INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Charles Cecil (Beyond a Steel Sky, Revolution Software)

By Marty Mulrooney

Charles Cecil Interview - Alternative Magazine Online

Following the recent release of Beyond a Steel Sky the sequel to 1994’s Beneath a Steel Sky – on Apple Arcade and Steam, Alternative Magazine Online is proud to present an exclusive online interview with Revolution Software co-founder Charles Cecil. Just some of the topics discussed during our hour-long conversation include: creating a successful follow-up to a cult classic video game over 25 years later; collaborating with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons; the extraordinary life and music of composer Barrington Pheloung; the benefits of being on Apple Arcade; artificial intelligence and human happiness; and Revolution Software’s future plans for Broken Sword 6.

Press the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the recorded interview. Alternatively, a full transcript is available below (with minor edits for readability).

I’ve actually been really looking forward to talk to you for a number of years, so thank you for giving me the time!

Not at all, not at all. Thank you for your general support of us. We’re very lucky; we have a wonderful group of people in our community and it’s a pleasure to talk to you and everybody else frankly.

Well thank you! I’ll just jump straight in. Congratulations on the release of Beyond a Steel Sky; I actually finished it last night (I stayed up quite late) and I thought the ending in particular – without giving away any spoilers – was wonderful, so congratulations to you and the team.

[Laughing] Well thank you so much Martin.

I do remember a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky being teased as far back as the Broken Sword 5 Kickstarter campaign in 2012…

You’re right and actually before then as well. We kind of teased by securing, I think, a website of BASS 2 and various other thing. For the Kickstarter of course we put it as one of the stretch goals, which in hindsight was a pretty naïve and silly thing to do, but we certainly did.

When did Revolution decide – you mentioned that it had been discussed before; I think I traced it back to as early as 2004 that you had mentioned it – to fully commit and move forward with it?

Well in 2004 we had an idea… we had a design actually for an RTS, because it felt that adventures – well, it didn’t feel, it was absolutely the fact – that adventures were not being commissioned by publishers, nor were they being stocked by retailers. So we didn’t have the opportunity – it was quite clear we wouldn’t have the opportunity – to write an adventure game. So that was a different type of game.

If you actually go back to 1995, Dave Gibbons sent me a fax – a copy of a fax that he sent in 1995 – with game ideas. But the real problem was that from the ’90s, after Broken Sword 1, publishers had decided that the adventure was dead. In fact, even Broken Sword 2 was really touch-and-go as to whether Virgin were prepared to support it – commission the game – and they almost didn’t to be quite honest with you. So the reason that we didn’t write any adventure games for quite some time – and particularly a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky – was really a commercial one rather than a creative one.

So after the success of Broken Sword 5 – and thank you for all your support on that, it was absolutely fantastic – I got back in touch with Dave [Gibbons]. We’d been in contact really . . . because he’d helped us with some of the drawings for Broken Sword, he created the comics books for Broken Sword 1 and 2… So we’d kinda just kept in touch and done things.

Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons provided art direction for Beyond a Steel Sky.

What was it like working with Dave again, because I’m imagining the collaboration in 2020 compared to 1994 is completely different?

Yeah, well obviously the ability to send things through the internet; and the internet didn’t really exist back in those days. I’m sure it did, but it wasn’t prevalent. Back in those days if you wanted to send something digitally you’d go onto a telephone line and a 56k modem and you’d have to phone the other person and give them all the settings. It inevitably wouldn’t work, and you could spend an hour trying to get it working, and then it would drop out. Our problem was that in Hull there were dedicated lines and [laughing] what happened is people realised that they were fixed cost for as long as you wanted, so they grabbed those lines and then never let them go, which meant that it was really difficult to get a line. But the fax machines worked, so we sent a lot of stuff backwards and forwards by fax, and frankly without a fax it would have taken so long.

Dave would get on a train and come up to… in those days you couldn’t get a direct train to Hull, you’d have to go to Doncaster and get on this appalling, bone-rattling… I think they called them ‘Sprinters’; if ever there was an inappropriate name, that’s it. They were dreadful trains, and he’d get off this bone-rattling piece of crap in Hull, and he was rewarded because we had offices above an arcade – sorry, a fruit machine… yeah, a fruit machine arcade – and it was full of smoke and cigarettes, cigarette-smoking mums pushing prams, but at the end of it there was a little bar that was selling bacon butties; they were fantastic. I’d take him downstairs and we’d buy a bacon butty and all of the ills of the world were put to right, and suitably fuelled by thick bacon and doughy baps we could finally get to work.

So it was a pleasure. His tastes have changed; instead of taking him to a bacon butty now I take him to a fine restaurant in York and he stays in a nice hotel. So it’s slightly different to last time, but then again we are both 25 years older.

Well you’ve aged very well Charles… [Laughing]

[Laughing] Bless you.

A rough sketch of Union City, drawn in pencil by Dave Gibbons.

That’s great that Dave Gibbons was back on board. I imagine you could have done it without him, but his art style has certainly been an influence in the beginning of Beneath a Steel Sky where you have that wonderful comic book opening sequence, and there’s a similar sequence at the beginning of Beyond a Steel Sky as well, so his fingerprints are all over it.

