beneath steel sky

Beyond a Steel Sky – How Revolution went from a modem to the App Store and reimagined a 25-year old IP

The year is 1992. Monkey Island is the greatest adventure game on the planet. Watchmen has redefined the comic book forever. You’re running a small game developer above an arcade in Hull and you have a world-beating new adventure game to make. But there’s one puzzle to solve first, you need to feed the talent.

Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons has braved a slow British Rail service up from London and he needs to eat before he can work. Thankfully the arcade downstairs does food, so by finding some cash, and then carefully navigating your way around the maze of machines and young mums with pushchairs, you can secure a gorgeously greasy bacon butty for him, and you’re all set for your next challenge – the colour palette limitations of the Amiga 500.

Adventure games often turn the simplest of tasks into herculean efforts. And talking to Revolution’s Charles Cecil makes you realise that making such games, over a 30-year period. has often proved just as fiendish and obtuse as they can be.

Now, 25 years after Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution and Gibbons have once again collaborated, with the release of Beyond a Steel Sky. We look at the new title, the journey its predecessor took to cult classic status, and how (appropriately) after almost giving up on the genre in frustration, Revolution found a solution in an unexpected place.

BENEATH A STEEL SKY

Charles Cecil (left) and Dave Gibbons working on Beneath a Steel Sky.

While Revolution had earlier games, and is of course best known for its Broken Sword series, it is 1994’s Beneath a Steel Sky that starts a perfect story arc, not only of this tale, but of the huge changes in games publishing across the last two decades.

The game was a commercial and critical hit in the heyday of adventure games, with Revolution’s title being every bit the equal of Lucasarts’ and Sierra’s efforts – no mean feat. And since then Beneath has become a cult classic, enjoyed by waves of fans since, who stumbled upon it in varying ways, more on that later.

Just one of the reasons for its cult status was the involvement of Dave Gibbons, who in the post-Watchmen early nineties, was among the most feted comic book creators in the world, having already built a fanbase as one the most prolific artists in the early days of 2000AD.

Cecil and Gibbons had met when Cecil was at Activision and was trying to hunt down the game rights to Watchmen, Gibbon’s didn’t have them but the two got on and years later decided to collaborate.

“Revolution, at that point, was absolutely penniless,” Cecil stresses. The office above the arcade was actually a huge upgrade on their previous place, which was freezing cold, with a gas heater that gave out fumes, so you had to balance freezing with choking. “That was the beginnings of Revolution.”

And so in their snug new office, and with one of the greatest comic book artists of his generation contented by a bacon butty, the team went to work on Beneath a Steel Sky.

“We gave him a copy of Deluxe Paint II. And that allowed him to create sprites himself. And we’d actually, incredibly, serendipitously, managed to recruit people locally who were extraordinary sprite artists. What we wanted to do was to create this interactive comic book feel. So Dave drew the backgrounds in pencil, and an artist called Les Pace would paint them, we would scan them in and then animate those pixels.”

With the train journey up being a pain, the latest in communications technology was employed.

“We were using faxes, of course in those days. We did have a modem, though, a 56k modem – our current one gig line is 20,000 times faster than that!” But despite such issues, the game was a huge success, both critically and commercially. And while a sequel was considered, the Broken Sword franchise took precedence at Revolution, as changes in the publishing business threatened the adventure genre as a whole.

PUBLISHING WOES

Dave Gibbons’ original artwork from the comic book that accompanied Beneath a Steel Sky

While Cecil first cut his teeth on the ZX81, by the beginning of Revolution, the cost of developing a game had risen steeply, “from one or two hundred pounds to ten or twenty thousand pounds, which was way beyond our means. At the end of the 90s the publishers were saying ‘the PC is dead’. And that the adventure as a genre was even deader. There was a sense that there was nowhere to go. And in many ways, it was correct.”

As the console boom rolled on, “the retailer had to choose their portfolio. And they were becoming more and more focused towards PlayStation. PC was languishing, boxes were all different sizes and a bit moth eaten. From that perspective, the PC was dead because retailers were taking fewer and fewer copies. And unlike today, we had no direct relationship with our community.”

With Broken Sword 3 things came to a head. “Because we were being paid in dollars and the dollar plunged midway through development, we actually had to take a bank overdraft of several hundred thousand pounds to finish the game. The publisher THQ reported that they had received $10 million from sales. And if you do the maths, they made between $3 and $4 million profit. Because we never recouped, we made a £200,000 loss which we carried forward. It made no sense whatsoever.”

Despite some early success on PlayStation, the adventure genre was seen as being increasingly niche. “We were seen as producing games that were off in this genre that was going to die and nobody was interested… Revolution in 2005 was effectively bankrupt.” But of course, in true adventure game style, a solution came along.

