax has a Standard Deduction that operates in a similar manner. In 2014, this deduction is set at USD3,906. All graphs and calculations from this point forward assume the application of the Californian Standard Deduction.

An interesting characteristic of US federal tax system is that state income taxes are deductible - For higher income individuals, Californian taxes will eventually overtake the federal Standard Deduction. All graphs and calculations from this point forward account for this, and assume that an individual paying more than USD6,200 in state taxes will choose to deduct those taxes, rather than take the federal Standard Deduction.

Fig7: US Federal & CA Income Taxes (Selected)

But wait, there's more! The CA FTB also levies a tax called California State Disability Insurance (SDI) which is drawn directly from salary and wages, and funds partial wage replacement for disabled workers. SDI is levied at 1% from the first dollar of income through to an upper limit of USD101,636.

Fig8: US Federal & CA Income Taxes
That's it - we now have a full income tax bill for a Californian resident. Here is what the effective tax rate looks like:

Fig9: US Federal & CA Income Taxes, with effective tax rate


Now to drop down into the correct hemisphere, and examine the Australian side of this comparison. Until this point, all figures have been in USD. From here on, they will be in AUD. Keep in mind that this means that the figures above and below this point are not directly comparable. While the AUD has traded close to USD in the past few years, assuming a one-to-one relationship will generate a significant error at even lower income levels. Later on, we will look at comparable figures by using average exchange rates.

Australian states do not levy any income tax. This means we only need to consider federal income tax, administered by the Australian Tax Office (ATO). While the states do levy payroll taxes on high income earners, they are the responsibility of the employer and therefore beyond the scope of our concern. Federal income tax is broken into five brackets:

Fig10: Australian Income Tax Brackets
Which produce the following income tax curve:

Fig11: Australian Income Tax, with effective tax rate

To this, we must add a tax called the Medicare Levy. This tax pays for a portion of the Australian public health care system, which provides comprehensive health care to all Australian residents. The levy starts at AUD20,543, and phases in to a flat rate of 2% of all income at AUD24,167.

Fig12: Australian Income Taxes
One interesting point to note is that unlike US Social Security, US Medicare, and CA SDI taxes, which are levied on salaries and wages, the Medicare Levy tax is levied on taxable income. This will have either positive or negative effects, depending on whether a taxpayer draws the majority of their income from salary and wages, or other sources, and depending on the magnitude of deductions that may be applied to reduce taxable income.

Total effective Australian income tax looks like this:

Fig13: Australian Income Taxes with effective rate
With no state income taxes, and no employee-payable payroll taxes, we can stop here. It is now time to make a comparison between the Californian an Australian amounts!


Because Australia and California use different currencies, we can't just overlay their respective effective tax rate graphs on each other and be done. Instead, it is necessary to convert each one into a single currency. Let's start by presenting both Californian and Australian effective tax rates in USD.

Fig14: Comparative Tax Liability in USD

And for those playing down under, the same comparison in AUD:

Fig15: Comparative Tax Liability in AUD

Both graphs are quite similar, but the slight difference between them is very important. The difference can be large or small, and it depends on exchange rates. Here is a hypothetical AUD comparison, where the price of a single AUD is USD0.50:

Fig15: Hypothetical Comparative Tax Liability in AUD

This is a good moment to recall that this entire exercise is hypothetical. What figure 15 says is that in a hypothetical world, if AUD1 costs USD0.5, someone earning more than AUD70,000 would be better off as a CA resident. Conversely, an employee earning any income up to at least AUD100,000 is better of as an Australian resident at current 12 month average exchange rates.

In reality, very few taxpayers will be in the position of earning an income in a currency other than that of their state of residence. This exercise was never supposed to deal with reality, it is after all an examination of tax! And to close, why don't we depart reality all together, and imagine ourselves earning an income of AUD500,000 per year. What does the tax graph look like then?

Fig16: Comparative Tax Liability in AUD
At present exchange rates, Californian residency becomes preferable at about AUD240,000. So there you have it. If you are in the position to choose your remuneration currency and tax residency as you see fit, be sure to make the optimal choices!

