Indie godfather Cliff Harris
One-man studio Positech on how to build the indie Steam, fear of App Stores and why Minecraft threatens big devs
Former Lionhead coder Cliff 'Cliffski' Harris has been making and selling indie games himself since 1997, making a name for his studio Positech Games with the likes of Kudos, Democracy and last year's Gratuitous Space Battles.
Here, he talks about how much the independent scene has changed and become legitimised, thanks to the rise of digital stores, as well as the realities of developers earning money without publisher support.
Q: You've been in the indie scene for quite a while now - how do you perceive it as having changed during that time?
Cliff Harris: Oh wow, it's changed beyond all possible recognition. The first game I sold online was I think in 1997 and then it was just a matter of getting on Download.com and Tucows and sites like that. It sounds laughable now... It was free then as well, you didn't have to pay to be listed on them, and people would actively go to those places and download the demo and buy it. Now it's massively, massively different because people have realised there's money in it so you can't get listed pretty much anywhere without paying money.
And there's massive competition now. Also if you did a game back then no-one would clone it, whereas now if it's a success... Cubecraft and stuff like that, things get cloned. It's got sort of worse and it's got sort of better, in that everyone will buy a game online now and they're not scared of doing it. Whereas back then you'd get people wanting to mail you a postal order or something... So it has changed massively, for better and worse.
Q: Did you have any sense back then that it might become as it is now?
Cliff Harris: Well, I was quite shocked that anybody bought any copies of the first game that I did, so I didn't think that I'd end up doing what I do now. I was probably three or four games into it before it kind of made sense that you could do this for a living and do quite nicely out of it. Although it took me more games than that to do that. At the beginning, it was just a little hobby thing, no-one was really making any money. Which is the same now, I mean most people doing it don't make much money at all, so I guess that hasn't changed.
Q: At least it's vindicated now - it's no longer unusual to hear that one guy is making games by himself.
Cliff Harris: Yeah, I used to have so many conversations... Well, not so much conversations, but I've been told many times, mostly by Peter Molyneux, that you just can't go out and do games on your own, that the market is just not there for it, it doesn't really work and it's really tough and difficult. But I'm sure all people that run studios say that. If I ran a big studio and employed lots of people, I would be petrified that the best people would just bugger off and start their own studios - because you'd lose your best people then.
It must be a nightmare now, with Minecraft, with lead coders saying "I want another £20,000 or I'm just going to go off and do what that guy did." It's not as simple as that, I know it's not vaguely as simple as that... I wish I'd gone full-time a year earlier, in fact I wish I'd done it just as Steam launched. Because I knew Steam would be massive. Nobody seemed to take it seriously at the time, they just thought it was insane. It's crazy that everyone just sat on their hands and let the few smart guys go and sort of grab the whole digital download market. It's just crazy. I mean, I did it as well. I could have remortgaged my house and tried to do the same thing, but I didn't. So we're all to blame, really!
Q: Were you thinking actively about doing something like it at the time then?
Cliff Harris: Well, at the time I was at Lionhead and we used to have this thing where everyone would ask questions of management about this that or the other. Valve had just announced that they were going to bring Half-Life 2 out using this thing, so I asked the business guy if Lionhead could do the same thing. Because to me it seemed like an absolute no-brainer, I was always selling games online part-time while I was working there. I thought 'surely Lionhead can do that, they've got the name recognition to do it.' And they just said 'no, we don't think there's any future in that.'
Q: Peter Molyneux's made a few recent comments suggesting Lionhead was becoming a lot less keen on PC in general around that time..
Cliff Harris: Yeah, possibly. It was early days of Xbox and stuff like that. I still thought it was weird that people didn't see that Steam, and services like Steam, were going to be really big. I thought it was obvious. Thing is, though, I worked for a company that sold all their games as boxes on shelves - so to them it seemed a little bit strange, I guess. I'd already done quite a few games by then that were selling online and making a little bit of money, so I knew it worked. I just wasn't good enough at it or didn't know enough to scale it up. It seems absolutely crazy, all those companies like Lionhead continued to go along, effectively taking bank loans from publishers in order to make games. It seemed crazy then and it's still crazy now.
Q: How are you feeling about Steam specifically these days?