…FROM APPLE SEEDS GROW

Charles Cecil at the launch of Apple Arcade in Cupertino

“The big change came when someone from Apple called,” says Cecil, brightening considerably. “He was called Paul Burford, he phoned us out of the blue and said, ‘you might have heard we’ve got this new mobile device called the iPhone’. And we said, ‘yes we have heard of it’. And he said, ‘we’re not enormously happy with the games, we think your adventures would work really well and we will support you if you decide to bring them across.’

“That was the turning point for Revolution because we were able to get Beneath a Steel Sky on to iPhone.” It was a big success and the studio followed up with further titles.

“For Broken Sword 2 we actually did a launch party! I remember talking to the manager at the Apple store in Regent Street, he said ‘we’ve got Robin Williams next week, and the cast of The Vampire Diaries in three weeks. But if you can make it in two weeks, then I’ll give you the slot.’ So we had this incredible opportunity to invite our fans and community to this event.

“Dave Gibbons had drawn the comic book, so he came along. Barrington Pheloung had created the music. So he came along. And we had this wonderful party. I had no idea if anybody was going to turn up, but queues and queues and queues of people came, somebody flew in from Italy, it was extraordinary. And that was the first time that we actually got to meet our community and realise the degree of passion and enthusiasm – I was so uplifted and it was clear that everything had changed.

“Clearly from a publisher perspective, under the old model, they would much prefer we didn’t communicate directly with our audience. There were these choke points across the distribution chain.”

The opportunities just kept coming too. Apple featured the iOS version of the first Broken Sword as parts of its ‘12 Days of Christmas’ promotion, giving the game away for free for 24 hours.

“In the one day that it went free, there were two and-a-half million downloads. And we still have people that discovered Broken Sword and went on to buy Broken Sword 2 and are now following us, who got the game for free then.

“They knew nothing about it and they loved it when they played it. The interesting thing is when we put the game at full price, our sales skyrocketed. My concern that by giving it away for free would satisfy a latent demand of people who would otherwise have bought it, went out of the window.”

Revolution was learning ten years ago that giving away games for free can make a lot of business sense, although even that wasn’t actually the first time it had done it.

KICKING OFF

A screenshot from Beneath a Steel Sky

Revolution’s last title, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse, was funded via Kickstarter, thanks to a engaged fanbase that had enjoyed reasonably regular releases, waiting ‘only’ six years between the release of BS4 and the Kickstarter for BS5. For a new Steel Sky game, there was a chasm of 25 years back to a single original title, or was there? “With Beneath a Steel Sky, there are those who played it originally 25 years ago. And those people are incredibly passionate. It’s the game that they remember from that era, and it’s the Revolution game they’re most fond of.

“But then there’s a second group, who discovered the game as freeware via ScummVM. Beneath a Steel Sky had been developed for DOS just before the time that games were moving onto Windows. And a couple of students contacted the company asking if they could have the source code to get the game running on the emulator.

“It felt like we had nothing to lose, so we gave them the source code. And they were absolutely brilliant.” So brilliant in fact that one of them, Joost Peters, is now Revolution’s CTO. “He came for work experience and never left,” Cecil explains.

“And the beauty of course, is that the ScummVM system has continued to evolve and anything that’s been written for the original system has continued to work. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. What they effectively did was allow a game that was otherwise dead to be playable across Windows and anything else that they chose to write ScummVM for, most notably Mac OS and Linux.

“In hindsight, that was an act of genius. Now, I wish I could claim that we’d thought out the whole thing. But it was an act of genius because we wouldn’t have earned much by selling it, but by being free it became incredibly popular in an era where actually there were very few games that were free.”

So with the original fans, the ScummVM crowd and those who had discovered the game via iOS, Beneath a Steel Sky had a sizable fandom spread across over two decades. And despite Broken Sword 5 having done well on Kickstarter, Revolution moved with the times again, cutting a deal with Apple to help fund Beyond a Steel Sky.

ARCADE RETRO

Beyond a Steel Sky will be an Apple Arcade exclusive on mobile

Beyond a Steel Sky will is a mobile exclusive on Apple Arcade – while still being available on Steam. Which allows Revolution to cover all the key segments of fans it’s collated over the years, while still benefiting from Apple’s financial support up front.

Cecil feels that the company’s great relationship with Apple makes it the right choice. “That call from Apple really gave us the enthusiasm to start again… It’s great that we are able to continue this relationship with them, which has really built over more than 10 years.

“Apple have been the biggest company in the world, it’s still the biggest brand in the world. And what I love is that they are genuinely excited by the success their partners have on their platform – and they very much see them as partners. And so it’s really great to be able to partner with them on Apple Arcade.

“And the support they gave us meant the development didn’t require the same level of pre-funding as Broken Sword 5 did [via kickstarter].” With Cecil recalling that process with mixed emotions.

“When we took people’s money in advance for Broken Sword 5 it weighed enormously on me. And I was really shocked when some people appeared to take their audience for granted. Perhaps that was because, when we said ‘without your support this game cannot appear’ we were actually being totally, genuinely honest.

