Cliff Harris, more commonly known as Cliffski or Cliff is the person behind one man indie game studio Positech famous for such games as Kudos 2 and Democracy 2 amongst many others. I recently got the chance to quizz Cliff on his games, life as an indie game developer. We also talked about that ever controversial issue of Piracy and DRM.
Hit the jump to read the interview.
The Reticule – You have just recently revealed that you started work on a new game which you describe as being a 2D, geeky simulation game. Is this just a loose idea of a game that you will drop for a more commercially viable game, or will you continue with it regardless?
Cliff –It’s too early to say. I have dropped a few games ideas mid-development in the past, but when I do that, it’s purely because I lose interest in the subject matter or the design of the game. I’ve had some games that have sold pretty well, but it’s always been a happy co-incidence more than strategic planning. I find it impossible to work on a game that I don’t really desperately want to play myself, so all my games are exactly my idea of what’s fun.
The Reticule – If you stop with this project, will we see another Democracy or Kudos? Or will you delve back into your back catalogue for the new game?
Cliff –I have three game ideas that I would pick from if I stopped working on the geeky game. None of them are sequels to anything I’ve done before, although one of them would appeal to lovers of Kudos, and one to lovers of Democracy to some extent.
The Reticule – Kudos 2 has been out for a couple of months now, what has the critical reception been like towards it? Has it been what you expected?
Cliff –I’ve had some very good reviews for the game, the problem is always actually getting a review, rather than what reviewers have to say. I’m surprised that a few people have suggested it’s similar to the original game, given the vast differences in style and the underlying design. When you look at games like the WW2 FPS games or the Diner Dash style time management games, they literally do seem to be reskins of existing code, and that’s absolutely not the case with Kudos 2.
The Reticule – What about sales wise? Has it done as well as you wanted initially?
Cliff –I cleverly launched the game as the world plunged into financial meltdown, at the same time of year as all the big budget games releases, which really doesn’t help at all :D. The game is selling a reasonable amount, but it hasn’t set the world on fire yet. My games tend to keep selling for a long time, so hopefully in the long term it will be a decent success.
The Reticule – You recently put up a graph on your blog showing off where the sales of your games come from. There seems to be a trend of increased direct sales yet lower sales from other portals, why is this occurring?
Cliff –The portals have hundreds of games now. You can be in the top three on some of these portal and sell seven copies a day. That’s dire. And remember you only get a trivial percentage of that. The portals are swamped with identikit games that are just clones of the same three or four genres. That means nobody goes to a portal to find a new game, and the portals don’t know where to put them when they get them. On the other hand, I’ve been around a long time, and have steadily built up a bigger audience for my games, so that’s finally starting to pay off.
The Reticule – What do you think is the best way to sell indie games? Direct from the developers or through other platforms such as GamersGate and Steam?
Cliff –You MUST have some direct sales. By all means have some portals as part of your game plan, but all developers attract some gamers who just happen to really share their tastes, and these people WANT to buy direct from you. Not letting them do that is just leaving money on the table. Indie devs need to put effort into direct sales, and not be afraid to negotiate with portals, or just laugh and walk away if the deal is really bad.
The Reticule – Going back to Kudos 2, you have described it as a genre-less game. I’d personally call it a ‘life-sim’, why do you say it is genre-less?
Cliff –It is clearly a life-sim but that’s a genre with just 2 games in. The Sims, and Kudos 2. That means that 95% of portals and games news/review sites that organise content by genre don’t know where to put it. Not many sites have a sim category, and when they do, it’s often filled with driving and flying simulator games.
The Reticule – What are you most proud of in Kudos 2 and what would you change about it if you could?
Cliff –I like the background. The way it cross-fades to a sunset and the stars come out, the rain effects and the way the screen wobbles when you are drunk. Ideally I’d like to add tons more content for the working day events, but that is just so time-intensive.
The Reticule – Do you play your own games back through again after release? What do you enjoy playing most?
Cliff –I play them obsessively when I’m designing and balancing and testing, so I do get a bit burned out. I find it hard to play any game without wanting to stop and change the code, so with my own games, that’s especially true. I tend to play Democracy 2 more than any of the others, because it’s a game that you find quite hard to stop playing once you start.
The Reticule – What are the biggest challenges you are posed with as a one-man independent developer?
Cliff –Getting press attention. There are a lot of games websites and magazines that would rather tell everyone that ‘generic WW2 RTS IX’ will be releasing new screenshots in two weeks, than they would actually cover a brand new original indie game that is released today and has a free demo. I find that massively frustrating. Plus even if your game gets a 90% review, it gets given less space than a big budget failure.
The Reticule – A while back you talked to pirates about why they pirate games and many other things. From this you dropped the price of your games and removed DRM. Has this had a positive effect on sales versus pirated copies?
Cliff –From what I can tell it had no effect. Sales didn’t leap up, and the games still got pirated. Sales are about the same, which means a few more people have bought the games at a lower price. I think price is a bigger incentive to people than the absence of DRM. The DRM campaigners are just more vocal.
The Reticule – What do you think is the best way to deal with the issue of piracy? Is DRM the way forward?
Cliff –No. DRM doesn’t work, and it annoys legit buyers. In the long term the solution is to prosecute the actual crackers, uploaders and warez site hosters. I don’t think prosecuting downloaders is going to work, but if someone makes $50k a year from ads on their warez forum, they should be in jail for it. As soon as a few warez forums get shut down, people will start reconsidering if it’s really worth a prison record for sharing a few games. Remove the sites, and you put a massive dent in casual piracy.
The Reticule – Is piracy an overblown issue? How much has it impacted on you in your career as a developer?
Cliff –It’s not overblown. There are a huge proportion of gamers who never, ever buy a game. No business is sustainable like that, especially as they are always trying to persuade honest gamers to join them. I’ve seen lots of pirated copies of my stuff, and also seen my sales drop massively and then tracked it to a new pirate copy.
The Reticule – Changing tact slightly, favourite game at the moment that isn’t your own?
Cliff –World Of Goo, and Company Of Heroes are my two games of choice right now :D
The Reticule – Any closing comments?
Cliff –Some of the best games out there are ones you’ve never heard of. Don’t just buy what’s on the shelves, take the time to seek out the obscure games and you will find some real gems.