Features & News

An interview with Charles Cecil

September 6, 2012, Author: Ray Willmott

Charles Cecil is one of my childhood heroes. I spent inconceivable hours of my teens playing through the likes of Lure of the Temptress, Beneath a Steel Sky and, of course, Broken Sword.

I had the privilege of interviewing Charles last week about his latest, and arguably most exciting project, Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse.

Unfortunately for Charles, he was feeling a bit under the weather, and probably would have preferred to be lying in bed with some hot chicken soup instead of listening to me natter on.

If he did though, he certainly didn’t show it.

Q. Thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s a great honour for me to talk to you today.

No problem. Likewise.”

Q. How has the response to the Kickstarter been?

“Phenomenal. Absolutely overwhelming, but in a good way. So many people are asking questions about the game and we’re doing our best to keep up with that. To be honest, none of us realised how much of a commitment a Kickstarter campaign can be. You have to make sure you’re producing regular updates and seen to be doing something all the time. You certainly can’t be complacent.

The publishing model has been a real challenge for developers in recent years and obviously they need to make returns on products after investing lots of money into a project. With Kickstarter, all profits come directly to Revolution Studios, but that means we’re responsible for our own promotion and getting the game out there and making sure people are aware of it. It’s a very different reality.”

Q. Was it always the plan to bring Broken Sword back for another installment and were you just waiting for something like Kickstarter to help you out?

“We’ve had considerable success with the Broken Sword games. Over the years, the series has sold millions of copies worldwide, but in the later stages of the series development, the publishing model went against us. We weren’t turning royalties or profit. As much as we love making games, we can’t do that without money.

We were able to break this curse when we moved into self publishing in 2009 and launched Shadow of the Templars and The Smoking Mirror on iOS. For the first time, we were able to completely benefit from the sales of our games, and the Broken Sword games turned out to be a rousing success once again. However, while we made a lot of money from these re-releases, we still needed more to move forward with our ambitions for The Serpent’s Curse.

The most important part about Broken Sword is its community, and what we wanted to achieve with Serpent’s Curse is a game funded by the fans and equally influenced and engineered by them. This is why we turned to Kickstarter. It’s a risk, but publishers previously took a risk with these games in the first place, and the games did well because of that. At Revolution, we’re saying we want to take a risk and give back to our fans at the same time.”

The Serpent's Curse will cross dimensions

Q. You mentioned on your Kickstarter page that a world-famous third-party publisher approached you about publishing Serpent’s Curse. While I understand you can’t name names, can you explain why you decided to go against them? How close were you to signing on and what inevitably prompted your decision not to?

*laughs* “I’d just like to start by saying that this particular publisher is someone I, and all at Revolution, have long admired and historically, wanted to work with. It was flattering and a massive compliment to us that they even approached us in the first place. Our initial reaction was ‘This is great’.

We were seriously considering the idea, and after their pitch, we sat down and talked about it amongst ourselves. As it turned out, we worked out that, for ourselves, we were better off going independent. With Serpent’s Curse we wanted the ability to control and felt there was greater value in the control of both the scope of development and budget, which is something we’d fought hard to gain. In this case, we felt it was something too valuable to lose.

As much as we would have loved to have worked with them in some capacity, we don’t regret our decision. To think, when Revolution first started out, turning down a publisher would have been career suicide. It’s amazing that we’re in an age where a developer now has the power to choose whether or not to work with a publisher of their stature.”

Q. It’s incredible how quickly things have moved on.


Q. Kickstarter is such an incredible launchpad, but something that only really works in certain industries.

“Certainly. I mean, our audiences are very technically savvy, and the importance of Social Media in our campaigns should not be understated. We’re blessed in the way we’re able to communicate with our audiences, something impossible for the likes of, say, e-books.”

Q. Is it different not having a publisher watching over you and impressing deadlines? How disciplined do you need to be to do something like this?

“It is different, but in order for a project to be a success and in order for people to consider funding a project like this, disciplines do have to be in place. You reasonably want to put checks and balances in. Publishers require you to set up milestones and manage the budget, lieu of a conflict between the two. Now we’re self-funding both budget and production, and any project that doesn’t have those guidelines is destined for failure. Those guidelines need to be in place.