Note: There is an error in graphs 5 to 9 causing US Social Security Tax to be understated by approximately $150 across all income levels. At the resolution of the graphs provided, this error is nearly imperceptible.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Gamescom and Fluffy Puppies

Originally written for and posted on the Unknown Worlds blog

Travelling from Cologne to Frankfurt via high-speed rail is one of the most pleasant things a human being can do. A comparable experience would be being plopped on a bed of feathers and covered in golden retriever puppies. To anyone that has grown up in a part of the world without brilliant trains, that is to say most of us, the German ICE is a revelation.

Everything about the journey is delightful. The train pulls gently and quietly into the station at precisely the scheduled moment, panels on the carriages display numbers corresponding to one's ticket, and little steps deploy outwards from the base of the doors to ease ingress.

Inside, doors open with a woosh when approached. The attention to detail is brilliant. For example, the route information display is covered in semi-reflective glass that makes the whole panel look like something out of the future.

At the front of the train, it is even possible to see straight through a floor-to-ceiling glass panel into the driver's cabin, and on to the tracks ahead. The whole setup makes the Eurostar look a bit dour, the Thalys gaudy, and the TGV clunky.

The company responsible for putting together this slick piece of kit is Siemens AG. Since building the original ICE 3 'Velaro' for DBahn in Germany, Siemens has inked deals to export the train to China, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Eurostar International Ltd.

Siemens has made itself very good at building high-speed rail train sets, and as a result it is selling lots of them. Which brings me to the process of making games. The purpose of my recent trip on the ICE was to escape Gamescom.

Gamescom is a truly superlative experience. For reference, PAX East, another major gaming event, occupies 19,100 square metres of show floor space in Seattle. Gamescom occupies 284,000m², excluding transit halls and outdoor eating areas. To put that in perspective, the entire PAX East show floor would fit inside just one of Gamescom's halls, the biggest of which occupies 22,332m².

All that space means lots of games. And as one walks through the space, it becomes rapidly apparent that there are lots of people on this planet trying to make train sets - And many of them are very good at it. To sell lots of trains, a game developer needs to think carefully about what kind of train to make, lest they accidentally try to take on Siemens in the high-speed rail space.

Walking the Gamescom floor, there are several themes: There are incredible trailers everywhere, astounding graphics abound, press schmoozing is ubiquitous, and the spectacle is universally extreme. Attempting to differentiate a product on the basis of any of those points is a high-risk strategy, because so many developers are doing it so well.

What Gamescom teaches the observant attendee is that to sell lots of trains, a game developer needs to identify their competitive advantage, and pursue it ruthlessly. A developer may assign resources to many aspects of a game - A successful one will assign those resources where they have the advantage over everyone else.

I don't know what it is about Siemens AG that makes it so good at building high-speed rail train sets, but that doesn't really matter: What matters is what makes Unknown Worlds good at making games. What is our competitive advantage? What can possibly make our product stand out, and not on the Gamescom show floor, but the much bigger floor that the Koelnmesse represents: The games market as a whole.

Little examples of the pursuit of competitive advantage abound. DayZ has terrible animations, Titanfall terrible textures, Call of Duty simple mechanics, Civ5 hair-pulling multiplayer, and so forth. None of them care, as they laugh all the way to the bank. For Bohemia Interactive to re-allocate resources away from inventive, iterative gameplay mechanics in DayZ towards improved animations would  be a huge mistake, and so forth.

Historically, Unknown Worlds has had several competitive advantages. We are capable of creating our own flexible and capable game engines and associated technology, balancing hyper-complex competitive multiplayer, attracting attention through open communication, keeping costs low by maintaining small team sizes, achieving high quality graphics, presenting unique and compelling art styles, and being responsive to the needs of a global, not just English-speaking audience, by operating as a globally distributed and culturally diverse team.

We also have disadvantages. Our games tend to perform poorly on lower end hardware, we are pathologically incapable of sticking to deadlines, developments suffer from massive feature creep, global team communication is often patchy, team gender diversity is atrocious, formal press-facing public relations mechanisms are virtually non-existent, and decisions are too-often made by intuition rather than investigation.

