Charles Cecil on Broken Sword and the return of adventure games

Charles Cecil on Broken Sword and the return of adventure games
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

December 22nd 2010 at 4:00PM

Charles Cecil talks Broken Sword and why Appleâ??s devices are perfect for his games

The original Broken Sword has seen no shortage of re-releases in its time.

What’s different about the latest release is not only has the title been completely remastered with fresh additions, but it also arrived on Apple’s mobile platforms at a time when the adventure game genre is experiencing a rise in popularity.

A remastered version of the sequel, Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror, was released for the iPhone and iPad last week.

We spoke to Charles Cecil, managing director of Revolution Software and creator of Broken Sword, to discover what these remasters mean to him, what makes Apple’s devices perfect for developers and why the return of adventure games is more than a flash in the pan.

Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror has been re-released on iOS formats (with PC and Mac to follow). What are you most proud of with the latest version that you weren’t able to include in the original?
As with its predecessor, we felt that it was important to include plenty of enhancements and new features over the original.

Dave Gibbons has created new comic artwork, which we offer as an interactive digital comic from within the game. This element of the story goes back to before the game starts to explain how George and Nico came to be at the archaeologist’s house where they are attacked, and Nico abducted.

The graphics and audio are hugely improved. The game was initially released on CD and so we had to severely compress all the assets both to fit, and to stream fast enough from single-speed CD. We have been able to rework the backgrounds and sprites, re-output the movies, include higher quality voices, and full quality music.

We have also added a diary which allows the player to catch up on what has happened to date if they take a break. And a context-sensitive hint system. Initially, I was concerned that people might feel that the hint system encouraged them to take the easy route and just look up the solution - but this has not been the case and generally this addition has been widely praised.

Dave Gibbons has drawn new comics for the Broken Sword updates. Did he play the original? And what does his contribution mean to you?
Dave contributes on many levels. Of course, he draws wonderful comic art - I do feel privileged that we can support our games with the work of one of the world’s most talented comic book artists.

But when we collaborate fully on projects, as we did previously on Beneath a Steel Sky, and we are doing on a future game, then he works with me on the story, character design and all elements outside the direct gameplay. Dave is not a great gamer - instead he delegates to his son, Dan, who is!

In recent years, the opportunity to release past games on new platforms like XBLA and iOS has become a wide trend. How important is it to update old titles for the modern market rather than doing a barebones port?
We very much set out to create a full update rather than a quick port. With 300,000+ apps now available on the App Store, a ropey port just isn’t going to work. We have a wonderfully loyal audience who are likely to have played the original games - if they buy this version, which many do, then they expect new features.

But we are finding that we are also appealing to a much broader audience, who find the control system intuitive, and that the hint system ensures that they don’t get stuck/frustrated. This is a new audience that was originally drawn into Nintendo DS gaming, and is now growing through adoption of the Apple devices.

How was Broken Sword 1 received by players experiencing it for the first time? And have you made any changes to Broken Sword 2 in response to feedback?
I am particularly pleased that the game was well received both by our existing fans and people playing for the first time. The hint system is the key to ensuring a wide appeal - we track how many hints people use and the number varies enormously. Some people play the game as a traditional adventure, enjoying the challenge. Others effectively play it as an interactive story, looking up every hint in advance so they can be guided through the game.

We did find that the ultra-casual audience got stuck at points where the hints were not clear enough, or a new gameplay mechanic was introduced which wasn’t adequately explained. So this time we have ensured that hints are more expansive and cover every step of the game, even if we feel that it is obvious.

You’ve released these remasters on the iPhone and iPad. What makes these new mobile platforms well-suited to adventure games?
The iPhone and iPad are ideal for two reasons. Firstly, creatively. The game’s interface, which has been widely praised, works really well - the tactility of exploring the screen with your finger offers, dare I say it, and at the risk of drawing ire from hardcore point-and-click fans, the best interface for adventures. With the release of Retina devices, the picture quality is just superb - which is ideal for visually rich 2D art and sprites.

But also commercially. A publisher’s primary customer is the retailer, and their objective is to sell as many copies on the first day as possible, so as to ensure ongoing retail support. Our primary customer is our audience and I would hope that we give them a service that reflects this. Furthermore, by having a direct relationship, we can afford to sell the games at a much lower price and make a higher margin. This allows us to then write new games that we feel will best appeal to our target audience, taking risks where appropriate, rather than having to justify our approach to risk-adverse financiers who, quite reasonably, have learned to become very cautious as the budgets of mainstream console games have escalated.

What challenges did you face in adapting Broken Sword for iOS platforms?
Generally we have found developing on iOS platforms to be relatively straightforward - and the support from Apple has been superb at every level. The key challenge was how to adapt the game to work with the touchscreen, but we did have the advantage of our experience of writing games on DS, which obviously has touchscreen but through the less tactile stylus.

As more consumers turn to mobile devices for their entertainment, how do you think the adventure genre will have to adapt to suit the needs of audiences constantly on the go?
The Adventure is the ideal genre for the wider, or casual audience. It is what they are moving onto as they get bored of hidden object games and variations of positioning gems in a row. However, there are some key points that we must understand. While previously adventure gamers used to enjoy obscure puzzles, now our audience want to be able to move quickly through the game without getting frustrated. However, that is not to suggest that people don’t want a challenge, but more that if they get stuck then they want to know exactly what challenge they have to overcome in order to proceed.

So gone are the days of contrived puzzles where the player has to wander around the world looking for a hotspot which will reveal some warped logic as to why a particular character won’t let you past (I hasten to add that we always avoided this approach). Now it is more about an immediate block, which the player understands what they need to do to overcome - all the required components are obvious and the challenge is purely cerebral. Mini-games, in particular, offer this kind of immediate blocking mechanism.

Adventure games are in vogue now with developers like Telltale and Amanita Design working on original titles, and re-releases of Monkey Island and, of course, Broken Sword. Why do you think this is?
It is such a pleasure to find that the demand for adventure games, which dropped rapidly from 1995 and only started to recover recently, is now very healthy again.

It is interesting to look back at Sony’s success and see how with the release of PlayStation, they drew in a new audience (mainly young men) who were attracted to the visceral gameplay made available through 3D graphics. With this rapid growth the publishers commissioned/retailers stocked games that followed this trend - so only 3D games with a high level of action were successful. But what we all failed to notice was that this visceral gameplay alienated a huge raft of the existing market who stopped playing our games - exactly the people that enjoyed adventures. This audience is now returning through these new, more ‘casual’ platforms.

I see no reason why the adventure shouldn’t continue to grow in popularity. People love being told a great story, in the interactive medium. However, we must understand that the way that they want that story told, and the challenges that we provide them with, is subtly different to how we did it before.