Rebellion, one of the last survivors of the several huge British game developers of the 90s, turns 30 this month. While the UK still has a rich development scene, very few studios can claim to have the same sort of independence, as many of the other big names in 90s development have been acquired and rebranded by multinational corporations.
Over the course of three decades, Rebellion has been through several video game eras. It’s the studio that delivered the incredible Atari Jaguar first-person shooter Alien Vs Predator, before also developing the PC version that dominated gaming cafes in the early 00s. It’s also the studio that ported several titles to different handheld systems: Mission Impossible, Miami Vice and Medal of Honor: Underground all came to handheld courtesy of Rebellion. Regrettably, the company is also behind 2009’s Rogue Warrior, a glitchy, clumsily-choreographed shooter that might just be one of the worst first-person shooters ever created.
Now though, the studio seems to be in the best place since Rebellion was founded in 1992. It was founded by brothers Chris and Jason Kingsley, with the siblings remaining at the helm today. Jason Kingsley, the company’s CEO, is a larger-than-life character currently sitting across from us in a giant cavernous warehouse. Once a newspaper factory, this enormous soundstage is now the backdrop for Rebellion’s TV and film production. Moments ago, Kingsley demonstrated the space’s potential, twirling a sword while wearing a set of era-accurate plate-mail constructed with the same methods as you would have seen in medieval England.
“It feels like being the last gladiator in the arena,” says Kingsley, speaking of the company’s success. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I survived. Everybody else is dead. And there’s lots of blood on the sand.’”
Kingsley laughs. “I’m actually not sure if that metaphor works.”
Kingsley isn’t like a lot of CEOs in game development. When he’s not running Rebellion, he’s most recognisable as the modern knight on Modern History TV’s YouTube channel, where 750,000 people regularly tune in to learn about the medieval way of life. He trains horses. When Kingsley is passionate about something, he goes all in – and naturally, that’s extended to his company. In the early noughties, Rebellion entered the world of comic books, acquiring the legendary British sci-fi magazine 2000AD – home to Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog – in 2000, and later creating its own graphic novel line. Elsewhere, the developer swung in and picked up the rights to both Battlezone and Moonbase Commander during Atari’s bankruptcy back in 2013. The company also owns the Bitmap Brothers extensive library, too, which includes the immortal Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.
Speaking of the 2000AD acquisition, which also saw Rebellion striking a short-lived deal with DC Comics to turn several of the anthologies into trade paperbacks, Kingsley admits: “It’s a weird one, because people ask me what the business decision was behind these acquisitions and…there wasn’t one actually. It was a cool thing to do, and seemed like an opportunity.’”
“Watching a character that you care about being challenged by something and failing makes us feel sorry for them. Then you get to see that character come good, sort themselves out and triumph.”
Kingsley explains that enjoyment remains at the core of almost every decision he makes. Faced with a tedious but profitable project versus a less lucrative venture which is great fun to work on, the latter – for Kingsley – wins out every single time. It’s something that seems borderline incredible in today’s growth obsessed games industry.
“Chris and I wouldn’t make a business decision if it was a pure business decision,” Kingsley says. “There has to be something cool in it as well.” Perhaps this desire to find the fun is why Kingsley is still at it with Rebellion, 30 years later.
“I suppose the thing I’m most proud of is that we’re still going, and we’re still having fun making games.” Kingsley says, talking of the studios’ longevity. “You get 20 years for murder! I think you had to be in the Roman army for 20 years, and then you got pensioned off, and you got a piece of Britannia or something.” Kingsley grins again. “The weird thing is that it doesn’t feel like 30 years.“
Kingsley is in a unique position: Rebellion came up at the start of the big video games boom in the early-to-mid ‘90s. Never again will one CEO be able to say that they’ve run a company from the sprites and bleeps of early game development all the way to the uncanny valley, AA magic of the 2020s. Kingsley points to the “constantly changing technical landscape” of Rebellion’s 30 years in the business and it’s hard to disagree. Over that time, we’ve seen games travel from Sega’s Megadrive to the PS5; a huge gulf in the levels of fidelity and complexity.
