Stu­dio Pro­file

The Bri­tish adventurers cel­e­brat­ing 25 years in game de­vel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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)

URL www.revo­lu­tion.co.uk

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

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