Putting the Rebel in Rebellion

By Rich Stanton on at

Rebellion is a developer that’s hard to characterise. The studio was, for a long time, best-known as the developer of Alien Vs Predator for the Atari Jaguar, a forward-thinking and brilliantly realised FPS that was one of the few highpoints on doomed hardware. At the turn of the millennium it acquired 2000AD, which led to games including Dredd Vs Death and Rogue Trooper. Still later comes the phenomenal success of Sniper Elite, and running alongside all of this is a multitude of work-for-hire projects, spinoffs, and – yes – the odd complete stinker. You’ve got to give Rebellion this: it’s never boring.

Perhaps a little of that comes from the top, and the splendidly eccentric figure of Jason Kingsley. As I’m waiting to be ushered in, his employees are laughing as they show me picture after picture of Kingsley suited-up in full armour, striding about with swords and riding some truly magnificent horses. An equal source of amusement is that Kingsley shares his name with a gay glamour model, so every google image search turns up a mix of medieval finery alongside oily muscle poses. You don’t get that with David Braben.

Rebellion's story begins in 1992, when Kingsley had just finished university and was working freelance. “My brother Chris was just finishing his degree as well, and we thought we’d have a go at making games. To do that, we thought we needed to have a company,” says Kingsley. “We put a demo together of a 3D dragon flight game, which I remember I laboriously typed in the locations and the geometry of each of the points of the dragon in 3D space and a fifteen frame animation of its wings flapping. It was actually quite impressive, I was rather pleased with it... it took me two days to type in the geometry, I got it wrong several times and had to start again; it was just too much of a mind-fuck to unravel where you’ve gone wrong.”

This dragon demo was the route into Atari, which would allow Rebellion to really take off. “We took it into Atari, and Atari were in Slough in this enormous office, which had brown hessian wallpaper, very 70s,” laughs Kingsley. “We went through about three different big rooms, and there was nobody working in them at all, to see the head of Atari at the time.”

“We showed the demo to a guy called Alistair Boden, and he said, 'Oh, we should show this demo to the big boss.' So we walked into another wing in the building, because they had their own wing... it was extraordinary, this massive office probably designed for three or four hundred people with about twelve people in it. And he said, 'Wow, that’s really great, this would be great for our new games console!' And Alistair Boden said, 'What new games console?' – whereupon there ensued an internal argument that other people should have been told about this new games console, and we were amongst the first people apart from this one guy in Atari to know about the existence of the... what became the Atari Jaguar.”

Atari made Rebellion an offer. It had a license from Fox, Alien vs. Predator, and thought these young hotshots could do a great job turning it into… a side-scrolling beat-em-up. “We said errr, no,” laughs Kingsley. “But we’ve got a much better idea, we could make you a 2-and-a-half D into the landscape maze kind of shooty game with sprites... And it was one of the very first games like that, at the same sort of time as Doom. We had fully 16-bit texture mapped graphics animations. We actually photographed models on 35mm camera, animated them and then had them developed by Boots and brought them back in, scanned them in on a flatbed scanner, cut out the animations, filled in the bits that were a bit dodgy and then had flickbook animation. So if you turned around from an Alien, it kind of spins with you.”

This is one of the most charming aspects of Kingsley, and Rebellion as a company. Many developers or people who work in technology generally try to present themselves as mysterious gods weaving electronic magic – but what I always love hearing about is the practical stuff; the workarounds and the duct tape that holds games together. With Alien vs. Predator, Rebellion literally built the game’s assets before turning them into the game’s assets. Old school.

The Rebellion story is much more than just AvP, but it’s one hell of a starting point. Not least because the studio began by being the best game on a machine that just didn’t have many others. “Thank you – I think that was a compliment,” laughs Kingsley. “We were told by Atari but I don’t have any confirmation of this — 'You sold through to about 85% of the userbase' — but unfortunately that userbase was not as big as we would have liked."

To go through every Rebellion release would be impossible, so we're skipping over large chunks here, but  have to pick moments. One of the biggest comes when the studio has the opportunity to acquire 2000AD. “Exactly in the year 2000, which is very useful because it means as I get older I can remember when we bought it…”

How did it happen? “We wanted to license Strontium Dog for a computer game – I thought it’d be really good, I’d been reading 2000AD since issue 1, a huge fan,” says Kingsley. “I approached the publishers to say, 'Can we license Strontium Dog? Here’s some money...' and they said, 'No, we can’t do that' – which I thought was a slightly odd way of answering. I’d better do some digging. So I did some digging and I found out that in fact, 2000AD wasn’t owned in the UK, it was owned in Denmark...

