Interview with Steve Ince
Producer of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon
by Laura MacDonald
|Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon (BSTSD) or the Broken Sword series? The earlier games are legend among gamers, as is Revolution and its creative team. If you ask for a top ten list of adventure games, one, if not both, of the first Broken Sword games will almost always be included. Regarded as ground breaking for their synergistic blend of beautifully rendered graphics, smart engaging plots, vivid characters and that slight edginess. Then of course there is always the dialogue with its liberal use of sarcastic quips. All come together in such a fresh way with this series.||
|When people first learned about a possible third BS game, the impact was electric. When Revolution made it “official” – people were thrilled. Then came the news that BSTSD would be different. Uh oh – people stirred uneasily and started muttering on gaming boards, “ What “differences?!”…”What changes?!!” Then the early artist renderings were published, revealing 3D imagery and a sharper, leaner look to George and Nico. Soon after that, came Charles Cecil’s provocative statement that “point and click is dead”. You think this got a reaction? You betcha! In some circles – it would be fair to call it outrage. But, many others sat back and preferred to “wait and see.” Revolution was responsive to the initial reaction, and George and Nico’s look went through some subtle changes. They are updated, edgier in a good way – but not too far removed from their depictions of the past.||
|More questions arose. Would this new BS be an adventure game or more of an action/adventure hybrid? Would it lose the smart dialogue? Lots of speculation abounds – some very unpleasant. When The Sleeping Dragon debuted at E3, industry reviewers and critics were wowed. These reports were re-assuring, at least to this writer. In fact I could say most E3 reports were brimming with upbeat news and thumbs up reactions. However, doubts persist.|
All of these inferences and controversies contrasted with the very positive reports from those who had hands on time with the new game – I was excited over the chance to chat with Steve Ince about himself, Revolution and of course - Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. So where does Steve Ince fit into all this? Well to start with, he is the Producer for The Sleeping Dragon and both earlier games. He has a long history within Revolution. Since his first days on Broken Sword 1, Steve has played a part in every production at Revolution, with the exception of Lure of the Temptress. After starting out with concept work for BS 1, his role quickly enlarged and he was then designated as a producer. Steve is multi-faceted and his abilities run the gambit of game production. Then there is the facilitating, coordinating and marshalling of assets to get the BS games finished and out the door. If you want a real treat, re-load BS2 and listen to the two crooks give and take outside the hotel. Classic Steve dialogue. To fully appreciate his eye for humor and artistic abilities visit his site Juniper Crescent. I found Steve to be engaging and a helluva funny guy. More importantly, I left with a refreshed enthusiasm for Revolution and The Sleeping Dragon. I think you will enjoy Steve’s views on both. Even better, you should have all your questions answered and nagging reservations laid to rest about this “new” Broken Sword. Take it away Steve.
Hi Steve, nice to have
this chance to talk to you. Why don’t we start with a little background.
Did you start at Revolution with Broken Sword 1?
SI: Yes, I was brought in to do initial concept work on BS1 and then worked for a while on Steel Sky (Beneath A Steel Sky).
So how did you come to be named a producer for BS1?
SI: Well I was kind of half doing the role anyway. Halfway through BS1 we were seriously behind schedule. I was doing a lot of organizing, coordinating people who were working in different sections. I don’t really know how it happened. It was kind of like no one else was doing it, so I took it upon myself to do it. (laughter) Then, I was called into Charles’ (Charles Cecil) office a bit later and suddenly he says, “Well.. uhm.. we need to organize ourselves so we have a proper producer and so on.” I am thinking about it and saying to myself," Right... why are you telling me this?” Then he said, “So, we want you to be that person.”
So you were surprised?
SI: Yeah, it came up quite out of the blue really! I kind of thought I was in trouble, cause he sounded incredibly serious. You know, he is very rarely that serious. Not in that sense. It was a quite strange conversation, really. It was quite a surprise. Then it really expanded from there. Initially, it was mostly organizational. But then, I started getting more and more involved in the designing side.
Did this change any of the dynamics of the job for you?
