Charles Cecil: Remembering the 'ultra indie' 80s dev scene

Charles Cecil: Remembering the 'ultra indie' 80s dev scene
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 15th 2015 at 11:50AM

The Revolution co-founder ponders a time when a stolen car radio almost decided Revolution software's fate

This month saw Revolution Software's adventure game Broken Sword 5 debut on Xbox One. It's a release that follows the studio's 25th anniversary, and as such co-founder Charles Cecil is in a reflective mood. But he isn't here to talk about Revolution's history. Instead he remembers a time before then, a time of car phones and unwritten rules; the 1980s UK dev scene, which led him to founding Revolution.

How did you journey as a games maker begin?
I made my first game for the Sinclair ZX81 in 1981. That was my first commercial project; a text adventure called Inca Curse. I immediately learned about frustrating players. Players would type something like 'look at man', and the game would reply 'does not understand 'look at'. I know a lot of players would then type in expletives.

I made sure my next game – which was Ship of Doom in 1982 – would understand swearing. You could type in any expletive, and the game would understand it. You could try out those expletives in the 'Android Pleasure' room. That was okay, until I got busted by The Sun. They thought games shouldn't have pleasure rooms. I remember they ran the piece at the bottom of page three, which felt ironic really. It even went on to be discussed in parliament, as the Obscene Video Act at them time. If video games had been included in that act at the time, I would have been an extremely unpopular person.

I learned a lot about games in those early years. And I was around 19 at the time.

A screenshot of adventure Inca Curse, Charles Cecil's first game

I think it's fair to say the Broken Sword games don't contain quite the same material, but they have a certain character to them that's rather distinct. Is there a commonality to the character behind your games?
Yes. You could call it puerility. In my heart I know my games were being puerile early on.

Maybe they still are. We are so risk adverse in designing games now, it almost feels like it's got pathetic. At the risk of offending anybody, designers can limit themselves. We accidentally upset players and caused offence with Broken Sword 5 with the implication that a goat gets eaten. The idea people had was they felt that violence towards animals propagates violence more broadly. That caused real outrage, but as we were designing it felt legitimate and relatively tame.

And it was almost ten years from those early adventure games before you set up Revolution, of course.
It was. Just under ten years. That was a time when I met the Stamper brothers. I didn't know them before, and they had set up Ultimate Play The Game, and were making ZX Spectrum games like Jetpac. They were extraordinary, and were making games that nobody else was doing. I watched them very closely.

For a couple of years back then it was what I'd call 'ultra indie'. None of us had any idea about how the industry was going to develop, so we really were making up the rules as we went along.

Then by the mid-eighties companies like Activision and EA were making their mark. They were very well funded, and really blew away that ultra indie dev scene. It was the end of an extraordinary time.

But you kept yourself busy making games through that period?
Yes. To rewind a few years, when I left school I had absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do. I came from a family of engineers, so I decided I'd do engineering. I got a fantastic sponsorship from Ford, and went to work in Essex, in Basildon in particular. Back then the car industry here was in real, real trouble, and the government put a lot of effort in to sending in engineers. Still, it was a pretty miserable time for the car industry, and a friend of mine had just started a computer games company. He was somebody on my engineering course, and had just reverse engineered a ZX81.

He invited me up to Hull, which is where he lived, and he showed me some games, and suggested I write some adventure games. So I owe everything to him. His name was Richard Turner. Richard also had a partnership with somebody called Chris Thornton, and he had a TSR-80, which was so advanced back then. The games on that were just amazing. Chris taught me a little Basic, and some machine code, and it became clear that was what I wanted to do. For a 19-year old it was incredibly exciting.

So we started writing games – even though I was still studying engineering, and wasn't sure this game industry would go anywhere. That was for their studio Artic Computing, for which I designed and drew the shittest logo, which they used. But we weren't worried about logos and marketing. We wanted to make games.

We were paying a lot of attention to arcade games then, and we really liked Galaxian, so we wrote a similar game. I remember that we weren't sure if we were allowed to call it Galaxians, so we just called it Galaxians.

Were you naïve as developers back then, and did that naivety – if it did exist – encourage a kind of creative freedom?
Absolutely. If you look at J.K. Greye's 3D Monster Maze, and the Stampers doing Jetpac, it was a very creative time, but we were also borrowing each others ideas and techniques. That meant that back then the games industry moved very, very fast, because we were all playing each other's games and doing new things with them.

