Interview: Jason Kingsley on what comes after Sniper Elite 3

Sniper Elite 3 Rebellion

Sniper Elite 3 has just launched. It’s a World War Two game in which you can shoot a man from a ledge a mile away and watch in slow motion as a hot bullet bores a tunnel through one of two unsuspecting testicles, before exploding out of an arse like a horrifying party popper made of flesh and guts. It’s more than a little bit gross in its extreme anatomical detail, and more entertaining than you’re probably willing to admit.

A short while ago, before Sniper Elite 3 had launched, I met up with Jason Kingsley, Rebellion’s CEO and creative director. We had a lovely long chat all about where they draw the line between gore and obscenity (after exploding balls, but before exploding penis), whether we could expect a return of their Nazi Zombie Army spin-off (we can), and what the future holds for the studio (potentially an open world survival horror game).

PCGamesN: So the killcam in Sniper Elite 3 has seen some real improvement. The killcam, is that what you call it? When the bullets go through the guys? The killcam?

Jason Kingsley: Yeah, so the killcam has evolved in Sniper Elite 3. We had lots of discussion at Rebellion about how far to take the killcam and what it was there for. Obviously, for lots of people it’s the payoff, it’s the reward for taking the shot. But it’s an interesting one because we’re not really doing it to glorify killing. Obviously there’s no question that it’s entertaining for many people, but a lot of people find it horrific, which is kind of the point because sniping is one of those weird things in war. From reading memoirs and talking to people: snipers are in a fairly unique position in that they’re kind of slightly feared by the soldiers on their own side because of what they do. There’s a “them and us” kind of feeling that a lot of memoirs talk about. Snipers would sit alone in the mess tent.

So you kind of want to emphasise to the adult player – because it’s very definitely an adult game – the nature of what one bullet can do. It’s interesting how people react to it, because for some people it’s the awful realisation that “oh god… that’s what happens”. And it makes them not want to shoot everybody; they only shoot the people they have to shoot in order to complete the mission. And that’s part of it really, because we’ve tried to design our missions so that it isn’t just killing people, it isn’t just shooting all the pop-up targets.

PCGN: Unlike the Nazi Zombie Army DLC, which is a different kind of game entirely. Is that game spinning off into its own series?

JK:Well, kind of, yeah. I mean it was originally a bit of an experiment we had, the team up in Runcorn: they had about three months on their schedule before they were about to come onto Sniper Elite 3 with not much to do, so we wanted to experiment with four-player co-op as well, see if there was anything we could do, and really throw in as many AIs as possible. So the obvious thing there, the simplest kind of AI to do is shambling zombies, where it just tries to track you down and eat you.

So we chucked an awful lot of zombies into this game. We chucked about eighty quite high resolution creatures into a rough four player co-op game, and it was so much fun that we just said “look, guys, we’ve got this, can we do something with this? Can we throw a game out there as a true indie, self funded and not much marketing, and see how it goes?”

And it went really, really well, absolutely brilliantly. So because of the response of our audience and our community, I kind of think we ought to do more with Nazi Zombie Army. I mean, the name itself was meant to be a bit of a parody, it wasn’t meant to be a sophisticated simulation or anything!

PCGN: It’s very B-movie…

JK: Exactly! That was the whole idea. We really riffed off a lot of those seventies and eighties horror movies with the John Carpenter-esque music and the synths that they used and that whole atmosphere. It sort of takes itself very seriously, though it isn’t a very serious vibe. People loved it! The four player co-op lends itself to YouTube videos, so we’ve had an awful lot of coverage on YouTube from it; a huge, huge amount, it’s been really interesting.

And it’s really great to see people enjoying the game that we’ve made as well, because often we don’t get it. We get to see reviews, we get a bit of feedback from the odd… well, quite a lot of consumers, but we don’t often get to see somebody playing our games. It’s quite fun to watch people playing it and screaming and shouting at each other, taking the piss out of each other and screwing around and messing up, and that’s been really good!

So yeah, hopefully we’ll be revisiting Nazi Zombie Army this year with some other stuff, but exactly what, we don’t know. There’s been a lot of interest in our survival mode. Obviously we did a sort of survival mode in the original Aliens vs. Predator – we were one of the first games to do that as a continous mode, where you’d basically die because we’d throw more and more enemies at you until you couldn’t cope – so we kind of pioneered that. We might revisit that.

In terms of other stuff we do, we’ve got all our mobile stuff. Our family-friendly game called Harmony Isle is out on iOS and various other platforms, and that’s an interesting departure. Obviously most of our other games are quite targeted towards a “grown-up” consumer.

PCGN: Is there a killcam in that one?

JK: No killcam in Harmony Isle, no, no! It’s all about building a community on an island and being nice to each other.

Sniper Elite 3

PCGN: Do you have any personal interest in the sort of Nazi occult elements you’ve got in your zombie game? That’s a rabbit hole that you can take you to some odd places.

