I’ve only ever done a handful of face-to-face interviews in my adventures here on The Reticule and most of them have gone ok, but certainly not great. At the Rezzed show in June I was taking a peak at the Democracy 3 and Redshirt stand and happened to see a face I recognised from Twitter and his blog, it was Cliff Harris, the man behind Positech Interactive.
Having been standing on his feet for nearly two days by the time I saw him, Cliff was more than happy to sit down in the cafe and have a chat. Having not planned to talk with Cliff I was entirely unprepared and I opened by saying “So, how’s it going then?” to which I magically got a reply that was more than a grunt and “yeah alright like.” Rather Cliff replied to my inspired opening salvo by talking about how this was his first show yet his fears about the public reaction to Democracy were unfounded.
“It’s going really well actually. I’ve never done the show before – I’ve never shown games at shows before, I’ve given talks and stuff but I was worried that, like most shows, there’d be loads of stuff blowing up and… games with helicopters exploding, and then I’d have a game about interest rates and it’d be ‘What the hell is that creepy game doing there? What’s the point in that?’
But actually it’s been massively popular, so I’m really pleased. And loads of people have sat down and I thought a lot of people would sit down and go ‘this is ridiculous, it’s far too complicated, I won’t play it here’ – but some people have sat down and played with it for half an hour and gotten massively into it.”
Considering there was a Minecraft tournament going on right behind Cliff’s stand and blockbusters like PlanetSide 2 and Company of Heroes 2 were on show, for an in-depth political simulation to get people playing for half an hour at a time seemed to be a pretty good achievement. In fact it wasn’t simply people sitting down and playing on their own as Cliff said “there have been crowds around arguing about what they’re going to do with policies and things like that. And everyone seems to get it fairly quickly, and they’re like ‘click click, click-click’ and that sort of thing and that’s really good because I thought it might be inaccessible. But it turns out, no!”
One of my fears about Democracy 3 before seeing it at the show was that it might have still had an interface similar to the second game. Things are certainly different now though as even Cliff said that “When I look at Democracy 2 now I sort-of think ‘Oh my god, was it really like that?'” If you don’t remember, Democracy 2 had a fixed resolution at 1024×768 and a very dark main screen. Seeing the new game in action was a joy to behold, it is no longer a fixed resolution and it has a lovely brighter and fresher interface letting you see more information than ever before.
I asked Cliff to expand on some of these improvements, as with a game lacking exploding helicopters, you need a good interface to keep people playing. Cliff told me that “you can actually see a chart of the membership of each protocol and stuff and on the charts for happiness there’s little pop ups showing what you did there. You can now see this huge drop for patriots and you think, ‘what?’ and you can click that and go ‘aha! Now I remember abolishing the military…’ or whatever, ‘I remember doing that now!’ – that explains that. So it’s a much easier interface and I’m so much happier with it.”
While the new game certainly does look better than the old version and I knew people were getting involved in playing it at the show, I wanted to know what kind of age groups were sitting down to play it. Cliff said that the younger audience at the show were busy playing Minecraft, but they wouldn’t have been his target age group anyway. Instead Cliff found that amongst the twenty and thirty-somethings, there was a number of teenagers getting involved as well. Cliff’s observations made me smile, having studied politics at University I always fear that the younger generations aren’t interested in what is going on. Cliff found it funny “because watching them play, it just makes me think – Jesus Christ! All these games seem to be misjudging teenagers and it’s kind of like they’ll just give them a really dumb game and it’s like ‘Oh, the kids can understand this as it’s just guns and shooting people! Shoot them all in the face, shoot them!’ But then the same kids will play that will then come and sit down and argue over income rates with each other.”
Of course there some who went down the typical paths of making a fascist state or legalising cannabis and guns but Cliff found that others “played it for a long time, and the closer it gets to the election, the slower they get and the more they’re like: ‘OK, I really don’t want to lose the election so I’d better do this and this.'”
There clearly is an appetite for these types of games out there as despite being five years old, Democracy 2 is still selling really well. As Cliff described it “we went on Steam and it did really well, and it’s amazing because people have seen through all that; they obviously really want to play the game because they see through things like art, pixel resolution, it’s pretty ugly… and there’s also some simulation things in there I don’t like that I had to fix. And they still love it which I think bodes well, because this is that game, but much better without any major gameplay changes or anything.”
But of course, Cliff wasn’t just showing off his own game in Democracy, he was helping Mitu show off RedShirt helping her out with the PR and distribution of the Facebook in space sim. Indeed Redshirt is her first proper commercial release and a tired Cliff said “it’s quite a big deal then to suddenly be at a big show with a big booth and loads of people, it must be terrifying her! But it’s been hugely popular so I’m really pleased. I’m more pleased than I look, I’m just knackered!”
It was some point around here that the table vibrated and I nearly jumped out of my seat fearing an earthquake in dangerous Birmingham. It was only a message on my phone which was my recording device of choice at the show. Fortunately, Cliff the consummate professional glanced down, realised what it was and carried on talking. Cool as a cucumber that man, quite an achievement considering how much he has going on. Besides developing Democracy 3 and helping Mitu with Redshirt, he also managed the Show Me The Games site.
