Revolution's Charles Cecil
The Broken Sword creator muses on the digital games industry and how quickly it's changing
The videogames business is undeniably the fastest-changing entertainment medium there is - and more recently, coupled with the seachange that the internet has brought upon society that rapid pace has only accelerated.
Digital- and self-publishing is one of the more recent business trends to hit the industry - but even in the past 18 months the skies of opportunity have begun to cloud over. We spoke with Revolution MD Charles Cecil about how the land now lies, as well as finding out how his recent digital titles - Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky - have been getting on.
Q: When we last spoke, you'd just announced plans to re-release Beneath a Steel Sky on the iPhone. How did that go?
Charles Cecil: Yes - when we last met I talked about how Revolution needed to reinvent itself, but also the opportunities we had to do so. At that point the Wii and DS versions of Broken Sword had just launched, published by Ubisoft - and we were developing that and Steel Sky for iPhone.
Steel Sky got fantastic reviews - it sold about 60,000 units, which was very respectable. Broken Sword got really good reviews, and though it only launched towards the end of January, six weeks later we'd sold about 100,000.
I guess for a big company, that's chicken-feed, but for a company with no overheads, that's fantastic. We have the opportunity to create Broken Sword: Director's Cut on PC - and what's particularly interesting, what I really love, is that instead of just being the developer with this idea that we're greater than the publisher, nowadays our relationship with the publisher is better than it ever has been.
Because the grail is to be able to self-fund, take all the risk away from the publisher and be able to work with them where appropriate. For example, Revolution's got a good name in the UK, and in Germany - but what I've discovered is that we need a really strong German presence. So if we work with a German publisher on our titles, and there's no risk, then everybody wins.
The irony is that actually there's plenty of scope for a great relationship with a publisher. We worked very well with Ubisoft, it was very enjoyable, and I hope they'd say the same of us - and they brought an awful lot to the project. I was very touched - Alain [Corre, Ubisoft EMEA MD] sent me an email congratulating us on the success.
Generally I'd like to think that I've had a very good relationship with most of the publishers that we worked with. We have had some nightmare examples, but generally I've enjoyed it - and as we go forward we'll continue. But they always say that if they take all the risk, they should get the lion's share of the reward... and it's hard to argue with that.
However, if we put ourselves in the position where we're taking much more of the risk, conversely we should have a much more equitable relationship. That's really where I see us going forward.
Q: The iPhone games are things you were able to put out yourself - but there was still marketing to be done. How did you go about getting to that 100,000 unit total?
Charles Cecil: When I first started out it was with a company called Arctic Computing, then I went to work with US Gold, and then Activision - so I learned a lot about the publishing perspective before I founded Revolution in 1990. So I try wherever possible to look at things from a publisher's perspective, and also to learn.
In a mainstream release you obviously have to create a story, so you think about how you can make it an event. The interesting thing is that we're in a bit of a grey area with iPhone, because a publisher would never consider that it's worth putting the effort and cost into creating that event, whereas for us it was absolutely worthwhile.
Our budget was very modest - a few thousand pounds. We created a video as a presentation, and used Premier PR, who were great, for a short time as well. I happened to be in the Apple Store in London, and talked to the manager there and asked if he'd like to do a Broken Sword event - his reply was that Robbie Williams was in the previous week, the Vampire Diaries cast was in the week after, so Broken Sword would fit very well the week after that...
So we did an event at the Apple Store, and that was fantastic, because there was a certain amount of symmetry in all of it - our relationship with Apple is very good, and they've been very supportive.
Q: Supportive to the extent of giving you visibility on the App Store?
Charles Cecil: Well, unlike other digital stores, they come under no pressure from publishers - so all they really care about is both products that are good for the iPhone and iPod Touch brand and then games that are actually good. Because what they don't want to do is feature games that are rubbish.
We were in a position where we could show the guys in the UK the games at a fairly early stage - they knew they were coming, and they certainly didn't promise any coverage at any point, but they had visibility the whole time. They liked what they saw, so it was featured.
At the moment it's very pure, because they don't come under great pressure - there's very little leverage that the bigger companies can put on them.
Q: Apple is laser-focused on its own consumer base - that's the single most important thing. Besides which, they don't make their money from iTunes, they make it from hardware...
Charles Cecil: Yes - I know that, for example, the issue of piracy is something that came up recently. I was talking to someone at Apple and there's generally a sense that there's 95 per cent piracy is ludicrous. What's interesting is that Apple never responds publicly to that sort of thing.
