The Revolution Software founder on building a team, tackling Kickstarter and working with your fan community

Interview: Charles Cecil on returning to Broken Sword

After a seven year gap, Revolution’s original point and click saga has returned with the release of Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse.

Develop caught up with series creator Charles Cecil to talk about the process of returning to the world and its characters and the other challenges he and his team faced in bringing Broken Sword to new players.

How have you assured, in terms of your creative approach, that Revolution has captured that ‘spirit’ of Broken Sword that fans value so much? Was it about the value of having team members from back in the early days of the series?
Charles Cecil:
Well, it isn’t just the original team, and I believe it would be weaker as a game if that were the case.

In about 2005 Revolution had a project cancelled, and we had to make everybody redundant at that point. Everybody realised we had no choice or we would go bankrupt, so we had to retreat into a tiny shell. This was a couple of years after Broken Sword 3.

Subsequently, we were working a core team of about four or five people, which expanded by another ten people – so fifteen in total in a temporary office, with about another ten freelancers giving us a team of about 25 people.

We will disperse again once this game is finished. About half of the team on this game are ex-Revolution staff, which I’m really pleased with, because it shows that we treated them honourably back then, because they were happy to come back. An awful lot of people say they always loved working at Revolution and are always happy to contribute. That gives us people on the team very experienced with the game, that know that spirit.

But we’ve also got a number of people who we have never worked with previously, and they bring new ideas. For example, as far as the development is concerned, we have worked with the Waterfall model, as opposed to Agile or Scrum.

Before, we would define our mastheads in advance, which always seemed crazy. But it was required by publishers because they wanted to be able to measure, and have a stick against which they can say ‘unless you achieve this, we won’t pay your milestone’.

A number of people had come to Revolution at a point back then from Sony Liverpool back when it went through various changes, and brought with them the idea of Agile development, which is obviously much more flexible. They would argue that I could screw everything up by not making the commitments, because ultimately for me quality is, within reasonable constraints, absolutely essential. I just hate letting something go if I know it could be better, and that can drive people absolutely round the twist, and quite rightly. I do sympathise with them; I really do.

But the idea of being able to change the whole system so that the milestones are more flexible, while you can still be clear on what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it; that is really refreshing.

Previously, before Revolution – which has never gone bankrupt – had to pull right back, two months before the end of a project, there’d be this terrible fear about what we’d be doing in two months’ time. We had a huge number of staff back then, with wages to pay. And it became a double whammy after a project was finished, because, one, you weren’t earning any revenues, so any profit you made – which became rarer and rarer – got eaten into. Secondly, the staff members had nothing to do, which meant that they were restless. It would be a terrifying period until the next project ramped up.

It was also very divisive of the team make-up, as solving it would mean many of your staff had to come off your project two months before the end, and just let it run its natural course while they started on the new one to minimise that gap between projects.

So with Broken Sword 5, it has been very nice, because we’ve really been able to focus on the game, and frankly not worry too much about what we do next. Because we know we won’t be carrying over a huge overhead to the next project. And the people that we are carrying over will be absolutely necessary for the coding and community management ahead.

So you’ve adapted to better suit a world where the development work on a game doesn’t end when the game is released?
Absolutely. And in defence of the way that we work now, an adventure game is a huge project, and we’ve had to fund ourselves through various processes and then Kickstarter, work with the community, develop the game, and take on the role of publisher and build relationships with Apple, Steam, GoG, Amazon and Google. As a very small team we’re now doing what, in the previous generations of games development, a huge team would have done.

But it’s all come together, and it’s incredibly exciting because it means we can control our own destiny. But clearly we’re not going to do it as efficiently as a much larger publisher could. Which is why we’re structured the way we are today.

So you’ve got a team of old Revolution veterans and new blood, directing the studio on a self-funded, self published project. What’s your role in that team in terms of guiding the IP? Is it about you as something of an auteur?
The team are very good at accepting that I should have the last word, but that said, we have some very experienced designers and it’s great to let them go and come up with their own ideas, independent of me. A lot of the really nice ideas in the game, I had nothing to do with.

I do always keep an overview of every aspect of the development and of the company, and that’s how I can be sure we make a game that feels like a Broken Sword game. I hope that delivers a consistency. Over the last few weeks we’ve spent a fairly stressful time tweaking and balancing the game, and it really does feel like it’s a project of a shared vision. That vision is of a familiar Broken Sword brought up to date, and I believe we’ve done that. We set a clear vision; that’s important here.

