Q&A: Positechâ??s Cliff Harris - MCV

Q&A: Positechâ??s Cliff Harris

Cliff Harris is the person behind Positech, a one-man game developer based in the UK that publishes and sells its own products online. After working with Elixir and Lionhead, Harris opted to go it alone, and has just announced his newest game, Gratuitous Space Battles.
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Develop decided it was the perfect time to speak to Harris about the benefits of complete independence.

Develop: From a corporate perspective, what prompted you to move from working for an established company to going it alone as a solo developer?

Cliff Harris: Frustration at not being involved enough in game design was one of the biggest issues. Plus, I don’t like the way big games get made. Far too much work is thrown away, there is huge inefficiency, and there are very limited opportunities to actually move up the career ladder. Basically if you want to design a game, you need to stay in your cubicle for ten years and hope someone quits or dies, or start your own company.

Develop: Was the direction game design was taking part of the reason you decided to pursue working as an independent?

Harris: Yes it was. I’m much more into abstract game designs that just filling a 3D world and trying to work a game into it, which is what happens when you decide to use a big expensive 3D engine every time. I like to think of a concept and how it can be interpreted in a game, rather than be very influenced by existing games. When you need to keep publishers happy, you need to point at the game you are copying before they lend you the money.

Develop: What sales model have you adopted, and what does it offer customers a bigger company couldn’t?

Harris: I sell direct from my website, as well as through third parties like Stardock’s impulse site. The main benefit for customers is dealing direct with the developer. I answer the tech support queries, and I provide good customer service because paying my rent each month is directly connected to keeping the customers happy. That’s not true of someone on minimum wage who is employee #244 at some huge games publisher. Nobody will answer your question quicker and better than the guy who coded the game.

Develop: What other advantages does the independent model Positech follows offer?

Harris: I can make games most people will not bother with, because they are too niche. If there are 5,000 potential customers for a game, it makes economic sense to do it, whereas the big companies only target the classic genres where they can shift a million copies. That means tons more creative freedom to do obscure stuff like political strategy games or turn based life sims.

Develop: And what about the challenges of the one-man business model?

Harris: It’s insanely hard. I wear at least four hats every day. Today I’ve been managing ad budgets, answering emails for tech support, updating my website, networking with some other indies, talking to contract artists and coding the next game. Coding the game is several jobs in itself, because the games I make are pretty complex and I write the engine too. There is a hell of a lot to do and you have to be the ultimate jack of all trades.

Develop: I notice what appeared to be an anti-DRM logo on your website. Can you enlighten me as to your thoughts on DRM, and why your site sports the logo?

Harris: DRM hurts more than it helps. I have nothing against DRM in principle, every store uses some form of security in the real world. Ultimately, it’s a pity that the open IBM PC architecture makes enforceable but unobtrusive DRM so difficult right now. I am firmly against piracy, but I don’t want to inconvenience my customers even slightly. The PC has a bad reputation for developers forcing DRM on their customers, so the logo makes it clear to people who haven’t heard of me before that my games have no DRM in them. Hopefully that makes them happier to buy from me.

Develop: You seem to have developed a fair range of games. What is it that unites them all?

Harris: Purely they are things that I like. I figure that I’m not so special or unique, so if I like a game idea at least 5,000 other people will like them. I do have a liking for games that have a lot of complexity under the hood, and that tackle the situation where everything seems to affect everything else. I love the idea of games where the player has to keep lots of interacting things in balance all at the same time. My games are like turn-based strategic juggling acts.

Develop: This might be a hard one to answer, but which of your games stand out as the best?

Harris: Probably Democracy 2. I think that’s the best game design I’ve come up with so far. I like Kudos 2 as well, and it’s a better-presented and polished game, but Democracy 2 is practically it's own genre, and that's pretty hard to pull off.

Develop: Finally, was there anything else you wanted to get off of your chest with regard to the current marketplace for downloadable games like your own?

Harris: There’s a price war going on in downloadable games right now, started by Microsoft, continued by Steam and now Amazon. It seems like a good deal for gamers in the short run, but in the long run it might not be so great. If gamers start to expect every game to be $10, then developers can only make $10 games. That means killing off the niche stuff and making blander games, or it means less polish, less content and less depth. People shouldn’t be afraid to pay $20-30 for decent games. Hour for hour, they are stupidly cheap forms of entertainment. Nobody expects all books to cost the same, and we shouldn’t expect it from games either.

For more information, visit Positech's website.

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