An interview with Cliff Harris of Positech

Monday, July 27, 2009
By Phil Carlisle
Image of cliffski with klingon knife

Image of cliffski with klingon knife

Cliff Harris (aka Cliffski) is an outspoken person when it comes to all things indie. He’s published his sales figures, tackled pirates head-on and talked frankly about his time at a AAA studio. Hope you enjoy this interview, Cliff is a really interesting guy to talk to, quite clearly has a lot of passion about making a living out of what he’s doing and has a keen business head on him. He actually admits to liking dragons den too!

 Phil:
 
You seem to be one of the more successful lone-gunman indies we have here in Britain. Why do you think you have achieved success when others have failed?
 
Cliff:
 
Lots of things. Firstly, I’ve been at it a LONG time, and have not always done as well as I do now. Secondly I’ve been coding since age 11, but I think one of the major reasons I’ve done OK is that I actually enjoy the business and PR side of things, as well as the game design and programming. A lot of coders are very shy, insular geeks without an interest in running a business, but I’m actually equally at home with Visual C++ or a spreadsheet. I’m also working or thinking about work the vast majority of the time I’m awake. I love it :D .
 
Phil:
 
You worked at Lionhead? for a while. How would you compare working at a AAA studio with working for yourself? I’ve found that I miss the teamwork aspect, do you miss anything?

 
Cliff:
 
It’s much more rewarding and fun working for yourself, because you have so much creative and practical freedom. I can work when I want, on what I want. However, it does come with the additional baggage and problems of wondering where the money is coming from, and all the organisational hassle of actually working for yourself. For me, the biggest thing that I miss about the AAA gaming is that you were with a team of like-minded people, and you got to chat about games and so on, in between work. Working from home alone is an incredibly lonely business, and it’s not suited to everyone. For the first few weeks I found myself being abnormally chatty to the postman, people who read the gas meter, etc. It can feel like you are stationed at the north pole sometimes. Still, that works for some people really well. People always moan about their work colleagues, but you do actually miss all of them when you leave. I have a friend who runs a non game business who I meet for lunch, and it’s really helpful to chat to people who are in the same situation as you.
 

Cliff Harris - Rambo fetish?

Cliff Harris - Rambo fetish?

Phil:
 
I’ve noticed that your games have a very original feel to them. I can’t quite pinpoint why that is. Perhaps it is the subject matter you choose. How do you go about deciding on a game concept? Do you feel that you have to have a unique game before you decide to make it?

 
Cliff:
 
I think everyone approaches game design backwards. They look at lots of games that they like, and try to devise a new game by piecing together bits of others like Lego. That can work, but its pretty clear that you are just fiddling around the edges of existing ideas. My approach to it is to forget about games entirely and take inspiration from actual real life. If you think about games a lot, it’s quite easy to spot a gaming concept elsewhere in your life. I see games in almost everything, especially anything that involves organisation or time management. Cooking breakfast is a game, especially against the clock. Teaching someone to drive is a game. Keeping neighbours cats off the lawn is a game. There is more to game ideas than buxom elves and middle eastern warfare. I also tend to make games so I can play them. If someone has already made that game, then that itch has been scratched, and I don’t need to make it myself.
 
Phil:
 
Your latest game
http://positech.co.uk/gratuitousspacebattles/(lets call it GSB). Has a completely different direction than your more “sim” oriented games like Kudos and Democracy. Why the change?
 

Cliff's latest game - Gratuitous Space Battles

Cliff's latest game - Gratuitous Space Battles

Cliff:
 
The game was not originally like that. They never are. I was originally doing a more sim-oriented game, to do with countries, a little bit like Democracy, but involving a map. Half way through doing the code for the map, It occurred to me that the map would look better with spaceships on it. From there, it kind of morphed into a space strategy game, and eventually the tower-defense style game that it is now. I used to enjoy doing highly optimised graphics code, and I think that there are lots of things we can now do in 2D (using 3D hardware) that nobody bothered trying the minute 3D came along. I’ve kind of taken it upon myself to show how nice a 2D space game can look, and I guess it’s a nice change to have a game that involves some pretty explosions rather than a game that is mostly static artwork. Also, it’s still a management game and a simulation. The battles are just the visual outcome of your management decisions.
 