Cliff Harris: I've been pretty ambiguous about that... [laughs] I love Steam, I buy all my games from Steam. Though I don't buy many games at the moment, just because I don't like the majority of games that are made... But I like Steam, it's been very good to me. I've made good money through it. The deal that you get through Steam is obviously confidential, but it's good, far better than all the casual game portals - Bigfish games, people like that. Much, much better. And obviously there's all these people who buy online because of Steam, who otherwise would be very wary of it. I get a lot of people who say to me 'no offence, but I'm not going to buy games direct from you, I'm going to buy them via Steam because I don't trust fly-by-night websites." Which is particularly annoying for me, because I've been selling online for longer than Valve [laughs]. I point this out, but obviously it doesn't get me anywhere...
My wariness of Steam isn't really to do with a wariness of Steam, it's not got anything to do with Valve - it's the whole concept of there being a single platform holder. A lot of developers on PC, I think, are there because nobody can tell them what to do. If, with my next game, Steam said 'oh that's great, but we want 90 per cent of the money' then I don't have to immediately panic and become a plumber. I can still sell online. Whereas if they did control the entire market, they become the de facto platform holder. That's one of the reasons I don't do console games, even though I've looked at XBLA, and some publishers wanted me to do that. Nintendo wanted me to do stuff... But the thought that there is a guy in a room somewhere who will look at my game and ideas, that are sometimes slightly strange, and say 'oh no, we don't like that, we think you should change it...' If I wanted to put up with that, I'd do it in business software or something really boring. I'm wary of the fact that no online portal should get big enough that it can actually dictate what gets made. I don't think they are there yet with Steam, and I think that's a good thing.
Q: But if they did offer you some incredibly unfavourable terms, are they a big enough part of your revenues that you wouldn't totally dismiss it regardless of principle?
Cliff Harris: I am confident about other sources. I've been doing this full-time for quite a while, and I made a good living before I was on Steam. I've only ever had one game on Steam, which is Gratuitous Space Battles and its various expansions. Even after Gratuitous Space Battles had sold quite a lot of copies and made quite a lot of money on Steam, I went back and said 'I do this politics game, Democracy, it's very popular and I've lived off it for years, do you want that?' They said 'oh no, we don't know if it fits in with Steam.' Which is entirely up to them and that's not the point - the thing is that if I never got another penny from Steam again I could still do this for a living. Which is something I find incredibly reassuring. Not that I think there would be a problem because I think that GSB sold quite well and that I'm hopefully reasonably confident that I can keep selling on Steam. And I would want to.
Q: Do you have a sense of what's going to happen on PC? It's changed so much, what with social games and free to play, so are the kinds of games that you make going to stay around in the face of that?
Cliff Harris: The only thing that keeps me awake at night worrying about it is that, if say the Apple App Store on Mac does very well, if Apple can then get away with saying for the next version of the OS that "there's too much malware out there and dodginess, so from now on you can only install stuff that comes from our App Store"... That would of course have massive, cataclysmic whining from everybody, but I can imagine there's an accountant somewhere saying "we can eat that amount of unpopularity in exchange for 30 per cent of the global app market." If that works on Apple, then Microsoft would be interested for PC. That's the only thing that I think could really be a nightmare - if Windows 9 or whatever required you to sell through the Microsoft store.
I doubt that could ever happen because of Steam... unless they did a deal with Steam. I'd probably just grin and bear it, just sell through third parties, because I love what I do so much, but I think it would be really bad. You wouldn't then get your Minecraft and your Dwarf Fortress and your little sort of hobby projects that then become huge. That's what makes the PC so good. Nobody would ever go to Sony or Microsoft and say "Dwarf Fortress, hey?" I hope they [Apple and Microsoft] are sensible enough to not go down that route.
The other thing that could happen is price pressure, that all games have to be free and monetised on the back end. I was having an argument with someone last night who thinks that will definitely happen, but I don't think it will. I think this is a bit of a short-lived thing - I'm probably going to look like an idiot for this. The idea that everybody wants everything for free, and every game should be free forever, it works now but in 20 years time I think people will think it's ridiculous because we all know they're not free, really. 'Free to play level 1': people will wise up to that to some extent.
Even though most people find it quite depressing, this "free is going to take over and everything's going to be microtransactions", what I like is that then they release another Call of Duty of Warcraft expansion and it just completely flattens all other numbers. Actually, if you make a really good or at least well-polished game, put it in a box and sell it to people for £40, you still make a billion dollars. It's going to take a long time for that to turn around.
Q: Though there's increasingly few companies who can afford to make games of that sort of calibre..
Cliff Harris: Yes, but the important thing is that people don't think it's weird to pay for a game in that old style of paying up front and getting a piece of software in exchange. I think that keeps it viable in people's minds.
Q: While you're not looking at iPhone, Gratuitous Space Battles was on the Mac App Store on launch day. Despite your fears about it, presumably you've got some interest in it? How's it been going so far?
