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Gratuitous Space Battles Q&A

With Positech Games' Cliff Harris

By Jeff Buckland, 12/3/2009

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With the release of his new strategy game, Gratuitous Space Battles, Cliff Harris and his one-man development studio in the UK, Positech Games, has shown us what an independent sci-fi game can really do. Its unique approach to strategy puts the building and customization of ships directly into your hands, but after you set up a bit of AI-based commands, it then makes you watch helplessly as your custom-built fleet faces off against an opposing horde of ships. I got the chance to ask Cliff about what it's like making a game by yourself in an industry full of hundreds-strong development teams and competing with casual game studios that resemble the publishers they tried to get away from more and more every day.

AtomicGamer: Gratuitous Space Battles offers a unique style of gameplay where all the user interaction happens during the planning phase and the player is forced to sit back, cringe, and watch as their fleet meets the enemy's. Did you ever toy with the idea of giving players the option to control their ships in mid-battle, and if so, how did you like it? What made you decide to go the non-interactive route for the fights?

Cliff Harris: Yes I did. I actually coded in a UI for doing the typical RTS stuff of drag selecting and issuing attack orders, just to see how it played out. It was a fairly handy debugging tool for a few weeks, but it didn't vastly add to the game. The problem is, the moment you have direct control, the 'emotion' of the game changes from one of detached angst to one of real-time panic, and that's the thing I was trying to get away from. I play Company of Heroes a lot, and can only really play small or medium maps because beyond that, it disintegrates into micro-management and frustration. The whole ethos of GSB is to have a game where your reflexes and reactions aren't important. In a way, it's a game for an aging RTS gamer who can't keep up. :D

AG: To me, the most legendary space battles on TV and in movies always have an emotional and story-based reason for the conflict - it's what makes blowing up the Death Star (either time) so much better than Star Wars Episode I's horrible abomination of a space battle. You decided to leave story almost completely out of Gratuitous Space Battles, but do you think an independent game can still make connections on that level without the vast production values of Hollywood?

CH: People always invent their own backstory and mental justifications for these things. One of things I find disappointing is the way that huge companies have such a narrow minded attitude towards protecting their IP. I would LOVE to do the official Star Trek Deep Space Nine strategy game, but there is zero chance of someone at Paramount even taking my call. The same is true of Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars. By making a game that had no backstory as such, and making it moddable, I'm basically making a toolkit for sci fi fans to create whatever they want. That's the plan anyway.

AG: I fondly remember a time when space action/simulator games were a major genre on the PC. We used to have TIE Fighter and Wing Commander, but now it seems like all we see are disappointing, cash-cow, licensed titles like Star Trek D-A-C and that lazy, lifeless adaptation of Battlestar Galactica. Do you think this genre will ever return to the limelight, and could LucasArts or EA be the ones to bring them back to their original glory?

CH: Well now I've done GSB, I hope they don't, but it does surprise me how that genre died so quickly. Ask anyone in their late thirties and they will pledge their kidney in exchange for TIE Fighter with modern graphics. It makes no sense. I'm especially surprised to see Star Trek D-A-C done in such a lazy way. It seems there is nobody that has access to those big sci-fi licenses and also has any actual ideas, except maybe with the Knights of the Old Republic stuff. If this stuff makes a comeback, I suspect it will be some small studio growing big, or someone new in the way CCP came along and did Eve Online.

AG: You've got some plans for GSB as far as expansion packs go, which will include new races, ships, weapons and gear - the first expansion, Tribe, is out now - but are there any brand new features you're considering adding?

CH: There are millions of features I want to do. As long as it keeps selling and I can pay the bills, I'll be working to fulfill its potential. I would love there to be a meta-game with bigger strategy, even though that runs counter to the gratuitousness. I'd also like to expand the online stuff so there was more of an ongoing community rather than disjointed one-off challenges. I'd also like proper ship and mission editors, etc.

AG: Major publishers often make huge investments into a game and realize long before the release date that the project is going to be a net loss, but they release it anyway just to make as much back as they can. Smaller development teams, in theory, can more nimbly change to match the demands of their customers, but they have more to lose from a single failed project. Do you feel wary of game publishers with millions in marketing dollars and large studios at their disposal, now that they're churning out lower-cost and free-to-play titles that compete with casual games?

