Charles Cecil is without doubt a pioneer is his own right. To co-found and lead an indie games company, from the UK, on the international scale and compete, successfully, with some of the biggest adventure games on the planet, is no easy feat. From Lure of the Temptress to Broken Sword, Revolution Software is known around the world for it’s distinctive artwork, gameplay, characters and humour. TGL recently sat down with the man behind Broken Sword to talk about his break into the gaming industry, setting up Revolution, the jump from 2D to 3D and much more…
TGL: So why don’t you tell us a little about the history of Broken Sword?
Charles Cecil: It was interesting really. When we finished the first Broken Sword, we had a good relationship with Sony. I asked them would they be interested in publishing a Playstation version. They sort of felt, “yeah it might be worth it”, but the point is is that it was a 2D game and everyone thought that the Playstation was all about 3D. Our publisher at the time was Virgin Interactive, who were excellent I have to say, but they had no interest in the Playstation version whatsoever – they were convinced it wouldn’t sell. I eventually convinced Sony to publish it, but they weren’t too excited…and the game just flew. I mean it got 9/10′s and it sold about a quater of a million.
TGL: If TGL had existed back then, we rekon it probably would have got a 9/10 from us too.
CC: Ah! Brilliant! <laughs> The significance of that is that is it was fairly early in the Playstation’s life so they were big big big numbers! What I sort of regret is that we didn’t put more work into the interface because clearly if you were using a joypad, you’d sort of expect direct control. And I really wish we had spent the time to allow people to have that direct control, much like we did with BS3, because I think it would have translated much better.
TGL: You mean with the analog sticks?
CC: Yeah with the analog sticks, rather than trying to pretend it was a sort of point and click. But no it was great, but the interesting thing is that it just sold and sold and then it obviously declined in the end. For some reason Sony didn’t want to republish it though, which was a bit silly because of the huge demand.
TGL: ….and there still is! There’s a huge cult following still!
CC: For the Playstation version?
TGL: Yeah! We hope you know this! There’s a massive under-current of people that want the original Playstation copies!
CC: How extraordinary!
TGL: Yeah it’s fantastic, in a cruel way!
CC: Wow! What I was going to say was that what we noticed that actually, you had to pay more than the original retail price at the start for a second-hand version – which is sort of slightly crazy isn’t it?!
CC: How extraordinary! <laughs>
TGL: Isn’t it great to see?
CC: That’s great! Let me ask you, do you get those Yellow Pages adverts? “Day V Lately” looking for his own title?
CC: Well it’s an adverts we get in the UK where this guy is looking for a particular album and eventually finds it…
TGL: Oh yeah, we know it, it’s new right?
CC: Yeah! Well he eventually finds it and when they ask for his name he replies “My name is Day V Lately”. The great thing is that, I don’t have any of my own titles and I’ve been writing since the ZX81. So, I suddenly realised that unless I got hold of them – they would be lost forever! The original titles were incredibly crude! So I bought one of my games on ebay – that was my “Dave V Lately” moment! I then sent the guy a message on ebay and it said something like…. “I’m so pleased to get hold if this! I wrote it!” to which the seller replied “If I had known that, I would have charged you more!”. A very mean reply if you ask me! <laughs>
TGL: Maybe you could tell us a bit about how you got into the industry? Could you tell us a bit about the establishment of Revolution Software too? We’ve always seen the company as an indie company that would release focused and polished titles…
CC: Yeah, you know we really couldn’t be more indie. We have two employees at Revolution…seriously! Then we have a core team of about seven or eight people who work full-time. Then we have a group beyond that of around ten…so we have around twenty people – but it’s very fluid. Some people call it the “Hollywood model” and in fact, it works very well because when we have a particular game we put the right team for it and it keeps the whole thing fresh.