And we in the UK were working with so little memory, compared to our peers in the US. One of the first Artic releases was 1K ZX Chess. We crammed a chess playing game into 1K. The reason that UK programmers and technical people got so good was because we were working with 1k, and then maybe 16k. In the US they were working with up to 64k. We had cassettes and they had floppy disks.

The cassette image cover for Galaxians – Image credit: World of Spectrum

Since that day American games makers have written much larger code, and not had to care about the same memory limitations. Their horizons were opened, really, but we were relishing our very tight constraints. And I think the effect of that distinction still lasts until today, in terms of the difference of mentality between UK and US games makers, and the games they make.

Going back to that change in the industry climate, how did that impact you as a designer?
Artic did very well, but that scene got very quickly blown away by companies like Imagine, who licensed everything, and had extraordinary marketing. It became quite clear we were entering a pretty toxic stage where marketing could sometimes matter more than the quality of a game. Back then if you got a good license it was almost as if game quality didn't matter.

That – and I'd say unfairly – means I'm known for the game World Cup Mexico 86, or World Cup Carnival, as it was known. Basically Artic were in really big trouble, so Geoff Brown drove up in his Ferrari Testarossa and told me he wanted me to write a Mexico 86 game based on my earlier World Cup Football Artic game. That game was way out of date, but they decided that we should simply not tell anybody.

They offered the cash, and we were looking at going bankrupt if we didn't swallow it. So we swallowed it. We took the money and rewrote and added a few things, but when it released there was absolute mayhem, because it was basically an older game. I don't like to admit to the Mexico 86 game.

That inspired me – along with the eventual demise of Artic – to set up my own development company Paragon Programming. I moved to London for that, and escaped Mexico 86, really.

Over time US Gold became my major client, and invited me to become their development manager. By then it must have been about 1987, and I was so excited. I was going to a grown up publishing company with gleaming offices. They gave me a company car. It was unbelievable, and they actually made me not just a deputy, but head of development. And then I turned up and there were two of us. It was me and a tester, and I was expected to do all the development. We had huge projects like shipping Outrun. This was big stuff, and I did really enjoy it. But at US Gold it was another place where marketing came first. It was marketing first, then sales, and then development. To be fair, they did give us another person.

But by then I was hearing again from Rod Cousins, who I knew from the Artic days. He was saying to me 'you've got to come to Activision. There, development comes first. Marketing, sales and all the rest comes off development'. And he offered me a Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9 litre with a car phone.

What was your previous car?
A Sierra Sapphire, I think.

So you took the job and the car phone?
I did. They even offered to double my salary. But it really was nothing to do with the salary, or the car phone. It was all about professional etiquette, and the idea of development coming first. And it was absolutely true. At Activision I got to go out and see how things worked in the US.

But that US parent of Activision was dragging down Activison, really, so come 1989 it was clear I needed to move on. It felt then like Activison will become bankrupt. I got offered redundancy, and being cut down to two days a week. I knew then it was time to start my own development company. I'd already been thinking about it, and the idea of having two days a week earning money from Activision was just about perfect. I found support for the idea from Mirrorsoft, and everything just came together.

Revolution Software's first game, Lure of the Temptress

And so it was that Revolution came to be?
Yes. I started the company with Tony Warriner, who I'd worked with at Artic, Noirin Carmody and Dave Sykes, and we wrote this game that would eventually be Lure of the Temptress. We needed a pitch for Mirrorsoft, so we worked for months. We couldn't afford to pay people too much in those earliest days, with some of the team working above a fruit shop back in Hull, where Artic had been based.

It was so, so cold there, and we had an old PC, some STs, and a new PC - a 386. That was my absolute pride and joy. It cost something like £1,500 – an awful amount back then. Dave and Tony huddled in a tiny space, partly to keep warm, and from there we built Revolution Software.

The day for the big pitch came, and our car got broken into. The thief took the radio from the car, but seemed not to notice the PC on the back seat. The PC wasn't stolen. If it had have been the other way round, and the PC was taken, there would be absolutely no way that Revolution would have existed.

We gave the presentation, they were blown away, and they commissioned the game. And that was it. Revolution really started then, and we owe everything to those days, really.