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Q&A:  Broken Sword  creator reflects on the industry's evolution

Q&A: Broken Sword creator reflects on the industry's evolution Exclusive

August 8, 2014 | By GDC Staff

August 8, 2014 | By GDC Staff
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More: Console/PC, Design, Production, Exclusive, GDC Europe

The seminal 1996 adventure game Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars wasn't Charles Cecil's first project, but for many developers it was the first title that offered a glimpse at what a dramatic, narrative-driven adventure game with a cheeky sense of humor could be.

The game proved to be a remarkable success for Cecil and Revolution Software, the U.K.-based company he cofounded in 1990. At that point Revolution had already released a number of adventure games, most notably the influential Beneath A Steel Sky, and after Shadow of the Templars debuted Cecil went on to direct a variety of Broken Sword games alongside other projects -- most recently releasing the second half of Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse in April after having successfully Kickstarted its development in 2012.

Next week he's traveling to Germany to deliver a Broken Sword Classic Game Postmortem at GDC Europe 2014 in Cologne, an event that aims to shed light on some of the most interesting and important work being done by European game developers.

We recently caught up with Cecil via Skype to learn more about his experience in the industry, what drives him to continue making narrative-driven adventure games and how the business of making games has changed in the wake of Kickstarter's success. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

How do you feel about doing a postmortem on Broken Sword at GDC Europe this year?

CC: I was delighted to be asked to do it. It's something that I've lived with for 20 years, and I'm always very happy talking about it because it's kind of like a moment in time.

I guess all these classic game postmortems are about moments in time, aren't they? They're as much about talking about what was going on at that particular moment, and trying to capture the feeling of the time, as it is about the game itself.

So how has the industry changed since you worked on the first Broken Sword?

Well! We're going back to 1993, aren't we?

The first thing is that we had single-speed CDs, so you were very limited when you played movies -- you had to compress the hell out of them. If you go back to Beneath A Steel Sky, which had voicework, we actually had to produce a version for the Amiga that came to like....twenty discs.

They were 1.44 MB discs, I think, so we're talking about 30 megabytes' worth of data all told, and you had to swap them all the time. But nobody seemed to complain too much, at the time! So we were pioneering, and we had to learn the hard way; when we did Beneath A Steel Sky, we recorded in a studio on a busy street and when the bus went past everything rumbled and vibrated so bad that we had to start over.

So we did some recording and then we said "Alright mates, who's up for the pub? Let's pop upstairs and have a spliff first" -- are you familiar with the world "spliff?"

Sure, though we don't use it much over here. We might call them joints.

Okay, so they smoke their joint and they go off to the pub, and of course they come back and

"I was both the creative and the production side. That's kind of a recipe for disaster."
they don't sound anything like they did in the morning! And I was assured at the time that this was totally normal behavior (which of course it wasn't) and it meant that the voices we'd recorded were unusable. So we learned an awful lot from that, and from then on we took the voice recording very seriously.

But with Broken Sword 1, when we recorded the voices we had to compress the hell out of it to fit it onto the CD. And because CD drives only fed off at single-rate, it meant that also the sequences had to be compressed as well.

So you look at them today and they look very basic; the resolution was low and everything looks pixelated, but back then your eye would be trained to skillfully extrapolate and turn very subtle difference in the pixels into a vibrant image.

When we worked on Broken Sword 5 we found ourselves producing HD assets at 15 or 20 times the resolution that we'd been using in 1996. One of the big problems with that was that there isn't the room to make mistakes in the same way, because when your eye sees images at such a high resolution its much, much more picky and more critical when it comes to animation and image details.

So, one of the first things we discovered in making Broken Sword 5 was that it was now immensely more work in terms of animation, background art and coloring in particular, because the eye is so much more critical when looking at high-resolution images as opposed to what we were working with on the original Broken Sword.

Production back then was very haphazard as well.

How so, and how come?

Because I was both the creative and the production side. That's kind of a recipe for disaster. I was leading both sides, and that meant I had much too much to do.

It was good in some ways because it meant there was one person making the decisions, but it was worse in some ways because due to the workload I wasn't able to finish the story off. So we started designing and implementing the central sections of the game before the beginning and the end were actually written, which is of course very naive because a story ultimately starts and is built upon the foundation set by its intro, and all of the story builds to a climactic ending.