But to answer your question – how did I get into it? When I left school in 1980… (stares at Joe)
TGL: Oohhh scary…
CC: <Laughs> I know! It is scary! So after I left school I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer! I was sponsored by Ford and I did a fantastic degree. I soon realised that it wasn’t for me, and a friend of mine Richard Turner, who was also on the same course with Ford, just started a company. He had just disassembled the rom of the ZX-80, the sinclair ZX-80, which meant that he basically pulled it apart and it allowed people that wanted to write code for it, direct access to that code. He established a company named “Artic Computing” and he asked me if I wanted to start writing code for it (he’s a very bright guy). I was in University and like all students, I needed beer money! So I decided to take him up on the invitation and my first game was called (Charles then lowers his voice to a serious tone) “Adventure B”, because the game before it was “Adventure A”…
CC: <Laughs> Yes! Seriously! My second game was “Adventure C” then “Adventure D”. The packaging consisted of a lithograph-thing and we basically got pieces of cardboard and lithograph…and well it was very very crude indeed! Then we sold them at mico-fares, which were small tables where you sat there and gamers can along and bought them up.
TGL: How surreal…
CC: It was just so much fun and you would literally talk directly to your audience. What happened then was publishers came along, then retailers so actually the link between developers and gamers grew and grew. Now, you have a developer who produces a game, then a publisher will publish it, distributors will distribute it, retailers will retail it and gamers will then play it: generally unaware of the details in the whole chain. The really fun thing which is happening with Revolution Software now is by being able to self-publish, as we have done for some of our recent titles. We’re actually rebuilding that sort of relationship directly with out own audience. In many ways it goes back to to the old days with the micro-fares.
So that was the beginning of the industry, back in 1981. I worked with Artic, writing some of their games, then I moved onto working with some publishers, namely “U.S. Gold” who published Outrun! Fantastic game! I then moved onto working with a company called “Activison”. You known them of course, but it’s a different company these days. I started to get very frustrated because, as head of development, I was putting all the work in and they were taking all the credit. So I was very keen to get back into development and in 1990, I set up Revolution Software.
You see I had been invited by a friend of mine, Shawn Brennon, who was the deputy manager director at Mirrorsoft. Mirrorsoft was owned by Robert Maxwell, the newspaper tycoon – you know the guy that “fell off the yaught”, or was “pushed”. Anway, he had an very powerful publishing company named Mirrorsoft. Shawn has proposed that if I was willing to make the titles then Mirrorsoft would publish the games.
TGL: That’s amazing considering how used you were to the older ways…
CC: Definietly yes. I came up with an idea, sometime later, named “Lure of the Temptress”. I pitched it at them and Shawn was great, he was like “Yep, looks really good – we’ll fund it”. Of course back then, funding a game cost maybe 10 or £15,000. These days they cost what, a few million for the cheaper titles and 100,000,000 in the deep end. But when I wrote my first adventure game – I never got paid! If I was paid, it would’ve been around…hmmm… £100 pounds? So effectively you’ve a jump of around a hundred fold in ten years, and then another hundred fold again, so you’ve got a jump in 20 years of 10,000!!
Let’s put it this way: think about it. Our first games, on the ZX-81 ran with 1KB of memory! (Charles then picks up his iPod) This is a 32GB, this is 32,000,000 times as much memory as our ZX-81!! Am I getting old? Because I just think that’s extraordinary!!
TGL: It is! But moving on a little towards the Virtual Theatre. With the implementation of this tech into Lure and Steel Sky, in retrospect, how innovative do you think it was in its day? Instead of static NPCs, you had characters that seemed to have personalities, they wandered, shuffled and acted like they were “active” in the world.
CC: You know that’s an excellent question. I really do regret that we didn’t develop it futher. It was probably more appropriate to suit an RPG setting more than an adventure to be honest. The ability to chain commands together, like “tell ratpouch to go here and pick up…” was, I think very innovative. The more I think about it the more I think we were kinda’ stuck between genres. Virtual Threatre found itself caught between RPGs and Adventures and ultimately we decided we’d be heading down the Adventure route. I found it very difficult to reconsile the two. In Beneath a Steel Sky, you’d see the characters rambling around and in fact, there’s a little bit of that in recent games too but I don’t think it ever realised its full potential. And actually if it did, we would have been down an RPG route and not the Adventure one.
