AS A CHILD, Jason Kingsley spent hours inventing games with his younger brother. “We’d create our own variations of traditional board games and confuse our family,” he said. The childhood preoccupation persisted into adulthood, when he transferred his passion from the board to the screen.
In 1990, after abandoning a PhD at Oxford, Kingsley worked freelance for top games companies such as Electronic Arts and Atari before deciding to tackle the sector himself. The obvious partner was his brother, Chris.
It was chaotic at first, he admitted. “We wrote down ideas for games and phoned up companies asking if we could present them. Occasionally people were interested in taking things further.”
Interest picked up and in 1992 the brothers launched their company, Rebellion. Today it develops PC, mobile and online games, and has 200 staff at the headquarters in Oxford. Sales last year hit £12m, with profits of £1.3m. It expects to report revenues of £15m when accounts are filed in June.
Kingsley led a push for tax breaks through the Independent Games Developers’ Association, which he set up in 2001. “The games industry is bigger and more important for Britain than television and film,” he said. “The politicians are beginning to see that. Games are the new media.”
One of Rebellion’s latest creations, Joust Legend, a free iOS app, was inspired by his hobby of five years. “I dress in medieval armour and joust at English Heritage events around the country. One of the creative team suggested I use my expertise to make a game.”
One weekend a month, Kingsley practises with a specialist group in his paddock in the Oxfordshire countryside, where he also breeds and trains Spanish horses for the task. “It is an extreme sport and you can get very badly injured if you do it wrong. It takes me away from computers for a weekend and, though it’s not relaxing, a change is as good as a rest.”
Kingsley grew up in Osgathorpe, Leicestershire, where he attended Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I College. His mother was a teacher and his father a doctor.
In 1981 he secured a place at St John’s College, Oxford, to study zoology. He followed that with a PhD on wildlife conservation. “I did that for about 2 years, but I became too distracted,” said Kingsley, who is Rebellion’s chief executive and creative director.
His brother studied chemistry at Wadham College, Oxford, and also began a doctorate before devoting himself to their start-up. He is now Rebellion’s technical director and games developer.
The brothers took no salary in the first few years. Their first big hit came in 1994 with Alien vs Predator, inspired by the two films Alien and Predator. Though Rebellion created the game, the rights belonged to 20th Century Fox Studios, which later developed a film from the game.
“We created the Aliens vs Predator brand for Fox 10 years before they made the movie. The idea came from a love of the original films, which we thought would be cool to combine.”
Their parents, now retired, were initially unconvinced that making games was a suitable career path for their sons. “I think they’ve finally admitted we have proper jobs now,” said Jason.
Rebellion targets the “hardcore gamer”, described by the boss as “typically male and in his mid-twenties to mid-forties”. Competition in the sector is fierce, but it’s not all about the games.
“We think of competition as screen time; when a brilliant action adventure show appears on television we see a drop in our sales because people are distracted.”
Television can also have the opposite effect. When The Walking Dead series appeared on British screens in November 2010, sales of Rebellion’s Nazi Zombie Army game soared.
Rebellion also publishes graphic novels and it owns the science fiction comic 2000AD. Though it has worked with established brands such as Star Wars, the Simpsons, James Bond and Harry Potter, its own creations, including Rogue Trooper, are among its biggest successes.
Kingsley, 49, lives in Oxford with his partner, Kasumi Wyndham, an actress and martial arts specialist. He advises entrepreneurs to spread their investments: “The unsung heroes of British commerce are those who can turn a modest disaster into a modest success. Spread your risks, then the good decisions even out the bad. There aren’t any magic solutions to running a business, just a sensible amount of hard work.”