With over a quarter of a century in business, and under the sole ownership of the Kingsley brothers, Rebellion stands out even among the few UK developers that have resisted the test of time. But despite that longevity, it’s not standing still, with a flurry of new initiatives and acquisitions since the beginning of last year.
In that time the company has expanded to four studio locations, picking up both Radiant Worlds and TickTock Games, while also purchasing a huge film and TV production space and announcing an upcoming movie, plus a TV series, based on its 2000AD comic book properties.
Its independence, longevity, variety and that recent flurry of activity, make it a great time to catch up with the company. And we’re not the only ones who think so, with Develop:Brighton hosting both Jason and Chris Kingsley for one of its keynote talks at the 2019 edition of the conference.
Today we just catch up with Jason, the undeniable front-man of the pair, who explains the thinking behind the company’s latest moves, and gives us his insight on Epic Game Store, Xbox Game Pass and Google’s Stadia.
First, we wonder if there was a grand plan behind the more recent studio acquisitions, but apparently not, Kingsley tells us.
“It is not a policy to acquire people, we’re not going out looking for people to acquire,” he says. “But if we work with people, and we like them, and the opportunity pops up, and it’s a kind of win-win situation, then we’ll look at it positively and do it.
“They are usually opportunistic, as with our most recent acquisition TickTock. We’ve worked with them in the past and then there was an opportunity to work more closely with a talented bunch people,” he adds, noting that if Rebellion hadn’t acquired the company, someone else may have, putting their talents out of Kingsley’s reach.
Rebellion’s independence, with Jason and Chris owning the company outright between them, makes such moves far simpler than they might be for many.
“When an opportunity comes up, we look at it and go: ‘Yeah that kind of makes sense’. We won’t do millions of quids worth of diligence and scare ourselves, and then decide not to do it. We’ll do a sensible amount, look into it properly, and then decide whether we think we can make a go of it. Because we’re privately owned, it’s our money. Our money and our responsibility. We’re almost unique in the games industry in being like that.
“There’s been opportunities that have come up that we’ve not moved on. But because we’re not publicly-owned nobody knows those opportunities came and went and we didn’t do anything about it. So we’re in a fortunate position. We don’t have to manage a relationship with investors in any way, shape or form.”
Those moves have meant the company is spread across more locations than it originally intended, Kingsley tells us: “We never set out to have four separate locations. We wanted to just focus on the two, with Runcorn in the north and Oxford in the south. But then that’s very much how our business is: we operate a portfolio approach. We can be proactive in some areas and then reactive in others.”
The acquisitions may have been opportunistic but there’s certainly a plan behind the increased headcount, with the additional staff helping both to support the future ambitions of Rebellion’s flagship Sniper Elite series and to cement a broader portfolio of releases.
“We want to do a few more smaller games as well as some of the big tentpole productions and we want to overlap them because we want to work on more than a couple of games at the same time,” Kingsley explains.
“Ideally, we want to get to a position where we’ve got a big game coming out each year, plus a couple of smaller, arguably more interesting new titles, new IP, that kind of stuff. We want to test new things out, like we did with the hugely-successful Strange Brigade. But we’ve got to balance that out, we’ve got to keep going with Sniper Elite because lots of people want more Sniper Elite,” he exclaims.
Speaking of Rebellion’s biggest franchise, the current iteration – Sniper Elite 4 – recently appeared on Xbox Game Pass. A move that meant the game was brought back to players’ attention and I for one took the time to play the game on Xbox, despite owning a PC version that I had never got around to. We wonder if Kingsley’s experience has been similarly positive in terms of boosting engagement with the franchise.
“It was a little bit daunting to make the decision to give your game away to a section of the general public like that. You go: ‘Hang on a second’. And all these questions pop up. But we did some analytics and we were convinced.
“We like the Game Pass team and they helped manage us through the process. They can’t share data from other titles, but they gave us strong assurances that certain things were not likely to happen or at least hadn’t happened with other projects.
“It’s been very positive from every angle,” he continues. “It brings a whole bunch of new people to the Sniper Elite franchise, so not only has it been commercially successful for us just in terms of the deal and how it works, it’s also very valuable as brand extension and awareness.”
Which brings us around to that old chestnut of discovery, which is compounded by the high bar of quality the industry as a whole is now hitting: “Everybody’s trying to make good stuff and most people’s stuff is pretty damn good,” Kingsley says.
