Tim Wicksteed is wearing a white lab coat and a winning smile when I meet him in the press lounge of EGX Rezzed, and I have to do a double take because I only just left him two minutes ago when he talked me through the demo of his new strategy game: Big Pharma. Turns out that was his twin brother Rob, also clad in identical lab coat and grin, who is responsible for the game’s distinctive art style, reminiscent of schematic drawings.
Big Pharma is a strategy game set in the cut throat world of the big pharmaceutical industry, that challenges you to take drugs from their raw ingredients to the market place via a series of complicated machines and conveyor belts, and make as much money as possible; all whilst you ruthlessly suppress the little Jiminy Cricket voice at the back of your head that incessantly asks you what your mother would think of the choices you are making.
There’s a games theorist whose work I love called Ian Bogost, who has a theory called ’procedural rhetoric’. At its simplest this is basically the idea that videogames, as a computational medium, are immanently capable of creating rhetorical arguments through their systems; through interacting with a player they say something about the world, how it works and our stance upon it. Big Pharma, which sees the player managing a pharmaceutical conglomerate, seems a particularly strong manifestation of this type of systemic meaning making. And Tim clearly loves deep systems, so it’s hardly surprising to learn that he studied Mechanical Engineering for eight years before turning to game development and founding his indie studio Twice Circled.
Big Pharma is one of those games that tells you a little about yourself as you play, perhaps more than you really want to know.
Every business decision you make has moral implications. Do you sell that much-needed cancer drug to as many people as possible, or slap a patent on it and make as much money from the elite as possible? Do you let a drug out the door fully tested, or take a risk and save some money? Do you attempt to cure the world’s diseases, or keep the cash cow ticking over for as long as possible? After all, in this business, the best customer is not a happy customer, but one at death’s door. Big Pharma is one of those games that tells you a little about yourself as you play, perhaps more than you really want to know.
But, like most of the best political statements, Big Pharma is charmingly satirical, its cartoony scientists and bright pastel colours sugaring the pill (if you’ll excuse the pun) of the heavy ethical questions that nag you. In its clinical setting, it seems Tim’s love of complex systems and his impish sense of humour have perfectly meshed. In the following interview we discuss economic systems, moral conundrums and our mutual love of board games.
Ready Up: So is Big Pharma your first game?
Tim Wicksteed: It’s actually my second big game. I call it a big game.
RU: It’s got the word ‘big’ in the title.
TW: It has!
Ru: I can’t help, from the title, but think of big burly farmers.
TW: [Laughs] Everybody says that. It’s a little misleading, but hopefully when you see the logo and the title written down it’s a little bit clearer.
RU: And isn’t it named after a book with a similar title?
TW: I wouldn’t say it’s named after the book. I mean, that phrase ‘Big Pharma’ is bandied about a lot, meaning big conglomerate pharmaceutical companies. But there is a book called Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, which I have ready (most of) and is an influence, for sure, on some of the more… grey areas of the game.
RU: I guess it’s influenced the more satirical parts of the game. Was it your intention, when you set out, to make this a satirical take on the pharmaceutical industry?
TW: The design came about in a few stages. In the first stage, I just wanted to make a factory simulation. I’m quite a mechanics based developer and I liked the idea of laying out conveyor belts and machines to make stuff. Then came this idea of setting it in the pharmaceutical industry, so it’s about making drugs, which is cool. Then there was this ‘aha’ moment, because there’s also an extra element beyond the production and selling of these things; you’ve got the satirical side, you’ve got this central controversy within the pharmaceutical industry that you can put in the game and make players think about.
RU: I can see you’ve come at it from a mechanical point of view, because there’s a real logic to the way everything fits together. The ingredients literally come in through one wall via a conveyor belt, get turned into pills, and go out another wall. It’s got a beautiful logic to it, like you’re making some kind of crazy Rube Goldberg machine for drugs.
TW: Input. Output. Sign the box. And you don’t see the outside!
I would love to make a board game one day. I think it’s a beautiful medium to work in because of its restrictions, because you can’t just have millions of hidden parameters working in the background; everything has to be counted, physically, which I think makes… it forces you to create a tight and elegant design.
