Positech Games Interview

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September 12, 2012 by raconteurmagazine

by Sam Flintlock

Cliff “Cliffski” Harris is the man behind Positech Games.  The company has produced a wide variety of games.  From the life simulator of Kudos 2 to the cinematic Gratuitous Tank Battles to the political strategy of Democracy 2, Positech have a niche but dedicated fanbase.  I ask Cliffski to tell me something about the company.

“We are basically a one-man studio, in that I do all the design and coding, and run the business, but I get contractors to work part time on stuff like artwork, music and sound effects.”  He goes on to mention that, while this is his main line of work, he has also worked in the mainstream industry.  “I’ve been doing this on and off since 1997, and in-between that I’ve also worked in the mainstream industry for Elixir and Lionhead, where I was a senior AI programmer on the Movies.”

Does working primarily as an indie developer give him more freedom to follow his own artistic vision?  “Absolutely. I’ve been witness to some frankly staggering conversations with big publishers where they say the game ‘isn’t enough like Halo or other nonsense”.  He certainly feels that, not only does he not make most of his games in the mainstream industry, it simply wouldn’t be possible to, saying “None of the ideas I have for games would ever survive ten minutes in a meeting with publishers, and that’s a big part of the reason I run an indie studio, rather than working for someone else”.

But what specifically does the term indie mean for a game designer like Cliffski?  Is it a simple descriptor of how the game is produced/distributed?  He believes it runs deeper than that: “it implies a certain honesty and grass-roots connection with the players. Anyone who has played any of my games can email the programmer (me) and ask a direct question, and often get an answer, and I’m very proud of that. It also means we don’t do crazy stuff like always-on DRM, or turn off servers to get people to buy new versions etc”.

This isn’t to say that the term indie doesn’t come with issues of its own.  There is an apparent issue with it being used to pigeonhole games designers (arguably in the same way it can be used to imply that bands play a narrowly specific type of music).  “Indie has recently become synonymous with young, hip, confident guys from San Francisco who love Linux, have an iphone, and invariably love platform games, comic books and so on. That’s such a narrow definition of indie as to be crazy. I’m so different to the hip indie cliché it’s ridiculous.”

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a noticeable difference between Cliffski’s indie ethos and how mainstream publishers approach the gaming community.  “I think we have a more gamer-centric and long term viewpoint to keeping gamers happy. Basically if something would annoy me as a gamer it won’t go in. I could build better name recognition by having unskippable splash screens with logos, and installing to the ‘Positech Games’ folder, but that’s irritating, insulting silliness, so I don’t do it”.

Cliffski has previously spoken out against booth babes at gaming conventions. He says that he sees this as a wider issue, about how games are produced and marketed.  “The people who work in big publisher PR departments seem to not play games. As a result, they think all gamers are 13 year old horny boys from the American Midwest. This is laughable”.  He sees this as actively working towards games getting as wide an audience as they could.  “There is no reason why a lot of games shouldn’t have a 50/50 gender split for their buyers, but games publishers still want to sell zombie games to boys and pink Barbie games to girls, which is like something out of the 1970s”.

That isn’t Cliffski’s only objection with certain elements of the mainstream gaming scene.  “The sexism in many games bugs me, but so does the racism, and the incredible US-centric focus of much of the writing”.

It’s not that he’s necessarily against mainstream companies.  When talking about the online distribution network Steam he merely suggests that gamers need to be aware of the wider gaming world, “Steam are awesome, but all monopolies are bad. I don’t trust any one company to own PC gaming, because they will always turn down good games and that means a lot of gamers missing out on hearing about them”.  A worst issue for him is the fact some gaming journalists seem to aggravate the problem.  “The only thing worse than gamers who refuse to buy a game Steam won’t stock, is journalists who actually refuse to review a game without a steam code. It’s like there is a mental brick wall that prevents people realising that steam is a private company that picks and chooses games. Not every game can be on there. They turned down my games Democracy and Kudos, and still won’t stock them, for example”.

Recently, Cliffski has made his first foray into third party publishing, working with the developer Tiniest Shark to develop the game Redshirt, a “a sci-fi comedy life sim game, which pokes fun at Star Trek and social networking”.  Apart from that, he tells me that he’ll be working on his current games before moving onto a new game: “’I’ll probably spend a good chunk of time supporting and improving Gratuitous Tank Battles before I work out what project to take on next”.

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