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Jason Kingsley - Part One

Rebellion's CEO on the current economic conditions, the opportunities of digital distribution and the risks of MMO production

Rebellion has been one of the UK games industry's success stories over the past two decades, and now sits as one of Europe's most successful and influential independent developers.

During last week's Game Connection event in Lyon, caught up with CEO and creative directore Jason Kingsley to talk about the economy, digital distribution and MMOs. Part two of this interview will follow next week. Let's start with the economy - what's your take on what will happen, from Rebellion's point of view?
Jason Kingsley

Well, we're not really at the sharp end of it, because we're being commissioned to make games that are coming out in a year's time, or two years' time. So really what we've doing now doesn't reflect what's happening now - in a way it partly does, but I haven't noticed a change in clients' attitude to spending money on marketing, or development, or anything.

What I have noticed is a sort of flight to quality in that the publishers seem to be more focused on somewhere that's safe, or safer, or has a lower perceived risk. Every development project you ever do has risk - creative risk, technical risk, business risk.

They seem to be quite keen on making sure that a team has done something before, which obviously makes sense, and it's brilliant for us because we're hugely experienced. I think really I'm finding, along with my brother, that in fact things are getting better for us.

Now that might be because people don't want to take a chance on Spinout Team A from Another Big Developer, because quite frankly they haven't done anything yet - they're really good, but they haven't done anything yet, so they're a potential risk.

There's a lot of process needed in some of these big games, that's the other thing that's really changing. There was a time, a few years ago, when you could kind of muddle through without having good processes in place - and now you really can't. You really have to have them, they have to be transparent so that the client can see what you're doing... and it becomes second nature, because it's a sensible way of making a project.

But you could argue that it's a bit like wearing a safety helmet when riding a motorbike - it's a very sensible thing to do, but some people would argue that it takes the fun away from landing on the tarmac and smashing your head open [smiles]

Now, I wouldn't argue that, but there's an attitude that some people have, that it somehow reduces creativity - but in fact I think it increases creativity. There's nothing scarier from a creative perspective than someone saying, "Make us a game." And you ask what kind of market they're trying to hit, and they just offer you money and just ask for a game. You're thinking, "S**t, how do we do that?"

We of course know how to do it, but at the same time it's nice when somebody says that they want a game for an adult audience that likes horror movies, that is sophisticated and can deal with adult issues, drug use, or whatever. That's one thing. Or if somebody comes to you and asks for a family game, that a family can play sitting on the sofa in the living room, having a giggle, and amusing themselves.

Once you get some parameters it's easier to then focus your creative energies. I imagine it's the same for creative writing, or artists. In a way, being commissioned to do something is easier because you've got parameters against which you've got to fight.

One of the things we're trying to do at Rebellion though is get the balance of work-for-hire and original. The last couple of years have largely been work-for-hire, which is brilliant, it's a really good business - we've done some fantastic titles, we've worked with some fantastic partners. We're lucky to be working with most of those people a second, third or fourth time, which I always think is a good indication that you haven't completely screwed up the relationship...

But I'm also very keen on the studio maintaining a certain output of original things, so we're looking at the smaller-scale platforms - the XBLA, PSN, that kind of area. The trouble is, I can't find any spare resource to actually do them, so every time we come up with some ideas, we realise we don't have any coders or artists free - they're all working on other projects.

So we're busy - and in a way being busy is great for business, but it would be nice to have half a team free to do some more speculative work, to test things out. I think that's the disadvantage of being a big developer compared with the fleet-footedness of being a start-up... although the trouble with start-ups is that they can fall over, so I can see it from both perspectives, but trying to capture a certain amount of that fleet-footedness as a larger studio is quite difficult.

So we're looking at that, and we've got a couple of ideas on how we can actually manage that process and try and make it work. So it's not just as simple as hiring a couple more coders?
Jason Kingsley

It isn't really, no, because you've got to put a slightly different set of processes in place as well. If somebody is coming to you for a project that would take six months and ten people, that's one process. If somebody's coming to you with a process that would take 2 years and 120 people, that's a completely kettle of fish - a different scale of management, and creativity, and input, and outsourcing, and QA, and so on.