“It’s been a lifetime spent having fun, making interesting games and dealing with changes of technology.” says Kingsley. “Occasionally I talk to people and they’ve said, ‘Oh, how do you deal with change?’ but the computer games industry is always changing. It has never not changed.” Kingsley describes years of looking at competing products and engaging in a technology-fuelled endurance match, trying to leapfrog or better whatever else is on the market.
“It feels like being the last gladiator in the arena, It’s like, ‘Oh, I survived. Everybody else is dead. And there’s lots of blood on the sand.’”
“We navigated it, and we‘re still here.”
It also means both brothers are still actively involved in the development. Kingsley says that he still enjoys being “materially involved” with the creation of Rebellion’s games, but is modest about his contribution.
“If you’ve got 200 people making games for three years, one person’s contribution can never be that significant,” argues Kingsley.”I mean that from the top to the bottom. Games are made with teamwork. But we’re still guiding forces, we still nudge things. We still challenge, support, and make changes.”
Dive into Kingsley’s fascination with medieval gallantry, and you can see his fingerprints across all of Rebellion’s games. “I’m a huge fan of the Arthurian stories,” says Kingsley. “They’re classics because they talk about trying to achieve things, but the characters are still flawed human beings.” Kingsley explains that the most interesting characters and stories for him present a flawed character; a person faced with completing an impossible task.
“We’re all a bit crap at times.” Kingsley opines. “I think the way Arthurian stories talk about the human condition and chivalric rules is that it doesn’t matter. You don’t concentrate on the crap bits, but you try to build upon that. You try to do some good that has you rising above your human frailties.”
“These kinds of stories resonate with us as watchers,” adds Kingsley. “Watching a character that you care about being challenged by something and failing makes us feel sorry for them. Then you get to see that character come good, sort themselves out and triumph.” Kingsley grins again. “I think you feel good that the person hasn’t been given it on a plate and they’ve had to work to achieve what they want to achieve.”
These days, Rebellion is best known for the Sniper Elite series. It’s easy to see Kingley’s influence here – the entire saga is about a lone sniper who begins each mission hopelessly outnumbered. Working with people tirelessly fighting a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine.
Kingsley points to this as the basis for good storytelling and good gameplay. “You don’t want a character in a game to be super powerful, right? Not at the very beginning. You need to give the player agency to create that good, interesting, strong character, whatever they might look like.”
It’s Sniper Elite where the developer is now making the biggest waves. In some ways, the series has grown in parallel to Rebellion – Kingsley says the studio has “doubled” its budget for each successive entry – and along the way, it has become the premier stealth franchise. Sniper Elite 5 in particular has found itself as one of 2022’s highlights, a stealth game with a collection of systems and maps that encourages thoughtful experimentation. In the NME review, we say: “ a bold step forward for a franchise that felt like it was treading water,” suggesting fans of open-world stealth will be enamoured.
“I suppose the thing I’m most proud of is that we’re still going, and we’re still having fun making games.”
Everyone plays Sniper Elite 5 in a different way, too. Thanks to Rebellion’s middling size, Sniper Elite 5’s development remained distinctly human. Kingsley says the first people to test the game were a group of local builders, while he recalls playing the game with his brother, who can “happily” spend hours strategically crawling through a single level. It doesn’t quite line up with his own approach, as he admits “going a bit bonkers with a machine gun” if things go wrong, but says the versatility on offer in Sniper Elite is a particular strength of Rebellion’s.
“That’s what the team is very good at – creating ‘What if’s?’” says Kingsley, praising Rebellion’s level design. “Is there another route down there? If I go down there, can I go up through the cellars? We really try to put those things in, just to extend the value and so that people can have a different experience to their mates.”
With the fifth entry in the series, Kingsley says that he is only interested in doing a sequel if he thinks he can “outdo” the previous game.
“The thing about sequels is you’ve got to innovate, you’ve got to deliver on the quality of the previous one. But we’ve also got to add things. I think occasionally you get game franchises where they’ve removed key features of the game and ruined it for people and we all know that fandom is hugely important, because people can get very emotionally involved in the products they’re consuming.”
