But the rarefied setting is perfect, because Cecil is the avuncular gentleman of the British games industry. He spent his formative years in Africa, before returning to England and attending the prestigious Bedales public school in Hampshire. His globe-spanning adventure games are intelligent and stylish owing as much to Tintin as they do to the early greats of the genre; plus, he knows more about the Knights Templar than Dan Brown could forcibly shove into any of his bloated potboilers.
And it is great that Charles is still working on traditional adventure titles like Broken Sword. Because five years ago, Revolution Software, the development studio he founded in 1990 with three close friends, could have gone under forever.
“After Broken Sword 3, we were quite vulnerable financially,” he recalls. “As an independent developer, we were losing money on every title we produced. The maths is quite simple, if a game costs £20 plus VAT at retail, the store gets about half of that, and the publisher will take off their costs, which is about three pounds. Then they’ll pay the developer 20 percent of the rest, which is £1.40. Nowadays, if you self-publish on App Store, you may have to fund it and market it, but you’re getting 70 percent of the income. By any stretch of the imagination that totally transforms the commercial landscape.”
Enter Apple, stage left
Revolution has done well out of App Store. In the early days of the iPhone, when Apple was actively looking for killer apps to populate its service, the company contacted Cecil to see if he would consider bringing over one of Revolution’s classic point-and-click titles. The thinking was probably that the touchscreen interface would be the perfect modern equivalent of the old mouse and keyboard input. Revolution agreed.
The result was an iPhone version of Beneath the Steel Sky, the 1994 cyberpunk adventure featuring beautiful backdrops painted by comic book legend Dave Gibbons. “It was very well-received,” says Cecil. “This was before the retina display so the fact that the assets were fairly low-res didn’t matter.”
Emboldened, Revolution went on to release ‘Director’s Cut versions of Broken Swords 1 and 2. “In many ways, it was quite easy, but also very fulfilling, to go back to Broken Sword, to look at the weaknesses,” he says. “I admit, I had to look up a lot of the character biogs on Wikipedia – wonderful people have written huge amounts about the history, and I’d forgotten it all.”
Helpfully, the company already had experience of updating the titles for new interfaces and users – it had produced a Nintendo DS version of Broken Sword: The Directors Cut for Ubisoft a few years before. Cecil knew the trick was in maintaining the classic feel of the games while evolving the UI. “I felt very passionately that, because of the tactility of the DS and later the iPhone screens, we should go into the first-person more – because you were effectively the hand of the character. It worked well. The iPhone version of Broken Sword has a Metacritic average of 91%. Considering the game is based on 15-year-old assets, I’m very proud of that.”
One thing Revolution hasn’t done is joined in the ‘race to the bottom’ of the App Store pricing scale. “You have to be quite clear about your proposition,” he says. “You have to be freemium, you have to be an instinct purchase at the $1 mark, or you have to be premium. We’re very much at the $5 premium end – and for a year we will not vary that: it’s not constructive to yo-yo your price around, it devalues the brand.
“But after a year we’ll experiment. We were delighted when Apple asked us at the beginning of 2011 to contribute Broken Sword to its 12 days of Christmas promotion – and on the day we made it free, we had 2.5m downloads. It was fantastic because it drew in a lot of people who never would have discovered Broken Sword otherwise. We put Broken Sword 2 in this Christmas, and so cumulatively last year we had five million downloads. And we’re a small independent developer! We really do feel like we’re on a level playing field with giants like EA – that would have been impossible five years ago.”
The revolutionary road
Today, Revolution is essentially three people: Charles, Noirin Carmody and veteran coder Tony Warriner. They’re currently working on a fresh adventure game, which is highly likely (highly, highly likely) to be Broken Sword 5 – though Cecil won’t confirm it until later this year. The development staff are employed on a freelance basis, with ten in-house and a smattering of outsourcers working on animation and audio (“all the elements that can be bundled and given to someone else, we do that,” says Cecil). It’s a very loose, adaptable and modern way of working.
One element of the new adventure that won’t be modernised, though, is its visual style. It will be 2D. “With Broken sword 3, we tried to re-invent the adventure by moving it into 3D,” says Cecil. “We had a lot more clambering around – too much box pushing, stuff like that. With a joypad, you have to give the player direct control over the character and it’s a substantial change; they have to understand the grammar of the controller, and that rules out a lot of adventure fans. And besides, that whole ground is now dominated by ultra expensive games like Uncharted and Batman. My approach is consolidating on the adventure, looking for innovations within the existing gameplay. It’s about evolution.”
We talk a little about the future of adventure games. How will technology transform the genre? Will we start seeing titles with emergent narratives; stories built from AI systems and procedural plots? Cecil is dismissive: “People play an adventure because they want to feel like they’re being led by a storyteller – they want to know it’s been crafted. But I think in other genres, emergent narratives are very exciting.”
Surprisingly, he is also studying the social gaming phenomenon. “I admire Zynga,” he cautiously admits. “But I’m a traditionalist – I think games should be designed on passion rather than metrics. I enjoyed Cityville for a while, but the problem is, I’m too analytical. I play for a few weeks, but then the mechanics become so obvious. The Zynga audience will soon be looking for something more sophisticated, and I think what’s interesting about social games is, it’s not immediately obvious where they’re going to go next…”
It turns out, this is an area that Revolution may well have a stake in. “I’m interested in how you can tell stories in the freemium space,” says Cecil. “The idea of an interactive story based on the free-to-play model is incredibly exciting and its something I’m exploring. It would be something you could play in small chunks, and it would have to be social – so your friends have really got to be involved, ideally in the story. Perhaps it would be an interactive soap opera: you have a stable community and then things come from outside to de-stabilise that, and it’s how players adjust, and how their characters affect the story. But the social driver is everything – that’s the way it needs to be.”
For Charles, too, adventure gaming is, in some ways about frustration. Broken Sword players love the obtuse puzzles that everyman hero George Stobbart is presented with; Charles and his team take great delight in carving complex riddles into the rich story worlds, not afraid to chuck in the odd post-modern, convention-junking problem: hence the infamous goat puzzle in the original Broken Sword, which introduced a new timing mechanic simply to beat one single area – much to the chagrin of traditional adventurers. But in current games, that desire to confound the player has largely disappeared, mostly in an effort to appease a more time-poor mainstream audience. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of Facebook gaming, in which the challenge has all but been removed.
Well, in his social game, Charles wants to put it back. “Look, in his book, Story, Robert McKee talks about the expectation gap,” he explains. “It’s where your protagonist is put under pressure and where they do what they feel they need to do to succeed. But then someone or something blocks them, puts them in jeopardy, and they have to take a risk, do something else – and then they encounter another block. And it’s this expectation gap, between the protagonist and their goal, that creates the emotion.”
“That’s very interesting because we have the same thing, but we call it gameplay. You’re being blocked and you have to work out – mentally or dextrously – what needs to be done. The reward is that the narrative advances. What is absolutely essential in an interactive soap opera is a balance that includes satisfying gameplay. Zynga has done a brilliant job of teaching the grammar of social gaming, but there are opportunities for other developers to come in at the next level, to offer a more sophisticated experience.”
And I realise as we finish our tea amid the bustle of the Bafta bar room, that this isn’t an abstract discussion about gameplay principles, it’s a project, it’s a game pitch. Cecil’s company Revolution has come from the edge of extinction to a position of equality with the biggest behemoths in the gaming world. I think perhaps this affable and charming man is getting ready to do battle with Zynga. I hope I am right. It is a battle that needs to be fought – and won – by affable, charming people.