CH: In theory yes, but in practice no. For some reason, they just seem to suffer from 'new ideas paralysis'. Whenever you see some cool new game that an indie has done, if you check their curriculum vitae, they are so commonly refugees from some huge company. The structure and nature of those companies means they just aren't able to really innovate in the same way as your real independent. If I was the head of EA and wanted to really get in on that vibe, I'd pick my best aspiring internal designers and give them a budget and a deadline and then refuse to even know what they were doing until it was finished. The minute someone with a big corporate mindset starts looking at game design, you kill it. I've met really senior managers at game studios who don't ever even play games. This is why they often just don't 'get it'.

AG: What's it like working with the folks at sites like Steam and Impulse? Both services promote games when they're posted, but what else do they help you with?

CH: I haven't got too deeply involved with either to be honest, because I'm unusually independent, even for an indie dev. I sell predominantly from my own website, so it's not a situation where the game is tightly integrated into other sites.

AG: Have you tried Jonathon Blow's Braid, and if so, what do you think of what he's been able to achieve as a solo game developer?

CH: I really, really should now there is a PC version. I read all about it, but don't have an Xbox, so I missed out on it initially. He is a good guy though, he says what he thinks, and I like any game developer and designer that is like that, because I'm sick of the corporate speak you get in this industry now.

AG: Would you ever consider bringing your games to Xbox Live or Sony's PlayStation Network, and do you feel you'd have to design something with more instant gratification to find success on these platforms?

CH: I haven't contacted either of them. Nintendo contacted me, when I did Kudos, but then they said I needed a non-home office, presumably for security of their dev kit. This was insane. Not only is it ridiculous to think that they can lock down dev kits like nuclear weapons, but the dev kit would actually be MORE secure in my house than in some empty office overnight. I just don't have the time or patience to argue that case, so that was the end of it. Because of stuff like that, I'm kind of wary of console dev, and dread the idea of some approvals board dictating how the game runs. I would be happy to put GSB on XBox or PS3, but I could waste months trying to get them to take it, and I'd rather just make the PC version better. I really prefer open platforms, at least for the initial game.

AG: A few game developers have toyed with the idea of quietly detecting piracy and asking the player to buy the game nicely, rather than disabling the game entirely (which would increase the likelihood of a cracked pirate release). Do you think a significant portion of game pirates could be convinced to spend a small amount - say, enough to buy a cup of coffee - and "go legit" if they were offered the option?

CH: I would never do that, because I think it legitimises and almost encourages piracy. I don't want the pirates to get the game cheaper that way than honest people would. The idea of trying to nicely beg pirates to throw a few pennies at the developer just bugs me. I can see the commercial sense of doing that, but I just think it's entirely the wrong attitude. Game development is seriously difficult, involved and to be honest pretty badly paid, and I think it's important that pirates realise that games piracy is socially unacceptable, not something that the devs are happy to turn a blind eye to. Also, I think the iPhone prices and the continued iPhone piracy shows that a lot of people pirating games aren't even prepared to throw 99 cents at a developer, which is pretty depressing.

AG: The creators of World of Goo recently made headlines by offering up their game through a name-your-own-price system. It pulled in both some predictable results (most people paid less than $2) and some surprising ones (a few people paid $50, more than the original full price when it was released). This does seem to be a more suitable tactic to use late in the product cycle rather than early, but is that something you'd ever consider for one of your games?

CH: Eventually maybe. I have lowered game prices over time, but only over a long time. I don't have this global instant exposure big companies get, and my games don't age really quickly, so the way I look at it, if you found GSB the day I released it, it's worth $23. If you discover the game a month or even a year later, it's just as fun as then, so I don't automatically think it will have to get cheaper. I understand that there are people who would buy it for less, but it's a tricky one to get right. Maybe I should have geeky discounts, like half price on the day Star Wars was first released or whatever. :D

Thanks to Cliff for answering my long-winded questions. If you enjoy space strategy, you owe it to yourself to check out the game's web site and grab the demo and give it a shot.



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