However, we have a flexibility to say we’re prepared to extend a period of time on a particular area, but also be aware that it will have a knock-on implication in another area. Without discipline, if you’re signed on with a publisher, you’re running the risk of potentially breaching a contract. However, with any creative process, it’s difficult to predict how long a story will take or a puzzle to design. With Kickstarter, we have the flexibility to adjust and, ultimately, make the best game we can. I’ve no doubt that flexibility will prove invaluable.”

Q. What about those who are just getting their start and want to use Kickstarter as a launchpad? How different is it for you using a high-profile adventure franchise to get your funding compared to someone who has an idea for an adventure game just getting their start? Where can Kickstarter benefit the both of you, or can it?

Adventure games are filled with so much unique content. Generally, they cost around 2 million to make, all things considered, and it’s unlikely someone just getting their start has that level of funding. However, I think digital distribution and a vibrant game scene presents a wonderful opportunity to write quirky games. Those have proven to be a fabulous success in the past, and are a great way for people to start their career.

Some of the most successful and great games are those that start simply but have a complex element to them. If you look at Angry Birds, the presentation was simple, and to counteract the most difficult part of production, they used a physics engine which was freely available in the public domain. With Kickstarter, in theory, you can have a talented game designer and a small group of friends and write a game quite quickly.

The important thing with Kickstarter is that you have the ability to give it a go and potentially be successful. You don’t need to convince a publisher to do a game or sell it through a retailer. Games like Doodle Jump would have been impossible 4 to 5 years ago and without mobile platforms. As long as people don’t think too big from the offset and have the talent to pull it off, there can be a high chance of success. From there, anything is possible.”

George and Nico meet by chance. Or do they?

Q. What would you say to those who claim the adventure genre is dead and has nothing left to offer?

I’ve been writing adventure games for a very long time; as far back as the days of text. With graphics, the games reached their peak in the early to late 90’s. There was success there for a long while and that lasted until Sony introduced the Playstation. Sony were so successful at convincing young people to buy into the Playstation brand that publishers commissioned more and more visceral 3D games that they perceived audiences to want. The problem was, at the time, the point of the adventure was 2D. Sure, Broken Sword launched on the PS1, and we had success there, but the damage had already been done.

Adventure games went against the perceived mantra and at the time, publishers said that the market had moved on. The board audience was alienated and that didn’t really come to an end until Nintendo introduced the DS and Wii and opened games back up to a wider audience. This audience continued to grow as people migrated to mobile platforms.

I would argue that adventure never really went away, but what did happen is that publishers simply stopped publishing those games over others they deemed would be more successful. The problem is that publishers only have a limited portfolio of games they can put out at retail, and so they are going to want to ensure those are all/or have potential to be, sure-fire hits. Adventure Games have always been slow-burners and unfortunately, never really fit in with that ethos. Thanks to digital distribution and Kickstarter however, I think we’re going to start seeing more and more adventures in the months and years to come.”

Q. You’ve had a lot of success with 3D adventures. Why have you chosen to return Broken Sword to its 2D roots?

As I previously alluded, there was a big demand for 3D gaming, and publishers were mostly interested in that. We had more stories we wanted to tell with Broken Sword, and in order to do that we needed to make a 3D game. We’re very happy with the way the games turned out and we get very generous comments on the games.

Generally, though, Broken Sword works better in 2D, and so what we’re trying to do with The Serpent’s Curse is bring back the 2D, but add in high-definition, giving us the best of both worlds. This allows us to bring in the strengths and opportunities of 3D, while maintaining the clarity and beauty of 2D.

Q. If anyone is like me, they’ve watched that Kickstarter video multiple times and read the synopsis again and again. I’m chomping at the bit for more details about the game. Do you have anything else to share?

I will share something with you. Before Revolution and Broken Sword, and still to this day, I’ve always been a really big fan of Tin Tin. Each story has it’s own narrative and doesn’t rely on a previous instalment to get it going. I like to think people can pick up a game at any time and just jump in and enjoy, not feeling as if they’re playing out of sequence.

In Serpent’s Curse, George and Nico meet ‘by chance’ at an Art Museum. It will, of course, transpire that it’s not entirely by chance, but as you saw from the Kickstarter video, a man is shot while they’re at the exhibition and George and Nico are drawn into another investigation.

