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“We don't have any ambitions to be the next Lionhead… but I wouldn't rule it out”

Cavalier Game Studios discusses brotherhood, The Sexy Brutale and why it partnered with another developer instead of a publisher

The games industry is full of famous brothers.

There are the Gowers (Jagex), the Balas (Vicarious Visions), the Olivers (Radiant Worlds/Blitz), the Darlings (Codemasters), the Collyers (Sports Interactive), the Kingsleys (Rebellion), the Stampers (Rare), and of course the Guillemots (Ubisoft).

Now we have the Griffiths'. In 2013, Charles Griffiths (former Lionhead designer) teamed up with his brother James (former Mediatonic writer/producer) and fellow Lionhead alumni Tom Lansdale to form Cavalier Game Studios.

Although Charles and James hadn't worked together before, they were confident they could produce something special, and even received some advice from another of the game's industry's most famous sibling partnerships.

"Shortly after we started the company, we went to the BAFTAs - the one where Rockstar was receiving the fellowship - and that was awesome, because the Houser brothers never come out," Charles recalls.

"James and I managed to corner Dan Houser for quite a while, and had a good chat with him. That was great, because those are brothers that we massively look up to."

James chips in: "We didn't believe for a second that Dan Houser would want to talk to us, but he did and he was such a cool guy. He is British and made a huge thing with his brother. They worked together and did something really special. Talking to him made us realise that this can work.

"Charles and I working together is weird. It brings the whole family into it, and there is a lot of good there, plus some tricky times as well. But as people who have known each other for such a long time, we could be fairly sure that it wasn't going to completely explode. And that we could create something that we'd be really proud of."

Charles again: "I did ask Dan about working with his brother, and he said that it works as long as you've got the same taste in things. He said it worked so well with his brother because they enjoyed similar things. That is true, and it is the same thing as with James and I, and Tom, all of us."

(Left to right) Charles and James Griffiths, and Tom Lansdale

Cavalier finally unveiled its first project at Gamescom in August - and it is an unusual one. The Sexy Brutale is a murder mystery that takes place during a masquerade ball. Players must relive murders over and over until they can prevent them (Groundhog Day-style). It's a schedule-based puzzle game set in a Downton Abbey-style mansion. Players must sneak around, peek through keyholes and ultimately prevent the house's staff from killing the guests.

Although visually very different, the game has that quirky Britishness to it that made Lionhead's Fable series so distinctive - which is not surprising when you consider that Charles and Tom both spent time on that franchise. In fact, a large number of former Lionhead talent was involved in the creation of The Sexy Brutale.

"It was sad what happened to Lionhead, but we can't deny that the timing worked out kind of well for us when it came to hiring people."

Charles Griffiths, Cavalier Game Studios

"It was sad what happened to Lionhead [which closed in April this year], it was a terrible blow for Guildford and a loss to the entire games industry," Charles begins. "But we can't deny that the timing worked out kind of well for us when it came to hiring people for The Sexy Brutale. We have several ex-Lionhead people that are working, or did some work, for us. Virgil Tanasa is an animator and artist who has been working on The Sexy Brutale with us since the beginning. He used to be at Lionhead. John Seldon, another animator that was on Fable Legends, he has been working on this. Michelle Chapman, a programmer, and James Bailey, also a programmer, have done stuff for us. Oh and Guy Simmons, my old boss in design at Lionhead and a Bullfrog veteran, he has worked on this. We've had the Two Point Studio guys [also former Lionhead], Mark Webley and Gary Carr, they've been giving us advice. So there have been lots and lots of Lionhead alumni that have been working on it, or hovering in the background."

Cover image for YouTube video

It may feel a little like a Lionhead game, but actually the game is simply a reflection of what the team is interested in, James says.

"It was a sincere attempt to make a game that resonated with all of us. All three of us, and the others that worked on it, are from quite similar backgrounds. We like a lot of the same games and we liked the same comedy growing up - a lot of the British, drier, wittier stuff. For me, it was a case of if we are making this game, what do we know? What can we bring that would be authentic?