So quite a lot of the story elements and design that we created became irrelevant by the time we had locked down the full story. And looking back now, that should have been an obvious problem.

And all games come together at the end, but adventure games always look particularly crap until the very end because adventure games rely on the sum being so much more than the parts. So a lot of people lost confidence in the game during production, but thankfully we had people in Virgin who had real confidence in us, and it was their enthusiasm that kept me going.

What value do you find in focusing so intently on developing adventure games?

I'm very proud of working in this medium. I think narrative has the most potential, because of course computers are very good at creating visceral experiences, not so much at making people feel things. And it's certainly an area I have a great deal of interest in, and I'd like to think a fair bit of expertise and experience.

What I love doing is mixing writing original games in the Revolution stable with working with companies on their own properties, and in doing so kind of learning new techniques and collaborating with new people to discover different ways of approaching storytelling.

How do you feel about how the industry has changed since you put out the first Broken Sword, and what influence do you think it had?

I'd like to think that, at least in the adventure genre, it stands out as a pillar title -- like Monkey Island, or Day of the Tentacle. I hope it inspired other developers to do better.

We really tried to get away from the constraints of a linear adventure -- I felt frustrated, when I wrote Broken Sword, that it evolved from these very interesting ideas into a much more standard and codified multi-linear format, where you could play different narrative threads in different orders but everything was linear -- there was no emergent story.

I would have loved to create adventure games that could engender emergent narrative, but I couldn't figure out a way to do it to the quality that I wanted. I was a great fan of Deus Ex, for example, but Deus Ex wasn't the type of game -- or the type of story -- that I wanted to write. So, I have failed to write the kind of emergent story game that I aspire to.

How is working via crowdfunding different than your time working with publishers?

The way it used to work was, Virgin were great, and Sony and Ubisoft were fantastic, but we worked with some really bad ones as well. And you were always absolutely at the beck and call of your publisher.

Some were good, some were bad, some treated you with respect and some didn't. But what we never had was a sense of what our audience thought. In fact, I remember THQ actually went and did some audience research once, asking a lot of people on the street, and we were enormously grateful for that.

Social media blew all of that away; the most amazing thing about our Broken Sword

"What I say to kids who want to get into the industry is: get together with a friend. Write a game. It can be simple, it can be bad, but just write something. Prove you can do it."
Kickstarter campaign was that, at the end of it, we had the money and we had lines of direct communication with 15,000 of our hardcore fans. It was unbelievable, because just six years earlier THQ had gone out and paid a lot of money for the audience to share their opinions on Broken Sword. Now, in 2012, not only could we get all this information and opinions that we wanted, but these folks were funding us as well! The reversal was unbelievable. It was kind of a win-win scenario.

Now we have to manage our community quite carefully; we always tell them the truth, but we couch it in a way that's easy to communicate at that scale. I don't think there's anything your community hates more than feeling like they've been lied to.

My sense is that unlike with publishers, if we fell out with the community it was our fault, because there was so much enthusiasm from their perspective -- they wanted to be pleased. If something went wrong, it was our fault -- either we'd screwed up something, or we'd failed to communicate in some way.

Any advice -- or warnings -- you'd give to other developers attempting to crowdfund?

I don't think it's reasonable -- or advisable -- to go to a community without some work to show. Show some gameplay. Projects that don't tend to fail, because no matter how good your story is you've got to back up that pitch with some substance.

What I say to kids who want to get into the industry is: get together with a friend. Write a game. It can be simple, it can be bad, but just write something. Prove you can do it. And if it's great, or at least promising, perhaps you can get funding. But trying to launch a project on great ideas and concept sketches just isn't going to work.

[GDC Europe 2014 attendees can see Cecil deliver a Broken Sword Classic Game Postmortem at the conference next week, and check out the rest of the session lineup via the conference's Session Scheduler.

Organized by UBM Tech Game Network, GDC Europe, now in its sixth year in Germany, will run Monday through Wednesday, August 11-13 at the Congress-Centrum Ost in Cologne, Germany, co-located with Europe's biggest video game trade and public show gamescom.]

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