- Name and position: Cliff Harris, Company owner and main developer.
- Time operating: Since 1997.
- Location: UK.
- Staff numbers: 1 fulltime with external music and art.
- Discography: Planetary Defense (PC), Starship Tycoon (PC), Kudos (PC), Rock Legend (PC / Mac), Kudos 2 (PC), Democracy (PC), Democracy 2 (PC / Mac), Gratuitous Space Battles (PC - out soon!)
Positech Games Links
» You started 10 years ago - why did you do that?
Well that was before I'd actually worked in the normal industry. I was working in IT support, and had programmed many years earlier on the Sinclair ZX81, and just started making games as a hobby, rather than as a business. It just happened that people seemed to buy my first game.
» Did it immediately appear you could earn a living from it?
Well it wasn't quite a living at the start, but it was certainly more appealing than IT support, and it was possibly a bit easier back then in some ways. There wasn't a big indie games industry and you didn't have all the web portals, or web advertising, you could just submit your games for free to the big download sites like download.com and people would just buy them. That's all changed now. Its much more complex and there is way more competition.
» Were you also doing your own games while employed (at Elixir and Lionhead), and how hard was that running two jobs?
It wasn't too bad, because I love working on games, and I wasn't one of those maniacs who works till 4am every day just because their employer is a games company, so I did have the time to do my own stuff. It used to take me much much longer to do a complete game in my spare time, and they were not as good, but it can be done, even though paradoxically most companies forbid it contractually.
» Were you open and up front about your extra-curricular work?
At Lionhead I was, and they were pretty Ok about it. I think in general companies aren't though, which is just insane. They would rather employ coders who spend their evenings watching soap operas than honing their coding skills. If you have game ideas your employer isn't working on, you can either work on hobby projects, or quit and start your own company, which is MUCH worse for your employer...
» What made you take these full time jobs? And what made it the right time to go fulltime on your own stuff after?
I was indie fulltime ages ago, but I just didn't make enough money and had to get a proper job, which is how I started at Elixir. Going full time again was an easy choice, because I had two things: I had a side income from my games which actually exceeded my salary, plus a job offer to do contract work from home for Maxis, so it wasn't much of a battle.
» Did they find you because of your work on Kudos? (sorry if I'm getting the timeline wrong!)
No, it was amazingly starship tycoon they spotted ages ago. Kudos was done later.
» Your games were widespread enough to warrant interest from another commercial company. Had you realised you were making an impact on people?
No not at all. This happens now and then, you get emails from people you've heard of who suddenly turn out ot like your games. It's cool.
» Was it the enthusiasm and feedback (like from maxis) that motivates you as well? Is it also appealing to run a business?
Oh I'm massively passionate about games. Its not about making money, I'm sure I could make better money elsewhere. I used to work on the UK Stock Market, and that's rolling in money. I love making games. I take the business part very seriously because you *have* to, to stay doing what I love doing.
» How did it feel when you ended up having to go fulltime with Elixir? were you convinced even then you'd carry on in your spare time?
No, not really. It was quite grim to run out of money, but I had this list of 3 companies I would love to work for, which was Elixir, Lionhead and Ensemble, so to work at Elixir was extremely cool and exciting.
» How did working on bigger games and indie compare to you?
Well it's very surprising how much creative freedom as a coder you have at a place like Elixir or Lionhead, especially if you are a senior coder. So it wasn't as bad as you might think. I've always primarily been a designer/coder, so to be able to work on big games with a huge codebase was very interesting. I also learned a huge amount about programming from those huge games.
» I can see there's a sim-like thread through your games leading up to GSB, but you've really gone to town on the visuals for this one. What got you to design the game the way it is?
It just evolved, it used to look very iconic with sort of retro graphics, and originally it wasn't even set in space. My games change massively as I work on them. There is probably a subconscious desire to point out that I am capable of doing graphics programming too, because people assume I did sim games because I could only code AI.
» I saw the early vids for GSB before I knew what sort of game it would be. The epic space battles really look exciting. From what I've read on your blog the gfx are taking a large part of the development time - do you think this higher development cost has a big impact on the profitability for the game?
Well I love working on the GFX, and to be honest I tend to do all of the gameplay and UI stuff, and get that as good as I can, and I only work on the graphics as a treat when I've earned it. I'm not doing the gfx as a way to market the game, but because I really love super detailed and gratuitous looking space battles. It's a labour of love.
» Gratuitous Space Battles is quite close to release. Who is the game for and what's cool about it?
The game is for a cross section of gamers, people who just love sci fi battles, tower defence players, and people who enjoy RTS or sim games. What's cool is it takes a genre that is normally 3D and real time, and takes away the arcadey confusion so its true strategy rather than arcadey. And doing it in 2D means you can have near-infinite poly spaceship models rendered out and draw hundreds of them! If I did GSB in 3D the poly count would be reduced by a factor of fifty at best.
» ...and the assets would be more expensive to create as well.
