The British adventurers celebrating 25 years in game development
We celebrate 25 years of game development with UK adventureadv veteran Revolution Software
This year, Revolution Software celebrated a quarter of a century in the videogame industry. Yet a decade ago, reaching such a milestone seemed unlikely. Despite the critical and commercial success of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, it found itself in a financially parlous position. “At that point the recoupment model was broken,” the studio’s co-founder and managing director Charles Cecil tells us. So while the game’s publisher THQ gleefully informed Revolution that The Sleeping Dragon had earned roughly $5m in revenue, this was scant consolation for the studio, since the conditions of the publishing deal coupled with the cost of development had left it in the red to the tune of £200,000. Cecil managed to negotiate more favourable terms for the follow-up, Broken Sword: The Angel Of Death, but by then the company had become unsustainable.
“We would complete a project and then start new concept ideas,” says co-founder and COO Noirin Carmody. “There was a bit of overlap, but not enough for us to pitch our next prototype to a publisher and hope they would sign it up.” Contract discussions added further delays, in part thanks to the company’s desire to retain the rights to its intellectual property. “Publishers wanted some extra comfort because they weren’t getting the IP, just a licence to sell and produce [our games] over a period of time,” Carmody says.
In anticipation of the emerging digital market, Carmody steered the company toward adopting a new business model – moving from a larger in-house studio with around 50 staff to a small core team that would employ artists and coders on a freelance basis each time it began a new project. Without taking this step, Carmody believes, Revolution might not have survived. “The downside was we had this amazing team of people, and it was a tough decision to make.”
It was the beginning of a new chapter in the story of a British studio which, true to its name, had helped shape an entire genre. Cecil had been writing adventure games since the ZX81 days, but during his time at Activision he became concerned that series such as Sierra’s King’s Quest had begun to take themselves too seriously. “I loved the idea of writing adventures that had strong stories, but that mocked themselves in some way,” he says, “so you had that juxtaposition of the drama and the humour.” Along with Carmody, then general manager at Sierra, Tony Warriner, a programmer and longtime colleague, and the latter’s friend David Sykes, the four co-founded Revolution – once Sean Brennan, Cecil’s friend at Mirrorsoft, had offered the publisher’s support.
Following the now-famous incident where a stroke of good fortune saw thieves make off with a car radio while ignoring Cecil’s expensive 386 PC, wrapped up and strapped in on the back seat, Mirrorsoft accepted the writer’s pitch for a new adventure game, tentatively named Vengeance. As development progressed, the publisher’s head of marketing, Alison Beasley, phoned Cecil to request ideas for a new title. Cecil fired back a list with a joke title at the bottom: Lure Of The Temptress. The publisher, naturally, loved it. “I said, ‘Alison, that’s all very well, but we have a problem: there’s no luring, and there’s no temptress,’” Cecil recalls. “And she said, ‘Well, can you put one in?’ She talked to Sean and they decided the game was a bit small anyway, so they gave us another three or four months to bulk out the game slightly and add some luring, and add a temptress.” After the sudden death of owner Robert Maxwell, Mirrorsoft quickly collapsed, but contract terms meant the rights to the game reverted to the studio. Sean Brennan moved to Virgin Interactive, and Revolution moved with him, the publisher releasing the game to wide acclaim in 1993.
Revolution’s next two games were, perhaps, the developer’s defining releases. After the release of Lure Of The Temptress, Cecil approached comic-book artist Dave Gibbons to collaborate on a cyberpunk adventure, having tried and failed during his time at Activision to licence arguably Gibbons’ most famous work, Watchmen. The artist agreed. Despite his celebrity, Gibbons threw himself into the project, enduring lengthy journeys from his home in London to Revolution’s base in Hull to work on the game. “It was amazing, because that [Doncaster to Hull] train was an abomination,” Cecil tells us. “At the time, we had a little office above a fruit machine arcade, and in one corner it had a kitchen that served bacon butties, and for us it was a great treat to go down and buy a bacon butty. And that was probably what swung it for Dave to travel up.” Gibbons bought himself a copy of Deluxe Paint in order to create the art for the game’s characters and backgrounds on a Commodore Amiga. “We worked very closely with him on the design,” Cecil adds. “He contributed to the story, and was an absolutely integral part of the whole process.”
Beneath A Steel Sky was a critical and commercial success on release, though the cult reputation it now enjoys is chiefly thanks to its freeware release in 2003. By 1998, Windows no longer supported DOS, making the game – along with Lure Of The Temptress – unplayable on newer machines. “The wonderful people at ScummVM asked us for the source code and the assets,” Cecil tells us, “which we gladly gave them. They basically rewrote it, which meant that the game was effectively playable again on all modern systems thanks to them. And we decided, because the game was effectively of no value as a DOS product, we should just give it away. Then it became one of the games bundled with Linux packages, so a huge number of people have played it. Which, of course, has led to an awful lot of people asking us when we’re going to make a sequel.”