Very much so, but of course what was so important back in those days was that with the pixelated characters, you were being suggestive; and so what the comic book did is that it set up in the player’s mind an image of all the characters, which we then delivered as pixelated 320×200 [with] 64 colours. So the comic book had a really, really important function.

In Beyond a Steel Sky it’s slightly different; I mean clearly from a creative perspective we wanted to echo what our ambitions had been in the first game to create a comic book style, but also from a gameplay perspective of course, with an adventure game – probably fairly uniquely – you’re looking around the environment for objects of interest with which you’re going to interact to solve puzzles.

I felt that having the toon rendering style would actually enhance that experience, because instead of looking through lots of textures for things that might be interesting, by using the toon shading – toon rendering – it allows the player to actually see pretty clearly what is likely to be of interest and what is not, and so that was the second reason why toon rendering was used.

How would you describe the premise of Beyond a Steel Sky, especially to someone who perhaps hasn’t played the original game? I noticed from playing Beyond [that] it was completely accessible to newcomers and that was obviously something that was very important to Revolution while developing it.

OK, well thank you for that Martin, because certainly our objective was to make absolutely sure that people didn’t need to have played the original, although all the reviews do say go and play the original first because you’ll have a better experience.

To describe the premise, we have our hero Robert Foster, who of course was the star of Beneath a Steel Sky, and we try and convey as clearly as possible information about that original. But wherever possible we also try to do it from a slightly different perspective, so for new players they’re learning the important background for the first time, but for players of the original they’re getting the same information but from a different perspective.

Foster in the original game creates an AI called Joey and they become friends; they become best friends actually. Foster enjoys creating things, technical, digital things, and one day… All he remembers was that he was in a helicopter that crashed into ‘the Gap’, and that his mother who was accompanying him died, and he was then fostered by a very kind group of Gap-dwellers.

Now originally, we had tried to hide the fact that it was Australia. We liked the idea that everything was upside down, that in this city instead of the richest people living at the top, that the smog meant that they lived at the bottom. I guess in a tribute to Mad Max the setting was always in our minds intended to be Australia, but we really tried to hide that – and would have done so had Dave not put a kangaroo into the opening comic book which rather gave the whole thing away. [Laughing]

[Laughing] It’s interesting when you’re mentioning about the relationship with Foster and Joey, because one of the things I enjoyed most about the original game and the sequel is the continual banter between the two characters. It must be really fun to write dialogue for those characters.

Well I didn’t actually write the dialogue; obviously we played the game and we reviewed this – and of course the relationship between Foster and Joey was super important. The inspiration for me and Dave Cummins – who wrote the dialogue first time round – was a film called Stand by Me, which is a wonderful film about kids and the relationship between kids, and both Dave and I loved it.

So Joey… I have to say, when I played it again, I thought that Joey was a bit of a… you know, was a little bit caustic, so we aimed in this one just to make him a little bit more affectionate towards Foster than he had been in the original game, but hopefully not so much so that fans of the original didn’t absolutely recognise and appreciate the fact that we have the same Joey.

A lot of the Joey dialogue was actually written by one of our scripters called Matthew Kemp. The dialogue for the main story, the lead writer is Kevin Beimers. Kevin I met in Northern Ireland a few years ago. My daughter Ciara, who plays and loves adventure games, had put me onto a game called Hector: Badge of Carnage, which is a great, very very irreverent –

Yeah!

Do you know it?

Yeah, I reviewed it, it was an episodic one. I think Telltale Games released it, but it wasn’t developed by Telltale. It’s set in England, and it’s got kinda that British… it’s similar to Revolution actually, quite British but a bit… a bit raunchier than Revolution, perhaps… but yeah, they were good games!

They were great games, but the writer for that is Kevin Beimers. I was in Northern Ireland giving a talk to a load of young developers and Kevin comes and says hello. I asked him what he did, and he said: “I wrote a game called Hector: Badge of Carnage, you won’t have heard of it.” I said: “I’m halfway through it, I think it’s great – but it’s so rude!” He said: “There’s not one word – not one rude word – used; everything is innuendo.” And I said to him: “I think I’ve got exactly the project for you.”

So he wrote a lot of the core dialogue. He then actually had to go on to another project, so Matthew and myself – and Neil Richards – then wrote the remaining dialogue and it was great fun. But yeah, the core structure was written by Kevin and indeed I loved his irreverence, it felt absolutely appropriate; because the original dialogue was written by a very talented writer called Dave Cummins who sadly passed away a few years ago. What I wanted was really to respect and to echo the irreverence of the original voices of Foster and Joey.

Was Dave responsible as well for the dialogue in Broken Sword – am I correct in saying that?

Broken Sword 1 – he wrote pretty much all the dialogue in Broken Sword 1 – and then for Broken Sword 2 he wrote with a writer called Jonathan… did Jonathan Howard write Broken Sword 2? Yes he did, of course he did. Yes, so Dave worked with Jonathan Howard on Broken Sword 2.

Well I’ve enjoyed the writing in all of your games. I think that’s an important component; it’s not just the writing, it’s the interaction between characters. Something I enjoy with Revolution games is I often go to the non-player characters and even though the conversation perhaps has ended and you could continue with the game, I always go back to them just to see if there are more conversation options. To me that’s a sign of good writing, because you’re not…

Oh, great.

