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Manufacture Technology and Equipment

Game On

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Can you give us a quick overview of the game?

The game is called Big Pharma and it’s a simulation game about running your own pharmaceutical company. Players will go exploring for ingredients in exotic locations, and then bring those ingredients back to the factory and run them through a series of machines that process and combine them in order to synthesize drugs. Then hopefully they’ll sell them for a profit. But what makes life difficult is that other companies will create the same drugs. Each company will be represented by a CEO with their own personality and way of doing business. Some may undercut you with generics and others may focus on small niche drugs at very high margins, for example.

There will also be regulatory bodies to make sure players comply with whatever rules they put in place. Gameplay will generally be open ended, so players can keep building and creating, but there will be some objectives that pop up, such as a virus outbreak, to make things more dynamic. Meeting the objective will result in some kind of reward, like a grant from the government or something.

We’re about half way through development and hopefully it will be released in May 2015.

What was your inspiration?

It started off as a generic factory simulation game, but something wasn’t quite right and I was a bit cold on the idea. So I waited a few months and kept on turning things over in my mind while I was working on other projects. And then there was this romanticized light bulb moment when I saw a leftover box of medicine in the bathroom. I thought it would be great to make the game specifically about the pharmaceutical industry. It’s really interesting because I’ve set up alerts for various stories and there’s something to tweet about every day, whether it’s a takeover bid or something about honeysuckle possibly being used to prevent flu.

I’m a little bit taken aback by the positive reaction I’ve had to the game. I think the theme resonates with a lot of people. Most of us have taken medicines before, after all.

Do you think it accurately represents the reality of the pharma industry?

I’ve been doing a lot of research. Firstly, I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, which is full of useful information. It’s a negative bias but I think it’s important to show both sides. I’m also talking to a research student in the Netherlands who actually got in touch when we announced the game. He’s researching the process by which pharmaceutical companies get their products to market. I’m also looking at other sources that have some nice counter points to Goldacre.

But in terms of how realistic is the game going to represent the industry, it depends on the area. For the actual manufacture of the drug, it’s not representative. It’s quite a dry area so I wanted to make it more fun with larger-than-life, wacky machines. And I essentially completely made up the process by which the drugs are actually synthesized. As long as I’m honest about that I think it’s okay.

The area that I’m very keen to portray realistically is the marketplace around creating drugs; things like representing the demand for different treatments. Just the fact that pharmaceutical companies have to align the goals of running a profitable drugs business with making people healthy creates a lot of challenges. For example, people in developing nations can’t afford hundreds or thousands of pounds for a treatment or vaccine so I guess there is more incentive to make treatments for richer western patients. And that’s not me demonizing the industry, it’s just an interesting side effect, when you bring those two things together: business and healthcare.

My guiding principal is to try to stay as neutral as possible, but I want to show the point of view of all parties, from the hardworking people who work in the industry to the opinions of patients and doctors. Players will be able to make up their own minds within the game. They may want to make a cure for a particular illness, but it will be hard because there’s no demand and people can’t pay the money for it. So they might end up making anti-wrinkle cream instead to make money.

So it’s not about demonizing the pharmaceutical industry?

No – and it’s not about choosing to be a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ either. I want this game to be challenging. Players will be under intense pressure if they want to progress and unlock things like new machines and new drugs. You need money to do this and to grow your business. Players may go about this in different ways.

There are people I’ve spoken to who really want that demonized side in the game though. I’ve had requests to do things like create a drug that causes a side effect, and then you can make another drug that treats it. I haven’t decided whether to do that yet. Overall, I do want it to be cartoony and wacky – and fun to play. It’s a game after all. I’ve been getting lots of feedback to either make it less realistic or more realistic and I’ll have to decide on what works best.

But I will say now that my plan is to have – let’s call them ‘bad things’ although that is a bit leading – that you can do but there will be consequences for all these actions, like bad press that stops people from wanting to buy your medicines.

You already mentioned regulations. Will patents make an appearance in the game?

Absolutely yes. The way it’s going to be represented in the game is that you can apply for a patent on any formula you’ve created. When it has a patent, none of the in-game competitors can sell that drug. However, it doesn’t stop other players from creating it, which is really interesting because I think just like in the real industry you can make it so that your production line is ready to churn out a generic version as soon as the patent runs out. You can also get round the patents by making small changes to your medicines or by selling them in a different medium.

Patents are another example where there are two sides to the story. On one side, it’s important to allow people to protect their intellectual property because otherwise they’re not going to put in the money and research to create new products, and they deserve to reap the benefits at the end. But then the anti-pharma people say this creates a monopoly and holds people to ransom. It’s kind of like that with every aspect of this game, which I think is what makes it interesting. And it will be up to the player to decide what they think.

As an outsider of the pharma industry, what do you think of its reputation?

It depends. Some people are incredibly damning of the pharma industry. I had an interview the other day and the questions were incredibly leading, as if they were trying to make out I was blowing the lid on the whole industry by showing all the awful things that can happen. But then you talk to other people who have had their lives saved by medicines. There are difficulties when you have to make money out of health and medicines, but you can’t argue with the fact that the industry has saved countless lives.

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