Phil:
 
On the subject of Sim games. You recently had a deal with EA to use some of your work on Kudos in one of their online Sims promotional games? How did that deal come about and what was it like dealing with EA?

 
Cliff:
 
I’ve worked with EA before, because they asked me to do some game concept work when they were starting on The Sims 3. That was years ago. I’ve kept in touch with the guys at EA since then, because we do similar stuff, and they take an interest in what I come up with. We talked about them maybe selling Kudos 2,re branded, and then they showed an interest in doing a flash game based on Kudos 2, and a bit of haggling later we signed a contract. They basically got access to the Kudos 2 source code and some access to me to ask questions about how the design was implemented, but they recoded it all from scratch. It was easy to work with them, and I’m really glad it all went through. It kept the wolf from the door for a short while too.
 
Phil:
 
I get the feeling that you spend a lot more time thinking about marketing and promotion than a lot of indies. Do you put a lot of effort and money into getting the word out about your games? How do you choose where to promote your games?

 
Cliff:
 
Nothing beats statistics. people can waffle on for hours about how important it is to get onto site A or B or to spend time doing this or that, but what matters is what actually works, and drives quality traffic to your website. Some sites, like stumbleupon or digg, will get you a lot of traffic, but its traffic from people who aren’t interested in buying games. Sadly, games are a business, and you need to sell games, rather than just generate page views. There are lots of well-known techniques for optimising adverts and for calculating return-on-investment for ad campaigns. It sounds pretty tedious but you probably need to know some of that stuff if you are going to sell games as well as make them. Advertising can be expensive, so you need to get it right. I do spend more than most indies on advertising my games.
 
Phil:
 
You are notorious for challenging piracy. Have your views on piracy changed at all over the years? Do you really think we will ever be able to truly combat piracy?
 

Gratuitous Space Battles Fleets

Gratuitous Space Battles Fleets

Cliff:

 I’m really not that much more anti-piracy than the next developer, it’s just that i am honest about my views. So many developers I talk to in private are furious about it, but know they attract nothing but grief if they mention it, so they don’t. I don’t think piracy will ever be beaten in the traditional sense, but I think that slowly things will change for the better. Even the piratebay have now been found guilty, and then sold everyone’s account details for a big pile of cash. This idea that its some kind of moral crusade is collapsing along with that, and now people are used to using steam, itunes, and even buying direct from people like me, I think a lot of the complaints of pirates are starting to fall to one side.
Ultimately I think the long term effect of piracy has been to change games for the worse. Tons of new games are micro-transaction based or have been shoe-horned into an MMO design, which suits hardly any of them, but is tragically the only way to get people to pay for them.

 

  

Phil:
 
How does being an indie developer based in Britain help or hinder your work. Do you think Britain is a good place to work from? Do you get any help from the government or have any contact with the press in Britain?

 
Cliff:
 
The gaming press in the Uk is fantastic, because they are the natural offshoot of our bedroom coder origins with guys like Peter Molyneux. I do slightly prefer the UK gaming press to the US, which comes across as a bit more corporate. I love the British sense of humour, and the way they review games is pretty cool. In terms of being in the UK as a business, it’s pretty bad. Our tax rates are pretty grim and we have no tax breaks for gaming, unlike many competitors. I seriously considered emigrating last year, because I would just have such a better standard of living in New Zealand. it’s crazy, because my company is the most mobile one on earth. I could pay corporation tax to another country quite happily, and yet the government does absolutely nothing to keep business like mine in the UK.

 
Phil:
 
Finally, is there anything you want to say to British developers and gamers?

 
Cliff:
 
Don’t be too afraid to be just a little bit British in your games now and then. I tried with Kudos, but got a lot of people from the US saying they could not cope with a game that didn’t use dollars, and wanted it set in the US and not in Slough. Still… I’m glad I at least gave it a try.

 

You can find more of Cliff and his games over at his site www.positech.co.uk and see his latest game at http://www.gratuitousspacebattles.com

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4 Responses to “An interview with Cliff Harris of Positech”

  1. Another great interview. I really love the part where he talks about getting inspiration from places OTHER THAN GAMES. That’s smart. =)

    #12
  2. I agree. This is great interview.

    #13
  3. 1 minor things to tell.

    You missed ‘Interview’ tags for other Interviews, except for 2.

    It’s not really major problem, however people will see your tag cloud & click. :)

    #39

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