“Obviously the community is incredibly important for us. And there are many, many upsides for Kickstarter. But one of the downsides is that you lay out the specification for the game very early on, and you are duty bound to deliver what you say. The inability to iterate and move away from what you promised, in those very early stages, is quite constraining.

“So, with Beyond a Steel Sky, what we wanted to do was get the best of both worlds. To engage with the community but without actually getting pre-funding, so that we could communicate directly without being held to account.”

ONE STEP BEYOND

Revolution Games in York

That approach fitted in well with Apple’s desire for the team to really go for it, and also let them go beyond the straight sequel that might have appealed most to the fanbase.

“Apple was very keen that we should be ambitious. One of the reasons we haven’t called it Beneath A Steel Sky 2 is because it isn’t really a sequel. It is so different in its approach, yet set in the same universe. It’s got a number of the same characters. But it’s very much an evolution, or inspired by, rather than a sequel to the original.

And the game also marks a shift to Unreal Engine for the first time: “We opted for Unreal Engine and that allowed us to be so much more ambitious than we could possibly have been. And it also, in many ways, levels the playing field. The big companies, the triple-A games from Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, they have so much resources and so many in-house tools, and the ability to take an engine like Unreal or Unity opens up extraordinary opportunities that just simply wouldn’t have been possible before.

“The underlying vision for Beyond a Steel Sky is that it is unashamedly an adventure game. But it sits above a normal adventure, which is very static, by the idea that you can subvert the world through hacking into systems, and that will affect the way that the world works. Characters will then respond accordingly and puzzles are then interwoven with those responses,” Cecil explains.

“For example: There’s a drink dispenser, and it’s got three elements, it checks your ID, if you can have a drink, then it dispenses your drink, if you can’t it politely refuses. Or if you try and tip the machine, then an alarm goes off, and the alarm calls a droid to find out what’s going on. You can hack it, though, so that If somebody has the correct ID it sets the alarm off.

“So a character comes along for a drink, the alarm goes off, they have no idea what’s going on. The droid comes along to investigate, and that opens up opportunities.”

RETURN OF THE WATCHMAN

Concept art from Dave Gibbons

And of course, Dave Gibbons is back for the new game: “When we started talking a couple of years ago, he sent me a script that he’d written a year [after the first game]. So the plan to do a sequel was at the forefront of our minds,” it just wasn’t the right time. Gibbons has helped out since, though, doing some comic books to complement early Broken Sword games and also working on Broken Sword 5.

“Dave is very respectful. He sees himself as a partner in all of this, he sees that the gameplay comes first and foremost, and that his job is to support that from a conceptual and from a visual perspective.” With Gibbons taking on concept art, character design and providing ideas and suggestions more generally.

“From a story perspective, that’s very much the area that I drive, Cecil notes. “But I very much value his feedback and work with him on elements of the story. He designed the intro comic book. And obviously that needs to introduce the story and is hugely important in creating the setup and providing elements of the backstory that we felt that a new player would need to understand – because one of the key elements of this is that people do not need to know anything about the original game.”

Speaking in terms of story, we wonder if Cecil has changed the style of his writing and the humour in the intervening 25 years?

“In the original Beneath a Steel Sky, you had a court scene with ’Judge Chutney’, who was named after Judge Pickles, who was quite infamous at the time. And of course, back in 1994, that was fine. I think people expect a much more cohesive experience today. So you go into a world that’s slightly crazy. You see it through the eyes of the protagonist, and so you’re experiencing normality through the protagonist.”

The player and protagonist essentially play the straight guys to everyone else’s varied excesses: “And then the further from the protagonist you get, the more crazy the characters become, and the humour comes a lot from the difference between what we as the audience (and the protagonist) expects to happen, and what really happens because the world is slightly mad.

And returning to Judge Pickles, does a more global audience today limit such references? “I am not afraid of cultural references at all. And a lot of our characters have dialects from around the United Kingdom. I think we are an English developer, a British developer, and I hope that people will want to play our games knowing that we bring an English perspective to it,” replies Cecil.

A DECADE LONG PUZZLE

In adventure games, there’s always a neat solution to any puzzle if you employ a little lateral thinking. In games publishing that’s not always the case, as the many studios that have closed over the years are testament to. Revolution, though, has been clever, fortunate or tenacious enough – and probably a bit of all three – to have survived.

All of which has put it in this unusual situation of reviving an IP after 25 years. It’s an incredible gap and we’re very excited to see how it handles the reimagining of this cult classic. And if you want to see how it all started, then simply head to over GOG.com and download Beneath for free. After all, giving the original game away, is exactly what’s made this sequel possible all these years later.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

Check Also

“At Rare, having a diverse team is incredibly important to us” – Women in Games Awards headline sponsor Rare on supporting women in the industry

"Rare are delighted to return as Headline Sponsor for the MCV/DEVELOP Women in Games Awards this year"