You know, sometimes in adventure games the conversations can drag on. Even in the longer conversations in Beyond, for example, it seems a lot of care went into making sure that every interaction was worthwhile, so I think you did a good job!

Thank you, thank you. One of the things that I’ve always worked really hard to do is to try and make sure that the puzzles and the story are interlinked, so that there isn’t the sense that the puzzles are just blocking you for the sake of delaying your progress, but that they’re actually interwoven.

One of the really nice reviews that we got pointed out that the puzzles don’t feel like a drag, they feel like they’re part of the narrative and that what you’re doing in solving the puzzles is actually moving the story forward rather than just being blocked for the sake of it. I was really pleased – I was very flattered by that – because that’s what we aim to do and it’s one of the things that I think – particularly in the early days – sets us apart from wonderful games from LucasArts in particular.

I’m a huge fan of LucasArts, but we would never put in the idea that for example that you would need to put a banana on a metronome and then get a monkey wrench by squashing a monkey, because…

Yeah. [Laughing]

… you know; and it’s a really fun puzzle, but the reward and the humour comes retrospectively because you would never have known – you really never would have been able to know – that you would get a monkey wrench to undo a nut by putting a monkey into your inventory. I’m not in any way criticising it, but it’s just a different type of approach.

One of the things that we’re extraordinarily lucky about is that our games have stood the test of time and people still play them and still enjoy them, which is hugely flattering; but I think that it is because of the logic that we put in, which I think has fared better than [the] slapstick humour of a lot of the games that existed 20 years ago.

The infamous ‘cat hair moustache’ puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned (1999).

Yeah I can agree with that. I think the most famous example I can think of in the genre, because obviously I’m a big fan of adventure games, is… I believe in Gabriel Knight 3, if I remember correctly, there is a scene where Gabriel has to pass as somebody else, and I think it involves cat hair and making a moustache out of cat hair and then altering a passport…

It does, it does.

And I remember at the time that that got criticised quite a lot. I think that a lot of adventure games at that time, especially when… Beyond a Steel Sky, for example, has got a very clever hints system built in, where it gives you a hint and then you wait 30 seconds and then you get a more detailed hint. Obviously those are modern things, but the nice thing as you said with Revolution’s games, you can follow a puzzle to a logical conclusion. I think sometimes [with] adventure games – perhaps more so in the ’90s – the developers got so involved in trying to think up a convoluted puzzle that they didn’t necessarily think ‘is it solvable by the average person?’ if that makes sense.

Yeah, well I’m going to be more damning, and I’m going to say it’s actually a lot easier to come up with a contrived puzzle than it is to come up with a puzzle that fits within the context of the world and the motivations of the characters at that particular time.

But then the problem is of course that – and I’ll describe what we were trying to achieve with Beyond a Steel Sky – if you do have logical puzzles then a lot of people complain that they’re too easy to solve.

So you’ve got several choices. You make them more contrived, which is one solution. You cheat the system and put a goat in, and that’s another opportunity. Or thirdly, you add elements – you can add minigames, but I was very keen not to add minigames – but you add systems that actually allow you to transcend the genre by adding gameplay elements on top of the base.

For that we returned to something called Virtual Theatre, which is a concept that we put into Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky back in the early ’90s. And then the opportunity to actually hack into the systems, which was very much inspired by a puzzle that I was very proud of in Beneath a Steel Sky, which was hacking into LINC and taking away the permissions of the factory owner Lamb. In doing so, he could no longer use the elevator, and when he couldn’t use the elevator that then allowed you to proceed with one of the puzzles.

That to me I felt opened up some really interesting gameplay ideas and that’s why the ‘hacker’ came into existence, because that was the opportunity to change the puzzles – sorry, to change the world – so that Virtual Theatre characters would respond to the world and then puzzles would emerge from that.

A ‘mood’ concept of Union City in Beyond a Steel Sky.

Definitely. The game was built using Unreal Engine which has allowed you to truly show the scale of Union City. What you were describing there with the hacking tool is something that I think you could have possibly done in 2D, but I think it works perfectly in a 3D adventure because with the Virtual Theatre in 3D you’ve got people walking around. I think there was a part I was doing last night where I was hacking a jukebox and a lady walked past outside the window. I switched the music from the jukebox and her personal device, and that had a chain reaction which caused a poet to become annoyed and exit the VIP area so I could hack his personal device because I was trying to steal a poem off him. Apologies to anyone who’s listening if I’m giving away a puzzle solution there…

I’m afraid Martin, you are. But anyway, let’s turn a blind eye to that…

But I thought that was, as you said, a really interesting way… you put it quite well, transcending the traditional puzzles of the genre. I imagine that creating a 3D adventure is very different from creating a traditional 2D adventure.

Well it is, but the big advantage of 3D is that if you have these characters walking around and if they are vital to puzzles – which of course, they generally will be – then in a 2D environment if they’re walking around the world beyond that screen, then you actually don’t know where they are.

Even with Lamb in the original Beneath a Steel Sky, he goes off for quite some time. You know that you’re going to need him in a puzzle, but you don’t know where he is, you don’t know how long you’re going to have to wait. And obviously the advantage of being able to move the camera is that all of these characters you’ll be able to see them and you’ll be able to then decide whether to go and find them or whether to wait for them.

Because the worst scenario of course is actually having to try and follow them, and then it turns out that you’re actually going in the same direction as them but they’re always a screen ahead of you and then you give up in frustration.