“That’s the brilliance of being an independent game maker – there’s a whole range of levels to success,” says Kingsley, who describes Rebellion’s size as sitting “not quite at the bottom, but not quite at the top” of the industry. Though it can’t hope to compete with the budgets of AAA developers like EA and Ubisoft, Kingsley can’t imagine having to work with thousands of developers on a single game.
“Goodness knows how they managed to cope with the administration behind that,” Kingsley says. “We’ve got over 500 full-time members of staff now, but that’s hard enough to coordinate. How do you coordinate with a team of 2000, I don’t know – how do you get a coherent vision?”
Obviously, the larger companies have an obvious advantage – “their games cost ten times as much as our games, and in many cases they do twice as well,” admits Kingsley – but for Rebellion’s CEO, his ambitions are a little humbler.
“At the end of the day, what I care about is the person who spent their money, who coughed up some money to buy one of their games. And at the end of the weekend, if they’ve really enjoyed playing it and they go ‘yeah, I’ve enjoyed that’, we’ve done our job! That’s the baseline. If they’ve been entertained, and felt like it’s worth their 50 quid, then great – we’ve done our job.”
While Rebellion is a business driven by passion, then, how did Jason come into one of his biggest loves – battle reenactments?
“I love myths and legends. I love the landscape and I love horses.” admits Kingsley. “Landscapes and horses go really well together if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a great landscape and horses.”
“I’m a huge fan of the Arthurian stories. They’re classics because they talk about trying to achieve things, but the characters are still flawed human beings.”
“The idea of going for a ride and pretending you’re a knight in armour when you’re a child is brilliant. You can pick up garden canes fairly cheaply from the local hardware store and pretend it’s a lance so you have lots of opportunities to play as a kid with fairly serious subjects.”
Kingsley played Polo after university but found he was doing it for the love of horses rather than a love of the sport. Seeing reenactors at work, Kingsley was struck by the realisation “reenactments are the closest thing we can get to time travel” and was drawn in immediately.
Has he ever been tempted to bring the two together, creating a game based on these Arthurian myths?
“All the time!” says Kingsley. “Every year I ask “Have we got space to do something about myths and legends, King Arthur and Knights of the Grail? And the answer is always no, we’re too busy. It’s slightly frustrating.” sighs Kingsley.
The next step for Rebellion’s games business is about making more games, “We’re pretty comfortable with that “pay once and play forever” model,” says Kingsley. “We’ve messed around a little bit with free to play and other models. So in the future, we might look at that as well expanding into that area.” Instead, Rebellion’s future is looking towards film and television. “We’ve been trying to do that for a long time, we had quite a lot of steam just before the pandemic hit. Everything sort of fell away as a result of that, but I think it’s starting to build back up again now.”
While there’s still no information on Dredd 2 – the sequel to the beloved Alex Garland-directed Judge Dredd movie starring Karl Urban – beyond a vague admission that he wants to do it and “it’s on the cards”, Kingsley also talks about a desire to find people who “get what we’re about, what we want to do” to bring productions to life.
After a tour of the place – a cavernous building currently being renovated, complete with one room spattered in fake blood after a horror movie used the wrong type of claret during filming – it’s easy to imagine movie magic being made here.
If this seems like a lot for Kingsley to be tackling at once, he’s always been eager to take on a challenge.
“I’m happy to do things if they’re easy, but I prefer to do things if they’re difficult.” Kingsley admits. “It doesn’t mean I deliberately do them in a difficult way. I’m not going to climb a mountain backwards or something.”
Kingsley admits to thinking a lot about Camelot and the idea that the Knights of the Round Table kept searching for the Holy Grail for 20 years, striving continually to better themselves despite their flaws. And while he might not have made his dream Arthurian game yet, perhaps Kingsley has found his own grail in creating.
“Making a good computer game is not easy – but it’s very satisfying when you do it. I always feel like I’m striving, coming back to the Arthurian myths and chivalry, striving to do things as well as I can. Actually achieving it is a massive payoff. And if I don’t always achieve it? That’s Arthurian.”