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Beneath A Steel Sky Sets as Broken Sword Dawns – Revolution Book Preview

Join Tony Warriner on a journey through the untold story of Revolution Software in this book preview of Revolution: The Quest for Game Development Greatness.

This is a preview of my book Revolution: The Quest for Game Development Greatness.

Written by Tony Warriner, employee number one and co-founder of Revolution Software, this epic book tells the untold behind-the-scenes story of this much-loved game developer.

Black and white photo of a man contemplating a computer screen, displaying code and a video game graphic, on a vintage computer setup. The image is part of a book cover titled 'REVOLUTION: The Quest for Game Development Greatness' by Tony Warriner with Martin Mulrooney. The book cover has a bold orange and teal color scheme with a decorative red seal at the bottom.

Chapter 13 Preview: A Steel Sky Sets as Broken Sword Dawns

I remember Charles was still pursuing his dream of making a game based around hieroglyphics, and additionally, the legendary Sword of Excalibur was never far from our thoughts.

Over dinner in London with Virgin’s Sean Brennan, Charles and Noirin discussed possible ideas for a new game. Sean told Charles in no uncertain terms to forget Egypt and hieroglyphs and, having recently read Umberto Eco’s book Foucault’s Pendulum, suggested the Knights Templar instead. Bells began to ring in Charles’s head. He would return to Hull and read the not-to-be-taken-too-seriously The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

There was, shall we say, an element of hyperbole in the book, but there was no denying that the Templars had been a real thing and their influence on today’s world, so many years later, was still in evidence. With all this in mind, it was an easy step to extrapolate the actual history – mixed with mythology – into a modern-day conspiracy. What if the Templars were still at large, controlling the world or planning a return to power? It was a powerful concept, and pretty quickly the nucleus of a game idea was written down and found favour with executives at Virgin.

Many years later, Dan Brown would write The Da Vinci Code, scoring massive success from the very same Templar mythology as Broken Sword. He would be unsuccessfully – and very publicly – sued by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, who claimed he had lifted their ideas. What if, in fact, he had got his ideas from Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars? Ultimately though we can thank Umberto Eco, without whom there’d not be any Broken Sword games.

Photo of the original 'cardboard box' packaging for the video game 'Beneath A Steel Sky'. The box features a dark blue colour with a light blue silhouette of a dystopian city skyline and the game's title in bold letters. The logos for Revolution Software and Virgin Interactive are visible at the bottom.

Steel Sky in its original ‘cardboard box’ packaging.

Amusingly, Broken Sword is sometimes compared with Gabriel Knight, as the two games are supposedly similar. As far as I know, no one at Revolution was particularly aware of it at the time. I never heard it talked about and it wasn’t ever played at Revolution. Our focus in terms of competition at the time was 100% on LucasArts.

So, with Steel Sky looking hopeful, Virgin’s confidence in Revolution was riding high at this time. Being highly ambitious, Virgin decided to place their faith in us by making a big bet on our next game, Broken Sword (the idea being to go up against LucasArts, who now dominated the adventure genre). Presumably, Brennan was our champion within Virgin, and having had a role in defining our next game he was fully committed to the project.

A plan was hatched whereby Revolution would sign a deal to produce four more games, and Virgin would fund their development to a far higher degree than both Lure and Steel Sky (which were, in truth, developed on a shoestring). In return, Virgin would take a 25% stake in Revolution (which diluted Dave’s and my 10% share too). The deal itself was handled by Noirin at our end, and it was not a bad deal under the circumstances which it was signed – circumstances where, not least, publisher and developer had a great deal of faith in each other.

As was often the case with multi-product deals, profits (and therefore, losses) were ‘cross-collateralised’ across all four projects. This meant losses on one project would be offset against profits on another, so one bad game could leach away the developer’s gains from the others depending on how it all balanced out. Worse still, the revenue the publisher made from the early games would be withheld and used to fund the remaining ones, so the developer had to complete all of the projects – only then might they see any royalties. Considered another way: the developer would be indebted to the publisher while projects were outstanding, but at the same time the publisher might be raking in money.

Image of the PC/MAC CD-ROM game 'Beneath A Steel Sky' in its DVD case packaging. The cover has a black background with white text and features the silhouette of a city skyline. A tagline states 'Full version of Revolution's stunning sci-fi adventure' with a quote from MobyGames praising the game. An orange sticker in the top right corner says 'PLUS! Loads more retro gaming classics'.

Retro Gamer magazine covermount.

There was no escaping this aspect of the deal, which was the norm at the time (and not just in games: similar multi-album deals were common in the music industry too). We did not tattoo ‘SLAVE’ across our faces like The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, but we were in the same boat. Nevertheless, the deal meant financial security for the foreseeable future and would allow us to grow the company and undertake far more ambitious projects. On balance, we’d have been crazy not to sign it at that moment in time.

