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Charles Cecil On Broken Sword, Kickstarter, & 3D Models


Yesterday we spoke to Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil about the themes behind Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse. Today we talk about the practice of Kickstarting itself, the flaws with the traditional publisher model, and how Uncle Charles hopes to involve the community as this fifth Broken Sword game is developed. So why does Revolution even need Kickstarter money? How will they promote the game without a publisher to push it? And how does Cecil respond to people's concerns over the new look for the characters?

RPS: Going in, what were your expectations for the Kickstarter?

Charles Cecil: Of course everybody looks at Doublefine, and the way Schafer was so successful. I like that he had the balls to say it might be good, it might be bad, but either way it'll be fun. But from our perspective, Broken Sword doesn't have the clout of Monkey Island, but there's clearly an awful lot of affection for the brand. Last year on iOS alone we sold probably half a million. And through promotions we actually had five million downloads. So the game feels very contemporary. We have two audiences - people who remember it from the first time round, and then we have a new generation who are discovering it primarily on mobile. Our campaign has tried to appeal to both sides. So to answer your question, I really didn't know. But it went off like a rocket! We raised close to a hundred thousand dollars in a couple of hours, which was as you can imagine, incredible gratifying. Very flattering.

RPS: And now I see it's on 304,000. Are you already thinking about stretch goals?

Cecil: We are thinking about stretch goals, absolutely. But the one thing I would never want us to be is complacent. What we're relying on is for our fans to have confidence in our project, and confidence that if they fund it, we'll use the money to write the game that they want. So we are of course thinking about stretch goals, but we'll publish them once we're pretty much home and dry. We do still have 25% to go, so we're optimistic but in no way complacent.

RPS: So you talked about the iOS success, and how the games are still popular, which leads to the assumption that there must still be money coming in. So why do you need a Kickstarter? Why doesn't Revolution have enough money to do it yourselves?

Cecil: Historically, we were part of a process where a publisher would commission games, then publish them and ship them into retail. With that model, a developer would generally get about 7% of the revenues. Against that would be set various costs, so developers almost never benefited from the success of a title. That was certainly the situation we were in. We then started self publishing, and that was the first time we were able to gain some revenues. We've spent half a million pounds [on the new game] and that is half a million pounds that we've earned in profits from self-publishing over the last year and a half. But adventure games are very expensive to write - we have a lot of unique content. As you move forward you have new animations, new screens, new logic, new story, so unlike so many games which are a repetitive gameplay mechanic, where after the first level you just iterate with level designers and a little bit of art, we have totally new content. The games cost over a million pounds to write. So what we're looking to do is to bridge the gap between the half a million that we could afford to put in from our profits, and the total cost of a million pounds. And that's why we've launched a Kickstarter appeal. We really do need this bridge. It's not just simply trying to make some money. I think still in a few people's minds there's a perception that we could have afforded to have just written it, but that really is not the case.

RPS: Is the plan here then to get the ball rolling, to make enough money with this game so you don't need to Kickstart the next one?

Cecil: Absolutely, yes. But Kickstarter's also an incredibly good way of gauging what your audience wants. Part of the traditional model of course was that you had developer, publisher, distributor, retailer, and then you had your gamer, so far down the line that we had almost no way of communicating with people directly. It allows us to get feedback, and that should allow us to ensure we write games that people actually want to play. What I always say about the previous model was that we were pitching a game to a publisher, that publisher had to decide whether their primary client - the retailers - would have confidence that in eighteen months enough people would come through the door to justify them stocking it. There were so many ifs and buts along the way, which in my opinion why so much innovation is beaten out of the industry since the mid 90s. Now we're in a situation where our audience can choose what they support financially, and with that they get a stake, so they can help guide what we write.

RPS: You talk about the publisher model causing a lack of innovation, but then you're making Broken Sword 5. Despite a lot of the rhetoric about how publishers prevent innovation, most of this Kickstarters are about remaking games from the past.

Cecil: I try very hard not to be anti-publisher. My argument is that publishers are the ones who funded and took the risk, so there was every reason for them to take the larger share of the profit. I know I'm not answering your question, but I'll come back to it. What was important was to get out of that cycle, and the way to do it was to find alternative funding, and to take the risk ourselves, which is what we've done. We've put all the profits that we have from self-publishing into the project, so we're taking the risk. With crowd funding we're obviously expanding the remit and inviting people to contribute. But once the game is finished, we will certainly work with publishers where it's appropriate, and we will self fund where it's appropriate. I'm not saying for one second that we don't want to work with publishers. But to come back to your question... it's a really good question. What I want to say is that we're innovating where we are, but that's not quite answering.

When we made the director's cut, we innovated enormously within the context of an adventure game. We made a lot of changes, we went to 3D, we went to direct control, and most of our fans feel the indirect control of point and click is the best way to approach it. So what we've done in many ways is to stick with what we felt worked, and to innovate in other areas. Going to HD is a major, major change for us, but also with the gameplay mechanics. We have this idea of knowledge being something you can manipulate. Knowledge you can combine to get new clues. So we are always looking to innovate, as we always have done, with the games. My comment about what is being commissioned is more about an adversity to taking a risk. Again, I wouldn't criticise publishers for this, but as games became more expensive, so the publishers became more risk-adverse. So they would go for the more obvious titles like the mass-market shooters, the driving games, the more visceral games.

RPS: If projects like Broken Sword, and the games from Tim Schafer, Al Lowe, Jane Jensen, and all these other big names of adventure games, if their projects succeed in the next year or two, do you see publishers coming back to adventures?