100%. I was going to just quickly return back to the city, because obviously [with] Union City now in 3D you can show a lot more of it than you did in Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The Broken Sword games deal a lot with real world history, and then obviously there is fictional history layered on top of that. Is it quite liberating to write and develop a futuristic game?

Well, it is in many ways. What is nice is to take the characters from before, I have to say… because starting a new adventure with new characters – when you want to describe and be true to their backstory – was a lot easier back in 1994, because there was a lot less world to explain. Dave Gibbons did a brilliant job with our Security Manual, and Dave Cummins actually wrote some really really witty text which hinted at the world being larger.

I think in 2020, people would expect to actually see more of that world; there’s less opportunity just to hint at it. So it was very reassuring to be able to bring forward that world and expand it, rather than having to start again.

That’s not the answer to your question at all; I’ve just forgotten what the question was…

I’m just enjoying listening to you talk Charles.

[Laughing]

I think it was the difficulty of creating a 3D adventure compared to a 2D adventure. Oh no it actually wasn’t, we’ve already discussed that! It was feeling liberating to write a futuristic game…

[Laughing] Oh right, thank you!

…because with the Broken Sword games the Templars are a massive part of that and there is so much history to draw from, but with a futuristic game… Everything in Beyond a Steel Sky has obviously come from somebody’s imagination and it deals with a lot of real world things, like the ‘Qdos’ system and the levels of where people are in society, which is really interesting; but it’s done in a futuristic and fictional way. So I was just saying that must be quite liberating.

Yeah very much so, and everything I’ve said for the last five minutes as well, even though I wasn’t quite answering the question that you asked.

No, that’s absolutely fine. Broken Sword 5 was of course funded via Kickstarter; I was there in 2012 for that. Beyond a Steel Sky was developed… I don’t think it’s in partnership with Apple, but it was part of Apple Arcade wasn’t it and it’s now come to Steam and PC. I know you’ve worked with Apple in the past; what makes Apple such a good fit for Revolution Software?

We owe Apple a great debt of gratitude. As I said earlier, the adventure as a genre was effectively dead because publishers wouldn’t commission it and retailers wouldn’t stock it. And that came about because the success of the PlayStation meant that more and more retailers moved more and more of their retail space to PlayStation and less and less to PC.

I remember very well at the beginning of the 2000s PC games languished in a little area at the back of the shop where you’d get moth-eaten boxes that were slightly different sizes. So the adventure was effectively dead. Then we were able to work with THQ, who published Broken Sword 3. Broken Sword 3 was a commercial disaster for us; it earned probably five, six, seven million dollars for THQ. We lost money, and the same with Broken Sword 4.

We took a huge great loan from the bank, and we almost recouped but didn’t. It was a ludicrous… it was an extraordinary position. And that’s one of the reasons why… we basically mothballed Revolution from about 2003 for about three or four years. I worked with Disney, I worked with the BBC on a Doctor Who game, I worked with Imagine film company and Take-Two on The Da Vinci Code… These were really fun projects. I was delighted and met some wonderful people – and worked with some wonderful people – so I’ve got no regrets whatsoever. But make no mistake, the reason I did that was because Revolution would have gone bankrupt had we not stopped.

Had the company by that point effectively… was it just a name? I know you have offices in York; but during that time, when you say it was mothballed, was it effectively just a name and you moved on to other things?

It still existed as a company; and Revolution just to be clear has never gone bankrupt. A few people were working from home; Tony Warriner who was one of the founders. We were just taking on work from left, right and centre from other people; we weren’t developing our own games. Joost Peters, who’s our CTO, he was part of the team as well. So it’s a very very small team working on other people’s projects.

And that was great, but then the big break came in around about 2008, when we got a call from Apple – somebody at Apple in the UK, developer relations – and they said that the games had been very successful on the App Store, but we’d like them to be more ambitious. We can’t financially support you, but if you were to bring your games then we would look very favourably on promoting them. And so Tony and Joost worked really hard to bring Beneath a Steel Sky to iOS.

The assets were 320×200 – which is the Amiga/[Atari]ST – and by extraordinary serendipity the initial iPhone screen was about that size. So we brought the game and it looked really good on that platform. The game was successful, we made a bit of money, and we really kind of came back from the brink.

Then we published Broken Sword 1, and the assets for Broken Sword 1 were 640×400. Again, this was just about the right resolution for the iPhone, the second generation of iPhone. So we were extraordinarily lucky that each time there was a new generation we could bring a game with assets that we had that worked well.

Then what Apple did, they asked us if we could be part of something – or if Broken Sword 1 could be part of something – called the 12 Days of Christmas, I don’t know if you remember it?

I do yes. I already had the game, but I remember they gave a free game away every day leading up to Christmas I think, or something like that…

We had two and a half million downloads that day.

Wow.

It just blew our minds, because we’re a small developer that was in a very weak financial position in the North of England, and the game was incredibly successful. Broken Sword 2 had just released, and the sales of Broken Sword 2 shot up. When we put Broken Sword 1 back on sale that sold really well as well. So it was just an extraordinary time.

It sounds to me like that made Apple Arcade… it helped make the decision a lot easier. It sounds like you already had an established relationship with Apple.

