Digital distribution – to you and me that means downloading games through XBLA, PSN, the Wii Virtual Console, the Apple App Store, Steam and the like. But to developers it means so much more. One such developer hoping to make the most of the digital distribution revolution is York-based Revolution Software, which is set to self-publish a remastered version of its cult sci-fi point and click Beneath a Steel Sky. At the Brighton Develop conference we sat down for an extended chat with managing director Charles Cecil to find out the true impact of digital distribution, and to discuss the recent Ubisoft-published re-release of Broken Sword on Wii and DS.
VideoGamer.com: Digital distribution, XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, Steam and the iPhone, seems to have rekindled that bedroom coding feel from 20 years ago. Would you agree?
Charles Cecil: You're not talking about 20 years ago, you're talking about 25 years ago. It feels like 1982 all over again. In 1982 nobody had any wisdom. They had nothing to judge against what had gone previously. What's so exciting, having been writing games then and writing games now, is everything's changing, but we now have 30 years, those of us who have been around for a long time, have 30 years of experience. There are patterns that are re-emerging. None of this is a great surprise. Everything has come together at the same time. There are huge opportunities, and I would hope that those of us that recognise the patterns can make the best of it.
The idea that you spend $100m on a game, you sell it for $40, it goes through a retailer, retailer takes 40 per cent, the format holder takes 15 per cent, publisher then pays the developer 20 per cent of what's left, which is ultimately less than ten per cent, that's fine for a handful of the big games. Your GTAs, your Fallouts, your Assassin's Creeds, your Call of Dutys and your Halos. You could almost name them now. The odd one is going to re-emerge, but ultimately the rest of the industry is going to be thinking on its feet, is going to be cheaper, is going to be like the indie scene - games that cost tens of thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of millions of dollars. The huge advantage of writing games for iPhone is that the resolution is quite small, you're quite limited in what you could do, Facebook even more so. There are hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, playing games like Mafia Wars. Mafia Wars, it's all right, but it's waiting for somebody to come along and shake the whole thing up.
VideoGamer.com: It's popular because it's there?
CC: Yes, exactly. And nobody took it seriously. I played Mafia Wars six months ago and it was very basic. Now it's a lot more polished, but it's a very transparent system. The games we were writing for the Amstrad CPC in its heyday, were a lot more sophisticated than a lot of the games that appear on Facebook now. Everything's up for grabs. People talk about the fact that you're giving a service today rather than a product, which is true, but I think more importantly you're actually building a relationship directly with your audience. That to me is the most exciting thing. The fact that, through people like yourselves, we hear what our audience say, we react. They follow us on Facebook and on our website.
We need to have a relationship of mutual trust, mutual respect. Piracy is for two reasons: games are too expensive, and the reason they're so expensive is there are so many people in the middle taking their chunk. So they have to be expensive. Secondly, because to the audience, who see these games being sold by these faceless organisations that boast that they're making billions of dollars, it's well, actually if I pirate it then I don't have the DRM. You can either buy a game and go through draconian DRM or you can rip it off and play it without any problems. How insane is that?
What we've got to do is go through price and our direct relationship, is build a relationship with our audience. Yes, okay you could steal it. We know you can steal it. But if you do then you're stopping us from doing decent products that you enjoy playing. The record industry was decimated, absolutely decimated, and so Radiohead gave away their album and said pay us what you think it's worth. I think actually we're going to be doing the same thing. Not necessarily Revolution, but that is the sort of approach that we need to take. It's one of building the trust directly with our audience. That is incredibly powerful. I'm very flattered Broken Sword has tens of thousands of people who are passionate about the brand. That is extraordinarily valuable, and that's a relationship that's more valuable than anything else that we have – the relationship we have directly with our audience.
VideoGamer.com: You've had time to reflect on the release of Broken Sword on the Wii and the DS. Was it a success?
CC: Well, I can't talk about numbers directly because that's Ubisoft's business. Ubi earned several million euros within the first few days of release, so they made a profit effectively from day one, which I'm very pleased by. Ubi cared about the gameplay experience. I've never really worked with a publisher who's been so obsessed with putting it through test so that it has no bugs, putting it through user testing so it's a great gameplay experience. I have an awful lot of loyalty to Ubi because they funded it, so they made it possible, they made it a good product – the DS version got 80 per cent average on Metacritic – it was based on assets that were 15 years old. That 'aint bad.
I feel very proud of it. I feel very pleased. It could have been a cynical, let's milk this brand. The fact that it's been well reviewed, the fact that the people who did play it, on Twitter are raving about it, how exciting it is to relive it, but there's plenty of new stuff, new approach – I would like to think it was a success, both creatively and commercially.
VideoGamer.com: Might you have done anything differently?
CC: The huge advantage is the assets were created at 640x480, for PC, and on the smaller screen that's ideal and they look superb. The problem is that when you blow them up then any faults start coming through. If I have one regret it's that we didn't do more to improve the quality of the voices from the first time around. Everybody commented on it. Nobody slagged us. We still got great reviews. But it's something ideally, I wish I'd had more time to focus on and get right.
VideoGamer.com: I don't think anybody felt it was game breaking. It was simply something that was noticeable.
CC: It was, and I do regret that. But we had constraints in terms of budget and time.
VideoGamer.com: Has the Broken Sword experience now convinced you that what you did was the right thing to do in terms of setting things up for the future?
CC: Oh absolutely.
VideoGamer.com: Because you hadn't done much previous to the re-release.
CC: Previously we worked with publishers that, frankly, we made a loss, because they screwed us down so tightly. They controlled all the rights on any platform, regardless of whether they exploited them or not. That was the way some publishers worked. With Ubi, we licensed them the DS and the Wii. They didn't want other platforms. It's not even worth it for them. And there was never any attempt to stop us from exploiting them on other platforms. It was how a relationship with a publisher should be. It was based on a mutual benefit. They made a profit day one. I'm delighted. They're happy. We might even recoup! But we have the opportunity to now exploit it on other formats, and that's the huge benefit. It's very much a relationship with mutual benefits.