Siemens AG is not perfect either. While it is a highly successful in the high-speed rail, competitors have arguably beaten it in slower and higher speed configurations in many markets. Siemens has advantages, and disadvantages. The same is true for everyone on the Gamescom show floor, and across the whole game development space. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.

It is crucial that Unknown Worlds, and any game developer, consider where their competitive advantage lies and pursue it ruthlessly. If we don't, if we try to fight Siemens in the high-speed rail space, then we are taking on huge risk. Either we must very clearly consider why we think we can build a better product than the ICE 3 Velaro, or must build games that express our advantages - And in so doing, delight customers in ways that our competitors cannot.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Subnautica Pre-Orders or Not?

It is now June 2014, and Subnautica has been in full-scale development for a few months. While much gameplay is still in the research and development stage, other components of this new game are starting to take on strong form. Subnautica has advanced far enough that Unknown Worlds can begin thinking about offering a product to potential paying customers. (Gasp!)

Subnautica at a very early development stage
There is a loose consensus on the team that we wish to release Subnautica in development form sometime in in the third quarter of 2014, which means a day in July, August, or September. We are fairly confident about doing this, having gained much experienced from Natural Selection 2's "Alpha" and "Beta" releases.

But could we offer Subnautica for sale before this date? Charlie and I had an interesting discussion about this option today. Might Subnautica be made available for pre-order? After all, like every game developer, selling stuff is how Unknown Worlds wheels keep turning. Surely selling more stuff earlier is a win?

Look, don't touch.
Not exactly. Step back to the third quarter target: What do we want to release at that time? If we do it, Subnautica will be in a very early development state. Gameplay will be limited to some basic systems, the environment restricted to a subset of its envisioned glory. But at the core, Subnautica must be fun. If it is not fun, we must not release it.

If a customer purchases Subnautica later this year, on Steam Early Access or another platform, we want them to be thrilled by it, enjoy playing it, want to talk about it, be delighted by it. We then want to update and build upon the game regularly, consistently and inexorably until it is ready for release. What we are selling is therefore twofold: A great gameplay experience, and joyride of updates improving and growing the game all the time.

This is the guiding principle. Make customers happy, and everything else follows. Marketing, public-relations, trailers, reviews, they all become a side-show that could very well help, but are not the core of what it means to be a good game developer.

Spot the Jumper...
What does a customer get if they pre-order Subnautica now? Not much. They do not get a great gameplay experience, they do not get updates, they get a receipt. And a wait. Woo-hoo. That's not to say there would be no value in the wait for some. Occasionally, after releasing development news such as pre-Alpha screenshots, we have received comments like 'I am throwing my money at the screen and nothing is happening!'

Comments like this are humbling, exciting, and morale-boosting for us. By offering Subnautica for pre-order, we might well make a few very excited people happy by giving the opportunity to turn that comment into a purchase. But we would not be doing right by them: We would be selling a promise we have not yet fulfilled. Unknown Worlds would have their money, and they would have a confirmation email. That is not a fair exchange of value, and not an exchange that is likely to induce real happiness in a customer.

Submersible concepts
Sometimes, pre-orders offer more than just an outlet for excitement. For example, some projects cannot proceed without early development stage funding. Kickstarters and Natural Selection 2 are great examples of this. Anyone who pre-ordered Natural Selection 2 was not purchasing a receipt and a wait - They were purchasing the chance for a project they felt passionate about to happen at all. The same goes for countless other worthy crowd and pre-order funded games.

This is not the state Unknown Worlds finds itself in now. Natural Selection 2 was a very successful game. Enough people found challenge and joy in it to fund not just its own development, but Unknown Worlds' future projects, including Subnautica, for a reasonable (but not infinite!) amount of time. Anyone pre-ordering Subnautica would not be purchasing the chance for the project to happen. While we can't be sure we can develop the game fast enough for this to stay true, we think we can.

Instead of offering pre-orders, we are going to double down on making sure that later this year, anyone that purchases Subnautica is absolutely delighted with what they find beneath the waves.