Very much so. We were talking to them about all our projects; they gave us a lot of support for Broken Sword 5 as well. I mean honestly free-to-play rose and as the mobile market boomed, so free-to-play became more dominant.

When we released Broken Sword V, there were some figures from Flurry which indicated that 90% of the revenues on the App Store were free-to-play, 6% were 99 cents, and then it got progressively smaller. So for a game costing £4.99, with a £4.99 in-app purchase, we were probably reaching/targeting maybe 1% of the audience.

What’s exciting about Apple Arcade is the ability to actually go to a really broad market who wouldn’t normally – or previously – have even considered spending money on a premium game; they would have relied on free-to-play games.

How would you say then it compares being on Apple Arcade, for example, to being published by… you mentioned THQ with Broken Sword 3. I was actually quite surprised that you said you lost money on that game. From my experience at the time, I thought – maybe because I’m a huge fan of the games I didn’t notice it as much – but I thought that got good reviews and good sales…

It did do good sales, yeah. I mean, I was saying to somebody the other day, developers would huddle together in the pub and share stories about rumours that a developer once got paid a royalty by a publisher. It just never happened. They’d always find a way…

I mean it’s the same with the movie business, Hollywood accounting. You just never recoup; they always find ways to make sure that you never recoup. Revolution really should have just… should never have held out to expect a royalty. We should have just charged slightly more for the game and just waived the royalty – and smarter developers did that because they realised that actually, publishers never really paid.

How did it compare then with… obviously Broken Sword 5 was on Kickstarter. Was that profitable for you?

I mean the big difference of course is that with the old model, publishers would pay a percentage – effectively 7% of the retail – and that 7% would be set against all the development costs. And of course the development costs were the vast majority of the overall project costs because the publishing was relatively low. So what we were in a position of was that 7% was being assigned to us, but all the development costs – and some of the marketing and some of the other things – were then offset against it, which meant that the rest of the 93% went into profit very quickly. And the 7% was… you’d have to have a huge seller to ever recoup. It was a crazy, crazy recoupment model.

But, there were so many developers seeking funding that supply-and-demand and terms were what the publishers demanded and got.

I couldn’t believe when I looked and Broken Sword 5 was on Kickstarter in 2012 because it doesn’t seem that long ago to me. Do you think that the Kickstarter boom – obviously there were a lot of big games and big adventure games as well; the Double Fine adventure game was big on Kickstarter – do you feel that that boom has been moved past now?

Yeah, well to an extent, but the problem was that there was a honeymoon period wasn’t there. We announced [Broken Sword 5] in August 2012 and I remember in 2013 there were some real high-profile failures.

The one that really worried me was Neal Stevenson had launched a Kickstarter for a game called CLANG. I don’t remember how much he’d raised, but he announced that he was going to close it down because – and he blamed – there were many many faults. There was one: he hadn’t got enough money, two: the industry wasn’t ready, three this, four that… but the one person he didn’t blame was himself. There was no humility that he’d taken all this money from people and then just closed the project down.

I was absolutely appalled and it struck me that at Revolution we’d gone out to people and we would bend over backwards to deliver what we said we would. I mean Tim Schafer did the same thing for Broken Age, I remember him saying ‘well, we’ve ran out of money so we’re going to put our hands in the tip jar’ or something. But Tim and Neal Stevenson; you’ve absolutely got the trust of these people, and to not respect that with every ounce of what you have feels completely wrong.

I’d like to think that our wonderful backers realised that without their support the game really wouldn’t have been able to be made, so that was absolutely true. But two, we were extraordinary grateful [to people for] putting sometimes quite substantial amounts of money into the game. So we worked really hard to deliver everything that we said we would do and then to get rewards out on time as well, because I know a lot of developers once the game was out… Kickstarter backers would sometimes wait years and years for the items that had been promised.

So broadly we took it quite seriously and I hope for the people that were our backers they felt that we respected them and honoured the commitments that we’d made.

Some of my Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse Kickstarter backer rewards.

Definitely. I can only speak from personal experience but I think Broken Sword [5] was the first time I’d ever used Kickstarter and I had such a positive experience with that campaign. There were continual updates and even when things were delayed it was explained. I think there were even some people who were unhappy because they realised that one of the discs came with a Steam code, so you reissued discs that didn’t require a Steam code, and I felt that – as you said – Revolution did take it seriously what the fans were saying.

I have to be totally honest, I backed 20-30 more Kickstarters after that – I don’t back them as much anymore – and I never had that same level of interaction with people again. I had some campaigns where there were no updates for years. I had some campaigns where, when the physical rewards came they were nowhere near what was originally described.

It’s a credit to Revolution because out of all the Kickstarters I backed – and I’m not just saying it because I’m interviewing you – it’s one of the few that I can say I wasn’t disappointed. I felt that what was promised was delivered and that you took it seriously, so it’s interesting that you say all of that. It’s very interesting. [Laughing]

Well thank you, thank you. We did take it very seriously. In fact, I remember that the reason the Kickstarter discs came out with Steam was because we were working with Koch Media, who did a great job. They helped us with the distribution of our Kickstarter rewards but they also published the game on PC and then on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

I remember them phoning up and saying: ‘We’ve got the retail version – we’ve got the Steam version – and unless you can get us the DRM-free version today then it’s going to come out later than the Steam version (the retail version).’ I mean that, to me… if you’re a backer and you get the game after it’s gone into retail… that is shocking and incredibly disappointing. So, there and then I made the easy decision – I knew it was the wrong one at the time – that we would send out the Steam versions, and then kind of forgot about it.

