With releases like NeverDead, Shellshock 2, Aliens Vs. Predator and the infamous Rogue Warrior, Rebellion, the once esteemed British studio, has become synonymous with underperformers. But for its next release Sniper Elite V2, the studio hopes to achieve critical and commercial success.
In this interview, Rebellion’s CEO Jason Kingsley and Sniper Elite V2′s Executive Producer Steve Hart discuss Rebellion’s recent history, the demise of GAME, concerns over Metacritic and the industry’s future.
GamerZines: I’ve been playing shooters for many, many years, but today marks the first time I’ve actually fired a real sniper rifle. The power behind a weapon like that is immense – and not just in a physical sense. It’s incredibly empowering yet surprisingly unnerving. How do you replicate the power and emotion from firing a real gun in a video game?
Jason Kingsley, CEO, Rebellion: It’s a bit different isn’t it?
Steve Hart, Senior Producer, Sniper Elite V2: It’s difficult. If you provide the player with enough feedback then they’ll believe that that’s what firing a gun is actually like. Actually, it’s nothing like real life.
Jason Kingsley: You can’t simulate the kick and the smell, or the fact that you’re holding a real weapon. You can get quite close and that’s part of the thinking behind the killcam, to emphasise the seriousness of taking a shot. In many games you just squirt lots of lead everywhere, and that’s fine, that’s entertaining, but a sniper rifle is a very precise killing tool.
GamerZines: It feels a lot more personal.
Steve Hart: Voyeuristic is a word we use.
Jason Kingsley: I’ve felt guilty watching someone through binoculars just sitting there having a fag. They’re not really doing me any harm, but fuck it, I’ve got to kill him because he’s going to give the game away. And you think, poor bastard. Yes, he’s dressed as a Nazi and I’m sure he’s a bad bloke, but it does make you think, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a game.
GamerZines: The original Sniper Elite was released in 2005. Are there many people from the original team working on the sequel?
Jason Kingsley: Yeah, absolutely.
Steve Hart: There’s about eight, I think. It’s surprising. When we actually went and did a count there were a lot more than we thought there were. It’s between eight and eleven.
Jason Kingsley: Several coders, several designers, several artists, so it’s actually quite a good lot.
GamerZines: How do you update Sniper Elite for a new generation and a modern audience?
Steve Hart: You can approach it from many [different ways], but you lead by trying to identify what the fun was, what the best bits were, and what needs to stay for the fan base’s sake. We’re lucky; because we developed the first one we’ve still got all the documentation. So all the post-mortems, all the findings, we can dig all that off the servers and give it a read. You learn about [the original] before tackling [the sequel]. But to have the original Sniper Elite there as our test bed and our thing that we can always fall back too… You know, how do we do this? Well, how did we do it in the original? And sometimes it’s ‘let’s just keep that’, and other times it’s like, ‘actually, that just doesn’t work or a modern market wouldn’t approve of it’. Then there are priority elements such as the killcam where we’re told we have to raise the bar.
GamerZines: There’s been a lot of chatter about that pre-order bonus. You said yourself that you wanted it to be “deliberately controversial”, but did it have the desired effect?
Jason Kingsley: We wanted to shoot Hitler at the end of the game but we couldn’t fit it into the narrative, it would have stuck out. So we put it to one side as something we’d like to do in the game another day. It’s an obvious one – he’s the ultimate target isn’t he? We had the opportunity with the DLC to do a side-mission, a window of opportunity to take the Fuhrer out.
Jason Kingsley: Yeah, some people were saying it was offensive.
Steve Hart: Yeah, but why?
Jason Kingsley: I think there are as many opinions as there are people, and I think sometimes what people write on the internet is just their immediate blurt out reaction. Then suddenly it’s crystallised and if they’d thought about it a bit longer they’d have gone, ‘actually, yeah, maybe I don’t have that opinion anymore’. You can have lots of arguments in lots of different ways about it, but I just think he’s a brilliant target for a sniper to take out. What’s not great about it?
Steve Hart: And we’re games makers, you know? We look at anything and try to find the fun in it.
GamerZines: I wanted to ask you about Rebellion’s recent history…
Jason Kingsley: It has been mixed, yeah. We’ve had some difficulties.
GamerZines: The highest Metacritic score you’ve achieved during this generation of consoles has been 65, and there have been a couple of games scoring around the 30 mark. That must have an impact on morale at the studio.
Jason Kingsley: Yeah, I think it does. Nobody sets out to make a bad game, but you set out to make the best game you can in constrained circumstances. You have people who go, ‘there’s no excuse, you should never make a crap game’. They have a valid argument, I guess. You never aim to make a bad game, but sometimes you don’t have the time to make things in the way you’d like. Other times the game comes out earlier than you were expecting and there’s not a lot you can do about it if you’re a ‘work for hire’ developer. That’s how the job goes.
I guess as a journalist you would have written something, and gone ‘d’oh’, then you send it to someone for their opinion and they go, ‘well, that’s going in’. Then you argue that you wanted another few hours. It’s the same for us. But yeah, you’re right. The output has not been as good as I’d like it to be. We’ve worked very hard on Sniper Elite [V2] to get the greatness back. We’ll see what people think. I think we’ve made a very, very good game indeed. I hope it reviews very highly. We’ll see what people think, but fingers crossed we’re back to greatness. Hopefully we can put the past behind us and talk about our difficult years when we’re doing a retrospective, and move on and talk about the future.
GamerZines: Presumably you’re hoping to achieve a higher Metacritic score for Sniper Elite V2?