“So 2000AD was owned now by a Danish company, and I think 2000AD had been probably under-invested in and the budget they had was declining, so to cut a long story short, over two years I managed to convince the people that owned it in Denmark that I could take a problem off their hands and turn it into a solution involving money. So we bought 2000AD – I’m summarising an awful lot of hard work there, but we bought it, we continued to publish it and continue to publish it and pump money back in and build it back up again, so we’re now... I think most of the readers would say we’re the new golden age. Which is…”

Kingsley trails off, trying to think of the right word. Thing is, it’s true. As a long-term fan of the comic myself, Rebellion has unarguably revitalised and brought it back in a big way. The surprising thing to me, however, is that it hasn’t made as much use of the countless amazing characters as perhaps it could have.

“Yeah, there’s a lot,” laughs Kingsley. “We haven’t done as much as ideally I thought we would have done by now – basically the problem is that we’re too busy with other things, and therefore we’ve announced this policy of making licenses available to people. We just don’t have enough people, we are physically constrained by the size of our enormous warehouse filled with people, we have no more space. Unless we can find really short people or really tall people and slot them into corners, we’re done for – we don’t have enough space.”

Kingsley’s referring to a recent Rebellion initiative, which encourages other indie devs to pitch 2000AD games to the studio. Any progress there? “We’ve put together a deal that works for both sides and works for people, so hopefully there’ll be a few of those coming out in the next... well, they should start coming out... within a year.”

Before moving off 2000AD, however, I want to ask about Dredd Vs Death – a PS2 era shooter that, as has been the case for certain Rebellion games, was packed with ideas but for me didn’t quite execute on them. “I think our ambition tripped over the technological side of it,” says Kingsley. “Making Mega City One on a moderate power computer was a nightmare, we needed more things going on. I also think the positioning was wrong.”

“The gameplay I actually thought was quite innovative, i.e. you don’t go around shooting everything. You go around looking for these suspicious people, challenging them – if they give up you get points, you arrest them and they’re done for their crime, and if they’re baddies they’ll fight back and you can shoot and kill them. That was quite innovative, but I think we positioned it wrongly.

“I don’t think we communicated that to the players very well, and the environments were a little too empty, and I think we were just over-ambitious. The game actually did quite well, but on reflection it’s one of those which is... yeah, was not as good as it could have been. And then we worked really hard on Rogue Trooper and working out how to involve Bagman, Helm, Gunnar [the titular soldier’s dead comrades, whose personality chips are embedded in his gear] in the gameplay as well as just being artefacts – how could they be used separately? So yeah, Rogue Trooper is a much better game.”

As well as the original projects, Rebellion at this time was something of a work-for-hire powerhouse. It’s the only aspect of the company where I’ve previously heard negative things, from developers who worked in the more factory-like atmosphere that some of this work necessitates – most of whom were not at Rebellion Oxford, but at one of various satellite studios established to deal with this workload.

“In those days, when you were doing work for hire, you would go in – somebody would say, 'We really want you to make a game based on this big franchise, do you have sixty people ready to go?' and nobody would have sixty people ready to go, but it was a necessary lie to say 'Of course we do, they can start tomorrow!'

“But it would take them six months to get everything sorted out after that. So you needed to say ‘yes’ because you needed the next project; you work for hire, you’re relying on their money coming in to pay everyone and keep things going, and the gap between projects was the thing that killed studios – you had to have enough money coming in to keep paying the people on this project, you finish the project and then you have no money coming in for six months while you found another project. And in that six months you had to keep everyone on, which would burn through any margin you might have made, and sometimes you had to do a really shitty deal quickly to get some money in. So it wasn’t a good situation.

“Staying alive is a kind of quality all of its own, and it’s all very well to turn down projects that would keep you alive. 'Oh, you’re dead now – so well done, you stuck to your guns, but you’re now dead as a studio' – and we did take on some projects that we wish we hadn’t had to take on, but we needed to because we needed the cash flow and we thought it could be a good project.”

This kind of situation became the catalyst for a change in Rebellion’s approach, which today is much more about doing its own stuff. “We realised that we can’t keep working in this way…” says Kingsley. “We had limited time options on projects and we had to get something done in six months which is almost impossible, but we got it in the box and... you know what? The consumer doesn’t care that you’ve done it quickly. The consumer cares whether it’s a good game or not.”

“We needed to break that mould, we needed to do our own stuff, we needed to get out of work for hire and get into games making, which is where we started. And we’d sort of gone down this route of working with other people for other people and we managed to bootstrap ourselves away from that, which is why our games have got better and better, since we’ve done things ourselves.”

Rebellion has moved decisively away from this way of working, thanks to the success of among other things the Sniper Elite series, and these days has only one satellite studio (in Runcorn). Among its list of historical acquisitions, however, is one that even years later I still find unbelievable. I mean this is old news, but did you know that Rebellion bought Core Design, the creators of Tomb Raider? The studio didn’t own the IP, of course, and many of its key members had long departed, but I always found it striking.

“We bought Core Design…” laughs Kingsley. “Or rather, we were sold Core Design. We’ve got the original statue of Lara still in the warehouse as well. Oh well, she’s in a happy place now!”

