By Kieron Gillen on March 7th, 2008 at 9:19 pm.
Behind the faux-futuristic moniker of Positech stands one man. Cliff “Cliffski” Harris has been quietly working up his own catalogue of indie-games since leaving Lionhead, shortly after they shipping the Movies. Having experienced both indie and mainstream development, produced a string of games – Democracy, Kudos, Rock Legend – that are clearly chasing after a grail seperate from the majority of developers and managing to earn a living from what may at first appear niche games, Cliff has a lot of things to say. And, as anyone who’s every followed him in a forum thread, he’s not a man for mincing his words. We talk about his origins, how he feels he’s grown up as a developer, how he actually manages to feed his cats and how he believes a game can be “anything”.
RPS: Starting at the beginning, what are your roots in gaming? What first attracted you to games, and what sort of games were they? And was there a point where you remember thinking… “Hey… I could make these”.
Cliff Harris: First game I played was pong, so its pretty far back. My first console was a binatone pong machine (with variable bat size control). I guess the ZX81 home computer was what made me think I could do it, although I only learned BASIC, not machine code. Back then everyone who played games was encouraged to make them. The computer magazines had source code listings printed in them. That goes way beyond what we have now, where PC magazines have limited modding tutorials. Imagine PC gamer printing the source code to Bioshock. How awesome would that be? Although it might make the mag a tad heavier. Back in the early days I loved all games, platfomers, flight sims, arcade, everything. In the modern PC age, I’ve gradually drifted into just sim /strategy, FPS and RTS games as a player. I love the immersion in an FPS, I love the stats based geekiness of sims, and I love the feeling of total pwnage when winning in an RTS. On the ZX81, there was not much in the way of defined genres. Nobody knew what games they would and would not like.
RPS: Looking at the indie space, I kind of see two sorts of developers -(And I know “two kind of people” generalisations are lazy, but bear with me). You have the ones who have never worked inside the mainstream industry in any way whatsoever. And then you hav the ones who spent some time inside the industry, and then ran for their lives. Do you think that’s fair?
Cliff: Yes, it’s pretty fair. There are a lot of people who are seeing indie gaming as a stepping stone to getting a job in the main industry, they tend to be the ones doing 3D games, and there are also a lot of people who are curently in the industry doing sneaky games on the side, either as an eventual route to doing their own thing, or maybe because they feel creatively trapped in the day job by working on someone elses idea. Not everyone is actually fleeing something they hate. It can just be lucky dip that you love FPS games and your employer is doing a barbie expansion pack. People in games are often creative, and its tough working on someone elses game.
RPS: In your case, what made you run for your life? Looking back at your time at Elixir and Lionhead, what do you remember? And what questions about that time are you sick of people asking?
Cliff: I remember a lot of optimism about the prospects of the games, and also lot of re-doing the same work time and time again. I remember one coder I worked with was on his first ever game, and after a year of coding, the entire area he worked on was redesigned and it was all binned. In some ways, thats inevitable, but I did feel really sorry for him. I remember introducing the idea of having to buy donuts for the whole team when you broke the build. I have had to buy smaller jeans since leaving Lionhead. Sometimes people asked me if the (elixir) infinite polygon engine was all hype (no, it was actually pretty cool in some ways), or they ask me what it’s like to work with Peter, but the truth is, Peter was head of a huge company, and the Movies was just one of three games being worked on when I was there. I ran for my life for two reasons. One was that working for other people, in a large and growing company, was making me an angry, arrogant stress-bunny, and the other was that those little hobby games of mine were earning more than enough for me to comfortably quit and have a second go at being a full-time indie again. I would have left earlier, but I basically stayed on till the end of ‘The Movies’, and for all my moaning, I’m glad I did.
RPS: People often ask me to ask indie devs “Are you making a living doing this?”. In your case, you /are/ making a living from it. Also, you’re often quite open with the figures for sales, on various indie sites. Could you talk a little about the hard maths of your position – as in “This is how I will feed my cats?”.
Cliff: Aha, well this is the big question isn’t it? The thing is, people who make good money from something tend to keep quiet about it. I sell my games for up to $23, which is about £13. The credit card people take about £1.50, and bandwidth is only maybe £50 a month. Then there is the big cost, which is advertising, which is around £400 a month, and the initial costs of hiring artists and sound guys. My games cost up to £4k to make, although the next one may be more than that. (almost certainly). This is the beauty of 2D games. This all sounds like very small beer. The games can sell very few copies (maybe 200 a year) or very well. Democracy 1 has sold over 5,000 copies direct, at around £10 a time, so thats fifty grand. Then there are sales through portals, and various retail deals, Thats probably another £25k. If you can do a game that good each year, then you are probably going to earn more as an indie than as a senior programmer, or maybe even as a lead. If you work very hard, you could do two games a year. The thing is you have to be prepared for making a game that totally bombs. It’s taken me a very long time and lots of hard work to get to earning what I do, and I’ve been pretty lucky, but nevertheless, there was a year when my company made over triple my old Lionhead salary. That’s before corporation tax, but I was still very happy. Because of that, I’m in a position where I can let my next game take a whole year, and really make it extra good. I have stacks of cat food in reserve. Most of the money ends up going back into the business anyway. The usual disclaimer applies. Most people make nothing at all, or not enough to live on.