TGL: I know a lot of fans will want to ask you this and in all honesty, it’s been chewing us up for quite sometime. Charles, how do you feel about what you could describe as the inevitable transition from 2D to 3D with the Broken Sword franchise? We recently interviewed Rolf Saxon and mentioned it to him and…
CC: Did you??!
TGL: Yeah! And he told us that it wasn’t a decision that was taken very lightly.
CC: He’s a great guy!
TGL: Ah yeah he’s a great guy!
CC: I’m very impressed you guys spoke with Rolf! Ok…so I’m going to answer this as honestly as I can, but I may ramble a little because it’s quite a complex question! If you think of the dynamics of what I was saying earlier that my first game cost £100 in 1981, then in 1991 it cost £20,00 and in 2001 it cost just over £1,000,000. So we’re escalating both in cost and risk. When we found ourselves needing funding in the beginning of 2000, publishers were obsessed that everything was going 3D so we had no choice really but to adopt 3D. I’m not trying to blame anyone, but that’s the position we were in ultimately. That’s just another reason why the IOS situation is so exciting now because if you have a retailer that has 100 slots in their shop, they’ll stock that with titles THEY think will sell. There’s a sort of conservatism, risk-adversity going on. Having gone down a 2D route, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to go ahead – it would not have been funded.
People looked at Heavy Rain, which is an excellent game, I really mean that, but it’s a core-gamers game. It requires you to understand the grammer of the controller and it requires you to press X, Square, Circle and more at the right time, and very quickly. To me, that breaks the primary rule of what an adventure game is.
TGL: So you mean a more passive type of gameplay?
CC: Absolutely. So going forward, we’ll certainly be working towards our roots which is 2D games: the use of 3D certainly when appropriate, but primarly a 2D game full of content, interesting characters and a rich plot.
TGL: So with the release of the Broken Sword titles in the past and on IOS, do you think there’s still a thirst for point-and-click adventures in contemporary gaming? Do you think it’s a niche of its time?
CC: Good question. The point-and-click genre certainly fitted the audience perfectly back in the day.
TGL: The old school gamers..
CC: Exactly. What Sony did when they released the Playstation One was target Students and “hip young people”….god that sounds old doesn’t it! <Laughs>
TGL: It does but Charles, as old as you sound you have more hair than Joe! <Laughs>
CC: <Laughs> They created it as a very visceral gaming system. But what actually happened was that they created a new audience, but alienated a huge branch of gamers.
TGL: Those poor old school gamers!
CC: Yeah I know. A lot of the the old school guys gave up on gaming completely. Then you had the technology war with Xbox, PS2 , Xbox 360 and PS3 and so on. What was very interesting is Nintendo then came along and stuck two fingers up and went “you know what, we’re not going to compete”.
TGL: We really witnessed a total business sidelining strategy didn’t we.
CC: Yeah we really did. Nintendo were making profit on their hardware from day one whereas Microsoft and Sony were losing money. Of course, Nintendo make money on both hardware AND software, but I think we owe Nintendo a helping of gratitude because the Nintendo Wii and the DS actually helped to attract those alienated or marginalised gamers back into gaming. So to answer your question, if you write a casual game that has broad appeal – it will be played by everyone. So absolutely of course there is a place for it in contemporary gaming. We’ve sold, this reinvention of our games, hundreds and thousands of times that was considered to be at a premium price. When it was listed for free for a day there was millions of downloads and then suddenly we had messages and more from people that were saying things like “We never realised these games existed!”. From a commercial perspective it worked very well. Adventure games are ideal for this kind of area, and from a commercial point of view, directly engaging with the audience gives us a great boost of confidence. This in turn is much more rewarding to us and it also means we can fund our own projects.
