Posted on July 7th, 2006 5 comments
Positech Games Interview…
Cliff, founder of Positech Games and creator of Democracy, talks about his game development journey.
Check out the podcast here…
This is the Indie Game Development podcast with Action here. How about you introduce yourself?
Cliff Harris: I’m Cliff Harris. Most people call me Cliffski. I have been writing games forever, basically, but I have been a full time Indie developer since last year. I have done that before and roughly that is what’s up.
Action: OK, cool. OK, Mr. Cliffski, how did you get into games?
Cliff: [Laughs] When I was a kid the brand new games console was Pong, basically.
Cliff: On the first console I owned. It wasn’t a Playstation. It was a bit of a Pong machine. The only options on there – you could adjust the size of your bats, and that was it, just that one game. I’ve been playing games pretty much since they were invented, really. I took a long time out of really being into it because I’ve had loads of surreal careers in between. I haven’t done the normal thing, that people just get into games as a kid and then they get into the industry. That wasn’t me at all.
Action: So, you started playing these games as a kid. What were your favorite games then? What games totally blew you away because Pong – I guess around that time – I think games pretty much progressed quite rapidly from Pong.
Cliff: Oh God, yeah.
Action: And so, was there anything like “Wow, this inspires me”, or was it more like “This is pretty cool. I’m just playing games”.
Cliff: I was more into the programming of games than playing them, to be honest. I started on programming games on the Sinclair ZX81 which I think it’s a British thing. I’m not sure if you could get that outside of Britain. I must have been 12. Well, it’s a bit strange.
You only had 1K of memory so you couldn’t do a lot. You’d actually be typing your code, and it would just stop. And you’d think, my God, I have run out of RAM which is completely unheard of now. You never run out of RAM, obviously, but back then you did and you thought, wow I can’t do that. I was more into programming them than playing them.
Action: Awesome. What was the first game you programmed then?
Cliff: Probably some very lame attempt at a space invaders game. With 16K it’s pretty hard and especially in Basic. Back then I needed to learn Sinclair Basic. I didn’t understand the language or anything like that and I never have, to be honest. So I gave up after a while. I went off and learned to play the guitar and did other stuff because I lost interest for about 10 years.
Action: When you lost interest, were you still playing other games, or was it just pretty much a hiatus from games entirely?
Cliff: I was still playing games, maybe, console games, not so much PC. We had an Intellivision console and then eventually a megadrive and stuff like that. It was shortly after that I got to have a PC and then started trying to code them again. There had been a big gap, basically, between Pong and X-Wing which is, I don’t know how many years, a long time.
Action: What would you say is your favorite console game from that time or the most memorable?
Cliff: My favorite console? Well, probably Astrosmash which no one will have ever heard of. It was a fairly rubbish kind of Space Invaders game with asteroids falling down and especially going across, all that kind of thing.
The reason I remember that is we were just quite addicted to it. You were getting 10 points for an asteroid or something like that. I remember scoring one and a quarter million points. I think it took six hours. It was all one game. You couldn’t save the game or anything like that. You just had to keep playing; you couldn’t look away or anything like that. It was probably incredibly bad for you. I just remember thinking, oh, I am the best at Astrosmash with over a million points. It’s sort of sad.
Action: How did you get into Indie games?
Cliff: Well, it’s funny. I was learning C-programming as a hobby. I couldn’t actually get a job as a programmer on the basis that I wasn’t already a programmer and I didn’t have a degree in computer science. I did have a degree in economics. Nobody would give me a job, so I was writing games in my spare time just for the hell of it. At that point I was working in IT support kind of stuff. They started selling, basically, the first game that I did there. They never sold anything. It was called Asteroid Minor. Some people bought it, and I thought, hey this is great [laughs].
Action: Let’s focus on Asteroid Minor. What inspired you to do that game specifically as, say, compared to a Pong clone or some of these other, more simple games?
Cliff: Well, it was asteroids. It’s the default game, I guess, for a lot of people that you sit down and you just write an asteroids clone because it’s one step up from Space Invaders, I think. I suppose two steps up from Pong. So, I just wrote Asteroids as a hobby, and then I stuck some stuff in that you could upgrade the stuff and made it up as I went along. And then declared it finished and put it on sale. Now, it wasn’t very planned or anything like that. They never are..
Action: What year was this?
Cliff: I think that was 1998, or it might not.
Action: And you put it directly on the Internet then?
Cliff: Yeah, the reason it was easy for me to do it was that I was an IT contractor, So, I already technically had a company set up for that. I had a website. I thought, what the hell; why not, I have a website. It was not so planned. It was completely strange. It was quite an easy thing to do. Back then there weren’t as many Indie games coming out so we didn’t need an architect. I didn’t push it in any way, but some journalist came across it and thought it was great. It was like multi-player Asteroids effectively. So, he wrote about it in a magazine. When you see the screenshot of the game you did, however bad it is, in a magazine and someone is saying, it’s really cool. That’s fantastic. At that point I got completely carried away. Well, I’ll make a career about this.
Cliff: I didn’t. It all went completely wrong because I then quit my job to do it. That was a hilariously optimistic thing to do because a year later I had run out of money and wasn’t making any money. And I had to go and get a real job. I tried to run before I could walk, I think there.
Action: How long was it before you got your first sale? When you first put it online, was it instantaneous?
Cliff: Yeah, it really wasn’t long. It was within a week.
Action: That’s awesome. Oh, cool.
Cliff: Because back then we put it on download.com which was free. That was the only website in the universe really, so it was on there. They downloaded it, and they bought it. Back then, it was simple and easy. It was actually quite an easy thing to do then.