SI: Well, we are very much a team. Charles has always been the sort of person to encourage people. Even people, who don’t necessarily have power over the design process. If they come up with something, then Charles will listen, like we are all inclined to do. It is part of the advantage of working for a relatively small company. I think that everyone feels that if they are able to - they contribute. I think that is the kind of input that makes Revolution the way it is.
Do you think that differentiates your product from other development places? There are many places that release commercial games - but their games don’t always seem to have a lot of heart to them.
SI: Sure! There is something of an element of apathy within the industry. We need to be this or that. We need to follow some other big game. You sometimes get the feeling that it’s just become a commodity. But the thing that we like to promote to customers is that we really believe in what we are doing. We are doing everything we can to make all of our games the best we can within the time/cost parameters we have to operate within. A lot of companies expect their employees to put in long hours and weekends. We do that too – but rather than make demands, we encourage people to put in the time by getting people to really care about their work. They are motivated to do the best that they can.
I can see that. What do you consider your role as a producer for BSTSD?
SI: I have always felt this quite strongly, that my main role is to see the big picture. To see how all of it fits together. To maintain the process and help the project be more than just a sum of the parts. To be able to sort out what we can live with and what we can’t. . Someone will come in and say “Wouldn’t it be good if we changed this?” I have to think about whether I should say, “Well hold on a minute, that conflicts with this,” or perhaps, “Yes, that really complements what we are doing over here.” You have got to hold all that in your head.
Ahh SO you are kind of the mother! You make sure all the kids stay organized and conflict free.
SI: (laughter) That’s one way of putting it. You know, there are a lot of people involved in Revolution. We have programmers, artists, designers and so on. They are a great team. But, often they can get too focused in their own area. So, the role you take on is to hold that broad view. I work very closely with Charles and part of what I see as my role, is to ensure that the game fits as closely as possible to Charles’ vision. Charles runs the company from the ground up. It’s his drive that infuses, his vision that we all work for. I contribute to that vision as we all do.
You have also written dialogue for a variety of games. What can you tell us about that?
SI: I am really proud of In Cold Blood, in spite of the fact that it got some mixed reviews. It was the first game I wrote any dialogue for. The arguing couple in the Land Train, for instance is my dialogue. It’s a shame we’ll never do a sequel to it. I wrote a large portion of the dialogue for the current game, along with Jonathan Howard, who also worked on the first two games. Then we passed it on to a script editor from the BBC. Between the three of us, we’ve created a script that is very much Broken Sword, yet moves the quality onwards and upwards.
You have The Sleeping Dragon development work, your cartoon strips online, your sons and June. How do you juggle all this and keep everyone happy, including yourself?
SI: I am actually feeling quite tired right now, because I had a long week. Normally I really thrive on it. The more creative I have to be - the more creative I end up being. The game design at work, the cartoon strips and lots of other things. Oh and don’t forget playing games!
(laugh) SO would you say that you are the type that gets bored easily?
SI: Ohhhh yes! When we are on holiday, I can’t go and just sit on the beach. I like to walk around, go see the sights. I like to be doing something all the time.
That sounds great! Let’s see .. I know you play a lot of RPG’s - but I thought I would mix it up a bit. What are your favorite adventure games?
SI: Well I haven’t played as many as I really ought to, I suppose. But hm, of the adventures? Sure, Grim Fandango - I particularly liked it. I loved the voices and the humor. Quite more than the game itself in some respects. The characters are brilliant in that game. Probably one of the best games, in my view, just for the list of characters. The Longest Journey. I liked the broad style. Also the fact that it came along at what was a very weak time for adventures in many respects. I really look at The Longest Journey as the game that kind of revived the genre. I loved the game, Day of the Tentacle. Which is great from all areas. First it’s superbly crafted. It’s got so much that works for it. There are some other games that kind of slipped under the radar. I would think - yeah that’s a game to play. Then I couldn’t find it.
It’s hard to believe how fast games go off market! They are released, vanish in 2 years and then you see them selling on Ebay for hundreds of dollars.