With this deal in place and Steel Sky approaching its completion, Charles and Noirin were able to execute their long-awaited plan to move the company across to York. There were good arguments for this, not least the trouble getting people to visit – or move – to Hull. York, although just 40 miles away, had far better rail connections to London. People came there on holiday from all around the world, so it was an easy sell to prospective employees: we’d just take them on a walking tour around the city centre and they were sold.

I’d just bought a flat in Hull of course, but I was sort of caught up in the big plans and therefore wasn’t too upset. I’d also just bought an old Golf GTi and pictured myself having a fun time driving over every day (and it was fun… for about a week). Dave and I were invited to York one weekend to see an office that Noirin had found. The new space was large, open plan, modern and near to the famous-for- flooding King’s Arms pub. We loved it.

Another side effect of the new Virgin deal was that they had suggested Revolution ought to have a technical lead: someone who would oversee all the tech work. Up until now, with only three or four coders, this had not been something we’d ever considered.

Photograph of a later reproduction of Dave Gibbons' 'Beneath A Steel Sky' comic book. The cover is black with the iconic white and light blue city skyline from the game. It is adorned with red autographs, presumably from individuals involved with the game. The Revolution Software logo is present at the bottom in red.

A later reproduction of Dave Gibbons’ Steel Sky comic.

It was suggested that our weakness, as programmers, was that we were a little isolated and had been so busy creating actual games that we were not up to date with industry trends. Therefore, the suggestion was that we should hire a big name from a larger and longer-established developer to shake things up and prepare us for the bigger team and more ambitious projects that were heading our way. This begged the question: what about Dave and me? After all, we were founders and shareholders, and we were already de facto tech leads.

Had either of us been politically savvy, we’d have probably figured out that this was not a good thing and found a clever way to head it off whilst acknowledging the weaknesses and solving them with normal hires (i.e. hiring coders to fill the knowledge gaps while maintaining our positions at the top). The timing of all this was very bad, given we were being crushed by the effort to finish Steel Sky, and the ramifications of what was being suggested didn’t fully hit home. I never really considered I could be a chief technology officer myself, but Dave was technically stronger than me and could have done the job if he’d wanted to.

What I liked was the Scripting and implementation stuff, while Dave was taking an interest in the tool side of things (which was going to grow considerably moving forward). I also entertained the notion that the company would grow to the point where I could sit to one side and develop new ideas in a kind of game lab. I imagined being off the main path, free of schedules and deadlines and generally left alone. In retrospect, Dave and I should have continued as we were, agreeing to be joint tech leads while doing more managing of others and researching the areas we were weak in. To our detriment, we let this one slip past us and the decision dogged us both for the rest of our time at Revolution.

Photo of the rare 'Beneath A Steel Sky' demo diskette next to its original black sleeve. The sleeve features the game's logo with a city skyline in white on a black background. The 3.5-inch floppy disk is labeled 'BENEATH A STEEL SKY PLAYABLE DEMO (256 COLOUR VGA) NOT FOR RESALE' in English, for IBM PC, with installation instructions and the Virgin logo.

The very rare Steel Sky demo disk.

Soon enough there was a candidate in the form of Andrew Walrond. Andrew had worked at MicroProse, a big publisher, and was looking to do something more interesting. He came to see us at the Hull office and seemed okay enough. He was driving an Astra GTE, which impressed me as he was obviously a ‘car guy’. The Astra was parked in the car park across from the office, and Andrew made a big play of constantly checking to see if it had been stolen yet – another thumbs up for Hull then! Pretty quickly all was agreed, with Andrew scheduled to start shortly after the company’s move to York.

Now the big move to York sped forward through time, hitting us like a slow-motion train crash. The plan, of course, was to finish Steel Sky and then make a leisurely office move across to York. What really happened was that Steel Sky dragged on, but with the new office lease kicking in as the Hull one expired, we had to make the move anyway. And so, probably six weeks before Steel Sky was completed, we spent a weekend moving all the gear across to King Street.

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Steel Sky wasn’t completed in Hull. The game reflected its birthplace: industrial and gritty. By contrast, Broken Sword – still a figment of our imagination at this point – would reflect the modern-day yet historic feel of York. Many years later, in the run-up to Hull’s UK City of Culture 2017 event, I tried to get the organisers interested in the city’s virtually unknown gaming (and therefore cultural) heritage but was repeatedly blanked!

