Interview with Positech Games Producer Cliff Harris: Kudos Game Production

Cliff Harris has been working on companies such as Lionhead and Elixir and has found his own game development company Positech Games. Cliff has previously given us Democracy sales statistics and is now giving us some inside information regarding the production of his upcoming life simulation game Kudos.

GameProducer.net: You are the producer/developer/designer and owner of Positech games. You mention in your bio that you started selling games at 1997 and worked as an IT support. How did you ended up making games?

Cliff Harris: I started coding games as an amatuer in 1981, but didn’t get very far. I was coding them properly in C++ from 97 onwards. The first game that I finished and that sold any copies was called Asteroid Miner, I think that was in 98. I was self-taught, partly from a cheap book called ‘C in plain english’ and a 2 week intensive C++ course when I was unemployed. I also went to evening classes in ‘advanced C programming’ and sent off for a cheap command line compiler on a floppy disk :D.

GameProducer.net: You have worked for an UK game development company Elixir, doing Republic and Evil Genius. I remember pondering buying Republic and actually own a piece of copy of Evil Genius. How did you started working at Elixir, and how were you involved in the game production?

Cliff Harris: I mainly worked on a canned XBox game at Elixir, but I did some work on Republic. I did the camera collision detection, the code for the newspaper (not sure if that ended up being dropped), the sound engine, and some tools support for the famous infinite poly engine. I got the job through just sending them my CV, they were looking for people who had finished games and I had a bunch of shareware games under my belt at that stage.

GameProducer.net: Elixir went bust and you moved to Lionhead doing AI for ‘The Movies’ game. At some point you quit and went fulltime – how did this happen?

Cliff Harris: Long story. I totally lost faith in the way big retail companies did things at that point. There were a lot of promises made during the last year I was there relating to promotions, future positions, bonuses etc, all to ensure I stayed on and helped get the movies out the door. Once the game was finished it was clear none of this was going to happen, we argued, and I left..

GameProducer.net: At the start of 2006 you have gone bit back to work for Maxis on a gameplay prototype for the Sims franchise. Are you still doing that?

Cliff Harris: No that was a short term gig, just a few months, 2 or 3 I think. That started practically the day I left Lionhead and led me nicely into working on my new games without any money worries. Plus it was great to be working for Maxis :D.

GameProducer.net: After working years and years both in a big company and as a self-employed, how would you describe your experiences? What have been the pros and cons in both ways of doing games?

Cliff Harris: Pros of big company: You learn what artists, producers, marketers and animators all do on a big game project. You learn how to work on huge projects and to understand other peoples code. You get a regular salary and get to play great LAN games every lunchtime. You learn some great code techniques. Donuts.

Cons of big company: Pay isn’t as high as it should be. Pressured to work long hours. Working with very poor quality code in some cases. Internal office politics. Being told not to interact with the customers. lawyers. Donuts.

Pros of Indie: Set your own hours, work on your own game. work wherever you like, even in the park. Play games when you like, holiday when you like. Close connection with the customers, direct stake in the success of each game. No Donuts

Cons of Indie: No guaranteed money. Can be lonely work. Nobody to turn to for a second opinion. No regular LAN buddies for games. No Donuts

GameProducer.net: From some of your comments, one might get the impression that you are a strong defender of indie games – and blaming big companies (in your own words) ‘vet the design’ or ‘do the design in a boardroom by a bunch of accountats’. You also have said that ‘If you are looking for innovation and new types of game, forget the likes of EA and Sony, look to 1 man companies’. Do you think that innovation (for big game houses) is dead, and that the time has come for indies?

Cliff Harris: Potentially it has. We have great tools now, you can buy a great 3d engine off the shelf, get sound and even art assets from online vendors, or get artists or coders to work for hire. There are multiple new 2D-friendly platforms like XBox, DS etc. This is a great time for indies to really innovate and do well.

In practice, not many of us are trying. If I see another match-3 game I’ll cry. It’s sad to see so many small developers behave exactly like the big companies we have supposedly escaped from.

One things true though, innovation is being totally squeezed out of big ‘triple A’ games. There is no toleration of risk unless your name is Molyneux or Wright, and even then there are big business pressures wanting everything to be safe and predictable. I hope innovation does come from indies, because I’ll die of old age before it comes from most big retail developers.

GameProducer.net: Now to the present day: you have been working on a Kudos game. Looking your earlier games one can get the impression that you like making tycoon/simulation type of games. Can you briefly tell us what Kudos is about? What makes Kudos so special?

Cliff Harris: Kudos is a very hard game to describe. It’s like a 2D turn-based slightly RPGish version of the Sims. It’s another take on the concept of a ‘life sim’ game, pretending that the sims never happened. I’m hoping Kudos will really act as a kick in the groin to people who have got lazy with the Sims genre. There are so many different approaches to doing a life-sim game, and the only one people focus on is the 3D world with an avatar real-time one that the sims chose. I’m trying to make the ‘anti-sims’, its like that genre, but designed in an alternate universe where will wright wasn’t born..

