To many, Charles Cecil is the most important game developer in the world. As managing director of York developer Revolution Software Cecil was responsible for point and click adventure game classics Beneath a Steel Sky and the hugely successful Broken Sword series, games that still enjoy a loyal and vociferous fan base today. So when the opportunity to interview the gaming legend presented itself at the launch of Raise the Game, a £450,000 campaign which aims to drive growth and innovation in the UK games industry, we jumped head first at the chance. Read on for news on the next Broken Sword, the possibility of a movie and the state of UK games development. Brace yourself, he pulls no punches...
VideoGamer.com: You've talked about the decline in independent UK game development and publishing. To the average gamer is there any effect?
Charles Cecil: Not at all. Actually there probably is, but it's not an enormous one. Culturally, given that most publishers are American, if they're going to take risks they would much rather take risks with American developers. Of that there's no doubt whatsoever. They tend to prefer to use us all the way across the Atlantic more as work for hire. So as developers it has a huge impact because there's an enormous competitive advantage to overseas developers. As far as your readers are concerned all I would say is that they will tend to get new ideas that come from America than new ideas that come more locally, which may or may not be a bad thing. I don't know. You look at Rockstar North and how extraordinarily they've managed to bridge the cultural divide between American culture and it's written by Scottish developers. So from their perspective it doesn't make much difference.
VideoGamer.com: There is a certain identity to British made games...
CC: And GTA which I think is quite extraordinary, it probably had to be done by a British developer because the Americans would have taken themselves much too seriously. The charm and the joy of that game is the fact that it is tongue in cheek. People that attacked it as vigorously as they did in the wider media did so because they haven't got the first clue what it's actually all about. There are a number of games that are really quite offensive and do rightly give us a bad name, but GTA is certainly not one of them.
VideoGamer.com: Do you sometimes lament the fact that the UK games industry has declined so that we're not getting the kind of classic British game that we used to get?
CC: You could say that GTA was a classic British game. I would say that culturally it's absolutely British. But then it is owned by Rockstar, obviously. I think we have in many ways ourselves to blame. Not developers but as a country. If you look at the history of GTA, after DMA was bought by Gremlin they didn't do any more games. And then Gremlin was bought by Funstar, then the rights transferred to Bertelsmann Music Group. GTA was rather an embarrassment in the portfolio. So when it was picked up by Rockstar, do you remember the launch when it was promoted at E3? All the monitors were displaying State of Emergency because they really believed State of Emergency was a great game. In the corner was GTA3. And of course very quickly people realised that State of Emergency really was very one dimensional and there was this extraordinary game. This gem of an idea was completely overlooked by the UK and indeed the European publishers and is now an American IP. We can only blame ourselves.
VideoGamer.com: You've mentioned you can only see around half a dozen GTA 4 style games a year given how much they cost to make. Why do you think this is given the record revenues the industry pulls in?
CC: They are but then you look at the second hand market, you're talking about HMV getting into the second hand market, in the States as well. The market can't be bucked. Games that cost £40, what the second hand market is basically saying is games are too expensive guys, come on wake up. If you were to actually factor in the fact that these games often do get bought but then are recycled many times and when they are recycled it's only the retailer that makes any money, the developer certainly doesn't, then probably the industry is considerably bigger and the opportunities are bigger but we need to find innovative ways of actually accessing it. People shouldn't have to take their game in. They should be proud. I can completely understand why people do take their games in for second hand but people don't do that with music, people don't do that with videos. They tend to keep them in big collections. People don't tend to keep big collections of games.
VideoGamer.com: Why do you think that is?
