Positech games is a name PC gamers will have heard of, even if they’re not sure why. Makers of Gratuitous Space Battles and Democracy, they’ve been creating innovate and unusual strategy games since 1997. Self-publishing and very productive (Democracy is now on it’s third well-supported installment and Gratuitous Space Battles is soon to be followed up with a sequel) you might be surprised to learn that the company is one man – Cliff Harris. Previously working for high profile studios like Lionhead and Elixir, Cliff is now working out of the UK. Harris takes charge of design, the art, the programming, tech support, marketing and sales and has managed to release some highly successful and critically acclaimed games. Despite having focuses that range between interstellar combat and managing budgets in early 2000s Britain, strategy is a core aspect of everything Positech have put out, with a penchant for hidden but powerful and logical statistics that can lead to surprising outcomes.
In a new feature for TPReview we’re going to be profiling some interesting developers to give you an insight into not only how the industry runs, but what the people are like behind different company names. We sent over a few questions to Cliff and here’s what he had to say.
TP: Why did you decide to go it alone with GSB and Democracy instead of taking the regular route of finding a publisher to deal with that side
of the business?
I’ve worked in the mainstream industry and seen how the relationship
can be rocky between a big retail publisher and a developer, and I
really don’t like the idea of having to explain/justify everything to
someone else. I also didn’t want to make those big games with dozens
of people working on them, so luckily its something that I can fund
myself anyway. Plus I can’t really imagine ANY publisher saying ‘yes’
to Democracy at the concept stage. Even as a finished game it was
turned down by Steam twice!
TP: Were there any advantages to working in an environment like Lionhead over working for yourself?
It is more sociable obviously, which is something that I do miss.
Coding can be a very lonely job, and if you spend more than a few
hours just staring at code you can go a little crazy so it was nice to
work with a bunch of people you could do the whole water-cooler chat
thing. Also it was a great place to learn from some really clever
people. There were a lot of very talented coders and artists at
Lionhead, and I learned a huge amount, especially about how to do
proper code organisation and software engineering as opposed to just
hacking things together. It really helps you to do things properly
when you are sure someone else is going to look at your code.
TP: How important are shows like Eurogamer Expo, Rezzed, Gamescom and E3 to a small developer like Positech?
You can get by without them, I certainly did for a great many years,
but I think they are also helpful. It does depend on your attitude and
your personality. TBH I’m not very good at shows. I just can’t be that
guy who starts talking to strangers about my game, I feel kinda dorky
doing it, like a typical repressed English guy. I think it is a very
good idea to do at least one show with each game, so that you see
peoples first impression with the game, and see what they get stuck
on, and what they talk to friends about. I’m doing Rezzed this year
with GBS2 again, after having shown an earlier version last year at
EGX, but there is a chance the game will be at least in
beta+pre-orders by then. I’m hoping to show off its multi-monitor
TP: How has the industry changed from your perspective over the last ten years?
Beyond all recognition. I started when you sold mostly through retail
distributors, and the odd online sale through people finding you on
download.com or some other software archive site. You could easily
charge $20 for a game than and everything had to have a demo. Now
there are millions of indie games, Steam has devastated retail
(good!), but the industry is very concentrated around Steam and maybe
2 or 3 other stores. There is massive downwards price pressure too, so
even though the market is bigger by far, there is so much more
competition it is just as tricky to get noticed and make a profitable
game as it used to be.
TP: What is the biggest challenge you face when developing games?
Originality. You absolutely have to stand out, which means trying
something unusual, which means by definition there isn’t a safe model
to copy where someone else has shown that it sells and that its ok to
gamble a year’s work on doing that. I guess that’s why so many people
churn out very similar clone-style games.
TP: Do you think Steam is a positive force in the PC games industry?
Absolutely. They killed off retail, which had insane margins and
absolutely disgraceful, near-criminal practices in terms of screwing
over developers. I think the only problem is that Steam is *so good*
that it hasn’t got enough competition to really be healthy, although
things seem to be changing all the time. The best thing is that Steam
has made both buying online, and buying indie games seem more ‘normal’
and legitimate than before.
TP:What changes would you like to see in the industry in the coming years?
More originality for one, and more of a focus on finished games. Every
time I read about a new game, it’s a Kickstarted game, or in perpetual
beta. I have limited free time, so I want to play finished games, not
really buggy early attempts. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of a
backlash against some of the failed Kickstarters where the developers
seemingly lose interest. I’d also like to see more developers
realizing that they don’t actually make all their money when the game
is 90% off in sale. Teaching gamers to never buy full price seems
silly to me, I’d like to see people promoting their game as a good
game, rather than just a mediocre game that’s 90% off this week.
Many thanks to Cliff for giving us his time and if you want to check out some of his games you can buy them directly from the Positech website. We absolutely adore Democracy 3 in particular, every time you complain about how the government is handling the deficit have a go at that game. It’s not as easy as it looks.
If you’ve enjoyed this feature but would like us to focus on a specific developer or have some questions you’d like to get answered about the industry let us know on Twitter.