RPS: When you say: “The usual disclaimer applies. Most people make nothing at all, or not enough to live on.” clearly it’s true… but you do manage it. What sort of things do you think allow you to get away with making enough money? Is it that you seem to be able to get a number of games out in a “budget” of the time you take to make a single one? Is it the topics you choose? Is it how you market and promote them? What are you doing right which you think other people are doing wrong?
Cliff: I’m unusual because I’m genuinely interested in the business side of being an indie gamer. I love the whole entrepreneur thing, the setting the right price, getting expenses down and sales up, etc. My fave TV show is Dragon’s Den for fucks sake. The vast majority of indie devs are programmers, and the C++ DNA seems to interfere with the DNA that makes people enjoy marketing or business. Most indies who make no money do very little marketing or promotion, because it terrifies them. I remember the first time I ever tried to do that was phoning PC gamer to ask if they got my CD of starship tycoon, and would they be reviewing it. Ironically, it was you I spoke to. That gets easier over time. Marketing is a big deal. I know that Introversion put a lot of effort into marketing, and you can see the results there too. If you really are the typical shy semi-autistic sunlight-hating game coder, you need to get an outgoing biz/marketing guy to work with. Subject matter helps too. Not many game designers and coders want to make games on the same topics as me. That can help a lot, in that it reduces competition, but then it means there is no pre-built audience for the game either, so its not all benefit.
RPS: What I find interesting about your games is that there’s clearly some things you find interesting – as in, there’s stuff in games you like doing. In some way it’s telling that you came through that Bullfrog diaspora, as there’s a sense that some of the games are much like what Bullfrog what have done, but by a single person’s defined vision on an indie budget. Does that make sense? If so, why does this sort of approach interest you?
Cliff: I guess it’s in the DNA of sim-game designers, that we get excitable about the systems behind everything. I read a comment on RPS where someone joked they hoped Will Wright saw the world like the matrix, in code, and that is just so true about me. I find myself thinking about pretty much everything as a game, normally a sim game. If I’m deciding whether to order salad or pasta, that like a gameplay choice to me. There are definite statistics and strategies at play there, and we do it all the time. Everyone is prioritising levelling up their endorphins or their slimness when they order food, or replenishing energy resources. In a sense, the greatest most sublime and intrictae game in existance is real life. This is why I make games like Kudos, and love the idea of them, because I’m letting people play around and experiment in a ‘game-space’ that they already know perfectly. That sounds a bit pretentious, but I don’t know how else to put it.
When you talk about a single persons defined vision, it’s very true. I absolutely 100% think that the best games are designed by one person, when they are total overlords of how everything works, and it is their singular vision, and now I’m the designer, I see that so clearly :D. I remember being frustrated about the design for ‘The Movies’ because I thought it should be very different, but if I had swapped places with Peter I would have been exactly the same. I would have made the game the way I thought would be best and ignored everyone else. You have to do that if you want to make something really good. I don’t think it’s easy to really have a shared creative vision without it being hopelessly dilluted.
RPS: While I can see why you’re afraid of sounding pretentious by talking about playing round in familiar game-spaces, I can’t help but nod in reconition. It’s one thing I like in games, and one thing that’s clearly present in a good chunk of your games. In Kudos, it’s kind of ground level stuff. It’s also there in Democracy too – in fact, of all your games, Democracy’s the one which seems to get away with that best. Do you think developers tend to overlook how compelling certain parts of the real world can be?
Cliff: Maybe that’s an age thing. I started off making space games, blasting aliens yada yada. I guess at 38, I’ve probably shot enough aliens and slain enough dragons, so I’m prepared to look for game ideas in the real world. Gamers are getting older, and a lot of us don’t look at a game set it the real world and go “that’s boring”. I loved Star Wars as a kid, and I still do, but now I’m older I’d rather watch a Stephen Poliakoff play than Babylon 5. Thats just age for you… Also I think you can really tell when someone is ‘writing what they know’. I did Rock Legend because I knew about that world, and thought it would be cool to represent it as a game.
RPS: I suppose another thing you do – you kind of have a sense of understatement, even with the real world. In your government sim, you don’t deal with wars or corruption or whatever – you aim on abstract policy enforcement. In your people sim, you concentrate on the grind of the 9-5. In your Rock Star simulator, you’re more interested in the ground level local band scene than the high pitched fantasy. There’s a sense you’re interested in not just putting your games in the the world… but /grounding/ them.