CC: I think they're too expensive. And, while I'll be very unpopular for saying that because the industry is based on it, I think there's going to be seismic shifts. People will only pay for the landmark releases and the hundred million pounds or dollars, you can only afford a few. You look on IMDB and you look at films, I was looking at a film, I'm a BAFTA judge, that costs $50 million to produce and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. It didn't even hit a million dollars at the Box Office. Now film can do that. How it can do that I just do not understand. How can you knowingly produce a film that costs $50 million, earn less than a million dollars at Box Office and then do the same thing again and again? Clearly they're doing something with their economics and their accounts that we don't do. We're a much more pragmatic industry. If I write games that don't sell I go bankrupt, it's as simple as that. I don't think TV or film or indeed music have that rigorous accountancy. But that's as an independent. You look at some of these huge projects at some of the publishers, they're obviously funding their own internal development to produce enormous games that then fail, and then losing tens of millions of dollars, it's all a bit screwed up. At some point there's going to have to be a reality check. At that point there's going to be a real shake up between big titles. There's no reason why a game shouldn't sell fairly cheaply, becomes successful and then build up. But with the exception of Assassin's Creed, which sold because it was good there are very few examples of original IPs that... you look at Kane & Lynch for example. I hate to think what revenues they had. Publishers are finding it very difficult to get original IP and then force it into the market. So you're going to have to build up a reputation going forward and those big games are going to be based on sequels. I can't imagine anybody going forward is going to spend $100 million on a new IP without any indication whether it actually works or the market actually wants it.
VideoGamer.com: You've mentioned digital distribution as something that's becoming more important.
CC: But I've also said that probably more important is the fact that it's disrupting the status quo, the value chain that has existed for 20 years. That in many ways is more interesting because publishers offer services that developers don't have, they have access to funds. I'm not anti publisher in the least. I'm working with Ubisoft at the moment on a title. It's great. They bring an awful lot of knowledge. They bring expertise to judge the game. They give very good feedback. It's great to have a good partner. But in many ways because the games that we write could be sold in digital format there is that uncertainty.
VideoGamer.com: Do you see a future where digital distribution leads to no more publishers, maybe no more retailers?
CC: I think it's going to be an awfully long time before there's no more retailers. Certainly those games selling for £40 that cost $100 million to develop, they're going to go through retail aren't they? Part of the problem is a retailer, they talk about Best Buy or whoever, the fact that you have X number of slots, I think they've got 40 slots on DS. So what happens to that 41st game and the 42nd and the 43rd? Clearly these big retailers say we don't care. But they're always going to go for Kung Fu Panda aren't they? They're always going to go for the obvious ones because that is what they know they will sell and they can rely on and is no risk. So it cuts out a lot of innovative products. What digital distribution allows, as well as bypassing retailers which is a different matter, is the ability to offer choice. What's really exciting is it creates an indie scene among consumers who are very happy to go and buy their games digitally. Then they expect to do it for the fraction of the price, they expect to pay £5 or $5 rather than £40 or $40. But if you look at the maths the retailer's taking 40%, the publisher gives a percentage so in the end the developer's getting a percentage of a percentage. They can afford to sell an awful lot less if they go directly.
But more exciting than that, cheaper games that are targeting a specific demographic that could never have been produced. Skins, what a great programme. I'm sure you're never going to produce a game that sells for £40, £30 that is based on the Skins franchise but there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to produce a very targeted game, targeted at that audience but quite clearly teenagers and, is it even early 20s? I don't know. I think that Skins is probably 14 to 18 to 19. A small demographic. They are ripe for that sort of indie scene where it's cutting edge, it's about sex, drugs, relationships, really fun that could never be mainstream. And that's what I think is particularly exciting about what can happen with digital downloads now.
VideoGamer.com: It's interesting that you say people expect games to be cheaper through digital distribution. We've seen that games are the same price as in the shop when you buy them on Steam and through EA's Download Store for example. Shouldn't they be cheaper?
CC: I would find that a very difficult question to answer to be quite honest, particularly since if you buy it at a retailer you can sell it on or part exchange it, whereas if you get it through digital distribution you can't. I can't answer that. I have no idea.
VideoGamer.com: Is digital distribution something you, from a Revolution Software point of view, are most interested in going forward? Does it make things easier?
CC: It's a mix. At the moment we're working with Ubisoft on a project and I'm delighted. I've really enjoyed the relationship and it adds an awful lot. I have worked with certain publishers who frankly have taken the lion share of the revenue and offered no value to the project whatsoever. They have been in it purely for the money. Purely they've been in that position because they've produced the funds and beyond that it's actually been a very negative relationship. So I would say that it's disruption and the fact that there isn't an absolute route that you have to follow that I think is of enormous benefit and it means that publishers probably are taking the fact that developers have a choice to redefine how the relationship works. Make it a much more equitable one. I think you'd have to be a very brave person to say it was not highly inequitable and has been for a good number of years. Developers shouldn't whinge about it; it's just the facts, market economics. The economic landscape has now changed. There's no reason why it shouldn't be much more of a partnership.
