Big Pharma, developed by Tim Wicksteed under the name of Twice Circled, is a strategy game that manages to make working in the pharmaceutical industry look ethically horrible, and incredibly fun at the same time.
Big Pharma is, at its core, a tycoon game. You micromanage every aspect of a pharmaceutical company’s drug production, research, and business decisions to steer your company towards greater profit and domination over your competitors. At first glance, there’s nothing sinister-looking about it, with an aesthetic that brings to mind Bullfrog’s classic Theme Hospital. But as you progress, you realize that your company thrives on human misery. You want people to get sick so that the demand for your pharmaceutical drugs goes up, allowing you to jack up the price. It’s twisted, but in the end you enjoy doing it because the gameplay is so damn satisfying.
At the beginning of most stages, you’re given a set amount of cash, a set amount of space in your factory, a small selection of raw ingredients to make your drugs with, and an objective to complete. Goals vary as you progress, though mostly you’ll be fulfilling a quota of a certain type of drug withina the allotted time. However, meeting these quotas becomes more difficult as the game progresses. Later levels require that your drugs are high quality, which is no easy task considering that all of them can have side effects that bring the overall quality down.
To make the drugs, you construct an assembly line connecting various machines. Each machine a drug travels through alters it in certain ways. Many increase or decrease its concentration, which alter its effects. More often than not, you’ll have to run it through several machines to get it at just the right concentration.
It’s up to you design a system of processing machines that will ultimately give you the desired effects you want, as well as making the finished product profitable. You can also upgrade machines and ingredients to lower costs, and can develop and find more drugs by hiring scientists and explorers.
One of the trickier aspects of Big Pharma is deciding what side effects you’re willing to keep in order to ensure maximum profit. Sure, the quality might go down – adversely affecting its value; but making it completely free of side-effects may take more time and money than it’s worth. In the end, you have to decide which is the more profitable option. You can try to be altruistic and strive to make the best product for the general public – but profit always comes first.
As levels become harder, whole new gameplay aspects are introduced, such as the ability to patent your drugs in order to obtain exclusive selling rights. It’s a great way to monopolize a profitable pharmaceutical, but be warned: your competitors can and will do the same to cut you off from selling high-profit medicines.
In the six tutorial levels, you’re taught the basic mechanics like finding raw materials to produce your medicine and upgrading your machinery. Unfortunately, it’s explained entirely via a small text boxes. So much information is crammed in these boxes that it can be hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do as more and more complex tasks are introduced. It does the job, but it’s not the most elegant way of teaching you how to play.
Once you finish the tutorial levels, you’re left to your own devices to complete various scenarios. While intimidating at first, you do slowly become more engrossed as you start to get the hang of things.
The first level gives you ample time, resources, and an easy objective of generating $1,000,000 of revenue over the course of 10 in-game years, so you get to experiment enough with the controls without worrying about running out of time and resources. Considering how much information you have to process during the tutorials, it was a smart move on the developer’s part to design the first level where you can get a full grasp on how the basic controls work.
However, by the second level you’ll be forced to think out your moves much more carefully. You’re given less cash to start with, and one too many mistakes can leave your company on the verge of bankruptcy. While the sudden increase in difficulty is initially jarring, it actually gives Big Pharma a much-needed challenge and forces you to get creative around how to complete your objective as efficiently as possible.
Though Big Pharma does a good job of letting you practice, it’s disappointing that an in-game manual wasn’t included. While info does appear when you mouse over things, with so many different mechanics needing to be juggled, it’s easy to feel stuck because you can’t find where you’ve gone wrong. It’s also difficult to predict how your product will turn out before constructing the assembly line it must go through, by which point you may have built yourself into a corner.
You really have to be meticulous on which ingredients go in which machines, especially when you’re mixing different ingredients to augment your drug’s effects. If you’re not careful you can accidentally cancel out the desired effect, wasting a lot of money in the process. You wouldn’t want the game to be too forgiving, but some kind of forecast of how things will turn out would have been nice.
Big Pharma’s innocuous visuals perfectly offsets the tone overall tone of the subject matter. The music on the other hand, is repetitive. Sure it may be in the same unoffensive tone as the visuals, but the same two or three background songs gets old fast. A little more variety wouldn’t have gone amiss, and you’ll soon turn off the music altogether and find yourself digging into your music collection to find something else to listen to while you play.
There’s a theme here with Big Pharma; many of its biggest strengths are also its biggest weaknesses. But it doesn’t detract from your overall enjoyment that much, and still manages to keep you engrossed for hours on end.
Big Pharma is not a perfect game, and some aspects cause frustration. But you’ll have plenty of fun playing it, and it manages to show you that even the most well-intentioned of us can succumb to the temptation of making huge profits on the back of human misery. No matter what kind of person you are, money is the bottom line – conscience be damned. As Michael Douglas once said in his role as Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street: Greed is Good.