“People have only got a certain number of hours to spend. If they play the Sniper Elite games they’ll enjoy them, almost certainly. But can we persuade them to have a go? The answer is yes we can, in lots of different ways. So it’s been great. It’s another route to the consumer.
“We’ve got Sniper Elite V2 Remastered coming up. We’ve noticed a distinct bump in interest in that brand partly because there’s a whole bunch of people who are alerted to Sniper Elite through Game Pass.”
THE EPIC QUESTION
While Game Pass and similar subscription services may be the future of games, it’s something as simple as a new PC retailer that has dominated the headlines in recent months. So would Rebellion be tempted to do an Epic Game Store exclusive?
“I’m not really a big believer in exclusives,” Kingsley starts. “For me the relationship I have with the consumer is important and it matters to me how many people buy and play my games… We listen to our fans as best we can.
“It’s not just compensating us for lost sales on platform X or Y. Fine, that might de-risk the project, but you also have to factor in the cost of the negative reaction from people who are upset by that decision.
“There’s a kind of fairness aspect to this, and I want to be fair to the fans who want to buy it on the platform they want. So that’s sort of my feeling at the moment. I guess that could change but there would have to be a bloody good reason.
“I want to be fair to the fans who want to buy it on the platform they want… I guess that could change but there would have to be a bloody good reason.”
“Our plans do not involve doing anything exclusive like that but I think it’d be dishonest for me to say we would never do it or rule it out. But I think it’s extremely unlikely.
“I understand why Epic are doing the exclusives. I entirely understand the business case for it, because they’ve got to, because they’ve got to drive people to their platform. Do I support them in it? I have to say as a consumer it’s a bit annoying but it’s not that annoying really, because it’s hardly any effort, having another launcher on your system.”
Kingsley can see why an exclusivity deal might be attractive to some: “You could imagine a situation where someone took the exclusive because they didn’t necessarily have that much confidence in the game: ‘We’re going to be having all this negativity because it’s not going to be on Steam, on the positive side we’re going to get all our money back straight away from Epic. So our shareholders love us because we’re guaranteed not to make a loss on this product’,” he theorises a developer thinking.
Despite being largely against signing an exclusive deal, Kingsley is hugely supportive of the store in general.
“I think competition is good… There’s a Monopolies and Mergers Commission for a reason. And I think for any business it’s good to have peers that are keeping you focused on improving your offering. I applaud Epic for doing this, I think it’s actually good for Steam too because the competition kind of makes them go: ‘Oh fuck, we better sit up, take notice and do something about it’.”
While Epic Game Store is undoubtedly ruffling feathers in the PC space, Google’s Stadia is looking most likely to shake things up amongst the incumbent console firms. Though as with Game Pass and Epic Game Store, Kingsley sees it primarily as yet another welcome opportunity for gamers to discover his games.
“It lets you play a game on any screen as long as you have an internet connection, which I think is wonderful. Again it comes down to discovery and more people could play games than can play them now, which is brilliant for us because we create content. So I’m very excited about the possibilities,” he enthuses.
“I think the potential instant availability of a game is radically fantastic,” he continues, telling us that Rebellion is definitely interested in being on the new platform.
“To go back to your question about exclusivity, we want our games to be available on every platform possible,” he adds. “Because we think the challenge is discovery, so we’re not that bothered what flavour of platform our games are on. What we care about is: can people get to play games wherever they are in the world?”
“Because we think the challenge is discovery, so we’re not that bothered what flavour of platform our games are on. What we care about is: can people get to play games wherever they are in the world?”
The big secret with Stadia remains Google’s plans for how it will charge consumers for the service and content on that service, with recent comments from Stadia boss Phil Harrison merely confirming that the platform could technically handle any monetisation option.
“I don’t know what the business model will be, they’re probably looking at all the options. What we do know is that Google has a lot of data to mine. So they’ll have lots of points of data in order to work out what the best solution, or combination of solutions, might be,” Kingsley points out.
Returning to Kingsley’s earlier mention of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, we discuss the possibility of the first hit of any Google search for a game name being a direct link to Stadia to play that game: “Or even a situation where you see the game and it is being played by somebody, somewhere, their game session being shown live to you,” Kingsley posits.
THE REBELLION WILL BE TELEVISED
The buzz around Stadia comes in part from the incredible success of Netflix in recent years in disrupting the delivery model for TV and films, areas that Rebellion is moving into in a big way, with both a feature film based around Rogue Trooper and a TV series about Judge Dredd. We suspect the boom in funding brought about by Netflix and its ilk motivated Rebellion to get involved in linear entertainment formats.
