Interview: Rebellionâ??s Kingsley brothers

Over the next couple of weeks, Develop will be embarking on a special series of interviews with some of the world’s largest and most celebrated independent developers. Yesterday we featured an interview with Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli; today we bring you the first part in our interview with the Oxford-based duo heading up Rebellion.

It has been said many times before that the Kingsley brothers were born to make games. Chris, the younger of the two, built his very first computer – all sixteen bytes of it – at the tender age of eleven. Jason, meanwhile, practiced his creativity via an infatuation with Dungeons and Dragons; drawing maps and landscapes on paper for people to play on.

Both went on to work in the industry as freelancers, and two Oxford University degrees later they established their own development company. Aptly enough for their youth, the two named the group Rebellion. Nearly two decades later, Rebellion sits as one of the biggest development companies in the world today. Its work spans key franchises from the Simpsons to Star Wars, along with prized titles such as the 1999 PC edition of Aliens versus Predator.

The second half of our interview can be found here.

Rebellion has humble roots, with both of you starting the company together in the basement of a shared student house. Do you feel that young aspiring developers today have the same opportunity to start their own development outfit?

Jason: I think it absolutely can happen. It just depends on circumstances and drive. With the rise of smaller games and digital distribution, I’d say that in fact it’s probably easier to start up a studio now than it’s been for the better part of a decade.

You really do have an opportunity to make a game and put it out there.

Chris: Today people can publish games without the need to speak to publishers, and so the barrier of entry is completely removed. It’s very exciting to see that.

Jason: Yeah, I think success for aspiring developers is more likely now than it has been for a very long time.

Rebellion is probably the largest independent developer in Europe. With creative freedom often being cited as the biggest virtue of the independent developer, how do you respond to suggestions that larger teams can stifle creativity?

Jason: Larger studios definitely don’t stifle creativity; it depends on your management structure and how you approach things.

It’s very important that you empower your teams to be creative. Obviously you have to remain professional and we have to deliver what is being asked of us, but creativity is exactly what we are in this business for.

Of course smaller studios are going to claim bragging rights about being more creative, it’s the only thing they can do. They can’t claim to be bigger, they can’t claim to be more commercially successful, or do more projects or be more secure; so they have to claim the one variable left to them which is their creativity.

That’s absolutely fine, and you can find that tiny three-man teams with little money can come up with all sorts of clever ideas and communicate very well.

Bigger teams will – by necessity – have more communication problems because obviously there’s more people to get that information around. But this is just an increase in complexity that simply has to be looked at and managed differently.

If we are to look at games as the sum of their parts, is there an argument that the skills of the most talented parts can be hidden by those who didn’t particularly shine on other parts of a game? In that sense, would a bigger studio by virtue mean that more talent will likely be averaged out?

Jason: Would you say in a football [soccer] team of twenty people, a key striker is less important? The answer is simply ‘no’. If someone is a brilliant programmer, they’re a brilliant programmer. They may be doing proportionally a smaller component of the game than if they were programming the game and working on the graphics on their own, but you could also argue that larger teams allow you to specialise more.

If you are that brilliant programmer of AI or special effects or engine code or graphics, then you can focus your time on a project making that part of the game the best there is.

If you are in a small team you’ll have to know how to do a number of other things. You might have to do debugging, for goodness sake, you might have to do QA. So even though you’re the same level of star, you may have to be preoccupied with other jobs as well.

There is no perfect size to make a perfect game, and there are many ways in which you can make great games.

You can have a small team that outsources a lot, but of course the trouble with that is the variable quality in what is delivered back to you. Rebellion does sometimes use outsourcing but that’s usually to do with the more mundane work so that our specialists can focus on what excites and interests them.

You have in the past worked on a number of franchise-based games. Such titles often lead to good commercial success, and yet franchise-based games that win critical acclaim tend to achieve far greater impact and commercial success. So why do we still see so few of the latter?

Jason: I think that’s down to the requirements of the development process. When you’re working on an original title, you can within reason spend however long you like perfecting it and then try and find somebody to publish it. If they want it you have the chance to negotiate a time frame.

But if someone comes to you and says they want a game based on, for example, The Simpsons or Star Wars, they have a time frame in mind and you then have a natural tension of a set delivery date to try and meet. So you kind of have to modify your creative input to allow for this fixed date and budget.

I mean, there’s always limitations on any game, even if it’s a completely original one itself. But there are certainly far more limitations when dealing with others’ intellectual property that fits into a certain release slot.

Chris: Let’s not forget that publishers themselves are constrained by the licenses they have, with set goals on when to get their games out perhaps being quicker than they would like.

But also it takes a long time to negotiate contracts, and what we’re seeing is that the time it takes to reach an agreement has crept up quite a lot in the last few years. It used to be a couple of months or so; now it usually takes much longer with budgets going up as well and more riding on the success of games. That time spent negotiating you don’t have at the end of the project, because the endpoint doesn’t move.

Jason: For example, on quite a well-known franchise game, we got approval from Sony for submission of that game the very day before we got the publisher’s signed contract. The publisher did send it to us with a note of irony, saying that they knew it was a long time coming and that they do appreciate us making an entire game without having a contract.

Surely it’s an incredibly stressful experience developing a game without knowing it’s going to be approved?

Jason: Absolutely. And don’t forget that when you’ve got a license, you’re not always dealing with the publisher; you’re dealing with the licensor, who may not necessarily understand the game development process. That may be more used to approving tee-shirts, or action figures, or lunchboxes.

With those goods, usually as soon as they’re approved a button is pressed and the items are being manufactured. What they sometimes forget is that, the time it takes to approve something can be holding up our production process completely. We just don’t know whether we can proceed with that model or not. 

Hollywood and videogames have been flirting with each other for many years now, but there’s an argument that for both to synergise effectively there cannot be one side so much in control of the partnership.

Jason: It’s been this way because the movie is always seen as the prime IP. That has shifted a little bit recently; I’ve noticed that there are quite a few movies based on games these days, in fact the in some cases a game will be out and be a full success before the movie is released, though often those movies are of poor quality.

Chris: The problem is it’s actually quicker to make a movie than it is to make a game these days, by quite a big margin. That’s always a big problem, because often you’re not given enough time to make the game. So you have to fit to the schedule that you have.

Jason: Movies, once they’re green-lit, can be on the shelves within twelve months. It’s not that difficult to do that. That’s hardly ever going to be the same time you need to deliver a game.

Generally speaking, when you start talking with somebody about a title, it takes three months to get a letter of intent, and then another six months to get a contract. By that time you’re already nine months in, and really you should be submitting at that stage to Sony or Microsoft or whoever for approval.

It is a big problem, and there really isn’t a way of getting around it unless you are dealing with major movie groups who can schedule their releases two or three years ahead.

Which some of them do, but then they move it, because you have actors that are important to the films, and those actors decide they need time to take on another movie.

Chris: But it is interesting to see a new wave of Hollywood studios getting interested in games now. There does seem to be a resurgence of interest in the amazing potential of games.

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