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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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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!

GamesIndustry.biz 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.'

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.