The Broken Sword series has been one that has been etched deep into my brain. I remember playing the first game in the late-nineties with my neighbor working together to try and solve the game’s cryptic puzzles. Since then I’ve been a huge fan playing through almost every game in the series including the latest, Broken Sword 5.
Never in a million years would 10-year-old me have thought that twenty years later I’d be sitting in front of Charles Cecil, the creator of the series, in a busy gaming convention to talk about the series, yet at EGX 2018 this past weekend I did just that, and it was like a dream come true.
Speaking with Cecil, we learned plenty about the history of Revolution Studios and how at one point the studio was facing insolvency. But first, Cecil wanted to touch on the privilege of working on such a memorable genre.
“The extraordinary thing about adventure games is that they do resonate in a way that other genres don’t, so people will remember. Obviously Broken Sword didn’t sell nearly as many as FIFA, but nobody remembers FIFA 97, in fact, it was probably Pro Evolution Soccer back then. Nobody remembers the first person shooters they might have been playing at that time, so I think as a developer in this genre its a huge privilege and we’re very lucky, and I think it shows just how exciting the whole medium is and I think we can be very proud of the fact that we can write games, particularly in the adventure genre, which really do profoundly affect people and they remember.”
“we borrowed over £200,000 and never recouped”
Some might say that the Adventure genre is somewhat timeless, with titles like Broken Sword, Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series, and many more becoming some of the games we’ll remember playing all those years back, however for Revolution, it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows. Fortunately for Cecil, and Revolution Studios, there was an unexpected saviour.
“We’re very lucky because in those days everything was in 2D and what was extraordinarily lucky, is that when the iPhone came out,” Cecil started to explain. “So Broken Sword 3, to give you an idea, our publisher THQ made about 5 million dollars, because we were being paid in dollars and the dollar had plunged – and because I went over – we borrowed over £200,000 and never recouped, so it took us about 10 years to pay this money off and it was just insane. I remember sitting with the team saying ‘we’re going to have to close the studio, and we did. I said ‘I’m really sorry, but I don’t quite understand how it can be like this because clearly our games are successful, clearly they’re making a lot of money’, but the system under which we earn money from publishers is just broken.”
“And then in about 2008, we got a call from a fellow at Apple and he said ‘we’ve just launched the iPhone, I think your games would work really well on our platform’ and that was the turning point. We were able to publish our second game, Beneath a Steel Sky on the iPhone, and the resolution was 320×200 which by extraordinary good fortune was the same resolution as the iPhone, at that time. Then by the time, we did Broken Sword, which was 640×480 that was the resolution [of the iPhone] at that time. By the time we did Broken Sword 5, it was HD. So there will be a God, there must be a God looking down because we were in real trouble, we were insolvent, there appeared to be no way out, and then Apple came with this extraordinary ecosystem and changed everything.”
With the rise of the iPhone, this almost breathed new life into the Adventure genre as gameplay lent itself pretty well to touch-screen devices, however another evolution in the way we consume games also helped Revolution get back on their feet: the adoption of digital.
“The primary evolution [with video games] comes from the fact that up until the mid-2000s, the vast majority of sales came through retail. What happened with Apple, then Steam, and then Nintendo, and then everything else, was the move to digital. The move to digital suddenly meant that instead of having a very limited storefront which would be dominated by the obvious titles, you now had effectively an infinite storefront, but you also have infinite reach. Broken Sword 5 is translated in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian with full voice, as well as Polish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, so now we can ship all over the world, digitally, in a way we couldn’t have done for a boxed product, so the whole dynamic of developing games and selling games has changed beyond recognition which is incredibly exciting.
“A company like THQ, which when we were working with them and they made all the money, and we made all the losses, was probably the biggest games publisher in the world, and they were bankrupt within a couple of years when it changed, it just blew everything around. So for companies like that who were producing a mid-tier product it was a disaster. For independent developers who wanted to innovate, it offered the most extraordinary opportunity.”
While digital sales have become a saving grace for some developers and even a way for much smaller independent developers to make money without forking it over to publishers, there came another way for developers to… Kickstart… their ideas, and that was of course Crowdfunding.
This is exactly what Revolution decided to do with Broken Sword 5 which came with two advantages, not only were Revolution able to raise capital to develop the game, but it was a way for them to work directly with the community, however this also came with its own worries for Cecil and the team, one which had them split Broken Sword 5 into two.
“Really naively I said that the game was going to be ready the following April”
“The reason we made Broken Sword 5 episodic if I’m to be truthful, was that one of the other big changes was the explosion of social media and the ability to communicate directly with our community which we have so valued. I wrote my first game in 1981 and in those days we’d sell our games via mail order and at micro fairs where you’d actually meet people, like here, that’s what I love. This wonderful opportunity to actually see what people like and get to talk to them and get to meet them, and then as the retailers became more powerful and then the publishers, so the direct relationship got broken up and fragmented, so certainly when I founded Revolution in 1990, we had no way of communicating directly with our audience. We valued what the press had to say, and the letters, but we had no idea what people really thought. When we started self-publishing, we’d organize events and fans would come along, and we started rebuilding that relationship and it was fantastic.
“So what we were able to do was meet and get to talk to people and clearly there was this enormous passion, and then there was Tim Schafer, from Double Fine, did their Broken Age which was hugely successful, and everything was coming together, and we’d actually gone from a position of being insolvent, to actually a little bit of money in the bank, and we pumped it into Broken Sword 5 and announced its Kickstarter, and there was this tsunami of interest. We were very lucky again it was purely chance, we originally planned to launch the Kickstarter in June and then July, then it moved to August, and Gamescom was in August and I was like ‘oh my god what are we going to do’, but the brilliant thing was that we could talk to press under embargo. We launched it a week later, and there was this huge surge of press, so we hit a third of our target within the first 24 hours, so that was great, we knew that we were going to make it, but that’s really where Broken Sword 5 came from, it came from the confidence of knowing that actually there was a demand, and unlike all the other publishers who told us that they were dead and that there was no interest what so ever, clearly there was.