If you have a jailbroken iPhone and you want to steal any game that comes out... that's not 95 per cent piracy at all, because 95 per cent of people won't even look at your game. There is piracy, of course, but it's very low. Most people who would buy your game, would not dare to jailbreak their device. I certainly wouldn't, because I know that at some point they'll put in a new OS, and I'll get busted.
So the fact that you have, in truth, such a low piracy level is hugely beneficial, and that's one of the reasons we can afford to then sell the game at a much lower price. I do feel quite passionately that the pro-piracy arguments - that games are too expensive - you either accept it or you don't. But when a game is selling for a couple of pounds, if you then steal it... that's not piracy, that's theft, because you're not even prepared to pay a couple of quid. Which is incredible.
I guess that's the real challenge to these people, who argue they try it before they buy it, or that games are too expensive. Well, we can let you play the game for free, so you can try it first - and then if you do want to buy it, it's going to cost you $5... Either you went out there to steal it in the first place, or actually now you have the model that works for you.
Q: We talk to a lot of people about the console downloadable platforms - XBLA and PSN, for example -
Charles Cecil: They're wonderful - we haven't produced our games for XBLA, because they're 640x480. On iPhone, DS and Wii that's perfect, but my sense is that if you're going to go to XBLA or PSN, you do need to go hi-res. You don't necessarily need to have an incredibly ambitious game, but you do need to go to hi-res.
Q: But do you need to go to a publisher for those platforms, other than the platform holders? The point I'm trying to make is that while traditional publishers are very good at marketing and distributing traditional products, and are becoming more savvy about their own DLC and so on, there's a consensus that they haven't really turned their full focus onto the digital platforms for the most part. Is that an opportunity?
Charles Cecil: It's a huge opportunity, and to be fair it's probably not so much that they don't know how to, it's more that they can't afford to - because what's happened is that these huge publishers have effectively put themselves in a position where they control distribution. That's the model, and on that basis it's worth putting an awful lot of money into marketing so that you can stifle the competition.
But the cost of that is a high overhead, lots of people, lots of money spent on advertising where appropriate - and at the other end, which is where we're operating, the rulebook is totally torn up. Completely. I can't see how the larger companies can afford it.
Ultimately, the amount of money we're making is great for us, but it's chicken-feed for them - it's barely break-even, and they're in a very difficult position. So it's not a criticism of them per se, I'm just really glad I'm not a big publisher with a high overhead, because it would be very difficult to see where to go next.
Q: There seemed to be quite a buzz around GDC this year, particularly with respect to the independent and smaller developers?
Charles Cecil: To an extent, but they have been a bit disappointed by self-publishing - because there's so much there, you really have to make a noise, you have to make an event. We're blessed by the fact that we have a brand that's well-respected, which means we can then leverage that to make a noise.
If you're starting from scratch - particularly if you're producing another game which has got three jewels, which - when you line them up - make a nice sound and disappear... I mean, that is so difficult.
I went around Game Connection when I was there, and saw some games - their original games - and it was actually quite depressing, because you can see why so many games are rejected. If you're not dealing directly which all of this, you miss the 95 per cent that never do anything, and it's so obvious why that many won't do anything. They're just not up to the quality.
Q: There's always a bit of a gold rush when a new platform proves to be viable, and then there's a lot of me-too stuff put out there...
Charles Cecil: There is a gold rush, but what's happening... historically the publishers have capitalised and made the cost of entry very high. For the reasons we've just talked about, that hasn't happened on the iPhone, because Apple have an allegiance to their customers, not the publishers or anybody else.
I'm sure it will only be short term, but it is opening up an opportunity for a year or two, maybe three - and then for whatever reason the market will change, as it always has and always will, and the cost of entry will become high again.
So people like Martyn Brown and myself have worked really, really hard, because we've realised there's this opportunity and we know it's only a window - it will go away, and we need to build ourselves into a position where we can actually exploit it.
My sense from Game Connection and GDC is that the people who this is working for, it's working really well. But there are a lot of people who went in expecting something, but they didn't have a story - an event - and they were disappointed by the sales.
I think back in June last year there was a general euphoria - but I'd say that's now been tempered.
Q: You can see some of that. Go search for a farm game on Facebook. Has it already happened?
Charles Cecil: Well, there's always room for real innovation - there always is. You look at Doodlejump - that could have been written by one or two people in their bedrooms, and it just caught the imagination, and it's done really well. There's no doubt that if you do come up with something that's new, innovative and quirky - it's all about telling a story, and the problem with writing gems in a row is that there is no story to tell.
Charles Cecil is MD of Revolution. Interview by Phil Elliott.