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I Like: Big Pharma

Posted by Mat on 29th June, 2015
screenshot_23_40_13 28-06-15

When games use theme and mechanics to criticise Big Business, mate, I love it. I get to occupy two cartoonised depictions of 2015’s cultural dichotomy at once.

I get to enjoy the cutting satire, the mischievous take-down of those corporate fat cats. This game about manufacturing pharmaceuticals is the next step toward the revolution. I’ve named my fake company “Glaxosmith-CRIME”, right? Yeah?

But also I get to enjoy them entirely straight-faced without any self-examination. I can be the important man in the nice suit. The one who says it doesn’t matter that our company produces a facial cream which gives people nightmares. It’s too expensive to fix this.

Think of the Profit Margin.

I’m too good at the latter. I’ve internalised too many Jack Welch aphorisms from the motivational poster at my work. “Take a seat,” I say, to a weary Liz Lemon “Let me tell you a thing or two about Dave Brailsford’s Aggregation of Marginal Gains theory.”

Starting a game of Big Pharma means taking on an overall goal. Make enough money by a certain date or produce enough high-grade anti-anxiety medicine or some such, then get dropped into overseeing a massive factory with only one room initially available and a bit of start-up cash to buy automated conveyor belts and equipment. I have my Starcraft-like opening build totally figured out: I check which of my starting ingredients is cheapest to turn into something that’ll give a consumer a slight tingle and then I build a few production lines pumping out pill after pill of that.

It’s so difficult not to overextend. In my first few games I blew all my pocket money investing in researchers that can reduce the cost of production or devise new machinery… before I was making enough consistent profit to afford them. Don’t do that. That’s a little strategic advice from me.

Since then I’ve learned that you can’t be in the red too long or you’ll never get out, you can’t invest too much without leaving yourself a little bit of “oops I have to fix all of this immediately” money, but you also can’t be too scared to allow yourself a spending spree every now and then. Bringing in too much cash without re-investing it means your company is never going to grow any further.

In my games now the early profit line is rising above and below the surface like we’re on the opening screen of Ecco The Dolphin. I’ll have a little bit of money in reserve but until the nerds in the lab figure out a way to make the pills $3 extra at the point of sale and how to spend 10% less on Quartz then we’re not going to be building a production line for gout medicine any time soon.

It’s so difficult to find the right balance, I’ve gone from elated, buying up more factory space to make another production line, then learning a competitor has just released a better version of my existing wares and I’m practically out of business.

So inevitably the game incentivises cutting corners, say, choosing not to dilute your pills down quite as far. If the machine adds $10 to production but doesn’t make as much back in profit? Don’t do it.

No solution in Big Pharma is elegant, if the pills are good it’s probably a happy coincidence. The machinery’s expensive and floor space is in short supply so the less of it the better. Each machine used to alter concentration spits out its result in a different direction, so designing a path from reagent delivery to the “get this medicine out of here” shoot is never a perfect crow-flies route.

At best, the series of conveyors and machines takes up as little space as possible. Until you have to redesign the entire path to make the resulting chemicals better formulated for more specific tasks, turning painkillers into migraine relief, requiring a totally new set of machines and messing up your tidied pathing in the process.

There’s still a lot of missions I’m nowhere near skilled enough to go near yet. My hope is that I’ll discover the game that I truly want. I’ve bought it hoping that I’ll be able to write my own narrative of selling medicine with a side effect, while also selling medicine which cures it. I’m horrible.

I’ve yet to see any “Potentially Fatal” side effects. I hope I do. I hope my factory gets shut down. Because of course I’m not going to fix that. It’ll be too expensive.

Big Pharma is still in Beta, you can get it Here for $19.95

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