In the first game, we featured the historical element of the Knights Templar resonating in the present day. Many would look back now and say that’s clichéd because it’s been done to death. Yet in 1996, we brought this mystery into the public eye. Nobody was really working with the Templars at the time and we were proud to be a part of introducing that. Some even say that Dan Brown must have played Broken Sword to gain influence for the Da Vinci Code. Not me.

Our goal is to come up with new ideas, and one element we do touch on in The Serpent’s Curse is Gnostics. I find biblical history fascinating and gnostics are really interesting to me. To give a bit of background, in 1945 a treasure trove of gnostic gospels were found and opened up many people’s eyes as to what happened historically. Contained within the treasure trove were gospels of the disciples. In the bible, there was a time when the disciples split. It was said that Jesus told some Gnostics secrets that he didn’t want anyone else to know. Of course, we never found out what those were.

This eventually led into the Albigensian Crusade, which was a 45 year campaign initiated by the Catholic Church to destroy heretics. A bloody battle was fought against the Gnostics taking many lives and seemingly wiping them all out.

What we’ve done is tie this history into the modern day, and that helps to set up the basis of the background for The Serpent’s Curse.”

Charles and George catching up on old times

Q. Where has Nico been, and how is it she keeps meeting George? Will you explain some of that?

“You know, when we founded Revolution Studios, we felt there weren’t many strong female role models. We wanted to create strong female characters who provide strong messages. We feel that Nico is George’s equal. What we tend to say at the end of each game is that George and Nico part ways. They have a good relationship, a great one even; both personal and professional and their lives go on separately for a time.

As a result of doing this, what we need to do at the beginning of each game is explain what they’ve been doing up to that point, following all of their career changes and how they’ve suddenly happened upon each other again. To answer your question though, yes, we will be explaining what’s been happening in the meantime with both Nico and George.”

Q. Just to confirm your intentions: are XBLA and PSN versions of Serpent’s Curse on the cards, or are you just taking things one step at a time.

We are definitely considering XBLA and PSN. We would love to work on both formats. The big issue we need to address are the controls. With PC and Mac you have a mouse. With iOS and mobiles, you have slide and tap which reflects point and click as its indirect control system. With consoles, however, it’s all done through the controller and that is a much larger job. It’s certainly doable, but it takes time.”

Q. How has it been working on both PC and mobile versions of the game simultaneously? How good is the mobile adaptation of the game compared to the PC/Mac release?

We have a fantastic technical team, many of whom worked on the original games. They’re all in the process of making sure all platforms are running in parallel. That means making sure the implementation of graphics and logic are in place and created to the best of our ability. It’s not too complex to do that, and we are aiming to have the launches on all confirmed formats come out simultaneously. The mobile version of the game is looking great.

We’re pushing mobile platforms really hard and the game is running at around 30 FPS. There’s a lot of graphical data coming through. All contemporary mobiles will run the game absolutely fine. Some earlier models however, may not support The Serpent’s Curse.”

Q. At one time, there was talk about a Broken Sword movie. Can you tell us what’s currently happening with that?

We’re still actively talking to studios. The problem is that our focus will always be on the games and not films, and scheduling conflicts always seem to prevent us from moving things forward. Right now, our focus is on The Serpent’s Curse and getting that finished. The studios do keep approaching us for a script, and we have to keep telling them that it’s not ready yet. It’s very flattering that people want to work with us. A film is definitely on the way, probably a lot sooner than you’re thinking. However, right now, it’s not our main focus.”

Q. Final question. At one point, you were working on Beneath a Steel Sky 2. While you had a lot of concept art in place and some plot, plans sadly fell through. Now that you’ve seen some success on Kickstarter, however, do you feel the game may finally see the light of day?

The wonderful thing about Kickstarter is that it tests ideas out for audiences. We absolutely loved working on Beneath a Steel Sky and on the recently remastered version. At this time, we don’t know if we will be working on Beneath a Steel Sky 2. Right now, we’re focused on The Serpent’s Curse and Dave is working on projects of his own. However, we will definitely be working with Dave on a new game together. Whether that game is BASS 2 or something else entirely, however, has yet to be determined.”

Q. Charles, thank you so much for your time. It was a real pleasure talking to you.

And you, Ray. Thanks.”

The Serpent’s Curse has already hit its $400,000 target in just 13 days, but you can still contribute and get Beneath a Steel Sky 2 greenlit