Indie Wonderland: Big Pharma

A few hours in

Hey, would you look at that? I actually did it!

I did it better than expected, even! I hit not only the €1.000.000 ‘standard’ goal, but even the €5.000.000 ‘expert’ one.

It was touch-and-go for a while, particularly at the start. Big Pharma isn’t an easy game to master. But thanks to my unswerving dedication to providing quality products, I finally came out on top.

Tell me you wouldn’t buy the hell out of this drug.

I did ‘it’ multiple times, in fact. I beat an easy scenario on two levels, then an intermediate scenario on one. Then I tried an advanced scenario, only to get my ass kicked time and time again… turns out I wasn’t actually very good at Big Pharma.

Luckily, lack of operational skill is nothing that repeated practice and Steam guides cannot fix. And given that it took a good few hours of work to get there, I’m probably not entirely too proud of finally beating Big Pharma ‘the way it’s meant to be played’.

On two levels, again! You can tell what levels I’ve completed by the coloured side-bars.

I had my fair share of fun with Big Pharma. I’m probably not gonna take any shots at it’s remaining twenty-odd scenarios, but that’s mostly a matter of personal taste and saturation. But during my time with it, I found Big Pharma to be an interesting exercise in premeditated system-building, a colourful romp through bugs and plants and bottles and crème jars, and a game that — unexpectedly — manages to raise the ethical specters associated with Real Big Pharma without being overbearing about it.

And, let’s not forget, a good way to practice your improv comedy skills.

From a mechanical point of view, Big Pharma is primarily a game about designing and building automated systems. Your modular, expanding factory floor consists of square footage and multipurpose input-output slots. And your goal is, almost always, to make optimal use of your area, and connect as many input slots as you can to as little output slots. Build production lines. Turn ingredients into other ingredients, into active ingredients, into cures. Into revenue, and hopefully, into profit.

It’s wasn’t just for non-sequitur reasons that I referenced Factorio earlier. On an immediate level, the games look relatively similar. Resources, machines, input, output, you get the idea. Both games even share a love for conveyor belts.

Can you blame them? Conveyor belts are the emotional heart of modern industry.

The similarities are mostly superficial, though. Where Factorio is mostly about base-building and expansion, Big Pharma is first and foremost an economy-themed puzzle game. The goal isn’t so much to figure out ‘how to automate your processes’; Big Pharma is too limited in scope to really allow for this kind of experimentation. Rather, with the strict limiting factors of space and time, the goal is to figure out ‘how to use your resources as effectively as possible‘.

Big Pharma’s toy box isn’t very large: about a dozen possible inputs, and twenty-or-so machines. And the majority of those machines plays with the game’s two main systems: ingredient concentration, and delivery mechanism. This is what essentially makes Big Pharma a puzzle game. You’ll unlock and learn your small set of playing pieces relatively quickly, and from then on out, the game’s challenge becomes employing those known pieces as efficiently as possible.

It’s easy enough at first. Your basic starting ingredients are one or two concentration levels away from being active. So you run your plant matter through one Condenser, then feed it into a Pill Printer — no, two Pill Printers! — and you’re good to go. Production line: set up.

Add some cardboard box makers for optimal space usage and you’re pretty much in business.

Oh, but wait: if you drop the concentration further, you can upgrade to a second-tier effect! You’ll need more machines to do that, obviously. So maybe layer a few more Condensers… Or maybe use one or two Ionizers instead. Those are a little harder to stack, though. And once you get to the new effect, you’ll need to up the concentration again. So a lot of Evaporators… or a few Agglomerators… or maybe go fancy with a Cryogenic Condenser?

Hold on, though: Cryogenic Condensers have a process time of two days. So you’ll need two of them for optimal efficiency. And if you stack them for space use, you’ll have to deal with overlapping input-output belts. So maybe instead you can…

You get the idea, I hope. It’s all relatively easy to do, helped immensely by Big Pharma’s relaxed approach to building, , and clever belt tracking. You’re always free to move around and rotate any machine you build, at any time: mistakes can be costly, on account of having to re-build belts and stuff, but you’re never ever ‘locked into’ your faults. The consistent visualizations help a lot with learning the ropes: inputs are green, outputs are red, and you’ll very quickly learn to spot what machine goes where and how to best connect everything. And even when you start playing with the aforementioned overlapping belts, the game is usually fairly good at intuiting what you mean, what you want to go where and when. Usually, but not always: I’ve had one or two moments where the game just threw up its hands in total confusion. But for the most part, if you can visualize something working, you can make it work with a minimum of fuss.

