Interview

Making Of: Revolution co-founder Charles Cecil details why a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky took 26 years to get made

Making Of: Revolution co-founder Charles Cecil details why a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky took 26 years to get made

The process in creating a game is a difficult, long and often stressful process, but it's one that can reap many awards alongside actually seeing your ideas come to life.

No matter the size of the game or how long it ultimately took to make, each new title involves a lot of hard work, hard decisions, and a little bit of luck before it even gets out the door and onto devices. And in the current mobile market, that's only the first step in having a successful game.

To highlight all of the hard work that often goes on unseen in the background, PocketGamer.biz is reaching out to developers to learn more about the general rigmarole of releasing a video game, with our 'Making Of' series.

This week we spoke with Revolution Software co-founder Charles Cecil about making a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky 26-years after it originally launched.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you start off by telling us about Beyond a Steel Sky?

Charles Cecil: Beyond a Steel Sky has its genesis in Beneath a Steel Sky, which Revolution wrote with Dave Gibbons 26 years ago in 1994. The game has kept the most extraordinary level of enthusiasm and became a cult adventure game. So many people have told us it's one of their favourite games ever.

The publishers were absolutely obsessed by the fact that the PlayStation audience was made up of young men who wanted to play visceral 3D games
Charles Cecil

The defining moment was probably two to three years ago when I was in Uruguay giving a talk to some industry folk - mostly quite young people. Then there was this cheer that went out when I mentioned Beneath a Steel Sky, and these are people that were likely not born the first time it came out. We're very lucky that we've had this extraordinary following for the game.

So, when we came to planning Beneath a Steel Sky, there had been a gap of 26-years but in the game, there had been a gap of 10-years. The reason for that is that we wanted enough to have changed that new players could come in without the feeling that they've lost anything, but enough that the original players were interested to go back.

It also allowed us to move forward with technology. I wanted to create a game that people recognised and felt familiar with but was completely different, hopefully getting the best of both worlds.

Where did the initial idea for the game come from to do the sequel after such a huge gap between the original and sequel?

Well, when we were working with Virgin in the 90s - who was a great publisher – at that time the adventure game was an incredibly popular genre, however by the end of the decade, publishers decided that it was dead - and to an extent it was. The reason for that was not because no one wanted to play them anymore, it was because retailers had limited slots that they could stock games in, devoting more and more towards PlayStation and fewer towards PC.

The publishers were absolutely obsessed by the fact that the PlayStation audience was made up of young men who wanted to play visceral 3D games. The really funny thing about that is that we convinced Sony to publish Broken Sword 1. Nobody was very interested - Virgin had no interest and frankly, Sony didn't either.

Beneath a Steel Sky launched in 1994 on MS-DOS and Amiga home computers

The game came out and achieved 9 out of 10 in all the PlayStation magazines, which at the time the Official PS magazine had a monthly circulation of 600,000 copies every month. France and Germany were about the same. So, when we were invited to covermount the game it went to about 1.5 million people, can you imagine that today? That's one of the reasons why so many young people that have come though remember the game. We also then released it for free, which was very helpful.

So, it wasn't going to be possible to write another adventure game during the early 2000s because retailers didn't want them, publishers didn't want to fund them, and there was no way to self-fund back then.

The big break came with Kickstarter. The opportunity to self-fund, self-market, and self-publish - which we were able to do that successfully with Broken Sword 5. I was in touch with Dave [Gibbons] quite a lot and we felt that the opportunity was right. There was still a passionate audience, but from a financial and logistical perspective, we were now in a position to bring it to market that wouldn't have been possible previously.

How long did development take, and how many people worked on the game?

It's been three years since we first started talking to Dave [Gibbons], which sounds like a really long time, but Revolution is a super agile company. We have very few people but we kept working on prototypes and exploring new ideas. That was because historically I've had to go into production too early, which is really problematic, because if a publisher said, give us the game design, story, etcetera, then they accepted it, they would determine milestones against it and it's virtually impossible to deviate.

The problem is that universities tend to teach people Unity, so we had a major challenge with finding people
Charles Cecil

The whole point is that what you want to do is start developing to see what works and doesn't, and then to be able to iterate. We were in a strong position as our overhead was low and we made a bit of money on Broken Sword 5. So from this, we were able to iterate until the point that we wanted to go into production, taking another nine months. So proper production took about 18 months.

