Digital Revolution

Digital Revolution
Wesley Yin-Poole Updated on by

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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. 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. 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. 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. Might you have done anything differently?

CC: The huge advantage is the assets were created at 640×480, 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. 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. 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. 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.

Monkey island LucasArts is making big waves with the re-release of Monkey Island on XBLA. Will Broken Sword come to XBLA?

CC: Probably not, because XBLA is basically all about HD. These original assets were intended at 640×480. You can play Monkey Island with the original graphics turned on. There is that option.

CC: There is. But they’ve spent an awful lot more money than we could afford to spend in up-ressing it. I don’t know what you think of the new graphics against the old ones…? I prefer the old ones.

CC: I do. Yes they produced it in high res because they had to, but in doing so they’ve lost something. That’s the really interesting thing. I think that I like the idea of selling our old games, where the re-mastered version of Beneath a Steel Sky has a lot of new cool stuff in it. It’s the same game but with a new experience. If you loved the game play it again, there’s new stuff, remember what you loved. I’m not trying to redo it, in the same way that I didn’t try and redo Broken Sword. There’s an important balance.

But I would say, in the same way that we’ve always cooperated with LucasArts – they had a broken sword in Monkey Island 4 I think it was – I really hope they’re successful. One) because I like their franchises, and two) because if they’re successful we’ll be successful. Broken Sword 2 outsold Monkey Island 3 in lots of European territories. It was every bit as big in Europe as Monkey Island was. We shipped within a month or so, we were a month behind them, and it made no difference whatsoever.

Beneath a steel sky logo What’s most exciting about self-publishing Beneath a Steel Sky?

CC: It’s very exciting to be able to take control of some of the elements that traditionally would have gone to the publisher, like coordinating our relationship with people like Apple, marketing plans, PR. When you do this, when you self publish, you put your money where your mouth is. You put your balls on the line. It’s very easy for a developer to whinge about publishers, and I hope that I haven’t done it because I do respect the relationship between developer and publisher. But now, if you think as a developer you should have been doing it yourself, now is the time. If you can’t do it, it’ll prove you were wrong to think you could have done.

We’re very lucky at Revolution. We retain the IP to all of our games, not because we’re incredibly smart, although obviously that’s something we wanted to do, but because back in those days IP wasn’t considered. When I was at Activision, I remember having a debate about whether we should get the IP for the games that we published or whether we should just license them. It was like, well we might as well license them because then the IP holder has the responsibility of registering the trademark, so it’s probably cheaper. Let’s just license them. That was late 80s. That was 20 years ago. It was in that environment that we wrote all our games.

We kept the IP, so we’re in a position now to exploit it. Previously publishers, they like to take the IP from you, and then they don’t do anything with it. Our first publisher was Virgin Interactive. Imagine if they had the IP for Beneath a Steel Sky or Lure of the Temptress or even Broken Sword. Nobody would have done anything with it. It’s this insanity that prevailed for so long – it’s essential that we take the IP, and even if we don’t do anything with it we don’t want to give it to you because we funded it.

The great thing about digital distribution is it’s broken the status quo. It hasn’t necessarily given us many more options, but even more profound, it’s changed the relationship between developers and publishers, because developers now have a choice. Before they had no choice. They had to go down that route. There was an oligopoly of half a dozen good publishers and many more mediocre, and even more than that rubbish ones. Unless you could work with one of the top tier ones, you had no choice but to sell your soul. That was the way it worked.

The advent of digital distribution has changed all that. But, a company like Ubisoft, which is really very far sighted, which spent a lot of money focus testing, QA-ing the game, I hold the highest regard. No other publisher we’ve ever worked with has put anything like that sort of effort into it. I think ultimately it’s because some of the publishers grew to have a sort of contempt for their consumers. They said, there’s this product, we’ve got the consumers, we will sell X amount, but actually we don’t care about them. Ubi has always felt that the relationship they have with their consumers is very important. Certainly as a developer the relationship we have with our audience is absolutely paramount. It’s coming back to the idea of maintaining and building respect with your audience, which probably has been lacking for some time between most publishers and their audience.

Revolution aims to release Beneath A Steel Sky – Remastered through the App Store for iPhone and iPod touch during Autumn 2009, pricing to be announced.