Road To The IGF: Positech Computing's Kudos

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s intervi...
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Cliff “Cliffski” Harris of Positech Computing, developer of Kudos. Harris developed the game over a period of just seven months, with the aid of James Leach, who is credited with “some writing”, and Rex Crowle, who is credited with “some art design”. The game is a “life-simulation”, which Harris notes may make it sound similar to The Sims, but adds that the difference lies in the fact that Maxis’ title is real-time, while Kudos’ turn-based gameplay renders it “much more strategic and abstract”. “You control your character from age twenty to thirty, and see if you can turn their life around,” Harris continues. “You control each day of their life deciding who to socialize with, where to work, and how they relax in their free time. The game ends after 10 years and will tell you a summary of what you decided to do with your life.” We caught up with Harris via email to ask about the game, its message, and its entry into the IGF. What is your background in the games industry? I was writing games as a hobby since 1981 on the (1k of RAM) ZX81. But I didn’t take it seriously till about 8 years ago. I tried making it as an indie developer, failed, ended up working at Elixir on an Xbox launch game that got canned, then went from there to Lionhead and wrote AI there for 3 years, before leaving almost exactly a year ago to be a full time indie developer. When was Positech formed, and what previous titles have you released? A loooong time ago, as a sideline when I was working in IT support. I've knocked out a lot of early games. I did Asteroid Miner, Starlines INC, Rocky Racers, Kombat Kars, Saucer Attack, Space Battle 3001, Minefield, Starship Tycoon, Planetary Defense, Democracy and Kudos. They were all pretty low-key, low-budget efforts until you get to Starship Tycoon; that’s when I started actually seriously selling lots of copies, and using some proper artists for the games. That’s also when I started making retail deals. What are you working on next? A sequel to Starship Tycoon, written from scratch. For the first time I'm spending a proper budget on art. It was a deliberate choice to redo that game, because that gave me a fixed design reference I could go with, rather than the very scary designing without a plan that went on with my last 2 games (Kudos and Democracy). There’s a chance I might put it to one side and do a Kudos sequel first though. What inspired Kudos, and why did you decide to make it? I wrote a lot of AI code at Lionhead that never made it into the games, concerning relationships, and I really enjoyed doing it. I also did some contract work for Maxis on Sims' style concepts, and together this inspired me to write a game in that genre, focusing on relationships between people. The inspiration was from all over the place, all kinds of games, books, movies etc. It may sound weird but it’s influenced more by Pride and Prejudice and Donnie Darko than any video games I could mention. People always mention [1986 personality based game] Alter Ego to me, but I'd never even heard of it until Kudos was finished. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? I wanted to see if you could do a life sim game that played more like a 4x [explore, expand, exploit and exterminate] turn based strategy game. I was probably playing a lot of GalCiv2 at the time. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out, it feels very original, and seems to have character, which a lot of games lack these days. Together with Democracy, it’s the game I'm happiest with in terms of how it feels and plays. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? The interface. I loved putting in all the little silly things, like snow accumulating on the bottom of the screen, the dirt, the flies running around the backdrop etc. The tropical fish swimming across the interface. I'd like to do more stuff like that. Maybe that’s what I find interesting because I enjoyed coding it, I'm sure people playing it would answer very differently. Do you think there's a message in Kudos? Lots probably! Maybe "don't lose touch with your friends", "don't waste your life", "lead a balanced life". I'm always very amused by people describing how their first character's life went when they try the game. Everyone’s game of Kudos sounds like a soap opera. One popular one is: "If you have tropical fish, keep the cat fed". Why did you elect to go with a menu based interface with the game? Partly because I just don’t have a 3D engine, or the budget to have animators and artists to do a 3D world, but partly because I genuinely believe that in a management or life sim game, that 3D world stuff is totally, totally unnecessary. I remember playing Sim City 4 obsessively, and one day I realised I had been playing an hour and hadn’t looked at the 3D world at all. It’s mostly just fluff, to look good in screenshots. The real game is in the statistical model. Chess is a great game, regardless of how wonderfully modelled the pieces are. I wanted to concentrate on making a great game, not a great tech demo for ATI. How long did development take? From start to it appearing on Yahoo! was 10 months, but a copy was finished and on sale from my website after 8 months. What was the development process like? The coding was pretty easy, I've been coding for a while, and simulation code is what I'm best at anyway. The game design and the visual design was much, much harder. Designing a GUI for a genre that doesn’t exist is hell. I did it once with Democracy, so I was convinced I could do it again, but it took ages to get the look right. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? Indie development is great right now. There is lots of potential, dev tools have never been easier to use, there is a thriving indie community, and a large marketplace. The problem is the indie market has become too connected in peoples' heads with simple puzzle games, plus the big online portals take too big a royalty chunk, just as the retail publishers do with mainstream games. Things are getting better with regards to the way the indie scene is viewed, but there will always be some idiots that just want shiny graphics and big budgets, regardless of originality or gameplay. I think Xbox Live Arcade is slowly making people re-evaluate the potential in smaller budget, downloadable games. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? A few yes; Gibbage, Motorama, Armadillo Run, Winds of Athena, Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? I liked Motorama; I don’t know what it was, but it made me feel like a kid playing some really difficult ZX Spectrum game all over again. I keep hearing great things about Aveyond. I downloaded the demo, but I’m just stupidly busy and haven’t tried it yet! I'm a bit behind with indie games - I'm still playing last year’s. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? I admire GalCiv2 for mainstream; that was a great game, really slickly designed and coded, great sense of humour, awesome AI. I enjoy Battlefield 2 despite it being bug-ridden and infuriating. Indie wise, I enjoyed Cute Knight and Masters of Defence a lot, plus Lux and Titan Attacks. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Buy my games! Also, make interesting games. I'm sure we are all sick of matching 3 gems in a game now. Indie devs can do anything they want, so why not risk it and be original? Making bland clones of last year’s hit is best left to the mainstream industry!

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