How Big Pharma speaks with its systems

There’s a lot of money to be made in the pharmaceuticals business. Who knew?

As the creator of the medicine-making management sim Big Pharma lays out in a recent Gamasutra blog post, his game broke even shortly after launching its beta back in May, and has earned back five times its original investment since then. Tim Wicksteed says that it’ll be more than enough to self-fund his next project.

Of course, the takeaway is not just that players want to experiment with how far they can jack up the prices of prescription drugs. Wicksteed thought up the engaging gameplay mechanics well before he added the catchy pharmaceutical angle. But he doesn’t distinguish between the creative decisions involved in development and branding. “Designing something to be highly marketable is all part of creating a ‘good game,’” he says.

Big Pharma began as a a vision of an abstract set of mechanics: a network of machinery connected via winding conveyor belts, moving product one step at a time through assorted equipment in a steady and efficient factory line. Wicksteed, who calls himself the “head honcho” of one-man studio Twice Circled, had spent a year mulling over this core system before the idea for subject matter hit him.

“Wicksteed steered clear of creating narrative-driven ethical dilemmas. He wanted the game to speak with its systems”

“One day in the shower, I had this lightbulb moment when I saw an empty pill packet,” Wicksteed tells me. “I just thought ‘Big Pharma – that’d work.'”

Positech Games (also the developers of Democracy 3 and Gratuitous Space Battles 2) agreed to publish it, and Wicksteed designed and programmed with some freelance help on audio and graphics. He did a small beta launch, deliberately avoiding Steam. He was more interested in player feedback than big early access bucks. “There’s a limit on what you can do in three months,” he says, “but it’s much better to make very targeted changes to a game based on user feedback rather than just guessing what players want and hoping for the best.”

The game managed to recoup during that beta process, and that’s largely due to its solid management sim mechanics. Big Pharma requires players to master the process of transforming core ingredients into practical and profitable medical recipes, balancing side-effects and cures, and unlocking more advanced equipment and materials. You also have to manage the physical production lines, which is a puzzle in itself that requires planning, foresight, and careful color coding to prevent your many processes from blurring into incoherence.

Management sims have grown in popularity over the last few years, partially due to their suitability for smart devices. But Wicksteed also thinks the shift to mobile platforms has left a void in the PC management sim market that Big Pharma fills.

The subject matter is also a vital part of the game’s appeal. “At shows, before even playing the game, people would see the banner, approach me and say ‘Ah I see what you’ve done there!’”

“If I put the player in the position of the pharma executive and then put them under intense financial pressure, they would soon find themselves forced into making controversial decisions”

It’s a classic management sim with an unusual and morally fraught setting, somewhat in the vein of the recent Prison Architect. The pharmaceutical industry is a massive business that–to say the least–is no stranger to ethical grey areas. Recently, the CEO of an American pharmaceutical company came under fire for raising the price of a life-saving drug by over 5,000 percent – from $13.50 per tablet to $750 per tablet.

Wicksteed steered clear of creating narrative-driven ethical dilemmas. He wanted Big Pharma to speak with its systems, and let players struggle with the scenarios that would naturally emerge. “Any revelations about the industry are very much player-led experiences,” he says. “As you become more familiar with the mechanics, you’ll likely start to have increasingly unsettling thoughts such as ‘I won’t bother removing that side-effect as it’ll make me less money’ or ‘If I wait another year the demand for antimalarials will have risen to a point where I can make a decent profit.’

“My idea from the beginning was that if I put the player in the position of the pharma executive and then put them under intense financial pressure, they would soon find themselves forced into making these sorts of controversial decisions.”

Gamasutra – How Big Pharma speaks with its systems.

Board game pieces found in settlement built on Roman military fort


Dice design has changed very little since Roman times. Researchers found a gaming piece and die during excavations of the Roman settlement. (Thomas Maurer)

The remnants of ancient water wells, pearls and hairpins are proof that a group of villagers set up a settlement on top of a military fort in ancient Roman times.

About 1,900 years ago, a group of Roman soldiers lived in a fort in what is now Gernsheim, a German town located on the Rhine River about 31 miles south of Frankfurt. Shortly after the soldiers left the fort in about A.D. 120, another group of people moved in and built a village literally on top of the settlement, researchers found.

Archaeologists have known about the site itself since the 1800s, but the new finding sheds light on its inhabitants and what they did for fun. (An ancient die and game piece were among the discoveries.) [See Photos of the Dice and Artifacts Found in the Roman Village]

“We now know that from the first to the third century, an important villagelike settlement, or ‘vicus,’ must have existed here,” dig leader Thomas Maurer, an archaeologist at the University of Frankfurt, said in a statement.

After excavating the fort last year, the researchers returned this summer to look for evidence of the Roman settlement. Their efforts paid off: They found relics of the village, part of it built on the foundations of the fort.

Excavation efforts, which began Aug. 3 and will last until early October, have already uncovered handfuls of artifacts. Researchers have found the well-preserved foundation of a stone building, fire pits, at least two wells and some cellar pits. They’ve also found ceramic shards, which they plan to date to get a better grasp of the village’s active periods.

“We’ve also found real treasures, such as rare garment clasps, several pearls, parts of a board game (dice, playing pieces) and a hairpin made from bone and crowned with a female bust,” Maurer said in the statement.

Who lived there?

Though they built their settlement over part of the fort, the villagers likely knew the soldiers, the researchers said. In fact, the villagers were likely the soldiers’ family members and tradespeople who made a business trading with the military.

“A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left — this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly,” Maurer said. But the little village managed to prosper after the soldiers left, as stone buildings were built in the second century A.D., during the Pax Romana, a 206-year period with relatively few conflicts in the Roman Empire.

The inhabitants likely had Gallic-Germanic origins, but a few “true” Romans — people with Roman citizenship who had moved from distant provinces — lived there as well, the researchers said. They based this idea on several tidbits of evidence, including pieces of traditional dress and coins found there. One coin is from Bithynia, in northwest Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), which may have been a souvenir from someone’s travels, they said.

The fort next door

The Roman fort once housed about 500 soldiers, who lived there between about A.D. 70 and 120, the researchers said. When the soldiers left, they dismantled the fort and filled in the ditches with dirt and everyday bric-a-brac, much to the delight of the archaeologists excavating the site.

It was “a stroke of luck,” said Hans-Markus von Kaenel, a retired professor of archaeology at the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University in Frankfurt. More than 50 papers have been published on the findings, which Von Kaenel, his colleagues and students have worked on for almost 20 years. [See Photos of the Roman Fort Discovered in Germany]

Rome made the fort and settlement to expand its infrastructure and help it take possession of large areas east of the Rhine River in about A.D. 70, the researchers said. During that time, the fort and settlement were fairly accessible by roads.

It may have even had a harbor, “and that wasn’t really expected from this particular site.” However, archaeologists have yet to confirm that during thepresent dig, Maurer said.

However, modern-day Gernsheim is a busy town, and its expansion threatens the Roman remains, the researchers said. This year, they are excavating a 717-square-yard area — about the size of two Olympic-size swimming pools.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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