Interview w/Cliff Harris (Positech Games)
I recently got a chance to talk with Cliff Harris, the one-man dev team of Positech Games. Cliff has been known for talking to pirates, and calling some guy a ‘jerk’ quite publicly, but those topics concerning Cliff have been talked and written about to death. I just wanted to talk about games, and game design, and get insights from a guy who has been running an indie dev studio successful for basically over a decade.
Take a few minutes and check it out – it makes for a great read. Cliff’s answers are, as always, interesting, insightful, and frank.
J: I always like to start with breaking in stories, and as far back as I’m able to see, you started at a company called Elixir Studios as a programmer before you moved onto Lionhead… Was that the first job you ever had making games, and if so, how did that come about for you?
C: Yes, Elixir was the first proper job I had as a programmer. I got that through an agency, although I’d read about Elixir and they were a company I really wanted to work for anyway. I had done a lot of indie games in my spare time already, so my CV was basically just a bunch of screenshots of games I’d made myself, which got me the job. They had a lot of very clever academics working for them, but not many people who had developed whole games, so they hired me as an all-rounder.
J: I know you’ve said that you developed an interest in coding and games at an early age, but you also mention on your blog that at one point you worked on the stock market, teaching guitar, and building boats apparently? What was going on in those in between years before you started professionally working on games? Were you working on making anything at that time?
C: It’s complex isn’t it? I went from university to boatbuilding + guitar teaching and playing in bands. Eventually I ended up working in IT, and ended up in the city doing trading support for stock market software. After that, I had a few other IT jobs while I developed games part time. I did Asteroid Miner, Rock racers, Starship Tycoon, Kombat Kars around that time.
J: You’re obviously an indie developer, but at one point you did work for what is now a pretty large, and well known company in Lionhead Studios – what was it like for you working there? Is there anything that you learned or took away from your time there?
C: It was good fun for a while, but the team got bigger and it became very corporate. Lionhead had an indie developer spirit for a while, but when the company grew it just became like any other big software developer where you are a tiny, irrelevant cog in a machine. I think that’s just inevitable for big companies. I learned a huge amount of technical stuff there. Elixir taught me how to actually code, but Lionhead taught me software engineering, which is more big-picture stuff. It also taught me just how inefficient large games companies can be, and I guess reinforced my belief that small indie game development was viable.
J: In 2006 you did some prototype/concept work for Maxis on the Sims franchise… what exactly did that entail, and what did you think of the experience?
C: That was fantastic fun. They basically said ‘what would you do, if you had the sims franchise. Show us a prototype.’ And I did that, and it was great fun to do. They wanted people outside EA/Maxis to develop different gameplay prototypes for use by them in developing the sims franchise. I worked from home on a small-budget game and somebody else paid, plus it was working indirectly for Maxis, what could be better?
J: What counts as the official birth of Positech Games? I know you say it was founded in ’97, but I know you also didn’t go full-time on it until 2006… What was the first game you ever sold, and what else were you doing for work at the time?
C: 1997 was Asteroid Miner, which was the first game I made and tried to sell. That was part time. as I recall I was working for a massive IT company as an hourly contractor at the time. We had nothing to do all day, so it was pretty easy to find the enthusiasm to code a game when I got home!
J: Making games is one thing, but starting a business can be a whole different monster… what were some of the biggest challenges early on, specifically from a business standpoint?
C: Promotion is very difficult. People need to know about your games, and back then there was nothing like steam, so you had to do old-school stuff like mail CD-ROMs with the games installer to people at magazines. That all takes time, and you need to be pretty organized about it. You really had to develop some business and marketing skills back then, which was excellent, because now we have the easy option of the casual games portals or other digital publishers, a lot of indie devs just hand over their game to someone else to sell, and often lose a whole chunk of the IP, and their market by doing it. It was harder back in 1997, but it was also more lucrative, in some ways.
J: By my count you’ve released ten games total, is that right or am I missing some?
C: That sounds about right. i tend to ignore all of them apart from GSB, Democracy and Kudos these days. The others do not really sell.
J: On average, how much time do you normally have between releases?
C: It used to be six months, then became a year, now it looks like it will be 18 months or even longer, as the games have got bigger, more ambitious and more complex.
J: Is there one of your games that’s your favorite? Or is that impossible to pick, like having to pick your favorite cat or something?