“Partly, because it makes you aware there is an opportunity,” Kingsley answers. “Arguably it makes it harder though because lots of talented people are already on projects. In any industry there are only so many talented people that you want to work with, and it’s hard to find the right people at the right time.”
Ironically, though, it was the difficulty in finding talent in the games space that lead in part to the new venture: “We’re maxed out and it’s really hard to find another hundred members of staff to make games,” Kingsley says. “We’ve got a fantastic group of people doing PR and admin, but to grow, to generate another big game a year, we need to grow the footprint of the company in lots of different areas, not just in games development. So we thought what could we do that might be supportive, both interesting and visual, and might overlap nicely with our audience for games.
“And we felt film and TV content, linear content, might be an area where we’ve got some transferable skills: CGI, storytelling, that kind of stuff.”
In fact, Rebellion has quietly been in the blockbuster business for some time, as it wholly owns motion capture studio Audiomotion – which has worked on the likes of Ready Player One, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and recently Netflix’s own Love, Death + Robots.
“Audiomotion is our company, but as it’s used by third parties we’ve always kept it slightly separate from Rebellion. I don’t know what Audiomotion is doing on a daily basis, as that might not be fair to those using it,” he says, which makes sense given it also works with other games studios too.
“So basically a division of Rebellion has done the components of many many big films already. We’ve seen how they do it. In a lot of cases we solve technical problems for people in film and TV, which is nice and gives us confidence to know we can do our own stuff.”
Of course making your own TV series or film doesn’t usually require you to buy your own production facilities, as Rebellion has with its Didcot-based studio.
Kingsley explains why: “We were looking around for where to film and we realised that there’s not much studio space left in the UK. The government said there’s a shortfall of 2 million square feet of space, there just isn’t anywhere to film. And [as newcomers] we knew we’d be low down on that pecking order too.
“I wanted it to be to be fairly local to me too, because I want to be involved on a daily basis. And so in typical Rebellion fashion we thought: how do you square this circle? Can we buy somewhere? And that’s how we acquired the Didcot studios. And we’ve set about turning those into facilities that other people can use and we can use.”
In fact, large parts of the studio are already in use, though Kingsley can’t say who by: “It’s not for us to publicise what’s going on there and we’ve got a lot of ongoing business with a lot of high profile companies. It’s a huge 12 acre site. It’s 250,000 square feet of space, really, really tall and soundproof, it couldn’t be better. You could film a James Bond villain’s lair in it!
“We’re hiring studios out, but that isn’t the main business plan. The main plan is to make our own stuff there but we’re not quite ready for that,” he explains. “We are still working on scripts for Mega-City One [the Judge Dredd TV series], and we have a script we’re very happy with for other things but we’re not quite ready to go.”
So will the increased profile for both Rogue and Dredd circle back around and potentially kickstart new games based on those characters?
“If we can do something about it, we will,” Kingsley says. “If we can join the dots up and if it makes sense – a good business case as well as a good creative case for it, then, yes, absolutely we’ll be revisiting these intellectual properties in games form as well.”
Rebellion’s aim here is to find new outlets for its existing IP, not become a production house for hire.
“While it’s interesting talking with Hollywood executives at a very senior level, what we don’t want to do, and what we’re not going to do, is get back into work-for-hire. We don’t want to reverse into a situation where we’re basically doing work-for-hire for movie studios. We got out of that a decade ago in games, we’re not going back into it. So what we’re doing is joint ventures. And we’re fully funding our own stuff as well.”
WE DID IT OUR WAY
“Our own stuff” is the key here. Having moved out of work-for-hire Rebellion has exclusively worked on its own IPs – be they acquired or built from the ground up – for over seven years now. And it doesn’t see that as a one-way street either.
“It’s a portfolio approach, we’ve got a ton of IP from comics, books, all sorts of stuff. But we don’t necessarily want to just make games from IP generated in other industries. We kind of want to keep a balance between game IP that’s going to be books, book IP that’s going to be a comic, comic IP that’s going to be a game,” Kingsley explains.
And logically then, we might one day see game IP becoming a film – Sniper Elite: The Movie anyone?
“It’s just fun to be telling stories, making games for other people to play. But Chris and I still make products that we want to consume too. We’re indie in that respect, yet big enough to be able to put 150 people on a game for two years.”
It’s a rare and appealing combination and one that makes Rebellion an incredibly intriguing outfit – whichever sector, format or platform it chooses to work on – which at present looks likely to be just about all of them.