VideoGamer.com: For you personally the Broken Sword series is the one that everyone is looking to the next iteration. There is a petition online for a return to the series. How's that worked out?
CC: The petition for the DS was extraordinarily flattering. I was rather a little bit miffed because somebody wrote about it and said we'd organised it.
VideoGamer.com: That's the impression I got.
CC: Where did that come from?
VideoGamer.com: I saw it on the Broken Sword Wikipedia page.
CC: (Laughs). That's right it was. It's considered very rude to go in and actually change your own entry isn't it? It was absolutely not anything to do with me and the first I heard of it was when my friend Simon Byron sent me an email saying you really ought to be doing this, look. It was something that was brought to my attention well after it had gone up and it was absolutely nothing to do with us whatsoever. One of the great things actually is we have a very vibrant forum, we allow people to say what they want. They're often very rude about our games. And it's very interesting to read through but we do not in any way ever rig these things, ever. And the funny thing is that people aren't stupid. If you do go and rig these things and plant people to go in, people know. They know. And what's really valuable is I read through these forums and obviously it's great when people are nice but actually it's when people are rude that you learn a lot more, so actually you really do want forums where people are both positive and negative because you learn a lot more from the negative comments. They're not necessarily right and you don't necessarily agree with them and you don't take any notice if you disagree but at least you're being offered an opinion by somebody who cares enough to go on to the forum and actually write this stuff. I always find that really flattering.
Ultimately from my perspective the most exciting thing is not money, it's the fact that actually we produce games that people really care about, and you could never ask for more than that. That's fantastically flattering. So we do take our fans very seriously. But we don't interfere with them whatsoever. That's probably because we don't have the resource to but it's actually worked out very well.
You talk about Broken Sword. Beneath a Steel Sky we gave away for free. Lure of the Temptress we gave away for free. Somebody suggested it was a brilliant piece of marketing because it was given free it became one of the biggest downloads on the Linux systems. I wish I could say that actually it was premeditated. It wasn't premeditated at all. It was on the basis that the ScummVM people had written their emulator and a game that you simply couldn't play any more was actually now available in the public domain. It just seemed really churlish to then go and try and charge for it or to try and stop people playing. So we gave it away. And those brands are really well known know because so many people played them. So we're actually in a great position to be honest, not through planning necessarily.
We've got Broken Sword 2.5 which is being produced by this German group of guys. We're giving them a little support but not very much. But the only thing I've turned around and said is they can't sell it. Because if they sell it that crosses a line. But beyond that they're welcome to use the IP, use our characters etc. That's probably quite a contrast to other publishers, but you can understand that. There's a very small group of us and we all make a decision. We'll sit there, I'll have a coffee and say how do we do this and we'll make a decision. Obviously if you're LucasArts then you've got lawyers, shareholders, George Lucas to talk to and it all becomes very complicated. The fact that we're a little bit hippyish and laid back and don't really care provided a line hasn't been crossed, has probably stood us in fairly good stead.
VideoGamer.com: So given the petition would you consider a DS version remake like it calls for?
CC: I'm going to have to be really boring now and just say that the petition was really inspirational. But I'm really not allowed to say any more than that.
VideoGamer.com: Is this what you were talking about with Ubisoft?
CC: I can't... no. I think that the DS is an ideal platform for a point and click adventure. I think it's actually better than point and click in many ways in the interface, because it's so tactile.
VideoGamer.com: Obviously you have an army of fans who are completely in love with the titles which you've made in the past and the DS and indeed the Wii seem like platforms that have potentially allowed the genre to enjoy a renaissance. Is that something you'd go along with?
CC: 100%. Again I just wish that we were having this interview in about a month's time. Then you'd be asking me much more direct questions!
VideoGamer.com: About a month? OK. The PC then, is the genre dead on the PC?
