Cliff Harris: A Far From Gratuitous Interview

EGX Rezzed was a fantastic experience, not just because of all the games on display but also for the chance to meet the developers behind them. They could usually be found at the booths for their games, and someone I was especially looking forward to meeting was Cliff “Cliffski” Harris, the developer behind Gratuitous Space Battles 2.

GSB2 is a unique strategy game in which you amass an army of space ships, arranging and customising your fleet with every level to meet different enemy formations. This aspect of preparation and strategy is crucial because once the battle starts you lose all control of it! It’s an interesting take on the genre, and plays extremely well.

After fighting off other journalists to procure a table, we sat down for the interview with a courteous handshake and a prayer in our hearts that I could work the audio recorder.

Ready Up: First question; a reaction a lot of people have when I talk about Gratuitous Space Battles 2 is to do with the name. ‘Gratuitous’ is a word you seem fond of with your strategy games.

Cliff Harris: Well, I think a lot of games have stuff in them that’s gratuitous and ridiculously over the top, and I like that. There was a game years ago called Imperium Galactica that had a ridiculous user interface that was all beep broop boop, and I loved that. I just think it’s ridiculous, and you might as well pretend there’s no justification. Just, “everything’s over the top, so deal with it”. It’s like Just Cause: everything you touch blows up and I love that. I always make games that I want to play, so here’s a game with a huge space battle for no reason.

RU: Speaking of user interface, one unique thing about Gratuitous Space Battles 2 is that strategy ends once the battle actually starts. What’s the idea behind that?

CH: Well it comes from several obscure things, including a book about the D-Day landings. The game thing that it comes from is from playing the Total War games. I like them in theory, because there is a huge massive army fighting, but once the battle is joined I just feel like it’s mayhem. Like, you have no control and everything just falls apart. So if you’re going to have a huge battle it isn’t really viable for you to be in control. You might as well relax and enjoy it, as if you’re watching a movie, but it’s a movie which you have set up. I thought everyone would hate that, but the first game sold several thousand copies, so there have to be some people that like it!

You must set up your fleet to match your enemy's: But don't just overwhelm them, or you'll get no points!
You must set up your fleet to match your enemy’s: But don’t just overwhelm them, or you’ll get no points!

RU: Well, altering your strategy solely in relation to what the enemy has set up is a good concept that works quite well.

CH: In a lot of games like MMOs, people spend hours and hours on their character creator, and sometimes don’t even get around to playing the game. So it’s good for people who quite like the design and the setup. And they don’t like the kind of ‘click fest’ nature of some games.

RU: Ha, it is quite different from an MMORPG! Something I quite like that I’ve found is that you can’t just replay old levels to grind and unfairly get points to spend on new spaceship parts and beat harder levels. A lot of emphasis is put on strategy instead.

CH: What you want to do is win by the skin of your teeth: one tiny destroyer left on its last legs that fires the final shot and wins. That way you get loads of points. If you just spend all your money you can’t just regain points.

RU: So the idea of overwhelming your opponent won’t help you as much as planning carefully.

CH: Exactly, it’s a bit more strategic. Obviously overwhelming the opponent with loads of lasers is still fun because, you know, lasers.

You don’t have to really care about a lot of game mechanics, but if you do care there is a lot of time you can invest in working out what missiles or craft parts work best, so hopefully there are multiple layers to it.

RU: Plus it’s gratifying to come back to older levels with the new weapons you have.

CH: Yeah, you can just play through the game again and watch them burn.

RU: You seem to really like the idea of space battles just for the fun of it. I think a lot of the fun in the game comes from customising your ships.

CH: Yeah, well I am a bit obsessed with optimising. I’m a programmer more than anything, and that’s why the game has its own engine. That’s something that you either like or you don’t like, but you can still play the game and not care about that. You can design a bunch of weird space ships and watch them blow up. You don’t have to really care about a lot of game mechanics, but if you do care there is a lot of time you can invest in working out what missiles or craft parts work best, so hopefully there are multiple layers to it.

Customising your ships is time consuming but very satisfying. All shall fear the pink fleet of death!
Customising your ships is time consuming but very satisfying. All shall fear the pink fleet of death!

RU: Well certainly the different ship hulls and parts that you can buy deliver the potential for that.

CH: I don’t really think there’s enough! I play Eve Online and a lot of similar MMOs. If you look at the number of ship parts in Eve Online, it’s insane! I’ve got nowhere near that, so I definitely want more.

RU: Do you think that you’ll provide more in the future?

CH: Well I would like to. I never like to say I’ll do anything until I’ve done it, because ‘the internet’, you know, but I’d definitely like to add more.

RU: Something I find interesting is that you’re somewhat of a one man band with development. Is it true that you don’t like the fact that people use publicly available engines so much?

