Now in its 16th year of business, Rebellion is one of the longest serving and biggest independent developers not just in the UK but also Europe. We caught up with founder brothers Jason and Chris Kingsley to pick their brains in the studio’s success and plans for the future…
Rebellion is one of the biggest independents in Europe. What’s the secret to your success?
Jason: We take a portfolio approach – we like to have a balance of different games, and a number of them in the works at once. What that has meant is that our expansion isn’t expansion for expansion’s sake – it’s to satisfy the demands of the games we are working on. And that’s something needed when those projects are based on the biggest entertainment brands – how many is it, now?
Chris: Four: Star Wars, Potter, The Simpsons and Bond.
Jason: And the people that own them are some of the biggest companies in the world – and we do repeat business. I think one of the great tests of success for a company isn’t getting someone’s business once – it’s getting their attention so they come back.
Chris: What’s great about working with the bigger publishers is they can provide much better support when you need it. That support can make a difference.
Jason: Having said that, we do work with some tiny publishers – when it came to Freerunning with Reef we did a lot of work that publishers tend to look after, which was a learning experience. But not that that was a problem – when you’ve worked on a game for two years, you want it to have really good boxart. It’s not a hardship. So we’ve tried to, overall, have a mix between original properties and the classic independent game, which is a licensed product for a big third-party publisher.
Of course that has caused some problems – we do really well out of that, but review scores don’t tend to correlate with it. I guess we have to endure the arrows that are slung from our fortune. But we focus on our target audience – and are always trying to stick to our philosophy of having a good, profitable business that allows for our staff to be creative.
Chris: Business and creativity aren’t comfortable bedfellows, so it’s always interesting balancing the two and trying not to compromise either.
But when you’re making a game from a specific licence can you really be creative?
Jason: One of the things we insist on is not to do simple conversions – we’re happy to take a property and turn it into a game, but the key is to add ideas to it and be inspired by it. We’ve turned down a fair few offers because we felt there wasn’t much flexibility in what we wanted to do with the content.
Chris: The best games you get out are the ones people enjoy working on – the love goes back into it. It’s easier to put in a few extra ounces of passion than if you’re doing something because it’s ‘just a job’.
Jason: And there’s balancing people’s lifestyles, too. It’s important to pick projects that keep the staff interested and productive. We obviously have crunch modes – every creative project has them – but we don’t plan them in. We prefer it to be a few days, or a weekend, or at most a week – if people are enthusiastic that becomes a positive thing towards the final part of a project. But at the same time people need to be chucked out of here, and told to go home and recharge their creative energy.
One of the great things about Rebellion from my point of view, which I hope helps the staff, is that our range of games mean we aren’t typecast. Because we have a diverse range of games, there’s no worrying about ‘how to innovate in genre X’. I often wonder how some of the driving studios’ staff cope with that – the managers of them must instil a phenomenal amount of passion in their staff to keep enthusiasm high.
Chris: Of course, we were known as specialists on PSP, but even then we had to start turning work away because as the generation has gone on we’re looking at bigger projects to handle. And the genres you pick also determine where you get in on the platform cycle – so kids games developers do better at the end of a console life cycle.
Market changes like that must have a big impact on a work for hire-style outfit like Rebellion. Surely you’re at the whim of publishers and how those very console cycles impact their business?
Jason: Not so much, but you do see them struggling with next-gen first hand. When this generation first came along, there was a reluctance amongst publishers to commit resources and investment in games that were external products, and they would invest in their internal technology.
Chris: The problem that creates for them is that often that technology isn’t up to scratch – they just haven’t had enough time to develop it – and that works against them. So what we’ve seen is how they change strategy. There’s been a bit of a gap in the next-gen release schedules, not as many games for those formats have appeared as you might have expected.
Of course, now publishers see it happening first hand, and they’re going back on their fears over why they should bother paying for a third-party independent to develop its own technology. Publishers have let go of their worries about what they are spending on – and see the bigger picture of paying for a game, rather than its technology.
Rebellion has its own in-house engine, and you’ve been vocal supporters of producing that tech internally. What advantage does that provide you and how has that helped your growth?