To some extent, but they are all complex 3D models anyway
» Ah, I hadn't realised that. Are you doing the modelling for them as well?
No, I pay a very talented guy to do that. He has done all sorts of high end modelling for big games companies and some TV stuff too.
» How is the beta period going?
It's going very well, people really like the game, and I get a ton of really handy feedback, especially people pointing out UI niggles which I get used to and stop noticing. People get VERY good at the game. I have to cheat to even get in the top 100 on some of the missions.
» Ha, that's a really good sign of people enjoying and being dedicated to the game. With GSB do you have a fixed release date?
Not yet, but its only a matter of weeks at most. Maybe another week.
» And how long have you been working on GSB? What keeps your momentum going?
Its about a year in total. Momentum is basically wanting to see and play the finished game myself. I'm always thinking of new stuff I want to add to it. The only limitation is the number of hours in the day, and the fact that I am the sole programmer on it.
» I'm interested in any patterns for development and sales that you've noticed over the long course of your games dev. Have you found anything (demos / sales / price promotions / certain portals / platforms etc...) that correlates closely to numbers of units sold?
It's very very complex. The slightly refreshing answer is that I can see a direct correlation between the quality of a game and its sales, regardless of everything else. When I make a game that's much better than the previous one, it tends to sell better. I think people are far too obsessed with price now, assuming cheaper games make more money. I've tested that theory, and at least for my genre, it's not true.
» Price is very high on the agenda these days, particularly spurred by the iPhone. So you're pretty set on the (approx) 14 GBP price point. What stops you going higher?
I'm not sure, I think that is the sweet spot where people will compare the game favourably to what else is around. I think the game competes with stuff like Sins of A Solar Empire and galCiv II, so I tend to look at what they sell for, given that my game is smaller in scope and development budget.
» How much did you plan the development schedule (one year) of GSB?
Well my games tend to take a year, so it was just the standard thing, but it worked out good, because it went up for pre-order just as the income from my earlier games had sarted to seriously dry up and I really needed the money. That's what is good about the beta, it means I'm not trying to rush finished a buggy or half complete game.
» From what you say your previous profit last approx 80-90% of the dev of the next game - do you have strategy or long term plan to change / improve that?
Well I don't ever intend to do anything but make the best and most popular game I can. I have a theory that the more effort you put in, the more the payback, on a non linear scale, and I've never put more effort into a game than GSB, so I'm hoping it might do well enough to cushion the business slightly so I can actually relax one year!
» You do direct sales yourself - was that easy to set up, and what are the benefits / downsides to it?
Its actually trivial to do, I use payment companies that handle orders, and tax and all that stuff, so you literally just stick a link on your website and they wire you the money each month, it is very very easy to do. I think people go to Steam for the audience and the publicity, more than because it's that involved to do yourself. PR and marketing are the real problem with direct sales.
» What has been effective for you as marketing?
Oh god, it just takes tons of things, sending hundreds of emails, trying everything, talking to everyone, it's a huge huge area of business. I could literally write a book on the topic now, there is so much you need to do and get involved in.
» Have you got much of a fanbase, and does your back catalogue of good games help create sales for the next one?
Yes definitely, a lot of people buy every game I release, which is surprising because they do differ in genre and style a fair bit.
» With Kudos you were encouraged to do reskins for it, but developed Kudos 2 instead.
Well a publisher wanted a reskin, but I ended up pretty much recoding the entire game. Rock legend didn't do as well as it should have, because I wasn't very clear about whether or not it was a hardcore or casual game, so it ended up being neither one.
» Are reskins a route that developers should leave open? Admittedly, it still relies on the game being targeted well...
Well I think its a bit of a quick-panic-cash-in thing when they do that. A lot of casual games are such a blatant copy of the last game with different graphics and sounds that I wonder why they aren't sued by angry buyers, sometimes its just embarrassing to see.
» How much should finances occupy a company?
You dont really have a say in the extent to which finances matter. Either you stay in the black or you go to McDonalds and start frying burgers, so you have to keep an eye on the money at all times. I treat it more like a strategy game than a chore.
» What gives you a competitive advantage over other products / companies?
I think the competitive advantage I have is that I'm one of very few small indie companies that do simulation games. It just seems most indies are graphics or gameplay coders, and I'm a real simulation / AI guy, so that means my games have a different focus to most other ones.
» If you could travel back in time to when you started the company; what advice would you give?
If I could go back in time, I'd change a lot of technical things, to do with what languages or software I'd use, but I wouldn't do different games, I've learned something from every game I've done. Maybe I'd quit my last job a year earlier, apart from that, no change.
» What technology did you use and could have used instead?
Well I use C++ and know it very well, but its quite an awkward language for doing stuff like UI and network code. Ideally I'd use java or C# or something less fiddly than C++. Ideally I'd be using some GUI middleware too, this would speed stuff up a lot.
As of 19 Oct 2009 Positech Games' next release is the PC game Gratuitous Space Battles, with a street date of "imminent" and a playable Beta already available.