We have a small office in the Shambles in York with 15 people, with a number of our team working remotely and being able to outsource to other people around the world. At the peak, it was between 50 to 60 people.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome during development?

We embraced Unreal Engine early on for the project. The problem is that universities tend to teach people Unity, so we had a major challenge with finding people. What I wanted was to utilise as many local people as possible.

We did very well with people from the University of York, which has a degree in interactive media which trains people to have quite a broad range of knowledge. We've taken on a number of ex-students who we were pleased with, but there was quite a learning curve in terms of ramping up.

There's a twenty-six-year gap between the original (Beneath a Steel Sky) and its sequel. How do you handle the expectation for something like that?

We're very lucky that we have a community that is both very passionate and loyal. As far as expectations are concerned, we invited people who are super fans to get involved. Our problem was with the pandemic and Covid-19, in that it was really difficult to get feedback near the end. What we really wanted was to be able to deliver to our really hardcore fans.

Our chief technology officer Joost Peters was a huge fan of Beneath a Steel Sky and was one of, if not the main reason he came to Revolution. The game was released in 1994 and written for MS-DOS, and when Windows 98 stopped supporting this, the game was effectively dead. So really the only reason Beyond a Steel Sky could be made is because of this ongoing enthusiasm for the game.

It came about as it was made available through ScummVM. For Beneath a Steel Sky, three guys who loved the game were given the source code and they rewrote so it would work for the system, meaning the game has been available since then, which is absolutely fantastic. One of those guys was Joost Peters.

Can you tell us about how the partnership came about between Apple and Revolution?

Apple gave us the opportunity to republish Beneath a Steel Sky on the original iPhone, which gave Revolution the chance to reinvent itself… we kept very much in contact with what we were doing and mentioned that we were writing this prototype and Apple wanted to see it. This is when the company was looking for Apple Arcade titles about 18 months ago.

So, what the demo did 18 months ago was very simple, but it conveyed the vision of what we wanted from a graphics perspective, which was that it looked like it was drawn by a comic book artist - both aesthetically and from a gameplay perspective.

Beyond a Steel Sky was the headliner for Apple Arcade - how was that, and not being available at launch?

From my perspective, I believe we were one of the first titles to be signed up. The interesting thing, I would suspect, is that Apple would have been looking at the subscription model on TV, such as Netflix and its success.

Apple gave us the opportunity to republish Beneath a Steel Sky on the original iPhone which gave Revolution the chance to reinvent itself
Charles Cecil

With Beyond a Steel Sky, I think Apple felt it would bring an eclectic audience beyond a number of games it was publishing. When they announced the subscription at $4.99 a month, so many people were excited. There are lots of great games on there, but I do think Apple wanted something that was a bit different and would attract a different audience.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted ongoing development in any way?

We were extraordinarily lucky, as by the time it hit we were on the home straight, so people were able to work from home pretty effectively. I'm delighted to say that none of our team and none of their family have been affected (as far as I know), so we've gotten off lightly.

Of course, there are things that could have been better with people in the studio, such as user testing. We also had to delay the German and French languages.

How happy are you with the game's launch so far?

We have the most wonderful community who send us wonderful comments about playing the game the first-time round. I got one yesterday from somebody who used to play the game with his father and remembers the relationship he developed with him because of it. We have so many people talking about the warm memories of playing with a loved one. The response has been overwhelming.

Who do you find to be the game's main audience?

I'd say there are four audiences: the original audience from the 90s, people who played it for free around the year 2000, the Apple audience who played it around 2009, and Broken Sword fans. Not to mention Dave Gibbons fans.

How are you approaching live ops? What can you tell us about your plans in terms of updates?

We will continue to support the game. We have some bugs that we will address as well as some new features that we will be adding. One of the advantages of publishing it and then updating is that we can hear from people what they like and what they don't.

Beyond a Steel Sky released on June 26th, 2020 for Apple Arcade

Can you provide any download or financial data? Any DAUs or other stats?

Apple will update us and Steam is still early days. We were thrilled to be part of it. We got a lot of support.

What can you tell us about your future mobile projects?

I do love mobile as a platform as adventure games work so well there. We haven't decided exactly what we're going to work on next. Of course, a new Broken Sword is high up on the possibilities but we have some ideas for some original games as well. We're just going to wind down slightly, work on some prototypes, and work on some new ideas until we're ready.

Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is the staff writer for PocketGamer.biz and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999 talking about Smash Bros. and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.

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