Charles Cecil: ‘Adventure games never went away’

Christopher Dring
Charles Cecil: ‘Adventure games never went away’

If you ever needed proof of the positive power of the digital revolution, then look no further than the adventure game.

Seven years ago, the point-and-click adventure was a dead genre. There was a a Broken Sword here, a handful of budget releases there, but on the whole adventure games never really emerged from the 1990s when they were at their most popular.

That changed with the onset of digital download platforms. It was these that gave rise to TellTalle and its take on point-and-click adventures, and it is via these – plus crowd-funding platforms – that breathed new life into adventure game developers such as Double Fine and Revolution.

What crucified the adventure was, funnily enough, the success of PlayStation One,” says Charles Cecil, founder of Broken Sword creators Revolution.

We were at the mercy of the retailers, who decided what to stock and had limited slots. As PlayStation became more and more successful, it was PlayStation games that they viewed as the most likely to succeed, so it was these that were stocked.

At the time we worked with [publisher] Virgin, which was excited about Broken Sword on PC. But we wanted to publish on PlayStation. Virgin wasn't convinced, and Sony weren't enormously enthusiastic either, but eventually they agreed. The game got 9/10 in magazines and went on to sell 650,000 units, which at the time was exceptional. So there was always was demand for adventure games, but they just weren't seen as being en vogue, so they stopped commissioning and selling them.

The great thing about digital is it is very much driven by players and what they want rather than retailers and publishers. There was a clear message that they wanted point and click adventure games, and Revolution and Double Fine have clearly been beneficiaries in the sense that our Kickstarter campaigns were very successful.”

"There was always was demand for
adventure games, but they just weren't
seen as being en vogue, so they stopped
commissioning and selling them."

- Charles Cecil, Revolution

Not that Revolution has entirely walked away from retail and publishing. Cecil and his team have partnered with Koch to released a boxed version of the upcoming console versions of Broken Sword 5.

We really enjoyed working with Virgin back in the day as our publisher, and we're very much enjoying working with Koch as our retail publisher,” he adds. It's great to be able to work with publishers, but the relationship has changed profoundly between publishers and developers, to state the obvious. If you think about it, back when retail was dominant, a publisher would commission a game that they believed, in 18 months time, a retailer would have the confidence to stock. In other words, they were so many steps in the decision making process, and also games were so expensive that if a publisher made several bad calls they could go bankrupt. Of course, there was this enormous pressure to be risk adverse. And that risk adversity is the reason that the video games market was shaped in the way that it was through the late '90s and the '00s.”

Revolution is 25 years-old this year, and things have never been better, says Cecil. He is enjoying working more closely with fans.

"As games went through the chain of
publishers and distributors and retailers,
our relationship with our audience became
further and further away."

- Charles Cecil, Revolution

The most memorable moments have always come when we have met huge fans of our games,” he continues.

I wrote my first game for the Sinclair Spectrum ZX81 in 1981, which really, really makes me old, and I remember the huge pleasure of meeting fans of what we used to call Micofairs, where we'd flog them copies of the game, and hearing their experiences of playing the game. There's one I remember extremely well from 35 years ago, a man in his 30s sidled up to me and said: 'I play your games with my son. I managed to convince the wife to let me buy this ZX81, because I told her it was good for the boy's education, so when she sees chisel spelt with a Z or can't without an apostrophe, it kind of blows my argument out of the window, so while I do love your games, I really wish you could improve your spelling'. And it was very good feedback. What then happened was that as games went through the chain of publishers and distributors and retailers, our relationship with our audience became further and further away so that.

We didn't have a direct connection for so long, we kind of lost touch with what the truth was. The truth in terms of how our fans were responding to our games, all we could see were sales and what magazines were saying.

So the Kickstarter – while clearly it was absolutely vital in terms of raising funds – it also had this extraordinary secondary effect which was putting us in direct communication with 15,000 of our fans who were incredibly passionate about the brand and the company and what we were doing, and that came as a total and utter surprise because we didn't know they existed in such numbers, we didn't know there was so much enthusiasm and passion. It was quite a revelation, it was quite humbling. That month where we ran the Kickstarter campaign and we corresponded and communicated with our fans pretty much non-stop for a full month.”

Indeed, Cecil says that things have never been better at Revolution. Although at one stage it looked like the company may not quite make it to its 25th birthday.

Around 2007 and 2008, the recoupment model just wasn't working. Publishers and retailers were making millions from our games and we were forced to borrow money to finish the game off. It felt like there was no-where to go,” he concludes.

Then Apple launched the iPhone, and pretty early on they invited us to write games for it and although they couldn't give us an advance, they promised to support the games. Apple has been a fantastic advocate and ally, and I'm very grateful to them because if that hadn't happened, then Revolution would not have been able to survive.”

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