Action: Awesome. You get your sales, and you’re inspired to now try this full time. Once you started doing this full time, what was your game plan then? Was it more like – you’re going to make more games; you’re going to start marketing? Did you start reading business books?
Cliff: Oh, you are kidding. No, there was no plan. I’m sure people that do it now are a lot more organized. They can go to Indie game forums and people can say, “This is what you should do. Here’s a marketing plan. This is how many sales this game gets”. I had actually no idea what I was doing, but thankfully I had a really, really good job at the time. So, I had a buffer money-wise. I could quit
my job and I thought I could do this for a year. If I don’t make money in a year, which I didn’t, but I thought it would be OK. Because the first game had gone so well, I thought from here on in it’s going to be easy. But, no, that was a big mistake because I wasn’t that good of a programmer. I’d never worked for a proper games company. I’d never seen how real companies make games. I was just bumbling along.
Action: A lot of the books on game design and game development or whatever really didn’t appeal to you at that time. It was just more like, OK let’s just figure out what the next game is.
Cliff: The thing is the books will tell you technically how to do it. You can get a book – how do I hook up a sound engine and I did. There are tons of books on the technical side. The book that I should have read was called Code Complete. It had nothing to do with game development. It was just how to be a proper software developer. I didn’t read that until far too late. That should be the first book anyone reads. It actually teaches you – just because technically you can write some code that makes this thing go ‘ping’. That’s useless. It’s got to be more organized than that.
Action: Cool. After a year you realized that this isn’t working.
Cliff: I had no money.
Action: Did you finish another game in that year?
Cliff, Yeah, I did.
Action: What game was that?
Cliff: That was called StarLines Inc. That had no plan. In fact, not quite to this day but for a long time the project which was called Window App because I was just trying to write an Windows interface and just an excuse to stick it on a game, as you do.
Originally, it was going to be based on the Ian Banks books and you would have space ships that would reconfigure themselves in mid-flight. It was all very exciting, but it ended up being transferred back into space. I don’t really know at what point that happened but it did. I finished that. I put that on sale, and it did sell. It was one of the first games on Real Games before they had Real Arcade.
Action: Oh, really, cool.
Cliff: I think they asked me actually because that was really early in the day. There were no portals. They were starting the first one. You wouldn’t get a game like that on there now anyway because it was not a casual game. In fact, back then I don’t think they really knew that casual games were the thing. They were like, hey it’s a strategy space thing. That sounds cool. Let’s sell it, and it did do well. It sold some copies. It still sells today but not enough to live on.
Cliff: You finished that game, and now you realize you have to get a real job then. Were you deciding at that point, I mean, what kept you still going or were you thinking, OK, I’m just going to take a break from this. Or that’s it, no more games.
Cliff: Well, the real job that I got was a games company.
Action: Oh, awesome. Well, it worked out then.
Cliff: Well, it kind of did. Yeah, it did. There’s a company called Elixir. They did Evil Genius is what they’re known for. They were doing a game called Republic Revolution which kind of sunk without a trace, but they made a big deal that they had an infinite polygon engine. People take a mickey out of them a lot for this now, and I ended up working there.
Basically, what I did is I was so used to the fact that I’d never get a job as a programmer because I ought to get a job earlier. So, I had this CD of screenshots of games I had done because I had done a few other games as well. They hadn’t sold either, but they looked great. So, I just sent out the CD to other games companies saying, “I did these. Give me a job”. Loads of them said, “Yeah, come in for an interview immediately” because no one ever finishes a game.
Action: Yeah, exactly.
Cliff: So, they were completely astounded. It was like, oh, you’ve actually done all of these. I was like, yeah.
Action: Those additional games, did you do within the year that you were going at it full time, or is this even some other…
Cliff: You know, I’m at that age when I can’t remember [laughs]. I think towards the end of that. And then I tried to get in learning 3D stuff. And I did a racing game in space, and I did a sort of ground based version of the same game. This leads up to me working at Elixir where I was panicking and trying to do more games and thinking, hey, what if one of them would be a hit? That would OK. But, I never stopped doing the Indie games thing.
I am sure contractually there’s lawyers of the two companies I worked for saying, no, you’re not allowed to do this. But, I did them, yeah. All the time I was at Elixir, on weekends I would be working on games. I went from Elixir to Lionhead where I did have a bit of ‘get out of jail free card’ where they said it was OK. I was still writing games then. I’ve never stopped doing it from, basically, back when I wrote that first game and sold my first copy. I’ve always been doing it since then.
Action: Cool. So, you’re working at Elixir and now you’re working in a programming team, right?
Action: What are the differences? Was it a total shock? Did you learn a lot there? Explain your experience.
Cliff: Well, I did learn a lot, I guess. It was very weird because I was very scared when I started. Even though I was probably older than most of them – this is always the way – because Elixir was quite famous for being this kind of genius programming place. The guy that started the company was either the British or the World Chess Champion when he was eight. I’m not exaggerating. He would disappear once a year to the Mindalin [sp] Pics to defend his title.
Everyone there had a PhD in artificial intelligence or something like that, or they were first class honor students from Cambridge. I think they had several of them, and then there was me. I didn’t even have a degree in anything and certainly not computing. But, I had finished games.
Action: Which is better than 99 percent of the people, by the way. It’s actually a miracle, so that’s cool.
Cliff: It kind of balanced out because there were all these really clever guys there that knew a lot of incredibly clever stuff that I did not understand. I still don’t understand how to do friggy programming. I just don’t know all the physics, all of that kind of stuff. I really don’t understand the low level stuff. All these people knew how to do that kind of thing, but none of them really knew how to put it all together and finish the thing which is why their first game took six years or something stupid.
