Stu­dio Pro­file

In­side Re­bel­lion, the Sniper Elite stu­dio tran­si­tion­ing from game de­vel­op­ment to pub­lish­ing

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL Photography Joby Ses­sions

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”

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