TGL: The direct approach through IOS is definetly a great thing for many indie developers alright, but have you guys ever considered distribution through both the PSN and Xbox Live?
CC: Ha! Well you have to remember the Broken Sword assests are 640×480.
TGL: You’d have to upscale it clearly…
CC: That would then run the risk of pixelation! We’ve had a lot of people ask about this subject actually, and I have wrestled with the idea alright. Undoubtedly any new projects would exploit these platforms. If you think about the time when we wrote those original games: we backed up the tapes heart-heartedly in case there were bugs…and then some of the tapes got lost…
CC: Yeah… I remember actually…taking all the original data about 5 years ago and thought “I might as well just throw these away”. So we threw away a lot of the original source material away!
TGL: Charles no…
CC: I know! Well we never binned any of the original artwork! But you have to remember that the chances of needing the old data was so infinitely small so actually we thought “Why should we keep it?”. <laughs>
TGL: <laughs> Oh god! I tell you, when the Broken Sword forums catch on to this there will be collective tears shed!! Ok so let’s move away from that please! Tell us Charles, what’s next for you?
CC: Obviously I can’t say much about what I’m up to! I know it’s a very dull answer!
TGL: But we have to ask!
CC: Ah I know! Well it’s strange, I have an almost dual-life guys. In truth, I really enjoy consultancy. As you know, I’ve worked on Doctor Who, but before that I worked before that on Christmas Carol with Disney which was very fun! I was the narrator! I worked with Sumo, I did the original design. I narrated the title using my voice as a placeholder and then the Americans went “That’s great! We want you to do it!”. I told them that I wasn’t a voice actor and their reaction was “No! You’re perfect!”.
So I went into a voice recording studio and of course directed some actors. You get incredibly frustrated when some voice actors deliver lines differently to what you want! After a couple of hours it’s soul destroying! You think that sitting in a chair should be easy! But it’s interesting to sit and view this from the other side.
The thing is, Revolution Software wasn’t really self-sufficient. Under the business model whereby a £20 game goes into the shop, the retailer gets £10 out of that. Of the £10 that comes back to the publisher, they pay £3 back to the format holders so you’re down to £7. Of that £7 you’re down 20% which goes to the developers, which is about £1.40 and that £1.40 goes up against localisation, QA and all costs. So in other words, the developer never made much. Everytime Revolution made an original title: we lost money.
TGL: That’s the dangers of creativity really isn’t it?
CC: It really is. It’s extraordinary. Revolution still has an overdraft from previous games that have made publishers millions. That’s ok as that’s the way the business works you know? But what it did is it forced me to take on different roles which I love! For example, I never would have sat down with Ron Howard and talk to him about the Da Vinci Code! It’s a great pleasure and a real privilege.
Ultimately, the old model meant we used to earn around 7% against all costs. But now, with Steam for example, we’d get 70% – which is ten times more! Now clearly we need to self-fund. But what it does mean is going forward that Revolution Software has the potential to be very successful now. We’re selling a few hundred thousands of our games now, and sure Broken Sword has literally sold millions.
TGL: Yes, millions by now.
CC: And maybe, if there was a new Broken Sword, that would maybe sell millions too! So to answer your question, the way I should have more precise. Going forward, I aim to contribute to work on different projects, where it’s appropriate. But as for Revolution? It’s in a strong position and dare I say the strongest it’s been in 15 years.
TGL: You know, as fans of the Broken Sword franchise, we have to say that’s really great to hear!
CC: It really is! Fantastic!
TGL would like to thank Charles for sitting down with us to talk about the creation of one of the most beloved gaming franchises of all time, the financial burden of creating games and his own personal break into the industry. You can find out more details about Revolution’s titles over on their official website or keep up to date with Charles on his twitter account. Do tell him we sent you!