RU: You don’t directly see the moral implications. I spoke to your brother, Rob Wicksteed, who made the art for the game, and he mentioned that you were thinking about showing the effect on a patients health by maybe using a cutaway of their body. Is that something you want to explore?
TW: Probably not. What I would like introduce much more of is a reaction within the simulation to you producing the drug. It’s unlikely to be a graphical representation, it’s more likely to be a numerical one. What there isn’t in the game yet is a figure representing how many people are suffering from a disease. What would be nice about that is that when you were making a pill – let’s say it was for a disease that was curable – that number will start to go down. I want to make it feel like you’re having an impact on the world.
RU: But you don’t want the number to go down too much as you can’t sell the pill anymore?
TW: Yes. The less demand for it, the lower the price you’ll get.
RU: I’m a massive board game enthusiast and I imagine you’ve been influenced by things like Pandemic. There’s something quite board-gamey about the way the systems are all balanced in the game.
TW: Me too! I design things from quite a board-gamey point of view. I would love to make a board game one day. I think it’s a beautiful medium to work in because of its restrictions, because you can’t just have millions of hidden parameters working in the background; everything has to be counted, physically, which I think makes… it forces you to create a tight and elegant design. So I try to come at videogame design from a similar standpoint. An example of this, actually, is the win condition system that I want to implement. It’s going to be a victory point based system, which is very board-gamey, every game has an amount of victory points you’re trying to obtain, and you get them from different places. So you can get them from stockholder or shareholder missions, which is just about making money; you get X amount and you get a point, but they’ll be increasingly difficult milestones. There’ll be portfolio missions, so the more products you have on the market the more victory points you get. To balance that side of things you’re going to have randomly generated missions that are reactive to the simulation. So perhaps there’s an epidemic in a country or a certain type of contagious disease, and you’ll be asked to meet some criteria; can you find a cure for this disease and maybe produce 500 pills, and then you’ll get some money but also a victory point. So I’m hoping to tailor, like board games do, to different play styles, so you can be more financially focused, or you can just try and cure diseases.[Update: Since the interview this system has changed slightly. Tim tells me via email: “Now the game consists of a number of scenarios, each of which has its own global game parameters (number of AIs, starting conditions etc.). Then within each scenario are a number of challenges to complete which have fixed victory conditions like ‘Sell 3000 Antimalarial cures within 8 years’ or ‘Earn $1,000,000 within 5 years’. Each game is still very open but these challenges give you something to base your strategy around.”]
RU: That’s interesting. I think it would work really well as a board game.
TW: Me too. I haven’t quite worked out the mechanics but there’s something about getting cards with machines on and then laying them out as a set to make a production line, which earns you points. I think it could work as a board game.
RU: How do the ingredients work in Big Pharma. It looks like that they have random attributes you have to discover?
TW: So when you send your explorers off to different locations…
RU: …the little Indiana Joneses?
TW: That’s right – Indian… is that a girl’s name already? Because they’re girls. After a certain amount of time they’ll come back with an ingredient with a randomised curative effect, but it will also have side effects. One of the mechanics I’m playing with at the moment is for those side effects to be unknown, so you have to test those ingredients to work out what they are. What I like about this is it gives a little bit more uncertainty, which there’s loads of in the real pharmaceutical industry. The idea that you might start selling a drug with a side effect you don’t know about yet, and you might have to recall it. That’s interesting, and you wouldn’t be able to do that if the game had a different theme.
RU: One board game I reviewed recently, Alchemists, has a similar mechanic where 8 alchemical ingredients have randomised properties at the start of the game, which are dictated by an iPad app, and you have to find out what they are by mixing potions and testing them on yourself or your students. It’s pretty funny.
They’re making strides in the real world to have registers that you have to register with beforehand to stop trials from disappearing. So that’s one way I can make a comment on what happens in the real world, but it’s also quite a cool game mechanic as well.
TW: Using the great scientific tradition of self-experimentation.
RU: Or exploiting undergraduates…
TW: Another great tradition!
RU: Like your game as well, it has a really satirical take on academia, where you have to publish your findings for points but they don’t have to be true and can be debunked by other players, or yourself, later on.