JK: Oh god, I’ve had… well, when we were doing research into the occult, yeah you can find some dark places on the internet. There are some fairly unpleasant places to be, but also some fascinating insight into the nuttiness of that era. The various different places and cults and strangeness that went on around that topic. So yes, it’s a worrying area in that it’s kind of unpleasant. We’ve tried to stay away from certain areas of history but we’ve obviously mucked around with the idea of the occult and summoning demons and possessing the dead and that kind of stuff, so yeah I think we tread an acceptable line.

But then again, we had to change the game in Germany: we had to take all the swastikas out, and we had various people complaining that. German players complaining that they can’t play with other people because it’s technically a different game. It’s exactly the same game in Germany, but we’ve changed the graphics. But for Steam it has to be published as a different game, so they can’t play with each other. It’s annoying but there’s nothing we can do to fix it. We can try and change the German law I suppose.

PCGN: I’m sure many have tried before.

JK: Well yeah, I think one day it will happen. You’re now allowed to show swastikas in movies in Germany for example. It’s just in games that “the Wolfenstein law” still holds. No-one’s tested that law and it’s never been challenged in the courts, so we just have to follow the law as we understand it.

PCGN: When you were discussing how you’d made your killcam more detailed with the muscular system and the circulatory system, you mentioned that you know the line is, you know where it becomes obscene. Where is it?

JK: We think we do. I mean, it’s still diagrammatic, so we haven’t gone down the slasher/gore route. It’s gruesome because you’re seeing what the bullet does, but it’s still quite sanitised. There’s blood and guts, but we don’t have buckets of the stuff flying all over the screen. There’s a bit of it but I think we’ve made it a bit more sanitised and diagrammatic.

So here’s an interesting thing. I’ve got a friend who has a 15 year old kid who’s a big fan of Sniper Elite. Of course, I pointed out that you’re not meant to give the game to your 15 year old, that it’s an 18 certificate, but he was okay with his son playing. He’s the dad, it’s his job, but it does say 18 on the box.

He was saying that one of the unintended consequences of his son playing Sniper Elite V2 was that he knew human anatomy really well. So the son would ask, “Dad, what’s that I’ve just shot?” and he’d reply “I don’t know, I’ll have to go look it up. Oh, that’s the liver.” This dad said that the game had given his son a fairly expert knowledge of human insides, which is bizarre if you think about it. Obviously shooting the testicles ended in hoots of laughter, you know – it’s a 15 year old’s gameplay style – but it’s sort of an interesting area. I’m not saying it’s an educational game, but it has those unintended consequences. You learn where somebody’s spleen is!

PCGN: Right, I think I learned about anatomy from TV ads for cough medicine.

JK: Yeah, you see where the lungs are and where the heart is. Maybe you haven’t done biology at school yet, you might not know, and bizarrely enough a game like this would show you. It really isn’t for under 18s, but it was interesting feedback. I hadn’t expected anybody to learn anatomy through Sniper Elite.

PCGN: When it comes to the game’s 18 rating, despite there being laws and restrictions in place, you must be personally aware that people under the age of 18 are going to be playing these games regardless of…

JK: They shouldn’t be, they’re not meant to be. However, I do think that you can argue that it’s the parents’ choice. The vast majority of our players are grown-ups. Our average player age is probably something like mid-thirties, so it’s only one extreme end that anyone needs to be concerned about. But I guess if your son’s 15 or 14 or whatever and you, as a parent, think that this game is suitable then that’s your choice, it’s not on me. That’s your choice and it’s up to you how you raise your kids. I’m a believer in strict guidelines but if people are grown-ups then they can do what they like and if people have got their own kids, well, as long as they understand what it is they’re doing then I think it’s up to them. Other people might disagree and say it should be illegal or something, but where would one draw the line? Obviously you wouldn’t want it in the hands of a ten year old.

But, you know, people mature at different rates anyway and, let’s face it – teenagers explore the internet too, so I don’t think it’s that bad compared to some of the stuff that I’m sure people can find on the internet. Now we’re getting to a point where we’re introducing filters online, I think as a society we’re still wrestling with all that stuff.

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PCGN: Going back to what you said about how you want to show the real impact of a single bullet… do you think the killcam could ever include snapshots of, I don’t know, the soldier’s grieving wife and children?

JK: Absolutely! We did talk about that once, we could have a little vignette of how you destroyed their life and the crying members of the family. It’d take quite a lot of work as we’d have to have a lot of backstories but… more seriously, the shots should trouble the player on some level.

I think there’s food for thought there. I find it easier to shoot lots and lots of zombies and not worry in the slightest because they’re already dead. But Sniper Elite is fun in a different way, it’s entertaining in a different way. There are some movies that are quite troubling, and those are entertaining in a different way. I’m hoping that we’ve made a fairly sophisticated piece of adult entertainment.

PCGN: You have exploding testicles.

JK: Yes, we do have exploding testicles! People really reacted well to the testicles.

PCGN: That must have been an interesting day in the office. I presume one of the devs called everyone over and said “guys! Look what I’ve just made.”