It went on forever, and they didn’t make any money. And then they did better after that, but it was a little bit weird. I did learn a lot. I learned what the hell a source control was. I didn’t know about that. Actually, this would make a lot of people laugh thinking, how did you manage. I didn’t know what a debugger was. I didn’t know. I’d write my code. It would crash. I’d look at the code and think, what the hell is wrong because back then it was all directorial, four screen. I had one monitor, no debugging.
Cliff: I couldn’t tell what had gone wrong. This whole idea of stepping through code was just a miracle. It was like, wow, you can actually tell what was going on which is hilarious as I think about this now. But, I had no idea so God knows if I had ever really learned how to properly work in a developmental environment if I had gone and worked somewhere sensible, I guess.
Action: So, you learned a lot of the software engineering aspects at Elixir then.
Cliff: Well, you have to be diplomatic about these things. Looking back on it, they did some crazy stuff. It was insane because I think they hadn’t done – once you’ve done a game, you look back on the code – well, I do – and you think, what the hell were you thinking? This is awful. Several times I’ve looked back
on early games of mine.
The last one, the only game I can really bring myself to overcome and release patches is Democracy because everything up until that, it was awful. The structure of the code is terrible. It’s messy. It’s badly documented. It’s badly structured. It’s just dire. To be honest, I didn’t learn much about that at Elixir. They were all fresh from the university.
Action: So, it wasn’t like you were around game fanatics, or people who were totally into games and game design. It’s just more of a formal; they were formal programmers and you were working to finish a game.
Cliff: That makes it sound a little bit technical and professional. It really wasn’t. They were crazy about games, passionate about games. It was a very weird place to work and just fantastic. If you haven’t worked for a games company, a proper big games company, it’s got to be done because the environment is relaxed. No one is wearing a suit. No one is wearing shoes, literally. At lunch time everyone is playing games. What was weird though is everyone would play games at lunch time as you do and after work, but they play all kinds of games, not just computer games.
People would play poker, and they played Go and Chess and so forth although one guy there was actually – he did make a living for a few years playing poker in Vegas. Why anyone played at poker, I just don’t understand and he was always winning.
Action: OK, awesome. So, during that time what game were you working on next for your Indie game?
Cliff: For my stuff, that is a good question. I did these two racing games. I did a fairly dire Asteroids clone game. I did a game that is a bit like Minesweeper. It was a bit of rubbish. I don’t know why I did that. That was silly. I must have coasted for quite a while right through the end of Elixir and through most of Lionhead until I really started doing Democracy which is the last game that I finished which I did when I was at Lionhead.
Action: Oh, cool.
Cliff: Unless there’s any lawyers listening in which case I did it after Lionhead [laughs].
Action: Of course, of course. The other question is that along that time – I mean, the whole Internet gaming community was really getting more established, especially Indie game development and a number of forums. I don’t know if GameDev was around at that time. It was probably around kind of at that time, but when you were first doing your initial 1998 thing I’m not sure how big the GameDev community was.
Cliff: It was very small. It was trivially small in comparison with now. You had to buy books. You had to buy books on this kind of stuff, and then you’d learn whatever was in the book. There was no book on doing this kind of game, so you had to just start it.
Action: Did you actively search for Internet communities while you were at Elixir, or was it more like, I’m still going to do this on the side. There are probably no forums or community out there.
Cliff: I think I had really been badly burned from this horrible experience of quitting my job, a really good job, and thinking I’m going to make it in independent game development. And it all going horribly wrong. I was not wanting to do that. I resigned myself that that wouldn’t work. I found myself without a job and I was relatively young and naïve.
You know, you work for these game companies and they say, “We’re going to sell a million copies of this, and you’re going to be rich”. And you think, yeah. Then it completely fails, and you leave and work for another company. And they say that it’s going to sell even more millions of copies. And you think, wow. You go for it twice, and then you think, no. This is ridiculous. It took me a while to get over the fact that I feigned it the first time. I quit my day job to go into Indie, and it didn’t work. It took a hell of a lot to make me do it again.
Action: Oh, really. Well, you’re at Elixir. And so you leave Elixir and you go to Lionhead. Was there any game development in between, like Indie game development?
Cliff: Actually, yes, I wrote one game. It didn’t take long. That was Planetary Defense which I thought that was great. I thought, this is such a great idea for a game. You have an idea. You mock it up, like in a weekend, and then you play it. And you think, wow, this is going to be so cool. I thought it was terrific. I thought it was going to be great. I thought it looks fantastic and nobody bought it [laughs]. It went on Real Arcade, and it did sell. In the short term, it was great. But, looking back on it, it’s a game that most people play and they think it is fun. And there’s a lot of this.
The game’s great. I love it. It’s fun. We play it a lot, but I won’t buy it. I learned a lot from doing that. It’s not enough to make a game that looks good. It’s not enough to make a game that’s fun or that people like or they talk about. If you want to live on it, it has to be all there but they’ve actually got to pay for it. A lot of styles of games, people won’t pay for. It’s a bit shocking if you’ve spent a lot of time on it.
Action: The other question is: you kind of infer that you were doing prototyping. In your previous games, did you prototype the game play or any of that stuff, or was it more like, OK I’m just going to make this game. That’s it.
Cliff: I just start coding, really. I do have quite a few games. I just started and none of them have gone anywhere. I’ve got dozens, actually, all kinds of silly ideas; a game where you would buy and sell houses. I actually had a game where you ran an office, all kinds of games. The games I end up with are never anything like what I started. Planetary Defense actually was. I had no idea when I did it. Starlines Inc. which became Starship Tycoon – that was meant to be a space combat game and it’s not.
My racing games were meant to be space combat games as well. I don’t know what happened there. Things happen in racing games. And Democracy wasn’t meant to be what it was either. That was going to be a bit more like Imperium Galactica and it gradually turned into Democracy. I don’t know how this happened. I start coding it, and they were all called stupid.
