You’ll find Big Pharma pushing brain candy at the intersection of drugs and money

, | Game reviews

I go to all the trouble of manufacturing antibiotics and then patenting them to ensure I’m the only one who can meet the demand, which other companies were reducing by saturating the market with their own antibiotics. And then what do my competitors at Expedite Medicine and Medicorp do? Both of them release the very same drug as a cream. Which means they can continue to flagrantly violate my right to exclusively exploit infection. They’re still saturating the antibiotic market and all that time and money I spent on a patent is for naught. How is that fair? How is it a different product if it’s the same stuff but as a cream instead of a pill? Where’s legislation when a corporation like Chick Feelgood Drugs needs it? Whose idea was the free market nonsense, which was profitable for me until it wasn’t?

After the jump, welcome to the world of big pharma and Big Pharma, a videogame about big pharma.

The smartest thing this game does is know that it’s a game. Sim schmim. Like Soren Johnson’s Offworld Trading Company, Brad Wardell’s Entrepreneur games, Chris Sawyer’s Rollercoaster Tycoons, and a lot of games with trains in them, Big Pharma knows the primary business in a game about business is putting gameplay first. Its canniest trick is presenting the usual production chain as a literal production chain, with conveyor belts and all. A substance moves one tile per day along a production line, jiggering its concentration level, which in turn determines its properties. Some properties are good. A flower might soothe coughing if you get its concentration between eight and eleven. Some properties are bad. That same crystal might also cause constipation if its concentration is between nine and twelve. The trick, therefore, is to finesse that crystal concentration to exactly eight, and then sell it. Ideally, lots of people in the wider world are coughing.

As you might imagine, it’s never quite that easy. Any substance can have up to four properties. Sometimes you have to combine two substances for advanced effects. You’ll swap traits, shuffle them, tune them, and often just accept that if someone wants to soothe a cough, they’re just going to have to deal with a little constipation. The free market will sort it out.


Once you’re past the tutorials and playing in earnest, you will realize that Big Pharma does not have a manual. But Big Pharma needs a manual. Come on, guys. Seriously? You’ve made a great strategy game, so how about providing a way for people to efficiently figure out how to play it. Am I really supposed to replay the tutorial every time I need to look up something? Can you really not be bothered to include some sort of documentation about different features beyond the occasional tooltips, which frequently raise more questions than they answer? It never fails to astonish me how little thought otherwise smart game designers will put into the communicating their design to players.

The theming is cute at first. Colorful little flasks and pills and bowls of stuff sliding along. Little pointlessly animated men and women wearing safety helmets and standing at consoles. Bright pastel tiling on the floor. Explorers in pith helmets setting out to discover new beetles and jellyfish and flowers with amazing properties. It’s all very goofy. Aren’t drugs these days basically synthesized from whole cloth, or am I just unaware of the limits of the test tube and bunsen burner?

The theming gets thoughtful later, once you’re trying the harder challenges instead of learning the systems with the easier gimme scenarios. When you’re playing Big Pharma for real, with all the gameplay systems running, with a few competitors applying downward pressure to demand by supplying the market with their own drugs, with patents and espionage, you’re dealing with a whole new level of gameplay. The custom game and sandbox are all good and well, but the wide-open array of neatly arranged scenarios and challenges highlight Big Pharma’s unique charm. Can you get out from under a quarter of a million dollars in debt by cranking out erectile dysfunction treatments? Can you cure HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer’s in the same game? Can you make drugs entirely free of side effects? Or can you just make the best genital wart remover on the market?

The experience Big Pharma so cannily creates is one of tweaking and altering and tuning. Of doing science stuff. Of making nature even better so people want, indeed, need it to cure what ails them. Crystals from the desert, molds from the forest, strange fungus from the arctic, I’d like to introduce you to angina, birth control, hypertension, stomach aches, and rashes. Not as you are now, of course. But as I will adapt you to the demands of the market and the weaknesses of the human condition. Here I am, tampering in God’s domain. Not because I’m a mad scientist, but because I’m an honest businessman.


As the product makes its way along the production line, morphing into new substances with new names and new properties, you’re piling up the cost of manufacturing it. Perhaps more importantly, you’re using up your limited factory space in a maddening game of “I need this frickin’ machine to fit in this tiny space or I’ll have to rip out everything and rebuild!”. It’s all very contrived, but so is the idea of a videogame about any sort of real world business pursuit. Big Pharma knows that. It embraces it. Its little machines whirr and spin and wheeze and spit out colorful flasks and pills. A dollar amount wafts up at every step of the way. This is no business sim. This is a game.

Not to say it doesn’t have sim elements. Demands rise and fall. Diseases come and go. Oops, I’m curing malaria faster than people can catch it. Not good for business. I optimize my production line a little at a time, reducing the operating cost of a machine by three bucks or making an ingredient 10% cheaper. The bottom line is my bottom line.

While this may not be a business sim, neither is it a trifle like Theme Hospital. There’s plenty of gummy abstraction, sometimes brain burning abstraction. I have to shift the side effect tiles on one ingredient to get it to fit in with another ingredient, much like I have to move pieces around on the factory floor, scooting them, turning them, matching input arrows with output arrows, rebuilding the damn conveyor belts yet again, Tetrising my way to a better profit margin. I am totally screwed because I can’t put something one tile to the left without completely undoing another production chain. I am completely screwed because a particular machine always and only has its output arrow on the same side as its input arrow. I am completely screwed because there’s no more room to expand on this side of the wall. This is stupid. This is absurd. This is tedious. This is Rollercoaster Tycoon frustration all over again. Until I get it to all fit together and the production chain purrs with Teutonic efficiency, racking up value as it goes and rolling out the door for a tidy $942 profit every day, at which points it’s all delightful. Big Pharma can be an unapologetic puzzle. I will sit down with a pencil and a pad of paper to sketch out a plan before implementing it, making a list of the machines I need in the order they must be arranged, tracking the concentration level, and maybe even figuring the accumulated cost to get a sense for whether it’s worth it. I love it when a game makes me do this not because the interface is bad — the interface in Big Pharma is very good — but because the possibilities are so wide. Here I am, essentially piecing together the cure for cancer on a cocktail napkin. For science? For prestige? For quality of life? Don’t be silly. It’s all for money. Call it evil, call it efficient, or call it American. But whatever you do, call it profitable and call it Big Pharma.

  • Big Pharma

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • What if you had it in your power to rid the world of disease, to improve the lives of millions, to ease suffering and cure the sick...and earn a tidy profit? As the head of your own Pharmaceutical Conglomerate you have this power resting in your hands. Will you use it for good?