While Steam Greenlight has taken away some of the shine from Show Me The Games as being a home for indie games to be shown off, but Cliff’s side-project has been evolving over time. “What it’s changing into is more of a kind of behind the scenes collaboration between indie developers. We all talk to each other quite a lot and for example there may be a booth coming up at a show that is run by indie developers where we’ve got loads of developers that have all taken a big booth as a group, and that’s the sort of thing Show Me the Games has turned into.”
Between Democracy 2 and 3 Cliff had some massive success with Gratuitous Space Battles which kept him busy for a while with numerous patches and DLC released for it. As I was getting into the conversation which it had certainly turned into I couldn’t help but bring it up, along with admitting I’ve actually played it. It certainly did well as Cliff said “Space Battles sold a ridiculous number of copies, it was madly popular. Gratuitous Tank Battles hasn’t sold as many, which I was a bit surprised by. But it still sold very well; it’s done well on Steam. I’m almost certainly going to do a Gratuitous Space Battles 2 after Democracy 3… I desperately want to get back and do it – I went to go see the new Star Trek movie and I sort of thought… ‘Yeah man, I do space battle games!’ and I love doing that. I love doing Democracy 3 as well; I just don’t have enough time.
But yeah, I’m going to go back to that because I’ve got so many ideas – and the game got patched a lot, I think it got 61 patches, with loads of stuff put in – it wasn’t just bugs, we’d add this feature and then that feature”
During the time he was working on Space Battles Cliff even managed to change what type of game it was: ” There was even a patch that added control of the ships, which was famously not part of the plan – so that kind of turned it into an RTS. So yeah, there were a lot of patches to it, but I’ve decided that I’m not touching it again because it’s just putting me off getting to the point where I can start the second one, which is what I really want to do because I’ve got so many ideas for it now, and so many things I want to include and make better. So hopefully at the end of this year or start of next year I’m going to start GSB2 and that will take a while, I think at some point I’ll have a holiday!”
Beyond being a developer and PR/publisher, Cliff also considers himself to be an environmentally green developer. He has a solar panel installation at his home-cum-office which allows him on good days to be a completely solar powered games company. Cliff also has “investments in two solar farms that equate to a lot more energy being produced that I own than I ever use. I am definitely personally carbon positive… Positech is a carbon-positive game dev.”
With his expansion into helping out with RedShirt, I did wonder whether Cliff had any plans to expand Positech beyond himself. His reply to this was quite enlightening. “I don’t have any employees or direct employees, because in the UK I just find having an employee so much grief, with… you know, like a stakeholder pension for your staff and PAYE systems and I sort of think ‘You know what? That’s too much grief’ Whereas if I have contractors, you just do contracts and release on the money and it’s so simple.
And I work from home and I really like working from home, so if I grew Positech too much I’d have to have offices and I’d have to commute, and it would really suck. So I’d rather grow it with stuff like doing Redshirt with another developer – I think that’s much better, but I’m pretty happy as I am. I probably should grow a little, because the games are very successful, but I can’t see me ever commuting to work, even if I own the company, because it still just seems not as much fun as working from home.” I then sadly had to inform him that I now worked in an office without the luxury of home working with solar power.
Having by this point totally wandered away from talking about Democracy 3, I put Cliff back on the spot with a final question of describing three big differences between Democracy 2 and 3. The first point he highlighted was the removing a bias towards having a big state that was found in Democracy 2. If you are shrewd enough “you can have private pensions, private hospitals, private prisons, private everything if you want and in a really small state, if you can make that work with the side-effects and the poor people that are upset that they can’t afford education and things like that.”
The second point he brought up was a big change to how cynicism works in the game. You can no longer get away with flip-flopping on policies like the UK parties do, Cliff described it like this: “Each individual voter group has its own level of cynicism, and it’s based on anything that you’ve done before an election that they’ve really liked or after an election that they really didn’t like. So you can suddenly raise education spending, and young people are like ‘Yeah! We’re really pleased about that just before an election, but we’re also a bit cynical about it’ – which they don’t forget for a very long time.”
The third big change Cliff told me about was how you can influence groups of people and slowly turn your country from being capitalist to socialist or some other extreme system. “There’s a lot more scope to morph the entire population from one group to another, you’re not just stuck with… ‘You’ve got a country full of patriots and socialists. Deal with it.’ You can do that now and you can see the kind of change, and there are graphs so you can see the level of socialism going down and the level of capitalism going up.”
By this point we had been talking for a good twenty minutes and Cliff started to get edgy about leaving his stand unattended. I walked back over with him, pleased that what could have been a disastrous chat turned into a very interesting discussion. Watching more people playing both RedShirt and Democracy 3, I felt that the carbon-positive Positech had a bright future ahead. Bring on the release of Democracy 3, I can’t wait to cause some chaos.