Inside Rebellion, the Sniper Elite studio transitioning from game development to publishing
There’s a trio of homebrew stills, each containing a different-coloured beer, nestled at the back of Rebellion’s cavernous warehouse. The vast space, which is attached to Rebellion’s offices and must be passed through to reach the company’s in-house green-screen and facial-capture studio, is filled with 24 years of company history, abandoned devkits, and memorabilia from 2000AD – the British comic publisher that Rebellion acquired, appropriately, in 2000. This treasure trove might record nearly two-and-a-half decades of Rebellion’s evolution, but it’s those stills that best represent the do-it-yourself nature of this plucky British stalwart’s worldview.
“I suppose the thing that drives Rebellion’s psyche, if you like, is a sense of being fiercely independent. Doing things our own way,” head of creative Tim Jones tells us once we’re safely back in the warmth of the office. “I’ve been here for nearly 20 years now, and a big part of why I’m still here is because I feel very at home with that sensibility and approach to things.”
That ethos has been part of the company’s makeup since the very beginning, when brothers Chris and Jason Kingsley founded the company in 1992. “When we first started Rebellion, we wanted to make our own games,” Jason says. “In those days you could pitch a game with a sketch on one side of a sheet of dot-matrix paper, and somebody would pay you an incredibly low amount of money to make it, then publish it and earn all the money. But as young men interested in making games, that was fine: we were paid a little bit of money to effectively do our hobby. I don’t think [that outlook] has changed, but we’ve been through some quite severe transitions.”
Perhaps the most profound change came about when the pair realised that, as pleasant as receiving a modest income for relative creative freedom was, work-for-hire projects were a safer bet when it came to keeping the company afloat. “We did some really original games, like
Blade Warrior and Eye Of The Storm, and all sorts of interesting conceptual things that were moderate commercial successes but didn’t really go on to do anything,” Kingsley explains. “And then as the company grew it became obvious work-for-hire was the way to go. There were a lot of barriers to getting your game to market at that time: you couldn’t just publish on the original PlayStation – you had to go through a publisher, and it was a fairly onerous and restrictive route.”
As a result, and despite its name, Rebellion became increasingly reliant on the work it did for the establishment. And while there were highs along the way, this setup – predictably, perhaps – didn’t sit particularly well with the studio’s outlook. Tied to this restlessness was a growing realisation that many of Rebellion’s employers cared considerably less about the quality of the finished product than they did quarterly financial results, and often didn’t share the studio’s vision.
“We went through some ups and downs with our work-for-hire. We made some really good games, and we made some moderate games that missed the mark entirely,” Kingsley admits. “We got to the stage of thinking, ‘This is ridiculous. We’re making games that aren’t being positioned in the way we think they should be in the marketplace.’ Rogue Warrior, for example – which I still maintain has the best sweary outro credits of any game ever – was originally conceived as a parody of ’80s action movies. But it wasn’t positioned that way, so everybody thought it was taking itself seriously. It wasn’t a particularly good game, but it fell totally flat. It was developed in a very short amount of time and we got a lot of really bad – completely fairly – reviews for it. I don’t think it was utterly terrible, but it wasn’t what we wanted to be doing.”
Trapped by the cycle that originally shored up the company, the Kingsleys now found themselves kicking back against the system again, formulating plans to steer them back towards the vision on which they had originally founded Rebellion. Over time, the team began to balance out its work-for-hire projects with original games. Today, enviably, it has no publisher attachments and is able to self-fund all of its work.
“These days everything we’re doing is Rebellion-owned IP – and self-published and funded,” Jones says, clearly happy with the arrangement. “And that runs through to using our own engine and building our own technology.”
“Hopefully, people will notice that the past five years of our game output has been significantly improved,” Kingsley adds. “Certainly, from a commercial perspective things have gone incredibly well for us.”
Indeed, it has been an eventful year for Rebellion. While it has yet to announce any details, the company is expanding its publishing remit to other studios (“We’re working with a few developers at the moment,” Kingsley says. “It’s nice to be able to reflect how we would have liked to be treated – we’re trying not to make any of the mistakes that were done to us”), and it has completed two high-profile projects of its own.
Battlezone, a PSVR launch title and the studio’s first foray into VR, was first out of the gates, while
Sniper Elite 4 will land in 2017. They represent the studio’s most refined output yet, which is all the more significant for the fact that Rebellion’s games have often been criticised for containing bugs or a perceived lack of polish.
“I think we have a bit of an unfair reputation in some people’s minds for releasing games that aren’t quite as polished as they could be,” Kingsley says. “But quite frankly, we’re competing in the worldwide market with games that are costing upwards of $80 to $100 million to develop. We have a tiny fraction of that budget, and yet we’re still making games that other people move away from our release slot for,
“WE’RE COMPETING WITH GAMES THAT COST UPWARDS OF $100M TO DEVELOP. WE HAVE A FRACTION OF THAT BUDGET”
and hopefully will chart really well. I’m very proud of that. We’re up there with the biggest games, which is brilliant. Of course, from the point of view of players and pro reviewers, it doesn’t matter how much the game cost to develop – it’s irrelevant. But at the same time it would be nice to be recognised for making a game that’s nearly as good as ‘Massive Game X’ for a tenth of the price [laughs].”