TW: That’s another mechanic I’d like to add. A lot of the more satirical elements are yet to be added. This idea that you can, for example, do a number of clinical trials and then only publish the ones that have positive results, which happens. They’re making strides in the real world to have registers that you have to register with beforehand to stop trials from disappearing. So that’s one way I can make a comment on what happens in the real world, but it’s also quite a cool game mechanic as well.
RU: So when is it actually due out? Have you got a while left to make these changes?
TW: We’re planning to launch a pre-order beta in June. So if you pre-order the game you get immediate beta access – this will all probably be done through our website – and as soon as it comes out on Steam, which it will later this year, we already have the Steam keys, you’ll get access to the full release. It’s not going to be one of these really drawn out early access things. I’m trying not to say ‘early access’, because I think it comes with certain expectations. It’s a ‘beta’ in the traditional sense, it’s just to get out a load of bugs and tweak the game play. And it’s completely optional. I mean, if you want to wait until the full release I’m fine with that.
What that demand is going to be based on is a relatively simple system of diseases, which have various patterns. So contagious diseases will have a small amount of initial sufferers and then will exponentially increase the longer it goes untreated, but then baseline things like pain killers will have a steady demand.
RU: But you are taking feedback from users in the sense that they are helping to test the game and the robustness of the systems?
TW: Absolutely! But, and I hope you feel the same way, I feel like there’s a really solid base there. I don’t know how much you have played, it can be really difficult at these shows, but it’s almost like you’ve got this sandbox you can play around with, and I just need to add the victory system and objectives so there’s more stuff to do, but, also, that whole simulation in the world around your factory. I want to make that more interesting: random events, competitors muscling in, patents, all of that kind of stuff. I think it will be surprising how quickly it will start to take shape.
RU: It’s interesting that you’ll be playing within a shifting market place. How are you going to model the economic system that you’ll be playing against?
TW: At its root I use the tried and tested supply and demand model. So, basically, the more people making the same drug, the lower the price it will sell at, which is going to squeeze your margins. That’s going to drive an awful lot of the gameplay, in that you want to find drugs that no one else is producing. There will be a cure tech-tree that shows the drugs that you’re currently aware of, and you can look at that and see the demand. Patents come into that, because if you can patent something then you can monopolise the market and make a lot more money before other people start driving those prices down. What that demand is going to be based on is a relatively simple system of diseases, which have various patterns. So contagious diseases will have a small amount of initial sufferers and then will exponentially increase the longer it goes untreated, but then baseline things like pain killers will have a steady demand. Then there’s things like Cold and Flu, which will have fluctuating demand depending on time of year. So each drug will have slightly different economic mechanics.
RU: Are those modelled on real world diseases or have you just made a bunch up?
TW: Every disease is real world disease. It was based on some feedback I got from the public when I announced the game. I said: “we might have a mixture of regular, boring real-world diseases and zany made up ones,” and people were like: “we don’t want zany made up ones.” They really liked the real world simulation side of the game.
RU: The way the economy works and the idea of competitors makes me think it would work quite well with multiplayer, is that going to be something you’re going to implement?
TW: It’s not, but it would be awesome. It’s about scope at the end of the day, and I made an early decision that I wasn’t going to include multiplayer, and concentrate on it as a single player title, but then make sure that single player was really rich, with lots of stuff to do. Who knows, maybe there’s going to be a Big Pharma 2!
RU: is it something you’d even consider adding if the game was successful and was in demand?
TW: Yes, absolutely. If I could justify it. It would be wicked! Also, co-operative play would be really good. Same factory and you both just build…
RU: I was speaking to your brother, Rob, who I understand did the art for the game.
TW: Yeah, the main game world is by him and the GUI is by someone else.
RU: I really love the aesthetic. It’s almost like the illustrations you’d get in a safety manual, like the ones you find on planes.
TW: That’s interesting, I’ve not heard it explained like that before. I see what you mean, because of its flat colours, but it’s relatively realistically proportioned, and that kind of pale blue colour you get in those manuals.
The Beta for Big Pharma is due out in June, visit the Twice Circled website for more details.