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Developer lessons from 'Big Pharma'

The dust has settled since launch and I finally feel like I'm in a position to collect my thoughts and do a 'round-up' piece on Big Pharma, share some of the things I've learned.

Tim Wicksteed, Blogger

November 25, 2015

8 Min Read

The dust has settled since launch and I feel like I'm in a position to collect my thoughts and do a 'round-up' piece on Big Pharma, share some of the things I've learned.

I've gathered my thoughts under a number of sub-headings which range from marketing theory to specific areas of game design. They're ordered roughly by how important I think they are.

Designing for YouTubers

So YouTubers are really good for getting the word out about your game. They also seem to convert really well to sales based on my own anecdotal experience. Big Pharma did really well on this front. Over the first few days of the beta a relatively small number of very high profile YouTubers covered the game which not only sent sales skyrocketing but also put the game in front of other YouTubers who went on to cover the game. This cyclical effect of YouTubers influencing YouTubers seems to be very powerful and allows you to extend your reach way beyond what is possible by manually sending out emails.

Now you probably didn't need me to tell you any of that, the real question is how do you increase your chances of being picked up? The main conclusion I've come to from my experience with Big Pharma is that the way you approach/pitch to YouTubers is nowhere near as important as what you are pitching.

This isn't an especially new idea, people have been arguing for years about whether "it's all about the way you market it" or "good games will rise to the top on their own". My philosophy is somewhere in between. I believe you have to design your marketing directly into the game.

You have to think about things from a potential YouTuber's perspective. What do they want from a game? Sure, they want it to be fun, but they also want it to be fun to watch. They want opportunities to show their own creativity via the gameplay. Ideally they want to be able make the odd dick joke.

All these things are possible in Big Pharma. It's a sandbox game so there's plenty of scope for creative play. There are opportunities for audience interaction via the naming of drugs and the endless potential for optimisation. And yes, there's ample room for body humour with cures for warts and erectile dysfunction and side-effects such as 'can cause anal leakage'.

See "Naming drugs honestly in Big Pharma" for more...

I have to be honest, none of these features were designed specifically with YouTubers in mind. They occurred out of happy coincidence because I thought they'd be fun. However, in retrospect, I think they have an awful lot to do with Big Pharma's overall success.

In conclusion, what I've learned for future games, is to specifically think about features I could include which would be attractive to YouTubers and Twitch streamers; to design a game not only to be fun, but fun to watch.

Better tutorials

Here's one where I dropped the ball a little bit. Big Pharma's tutorial has gone through many iterations. The first version was all singing, all dancing. It had slick transitions and flashing highlights telling the player where to click and when. The problem? After the tutorial, no-one had any idea how to play the game.

The issue was the tutorial held the player's hand too much and with Big Pharma's gameplay being so open-ended, the player had no idea what to do after completing it.

The second iteration held the player's hand a little less, but was still pretty slick. It gave the player a series of objectives but didn't offer the step-by-step advice the first one did. It had layers of supplementary information hidden within a very clever question and answer system... which the player NEVER used!

This tutorial was even worse than the first. The question and answer system that I thought was so clever was too complicated, some players would get completely stuck because they didn't even understand how to get the information they needed to continue.

The third iteration is what you see in the game today. It's essentially just a static document in its own window in the corner of the screen explaining how the game works and what you need to do. It's a bit boring, but by golly does it work!

The player has to work a little bit to get through the tutorials so they definitely leave with more of an understanding than the first iteration. And the interface between the player and the information is so simple, that it doesn't have the problem with the second iteration where the player doesn't even understand how to get the information they need. But as I said, it is a bit boring, and it has received a moderate amount of criticism as a result.

The big learning experience for me on this front is that I need to think about how the player is going to learn the game, while I'm designing it! I need to design the control, mechanics and progression all with the learning curve in mind. For example, design the game so that the only things the player can do at the very beginning are simple and obvious. Big Pharma's interface is wide open from the get-go which can be overwhelming for new players.

Ideally, my next game won't even need a tutorial, because the mechanics are designed in a way that they propel the player from one step to the next. If everything goes to plan I'll just need to include a set of context sensitive hints and tips each time the player encounters something new, in other words, the way Civ V does it!

Self-explaining themes

Now this one is subjective, but in my experience when people hear the initial concept for Big Pharma - "A game about running a pharmaceutical company" - they immediately can start to guess what the game is going to be about and some of the activities the player might get to do during the game.

I think this is preferable over a game which requires a number of paragraphs to explain what the player might be doing or how the game is different to other games in the genre. To prove I'm not being big-headed about this, I'm going to use one of my own games as a counter-example.

Ionage is a space real-time strategy game about battling mega platforms. What really makes this game unique is the way the specific weapons you can build work in relation to each other; in other words a complicated mechanic that needs way too much explanation. Trying to pitch this sort of game, no matter how fun it might be, is super hard work!

Conclusion: I have to be very careful when choosing the premise of my next game so that it's explainable in a single sentence.

Think about global progression

I'm very proud of the core gameplay of Big Pharma, however I think the global progression - the way the gameplay evolves through multiple playthroughs - could be better.

This can be done in a number of different ways but I think the general goal with a global progression scheme is to increase replayability, and to prod the player into experiencing the core gameplay in new ways.

I'll use Faster Than Light (FTL) as an example. You are meant to play FTL through multiple times. One of the ways the game encourages you to do this is by allowing you to unlock new starting ships by completing various challenges. Replayability, tick! Each starting ship has different properties which make different playstyles effective. Player prodded into experiencing core gameplay in new ways, tick!

The way I've tried to achieve this in Big Pharma is by introducing different victory conditions for each challenge. I think these succeed in encouraging the player to use different strategies to win. However I think this aspect of the game could have been improved by some kind of unlockable content to really tie together the player's past victories with their future gameplay.

You need to think about this sort of thing early in the design process so that the unlockable content (or whatever design you are going for) is seamlessly incorporated into the core gameplay. Therefore the lesson I learned in this case is to start thinking about global progression earlier in development.

Wrap up

I've only managed to cover four topics in this article so it's hardly an exhaustive summary of what I've learned. The truth is, like any skill, you pick up hundreds of little theories and techniques along the way, too numerous to archive, too subtle to conceptualise.

I've always found the best way of learning is by doing. So I'm looking forward to putting some of these lessons to the test in my next project... and inevitably discovering twice as many new things to learn!

Thanks for reading,


If you've not tried Big Pharma yet and this article piqued your interest, now is a great time! The game is 33% off on Steam right now.

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