SI: I think the publishers are approaching them the wrong way. They should look at them much more long term, like books. With adventure games, I think they need to be cycled for much longer terms. Rather than moving them like record singles. They are just out for such a short time. They need longer to hit their sales peak.
I am very curious about the interface specifics for The Sleeping Dragon. Though you get some people who are very vocal about the term “action events”, I think the interface itself is my biggest concern. Am I going to have to memorize a thousand button combinations to play this game?
SI: Have you played on the GameBoyAdvance system?
Nope, I have an Xbox and a PS2 - but no GBA.
SI: The gameboy Advance interface really inspired us. Basically you would use the cursor keys for movement around the game. This would be the arrow keys on the keyboard. That pretty much gives you 8 way directional control. You can sort of tweak your way though it, if you like. For example, if you are going in a certain direction, you can nudge the keys, so the character turns slightly as they are walking. It’s a slight hybrid between what we call screen relative and actor relative.
So screen relative would be from the players perspective?
SI: Right. It’s mainly screen relative. If you use the left arrow key - the character will move towards the left side of the screen. We also will be operating in some character relative ways. Because other people like it, including myself. Even when the character is walking towards me, I want to turn the character left. It’s kind of like steering. And I am quite in the minority within Revolution on this. (laughter) We have been criticized in the past for not giving people a choice of control option.
Oh! Gabriel Knight 3 had an option like that. Now The Sleeping Dragon is still a third person perspective game, right?
SI: Oh yes. This control feature is just like a tweak in terms of the emphasis. How the individual gets their mind focused in the game. It’s not a major difference - just a slight one. It’s the difference between moving the character rather than pushing them towards something.
OK, you have said that Revolution wanted to get away from the frustration of pixel hunts and all that. How do you interact with the game environment?
SI: That was game play in itself in many games. We wanted to get away from having to search every single pixel for items and this constant hunting. It’s an obstacle to engaging with the game.
So, how will the gamer know that there is something to interact with? If not pixels or smart cursors - what will give us that sense?
SI: Well for example if you were walking around a room and there was a desk. As you walk towards the desk - items on it will highlight. Let’s say their are several items to interact with. When you close in on that desk, all will highlight - but only one brightly. If you want to interact with one of the other items - you will cycle to that item until it is brightly highlighted. You can also switch between items. In the game you have a sort of action key, You have probably seen it in the screen shots.
There will be 4 buttons on the display screen, that you would use for actions - that would kind of relate to a gamepad. But they would also relate to keys on the keyboard. They can be configured to how you want to use them.
You mean like the old Sierra/Lucas Arts A,W,S,D keys?
SI: Yeah sort of like that. You got 4 buttons, one of the things we liked about this, is that effectively, we could put four interactions available at any one time. In the previous Broken Sword games, you could only right click or left click. And you had to keep at it, right click - right click and so on. (laughter) You had icons like an eye for examine, a hand to pick up. There is a limit to the things you can do. In the new game, there could be places where you would instead have a sneak, look or a hide action.
Oh! Cool. So the actions available would change depending on what you were dealing with.
SI: Exactly. And the climbing about in Broken Sword is just an extension of that. This isn’t Lara Croft - jumping and running. This is just an extension like the actions where George climbs out onto the hotel ledge in Broken Sword One.
How do you access inventory in the game?
SI: What you can do - if there is a background object that is currently highlighted. You can go through your inventory and try to use different items with it. You can try and combine it there or you can combine it or use it within the inventory. When you use the access key, the inventory will appear as a sort of crescent in the top left corner of the screen. You can then cycle through the objects.
Cycling through your inventory can really get to be a pain. Is there going to be a great deal of excess game inventory and if so - can you get rid of it? Or do you have to drag it around the entire game?
SI: We have one or two red herrings. But you aren’t going to have the kind of inventory that has a hundred items in it and then half of it them are red herrings. No, one or two is fine.
Are you going to have a map feature for travel, like the one used in BS1?
SI: No, there is not going to be a map. We were originally going to have one, because there was going to be a lot more locations in Paris that we were going to visit. Then we realized the game was getting a bit too large to get done in the time that we had to develop it. We took out four sections of the game. But, it is still a big game. It’s not small. We have made the sections that are in there work a bit harder, as it were.