None of my games, if I look in my directory structure on my PC, none of them are called what they were called. It’s like Starship Tycoon is Window App. Rocket Racers is D3DX Test App. There were all cool things like this. Democracy is called Government DTV or something different because when I start them I don’t know what I am doing. I’m making it up as I go along.
Action: Going back to the realization that, basically, you can have a great game, a game that’s fun to play, a game that people will even talk about, but they won’t pay for it. And that you need to cater your games towards some specific audience. Now, I think around that time were you ever on the Dexterity Forum?
Cliff: Oh, yeah.
Action: Because I was wondering if you guys got caught into the whole puzzle craze or some of these other types of game things.
Cliff: I did a game called Minefield, it’s called. I mean, it’s rubbish. It’s Minesweep with a particle of ‘X’ in it. It’s dire. You won’t even find it on my website. There’s probably still links to it. I did sell a copy of it a few months ago which amazed me. I don’t like puzzle games. I think they are OK, but I won’t played them.
You can’t make a game that you don’t want to play. You really can’t because you spend hours going through the thing. The better you want to be at it the more you have to be prepared to say, I’m going to do play for now and play the game for four hours or whatever. If I’m really sick of it then, obviously we’re doomed. If you’re doing a game that a lot of people are trying to do, casual games for, like housewives and stuff, that’s fine, I guess, but you’ve got to really like what you’re doing because it really shows, I think. I tried with the first game I had made and it didn’t make any money. You
‘ve got to do what you like, I think.
Action: So, you did this game. Was this while you were at Lionhead, then?
Cliff: The Minesweeper thing?
Cliff: I think it was, possibly it was. My boss, the lead programmer, used to take the mickey out of it. So, yeah, it must have been there. He thought it was quite funny, I think. I miss that little guy, and it is quite funny.
Action: After you released that and it didn’t do so well, were you just sick of the Indie game scene? What were you thinking because I think around that time they were people who were like, you can make so much money doing puzzle games or this or that?
Cliff: I don’t know. I didn’t get too caught up in it, really. I had a job. You always get jaded about these things the longer you stay in any job. It was a very good job. I was a senior programmer doing AI for original IP at Lionhead. This was a pretty good job, so it wasn’t like I was screaming to get out of there or I must make a quick few bucks so I can quit my job. I was OK for money and all that so it was fine for me to do whatever I wanted to. That’s how I ended up writing Democracy. I just made the kind of game that I thought would be cool, and it turned out fantastically.
Action: When you think of Lionhead…
Cliff: I try not to [laughs].
Action: Well, the question is more like, when you first started, did it have that big presence of, wow this is the big time, or was it just another game programming job for you?
Cliff: No, I was quite in awe. I was very excited. You always are, you know. Before I worked in proper game development, the companies I wanted to work for were Lionhead., Maxis, Ensemble and Elixir. And I got a job at Elixir, and I was coming along with all of that. Then when I left there, I got hooked up with Lionhead.
So, I thought, wow I’m completing the circuit, working through my list, and I have done some work for Maxis as well since then. I went off on Ensemble because I don’t think they are quite what they used to be. Yeah, I was totally in awe. You’re working for Peter Molyneux who is interesting. At the time it was like, wow, I played Populist when it came out. Now, I work for the guy and I was in awe of it at the start.
Action: When you were there, was the game design – I mean, compared to Elixir, was there anything really big or different or any huge realization that you got from working at Lionhead, or was it the same stuff?
Cliff; No, it was very different. It was quite opposite to Elixir because Elixir was a load of really keen gamers who all had great qualifications but no experience or not much experience, which was a disaster.
Whereas at Lionhead it was the opposite to some extent. Those people, they were experienced both on games and had gone with Peter to start at Lionhead, loads of experience, passionate about games, all of that. But on the other stuff, not especially good. Some people there were very, very organized; very good and very professional, but I think the whole of game development is just filled with hackers. You know, people that do it their way.
Action: Yeah, exactly.
Cliff: It’s hard to talk about it politely [laughs]. But I learned a massive amount at Lionhead. My immediate boss at Lionhead, Billy Cobham [sp], was brilliant. I just learned tons of stuff, not so much technical stuff. People get obsessed about how to be more professional as a developer. It has to be organized and things done properly. I learned a lot down there while I was at Lionhead.
Action: Well, what would you say are the top three things that you took away from Lionhead, from the Lionhead experience?
Cliff: God, oh dear. I think to do it properly the first time, to not hack it in because especially when you’re working on your own you don’t have to specify your code to anyone. You think, no one is going to see this. It’s fine. They don’t need to know what’s this is. I kind of took away from that that you’ve got to have your code done properly. You’ve got to test this stuff. It’s got to make sense. There was some technical stuff there, but it was more of an attitude than anything else. It was just a lot of experience because we worked on tons of codes. It was a massive project. The experience of just debugging something that big was very interesting.
Action: Did you do any game design stuff at Lionhead, or was it mostly programming?
Cliff: Nobody does any. Well, that’s a topic. We sort of made it up as we went along. It was very weird because you’ve got this superstar game designer who’s world famous, but he was never working on that project because they would do fables. They would do black and white. They would do Movies. They would do a top secret project. That’s the big picture of the thing.
Yeah, you had many times come and say, it’s going to be like this, it’s going to be like that. But at the cold face, however, how do we do this? There was a lot of opportunity to for us to make it up as we went along. We did contribute quite a lot. Most of what we contributed got thrown away [laughs]. In fact, I think if I had to take anything away from Lionhead – when you were saying what were the things that you learned from that – it’s that game development is massively inefficient, unbelievably inefficient.
