If we had a new point-and-click adventure game for every time someone said: "That was definitely the last point-and-click adventure game," then we'd pretty much be where we are today. Long pronounced dead, the adventure game never really departed. From Broken Sword 4 to Grim Fandango to Zack & Wiki, new releases in the genre may be sparse but they are undeniably steady. And as a slew of LucasArts and Sierra classics make their way onto the Steam download service, just as Monkey Island introduces a new generation of console gamers to insult sword-fighting, the genre is enjoying, if not a resurrection, then certainly something of a resurgence.
Beneath A Steel Sky (BASS) is the latest venerable adventure game to undergo a nip and a tuck in preparation for re-release. While less iconic than some of the LucasArts big-hitters, it is nevertheless the most widely played adventure game of all time. Nine years after its original release in 1994, British developer Revolution Software released the game's source code as freeware, to be offered for free to all users of ScummVM, the popular adventure game emulator. As a result, millions have played it. So why now choose to bring it to the iPhone? And why charge players for the privilege? By combining a mobile telephone, a map and a diary, we solved these puzzles and more at a meeting with the game's creator and MD of Revolution Software, Charles Cecil. And when it comes to talking to the grandfather of the adventure game about his genre's future, passions run high.
"Everything is f***ed up." Something dark flashes behind Cecil's normally kind eyes and his bald pate turns a darker shade of rosy. "When it comes to retail, everything is f***ed up, all the way down the line. If we sell a game in a shop, the retailer takes 40 per cent of the cover price, the format holder takes 15 per cent and the publisher pays us 20 per cent of what's left. That money has to be set against our development costs, so you can imagine how many copies of a game we have to sell to recoup. But on iPhone we receive 70 per cent of the game price immediately and we can sell direct to our audience. So we can charge a fraction of the price of a boxed product."
So is this re-release just a quick way to make a quicker buck? "Not at all. We've put a lot of effort into this BASS port," he explains. "It's not shovelware. As with Broken Sword: Director's Cut, we've added content that I think makes it a very justifiable and worthwhile project." That new content includes, amongst other things, fully animated cut-scenes, notable for being created by renowned comic book artist Dave Gibbons. In motion the sequences are beautiful, perfectly capturing the game's dystopian ambiance. But the proposed $2-3 asking price for the game isn't all being spent on new art and re-sampled dialogue. Rather, as Cecil is quick to point out, buyers are investing in the genre's future.
"Yes, you can jailbreak your phone and play the game for free. But if you like the game and like the kind of games we make, then pay us a little bit of money and, if it's a big enough success, we can reinvest the funds. We can start to look at a potential BASS sequel. You know, I think a massive part of the piracy problem is due to a broken-down relationship between game makers and consumers. There's no respect between the two parties anymore. So I'm very excited at the prospect of repairing the relationship. I think this is the model we'll take with our future games. If you like adventures and like what we write, then please work with us. We're looking at ways of including fans names in future games and so on. It's more exciting than ever before. It reminds me of the early eighties where anything seemed possible for smaller game-makers."
Speaking of the 1980s, we ask Charles to describe that period for him as a game-maker, and the emergence of the genre in which he'd make his name. "I wrote my first game in 1981. At the time I was studying mechanical engineering on a university course sponsored by Ford. Through that sponsorship program I met Richard Turner, a coder who invited me to make some games with him. I'd spend two weeks writing a game and then Richard would take two weeks to code it. The moment the game was finished we'd phone up WH Smith, the biggest videogame retailer at the time, and convince them to place an order for 5000 copies. Then we'd called up the local printer, ask them to ship a batch of covers down to the tape duplication company in Banbury and then they would ship the packaged games to WH Smith. It would be three phone calls and then we'd have £40-50,000 in the bank. We were essentially students. It was insane."
While Cecil is eager to point out that the pair was turning out good products at the time, he's the first to admit that their success owed a lot to timing. "We were extremely fortunate to be making games at that particular point in history. As soon as the big American companies got involved they blew us out of the water and it became clear just how fortunate we'd been. After that I worked for US Gold and then Activision. After a while Activision started running into some difficulties and told me that I would have to move onto a part-time contract. I asked them if I could start up my own development studio, they agreed and Revolution was born."
Two days a week Cecil worked his day-job at Activison, while the other three were spent setting up the new company. These early days were unglamorous. "Our premises were above a fruit shop in Hull. It was so cold. We had a gas heater that spat out terrible fumes. In the middle of winter we either closed the window and turned the gas off, or closed the window and turned the gas on. Our coders wore fingerless gloves to type." But far from resenting this Dickensian set-up, Cecil believes it provided the kind of environment in which start-ups flourish. "I think that too much money can be a dangerous thing for a start-up developer. You look at the companies that start with a bang and they normally go with a bang."
