We're honored today here on TechRaptor to have well known indie developer Cliff Harris of Positech Games (And yes, I got it right this time, unlike in the interview below. My only excuse: I was thinking science fiction stuff and thus things like the Positronic brain came to mind). Having been in the games industry for a long time, and an Indie Developer since 1997, we were happy to talk with him about his upcoming game Gratuitous Space Battles 2 and his thoughts on the industry in general.
TR: Can you introduce yourself, and Positronic Games for everyone?
Cliff: It's Positech Games :D. I'm the owner, and only programmer, I've been programming since I was eleven years old, back on a sinclair ZX81 with 1k of memory. I've worked in the 'mainstream' industry for Elixir and Lionhead, and I've been a full-time indie developer for a long time. I made games called Kudos and Democracy before I made Gratuitous Space Battles, and now I'm returning to it six years later to make a much better sequel :D.
TR: With the Gratuitous Space Battle Series, you seem to have taken on more of an admiral backline who has to set up strategies and then observes compared to most games more hand on approach – what led you to that type of decision?
Cliff: It comes partly from the fact that no other games do this, but also because I find big RTS battle games are nor tactical or strategic at all, they are arcade games. Starcraft is an arcade game, aimed at kids with fast fingers, and as an older, and less frantic gamer, I want to be able to plan and strategize and win the battle the way napoleon did, not by clicking 200 APM. So I guess it's for older or more chilled-out strategy game lovers :D
TR: I can imagine there are going to be some disagreements with that view on Starcraft :P
While not a huge RTS Fan myself, I have to follow up a bit on that one some. Many people view Starcraft's play as more macro management and metagame dependant. What are your thoughts on that, and its popularity in things like eSports and streaming?
Cliff: Oh there is definitely strategy in Starcraft, no doubt, but when you see the top players they are always clicking away like maniacs. That means its a strategy game for teenagers without RSI or arthritis, and for people with a lot of energy who want a frantic experience. That definitely has its place, but there is definitely a need for strategy games that you can relax with, rather than make your heart race :D
TR: If you are seeking that more laid back pace why not go with turn-based strategy for command?
Cliff: I like turn based strategy too, thats why Democracy 3 is turn-based, but I love the look of an RTS, especially for something as visual as a space battle.
TR: You seem to have added a lot more options into spaceship building with new hulls, and the components section. What have been the early impressions of it, and how do you think it impacts the game?
Cliff: I think the whole 'design the look of the ship' thing (which is totally new), really adds a lot to the game. People can be a bit snobby and a bit overly-academic about strategy games, but lets not forget that to some extent (probably more than we admit if we are over 16 years old), this is a digital version of playing with toy spaceships, and thats so much more fun when you get to design them too, rather than just go with what the artist likes. In terms of the modules, and the actual weapon choices and so-on, there is also a lot more because all the ideas that were added to the base game of the original when we did expansions have all been included in the second game, so it does feel like there is more variety in this one, and variety is always good. First impressions from people seem extremely positive.
TR: Your games – especially Democracy – have at times been called Spreadsheet simulators. What would you say to your critics about that?
Cliff: That doesn't bother me. I'm a stats and data geek who likes spreadsheets, and I don't try to make games targeted to a demographic, but to people who like what I like. Football manager games are just spreadsheet simulators, and thats fine. GSB2 is like those, but it has lasers and spaceships, whats not to like?
TR: With Gratuitous Space Battles 2, it’s your first direct sequel in the Gratuitous series. What are you hoping to improve from Gratuitous Space Battles 1 in Gratuitous Space Battles 2?
Cliff: Absolutely everything. The GUI is better, you have custom spaceships, it will have proper steam integration, the graphics engine is totally re-coded and HUGELY better than the original. This one has multi-monitor support and it will be better balanced, absolutely everything has been ramped up as bigger, better and more gratuitous.
TR: What do you believe is the biggest change you made between Gratuitous Space Battles 1 and 2 that people are going to not intuitively or naturally notice?
Cliff: I am slightly worried people don't immediately realise you can customize the look of all the spaceships. It makes such a difference. Also I worry people think they need a high spec PC to play it. The engine is very optimized, it looks pretty good on an average laptop.
TR: You had 5 DLCs for Gratuitous Space Battles 1, are there any plans for DLC for Gratuitous Space Battles 2, and how do you go about deciding what should make up DLC?
Cliff: I don't have any plans for DLC, it all depends if there is demand for any, and if there are any good ideas for expanding the game after it ships. The DLC for the first game was extremely popular, people kept asking for more, which is why we released more!
TR: While you’ve always been open with talking with fans on your blog about development, more recently you’ve taken to doing beta copies in your last few releases. How has this worked for you, and what sort of feedback are you looking for through the betas?