“Really naively I said that the game was going to be ready the following April, the Kickstarter was in August 2012, but one of the stretch goals was an extra section. How on earth did I think I could put in an extra section and finish the game by April, it was insane. So April came, and a few people said ‘where’s the game?’ and I had a sleepless night and had to put out an update that said ‘guys, I’m really sorry, the game isn’t going to be finished by the end of the year’ and I was expecting a real big response, and there was a really big response, but it went down two routes, one said ‘well we never believed you in the first place’, and the other lot saying ‘well we’ve been waiting five years, so we’re happy to wait another six months’, there was enormous generosity from the community. We did screw up, with one thing, but that’s different…
“Then we got to the end of the year, and several things had happened, Peter Molyneux had been absolutely flamed, rightly or wrongly, and also Neal Stevenson had unceremoniously canceled a project called CLANG, blaming the market, blaming the fact that it wasn’t enough money, blaming everybody, apart from himself. And this really scared me, it really scared me that there was going to be this backlash, and I had to make a decision, do we release part one to prove that genuinely, we are nearly finished, or do we say ‘guys its going to be March’. And I was too scared to put people off again, so we split the game into two sections. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t an ideal place to do it, we retrofitted it in, I think that’s very obvious for anyone who played part one and then part 2, but it was a decision I made, rightly or wrongly, because I didn’t want to go back to our community and tell them that the game had been postponed again.”
Some might say that we’re entering an Adventure Game Renaissance with the likes of Life is Strange, Her Story, Armikrog, Telltale’s The Walking Dead (and other games), Thimbleweed Park, and more becoming insanely popular among gamers today, however, Cecil believes that the genre itself has become much, much broader than before thanks to this ability to self-publish digitally, and players themselves being able to find and discover more games in this genre.
“If you were to define an adventure as I would like to, that the gameplay and the narrative are utterly interlinked, so even the RPG, which is primarily about killing things, and then the story evolves after that, but if you were to say an Adventure was to interweave the story and the narrative, then it’s a really broad [genre]. I’d like to claim Inside as an adventure… that actually is not true, but I’d love to, but I don’t think I can. The reason I can’t is that one of the fundamental ideas of an adventure, I would say, is that you have cerebral rather than mental dexterity, the UI, but then clearly the Quantic Dreams don’t believe that because they use a requirement to understand the grammar of the joystick, so who knows.
“But as a genre, it really is having a resurgence, and the reason is because instead of publishers going ‘this is not what we want to publish’ it’s people going ‘actually, I really enjoy it I might not be the mainstream, and yes there are other genres that sell more, but I have a passion’ so as a developer it makes commercial sense, because clearly we have to make money, otherwise we can’t make any more games. Broken Sword 3, where we lost 200 thousand, is not really a very good way to run a sustainable business.“
Of course, Cecil wasn’t just at EGX for the enjoyment, he was there to show off Broken Sword 5 on the Nintendo Switch, the latest title to land on Nintendo’s hybrid console. And while many may have played the game times before, he feels that the Switch allows for that additional accessibility that some may struggle with on PC or other consoles.
“Because we brought Broken Sword Director’s Cut directly to DS and Wii, what Nintendo is brilliant at, and have been, is both having their hardcore, and a certain part of the lifestyle going beyond that, and they go to a really broad audience. I’d say there are probably three, hardcore, casual, and people who are still gamers, but who are beyond that, and I hope that an adventure would appeal to all three, but certainly an adventure, provided the puzzles are interwoven subtly with the narrative, are going to appeal to a broader audience more than other genres. So it kind of makes sense.
“One of the things we didn’t want to do was release a straight port, this is very much the climax of Broken Sword 5, this is the ultimate version. One of the things we wanted to do, was our programmer asked whether we wanted touchscreen or JoyCon, or the ability to switch, and then I was really thrilled when he showed me that he’d developed a system whereby you could seamlessly switch between the two, so if you touch the screen it instantly becomes touch, if you touch the JoyCon it switches, backward and forward, and that’s really important because the Switch is so called, because you can switch between on the go gaming to parking it at home and playing it on the TV.
“We thought hard, particularly with the physical version, it required a bigger cartridge size if we wanted to use the 1080p assets, and we agreed with Koch, who are distributing the physical version, that it was really important to go up to the higher much more expensive cartridge because it is a 1080p game. Whereas if you’re only playing it on the console, then you’ll never know because the screen is smaller. The other thing that was important was to put in some sort of unique to the Switch version, and a lot of people come and ask about the making of, and so we put in some movies which are unlocked throughout the game, which are behind the scenes, they might be about how the layouts work, a bit about the history, the gameplay, all of these things. There are roughly 10 of these movies, which we hope give an insight into the development of the game once all ten are unlocked.”
“Our next game is not Broken Sword 6”
Finally, we couldn’t end the interview without asking one very important question, will we be seeing a sixth entry into the Broken Sword series any time soon? And the answer, while it might not be the one we wanted, it was definitely there and thereabouts.
“Our next game is not Broken Sword 6, I obviously love writing Broken Swords, and I’m really flattered that people ask, and I would have almost certainly thought it would be the game after the next one that we’re writing.”