What made the difference for Rebellion is the Sniper Elite series, a game that – and I mean this in the best possible way – genuinely makes me laugh at the TV screen. It is a serious piece of work and a quality product, but its core hook is slow-motion headshots and the effects thereof, which are realised in a manner that is both satisfying and hilarious.

“It’s been a huge success for us,” says Kingsley. “It started out as an original pitch, so it was originally sort of work for hire, but we managed to retain ownership and we’ve just done the fourth one, which has actually been more successful than the third one which is really exciting, and arguably it’s a better game as well.”

“We had the confidence to build on 3, and we listened to the audience, and they were saying, 'Give us more freedom of action – we want missions but we also want to be guided as well...' and I think sometimes games can be so open world that you actually kind of can’t remember what you’re meant to be doing and you’re just wandering around the landscape... I mean, I love the Fallout series, but there are times in that game, it’s so bloody big where you forget what you’re supposed to be doing, and you can’t remember what the main story is supposed to be.”

How does Kingsley find that relationship with the audience? These days it’s more intense and noisy than ever before, with fanbases often turning on developers and reacting in extreme ways.

“The internet’s got an odd signal to noise ratio sometimes, but there is a lot of good stuff out there,” says Kingsley. “The comments can be quite fruity from time to time and colourful and characteristic, but they can also contain gemstones of insight into how players like to do things. People say, 'Never read the comments.' Well, I do – I get upset about some comments but that comes with the territory, but you also get some really good feedback from people – because they don’t necessarily know you’re listening. They’re being ranty about something they didn’t like, and you think, 'Well, actually I agree with that - whilst I don’t agree with the ranty bit, I do agree with some of the content, there’s a point,' and I think that can be really useful.

“Engaging with the consumer, with the games player – as games players ourselves – is actually fundamentally important. You can’t be all things to all players, and you will have to make compromises but I think we’re getting things more right than wrong, these days.”

The success of Sniper Elite has also unlocked Rebellion’s potential in other areas. One of the most exciting is the prospect of a Judge Dredd series called Mega City One. It seems like such a good fit, the only question is why it hasn’t happened earlier – which has everything to do with where the studio is now, as opposed to ten years ago.

“Quite frankly, you do need to have a certain amount of cold hard cash behind you,” says Kingsley. “And when you’ve got a successful game that’s still selling like Sniper Elite 3 and 4Battlezone has done very well for us, all of our products have been a success – Zombie Army, the Zombie Army series is hugely successful – that gives you corporate confidence, it gives you some cash to hire people to do cool stuff, and the freedom to have a go.”

“So with the Dredd TV series, we’re doing it ourselves, we’ve set up Rebellion Productions, we are working with IM Global who are a distribution group, a very talented group of people there – Mark Stern who was behind the Battlestar Galactica series is on board, so we’ve got some experience, professionals working with us.”

25 years in, and it feels like things are just starting for Rebellion. I often think it’s unfair to describe a studio’s output as ‘mixed’ because what that means is people focus on the negative – the fact it has made some duffers – rather than the positive side. And over its history Rebellion has made some real gems, a lot of other good games, and even more where the ideas ultimately outrun the game itself. Sure, there’s a pile of pretty average PSP ports in there too, but work like that also kept the lights on and employed people for many years.

Upcoming title Strange Brigade

As for what’s next? “Film and TV is a big beast to try and fight with, but we’re going to give it a go,” says Kingsley. “We’re not going to bet the farm – we’re not getting out of games and into TV and film — we’re starting a division in that area, we’ll keep making games. It’s nice to be able to actually do things direct – before now... a little bit like working for hire as a games developer, we were licensing to other people, so it was, 'Here, have our toys and play with it...' and then you’re on the hook for what they produce with your toys. And that can be good or bad – sometimes it’s inbetween.

“Doing it ourselves, we’re saying, 'These are our toys, we want to play with it and show people what we can do,” and that’s — my favourite word — dis-intermediation. It’s moving from having other people do stuff in film and TV to us doing stuff in film and TV, because we feel that we can do that piece as a job. And it’s also really fun to work in these areas and try new things. The number of conversations I’ve had with people saying, 'Yeah, but it’s done this way in the industry...' and I’ve gone 'Why? Why is it done that way?' 'Well, it’s just traditional.'”

Kingsley throws his hands up in mock exasperation. Our time is up. Maybe it’s about time, I suggest, that traditional media industries did more than make terrible movies of wonderful games. “You might be right.” No-one can predict the future, of course. But after two-and-a-half decades in one of the most cutthroat entertainment industries out there, the future is where Rebellion and 2000AD’s sights are firmly fixed.

Splundig vur Thrigg to the days of work for hire. And Boragg Thung to the opportunities Rebellion has created for itself – may the studio’s next 25 years be packed with thrill-power, and many more happy Earthlets.