C: As a finished product, I think Gratuitous Space Battles is the best game I’ve made. In terms of original game design, I think it’s Democracy, and Democracy 2. There are things i like and dislike about all my games though. I like the background color changing effects in Kudos 2 :D
J: Looking back at all the games you’ve completed and released, what’s the one biggest lesson you’ve learned through all of it?
C: Make a really good game. You can read forever about PR, marketing, business, pricing, promotion, website design, SEO and so on, but the biggest single factor in determining the success of an indie game, is the quality of the game. My best games sell way better than my worse games.
J: What’s wrong with video games today? I know as gamers we all have things we don’t like, but I’m interested in your perspective just as a gamer, and as a developer, what bugs you about today’s games? What’s the first couple of things that jump to mind in terms of what you’d like to see change?
C: Almost everything. I find big budget games almost unplayable. They are jam-packed with adverts, publisher logos, unskippable cutscenes with silly stories, stereotype characters and appalling voice acting. The games treat me like an infant during tutorials and increasingly there is no demo for me to try.
Many have DRM that doesn’t work, but makes playing a legit copy harder. They can take ages to startup, they often lack decent mod support, and many PC games are lazy console ports released months too late. That’s for normal PC games. MMo’s are almost always a grind-fest designed to waste as much of my time as possible, and are incredibly fake and non-immersive. Everything is about ‘leveling up’ and earning gold, rather than having fun and enjoying the experience. Don’t get me started on facebook ‘games’.
J: Talk about your habit: how long do you work on a project each day? Is it seven days a week? Five days a week? I imagine as someone who is virtually a one-man studio, you don’t have a lot of room for procrastination…
C: Definitely seven days a week. I can’t think of the last day I didn’t do *some* work, unless I’m physically on holiday. I even checked and replied to work emails in a cafe in a costa-rican rainforest, and in a hotel lobby in New Zealand. I probably work about 8 hours a day on average, but it’s hard to be specific, because some stuff blurs the surfing / gaming / working line quite a bit.
J: So it far it seems your games trend towards the strategy genre… what are some of the other genres you’d like to work with that you haven’t so far?
C: I like a lot of genres. I love a decent FPS game, and I would love to do an MMO, but I know that it’s not viable to compete in those areas at all. Strategy and sim games are the sort of thing I play the most, and I love working on them.
J: Is there a dream concept or project that you’d like to work on, but find yourself limited on in terms of resources? Basically, if you were given a huge studio, and unlimited budget – what would you make?
C: Yes, I have an idea for that. I’ve kept it a secret for years, and it’s still a secret. One day hopefully…
J: What are some of your favorite games of all time? And also, what are you currently playing?
C: Currently I’m playing Call Of Duty 2 Multiplayer again, which I was addicted to for ages, and Company Of Heroes. I’ve finally stopped playing Just Cause 2, which becomes a bit samey after a while. Fave games of all time would include Elite, Call Of Duty 4, Company of Heroes, Sim City, maybe Galactic Civilisations II.
J: You’ve gotten some media attention for a couple of things, very commendable things, that you did, that didn’t really have too much to do with your games – and, I don’t really want to get off topic into those things too much… all I want to ask is this: at any point has it bothered you, or does it concern you that you might get to be known as ‘the piracy guy’, or the ‘Mark Rein guy’ and not be known first for your games?
C: It does a bit, because primarily I’m a game designer and programmer. The thing is, the press will ignore 4 press releases about your games or your next project or whatever, and just print the one where you call someone a jerk or rant about piracy, or where you publish your sales figures. Then, people assume that’s all there is about you. All the big PR I’ve got hasn’t been from anywhere but my blog.
My blog is just my online diary, it’s not really a PR offensive, but it’s been going a very long time and quite a few people read it, so if I suddenly rant on there or innocently type a comment about business, or DRM or any other topic, it gets picked up on. I don’t really mind that, because I hate the fact that most people in this industry are tight lipped and controlled by PR departments. I say exactly what I think, without editing, and it’s good for people to be able to read that.
J: What’s next for Positech Games? What’s the next game we can expect from you?
C: That’s the big question. It really depends on how the campaign add-on for Gratuitous Space Battles does. There may be one additional race to add to the game too. I really need to start the next game pretty soon, but I have several different ideas in my head and haven’t made a final decision yet. It will be some sort of strategy/sim game though.
J: You’ve been exceptionally generous with your time, sir. Thanks for taking the time to chat.