CC: Of course not. What is difficult is selling a game on PC for £40. If you're talking about cheaper digital downloads clearly there's a very healthy market on PC, or indeed even free games, the PC is enormous. What's going to happen, we've been talking about it for years, is when you get real convergence. What you really want is PC games being played on the telly so they can go into the living room. The PC is a fantastic market. Steam is pretty successful. Piracy is quite a problem. Do you know KartRider? KartRider, I mean my God what a model! I think this is going to become more and more prevalent. In Korea, KartRider has I believe 14 million subscribers. You basically play Karting games with people for free and as a micro transaction you can change the colour of your kart, you can put skulls and crossbones. It's absolutely brilliant. The vast majority play for free and yet the few who want to stand out are happy to pay 5, 10, 15 cents. To me that is such an incredible model and I think we need to learn from the way that other territories and indeed other industries exploit their IP. Our big problem has always been that the primary exploitation works very well and it's very difficulty to get secondary exploitation.
VideoGamer.com: Is it a case of watch this space with Broken Sword?
CC: Oh yes very much so. Very, very much so. One has to draw a balance between not trying to push it too hard, but to get back to the petition, I don't know how many people signed it, a couple hundred people maybe more...
VideoGamer.com: 1795 total signatures as of this morning.
CC: It's great isn't it? How can you not be really proud that actually people care enough to set up and then visit this thing? So yes. The big question of course was the move from 2D to 3D which I don't think we've got time to cover. But what I would say when we moved to 3D with Broken Sword 3 it was commercially absolutely necessary. I think the jury's still out on whether 2D works better than 3D and it is among our fans. You go onto the forums and there are raging debates about 2D versus 3D. It's interesting actually because I think it comes down to the very basis, have you ever heard of the Uncanny Valley? The Uncanny Valley's actually underpins, people don't realise it, but it underpins games development so much and if you think of the PlayStation One games where you basically had pretty basic 3D models wandering around in a pretty unconvincing way, if you were really into games and were into your PlayStation actually you loved it. But if you were looking from outside you actually saw this as bang in the bottom of the Uncanny Valley and said well actually 2D is so much better.
I found, I don't know if you ever watch any of the manga cartoons but Akira absolutely blew me away. But then the updates, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, were so beautiful. I think that should be our inspiration if we're going to go down a 2D route. These things that are so incredible. And then on the other side you've got FIFAs which look incredible and for a moment you're not sure if you're looking at reality or not. I think it's very dangerous to go in between the two. In this day and age you should either stick to 2D and do it very beautifully or do 3D really, really well. For adventure games the jury's still out but I am very aware of both sides which are put very articulately by people who absolutely love them or hate them.
VideoGamer.com: I guess for a game like Broken Sword keeping it 2D especially on the DS it seems like a natural fit.
CC: Of course.
VideoGamer.com: So the message to fans is?
CC: Watch this space, yes. There will be an official announcement. Not there may be, there will be an official announcement. I'm really sorry to be so vague about it but that's just the way it is.
VideoGamer.com: What's the latest on the movie?
CC: The latest on the movie is this. I have several small studios in Los Angeles very keen to talk further, but actually everything is turned on its head. I would be incredibly excited to work on a movie but if it's a bad movie then it risks destroying the franchise. So I have no need, the game is successful, it doesn't need a movie. So basically what I'm saying is yes, I'm very interested in talking but what I'm not prepared to do is give somebody I don't know the editorial control, so I'd want to write it. And if it's smaller budget it doesn't matter. But actually we don't need movies. It was John Riccitello who's now saying movies need us more than we need them, and that's very much the case. There might well be a movie but if there is I guarantee that I will have done absolutely everything in my power to make sure that it's true to the spirit of the game, that it reflects it well and it enhances it rather than cashes in on it. So I don't know. I'm in discussion with people, it's not something I need to do. It's something I'm slightly concerned about because of the risk of ruining the brand, but if it does come off it should be spectacular.
VideoGamer.com: That's great Charles. Thanks for your time.
Raise the Game is a £450,000 campaign which aims to help combat the skills shortage and drive growth, collaboration and innovation in the UK games industry. For more information visit www.nesta.org.uk.