What about the community that formed around the Kickstarter funding. How did that impact the game’s design, and the vision?
Well, it changed our ambition, really. It felt like a crazy thing to offer as a stretch goal, that we would add new sections. And of course people loved that idea, but what it actually meant was that where originally there was always going to be two sections to the game, we found ourselves needing to work hard as our Kickstarter met its target and went some way beyond to make it a single game. That was about expanding what we felt we would offer. And as the process went on we had to change our ambitions for the project. And then it became a two-part release anyway.

I hate to quote how long a game I’ve made will take to complete, but depending on their experience the first episode will has taken our Beta testers seven-to-ten hours, depending on their approach. So it is a full game in it’s own right, but after that episode two will come along, and while it might be slightly smaller its around the same size.

So you had a game with two distinct sections, and were working on a Kickstarter project to release the game in one part, combining those sections. Then you decided to split it, into episodes?
Yes, that’s pretty much it. And what Kickstarter and the community there let us do was change the ambition with how we did it, and what the game across its two parts could offer.

The worst thing to do with Kickstarter is to super serve a vocal minority. Double Fine told their community ‘we’re going to make a game with you’. At Revolution we never said that. We were quite clear when we let our players know we were making the game we thought they would want, and that we would value their feedback.

There’s a subtle difference between those messages.

I think that writing a game with your fans is great in theory, but totally unworkable, and perhaps a little idealistic. Frankly, we’ve got our game just about to launch, and very few others do. Perhaps we’re slightly pragmatic. And I’m not criticising anybody else, of course.

So you’ve enjoyed working with your community? Balancing the input you let have has worked out?
You hear a lot of stories about dreadful gaming communities, such as the misogyny that happens around first-person shooters. In our community we’ve found nothing like that. Of course, that might be because 50 per cent of them are women, but generally our fans have been very positive. They were so excited during the Kickstarter.

I was aware, though, that if that was to go off the boil it would be our fault for not giving them the attention that they deserved. It would never be their fault, so I was really careful that we communicated with them.

But at the same time, I think people realise that we are stretched very thin. We’ve always been very genuine in our communication. Maybe that communication isn’t too polished, but it’s always sincere, and that’s meant we’ve had a great time working with our community. They have been a very positive influence.

We still have to be careful with the messaging, of course. Look at the backlash when Double Fine launched their second Kickstarter; you have to be careful.

So when we decided to split the game, that was a classic case of really sitting down and being clear about what we were going to do, and the reasons for that decision. We had to be very careful with that communication. If we got that wrong and people started doubting if we were telling the truth – that would have been very difficult. The message to your players is really important. You have to be clear and honest.

And returning to the split, what motivated that?
Well, I’d made a promise to everybody that was a Kickstarter backer that we’d definitely have the game ready for Christmas. Then I realised to my horror, that wither we were going to release it before Christmas and the second half of the game just wouldn’t be good enough, or that it would have to go over, which would both be a disaster. Postponing it might even be the worse option, as it would mean people may doubt that it would ever come. The only option was splitting it.

As the game always had that two-part structure anyway, there was a natural splitting point. Also, in the industry we all worry about people never finishing playing our games. By having those eight hours available as the first part, which a player can fit into a weekend before gap and then another episode, I feel it might mean more people finish the game. A much bigger game might actually see less players complete it. The second episode’s arrival is really an event, and that should motivate more people to play again.

It also fitted the recording, which we did in two halves based around the availability of our [protagonist] George, who was played by a very busy actor named Rolf Saxon. Having receded half of it, we could get on with much of the process of the translating and so on and get closer to finishing the first episode before we’d even recorded the second part.

How about the new power available through the target platforms of the new Broken Sword? Has that changed the game?
One of the things it’s done – and this is about not just the platforms, but the way we can make games now – is it’s let us respond to our community. For example, as we were making the game and sharing our work with our fans, they would point out things like the shape of George’s chin, and that it wasn’t quite right. Quite quickly, we could change it, or perhaps adapt our shadows a little based on the community’s feedback. That really is remarkable, to be able to do that today, and to have all these people so keen to give us in put. It’s been lovely.

Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse – Episode One is available now on PC, Mac and Linux, priced £18.99 for both episodes.

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