Cliff Harris: I was hardly involved. I used to be a Mac engineer actually, which makes it amusing that a) I don't own a Mac and b) I don't do my own Mac ports. Simply because I'm insanely busy and I don't want to have to do tech support for Mac as much as anything else, so I got a third-party company that translates all my stuff to Mac to handle putting it on the App Store for me. I've been blissfully ignorant.
It's done very well, actually. I think it was the number five grossing game on there, or something like that. Though I can't even look at where it is in the charts because I don't have a Mac! Occasionally I just get an email saying it's sold however many thousand copies. I don't think that it's such a big deal, really - Steam is already selling Mac stuff, Apple was selling stuff anyway and then there's all these other places where you can get stuff. I don't think there was this huge group of people who weren't going to buy online until they had this official 'App Store.'
The experience I did have of it was, because GSB had this online challenge system, they wouldn't allow that. So that part of the game is missing if you buy it from the App Store - so it's a bit cheaper because of that. Which is a bit unfortunate, and one of the things I don't like about it, dictating how the game would work. I can understand why they do it, but I'm slightly wary of it because some people are buying it that way and thinking it's the same version. Hopefully that won't be a negative thing.
Q: The other thing you've been trying recently is Show Me The Games. How's that worked out so far?
Cliff Harris: Yeah, yeah. What is Show Me The Games? Hmm. What it isn't is Steam, and it's not an attempt to be an indie Steam. Because I've been around indie game development forever, roughly every year someone new comes along and says "you know what we need? An indie version of Steam!" Then everyone rolls their eyes and says "yes, we've had this conversation a dozen times." The problem is independent developers are independent. It's like herding cats. There's always this kind of hippy commune idea that we can all come together in this brotherly love thing and create an indie version of Steam. Not to compete with it, but for the games that don't get on it - which is quite a few. It never happens, it always crashes and burns. The last time it happened, in a little foot-stamping rant of my own, I decided that the only way anything like this will ever really happen is if someone acts like a sort of dictatorial bastard and says "this is how it's happening, and if you don't like it f--- off." [Laughs] And I thought "that sounds like something I would do."
The other problem is people always make a huge list of features for their perfect indie website, and they always bite off more than they can chew so it never happens. So I thought if I could just get even a dozen developers to just agree to having the same size screenshot, that would be progress. So Show Me The Games is basically an online directory of indie developers who sell direct. You can sell on Steam as well or wherever, but it's where the option exists to buy direct from the developer. It's kind of an experiment to see how much we can get indie developers to put their trust in a single person to manage something like that.
The thing that is real triumph about it, to any extent, is that it's also supported by advertising. What happens is all of the developers who want to contribute to the advertising put money in. They all give it to me and I spend it and that promotes their games. I really like that, because there are so many indie developers who don't know anything about the business side at all, and certainly don't know anything about running ad campaigns. As a result, they don't get a lot of attention at all. Show Me The Games is kind of a vehicle for me to manage stuff like that. It might grow into more than that, I don't know. It's kind of limited by the amount of time I have available, which is none.
Q: It's fascinating that it's all about just one screenshot, like selling your game on a single word. You have to get it right or no-one clicks through.
Cliff Harris: Yeah. Welcome to capitalism, baby! That's how it works. And a lot of the problem is that many people don't realise that. It does come down to one screenshot - and you can really tell if you swap the screenshot for another from the same game, sometimes it makes a major difference, it really does. We live in a world of stupidly short attention spans and you have to realise that when you're making games. Sadly - it'd be great if everyone had loads of time to read up critical analysis and artistic values and stuff like that, but the reality is people go "look! Explosions!" It's tragic really.
Q: Is it proving a success for you and the guys on it, largely speaking?
Cliff Harris: We've done three ad campaigns and there's going to be a fourth one next month. It works really well for some people and it's a catastrophic failure for others. It really does depend massively. It's very tricky because you have to advertise on sites with people it appeals to. With indie games you've got a vast range of stuff, so it's very difficult.
Basically, we started it with $50 each and said "we'll do this and see what happens, and if you don't think you've got $50 worth of traffic then leave." So some people did, but others said "yeah, let's do it again, and with $500." It works, but it doesn't work for everybody, which is what we expected to happen. Hopefully it'll get more and more accurate and more and more helpful as there's more data. The website itself looks rubbish, it's getting completely redesigned next month to look like a proper website. That was the whole point - to start with nothing, just the simplest co-operation, and if it works then we build it up, rather than aiming high and crashing and burning, like so many of those websites have.