And of course, 90% of people don’t really care too much, but we’d made it clear that we would be sending out DRM-free, and we hadn’t done and we were wrong. I remember – I was actually in France at the time – sitting and thinking about it overnight and saying ‘but we’re utterly wrong, we have to address this.’

So, as you probably remember, we went straight back and said ‘yeah, this was a mistake and this how we’re going to remedy it.’

Yeah. I won’t name the Kickstarter but I actually have a Kickstarter I backed for another prominent adventure game, and it hit retail about three years before I received my physical reward. To see it in the shops every time I went into HMV or GAME – and I hadn’t received my reward – it soured the relationship a little bit.

Yeah.

I think especially with Revolution Software, not just myself but I’ve seen online, you’ve got people who aren’t only fans of Revolution, but they’ve got happy memories that go back to childhood…

Yeah, isn’t that wonderful?

It is, it is wonderful and I think the approach that was taken there is right because it doesn’t just affect the relationship there and then, but it can also affect happy memories and things like that, so yeah, I think sometimes…

Happy memories Martin, of walking down the aisle to the sound of the ‘Hotel Ubu’ music.

Yes, yes. Well that was one of my later questions actually but I’ll jump to it now…

[Laughing]

… because I was going to talk about Beyond a Steel Sky’s music but I’ll quickly mention Barrington Pheloung. Obviously, he composed the music that I had at my wedding, it was the ‘Hotel Ubu’ music [from Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars] and it was beautiful. And sadly, he passed away last year…

It was a great shame.

What was he like work with?

Barry was great. He swore like a trooper, and I have to say he wasn’t afraid to drink a glass of white wine pretty early on in the day. But what he did, what’s amazing, is – and I have to say, huge credit goes to his wife Heather, who was also a trooper – is that fairly late in the day…

I mean, we’d say: “We need the music by this date, so can you start three weeks, four weeks earlier?” And he’d go: “Don’t worry mate, I’ll do it. I’ll do it on time, you don’t need to worry.” And we’d go: “We do need to worry.”

And what would happen is that actually, we didn’t need to worry, because Heather would play through the game – she was a huge fan of adventure games – and she would play through it and record little snippets. And then in this enormous blitz Barry would just sit down and compose all the music over a couple of days, which was fantastic. Obviously he was an incredibly experienced composer, very very talented.

I mean I actually first met him many many years earlier – well sorry, not that many many years earlier – after I’d left school. In fact, after I left university, so this would have been the mid-80s. I played for a cricket team called ‘The Captain Select 11’ and Barry was one of the batsmen, and was a great character.

He was called ‘the Panther’; I suspect that it was a name that he came up with himself, I would imagine…

[Laughing]

… I can say this because he’s not around to contradict me. But he just was so passionate about his cricket and he was a wonderful person to have on the cricket team. He was a young composer and he described how he uses Atari ST. We then… I moved up North and we lost contact.

Then for Broken Sword 1 it just struck me that I’d seen this sort of meteoric rise of this brilliant composer, and perhaps he could compose music; and I was thrilled when he said that he would, it was great.

I remember him coming up to York and all he could talk about was this beautiful girl that he loved and that was Heather. We were privileged to be invited to his wedding, which was in a place called Beaufort, in Victoria in Australia. The wedding took place at 7 o’clock in the morning underneath the billabong tree, and the reason that it was so early was because they wanted to make sure that it would be finished in time to make sure they didn’t miss the first ball at the MCG, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, that was between Australia and South Africa that year.

So the ceremony was finished by 8 and we were there by 10 to watch the whole day of cricket, and that was the passion that both he and Heather had for the game.

He sounds like a really nice man. He actually sent me a lovely message after I got married because you kindly… I think you shared my video of me signing the wedding register with the music. He sent me and my wife a lovely message and I was actually supposed to be doing an interview with him, but unfortunately he passed away not long after I had sent him the interview questions. I’m just glad that he got to work on one last game with Revolution, and that he got to see that his music transcended the games and obviously made my day special, so yeah… it’s a loss, isn’t it? He was a great man.

It is, yeah. I mean that’s such a nice story, thank you for sharing it.

No, it’s fine. Moving on, back to Beyond a Steel Sky – because I’ve got a terrible habit of going off on tangents [laughing] – the soundtrack is very atmospheric and very epic. It’s composed by Alistair Kerley and it incorporates some of the musical themes and motifs from Beneath a Steel Sky; how did that collaboration with Alastair work?

Well, we worked with a company called PitStop based in Barnsley. We’ve worked with people all over the world and it felt nice to work with a local Yorkshire company. They were fantastically professional – and there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be – but it was almost a surprise that a company based locally, in an area like Barnsley, were just absolutely world-class. And as I say, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be at all, but it was just a pleasure to find that they were. They were very passionate about the music; they also handled the voice recording for the English.

Alistair is a graduate from the Leeds Music School, or Leeds School of Music, and he produced epic, epic music. I’m really thrilled with it. I remember when the music started playing during the intro and we saw the city for the first time, there were tears coming down people’s eyes. It was absolutely extraordinary.