Chris: There are good reasons for and against licensing middleware or building technology, but your decision will always be based on where your company is in terms of life cycle, size, etc. For us, our engine Asura has been designed purely so we never have to say to a publisher ‘Well, we wanted to add this feature in, but we can’t in the amount of time given because it’s someone else’s engine’. I have heard of a lot of projects which have problems or bugs due to third-party technology.
You have an in-house audio studio too – is that there for the same reason, so you can own the process?
Jason: Our approach isn’t the only approach, and I don’t think you have to have everything in-house. If you’re working on just one or two titles then it makes sense to outsource your audio, or your motion capture – which we do – because it’s right to have out-of-house experts looking after certain elements like sound and mocap.
But there’s an increasingly large amount of sound needed for every game – and one of the things we’ve found is that we create good quality placeholder voice work, or use our studio to try lots of different lines when it comes to audio. So it goes back to the way we try and keep things creative. Plus, for audio specifically, it’s one of those elements we
feel that requires a lot of effort – it sounds strange to say it, but good audio makes the graphics better. Because if you watch most games with the sound off the complementary effects are gone. Same goes for many films.
Chris: And for a lot of developers sound gets put in last minute or at the end as an afterthought, but we think it has to be an integral part of the process from day one. And on the outsourcing point we do a lot of in-sourcing amongst our teams, sharing work between our studios in Derby or Liverpool.
Jason: I think the key is that when you get to a certain larger size as a developer there are things you can outsource but a lot of things which should remain in-house. A lot of the major competencies you have to do in-house as your partners are paying for it. And we’ll never be set up like the film industry where our principal work takes place across 11 weeks and then other teams can take over. The games business model when it comes to production isn’t linear like that.
Chris: I also think that industry is waking up to this more ‘totally owned’ approach – just look at Pixar. They do everything in-house.
Rebellion is also one of the few multi-site studio teams in the UK – Kuju has moved away from that model, but you guys insist on shared tech across all bases. That must be tough to get right – is it worth it?
Chris: I always see it as an over-duplication of work. And in terms of how we’ve cracked some issues which companies like EA didn’t – like shared technology – I think you can get it right at a sweet spot for the company size. What we have done probably isn’t possible with a massive operation, or a smaller one.
Jason: Plus our technology investment was deliberate to make sure we were prepared for PS3 and beyond – the thinking is to take the path of least resistance in the long term. Because taking the path of least resistance in the short term is to buy everything off the shelf, but you will hit a bump further down the road. Buying someone else’s technology is just shifting responsibility and risk to someone else or just moving your problems to the end of a project. So I don’t think that’s a very smart strategy in the long run.
Chris: And investing in an external engine is essentially golden handcuffs – once you’ve paid for it once, to make a good return on it you have to pay for it again.
You must compete with and pitch against other big work for hire developers, especially those in the US. But now we’re hearing that American companies think the UK is too expensive a place to do business – have you encountered that attitude?
Jason: No, the UK is still nowhere near as expensive as it is in California – and although we are not that far behind I would say Britain is the best place to get a game made.
Chris: There’s always going to be somewhere cheaper but you get what you pay for.
Jason: Exactly, there are some horror stories other studios will tell you about going to low-cost places to have a game made, so there is a risk/reward situation for publishers when it comes to paying for that. We’ve been around 16 years, and we’ve not got a reputation to maintain, which I think is one of the things that helps us attract work. Same goes for other UK studios.
With all those assets you’d think that Rebellion would be a ripe target for acquisition…
Jason: Further acquisitions, like the ones we made to get our Derby and Liverpool studios, are definitely possible – as is the possibility of being acquired ourselves. We’ve never said never to it but it’s not something on our roadmap, we’re not planning to cash out because I like the lifestyle of running and owning a company.
I think we’d have a lot to offer another company if they wanted to acquire us, but it’s not a goal of ours – we’ve had venture capitalists offer to invest in us, but we don’t really need it because all our growth has been organic. We’ve never had investors like that.
Chris: That’s one of the key Rebellion strengths – we’re quite different from other businesses in games, especially our origins. And we haven’t grown by pumping in money from outside to artificially grow. pretty much all of our size has come from demand from the market and the people we work with and games themselves.
Jason: And along the way we’ve surrounded ourselves with talented individuals.