Getting into game length. For the average gamer who has no WT or brilliant assistance, what would you estimate the gameplay to be in length?
SI: It’s hard to say really. It depends on your level of experience. I would think that without looking around really you would get at least 15 hours of solid game play. For people who love to explore and experiment, the game would be longer. A normal gamer would likely get between 20 to 30 hours, depending of course on how they approach it. We are a little bit wary of this kind of estimate. But it certainly is going to be a good experience. The real important thing is it is not about getting bogged down. Even if it turns out to be 15 hours for some people, we think it will be a very good 15 hours.
Well it should be about the quality of the game not the quantity, of course. Thinking about the game play and plot, would you consider The Sleeping Dragon to be linear, non-linear? Regardless of that, are there multiple paths within the game?
SI: I would think that many people would regard it as certainly linear. There are maybe little bits and pieces where you can do things in a slightly different order. But those are details rather than major plot paths. Not like in the first game where you could either go to Spain or you could go to Syria. There are ways to approach things differently. Heh-heh You could probably try some alternative routes - but it may cost you a lot of time. I think it is better to have a good game that everyone can play, rather than a medium game where half the players get it and the others don’t. So it’s a sort of philosophical approach, I suppose.
Are there puzzles that have varied solutions? For example, if it involved a person - you could talk your way past them or perhaps sneak past them or even distract them. Are there moments like that in the game or is there only one possible solution to any given game challenge??
SI: We certainly thought of multiple solutions and paths. Maybe different ways of circumventing a wall or something. After we had actually gone through it, we found that we are telling a very specific story. We didn’t want the sort of puzzles that are there just for their own sake. You know like where you go into a room and there’s some sort of tile puzzle just for the sake of being there. I think one of the big strengths is that the plot is very much revealed along with the game play. I think some of the best games work that way. As you solve a particular puzzle or uncover something it will immediately reveal another piece of the plot. So it will get the game to open up and reveal the secret of the old man of the mountain or whatever. We are just pushing the quality of our story forward each time. Other people are as well. Stories are becoming very important in games.
So would you say the puzzles are, using the current fave development phrase, “logically integrated’ within the game environment?
SI: Well yes. (laugh) But, I think there are also places in the game, where you are actually solving puzzles without realizing it. Because you will genuinely get wrapped up in the experience and you are doing stuff. Then all of a sudden, particularly if you are an experienced gamer, you will do something and then say “Oh wow, that’s solved!” and it will take you to that next level. I think it will generate that kind of feeling. The quality of the story, the quality of the dialogue, the graphics, the music - the way that everything is coming together. It will pull you into the game. I am actually so pleased to get to work on this game.
Going back to the game “action events”, you in fact had action challenges in both the earlier games. Like where Niko had a very brief moment to do the right thing on the boat or die. The spider at the beginning of BS2. Other places as well. My question here is - are these events in The Sleeping Dragon timed?
SI: Uhh yeah,
Uh oh!! Uhmm is it generous or tight timing?
SI: It’s nothing like where you have to push two keys fast or twitch. It’s nothing like that. You are confronted with a certain life or death situation and you have got to react to it. You may have a second to decide what the right response is. First it’s not going to be like it’s terrifically difficult. Even though you have just a second to do it in. The first time or so you may fail. BUT, you will NEVER get into a situation where you have to restore the game. You will only restore when you get to the point where you say “It’s 3 o-clock in the morning, I have had enough for the day” and you save your game. You come back the next day and that’s where you restore it. When you get to an action event, if the player dies - the game automatically re-sets to where they were before. So you are not forced to constantly fail.
What?! Oh that’s great! It certainly relieves me. I think constantly dying and having to re-load just makes people go mad sometimes.