Jason Kingsley: Oh, Christ yes. Metacritic’s a weird one, isn’t it? There are a lot of idiosyncrasies in the process by which they come up with the overall score. I believe movies that get 4/5 get 90%, and games that get 4/5 only get 80%. I haven’t yet had anyone explain that to me, but there seems to be some interesting skew. Now, at the end of the day it all comes down to how well your game is viewed by other people.
There’s a bit of tyranny there, though, because it also means that if you try to make an original product that some people love and appreciate what you’re trying to do, and others say they don’t get and give a bad score, that can almost mean that everybody just goes for the standard thing they know everyone will probably like. I think that’s potentially dangerous for a creative industry like the games industry. Nobody’s going to try anything if they’re being shot down all the time for trying something new. Then there are also difficulties in terms of budgets. Do you compare the special effects in the latest blockbuster movie to the effects in an independent low-budget feature? Boiling down any form of creative into a single score is difficult. Shakespeare. Well, some of his plays I like better than others.
Steve Hart/GamerZines: [Laughs]
Jason Kingsley: The idea of giving certain Shakespeare plays 8/10… I mean, what the hell does that mean? It’s tricky, I’m probably getting a little bit pompous here because it is honestly an area that affects things badly or well, and is one everybody needs to be aware of. At the end of the day you do your best to make the best game you can under the circumstances.
GamerZines: On the subject of development. British game development…
Jason Kingsley: [Laughs] I can see this is going to be a tricky one!
GamerZines: It’s changed quite dramatically over the last couple of years, hasn’t it? Even as recently as this month with Peter Molyneux leaving Lionhead to focus on casual games…
Jason Kingsley: Yeah, that was out of the blue, wasn’t it?
Jason Kingsley: Well, we are actually looking at it. We’ve got Judge Dredd Vs Zombies out there already on iOS.
Steve Hart: [Laughs] Sorry, I thought you were going to say you leave next week!
Jason Kingsley: [Laughs] No, sorry, Steve! No, we’ve got Judge Dredd vs Zombies which is a free-to-play game on iOS and Android with in-app purchasing which is actually doing really well for us. It’s an interesting area. The scale of the games is much smaller, for the moment. We’ve got quite a few other games there. But what I think is particularly interesting about the market is the way digital is becoming more important. With digital distribution we can get to a broader audience than we can get boxes and discs to. With the iOS project we’ve got a map that says there are four people who are playing the game in Mongolia. That’s really cool – I don’t know anybody that’s played my games in Mongolia before! Maybe they have, but I imagine getting a disc from the manufacturer all the way to Mongolia would be prohibitively expensive. I think there are challenges – all the challenges to do with retail and the industry shifting and changing – but I also think there are some fantastic opportunities for developers to make smaller scale games with fewer people in between us and our audience. Change is tricky and the industry is definitely going through some changes…
GamerZines: Yeah, and I know you specifically said in your brief that you didn’t want to talk about GAME, but…
Steve Hart: I like that. [laughs]
GamerZines: Well, I don’t want you to comment on GAME’s business specifically, but how the outlook for retail affects yours. John Riccitiello [EA CEO] said recently that other retailers would ‘absorb’ the business, which may be the case for a catalogue like EAs, but is that necessarily true for Rebellion, too? This isn’t Battlefield or Halo you’re developing. Sniper Elite is relatively more niche and with a far more specialist audience.
Jason Kingsley: I’d like to think it would sell as well as those games!
GamerZines: Do the current conditions pose a problem for the games you’re creating?
Jason Kingsley: I guess time will tell. EA come from a totally different perspective than we do, obviously. But I don’t know, I don’t really have a conclusion for you. All I think is that there’s potentially a good opportunity for the true independent game shops, the hobbyist type shops, to come through and offer a different service. That’s potentially quite exciting.
GamerZines: It isn’t just GAME, of course. There have been reports recently suggesting that the industry is facing a bit of a decline in general.
Jason Kingsley: Is that true? I don’t think games are in decline. I think there are more games being sold now than ever before.
Steve Hart: There has been a rise in digital product that has actually outweighed the dip in physical product.
GamerZines: You’re largely continuing to focus on that physical product, though.
Jason Kingsley: I think what’s interesting is that the market is expanding and you’re gaining a wider range of gamers. There are an awful lot of people who don’t self-identify as gamers who are playing a lot of games, which is brilliant. It gives us a wider market. But it also gives us more difficulties. People have to like war games to want to play Sniper Elite; they’re not going to be interested in farming games and suddenly find themselves charging around Berlin shooting Nazis. But at the same time, people are getting into games more and maybe some of those people are asking themselves what ‘proper’ games are all about, and then getting into it.
GamerZines: You’re going head-to-head against Ghost Warrior 2. Were you surprised by the original Ghost Warrior’s success?
Jason Kingsley: I wasn’t surprised by its success at all, actually. I had a lot of people congratulating me over email on how well our sequel had done. [Laughs] So there I was going ‘it’s not ours, actually’. Slightly embarrassing moment there! But I think people like sneaking around and like camping, they like taking those shots from the distance. It’s quite empowering. There’s a bit of a sniper in all of us, really. It’s the finger of God, isn’t it, as opposed to chucking grenades over a wall and hoping everybody dies on the other side.
GamerZines: Are you confident Sniper Elite V2 will perform well at retail?
Jason Kingsley: Yeah, I think it will do incredibly well, without question. It’s a really compelling game and the sort of game everybody wants to play.
Sniper Elite V2 launches on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on May 4th.
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