Action: Is that because you have to try so many things to find something that works, or it’s just that people are totally inexperienced with the software engineering aspect?
Cliff: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. They’re also terribly badly paid so not especially of it in terms of working but morale can be sappy. But, also there’s this thing that because you’ve got a huge team if you’re designing a game here thinking we’re going to do this and you’ve got a hundred people working on it. You’ve got a massive studio, incredible expenses. You can work on something six months, and then they go, it’s really not going to work, is it? It’s not going to work. So, that’s a hundred people working. That’s nine years. That’s absolutely insane, and that happens a lot. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve only worked for two big games companies in its employ, and they both did it a lot.
Action: So, they would start on a project, and then, maybe, six months into it say, “OK, this isn’t going to work”.
Cliff: Yeah, or years or two years or beyond.
Action: My question is: did they have a decent game design before they started, or was it more like, “This is what we’re going to do. We’ll figure out the game design on our way to finishing it”.
Cliff: I think Lionhead was more like, “Let’s do a game like this”. And then as they go along they design it. At Elixir I think they designed stuff more from a properly designed document, that they knew what it would be like. The technology was their undoing because when you’ve said you’ve got an infinite polygon you can’t a few years later say, no we haven’t. I think you’ve got to make it clear. They didn’t make it work.
Action: Even the design doc, was that based on a prototype or was it just like, OK this is the spec for the whole thing.
Cliff: The thing is everyone knows how you are supposed to do it. You are supposed to come up with an idea. You do a design doc. You do a prototype. You play it. Is it fun? OK, it is.
Action: Actually, it’s the other way around. It should be a prototype and then design doc.
Cliff: Well, but you’re supposed to have at least one of these things before you employ it.
Action: That’s true.
Cliff: You know, that’s the thing. The way the companies work, they’ve got a hundred people so they better start doing something. The whole system is broken because if you’re waiting for those hundred people to do whatever it is, then you have to get them doing something. The end result is that most of the work is done from the start right away which obviously upsets everyone. No one likes th
Ideally, what you do is you have a little team, a small little team doing the prototype. When you needed a hundred animators or whatever, you’d get them but the whole employment system is not how it should be which is like the Movies. You’ve got these people on the payroll. You’d better get them churning out something, and hope it still make it into the game.
It’s a completely suicidal way to make anything, and I learned that from being a part of it. Seeing money just burning, completely wasted for so long, and I found it quite encouraging because I thought these companies are just about doing business and they always seem to be the same. They always do this as bad as each other, and I thought: I could do better than this. If I just cut out all of this…
Action: So, you start on this idea of Democracy then at Lionhead, right?
Action: What inspired you to do that? And walk me through the whole development cycle, if possible.
Cliff: Well, it was weird. Originally, you were going to govern like a planet or system of planets. You’re like some space emperor, and you had to keep your people happy. It’s somewhat similar to Imperium Galactica, but it’s very abstract and I wanted it to be more hands-on. I did mockups of that and started that.
Then, I thought it would be better with one planet, and then I thought, maybe, just a country. And then, I thought why not a real country. So, it gradually evolved from this big space conquest game to a fairly geeky political simulation.
The whole thing is absolutely built around a technical premise. I was reading a book by the guy, Steve Grand, who did Creatures. He’s trying to make an artificially intelligent chimpanzee. He’s wrote a book about it. In reading about this and reading about how he sees the game working, I was thinking you could model a country like this, just like a human brain with that neural network. I thought: what an interesting thing to do. So, I just did it. It seemed to work perfectly. I was really happy with it. It’s pretty much everything that’s in Democracy. You impart the same thing, but the code is interesting because it’s a neural network. That game’s a neural network with an interface on top of it.
Action: While you were developing this, did you just have constant prototypes? What was the design process from the prototype or development point of view, and how long did it take to actually to make this?
Cliff: It didn’t take that long. I think it took seven months, something like that. Once the system was in place and it worked, there was a lot of debugging and a lot of getting the system to work. Because the whole game is basically the same, it’s a fairly complicated system, I would guess. When it works, the whole game works. If there’s no bug in the system, then there’s no bug in the game, theoretically. There’s always little bugs, but it wasn’t like I’m working on the AI. Then, it’s done and I’ve got to do the sound. It was like, pretty much the whole game was one system.
It wasn’t like an incremental development thing. It was like wrestling this tiger to the ground, and then when he was there that was it, it was done which is very different to how most games are done. It was quite straightforward. I had the system in place, and whenever I thought there was a little bit missing from it, I’d add a new system on top. It used the same structure. It’s very hard to explain, without getting really code-y about it.
Action: Did you have a lot of people playing it while you were developing it, or did you wait until after you considered it finished and then actually had beta testers? Or what was the process with that?
Cliff: I had a few testers but really a trivial number of testers, like half a dozen or something, which I know is unusual. A lot of people have a hundred beta testers, not like Indie but obviously big developers that have the millions. I didn’t know if anyone was going to buy this.
Action: What were your testers saying about it because it isn’t like a normal Indie game?
Cliff: No, it’s really not. It’s very strange. They were pretty positive about it. I had no idea that it would do as well as it has done and still does. It’s a complete shock, really. Subconsciously, I was thinking, OK if I have six beta testers here they might expect a free copy. That’s six sales I haven’t got. It’s pathetic now looking back after we’ve sold thousands. At the time there was part of you thinking maybe I should just keep a half dozen. It’s silly, really.
Action: So, you released this game. Are you still at Lionhead when you released the game?
Cliff: Yes, yes. Naughty me.
Action: No, nothing wrong with it. I was just wondering if your boss actually liked this game more than the previous game, or if he even got to see it.