SI: And I don’t blame them! One of the most frustrating things about Final Fantasy VII, which I thought was otherwise brilliant, was the fact that save points were just so far apart. I remember one particular time, I played for two hours and then died. I thought “Grief! I am not playing that two hours again!”
oh no! (laugh)
SI: I basically locked it up after putting so many hours into that game. And I never actually finished it - because it annoyed me so much. In The Sleeping Dragon, we don’t want people to have to keep pulling themselves out of this experience. That’s not to say you can’t save anywhere you want. Because you can as often as you like. But the saved game file itself is only about 50k. It’s because all we do is save the variablesand everything is broken down into variables. Some developers don’t manage their saved games properly - so you end up with saves that are more than a Mb. There’s no reason for saved games to be that large. We control our variables very tightly.
Good! I think from the E3 reports that the game opens with George flying into the Congo. While at the same time Nico is actually following her own mystery in Paris. Are there any other game locations you can tell us about? Uhmm maybe some plot teasers?
SI: I am actually very reluctant. Oh, I understand that a certain amount of information has got to be given over. But there are one or two things I think would have been better if they had been kept a little secret. Isn’t Paris and the Congo enough? Heh-heh
Uhmmm there are a few places in Paris. One or two might come as a pleasant surprise.
Oh you are horrible! (laugh) So let’s see we have the Congo, George is there and then he gets stuck. Why is he going to the Congo?
SI: I think it’s been posted so it’s probably not really revealing too much.. He is going to the Congo because he is working as a patent lawyer. He starts in Idaho. Then he gets this call from this crazy professor, who is based in the Congo. The professor wants George to settle a patent for him. The invention is in the Congo, so George jumps on a plane and heads out there. He is then involved in a plane crash.
George is in Idaho and Nico is in Paris. What happened? It’s been some years since the ending in BS2, I thought they were going to be all cozy. Obviously they ended up going their separate ways. What went wrong?
SI: Well yeah - it never seems to quite work. Between Broken Sword 1 and Broken Sword 2, George had to go back to the US, because his father died. When he managed to get back to Paris at the beginning of Broken Sword 2 there was Nico. At the end it was kind of like “Well where do we go next?” And they kind of lost direction again. They are kind of old friends, but nothing has really happened between them. No particular reason. It’s a bit like “Moonlighting”.
There’s that same sort of unresolved kind of sexual things going on between them.
Well can we hope for any resolution in this game?
SI: Well you can hope all you wish.
(laugh) Ok we’ll leave it at that. Now, I did read that Broken Sword was always envisioned as a trilogy. Is this true? I mean is the last we will see of George and Nico? I know it’s pre-mature to talk about what’s next - but does the possibility of another game turn on how well the game is received or is this it regardless?
SI: Well yes - we would like to do more. But only, if we can come up with more ideas that match the effort. If we can move the characters forward, without repeating. The big problem is the fact that George and Nico work best when they are frustrated with not having settled down. So how do you keep that going? There are problems with continuing the franchise with them settled down. Because, the characters then become domesticated. Like the comparison to the TV series. Once he got Mallory, the series really flopped. It was going quite well up to that point. So when you have characters that work well, you have to be very careful. I mean, how do you move them forward without moving them forward?
Right..right. That is a problem. I know that Barrington Pheloung is not being used on The Sleeping Dragon. I did understand that you wanted the music to be more responsive, rather than a passive musical overlay or repeating themes. Tell us about the music in The Sleeping Dragon.
SI: No, Barrington won't be doing the music this time. We obviously owe a lot to Barrington Pheloung. He did fabulous music for us. We certainly don’t want anyone to think that we were unhappy with what he has done for us in the past. But, because of the way in which we are working and implementing, we wanted someone to design the system and write the music along with that. Ben McCullough, our in-house musician/audio manager, really understands game music and is going to be developing our audio to be a full surround sound experience. We've still got a lot to put in but it's already sounding great.
So you needed someone in-house who could be flexible to production changes?
SI: We wanted someone who could be there to work with the implementation script. Who would have to know how to work with the timing and to set parameters that would respond within the scripts themselves. Before, Barrington would write a piece of music and say it works great right at this point and we would figure it in at that point. Now music has gotten involved at a lower level, so ’s very much part of the whole process.
