Category Archives: business

Big Pharma Released!

August 27, 2015 | Filed under: big pharma | business

So its that day! The lab management/strategy game Big Pharma, developed by Twice Circled and published by Positech Games is officially released. woohoo! Its now playable in English, German and French on Windows/OSX and Linux. Plus you can now grab it from Steam as well as the Humble Store as well as GoG or direct from us. Hurrah!

Games take a long time to make, and a lot of work, blood, sweat, tears, and debugging. The first time the phrase ‘Big Pharma’ was used between us was on 21st February 2014, and we were going back on forth on ideas and names before then, so its at least eighteen months in development. That may not sound long by the standards of Duke Nukem et al, but it is a long time to stay focused on one game as an indie. Hopefully its going to pay off :D


I’ve released a lot of games, I’ve been doing this for ages, and am in a lucky position that if a game doesn’t do well, I can shake it off, at least theoretically. However, emotionally, you always get wrapped up in anything you work on. Although this is Tims design & code, I also feel like I’ve nailed my name to it quite brightly and obviously. Publishing a game is a bit like getting up on stage in front of 10,000 or 100,000 people and shouting ‘I think this is awesome! whose with me?’, and then waiting to see who cheers. Kinda scary.

Its even more scary these days because most games sales figures are ‘more-or-less’ public on steamspy, and you can see how well a game is doing. Other stores are available, and there is a margin for error…but even so…


One of the scariest things about shipping a game as a publisher is that you have basically placed a bet of somewhere north of a hundred thousand dollars on someone you met 18 months ago…and then on release day, with no guarantee that it was a good bet, you have to double-down on that bet and spend MORE money letting people know about the game, with ads etc. The REALLY scary thing about being an independently owned publisher is that this isn’t shareholders money, its MINE. If I fuck up, I could not only look stupid, but have just lost a bucketful of money as well. This is something that I think British people take to heart more than Americans. In the USA failure is ‘a step on the ladder to success’. in the UK its just failure.

Thankfully Big Pharma is a fucking excellent game that I am myself totally addicted to. I suspect it will do just fine :D.


School sign is here!

August 19, 2015 | Filed under: business | school

Oh crumbs, a picture of me smiling. Thats ruined my carefully constructed angry online persona. Pretend I just kicked someone and am laughing at their pain.


Thats the cheeky sign we will have stuck in the office of the school we are building in Cameroon. More details go here. basically Positech games is building a school in Africa because we are such wonderful people. Not a fan of weird pictures of cliff smiling? Hmm. heres a picture of me by my house instead.


Ha ha! Not really. My house has a different shaped roof. Plus thats where they film downton abbey, which weirdly is not filmed in my house.

Don’t worry, I’ll blog about games soon. Big Pharma is coming out soon. OH YES.


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I saw the merchant of Venice yesterday. Weirdly I sided hugely with Shylock. Granted his terms were onerous, but I had no sympathy for Antonio, who frankly sucked as a businessman, and should have read risk management for dummies. I suspect the play wasn’t intended as a treatise on maritime risk management strategy, but thats how my mind works. YMMV. Anyway… There is a proper point here about indie games.


People complain there are far too many indie games being released for the actual number of games bought, and I guess there kinda are. I think the bigger problem is that the results of shipping those games are less of a bell curve (in terms of return on investment, which is what people seem to expect…


…and more of a hit driven model like this:


Which means that the number of indie games that are ‘failing’ in terms of not returning a proper ROI (normal profit) and thus building self-sustaining businesses is really big. People assume that a lot of games will break even, but in actual fact, I suspect the vast majority lose money, a few ‘break even’ and a few are mega mega hits. There is some great writing on this topic here.

This is a problem because what it means is, we miss out on great games. Why? Because we should start with the assumption that peoples first few games suck. On average. Some people get lucky and their first game is awesome, but lets say your chances of having a smash-success game are roughly one in ten. Lets also assume that you can basically have only a few flops before you have to give up and get a job in a bank.

Now in a more even distribution of success, a lot of people will have a track record that goes something like this:

Flop, Almost-break even, Mild success!, Flop, break-even, Mild-success, Flop.

And you can just about eek out a living doing that. Eventually you might have a hit. With my own history it looked like this:

Star Miner (flop) Starlies Inc (Mild success) Rocky Racers (flop) Kombat Kars (flop) Kudos (Mild success) Democracy (hit!).

The trouble is, with the current hit-driven system its basically this:

Flop, Flop,Flop,Flop,Flop, *Get a proper job here*.

Because so many games are not hits, and production values are now driven so high, the risk associated with ‘hanging in there’ until you get your hit is very high. Lets say each indie game costs you a minimum of $150,000 to make, including your food & housing as you code away on it. To get that hit at game number 10 is going to cost you $1,500,000. Granted, the hit may then earn you $2,000,000, and you *win*, but who has $1,500,000 ready to gamble?

This is a classic economic problem. Its solved for farmers (with unpredictable harvests) by the futures market in commodities./ Some years the commodity traders lose, some they win, but they hedge their bets over multiple commodities over multiple farmers. The security for the farmer is higher. In Silicon valley, you have ‘accelerators’ where a VC will throw small amounts of money at ten developers with ten apps, hoping one hits it big. Peter Thiel; says never to invest in anything that can not potentially pay for the losses on every other investment you make. In the example above, they invest $1,500,000 and get $2,000,000, a very good ROI.