CH: Ha, I don’t know where you heard that. I gave a talk at GDC called “Fuck you Unity and the horse you rode in on.” I don’t mind Unity and I’m even publishing a game by someone else built with Unity, but there’s a certain… compromise when you use middleware, because it doesn’t know what sort of game you’re making. Most people tend to make a certain kind of game, and so they’re based more around that, but no engine will be as fast or perfect for you as something you code yourself from scratch. The thing is that it’s so difficult to do that 95% of people don’t do it. And that’s fine, but I like to encourage people to try this end, because then you can diversify your own engine. I do, I’m sure there are some others. It’s worth doing. It’s interesting.

RU: So if you had a piece of advice for someone who wants to program their first game…

CH: Oh God! Start small; Pacman. I’m not even kidding, because it’s much harder than you think. Most programmers pick up a book and are like “Oh, I could make Pacman in a month”, and it’ll be more like 6 months. It’s massively involved if you’re going to do it from scratch, but it’s worth doing something from scratch to find out if you like it. Most people don’t, and if so use Unity or whatever. You might really like it, and then you can do crazy stuff that nobody else can do. If you don’t like maths, don’t even think about it; just don’t go there.

This interview is a strategy game! I need to be interesting, but not scandalous, charismatic but not appearing that I’m hitting on you. There’re all kinds of balance.

RU: Having had a look at your website, most of your games seem to have strategic elements at their core. If you want to make a new game and you decide to make it strategic, where do you get the concept for the game?

CH: Lots of weird places. I hardly ever get inspiration for a game just from games. Part of GSB2 comes from playing Total War but some parts come from books about D-Day and the different approaches taken by different generals in that campaign. Kudos, which is a life sim game I made was based on watching Donnie Darko, and I know that it seems like they don’t have anything to do with games, but I just have that kind of mind where I can see strategy games everywhere. This interview is a strategy game! I need to be interesting, but not scandalous, charismatic but not appearing that I’m hitting on you. There’re all kinds of balance.

RU: I think Kitty Powers is handling that side of things today.

CH: Ha, but you see what I mean: everything is sort of strategy. I kind of have a semi-autistic brain so I see it everywhere. I never have any trouble finding ideas of what to do.

RU: If someone went looking for it, is there a story behind Gratuitous Space Battles 2 that drives it?

CH: Well yeah, there is. Each race has a background which explains why it’s fighting, which is only a few paragraphs. They’re a bit ‘Douglas Adams’ so they’re a bit stupid, and I like that because if you actually think about it, why would you go to war with aliens from another planet that’s so far away that it’d take you 1000 years to get there? What possible inconvenience can they cause you? You really need to go out of your way to find a reason to wage intergalactic war. Also I think that with most sci-fi games the excuses for battles are tenuous at best, so I wrote very tenuous reasons.

RU: So you don’t see an expanded universe involving all the races?

CH: Well I have to think up more justification for it. I could probably do that, usually after a few drinks. Yeah, maybe I’d like to add more races. That’d be cool.

The different alien races provide different ships and capabilities to experiment with.
The different alien races provide different ships and capabilities to experiment with.

RU: So, Gratuitous Space Battles 2 is coming out in a few weeks?

CH: You can pre-order it now from my site and you’ll get a copy of the beta. It’s going to come out on Steam in the middle of April, and then it’ll be on Good Old Games, the Humble Store, and for anyone who’s already bought it, their Steam key will activate the full version.

RU: You said you wanted to add new features in the future. Is there anything particularly that you’re looking forward to introducing?

CH: Well I don’t want to say in case I don’t do it. It’s horrible. I mean, I worked for Peter Molyneux. I don’t want to say things like “I want to do this.” There’s loads of stuff I want to do, that I think would be awesome, but sometimes stuff turns out to be trivial. One thing that was going to be in the last game was a holographic projector of a fake ship. I thought “I’ve always wanted to put that in”, and I got it in in a weekend, which surprised me because I thought it would be chaos! There are loads of things that you think “why did I ever embark on this?” But yeah, there are some things I might like to introduce.

RU: Just out of curiosity, if there is a type of gamer that would enjoy Gratuitous Space Battles 2, how would you describe them?

CH: It’s kind of half and half. One would be the kind of person who likes Just Cause, who likes explosions and lasers, and watches compilations of space battles on YouTube. This is the game for you: you’ll love it. The other half is the kind of player that plays Sim City, and loves having the biggest city with the best transport system. You know, adjusting stuff and affecting it. It’s a half and half kind of game. There’s also the multiplayer element of sending your fleet out to others.

RU: I think that’s all I’ve got left to ask. I’ve certainly enjoyed playing GSB2. I haven’t gotten to the last planet yet but I’ve greatly enjoyed having a bright pink battle fleet, decimating my opponents.

CH: Good! Everyone should, or neon green.

RU: Just to finish up, is there anything you’d like to say about the game?

CH: It has more lasers and better lens flare than any game you can currently buy.

RU: That’s an impressive statement, but the game lives up to it!


Gratuitous Space Battles 2 is currently available on Steam, Good Old Games and the Humble Store.






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