It definitely added to [the game]… it’s amazing really; I think on a few films I’ve bought you can actually isolate the score and remove it. I think people sometimes forget, because music is in the background… especially with video games, because whereas with a film you might have two hours of film and half an hour of music, with a game you’ve got music running throughout; I think Beyond took me about 12 hours to play. I was really impressed with the way it… sometimes I’d think ‘I know that song’ and I’d realise it was something from Beneath a Steel Sky but slightly different, or slightly layered in a different way. Alistair obviously… I’m not sure whether he was already a fan of Beneath a Steel Sky or whether he went back and listened to that original. Because that original soundtrack I’m imagining would be MIDI…

It was. The original soundtrack was… the Amiga intro was created by an absolute legendary computer game musician called Dave Lowe. Now Dave owns all the rights to what he composed, so we weren’t able to use that. But the in-game music had actually been written by Dave Cummins, of all people…

Wow.

… you know, Dave Cummins who’d actually written all the dialogue as well. It’s a bit rinky-dink – as it would be, as a MIDI game – but certainly the music that we have in LINC-space we wanted to be identical, or as close as possible, to the music that Dave had composed for LINC-space first time round. So that’s really great to hear, thank you.

No, definitely. I think it’s important as you said to make the game accessible to newcomers but also have those little nods. There are obviously the LINC terminals still in the game and there are various little things. I think I found an ‘Easter egg’ where you can get Foster’s original costume from the original game…

[Laughing] You can, yes.

Yeah. So I think that those things are nice because I don’t think that you would necessarily be jarred if you didn’t know what they were, but it’s a nice touch for people who’ve played the original game.

It is.

Will Beyond a Steel Sky be coming to any additional platforms in the future; is that something you’re thinking about?

Yes, yes, yes. I mean I can’t confirm when or exactly what, but yeah absolutely. There will be console versions of course, yeah.

I’ve just realised as well, I wanted to quickly ask: I mentioned that the Broken Sword games are obviously very… you do a lot of research, I know that you’re quite a history buff. What sort of research was done in terms of AI? I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but in Beyond a Steel Sky the city is ran by an AI… or it was ran by an AI, but then it’s ran by humans. Haha, I’m being careful with what I’m saying here…

Yeah… I’m not sure that there was any research. I’ll tell you what; I’m going to answer a completely different question. When I left school, I thought I wanted to be an engineer and I was sponsored by Ford. While all my friends were dossing at university and having long summer holidays, in my summer holidays I was expected to work for Ford. But they did the most amazing things.

They sent us off to college. They sent us to law school. They sent us to do accountancy. I remember at one point we were learning metalwork, we were in the Chelmsford Institute of whatever it was. So we got an incredible education over that time.

Now, my problem was that I was reading mechanical engineering at university – it was what was called the special engineering programme, it was the top degree – but also at the weekends I was then driving over to Hull where I was part of a company called Arctic Computing.

So there was an awful lot going on, but I did benefit enormously from all of this and so much of that has fed back into the games that I’ve written. At the beginning of Broken Sword, the initial press that comes down – the lathe – were all very much in my head from my Ford days and the extraordinary machinery that existed in these factories.

I was very struck – and I don’t remember if it was at university or through Ford – by the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And it struck me that the hierarchy of needs as you may know starts off with the basic needs, and then it becomes the intermediate needs, and then as people feel that their needs are being satisfied then they go for more advanced needs.

And it struck me that if an AI was to create the sense of what should be human happiness then they would follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; particularly if you took a population that had been under this tyranny of LINC that were starving, that were unsafe, were being beaten up.

So the idea was very much based on what I’d learnt at university – or through Ford – of the hierarchy of needs and how an AI would then build on that. So it wasn’t really a case of research as such. I mean I have our Art Director, Sucha Singh, to thank for an awful lot of the look of the city, and of course Dave Gibbons.

But I’m not sure that there was any actual ‘research’ research, to be honest. I think it came from our knowledge of the world and just ideas that came from that, and of course the original Beneath a Steel Sky; we wanted to be as true to that as possible.

In real time 26 years has passed; in the game world it’s 10 years. We wanted to make sure that we could be completely authentic in terms of what had happened in that 10 years, so it is still the same city, but it has been totally transformed by Joey as an AI.

I actually found that part of the game really enjoyable because I was a big fan when I was younger of Isaac Asimov…

Oh yes.

… and he’s obviously got the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ and a lot of his books are about…

A robot, one of the laws is that they can’t harm a human, but then because of contradictions in those laws they might actually do so without… they might have the best intentions, but somehow it does cause harm to humans and it’s a contraction in their directives. I know that Beyond a Steel Sky talks about the directive of the AI and things like that, so I find it really interesting what you were talking about with the hierarchy of needs and obviously everyone in the city is…

When you go into the city it seems like a very happy place and I think Foster is quite happy that he left the city and he’s come back and it has thrived. But there’s a dark centre to it and I think that was really interesting to explore in the game.

Brilliant. Thank you.

Now that Beyond a Steel Sky has been released, I know work continues. Nowadays when you release a game it’s never just released and you forget about it. I know that you have already released a few patches. Once you have finished with Beyond a Steel Sky and you’re looking forward to the future, are there any projects you’ve got in mind? Is Broken Sword 6 something that you would like to do?