Screenshot from the classic video game 'Beneath A Steel Sky'. It depicts a pixelated, futuristic scene where a character is surprised to find themselves transformed into a vacuum cleaner, as indicated by the speech bubble 'You've turned me into a VACUUM CLEANER?'. The setting is an industrial room with metallic surfaces and machinery parts scattered on the floor.

They don’t write them like THIS anymore!

As with Lure, finishing Steel Sky was not easy. Like any developer after a protracted crunch period, we were enveloped by a fog of confusion and despairing of an end that was always just out of sight. Make no mistake: the completion of Steel Sky was a close-run thing. It could easily have imploded and taken Revolution down with it. My view is that the game is a lot bigger than the budget it was allocated and that we were stretched to the absolute breaking point. What held it together was the resolve and dedication of the team. A larger team, equally stretched, might have lacked the sense of fellowship required to push through it all. It’s my favourite Revolution game now, but it nearly broke us at the time!

Of course, we did finish Beneath a Steel Sky eventually, the final master having been sent down to Virgin via a dial-up CompuServe account. Back in the physical media days, we would now suffer the longest of anti-climaxes while the duplication machine ground into action, making disks and boxes and trucking them off to duplication centres around the world. Often this would take a month or more. The timing for a game hitting actual shop shelves would be tied to it being reviewed in the magazines, along with any print advertising.

Generally speaking, the magazines required slightly longer than the duplication process, which led to the practice of almost-finished games being sent for review. Sometimes this meant that publisher PR people would be giving out assurances that this bug or that missing feature would all be okay when the final game came out. Of course, it was always possible to exaggerate the potential improvements coming to the unfinished review copy the magazine people were playing. Thankfully, those days are long gone. In the modern era, everyone is instead promised perfection via a series of upcoming patches.

Regarding the original box art for Steel Sky, I am not sure we ever really saw it before the final game was manufactured, but I really liked it. The designers had been sophisticated enough to look at the art that Dave Gibbons had drawn and derive the simplest possible interpretation to produce an iconic design. The thick cardboard box was high quality and above-average cost to produce. This was Virgin Interactive Entertainment at its best, betting big and compromising on nothing. Best of all, the game stood out on the shop shelves.

Screenshot from the game 'Beneath A Steel Sky' showing a pixelated scene in a surgery room. The room is dimly lit with surgical lights overhead, and features characters including a surgeon and a patient. There's a humorous speech bubble from one of the characters saying, 'I'll have to SELL you my BALLS.' The room is decorated with various items and a poster, adding to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the game.

To celebrate the game’s completion, Virgin printed a batch of Steel Sky T-shirts and sent us a boxful. The design featured a page from Dave Gibbon’s comic, which was supplied with the game. The page they chose looked terrific but carried the text ‘Much too late.’ Perhaps they were trying to tell us something…

As I’ve previously said I never read reviews, but in those days there was a lot riding on them, so we anxiously awaited the first Steel Sky verdicts. Again, everything turned out well and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. In the UK, the hugely important Amiga Format gave us 94%. We let out a collective sigh of relief and I read the final paragraphs.

Vintage advertisement likely from a magazine for the video game 'Beneath A Steel Sky'. It features comic-style illustrations and screenshots from the game, glowing reviews from CU Amiga, The One, and Amiga Action. Highlights include Revolution Software's innovative virtual theatre system and artwork from award-winning comic-book artist Dave Gibbons. The ad also introduces the protagonist Robert Foster and the dystopian setting of the game. Logos of Virgin and Revolution are present, along with a note stating 'SCREEN SHOTS MAY BE FROM A DIFFERENT VERSION' at the bottom.

Then came the joy of finishing a game and seeing it on the shelves. It’s a strange experience full of mixed emotions. On the one hand, you feel true delight as your game stands proudly positioned within the new releases, hopefully somewhere decent on the ‘Top 20’ shelves (and if not, you can always move it to the number one spot when no one is looking). On the other hand, your pride and joy is now just another game: one of thousands, thrown to the mercy of the crowd.

This is a preview of my book Revolution: The Quest for Game Development Greatness, which you can purchase online.

Tony Warriner

Hi, I am Tony Warriner, a co-founder of Revolution Software, where I helped develop games such as Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword. I am interested in the artistry of game creation and game authenticity and a firm believer in the power of small teams. Now I'm working on an experimental new Arcade Adventure game, Wormhole Dungeon! I wrote the book REVOLUTION: The Quest for Game Development Greatness.

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One thought on “Beneath A Steel Sky Sets as Broken Sword Dawns – Revolution Book Preview

  • Thank you for sharing this on Pixel Refresh Tony. Your full book provides an excellent insight into the development of some of the most popular point and click adventures to exist. Your personal take on the situations you experienced too, brings a real honesty providing an interesting view of the key moments of Revolution Software.

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