The Sky's Not the Limit
Revolution boss Charles Cecil talks publisher relations, digital distribution and building consumer relationships
Revolution is a name that's been around in UK development since the early nineties, and the release of seminal adventure title Beneath A Steel Sky - but that's a title that's far from stuck in the last century, as new publishing models allow new opportunities to bring classic games to a new audience.
As part of our continuing look at digital distribution and its impact, here revolution MD Charles Cecil explains just what his plans are for future development, and why the relationship with the consumer can herald a whole new way of doing business.
Q: You announced you'd be re-releasing Beneath A Steel Sky recently - tell us about your publishing plans.
Charles Cecil: The relationship between developers and publishers has really changed fundamentally. When Revolution started in the nineties it was all about partnership - then as the years went by the power became more centralised in the hands of the publishers.
Frankly some of them, I feel abused that power, but certainly it was very difficult to ever recoup - the model never made any sense on the basis that retailers take 40 per cent, the format-holder 15 per cent, and you get 20 per cent of the rest (which is less than 10 per cent).
There was a status quo, particularly because publishers were very heavily financed and they needed to improve their profits - and the way to do that is to put pressure on your sub-contractors and developers.
With digital distribution, everything changed... not necessarily because it meant we would go down that route, but because as developers it meant that we had a choice. Where we retained our own IP - and Revolution is blessed because that's what we've done - we now have the flexibility to do things.
Previously, the only way we could sign a project with a publisher was to have everything restricted in terms of being secondary exploitation, equal rights, etc - so you were absolutely tied-in, in a straight jacket. So if a publisher didn't want to exploit the IP on another format, there was nothing you could do.
What we signed recently with Ubisoft - who I think are a terrific publisher, and to me this is an ideal relationship - we went to them with Broken Sword: Director's Cut on Wii and DS. They funded it, they earned a few million Euros on the first day of release - they made a profit from day one, which is great.
But they didn't, at any point, try and stop us from exploiting it on other formats. If they don't have any interest in iPhone, while we do because we have zero overhead - Revolution is, at its base level myself and my wife, working with satellite people who are very talented and wonderful, but not on our payroll - we're incredibly nimble.
If we sell it and earn GBP 20-30,000 that's worthwhile for us, whereas for a major publisher it's not even worth writing out a bit of paper and sending it to the legal department.
So the business is moving in the sense that actually, by allowing small developers to exploit the opportunities that aren't worth it for them, you have an ecosystem that's developing in a very interesting way. But then the stage beyond that is to self-publish, and that's what we're initially going to be doing with Beneath A Steel Sky, in a similar way to what we did with Broken Sword: Director's Cut - where there was quite a lot of additional content, several hours in fact.
With BASS we're going to be selling it quite cheaply on iPhone, we've completely redone the intro, we've improved the quality of the speech, we've tweaked some of the puzzles... there is quite a lot of new stuff but it's not fundamentally a new experience.
What we're aiming to do is build a relationship of respect - we already have it with our audience, and we communicate with them directly on forums... I'm incredibly proud that we have so many dedicated fans who feel passionately about what we've done.
I think what's interesting is that publishers have always found it difficult to build that level of direct relationship, that level of respect, and I'd say that the reason that piracy is so rampant is one, that games are so expensive, and two that people don't actually feel that they're stealing the game for anybody that they have any respect for.
Q: The issue there is surely that traditionally the consumer doesn't have a relationship with the publisher, but with the retailer...
Charles Cecil: Indeed. Now, I don't need to repeat what Rob Fahey wrote a few months ago about DRM, but to paraphrase you can either buy a game with DRM and go through hoops to get the thing to work, or you can go via BitTorrent and get the thing straight away. That is insane.
So I think what we have the opportunity of doing is - because ultimately if you go down the boxed product route we're getting 10 per cent-ish against our development costs - go direct to the consumer via Apple or Xbox where we're getting 70 per cent... which from a business sense is so mind-bogglingly more that it actually destroys the model, and you rewrite the rules from the start.
Q: Martyn Brown has stated that Team 17 has absolutely no plans to put out forthcoming XBLA trilogy Alien Breed as a boxed product, because they'd need to sell between 5 and 20 copies at retail for every one copy sold online...
Charles Cecil: Martyn is blessed because he's been extremely successful. From our perspective I value the relationship with Ubisoft, because it was a really good one - they contributed creatively to the product, and I think it was an ideal one for both sides. They have a much higher overhead base, and unlike the relationship often with publishers which is one based on, ultimately conflict, they sent it off to testing - which they funded - they sent it to casual testers and gave us the feedback... they contributed an awful lot, and to me that's an example of a win-win scenario. So I'm not in any way anti-publishers.
I would say that previous relationships that we've had with publishers have been incredibly negative, because they've contributed almost nothing, and we've been put in a position where we've actually made a loss on games they've earned millions of dollars in profit on.
I won't name names, and I'm not whingeing about it, but the funny thing is that they come back to us later and want to do another project with us... but anyway, I certainly have no criticism whatsoever of Ubisoft, just praise.
Q: So looking at the iPhone model, what attracts you to that as opposed to XBLA or PSN?
Charles Cecil: I'll tell you exactly what attracts me, and that's that the original assets are 640 x 480 which look fantastic on an iPhone. The moment you put them onto a high-res big television, they start looking very blocky.
Q: So it's just practicality?
Charles Cecil: Absolutely, yes. Going forward we'll be using different technology, so there will be the scalability, but actually on those older games we don't have that.
What's interesting about a game like BASS is that when we first wrote it, it was for DOS - it didn't have any Windows support whatsoever. So when Windows 95 (I think it was) stopped supporting DOS, the game was effectively dead. And when some hackers came along and asked for the source code, we gave it away for free because we'd lost the opportunity to exploit it. The programmers formed a group called Scumm VM, a very talented group, and they adapted a number of old adventures which, otherwise, wouldn't have been available to play.
What I want to do going forward is have a relationship with our consumer where we'll sell it on the iPhone for a couple of quid, but we'll probably give the PC version away on the basis that we're on a different model - we need to generate revenues to build new games.
So if they want more adventure games, if they enjoy this type of game and want us to make more of them, then yes - they can have it for free and not pay if they don't want to - but otherwise pay us a bit of money and allow us to continue writing games within this new context.
Yes, we could go through a publisher, but if we do that it's going to cost you USD 20-30 because of the value chain. So we want to build a direct relationship instead, but be totally open on where we stand, what are costs are, and so on.
Q: In the traditional publishing environment, that almost sounds naïve - but in the brave new digital distribution world it's an option that becomes viable given that you've got a strong community. What are your hopes for this business model?
Charles Cecil: Well, remember that BASS we've put in lots of stuff, but it's not hugely expensive - so this is not a product that has cost us an awful lot of money. So therefore we can actually afford to test the water.
Q: How much reliance will you place on that voluntary donation - or will that be partially offset by iPhone sales?
Charles Cecil: Well, I do a bit of consultancy, and my overhead is almost zero - so even if it doesn't work, it's such an exciting time that we have the complete flexibility to change. We're very clear on the vision of what we want to achieve, but we can change it if it fails.
I'm absolutely blown away at the way that the time and passion spent by fans of the game, and Revolution. People talk about the first time they played BASS, or Broken Sword - it's in the public consciousness, people remember it, and I'm very flattered by that, so I think we're in a great position to be able to do something like this.
Charles Cecil is the MD of Revolution. Interview by Phil Elliott.