It is interesting to stop and look back to see how far we've come as a studio - I don't know if we're the biggest and most successful independent now in Europe, but we're certainly up there as one of them, which is great. But it doesn't mean we have to stop looking, and analysing, and working out what we're doing wrong.

It sometimes gets hard to find what you're doing wrong, but at the same time you've got to keep looking, finding things you can do better, working out why a certain bug happened, and how to avoid it happening again. How can we streamline the process? How can we make sure that clients see the project all the time, so that their confidence is built, the marketing people are on board and have full confidence. Is it harder to be independent? Do you have to be more industrious in your business refinement as a result?
Jason Kingsley

I think you've always got to watch your back, and you've got to strive to make sure you improve. But that's not within me, to relax and assume it'll continue to be good. I always look at history, at the Roman Empire - they probably thought they'd pretty much done it, they were pretty much okay. They'd conquered the known world, beaten Hannibal, beaten the other guys and thought, "What can go wrong?"

So stuff does change, and the landscape changes. The rise of console digital distribution is a real challenge, it's fascinating - what do clients want? We've been looking at digitally distributing 2000AD, and that's worked quite well as an experiment. It's made us some money, and we want to do more around that.

But at the same time our biggest clients are traditional boxed product clients, and they sell hugely, in vast numbers. The Simpsons Game sold hugely well, and all the other titles have sold well, so we're not going to turn our back on those, because it's brilliant.

But there are opportunities for other things, for quirky little ideas that might come off that no major client is going to want to commission, because it's too small of an idea to really make it to a full price title - but it might work perfectly as a little clever gameplay idea that will amuse somebody for an hour or two, but it will never carry a game all the way through for 20 or 30 hours of gameplay. If you had that small team, do you look specifically at the digital distribution platforms like XBLA and PSN, or do you consider things like the iPhone?
Jason Kingsley

Well, yes, all of them of course - but the trouble is bandwidth, mental bandwidth. Chris and I have always been busy, and as the company's grown we've obviously got layers of management - a head of production, a head of art and design and none of those guys are on any one project, but oversee them all.

There are so many opportunities right now that it's almost distracting - that quantity of opportunity. I don't know whether that's a well-known phenomenon in management, that there are too many opportunities to actually pin any one down. A target-rich environment... It's interesting to see how people who wouldn't call themselves 'gamers' are increasingly playing videogames - that's a good thing for industry, isn't it? After all, society accepts books and television, but people don't label themselves as 'book-readers' or 'TV-watchers' particularly?
Jason Kingsley

It is fascinating, and very exciting, and also very challenging. I think there's a lot of money to be made, and probably also a lot of money to be lost. Look at the whole MMO thing - all the VCs and people that used to have money were handing out cash thinking it would be as successful as World of Warcraft.

You sometimes look at things and see that it's brilliant, but wonder quite why it's so successful. You look at certain books, and think it's really good - but why is it so much more successful than another book which is also really good?

You can analyse these things until you're blue in the face, and I think that sometimes there isn't actually a logical solution, on whether you can reproduce those outcomes - those sequences of events - that makes something so successful. But fundamentally, if you faithfully reproduce all the steps that made World of Warcraft successful, you've just remade World of Warcraft... and Blizzard is a pretty tricky company to go up against at its own game.
Jason Kingsley

It's certainly very hard to go up against it, but it's not impossible. The MMO market is really intriguing, and we keep looking at it and thinking, "Bloody Hell, that's potentially fantastic."

And given that we've got quite a lot of intellectual property, an MMO of maybe Mega-City One might be fascinating, with Judges and Perps and all that sort of stuff - it might be a perfect opportunity.

But getting to grips with it, it's a fairly specialist area, and it's higher risk than making ordinary games. We're just not in the market for taking that kind of extreme risk yet. Yet... But who knows, stuff changes.

Jason Kingsley is CEO and creative director at Rebellion. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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