Behind the magic at Rebellion Developments
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Rebellion Developments, creators of the Sniper Elite series, has been making games for a long time. Over the years, the company has developed a number of popular titles for multiple systems. We had a conversation, via email, with the co-founders of Rebellion. Chris Kingsley and Jason Kingsley, CTO and CEO respectively, talked with us about the Atari Jaguar, Nazi zombies, and more.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did the first Sniper Elite come about?
Rebellion: We’ve always been interested in the Second World War, and in particular how it drove massive technological innovation, and the human stories behind those innovations – and how many of the things we take for granted these days were invented or based on inventions created in the early 1940s.
We wanted to make a slower paced but intense shooter, with strategy and planning, infiltration, execution of the mission and then exfiltration, where every decision you make counts, where every bullet you shoot has an impact, and where all your carefully laid plans of action can fall to pieces in contact with the enemy.
Rather than being about overt war, Chris’s idea was to set it in the covert war, the war behind the front lines, the secret war of spies, boffins and wonder weapons, the untold stories of the Allied secret weapons and the battle against the Axis secret weapons.
GamesBeat: Sniper Elite has steadily grown in popularity since the first game. How did Sniper Elite evolve from its origin to what we have today?
Rebellion: We’ve tried to combine our own creative plans with feedback from our community whilst also trying to ensure that we did not throw away any of the bits that have worked well. Ideally, we build on the gameplay and technology rather than starting again every title. Obviously, the memory, speed and graphical power of PCs and consoles has changed over the years, so the visual quality has improved, and our own engine, Asura, has developed alongside the game.
You learn from every release. For example, Sniper Elite 4 was our first real ‘sandbox’ style game and we learnt an awful lot from that which has enabled us to iterate and improve so many areas for Sniper Elite 5 such as the AI, especially around vehicles, level design and weaponry.
Sometimes, you gotta shoot the Nazis twice
GamesBeat: From DLC to full-fledged game, Zombie Army has done pretty well. How did killing regular Nazis turn into killing Nazi zombies?
Rebellion: Zombie Army was an idea that emerged from some technical testing that we were doing in our Runcorn studio for the Sniper Elite series. We wanted to see just how many enemies we could get on screen at once. The simplified zombie AI helped with that as zombies are much less complex to program than simulated humans.
The tech demo was so much fun that it was clear that we had something that we should develop further and release. Initially we reused and modified a lot of assets from Sniper Elite 3 to create a zombie infested alternative timeline just for fun.
We did debate how best to release it and eventually decided that we should try a relatively small PC-only release to test out the concept. That validated our thesis and was so successful that we rapidly created a sequel or two and then combined them into Zombie Army Trilogy on consoles.
The project snowballed from there and is now one of our main franchises.
See you in the funny papers
GamesBeat: Other than Sniper Elite, you folks are well known for a number of your early games. One such game is Alien vs Predator for the Atari Jaguar, which was quite a hit. What lessons did you take from being the “must have” game for a console?
Rebellion: The first lesson is that you have to make games that play well and are entertaining and fun to play. Make a game that you’d want to play yourself, don’t slavishly follow the storyline of another medium like a movie. That medium is very different to games, it’s simple and far more linear, and has a different core that drives it. For games, you need to distill the essential elements of the licence and find that magic force that captivates your players.
The second lesson is to really understand in detail the capabilities and limitations of the console. Forget the marketing hype, what can you really, realistically do with the hardware and software tools you have available? How can you get all the different parts of the hardware working in harmony, playing together like an orchestra, eking out every last CPU cycle? For the Atari Jaguar we developed a unique art creation pipeline to build physical models of environmental elements and characters, photograph and scan them to create a photorealistic look and then combined that with a first person view to produce something that hadn’t been seen before.
GamesBeat: Rebellion has, more than once, visited the world of 2000 A.D. Any chance of a return to the worlds of Judge Dredd or Rogue Trooper?
Rebellion: Never say never but we do not have anything to talk about at the moment. It was fantastic to see Judge Dredd going into Call of Duty Warzone last year. The difficult thing is even though there are over 500 people at Rebellion at the moment we have many limits on how many games we can make at any one time. In fact, in addition to the world of 2000 AD we have an incredible, unrivalled archive of comics IP going back many, many decades with an incredibly rich and diverse set of characters and stories. We own arguably the largest comics archive in the world, and that means we have a huge selection to choose from.
GamesBeat: What are some of the favorite games you all have worked on in company history?
Rebellion: The Sniper Elite series has been extremely important to us at Rebellion and the latest game, Sniper Elite 5, has surpassed everyone’s expectations. The project has not been without its challenges, thanks in the main to the global pandemic, but the way that the development team and the wider company here at Rebellion has adapted and maintained their focus has been phenomenal. This has resulted in some of the best reviews we have seen in the series and fantastic sales to a lot of happy gamers and fans.
There are also the classics such as Alien Vs Predator and Rogue Trooper which are extremely close to our hearts. We are lucky to have a number of staff who have been with us for a very long time and seeing how they have progressed and how our games have developed over the years is incredibly rewarding.
But we couldn’t have done this in a vacuum. A number of key factors have allowed us over the years to get where we are: the UK video games tax relief has been extremely helpful in allowing us to reinvest in our own tech and IPs, we’ve focussed on developing our own Asura engine technology, and, of course, digital stores like Steam have meant we’ve been able to release our games to the whole world.
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