It’s pretty cool when you get something like this working, with the overlapping Autoclave belts.

But at the same time, sometimes you’ll check your factory and find that your big cure production pipeline hasn’t moved in eight weeks.

Big Pharma is a toy box with known pieces for solving predictable puzzles, but that in no way makes it easy. It took me quite some practice to get anything like ‘good’ at Big Pharma, matter-of-fact. I kept wondering why I was making so little profit, why I was struggling so much, and why my opponents kept outpacing me at every turn.

I was inordinately proud of myself when I finally started building layouts like this.

The key, as it turned out, was that I wasn’t living up to the name enough. Don’t start out small in Big Pharma. All the days I spent cooing over my basic baby-level production lines were days wasted. Take this from a reformed veteran: find the highest-profit tier-2 production line you can at the start, unlock as many land plots as you can, and produce as much of that sucker as you can. Flood the market if you have two. There will always be more sick people. And a day spent is a dollar wasted.

If machine lines and concentrations are the how of Big Pharma, its scenario levels form the why. You can play without objectives, if you want; if you’re the sort of person who just builds for the pleasure of building. I usually am. But in Big Pharma, I found myself mostly going for the included scenarios. Six or seven difficulty levels are presented, with five specific scenarios each. Each scenario provides a particular objective or set of objectives, as you do: ship this much revenue. Have this much profit for this long. Supply this many treatments of such, and this many effective treatments of so.

I was pleasantly surprised that the different scenario objectives actually meaningfully changed the way I approached things. On the surface, of course, much is gonna the remain the same: regardless of scenario, you’ll want to build medicine pipelines, research machines, find new ingredients, and just generally make more money. But a scenario that asks for revenue favors you shipping as much as you can as fast as you can, while a scenario that favors profit actually has you make hard choices in what to do or not. And specific-treatment scenarios even eschew the profit goals altogether. If you want to win, that is. Each scenario even has three different achievement levels, Standard, Expert, and Master, for if you really need that flex that goal-oriented planning muscle.

I never quite managed to hit the Expert marks, as you can see. I got close, once or twice, but no actual cigar.

The scenarios are also important for contextualizing a large part of Big Pharma: the whole presence of rival cooperations and the larger free market. I actually didn’t quite see this at first. Particularly in the easier scenarios, your opponents often feel as if they’re just… there. They make medicine, same as you do, and often in direct competition with your stuff. Hell, they might even patent their work! But by and large, their influence feels far-off: you can still get your ingredients and you’ll still sell your products. In Big Pharma, there’s always a market for more drugs.

Well, *almost* always. It *is* possible to over-flood a market to the point where you basically have to pay people to take your stuff.

But the higher on the food chain you get, the more your opponents start to matter. Medicine profit is determined not only by ingredient price and hardware operation costs, but also by market supply and demand forces. So if three other cooperations are already producing their own off-brand Ritalin, you can be sure that the market price for ADHD meds is in open free-fall. And if that just so happens to be your major cash-cow… Similarly, nothing is more frustrating than setting up a whole new supply chain, only to hear that a rival is jumping on the same market seconds after you.

What? That’s *my* market! Get your own profits, you charlatan!

And god forbid they patent something…

That knife cuts both ways, of course. In my last real game of Big Pharma, almost nothing felt sweeter than the time I rushed a simple patent for migraine medication inside the first game year. I was mass-producing the stuff, and so was everyone else, so you can imagine what that did for the sales price. But then I drafted a patent, and suddenly the supply well was quartered. And my profits soared. And it was a good day.

This nicely segues into something others have also observed about Big Pharma: bit by bit, very subtly, it turns you into a horrible monster.

Big Pharma does a good job of systemizing some of the ethical issues that plague actual medicine development. Regardless of scenario, you’re always in some way a profit-chaser: you need money to keep your outfit running, after all! And, sans moralizing, Big Pharma offers you a handful of tools for making that happen. You can patent your drugs, specific combinations of effects and delivery, so others can’t sell them. Sure, that’s gonna cut the world supply of medicine and artificially inflate price. But that… that’s not a bad thing, right? Per se?

And ingredients have side effects. Lots of them, often very scary-sounding ones. And you can spend a lot of time and money filtering those from the final product. You can… but will it really help you much? The game pays lip service to a ‘drug rating’, influenced by active effects and side effects, that raises or lowers the drug’s final price. But let’s be real: if I need to dedicate forty square feet of space just to remove ‘possibly horrible nightmares’ from my contraceptive cream, then you’re going to take those nightmares with your no-baby cream and you’re going to like them.