Battlezone is convincing
evidence of what appears to be a new phase for Rebellion. Meanwhile, Sniper Elite 4’ s rescheduled release date (it was originally due to launch just after
Battlezone) is an encouraging demonstration of the studio’s intent. But Kingsley is well aware of the challenge that faces the studio.
“The problem when you’re first starting to fund your own games and get them out there is the amount of QA you can put in. I think we underestimated the importance and the value of very deep QA in the past – and sometimes, when we’ve been working with partners, they’ve had a deadline to meet – but we’ve got the biggest QA department we’ve ever had, and we use external QA people, too. Now we’re in a situation where it’s up to us. With Battlezone and
Sniper Elite 4, we took a look at it and I said to our teams, ‘Can we do these both at the same time?’ And the answer was no. So I asked if it would be useful for Sniper Elite to have a few more months of polish. And the team said, ‘Of course it would, absolutely.’ Dev teams can always spend more time polishing things up, so I’m hoping that Sniper Elite 4 will be the least buggy thing we’ve ever released!” Kingsley’s willingness to quip about such things is refreshing, but it’s also representative of the studio’s slightly skewed take on development.
“We have, to some extent, a kind of British, punky edge to the way that we make things,” Jones muses when we ask him about this aspect of the company. “They might not have the same kind of, let’s say, corporate polish that you might see in a 1,000-person game from Ubisoft. But at the same time, we’re up there with those guys in the top ten or top five, and we get a big kick out of that, as you can imagine. We’re punching above our weight, I suppose.”
“We almost feel slightly isolated,” Kingsley says. “I’ve never sought to make games that win awards. I’ve always wanted to make games that were fun to play, and were interesting and challenging. We’ve always had a reputation for making quite hard games – with Battlezone recently, a lot of people are going, ‘This is a great game, but boy is it hard.’ Maybe we got the difficulty level slightly wrong with that one. But I’ve always wanted gameplay to factor very highly in what we do. Somebody saying the game is really good is better than winning a gong or an award. Perhaps. I mean, it’s always nice to win awards as well, but we never really chase them.”
He pauses, thinking. “Maybe one could say that we’re interested in pursuing low art, rather than high art. But when we make a game idea, we try to make the best, most fun game we can. And maybe it’s just in Chris and my, and the team’s, genetics that we don’t want to make a game about challenging issues. We want to make games about escapism and fun. And that’s harder to win critical acclaim for. At the end of the day, what actually matters is that we sell enough copies of our games to get some money in to keep the doors open and make some more new games. The rest of it is gravy, ultimately.”
For all its success, and the not-inconsiderable growth over the years, Rebellion remains the videogame industry equivalent of the characterful microbrewery elicited by those hidden stills. And despite a number of acquisitions and expansions – not least 2000AD, a trio of book-publishing houses, and what is now Rebellion’s Runcorn studio – it has no desire to transform into a hulking international brewing company.
“I don’t want to get too much bigger in terms of numbers of people,” Kingsley says. “I’d like to get more ambitious in our titles, but that doesn’t mean making $80 million games. It does perhaps mean trying new genres or going slightly outside of our comfort zone – which is partly what Battlezone was. I think there are a lot of games out there that should be good, but have somehow lost their soul. It’s almost like they’re made by so many people, and are so perfected, that they’ve somehow polished out every aspect that makes them interesting. They can be ‘blandified’ down to a lowest common denominator, and I think that can be dangerous.
“So I’d like to think that we’re dedicated to games that are very focused on doing one or two things well. If it’s sniping, then it’s sniping done as best as we can do it – with stealth and little bit of clambering around, of course. But overall I just want to make good games.”
“WE WANT TO MAKE GAMES ABOUT ESCAPISM AND FUN. THAT’S HARDER TO WIN CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR”
Head of creative Tim Jones (left), and CEO Jason Kingsley, who co-founded Rebellion with his brother, Chris, in 1992
Founded 1992 Employees 200 Key staff Jason Kingsley (CEO, co-founder), Chris Kingsley (CTO, co-founder), Tim Jones (head of creative), Chris Payton (head of art) URL www.rebellion.co.uk Selected softography Neverdead, Sniper Elite series, Battlezone, Rogue Trooper, Dredd Vs Death, Aliens Vs Predator 2000 Current projects Sniper Elite 4, unannounced project
Rebellion’s back catalogue includes games that use characters from the 2000AD universe, but the company has been careful to avoid focusing entirely on this potentially lucrative trajectory. Kingsley is clear that he doesn’t want Rebellion labelled “the 2000AD studio”