Cliff: Oh God, yeah. He’s a great guy. He was quite surprised, I think, that you can do a game like that all on your own, especially knowing that I’m doing my work and everything. I didn’t have that much spare time anyway. A lot of people there were very appreciative of it.
The only moment where it was really a bit embarrassing was we had a journalist come to Lionhead to look at the stuff we were working on, and he happened to be the journalist that had reviewed Democracy and given me a great review. So, I was showing him the Movies, and I realized he’s this guy. And I said, “You reviewed a game of mine. Thanks. You gave me a great review”. He was a bit stunned saying, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize you did that in your spare time”. And that was fine.
When he wrote the article about Lionhead and so on, he mentions this in the article. I was a bit worried because I thought this is not going to go down well. This is meant to be this puff piece for Lionhead, and suddenly there is this reference to how a coder finds time on the weekends to knock out this game, but I didn’t really get told about it. It was a bit strange. It was a strange situation to be in.
Action: So, you released the game. What happens in the first week or…? Did you do anything different marketing-wise or some of these other things based on the learning experiences of the past?
Cliff: I did. I paid to have a press release sent out to however many people.
Action: Was this the first time that you paid for a press release?
Cliff: I think it was. I think it was, yeah. And a guy I know did a banner ad, a Flash banner ad, which is absolutely fantastic.
Cliff: It’s the best adver I’ve ever seen. So, I advertised and it had the most ridiculously high click through rate on this banner ad. The conversion rate for the game was incredibly high. It was actually eight percent. It has gone up and down. It varies. It started selling quite quickly after it was released.
It got some very, very good reviews. It was in magazines where they reviewed it higher than some game that was connected after two years and cost a million dollars, then my game gets… I thought, wow. That’s pretty good. I went up on the Game Tunnel as Game of the Year. That really kicked it off. I sold a ridiculous number. I thought this is crazy because at that point I had just left Lionhead then. For the last few months at Lionhead I was earning more from Democracy than I was from my day job.
Cliff: I bought a new car, you know. I was thinking this is fantastic. But, it doesn’t measure much about you at work because the smallest thing gets on your nerves at work. You can’t stop thinking: I don’t have to put up with this. I could quit tomorrow which isn’t healthy, really.
Action: So, once it started selling you were in a state of awe. Are you thinking about going full time again? You did have that experience before. What’s on your mind?
Cliff: Well, I guess I did want to do it. I did want to quit. Even in my interview at Lion
head three years before that, Peter had said to me, “I suspect you just want to be here for a few years and then start your own company”. I remember saying to him, “No, no. You’ve got that all wrong”. I don’t know how I managed that because that’s the way it turned out. I did want to leave.
I was persuaded to stay because I had been on this same project for two years, and it was coming towards the end. And it seemed silly to leave just before the end because, again, this was going to be a huge, smash hit game. It was going to make millions, blah blah. They persuaded me to stay to the end of that. But, financially from a business sense I could have left. I could have left a lot earlier. That’s what happened. There’s no point in thinking I should have left earlier.
Action: Go ahead.
Cliff: Towards the end of this I got tracked down by Maxis who said, “Do you want to do some work for us?” Like I said, it was on the list of companies I’d love to work with. The only reason I haven’t applied for a job at Maxis is they are in America and I’m in the UK, and it’s just not going to work out. And I thought, oh my gosh. They said, “We want a prototype for what you do with the sims. It’s up to you”. I thought, wow. I can’t do that. I’m not lying. I can’t do that. I’m actually at Lionhead, but eventually I quit Lionhead. And I said, “OK, I’ll do that”. So, I went straight from my day job into a guaranteed contract, for a few months.
Action: Did they find you through Democracy, or was it some other..?
Cliff: Well, I presumed that but no, it was through Starship Tycoon which was Starlines Inc., so from my second game.
Cliff: It wasn’t just me. There were, I think, two other guys. I don’t know. I still to this day don’t know who these other guys are, but they picked three Indie developers and paid them to do some prototype work which was fantastic. It was great to be approached. That made it really easy mostly because here’s some guaranteed money which wasn’t too much of a problem. Also, it was a big famous company coming to you and saying, “We want your game design ability”. That’s a huge puff to your ego when you think, my God, I am good at game designing. I could leave and be successful. That kind of thinking would lead to bankruptcy. It did make it very easy to leave Lionhead.
Action: So, now you’re doing this thing full time. What are you thinking, and what’s your strategy then at that point to actually make this a huge success?
Cliff: Well, the way I see it. If I can do a game that does as well as Democracy every year, I’m laughing. I can live off of that quite happily, not mega riches but I can live on that. It’s not like I’m on my own and I have kids to pay for and everything. I don’t actually need to make a huge amount of money even though I’m in the UK which is the most suicidal place, I mean, one of the most expensive places to live, in one of the most expensive countries on the planet. It’s absolutely ridiculous to be an Indie gamer in the UK.
Having said that, I don’t have to make mega bucks to get away from it. I’m just going to try and keep doing the kind of games like Democracy. As far as I can see anyone that looked at my next game would say, this is nothing like Democracy. But, to me it’s the same. I’m making exactly the games I want to make because that’s how I’ve had success. To me, that works.You make what you really like and make it so that it’s exactly what you want. Chances are there are a few thousand other people exactly like you.
Action: Now, when you’re doing this full time, what percent of your time is spent marketing? What percent of your time is spent doing development or R&D; or whatever else is necessary?
Cliff: I do my own art as well.
Action: Oh, wow.
Cliff: I call that art which is a bit unusual. So, some time is spent doing that and learning how to do that. I’d say about a third of the time is spent on marketing and business stuff. I am supporting the older games a bit because now lots of people play Democracy, and they’re ordering lots for it. A lot of people play Starship Tycoon, and there’s a lot of bugs in that game.