Surely an unplanned pregnancy is a much bigger ‘nightmare’ than merely waking up in a cold terror sweat every single day for the rest of your life.

Even the research tree, which is mostly focused on getting new machines, very casually contains things like ‘outsourcing’ and ‘regulatory connections’. Again, it never explicitly moralizes. You’re just lowering salary costs and increasing drug ratings, yay! Whether or not you want to realize how your company is doing all that is entirely up to you.

But let’s just say it wasn’t *not* prophetic when I chose this name.

I wouldn’t have guessed it on beforehand, but I now think Big Pharma could actually have done more with the idea. As it stands, the game doesn’t actually touch on a lot of Big Pharma Conspiracy topics: you won’t find references to the suppressed cures for cancer and AIDS, for instance. All that stuff very clearly exists in the open. You’re just not making it because it’s bloody hard to do. Likewise, I don’t think there’s any meaningful interplay between the ‘fights cancer’ effect and the ‘cures cancer’ one. I think there isn’t.

And similarly, Big Pharma doesn’t really touch on the ‘medical research’ side of the whole drug industry. Or the shipping side. Or the target markets side. Or anything that doesn’t take place on a factory floor, matter of fact. It almost presents a medicine utopia: a place where ingredients are freely available without ecological impact, where the link between ingredients and active curing effects is 100% clear and easy to follow, where machines never break or malfunction and never need to be updated,
and where completed drugs are sold to a happy homogenous mass market, with absolutely no geopolitical pressure or other social interference.

But then, I understand why. That game isn’t this game. For all the interesting ethical questions Big Pharma does raise, it is — at the core — a game about running conveyor belts between machines. The medicine theme is neat, and I absolutely adore the cute and colourful visualizations. But it could just have easily been a game about, I dunno, consumer electronics. Or car parts. Or bagels.

Though I’d hate to have missed out on these cute lil’ potions.

‘Big Bagels’. Maybe that could be Twice Circled’s next game. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t play that.

Final thoughts

As I expected, my interest in Big Pharma did eventually peter out. The different scenarios help keep the game fresh, and the fact that all ingredients are randomized keeps the game from feeling samey for a while. But simultaneously, the core of the game is never very different: find the best medicine, then make the best medicine in the best possible way, then do research and exploration to find better medicine and better ways. And after I played two scenarios where I hit the tail end of the tech tree, the familiar sense of routine started to seep in.

The fact that Big Pharma’s scenarios all take so long doesn’t do it favours either.

It took me literal hours to get all this set up.

That said, I had a lot of fun with Big Pharma in the pre-routine hours. It’s a clever economic puzzle game that uses randomization to stay fresh, scientific backing to stay interesting, and colourful graphics and a neat soundtrack to stay delightful. And to hide the horrible dystopian Drug Overlord you’re ever so slowly becoming. No, don’t try to hide it. I know what you added to those syringes. I know what’s really causing those ‘terrible nightmares’. Don’t worry; I’d have done the same thing.

Big Pharma can be bought from a convenient variety of stores, usually running you about twenty-five bucks. It’s worth playing for the journey of ethical self-discovery alone. With some really neat gameplay as the sugar coating for what might turn out a pretty bitter pill.

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Jarenth was always nice to every single patient and you can never prove otherwise. Congratulate his great moral fortitude on Twitter or share cost-cutting tips with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

3 comments

  1. Interesting subject matter, but the game doesn’t explore the darkest depths? Fun for a while, but then you just get into the same routine every game? Colourful graphics and a cheery soundtrack? Truly, Big Pharma is the Tropico of puzzle games. I’ll definitely be getting it, once I can spare the dust.

  2. I bought this game recently and really enjoyed it! It’s fairly simple but complex enough to keep me interested, and I’m only getting into the intermediate-level scenarios. I thought I had a good handle on things, but that trick with the overlapping Autoclave belts shows that I’ve still got a lot to learn!

    P.S. I also recently bought Factorio, largely on your article’s recommendation, and have had a ton of fun with it. I’ve been on some sort of process engineering kick lately, I guess.

    1. One bit of criticism that didn’t end up making the review is that Big Pharma’s tutorial doesn’t quite teach you everything. I’ve heard from people that they didn’t know you can move and rotate machines after buying, for instance. And similarly, the idea that you can have complicated overlapping belt systems — and that the game will sort out the specific details of what goes where — is something that’s never explicitly addressed.

      It is implicitly addressed, though. Do you know where I first picked up that trick? From studying the machine layouts on the title screen.

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