“THEY GAVE US ANOTHER THREE OR FOUR MONTHS TO BULK OUT THE GAME AND ADD SOME LURING AND A TEMPTRESS”
“OUR FANS ARE CONVINCED THAT THE DA VINCI CODE MUST HAVE TAKEN INSPIRATION FROM BROKEN SWORD”
The work of the team at ScummVM worked in Revolution’s favour once more in 2009, when it ported Beneath A Steel Sky to iOS, providing a platform that allowed the studio to convert it to touch devices more easily than would otherwise have been possible. Its success encouraged Revolution to bring its biggest hit to a new audience. The story of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars is well documented – suffice it to say that this Paris-set adventure, with its absorbing central mystery, witty script and strong characterisation, is still capturing the imaginations of players two decades on from its 1996 debut, even if the Knights Templar are now something of a cliché. “We got there six years or so before Dan Brown,” Cecil grins, “and our fans are absolutely convinced that The Da Vinci Code must have taken inspiration from Broken Sword. Now I would never make any claims of plagiarism myself, but I’m more than happy for others to do so on my behalf.”
It wasn’t the original that was ported to iOS but the Director’s Cut, which had previously launched on DS and Wii, courtesy of Ubisoft. But it was Apple’s mobile revolution that changed everything for the studio. “Instead of that broken recoupment model where effectively a developer got seven per cent, but against that seven per cent was your [cost of] development, now we were in a model where we could self-publish, and we were getting 70 per cent,” Cecil says. The game sold steadily on iOS until, in late 2010, Apple asked to feature the game in its 12 Days Of Christmas promotion, whereby a free download would be offered to all iOS users over the holiday season. “We had just released Broken Sword 2, so it felt like a good way of promoting Broken Sword to a wider audience.” In its original incarnation, The Shadow Of The Templars sold half-a-million copies; Apple’s initiative saw the iOS version reach five times as many players. “It became clear that if you had ideas and you produced games that people wanted,” Cecil continues, “then it didn’t matter how big you were, because ultimately you now had a level playing field.”
Revolution was energised by the response, while the revenues were enough to republish the first two Broken Swords on PC via Steam and Good Old Games – which in turn gave the studio the confidence to start work on a fifth game in the series. After half a year, the coffers were starting to look rather bare and, as Carmody recounts, a collective decision was made to try to fund development through a Kickstarter campaign. “Tony, Charles and I had been talking about it quite a lot – and this was the early days of Kickstarter, so only the US company existed,” she tells us. “Over the years we’d had plenty of letters, and the sales of our games [told us] there was an audience out there. We thought, ‘Well, what have we got to lose?’ and decided to go for it.”
The campaign, however, took longer than anticipated. Revolution had to set up a US-based company and open a US bank account to receive funding. And it had planned something special for the announcement video, an amusing fourth-wall-breaking skit, which begins with protagonists George and Nico in conversation, with Cecil appearing in the game world as himself before appealing to backers. “It was fun,” Carmody says, “but it involved a lot of research.” The gambit worked: the campaign reached a third of its target within the first day, which put Revolution in a better position to approach other funders. “We had proof of a dedicated fanbase, which gave them a lot of confidence,” she adds.
Development wasn’t without its hitches – the game was delayed once, and then released in two parts – but the community was supportive. Revolution’s candour and responsiveness to feedback played a part, but Carmody was still pleasantly surprised to find backers leaping to the studio’s defence at what was a troubled time for Kickstarter projects. “I think it was mostly the media who were saying, ‘Oh, another game that hasn’t come out when it promised,’ but our fans said they would prefer to wait for the best we could give them, and that was fantastic.”
Revolution has endured significant upheaval during its 25 years. Yet in some ways it’s now in a similar position to when it started out. Three of the four co-founders are still at the company – David Sykes is no longer involved in development but retains his shareholding – forming a small core team that continues to seek talented individuals to collaborate with. “It was a huge pleasure to see Dave Gibbons again recently,” Cecil teases, “and talk about the possibility of working with him on a game.” Whatever the immediate future holds, Cecil insists Revolution can count itself “tremendously fortunate” to still be a part of the videogame industry. After a quartercentury of broken swords and steel skies, its fans would surely argue that they’re the lucky ones.
Founded 1990 Employees 9 Key staff Charles Cecil (co-founder), Noirin Carmody (co-founder, COO), Tony Warriner (co-founder)
Selected softography Lure Of The Temptress, Beneath A Steel Sky, Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars, In Cold Blood, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse
Current projects TBA
Along with Cecil, co-founders Tony Warriner (left) and Noirin Carmody are still actively involved in the creative process
Cecil (left) has overseen decades of traditional development. Today Revolution has adopted a flexible setup that allows staff to work remotely, though once a game goes into full production, the studio hires out an office so its freelancers can work closely together