There’s all this Legacy stuff that I have to do, all these emails to deal with each day before I even get to learn the code. And, of course, then there’s the art work. I guess it’s, maybe, only a third of the time I’m actually writing code or debugging or even design work for. The rest is art or the business side.
Action: In terms of marketing, is it just straight up Google ad words or because you have such a targeted niche do you do anything, or have you tried anything…?
Cliff: I’ve tried everything, yeah, everything. It has taken me – I don’t know – eight years from when I started doing this to work out what marketing is. But, the problem is you can’t explain it; I don’t think.
Action: Because I was going to ask you what marketing is now.
Cliff: It’s more like a state of mind. It’s really hard to explain, but you have to do all of the other stuff. I spend a lot of money on Google ad words. I spend money on banner adverts and blog adverts. That’s what most people think marketing is. I send out press releases and review copies of the game to websites and to magazines, but there’s a lot more to it than that. You’ve just got to think of weird stuff.
I’ve sent so many emails and so many copies of Democracy to politicians in the UK, tons of them. Anyway, I can actually think of one of them that liked this. That didn’t work at all, but I didn’t know that. I sent a load out to politics teachers. One of them loved it and recommended it to all of his students. I think everyone that liked it at a higher university doing politics just bought it. It doesn’t cost anything. It just costs finding out who are these politics lecturers, who might be interested, emailing them and talking to them. There’s loads of really weird stuff. You have to be really shameless, I think, about plugging.
Action: Call it creative.
Cliff: Well, both. If it’s always in your mind it’s kind of easy. I know there’s a newspaper column in the UK where someone asks questions and then they write in with their suggestions. Some of them have threatened, saying that my son wastes all his money on computer games. How can I get him to spend it on something that isn’t going to ruin his education? So, obviously, I wrote a letter saying, “There are some very good educational computer games. For example, www.marketyourgame.com and it gets printed.
I don’t know if I sold any games from that. We may have sold a few, I don’t know. But, it doesn’t cost you anything. It doesn’t hurt to try. You can’t teach someone that. If someone is doing a game with rollerskating elves or whatever, obviously, that doesn’t necessarily work. I don’t know exactly, rollerskates. You have to be really creative, but that kind of stuff really works, I think.
You have to be used to the fact that 99 percent of the people you email and who you ask to plug your product will just ignore you. Who cares?
Action: You talked about sending press releases. Do you then send press releases like every six months or something? What’s the strategy there?
Cliff: I know some people do that. I can’t find an excuse to always do it. I haven’t sent a press release out for Democracy for a long time. What I would do is to add something to the game or add it to the U. S. Congress. Or I do something very different to the game and really improve it and then you send out press releases. It’s completely different, more or less. I think it’s quite difficult.
You can tell when you read something on the news sites. You read a press release on a game that’s not finished yet or a game that came out years ago, and you think, that’s just an excuse to send out a press release. It’s quite blatant. It can be quite difficult.
There’s always opportunities. You can always find someone w
ho’s never heard of your game, who is willing to take a look at it and, maybe, promote it. I still get new reviews for Democracy which is a year old now. They’ve never heard of the game. They’ve come across the website and have never heard of it before. If that’s the case, then it’s vaguely connected to games or politics or whatever and I’ll make sure they get their copy of my game.
Action: Now V. G. Smart has suggested that you keep a close relationship with game editors and stuff like that. Is that something that you do? Because it doesn’t sound like you did that for your earlier games, I was wondering if you actually did that.
Cliff: I’m better at it now. I did before and I’d wait for some journalist to find one of my games and something significant happened, especially not now. But, now I do, yeah. I find journalists I think like the kind of games I like, so I email them and be honest about it. Now, I’m an ex-Lionhead coder which always sounds, I guess, better.
Cliff: So, that gets you in the door a little bit. Most of us, we’re not very good at that, especially if you actually have to meet someone or talk to them on the phone. That’s like fear.
Action: That’s another good question. It’s like, now that you’re doing this all alone, do you have a community of friends or game developers around your area where you just constantly meet with them or talk with them or how does that go?
Cliff: I still talk to a lot of the Lionhead people who I see now and then because I live in Guildford in the UK which is where all of the game development originally was, and Lionhead is 20 minutes away. I still stay in touch with a lot of Lionhead people and people that have left Lionhead to start their own companies. Quite a few people have done that. It was funny listening to one of the other podcasts. It is a very lonely thing.
Action: It can be.
Cliff: I didn’t mean to interrupt you, but I’m interrupted by a cat now and then. That’s it. Fortunately, a friend of mine who also works from home on a computer related business and my only guaranteed social thing each week. We go and do archery once a week. It’s quite weird working for yourself on your own. You find yourself talking to the postman or whatever, someone to talk to. It’s quite weird.
Action: So, now you’ve got Democracy going and you’ve hinted at some of your upcoming games. What’s the development cycle like, and what’s the release schedule like?
Cliff: Well, I’ve been doing a game since the start of the year, basically, which is Kudos. It’s very hard to explain. It’s like a turn based 2D menu driven version of the Sims. It’s nothing like the Sims, but it bears to the left. It’s kind of like that. It’s a very hard game to design, massively difficult to design because there’s no example to copy. There’s nothing to model, really. I’ve come to the end of that now. I think it’s in pretty good shape and probably in another two months it should be released. It has to be released in September or bust. This may be the thing that Indie game developers may identify with.
I did go on holiday. That’s terrible because you are away from your business and you can’t deal with anything and if anything goes wrong you’ll be cussing me out. So, you can’t possibly go away just after you release the game. It would be absolute disaster. So, if you have a holiday booked, first thing you do you come home and put the suitcase down and you check your emails. It’s really sad. I need to make sure my game’s on style and everything is OK and I’ve done a patch if I need a patch. And it’s all OK before I go on holiday. I actually have a deadline which is bizarre, but I do have one.