Well Broken Sword 6 absolutely at some point. I’m still absolutely humbled by the passion that people have for Broken Sword. It’s a huge compliment that people care so much, so Broken Sword 6 is of course at the top of my mind. I don’t know what we’re going to do next. We are very much focusing on…

For example, [Beyond a Steel Sky] doesn’t have achievements; we need to get achievements in very soon. So there are elements… and then console versions. So there’s quite some time. And little bugs. A number of the bugs that have been raised – and some of them are quite serious – are just simply bugs that we didn’t find.

Obviously, with tens of thousands of people playing the game, they will come across things that we couldn’t have found – and have done. The other thing is that I hope people will realise, instinctively, that we really value the relationship that we’ve got with our players and if people have problems, we’ll bend over backwards to fix them and always have done.

I think it pays dividends in that the loyalty we have to people is two ways and people are loyal to us, and it’s just fantastic to know that they are.

Revolution Software’s office can be found on the Shambles, a medieval street in York, England that dates back to the 14th century.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected – if it’s affected it at all – the development process?

Well it’s not been helpful, but I’m delighted to say that none of our team had it; none of their families as far as I know did either, so we got away lightly. I know that for a lot of people it’s been absolutely devastating.

We’re very lucky, for us it wasn’t. Because we were quite late in the project people could effectively work from home, and did. Personally, I live very close to our studio, and so I just walked in every day. To begin with it was obviously a very solitary experience walking through the streets, but I felt it was appropriate to do so because I was working alone and everybody else was working from home.

Thankfully we have very fast broadband, we’ve got one gig. We’re bang in the city centre of York, in the Shambles actually, which is the medieval street. We’re in a building which I think is 14th century and we’ve got one gig internet running along just outside.

In many ways York can bring the best of history and the best of modern technology, and we’re just very lucky in that regard.

The Revolution Software team in the ’90s.

Do you think now that Beyond a Steel Sky has been released… the Broken Sword series has obviously had five instalments and for a long time people weren’t sure whether Beneath a Steel Sky was going to receive a sequel. I remember being quite surprised because it seemed the time between it being announced and being released was quite quick; I know that’s probably not the case because behind the scenes it will have been getting worked on. Do you think that you will ever revisit Union City, or does Beyond a Steel Sky feel like the second half of two parts if that makes sense?

Well, Martin, let me tell you that when we finished Broken Sword 2, the idea that… I don’t think we ever expected to do a sequel to Broken Sword, and the idea that we would ever republish Broken Sword 1 or 2 was unthinkable.

I remember going to the dump and taking loads of assets… not the physical assets, we’ve still got the physical assets, the drawings, but DAT tapes; because I just knew we’d never ever need them again. Then of course the Nintendo DS comes along… and it’s a small screen, and it’s touch screen and we’re able to reinvent it… and then the iPhone comes along and we can produce our games on that.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in life, it’s really don’t ever, ever try and predict the future, number one. And number two, don’t ever write Nintendo off. [Laughing]

[Laughing]

That’s the other golden rule, because Nintendo always have this… they find this way of pulling things out of the bag, they’re just incredible. And who would have seen the rise of touch screen and the success of Apple? We all admired Steve Jobs enormously, and he just kept doing new things. It’s quite incredible.

So, to answer your question, I just don’t know. At the moment we’re not going straight on to a sequel for Beyond and Beneath a Steel Sky, but if the time is right in a few years time then I’m sure the answer is yes. If the time is not right in a few years time then we won’t do it. Sorry to be so vague!

No, I didn’t expect you to commit but I had to ask, I had to ask. [Laughing]

[Laughing]

Well I’ve kept you for nearly an hour now, so thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about Beyond a Steel Sky and congratulations on its release. I always look forward to Revolution Software’s projects and I’m certainly looking forward to your future projects.

Thank you Martin, and please send my very best wishes to your beautiful wife, who I think I’ve only seen in a wedding dress… but no, it’s great. And I love that video you sent, honestly, it just was such a great video. Thank you for sharing that.

She’ll be delighted. She’s a district nurse so she’s very busy at the moment. She was delighted when I said I was interviewing you. I was quite nervous about doing an audio interview because I haven’t done them for a number of years; she kind of told me off and said “you’ve wanted to interview Charles for years, and he was so nice with our wedding video” and things like that. So I need to thank her as well for giving me a kick up the bum and making me…

[Laughing] I thought you were going to say you had to thank her for saying yes!

[Laughing] Yeah, well, that’s always something I’ll be forever indebted to her for. The wedding day was very special. What was lovely about that music actually was that so many people said to me ‘what beautiful music, what is it?’ and when I tried to explain it was from a video game, I especially noticed older members of the family kind of giving me strange looks; they thought I was maybe a bit drunk or whatever. But there is some beautiful music in those games and it just felt right to have something Broken Sword-related on that day. So thank you for making the games and thank you for the happy memories!

Lovely, well it’s great to speak to you Martin after all these years and hopefully we’ll be speaking again relatively soon; certainly not decades later.

No, definitely. As soon as you announce something I’ll send you an email and starting nagging. [Laughing]

[Laughing] Bless you. Lovely, well have a great evening and thanks very much.

Thanks a lot Charles, take care.

Cheers, lovely. Bye!

Bye!

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative Musings, Games

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.