GameProducer.net: On the Kudos website it says: “At the moment Kudos lets you learn guitar, drums, saxophone, bass or piano, buy a car, bike or motorbike write a song, skateboard to work, play chess, golf or football with friends, own a pet, watch 4 TV channels, do crosswords and sudoku, read classic novels, develop a scientific theory, start a drunken brawl, learn kung-fu, fight off muggers, treat your friends to an evening out, change your job, snub people you find boring, write a screenplay, join a gym, go bowling, join the bowling team, go ski-ing, have a snowball fight and I’m adding stuff every day…”. How many different elements are you going to add, and is it complex to design such a big set of skills and stuff? I bet it must be hard to balance the game, or is it?

Cliff Harris: That’s what I’m doing right now. It IS pretty hard, but I think game designers get a bit too obsessed with balance. If you are making Battlefield 2 or an RTS, then inbalance can ruin the game, but in a singleplayer game its not so vital. I am concentrating on the game being fun more than anything else. I don’t want people to play kudos like it a level-grind or a highscore-driven game. It’s like a life-sim toybox to play with.. I’ve added a lot more stuff since that list, but there comes a point where it will be too spaghetti like. Theres still lots of potential to add more design-wise though.

GameProducer.net: Where did the idea of Kudos game came to you? And how did you ended up using name Kudos?

Cliff Harris: Kudos was inspired slightly by some code I did for the movies, partly by some of the ideas I had when I was thinking about the Maxis stuff, and partly by playing a game called Cute Knight, but really its been my ‘ultimate game idea’ for quite a while, a game with everything in the real world in it. Originally it was called Milo, after my deceased cat, and you had to play a guy called Milo. I think I changed it to kudos after I’d started using Kudos as a ‘resource’ in the game.

GameProducer.net: For those who are eager to read more about Kudos, what can we do? Is there a newsletter or more information available somewhere?

Cliff Harris: All there is right now is the website, and the odd interview here and there, although I think PC Gamer UK will be covering it soon. There is a video of the game that is available at YourTube.com. The demo will be made public in the future. I’ll be fleshing out the website at www.kudosgame.com when I have a break in the development. I do have a newsletter but I don’t push it much, not nearly as much as I should. Thats on my todo list as well. mailing_list@positech.co.uk is where to send an email if you want to join!

GameProducer.net: The question that always has to be asked: When will Kudos be released?

Cliff Harris: Originally it was October, then that moved to September, and it might actully be August now. But It will probably be tweaked and added to for the rest of this year, providing it doesn’t bomb massively :D

GameProducer.net: What have been the most fun, most difficult and most unique production issues you’ve encountered in Kudos development?

The art was Fun. I do most of the art myself, and I buy some stock photos too. poser 6 is cool! and making pretend book covers for all the books in the game was fun. The hardest bit is the design. It’s too easy to just make the game a default RPG, or a sims-clone, or even a Democracy-clone. I wanted to do what was best for the game, even if it was hard to see in advance how it would snap together. The design process has been much harder than the coding or the artwork. Where there is no clear precedent to copy, design is torturous. Im sure Katamari Damacy was a nightmare to design. There are just no ground rules.

GameProducer.net: Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding Kudos?

Cliff Harris: Kudos has been designed from scratch without any direct attempt to fit a genre, just like Democracy. I like games like that. If you like them to, buy Kudos, because thats what encourage develoeprs to make games like that :D. The best non-indie example I know of is Giants.

GameProducer.net: Before the final question: You have worked for big companies, released games and are now producing another game. What tips could you offer for those who like to be successful game developers and producers?

Cliff Harris: Work for a big game company, but dont make a career out of it. Accept the fact that you are there to learn everything you can in preperation for leaving. Put aside as much money as you can in your startup fund, so you feel safe and confident about it when you start your own company. Write a few simple games first, and try and sell them.

GameProducer.net: In the end of these interviews I’ve always asked the question that I’m going to ask you too: what are your TOP 5 bits of wisdom every game producer out there should know?

[1] Coders really genuinely don’t know how long it will take to do task ‘X’. we arent lying or being devious. we really don’t know.

[2] Some coders, animators and artists really are worth 3 or 4 or 5 times as much as some others.

[3] Some coders,artists and animators are worth nothing. they can actually have a negative effect on a project. fire them.

[4] After 8 hours in one day, 99% of programmers will achieve nothing. making them work late is actually counterproductive.

[5] Every man-hour involved in the production of the game means you need to sell X more units to break even. Think about that every time you add a feature, add a new member to the team, or put back the schedule. The number of customers doesn’t automatically rise to cover your increased costs.

GameProducer.net: Thanks for the interview.
Cliff Harris: Cheers for the support!

Juuso Hietalahti