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Cliff Harris: Middle-Aged Game Development

Positech's founder on the difference between independence and indolence

Last week saw indie developers descend on London for Bit of Alright - a day of talks and play held in Battersea Arts Centre. It was a chaotic and good natured event, but far more interested in the nebulous properties of creativity and enthusiasm than it was in the harsher practicalities of getting a game to launch.

Acting as a foil to this exuberance was Cliff Harris, the man behind Positech Games and big-selling indie title Gratuitous Space Battles. His talk made pains to point out that it is graft and self-discipline that make indie development into a sustainable career. We caught up with him as he stepped off stage to ask why he thinks the UK indie scene needs to swallow such a bitter pill.

GamesIndustry.biz There's a bit of a hippyish vibe here today. Are people in the indie scene more interested in playing at being developers than they are in the work of development itself?
Cliff Harris

There is a hippy vibe, yes, but I don't think you need to give them much of a nudge to get people more interested in work. Were you at the first World of Love [a previous UK indie conference]? I was worried about my talk [about how to actually make a sustainable income as an indie], because it was perhaps a bit serious. But then loads of people came up to talk to me after - people who were game developers I'd heard of and who were fairly successful - saying, "Interesting..."

And I expected it would be the kids in their bedrooms who would be the people who'd want to know this sort of stuff, but it turned out that most people in indie development hadn't thought about the money side of things at all.

When you bypass working for those big companies you may not realise you still have a proper job. It's feet up on the desk, and oh, hey, there's a great movie on... It's bullshit.

GamesIndustry.biz Is there a slight resentment of the idea of making money from it?
Cliff Harris

I used to think that was more the case. There is that left-wing tendency when you're a young radical student - don't sell out. And I used to think there was a real anti-money, anti-commerce thing. What changed my mind recently on that is Notch and Minecraft. I thought there would be a lot of people, completely unjustified and stupidly, saying, "He's got too much money, he should make it for free." I thought there'd be more of that. You don't tend to have that in music; bands stand on stage and say, "This is our platinum album!" - meaning, "We're loaded!" - and everybody screams, "Yeah!"

But there has been an element of that in indie development. It's perhaps more prevalent here, because the sort of people who are more interested in the business side will go, "£35 for a ticket? I can just watch the videos online." So this is the sociable, young, London crowd, who are especially hippy and creative and crazy. But there is a more professional end to indie development. And then there's the middle ground, which encompasses people like me and Introversion, where we run a proper business, and we've done quite well, sold a lot of games. So we're not like just kids playing at being devs - but we don't have big offices with loads of people and venture capital.

And that's one of the main points of my talk: when you bypass working for those big companies you may not realise that you do actually still have proper job. [With a lot of indie developers] it's feet up on the desk, and oh, hey, there's a great movie on and, oh, I can work harder at the weekend. It's bullshit. I never take a day off unless there's something that can only be done on that day of the week. I've found I've got more disciplined the less I've needed to be, because I've done the sums and I'm paranoid about work and money.

GamesIndustry.biz You have cats to look after, after all.
Cliff Harris

I've got my wife to look after! She gave up a very good job as a scientist when I convinced her to move out into the country. So I can't turn around and say, "How about you getting a job?" That would be disastrous. But my last game did very well - I'm very, very fortunate. So, tomorrow morning I don't really need to get out of bed. I could put it off for months. I could probably put it off for years. But that is a slippery slope. I know people, other indie developers, who felt like they could sit on the beach for a year, and then at the end of the year they'd forgotten how to work.

GamesIndustry.biz Why remain a largely solo outfit? Why work with contractors rather than set up your own team?
Cliff Harris

Well, I live and work in the middle of the countryside, not far from Stonehenge. Because I can do that, why would I ever want to commute? There's probably no amount of money that could persuade me to start up an office. The only way that might happen was if it was such a large amount of money that I'd feel guilty if I didn't take it and do something charitable with it.

GamesIndustry.biz But you wouldn't want to grow Positech to the point where you let other people do the work for you?
Cliff Harris

I couldn't have a company and not have complete control over every aspect. I'm not very good at sharing the design. I work with contractors; I tell them, "this is what I want, there's no argument because I'm paying for it." They don't feel like they have any ownership in the company, and that's how I like it. I'm a bit of an evil fascist dictator, really.

GamesIndustry.biz You come to these events and give advice, but what sort of talks would you want to be in the audience for?

What's on the screen may be exciting and fun, and some days when you kick back and test it, you'll think, 'fuck, this is awesome.' That's great - but it should be enough

Cliff Harris

Technical stuff, I think. Primarily I'm a programmer, but I don't consider myself an especially good one. If you go to GDC you'll get talks on being in charge of a graphics pipeline, but I'm in charge of everything! I can't fixate on one job. And the task of coding everything is in itself challenging and interesting. Nobody will teach you to be a lead programmer on a game, but they will on a big software project.

A lot of people have this attitude that games are cool and fun. If you give them Code Complete, which is one of the standard books on software design, they will say, "But this feels like work!" And it is work, it's serious work. What's on the screen may be exciting and fun, and some days when you kick back and test it, you'll think, 'fuck, this is awesome.' That's great - but it should be enough. That's all you should expect.

I'm sure Indie Game: The Movie will be interesting, but what it should be is just time-lapse footage of someone crouched over a mouse and keyboard, because that's indie game development at a level that is sustainable as a career. A lot of people make a few indie games, make a bit of money, travel the world for a bit and get a proper job, and I feel like popping up and saying, "But I consider this a proper job! I just have a slightly more middle-aged approach!"

GamesIndustry.biz It's self-discipline that's lacking, then?
Cliff Harris

Yeah. Don't get me on a rant about Western kids and how they don't work. I don't have kids, but if I did I'd be constantly telling them, "Kids in China are going to kick your arse."

We're fucked, unless we can get out of bed and work. This is an industry that the UK has had for a long time and I wouldn't want it to fall apart and be lost to Chinese people making Facebook apps - and it could be.

To read our first-hand report from Bit Of Alright, click here.

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Martin Davies