JK: Well we actually had a conversation about it, and I remember being with the original team talking about it, and we were discussing what geometry we should use. We’ve got all the internal organs, but when it comes to shooting blokes, you’ve obviously got genitals – what do we do? We avoided shooting people’s dicks off, we avoided that because we felt…

PCGN: You thought you’d show some restraint?

JK:We’d show restraint yeah. But we had testicles. We made that choice because we also felt it would bring that awe and horror factor in as well. People find it amusing to shoot people’s testicles off, but it’s fucking horrible! Quite frankly it’s a really disgusting thing to do! But is it any more disgusting than shooting somebody through the eye? That’s going to kill them, whereas if you shoot someone in their testicles – well, it’s probably going to kill them as well because it’ll create tons of trauma… but it’s an interesting one, and I guess it’s up to the player. Aim high if you don’t want to shoot somebody’s testicles off!

PCGN: It’s all down to player choice?

JK: Well, yes you could argue that! We have allowed them to choose that.

PCGN: So what does the future look like for Rebellion?

JK: The trajectory is definitely upwards! We’re definitely improving. We’re improving partly because we’re making our own games and we have more control over what goes in them than we ever have. We have different pressures on us now. There’s always lack of money and lack of people and lack of time, but we’re not being told what to put in a game by the person paying for it to be made – we’re making games that we think are good.

You can always spend an extra month or two or three or six on a game to make it even better, but as I said before, you’ve got to make a game that fits with the budget and fits with the sales expectations so you can go on to make another one, so it’s very exciting. Yeah, our trajectory is definitely upwards, because we’ve got a portfolio approach, so we’re looking at different types of game, different formats – we’ve got the book publishing and the comic book publishing and all of that as well, so yeah… it’s kind of fun!

Sniper Elite 3

PCGN: Have you guys been tempted by the crowdfunding route?

JK: Not yet, no. We’re looking at it. Obviously it’s a interesting and intriguing, so we’ve got some thoughts on that and we’re putting some plans together. Maybe we’ll do something on that this year. Exactly what, I’m not quite sure. We’ve got some good potential candidates. Some of our more famous games though are owned by other people. Aliens vs Predator, for example, is owned by Fox, so if we did anything with that, we’d obviously have to get Fox’s approval.

Some of the 2000AD brands like Judge Dredd or Rogue Trooper and some of the more modern ones might be worth revisiting. We’ve almost got too much IP! We don’t necessarily want to do a comic book IP because we’re a games company as well; the two can work together well, but don’t necessarily have to. So maybe… well, the Zombie Army stuff… what about a Nazi Zombie Army that’s completely open world?

PCGN: Now there’s an idea. Are you playing much DayZ?

JK: I haven’t played DayZ. The problem I have with Day Z is all the griefing and all the player hassle. I’ve played State of Decay all the way through twice now, I’ve played Fallout recently all the way through on extreme mode, where you had to scavange for water and food, and I really enjoyed playing that. That’s what I enjoy more.

I’ve got some ideas as well for other titles that we might want to look at in-house, but no I haven’t played DayZ yet. I’ve almost read so much about it that I don’t want to play it! But I’m almost certainly getting around to it. I’m going to have a look at Rust as well. I love persistent worlds and I love open worlds but I don’t necessarily get into playing with groups of people. I kind of want to solo everything. I don’t know whether that says anything about me, but I kind of found myself soloing stuff with AI team members.

I love State of Decay, I bought the expansion set and I’m playing that at the moment. I find the persistent world and having permadeath for your characters is quite challenging and very brave. There’s a ton of open world survival type games at the moment, which is great, and they’re of variable quality, but they’ve all got something interesting about them, so I hope more people keep making more games, because I like playing games! I like to see what other people are doing!

PCGN: So creating an open world survival game is something in the back of your head?

JK: Yeah, well it’s something I’ve always wanted to get involved with, and now that we’re making our own games that’s something that I think we could do quite well with our own tech. But we’ve got more Sniper Elite potentially to do, more Nazi Zombie Army, we’ve got things like Rogue Trooper, classic games from the past to maybe look at revisiting. Even Aliens vs Predator… we’ve got a lot of choices, and one of the problems when you’re independent is deciding what you do next.

PCGN: Do an open world Rogue Trooper sequel.

JK: Well, that could be good… yeah, yeah. Maybe we won’t go down the zombie route. I think we’ll steer away from zombies a bit, though that said they are very compelling, we’ve got a lot of people here who love them!

PCGN: I’ve noticed a circular trend. We go from zombies to pirates to ninjas to zombies, so I think… we’ve just had pirates in Assassin’s Creed, so maybe if you want to try and get the jump on ninjas…

JK: Yeah, how far ahead do you look? If it’s going from zombies to pirates, well, if you start a zombie game now, will we have gone all the way around to ninjas by the time people will be wanting pirates?

PCGN: Zombie ninja pirates.

JK: There we go.