Cliff: I think you could make a game about absolutely anything, and make it work if you were GENUINELY interested in the topic, and had some game design experience. The trick is not to look at subject matter and think “how is this a game” but just to recognise a game in your real life experience. Some games are easier to actually implement than others though, I started doing a game about traffic congestion once. I think thats really doable, carefully placing traffic lights and speed bumps strategically to minimize accidents and journey times. I’m sure a lot of kids playing counterstrike would think thats tragic, but I bet theres some people reading this who would at least try the demo :D. Theres a lot of mileage in doing games about pets too. A 3D first person cat simulator, with shader effects ‘predator style’ for night vision could be awesome, purring abilities, 9 lives etc. I have a top secret game idea that I must do one day. I started it recently but couldn’t visualise the interface right. Maybe it will be after the next game.
RPS: Anyone who’s been following you in various forums talking about piracy know how livid it makes you. As a creator I understand it entirely, I’m not sure that rage is the best way to influence people. Someone like Stardock’s Brad Wardell has found himself being oddly feted for entirely sidestepping the piracy debate and arguing in favour of treating the people who dobuy your game better, as the amount of effort it takes to defeat a pirate is better spent on people who’ll pay. And this is, for him, sound capitalistic reasons. Skipping art forms, my artist friend Jamie McKelvie writes and draws a comic called Suburban Glamour. Knowing there’s literally nothing he can do about piracy of scans, rather than just expressing rage, he’s set up a tip jar with a note that people who torrented it should feel free to lob him some cash. Clearly, neither creative likes piracy and would rather people bought their work – but they’ve chose to approach the issue in different ways than straight antagonistically. Ever tempted to do this? Or is this an ethical thing, which must take prominence?
Cliff: Brad is right, and Jamie is right, and I am wrong. My rage is from passion for what I do. I’m not a fridge salesman working in games, I’ve been passionate about gaming since pong. I don’t think piracy can be, or ever will be eliminated. I’m very passionate about gaming, and about gaming on the PC in particular, and I would hate to see it die out, which, lets be honest, it is in real danger of. It would be a disaster if Call of Duty 4 was the last time those guys bothered doing a proper PC version of a game that good.
The silly thing is, I agree with the pirates on so many things, strong DRM can be bad, anti-piracy adverts are irritating, region-locking is evil, etc etc, and every game should absolutely have a decent demo made of it. Sadly, giving in to all those ‘demands’ doesn’t reduce piracy by 1%, which is why most game devs don’t bother. I do put a lot of effort into after-sales support and maintenance of my games, Democracy 2 is on patch number 16 right now, directly as a result of user feedback. My huge anger about piracy isn’t a rational business case, it’s a purely emotional one that gets me absolutely nowhere, and I know that. To be honest, the pirates who copy stuff and know its wrong don’t irritate me anywhere near as much as the ones who try and make some pseudo-intellectual justification about ‘information should be free’. its the attempts to intellectualise theft that annoy me more. I do get a kick out of explaining the philosophy that is communism to people who don’t really understand what they are saying though. I have total respect for people who espouse that belief honestly, but total contempt for those who propose it, but don’t like it being named.
Most people in my position keep their head down, don’t mention piracy and privately despair about it, and plan to change careers entirely or move into console games at a minimum. I just care too much about the PC as a gaming platform to let it be killed off without vocally pointing out some of the causes. I know the sensible thing is for me to shut up before I become Derek Smart.
RPS: Care to talk a little about your games now – what do you think of each now? How do you consider them? What sort of regrets do you have? What are you proud of? And, in fact, where did the idea of each germinate from?
Cliff: I’m really proud of Democracy, because I think its one of those things that seems to just ‘work’ as a game design, where people ‘get’ the game quite quickly, and get very into it. It’s also technically quite interesting. I regret not doing it with more polish the first time. Democracy 1 is a bit rough, graphically horribly crude. I’m much happier with the second one. Kudos I’m pleased with because people actually thought it was fun, and I feared they might wonder what the hell the game was about. It was horribly downbeat though, partly because the game originated from watching Donnie Darko and thinking about the battle people fight in order to retain their sanity under external pressures. The end result looked a bit dark, although I’m redoing that game too, and the new version will be much happier and more positive. Rock Legend was originally an expansion pack for Kudos, but it became clear that to do the topic justice would mean a lot of re-coding. I was proud of the early part of the game, the whole ‘cool we sold 3 t shirts tonight!’ bit, because I think it mirrored how a lot of bands feel at that point. It didn’t scale up that well to megastar level though. I should maybe have concentrated it exclusively on the early years of a band.
RPS: And obviously: What’s next?
Cliff: At the moment it’s called Kudos 2, although that might change. I’m playing with that game idea, getting it looking decent, and making it happier so its more appealing to the whole casual gamer crowd. That one is probably a bit more commercially minded than some of my older games, After that, I really must do the top secret thing, but that one will be difficult to pull off. It’s a management/sim/rpg style thing.
More about Positech’s games can be found on their website. Kudos, Rock Legend and both Democracy’s are still available.