Basically this is indie fund. And the unofficial equivalents that have spawned elsewhere. I do it a bit myself. I fund Big Pharma, and spread my risk between BP and GSB2. I also am funding 2 unannounced games, so my risk is currently spread over 4 titles. The thing is, with just one investor (me) and four titles, there is still considerable risk. What is really needed is a lot of investors and a lot of titles. Basically kickstarter, but with actual proper investments. In some ways, I’m talking about a hedge fund. Is there a market for this? And is the ideal system one with wealthy individuals investing $100k each, or thousands of gamers/savers investing $100 each, acting as a sort of ‘greenlight-but-with-investment’ model? Is it regulatory hassle that has prevented people crowdsourcing investment? It already kinda happens in the UK with sites like funding circle. (Although thats business loans, not actual shareholder investment) Why not a game-specific version?


One of the best things about the indie dev community is that you get to meet a lot of people from all over the place who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily meet. You can be an indie dev living anywhere (although its harder some places than others), and more than ever before, they come from different backgrounds. I find people pretty interesting (ok, I find 0.1% of people interesting), and I do find myself doing a bit of pop-sciency amateurish analysis of people. When you do this with creative people it gets rather fun.

I find it very amusing that when you meet Tim (wicksteed, designer of big pharma) he basically *is* big pharma. Its truly his creation. He is always happy and upbeat and smiling and positive, just like big pharma. From my POV, Tim is young and modern, just like big pharma feels. The music is the clearest indication of this. The music is like Tim. The game is bright and cheery. Tim made a game about curing people.


When you play Gratuitous Space Battles 2, thats me. If you haven’t met me, just watch a few minutes of the battles and listen to the music. Thats me. Thats what my brain and my soul is like. it’s lots of explosions and power and drama and a voice shouting ARGHHHHHHHH at a billion decibels whilst smashing things. The game is dark, over-complex, ambitious and pushy. Cliff made a game about destroying everything.


It’s kinda funny how games made by just one person really are a window into their soul, and their personality. Mike Bithel basically is Thomas Was Alone. If you introduced me to a random line up of 100 game developers I’d never met, and told me one of them did a game about repressed rectangles with feelings, I’d know it was Mike. And after playing TWA, I know mike probably reads the guardian and is a vegetarian. Mike made a game about friendship.


And this is awesome. It means that entertainment really is connecting us to people. That gives us empathy, and opens our mind in the way that ‘committee design’ never can. I have no idea who the designer of the Battlefield 4 games is. I imagine its probably Tom Clancy, more likely a committee of people with a tom clancy design manual. Who knows.

In any case, I think it is really good when games have personality. The absence of it definitely feels bad, like a farmville clone (or for that matter the original) designed mostly by people in the PR and accountancy department. The best artistic design is done by slightly crazy people who are drunk/drugged/suffering in some way, which drives them to think of things other people would not.

Don’t do your game design by committee, or with a spreadsheet. Let it just flow from your soul. If that means your games are downbeat, or dark, or whatever then thats fine too. Better to be dark than to be fake.

Its a tough time out there in the world of indie gaming. I talk to a lot of devs ‘off the record’, whether we are just chatting, they are pitching a game to me, or they ask for advice… so I hear opinions from a lot of people and… its a tough time out there. 1,592 games have been added to steam this year apparently (and its only July). How on earth do you get any attention for your game? who on earth is going to buy it? how are you going to break even.

Now to be honest, I’m one of the doomsayers who will tell you that you won’t, and you will almost certainly lose money. Thats just the way things are. Only the top 20% or so will break even, only the top 5% are going to make a living. Maybe. There are a lot of poor games out there, and the globalization of attention means the distribution of attention/money to games gets more skewed all the time.

So you might think its fine for established devs, with money in the bank, and known IP. But actually those devs have a problem new developers do not have. lets arrogantly call it the success trap.


If you are working on your first game, or have a bunch of failed games behind you and little/no press attention / audience, in some ways you have a big advantage. In fact three advantages, a sort of ‘newcomer bonus’…

1) Nobody is bored of hearing about you. You are new, fresh and exciting. If you make an amazing game, you are an ‘overnight success’ and also ‘hot new talent’ and ‘the new face of…XXX’ and all these other media friendly things. We seem hard wired to get excited by ‘new’. If I make the same game, its less newsworthy. Seriously.

2) There is nothing to compare your game to. Its the ‘first’ (even if it isn’t) game from you. MY GOD YOU MUST BE TALENTED. Literally 100% of your games are hits! you are like Guns n Roses with their first album, or the first Highlander movie. Surely everything you make will always be this good how awesome. Also insert comment about minecraft here.

3) You can take risks and do new things and be adventurous with your game, because there is no opportunity cost.


This last one needs some explaining. Right now I am mulling over what to do when I finish tweaking Gratuitous Space Battles 2. I like working on it, I want to keep improving it, making it as good as possible. I may then do a completely new strategy/sim game (designed in my head, but not started yet). I also have 2 ominous looking camera tripods in the office now hinting at something even more ‘new’ I could work on instead.



I could make Democracy 4.

If Positech Games was actually a public, traded company, we would be making Democracy 4. We would *have* to, because shareholders would kill us otherwise. Its the *obvious* thing to do. It would sell, it would make money. We should do it. We should do it in *exactly* the same way that Valve should be making Half Life 3.

And yet…I’m trying to resist doing whats ‘easy’ and expected’ and thinking about doing radical things instead, but this takes effort, and is worrying, because there is an opportunity cost. In other words, if I do something weird and new, it has to do better than Democracy 4, or internally I’ll think I screwed up.

New devs don’t have that in the back of their mind. And thats a good thing. Be experimental while there is no downside.