Cliff: Its really good, because there are people who play the game in different styles, who have played games I haven't played and have some really interesting approaches and ideas regarding how to improve the game. I really like getting feedback from people who are playing the beta.
TR: For a long while you've supported modding for your games - what do you believe it adds, and do you ever play the mods your fans develop?
Cliff: I do play some, but I'm so busy I don't have enough time to try all the ones that I'd like. I think its great because it adds value to the game, and lets people expriment taking the games in directions that wouldn't occur to me, or where I wouldn't have time to do that sort of thing.
TR: For fans who've played your previous games but haven't checked out the modding scene at all, are there any ones you'd recommend?
Cliff: I don't have time to try them all, and I'd hate to miss a really good one, so I should probably try not to play favorites. Democracy 3 has steam workshop support, and as I recall over 180 mods which are ranked, so its easy to find the popular ones.
TR: You’ve spoken out in the past against DRM and spent time talking to pirates about why they do what they do. That was a while back – has your stance on it changed any, and what would you say to other developers in general?
Cliff: No, I still think its pretty much a waste of time. It often doesn't work, and people who are totally obsessed with getting free copies of a game will always find some convoluted way to do it, so its not really worth fighting against them. Its so easy to buy games these days that I don't think casual piracy of PC games is something to worry about, especially if there is a problem with it maybe hassling legit buyers.
TR: In your blog post you mention price point as an issue that comes up with pirates. With the amount of bundles, steam sales, freemium, and the fact that games seem to mostly be locked on one of about 4 price points, do you think there’s an issue with the constantly lowering prices on PC? Do you think that the constant sales fighting might be part of the prime attraction for developers to do consoles, as the market there is much more closed?
Cliff: I think its nuts, but generally its just this swarm of really low budget low-quality games that get shoveled into bundles where its ten games for $1, which people assume is the whole market. Actually you make more money, and are more successful if you have a game priced at twenty or twenty five dollars. This idea that nobody buys $25 indie games is just totally wrong, and the idea that dropping the price or offering a game at 90% off is just totally wrong too, but both myths get repeated constantly online.
TR: Since you started Indie Development back in the 90s, the market has changed a lot with huge growth in developers, digital distribution going big, and lots of other things. What are your thoughts on the state of it now and how its changed since you started?
Cliff: Its so different now, but I wouldn't call it any worse. I'd actually say its easier now , because there is more middleware, a much mroe accepting market for buying online, a much wider acceptance of indie games as 'legit', and so on. There is a lot more competition, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives, and the situation for gamers has never been better in terms of choice, price and convenience.
TR: To aspiring game developers looking at the indie scene what suggestions or advice would you have?
Cliff: Work hard! making an indie game is incredibly hard, it is not an easy job, its one of the hardest imaginable. And do not assume your first game will sell. My first game sold hardly anything, so did my second, third fourth and fifth. People expect to quit their job or leave school and make a fortune from their first indie game, but most overnight successes you read about actually worked on a dozen games beforehand, so keep your expectations reasonable :D
TR: So to follow up on an old blog post that you did – if you had control of Valve to set one priority that it had to follow, what would it be? Other than the obvious ‘develop half-life 3 or portal 3’ comment!
Cliff: I think it would be great if Valve could do something to encourage better behavior by gamers. They are in the very strong position where people have steam accounts that they really care about, and getting locked out or banned is a big deal. When I see people acting absuively on steam forums, or using racist language in a game played through steam, I would be very tempted to have steam ban or suspend those players for that sort of behavior. Internet anonymity can be a really corrosive thing and I'd like to see the gaming community become friendlier.
TR: My concern with that type of thing would be the loss of products people have bought, especially with the dominant market share that Steam has gotten and as you remarked in one piece - people refusing to buy games not on Steam. How would you balance out rights to what people own, attempting to make it more friendly, and steams dominant market position?
Cliff: Yes its definitely tricky, but the problem is you need some real negative impact as a disincentive for those people. Maybe something softer, like people with a negative impact on games are always pushed to the back of server queues. Personally I wouldn't be too bothered to see someone who has got five consecutive warnings for racist abuse to be banned from that game for life. Don't forget they are actively reducing the experience of lots of other players, that needs to be dealt with quite seriously.
TR: Do you have anything else you’d care to add?
Cliff: Always remember as gamers that you get what you pay for. If everyone waits to buy all their games in $1 sales, then you aren't going to get well made, polished niche games any more. That attitude takes us directly to an app store of flappy bird clones, and I really don't want to see PC gaming go that way. Any game you play for a few hours is well worth the price of a large pizza, so dont resent paying that, it will only cause problems in the long run :D
I'd like to say thanks again to Cliff Harris for talking with us and that you can expect to hear more on Gratuitious Space Battles 2 on TechRaptor. Right now it is available for purchase on his website for beta that will also redeem on steam later for $24.95.