Almost two and a half decades since setting up the studio, Rebellion remains fiercely independent and continues to grow on the back of its many successes. Jem Alexander speaks to CEO Jason Kingsley about making great games with no external shareholders
Rebellion is one of Britain’s great success stories. The Oxford-based studio has survived 24 years as an independent developer, much of that before being indie was considered cool. During that time, brothers Chris and Jason Kingsley have developed an impressive array of games, many of which belong to beloved established pop-culture franchises.
“Chris and I set Rebellion up not because we wanted to run a business, but because we wanted to make computer games,” says CEO Jason Kingsley. “We needed a bit of infrastructure to make games, so it was almost that we had to have a company in order to make our games. We’re privately owned, we don’t have any venture capitalists. It’s just us that are ultimately to blame if something goes wrong.
“We started out doing workfor hire 20 years ago. Work for hire is good and bad; it’s good because its relatively low risk, but it’s bad because if you have a big hit then someone else makes the money. So it’s a good place to learn how to do something risky and learn how to do it well, and then you can do it for yourself.
“I don’t know if we’re allowed to call ourselves an indie dev, but we’re about as indie as you can get, we’re a family owned company. Nobody owns us.”
A QA department is an integral part of the team that makes sure what we’re making is playable
When asked about the company’s biggest achievements, Kingsley’s answer is simple. “The obvious greatest achievement is that we’re still going. Anyone that runs a business can tell you that just to be in business for three years is an achievement. Most companies will fail within three years. Just to be still here, doing what we love and now expanding into new areas like film, TV book publishing, comic books... I’m very happy that we’re still alive and doing better than ever before.”
Over the years the company has grown, taking many of the traditional publisher responsibilities in-house. “We’ve got different infrastructure around us now,” Kingsley says. “When we were doing work for hire we would finish a game and hand it over to a publisher. They would do marketing, PR and, if we were lucky, we would get the odd interview concerning the game. Now we have great people interally helping us market and promote our products.
“We have a marketing department, a customer support department and we have a PR department involved in making marketing materials. All of these things used to be handled by other people on other projects, but now we’re doing things ourselves we need to have the infrastructure ourselves. And its good, its nice. We have more control over it, we can make sure the quality stays high and it’s been good so far.”
QA OR NOT QA
Part of that evolution includes developing its in-house QA department, something that Kingsley sees as vitally important when it comes to ensuring the quality of Rebellion’s games.
“We’ve always had developer QAs,” he says. “We probably had four who just checked and ordered things, but now we’ve got ten people in QA, if not more, and we outsource so that when we need 30 people to simultaneously play a game we can bring them in.
“We have much more QA than we had before. It’s a very important part of making a game, and a QA department is an integral part of the team that makes sure what we’re making is playable. At the end of the day, what I always say to the QA team is: You are our consumers’ conscience. It’s your job to tell us if we’re wrong. You’re our last line of defence, if it gets past you the consumers are going to be exposed to whatever we’ve done, so for goodness sake tell us if we’ve got it wrong.
“That’s really important. I think everyone in the development team knows and appreciates the value of QA. A lot of time it is seen as annoying, but they are a hugely important component. I think there are a lot of games that have come out more recently and in the past where it’s quite clear they cut corners with QA, and maybe were released a few months too soon. While that might improve quarterly returns, I think in the long run it damages the game itself and the brand, because the company is releasing broken games. And broadly speaking I think it damages the games industry because the consumers won’t trust us any more.
They’ll think ‘oh, it will probably be broken because all the other games are broken’ and in some cases people will be right, but when it comes to ourgames, I’m hoping people will go ‘oh, this is nice, this one works!’”.
GOOD ENOUGH ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH
Making quality games is why the Kingsley brothers founded Rebellion in the first place, so it’s no surprise that almost 25 years later it’s still at the forefront of Jason’s mind.
“I think our corporate culture is to make good games,” he says. “And one of the filters we have for this is: ‘Is it very good or better?’. If it’s not very good we have to have an extremely good reason for releasing it to the public. Like artwork and screenshots; if we need ten good screenshots, we’ll generate 50 screenshots and go ‘well, that’s okay but it’s not very good’ and ‘that’s good, but it’s not very good’.
“By the end we’ll hopefully have ten very good screenshots. But you see, good enough isn’t good enough. If it’s rushed, we won’t just chuck something out. I dont think thats right.We’re in the fantastic position that we don’t have shareholders and we don’t have quarterly budgets to hit or any of that sort of stuff. We don’t have corporate baggage and we don’t have people owning our company. So if we look at a game and think ‘this game isn’t ready, we need to spend another six months working on it’, then we will give it another six months. If a game genuinely needs more time than we think, that’s the right way to look at it.”
Rebellion goes one step further with its devotion to independence and doesn’t use any of the industry’s rapidly growing middleware offerings. Not through conscious choice, necessarily, but more through habit. “When we started we never had middleware, you had to do everything yourself,” Kingsley says. “So when making games we’d grown up on that tradition, using our own engines by our own team. We’ve usually done all our work on that engine and usually it give us a strength over studios that don’t.
“Middleware is owned by other people. I mean, Unreal and Unity, I love them and the people that use them. They’re colleagues and I know them all and they do a superb job. Perhaps if we were starting again, we would probably use middleware. It would bean easier and cheaper solution than just doing it ourselves. But with your own engine you’ve got the history of building it and along with that the strategic advantage that nobody can have your technology. Nobody can shut it down because they don’t have enough money.
“Unity has come in and taken over at the lower end of the middleware market and that has challenged Unreal. They’re partially owned by Tencent now. You could imagine a situation where Tencent went ‘no, we’re keeping this for ourselves’. I don’t think it’s likely, but in business you’ve always got to think about these black swan events. So if middleware disappeared, nothing would happen. We would keep on making games. Empires fall. I bet nobody thought Rome would ever end during the height of the Roman Empire. Broadly speaking, in business, if you rely on third parties you are taking a risk. We’ve always wanted to be majorly independent, our whole ethos is to be independent, and we’re lucky enough to have a very strong team of coders who work and build on that engine.”
Not only is Jason proud to be independent, but he’s also proud of being part of the UK games industry. There’s troubling times ahead, with the uncertainty of Brexit looming, but he’s confident in the resilience of British studios. “I think there’s a great range of game developers, really technically minded ones, creatively able, possibly underfunded, scrabbling around to get it together,” he says. “There is a lot of potential. I think British developers are the best in the world, and can continue to be the best in the world going forwards.”