Action: Let’s see. Do you work on the same game or one game at a time, or do you work on multiple games at the same time? What’s the strategy for that?
Cliff: When you’ve got a lot of games that are already out there, you are always having to patch stuff. I mean, you should be. If someone finds a bug, you should patch that. Sometimes, it’s nice for a break when you’re on a game to work on something else. I tend to go back to the game just beforehand and tweak it to improve it. Well, you learn a new thing. You get a new technique that would make this so much better.
I’m never working on two games at a time. I’m working on a game and then occasionally I’ll just tweak the one before. But, I think it’s insane to actually have two projects going at exactly the same time, especially if they are the size of the project that I work on now which is pretty big for one guy, really.
Action: Now, you’ve been doing this for eight years.
Action: What are the top five realizations that you’ve had that you just wish you had known before you first started?
Cliff: Oh, wow, interesting. Some of the things I’ve mentioned. You’ve got to be an upper software developer, that bit of a gunslinger approach to programming that a lot of game coders have, really cool and looking at doing this cool hack. That wouldn’t work. You’ve got to learn to be a proper software developer. That’s the key thing. That was a surprise, I think.
Another realization is you can make money. You can do well. You can live off it, even living somewhere expensive. You can make a nice living from that because a lot of people are doom and gloom now. It’s trendy now, isn’t it? It’s really hard. You won’t make money. It can be done. It might take you a long time. That’s the aside to that. My first games didn’t make a lot of money.
Democracy has made more in – well, it makes more in a month than my first games were making in a year or something. You’ve got to have a hit, but it might take you awhile.
One realization is you’ve got to be a self-publicist, I think. It’s no good just disappearing into the crowd because the press want a story. I learned this working at Lionhead and Elixir. Who is Elixir? They are just a bunch of geeks. It doesn’t mean anything. They are founded by this guy with an interesting name, Demis Hassabis, who was World Chess Champion when he was eight or whatever, and that’s the story. That was how the press were drawn in. They are drawn in with bits of the infinite polygon engine. They are drawn in and then they look at the game.
I learned that at Lionhead as well. Peter Molyneux said this game is going to do everything. It’s going to do the most amazing things. He gets the press in there. You have to do that. You have to go out of your way for there to be a story and not to be too shy about it. I’m not especially good at that, not at all. Nobody is going to write about a guy that sits in the corner and writes the most amazing video game ever. You’ve got to get out there and tell everyone and get in their face and wave your arms and just make a face and point and say, “It’s fantastic”. It’s a pity it’s like that, but it is, to be honest with you.
Action: Cool. Any other realizations?
Cliff: That working on your own is fantastic. Not having bosses is amazing and being able to take a laptop out into the sunshine and then just lay down in the park and think: what cool features should I code. It’s fantastic, and it’s worth putting up with all the nonsense that is required to get yourself into that position because everyone I know who doesn’t own their own business when you say, “How’s it going?” you just get 20 minutes of how work sucks [laughs]. And I used to do that. That used to be me. I could go for hours about it.
It is actually fantastic to run your own business and to run your own games company even if it’s just you. It’s absolutely fantastic. If you waver on the way there, it’s really good and worth sticking it out.
Action: The other question I was going to ask is: in the UK are people open to you being a game developer, or are they just shocked that someone is actually making games on their own and selling them and making a nice living off of that?
m not sure if it’s just the UK thing, but people always assume you work for someone else. It’s quite strange. But, yeah, there is an assumption that you work for someone else and that if you own a company or run a company, then you must be rich. It goes without saying, and it’s kind of between.
I think what’s bad about the UK in comparison with the U. S., this reminds me when I was a musician and I had a guy said to me, “If in the UK you go to your parents and say, I’m going to learn the guitar and I’m going to be a rock star. I’m going to be a success”. They’ll just slap you in the head and say, “Don’t be ridiculous. Get a job in an office”. Whereas in the U. S. it’s like, yeah, go for it. You too can be successful.
Action: Oh, really. No, I think you’ve got that wrong.
Cliff: Is it the other way around?
Action: No, it’s the other way around. That’s what we think about the UK.
Cliff: You’re kidding.
Action: Well, that’s cool.
Cliff: It’s a global thing, then. Nobody ever expects that… That’s the impression the people in the UK have for the people in the U. S. that if you want to start a company, you’re an entrepreneur.
Action: In some parts of America, I’m sure that’s true. Anything else you want to say to the game development community?
Cliff: What I want to say is I think it’s amazing that we’ve talked for so long, and I just pity the people that have listened to this for the whole time.
Action: Well, thanks for walking us through the whole experience. I think it’s cool that it wasn’t necessarily someone who wanted to do games at four years old.
Cliff: No, I wanted to be a musician.
Action: Yeah, exactly, so that’s awesome. Anything else you want to say?
Cliff: I’ve spoken for far too long. All I would say, just make the kind of games that you like. Hey, look what happened to me. Everyone said that you had to do a match three game or something like that. Don’t use the right mouse. It might confuse people. People want it simplistic, so I did a really complicated game that assumes you knew all about politics and had quotes from Gandhi and stuff in it. It’s the most inaccessible game.
Action: I like those quotes, by the way.
Cliff: Everyone loves the quotes. People hate the game. They just like the quotes. I broke every single rule that is accepted wisdom in game development and it has sold fantastically. It’s still selling, so there are no rules really. Don’t believe what everyone says.
Action: OK, cool. Thank you very much, Mr. Cliffski. I will talk to you later. Take care.