Mirrorsoft, Robert Maxwell's emerging videogame publishing company, supported Revolution's first game. "Sean Brennan [who now works for Bethesda] was deputy managing director at Mirrorsoft and was one of the key people in convincing me to set up Revolution. He assured me that they'd support us if we set up a studio and was true to his word. Our first game was codenamed, Vengeance, which is obviously a s***ty name. But as development drew to a close we couldn't settle on anything we liked. In the end I gave Alison Beasley, head of Mirrorsoft marketing at the time, a list of possible titles and asked her to choose between them. Of course, she picked out the one joke entry I added to the bottom of the list: Lure of the Temptress." When I explained that there was neither any luring nor a temptress in the game she suggested we add them sharpish. So we rewrote the story and characters to fit the name, adding a month to development time."
Following the success of Lure of the Temptress, Revolution started work on Beneath A Steel Sky, a game that came about via collaboration with Dave Gibbons, an artist most famous for his work with Alan Moore on the seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. "I knew Dave because, while at Activison, we'd been in discussions to license a Watchmen game. I loved the idea of collaborating with someone who was so experienced and talented within a different medium, so convinced him to come and work with us. We were now in a slightly more upmarket, salubrious office in Hull, and Dave would come up via train to work on the story with us. He designed all of the characters and then drew the backgrounds in pencil." These pencil sketches were then coloured by one of Gibbons' friends, Les Pace, before being scanned in and animated by the team, giving the game its unique look.
Dave Cummins, who, alongside Cecil, worked on Lure of the Temptress and Revolution's later hit, Broken Sword, wrote the dialogue for the game. "The tone of our early games was born from a tension between Dave and I. He wanted to be more flippant with dialogue, while I wanted to be more serious. That was always our vision, to find the middle ground between Sierra's ridiculously earnest stories and the slapstick comedy of the LucasArts titles but I think our personalities and approaches emphasized the tension."
Set in an Australia, BASS' story and setting is one of the key reasons for the game's loyal and vociferous fanbase. But the scenario was born from a simple twist on convention: "We liked the idea of reversing the natural order of cities, whereby the higher you are the more status you have. Our concept was that, in a dystopian society were pollution rises, you'd have the richest people living in the lowest areas as, the higher you rise, the more scummy the environment became. Of course, at the time we all loved Blade Runner and Alien and Terminator, the three really big science-fiction films of the era, and they were a big influence."
The game cost about £40,000 to make, a huge amount of money for Cecil at the time, whose first games at Arctic Software had cost around £200 a title. However, just as the game was entering its final stages, Mirrorsoft's owner, Robert Maxwell, died in a yachting accident. Almost overnight the powerhouse publisher went into administration with most of the staff either transferring to Acclaim or Virgin. Nevertheless, the game sold extremely well at retail, managing between 3-400,000 copies, almost all of which were from Europe. For Cecil, it was reward for what had been a difficult development.
"I wasn't particularly realistic about the scope of the game," he admits. "I'm a bit of an autocrat. I believe you ideally have one person driving the vision and that, if you make a mistake, you go back and change it. You make the best decision you can at the start but as the game progresses you have to be willing to go back and change things. Servicing those changes was hard work at times. But you know, videogames are generally just a bitch to finish. BASS wasn't particularly unique in that regard. I'm immensely proud of what we achieved."
BASS' re-release on iPhone segues neatly with the general resurgence of the point-and-click adventure. But for Cecil, the renaissance is due to more than mere nostalgia; its impetus is technological. "I think the resurgence is down to the fact that the hardware spec of these smaller devices is forcing developers back to basics, to push the processor and to make the most of the graphics; we don't have the benefit of gigabytes of RAM. I see the market really diverging between these hundred million dollar developed games, and much simpler games that require the skills that we had back in the eighties."
So has the widening of technical boundaries brought with it a more lazy style of game development? "No, not at all," he says. "You just have more diverse types of game. Technology always opens up new possibilities, but limitations provide helpful constraints, forcing you to innovate within the boundaries. Revolution was formed in 1990 with me wanting to go back to those early days, where teams were small and boundaries were tight. But here today, with the iPhone and Flash platforms it feels like that time again. The difference is that we're now armed with 25 years of game development experience. As such, I hope we can grasp those opportunities in a way that we were unable to the first time."
Beneath A Steel Sky - Remastered is due out for iPhone and iPod Touch this autumn, and may also appear on other formats.