We are using a system that gives you four layers of music. We might have an overall layer, which will be a lower key looping sort of sample. And then we go into one location and we build in another layer that has a tension to it. In another area that layer of music may be a bit lighter. It’s all within the general theme of the games. We have respect for that. It will also be responsive to where you are on the screen. There will also be little bits of music that will kick in for specific actions. Like you just picked up a particular object.
Oh like an “AHA! .. musical cue?”
SI: Yeah! For example if you were walking into a room where the killer was around the corner, then you would get that familiar da-da-deh.
Is any of the music reminiscent of the musical themes from the first two games?
SI: Certainly, Ben has a high quality library of orchestral samples. It certainly has an orchestral feel throughout. He did an in depth analysis of the two earlier Broken Sword games. In terms of what worked well and what didn’t work quite so well.
Other than George and Nico, I heard that André Lobineau will make an appearance in the new game. But, what about Dwayne and Pearl? Are we going to see our famous erstwhile CIA guy?
SI: Yes, Lobineau will show up. We actually designed a section with Dwayne and Pearl in it. But, unfortunately that was one of the ones that got cut.
SI: Yeah.. But there are others returning.
Oh that’s good to hear. I was also thrilled to learn that Rolf Saxon will once again be the voice for George. Now, the voice tracks were recorded using an ensemble method - rather than taping each character's lines separately and then piecing them together. That must have resulted in a very natural flow to the dialogue.
SI: They can’t interrupt each other - as we still have to get the individual lines clearly recorded. SO, there is a slight pause between them. But I think this way speeds up the process. They also get such a good flow and get into the characters. Although we have now used a different actress as Nico in each game, the new actress, Sarah Crook is very good. She and Rolf worked very well together, doing George and Nico. All of the actors were incredibly professional. They really got into their characters. When you are all working together in the studio like that for days – it gets very close.
How is the game going so far? On schedule - ahead of time? I did see that the voice recordings were already on a tight schedule and still managed to finish a day ahead. So are you still on target for the projected release date?
SI: The game is currently on schedule for release in October. We currently have a lot of bugs, but they are being whittled down constantly. Bugs are actually quite strange at times. I was agonizing over one, as I had no idea how to resolve the problem. Then suddenly the solution popped into my head while I was in the gents. Figure that one out. It turned out to be relatively simple to fix in the end.
October sounds like a great month to me, then! I was thinking about the first two games and one thing I really adored were all the eggs and such. The Beneath A Steel Sky nod in the BS 2 subway scene was particularly well done. Are there any Easter eggs and/or unlockable material in The Sleeping Dragon?
SI: There are a couple of places in the game where the player can trigger Easter eggs. There will also be an extra features gallery unlocked when the player completes the game. The subway egg in BS2 came about when a couple of us were comparing the abandoned subway to that in Beneath a Steel Sky. We just thought it would be cool to reprieve the scene with Foster and the Beast. I love Nico's parting line, "They don't make anims like that any more."
Wonderful! What would you advise new developers and others interested in the game industry?
SI: Newbie developers have it harder these days, because it's so much harder to create a game on your own and have it stand up to the high standards expected of gamers these days. Another problem many people have is that they think designing games is all about coming up with a cool idea and having a lot of fun. The reality is that it's a LOT of hard work, your greatest ideas may get put to one side and you have to be prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good of the project. Having said that, there is a place for genuinely creative and hardworking people to make a career in game development, providing that they understand they have to be part of a development team.
Well this has been such a fun dialogue! Any parting words for the Broken Sword fans out there?
SI: I like the intelligent debate that happens on the forums. It's sometimes very frustrating when some people assume the wrong things based on a couple of screenshots. But, on the whole the response to what we are doing has been very positive and very thoughtful. One of our aims is to develop intelligent games that appeal to intelligent gamers. We want people to appreciate the subtleties in the dialogue, the pacing, the variety, and the exciting and dynamic plot. But most of all we want the players to feel that they've had fun.
Well thank you Steve. I am sure that adventure lovers in general and the fans of the Broken Sword series in particular will be waiting eagerly for the October release of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon.
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