Cecil: I'm not sure that they will. Adventure games are always going to be slightly marginal compared to the mainstream console games. If you think of the publishers, and their $100m budgets, they're always going to have to be for mainstream games. It's well worth Activision and EA slugging it out to see who's going to have the king first-person shooter. But the problem that's always existed for adventure games is that they're expensive to write, and they don't then give the publishing returns that are hoped for. Publishers want the potential to get a break-out hit, and my view is that they've always seen adventures as rather dull. Yes, they're safe, and if you publish Broken Sword you'll make some money. But they don't perceive they have the potential to be a break-out hit. So I'm not sure that even with the success [of these Kickstarters] there's going to be that much interest for publishers for the adventure genre.

[We talk a bit about the rise of the console, and how that may have moved things away from adventures, until the Wii and DS. Alongside the rise of casual gaming, there's certainly been a repopularisation of adventuring.]

RPS: Do you think the adventure's fall and rise - do you think that as consoles became mainstream, games had their mouse taken away. And with the rise of touchscreens, games have their mouse given back again?

Cecil: I think that's probably a good point. With Broken Sword 3 we moved to console, although we supported PC. But the main thrust was console, and that required a joypad. And there's a huge difference between the indirect control of a mouse, and the direct control you need when you go to console. A lot of people are asking about a console version of Broken Sword 5, and I think the Tales Of Monkey Island people have done a good job, but it's clearly that on a console you expect to have direct control. But it was only four or five years ago that people were talking about the death of PC games industry, and look how crazy that's all got.

[We drift off again, chatting about the surprising success of the first two Broken Swords on the Playstation, when Charles interrupts himself.]

Cecil: Can I change the subject totally?

RPS: Yes, please do.

Cecil: A lot of people talk about their memories of playing games with relatives. Obviously this is fifteen years ago so a lot has changed. But I got a particularly touching message from somebody who talked about playing Broken Sword with his now late grandmother. She took him into a game shop when he was young, to buy him a game she would approve of, and it was Broken Sword. They played it together, and whenever he was stuck she would ask him, "What have you done so far?" He would go through it, and then together they'd solve the puzzles. What I find particularly exciting about that is I don't think you can claim to have that same experience watching a film, or watching television, and certainly not reading a book. What I think as a games industry we're not good at is shouting about how extraordinarily positive many aspects of the industry, and interactive entertainment, can be. I think it's a great way of bringing people together. Solving problems together in a social environment has probably not been shouted about quite as much as it should be - it is unique to games. Games like Broken Sword have had a profound effect on a lot of people, in terms of relationships they've had, their interest in history, people talk about going off to Paris and looking for locations. So the game has had a very positive effect, and I'm very proud, and very humbled, by a lot of these messages.

RPS: Back to the Kickstarter, as I watch it's just ticked over 6,500 backers. If your game sold 6,500 copies that would be pretty disappointing. How do you go about translating what looks like a lot of Kickstarter popularity into the popularity necessary for the game to be a success.

Cecil: I don't know the overlap between people who are fans of Broken Sword, and those who are excited by Kickstarter. I don't know how many of those people actually know about the project.

RPS: So how are you going to reach those people without a publisher to throw a million dollars at the advertising?

Cecil: In the way that we have in the past. On Apple formats we had fantastic support from Apple, whether it being the game being featured, or being invited to participate in the Twelve Days Of Christmas. Likewise with PC we have partners like Steam and GOG, and those guys feature it as well. So the publicity is generally through our publishing partners. With digital publishing in particular, we are able to communicate directly with gaming sites, and that's a very effective way of marketing.

RPS: Are you at the point where you can't look away from your Kickstarter page?

Cecil: [laughs] No, I look at it about three or four times a day.

RPS: Wow, that's disciplined!

Cecil: Personally I'm always much more excited by the comments people make. When we publish a game it's the reviews and comments that you get from people, rather than the money we make, that interests me more. It's the community that excites me more than the money, but I'm very relieved that we're past three-quarters. It would be incredibly stressful if I thought we were going to fail. If we did fail, we'd have to think very carefully about how we'd finish the game, because we don't have the funds to do it. So it's a great relief that we are getting close now.

RPS: There's been an interesting reaction to the 3D models converted to 2D shown in your trailer. A lot of people saying they love it, and a lot of people reacting quite negatively. I'm guessing with the 3D you can use motion capture to get the animations? Is that the method behind it?

Cecil: No. No, we don't use mo-cap. We use traditional animation. But the main thing was we wanted to go to HD. The original animations were done in 640x400. On an iPad 3 we're talking about a resolution that's three times as much along the X, and three times along the Y. So we're talking about ten times as many pixels. It would be possible, probably, to hand animate that many pixels, but it would be a massively complicated job. When we wrote the Director's Cut, we spent so much time trying to stop sprites pop, etc. The massive advantage of rendering and then modelling is that obviously the data is much more manageable, we can connect animations much more smoothly, we can continue to tweak to optimise the 2D look which we're in the process of doing, and you can hand-touch them at the end. A lot of people have said that we should be doing 2D, and I totally respect their comments, but my opinion is that it's just not feasible. I'm also very pleased with the way the sprites are looking anyway. What we probably need to do is communicate that the end result is they look like they're sprites, they look like they're 2D. So I don't regret the decision at all, and I'm absolutely convinced it's the right one. I just don't think we've communicated as well as we should have done that the end results will look like cartoony 2D sprites.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org