"The things that we know we all enjoy and we think there is a gap for is the scheduled-based games. And we think we can create something really dense and interesting there. But still, that could be anything; it could be set on a boat, or a restaurant, or whatever we want. So what is it that we think is going to be interesting and provide enough flexibility to build a game around, and also what do we feel we have a connection with? It is the Berkley homes, the Downton Abbeys... The traditional English mansion, with a weird, nightmare twist on it."

Tom Lansdale adds: "When Charles and I were at EA and Lionhead, we saw a lot of very corporate, very American-led decisions in regards to what we do with the games. Also at Lionhead, we saw the good side of that where people like Peter [Molyneux] were given more creative control. We realised there that having that sense of authenticity and sincerity about what you were doing was so important to making a good game and a good setting, and something that resonated with the audience as much as with the people making it. So we always felt that as long as we loved what we were doing, there was the best chance that other people would enjoy what we were making, too."

The Sexy Brutale has a certain British flavour to its look and humour

The Sexy Brutale was unveiled in August and given a release date of early next year. Charles says that long periods of hype can "frustrate people" so the team didn't want the multi-year build-ups that some of their contemporaries have gone through.

In addition to this, Cavalier also announced that it is making the game with the help of Spanish developer Tequila Works - famous for Deadlight and the upcoming adventure game Rime.

"The ambition was always to make something original, and it took a while to figure out," Charles says, explaining how the partnership with Tequila Works came about. "The whole concept of a Groundhog Day-style game... people like the idea of that, but they don't necessarily consider how many aspects of it need to be considered when trying to make it a playable experience. Schedule-based games are tricky. So we tried loads of different ways of doing it, and it took us a while before we were happy that we'd made something that wasn't going to be super niche.

"Once we had the idea, and we built several puzzles, we took it to a couple of places. But we hadn't really taken it that far or wide, and we did only have one artist who was doing all the art and the animation. I sent it to Raul [Rubio, Tequila Works CEO] for feedback originally, and he gave me a bunch of feedback, and then he had this idea of maybe making this a co-production. As we continued to talk, it was just a really good fit. Because although we were proud of the original concept and design, we weren't able to deliver it at scale. It wasn't going to be delivered to a huge, massive, art bar. But with Tequila Works, we were able to completely revamp the whole visual structure of the game."

James adds: "One of the things that the game has always kind of struggled with, even at the beginning, is that it is a hard concept to really wrap up and pitch. It is quite hard to understand exactly what the game is. Even when you put a controller in people's hands, it is not an immediate experience. One of the things that gave us so much confidence, in not only Tequila Works but in what we were doing, was when Raul played the game and said: "I get it."

"Today when people play it, they can see the nice artwork and the world, but what Raul was given was a comparatively very, very simple white box version of the game. It didn't look super great, it wasn't super polished, many of the mechanics were unfinished and still being fleshed out. But not only did he get it, he liked it so much that he wanted to get involved. It was a huge boost across the board."

As a more established studio, Tequila Works is also able to help with the PR and marketing of The Sexy Brutale. Lansdale says that working with a developer in such a capacity was more appealing than a traditional publisher.

"There is always that fear of publishers interfering with something they don't fully understand."

Tom Lansdale, Cavalier Game Studios

"They have the same understanding," he says. "I feel if we had gone the traditional publisher route, I am sure we would have found someone excellent to partner with, but there is always that fear of publishers interfering with something they don't fully understand, and can't really understand because they don't have that dev background. With Tequila Works, that is not an issue."

The reception to The Sexy Brutale coming out of Gamescom was positive, and the Griffiths' (plus Lansdale) were delighted by the write-ups in the press. It's an unusual proposition, and to predict the level of its success would be foolhardy, but there is certainly optimism within the studio.

So what comes next for Cavalier? Is there a bold ambition for the Griffiths to build a development dynasty worthy of the Stampers or Housers?

Lansdale concludes: "A lot of why we are doing this is to not be bound by the same kind of expectations of the larger company jobs. So we want to stay excited by the games that we are making, and ensure we're delivering new experiences that might come from left of field.

"When you get very big, your hands get quite tied because you suddenly have hundreds of people that you have to keep employed, and that will affect the decisions that you make about the game you create. You need to make a game of a certain scale, and that can be quite claustrophobic. For now, we don't have any ambitions to be the next Lionhead... but I wouldn't rule it out, either."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who