For most CEOs, their duties are simple. Build great products. Grow customer base. Maximise value for shareholders.
But Jason Kingsley isn’t like most CEOs. As he sits at the helm of Rebellion, a successful British gaming company, he ensures his actions are guided by a medieval Chivralric Code of conduct.
“Be a good person. Be brave. Try and protect the weak. Try and be honourable, and do more good than evil,” he told Business Insider in an interview at the company’s Oxford HQ. “It doesn’t mean be a goody-two-shoes…the Chivalric Code requires you to be a fighter. You’re basically a bloke who could kill people with swords or lances or axes or maces.”
It’s an unusual choice of language. But it makes a great deal more sense when you discover that in his spare time, Kingsley is an avid jouster, breeds warhorses, and the only suits he owns are suits of armour worth tens of thousands of pounds.
Simply put, Rebellion is a video games company — and then some.
It was launched in 1992, by Jason and his brother Chris: Today, Jason is CEO, and Chris works as CTO.
“When we were a lot younger, we did, on occasions, settle things by wrestling” Jason admits of the early days of Rebellion.
The company now has a headcount of around 200, with revenues in 2015 of £19.7 million.
Its main focus is video games — it creates titles for an array of platforms — but also has smaller operations in other areas, including publishing and comic books. It owns 2000AD, the comic anthology responsible for the famous dystopian Judge Dredd series.
It’s a company driven by its cofounders’ passions more than anything else. Kingsley is “interested in genre,” he says: “Adventure, sci-fi, story-telling — whatever form that is.” Computer games are “hugely successful — the fastest growing area of the creative economy, which is the fastest growing area of the British economy” — but the company doesn’t limit itself to the one medium.
Jason and Chris are aided in this respect by the fact they have refused to grant any stock options to employees. “It’s a bit like fighting a war with proper soldiers or a bunch of mercenaries you hired. Mercenaries might fight well, they might not, you have no idea. But if people are very involved with the organisation, they like it, they enjoy what they do — we get a different kind of atmosphere. A better approach, in my experience, than with mere hirelings,” Kingsley reasons.
This may well be true — but it also means the pair aren’t in thrall to anything or anyone but their own interests.
On the verge of a new creative revolution
One of Jason Kingsley’s current interests is virtual reality (VR). Rebellion is preparing to take its first steps into the VR world with the relaunch of Battlezone — a classic 1980s arcade title that is arguably one of the first “virtual reality” titles.
It’s a tank-based shooter: In the original, players would peer through a “periscope” in order to simulate the feeling of driving a tank; in Rebellion’s remake, they have gone for full, head-tracking VR.
It’s slated for a 2016 launch.
I got the chance to try a demo of Battlezone while at Rebellion’s office. Driving a tank is quite a natural experience in VR — there isn’t that ghostly moment when you look down and can’t see your legs walking or arms moving.
It was fun, in a very stylised way, jetting about at high-speeds gunning down the enemy. But where it really stood out was those occasional moments where you’re suddenly blown away by the scale of a giant flock of robotic bird-things bearing down on you — you’re not playing a convincing computer game with a clever headset — you’re there.
It’s not a sensation unique to Battlezone — but having now (finally!) experienced it first hand, I came away significantly more optimistic about the potential VR can offer entertainment.
Kingsley thinks VR will supplement existing mediums, rather than replace them. “Just like when photography was invented. Paintings pre-photography were illustrative — the King wants a painting for posterity… Photography came along, and it was much cheaper to take a photo than painting. It didn’t stop painting, it allowed it to expand into expressionism and all the other -isms in art … all these new forms of painting sprung out when painting was freed up from having to paint a portrait of a rich merchant to buy your bread as an artist.”
It could have transformative impacts on other industries too. Take tourism: “Maybe people don’t want to spend 12 hours flying to visit Angkor Wat [a temple in Cambodia]. Maybe they want to visit Angkor Wat now, at lunch time, wander around it for a couple of hours then come back to the real world, have a cappuccino and get on with their day.”
Jousting: “A lethal extreme sport”
When Kingsley talks about the possibilities of VR, he frames it as an opportunity to “time travel.”
“Imagine you could visit Stone Henge without thousands of other tourists getting in your way — go back in history, get rid of that bloody road. Imagine seeing Rome at the height of Caligus. Imagine seeing the Medieval Popes. Imagine going any place you can think of.”
This comes from his passion to “heritage values” — which extends from his interest in resuscitating vintage brands like Battlezone to a key extracurricular passion: Jousting.
Jason Kingsley is a practicing knight. He is, he says “one of the first two people in 400 years to do it properly — jousting with a solid wooden lance with metal ends in public…no-one really knew if you died doing it. And you can, actually. Someone died quite recently doing it. It is a lethal extreme sport.”
In the corner of his office — next to the piles of comics and video games — sits one of his suits of armour. “You’re talking about twenty, thirty grand for a suit of armour, and that doesn’t really have much use except stopping you from dying when you joust.”
He also rides and breeds warhorses to help keep himself grounded. They “kick and bite, or behave well, irrespespective of what successes you have. It brings you back down to Earth.”
“A lot of fellow re-enactors are lovely people — ride for 10 hours a year. I’m riding for 10 hours a weekend at least. I ride whenever I get the time at the weekends and in summer, I ride in evenings as well. So I’m riding as much as a knight would have back in the day.”
He adds: “My experience is probably as close to a classical knight’s experience of riding as you can get.”
“The Chivalric Code requires you to be a fighter”
Kingsley’s interest in the historical informs his lifestyle — notably, the aforementioned Chivalric Code. Its a Medieval code of conduct.
“Victory has no meaning unless it’s been won fairly…if I’m jousting and someone’s got a problem I just pull my lance up and don’t hit them,” he says. “I could hit them and score points, but it isn’t right to do so.”
It influences work as well as play. “I got given some inside information from somebody about a competitor who was in a bad way and there was an opportunity for me to take advantage of that,” Kingsley says, without giving specifics. “I felt it was inappropriate, so I ignore the opportunity, which would have made us a lot of money .. there was a clear opportunity to take advantage of somebody’s ill fortune which I turned down on principle.”
Put most simply, chivalry is “doing the right thing,” even when nobody’s watching. “That’s where religion comes in a little bit — trying to convince people there is someone watching,” he jokes.
Kingsley gets sidetracked. “I love all of the good parts of [religion] — churches, cathedrals, the spirit of community … I hate the negativity that comes with the worst parts.”
“I’d love it to be real. I’d love ogres and dragons and unicorns to really exist. They do exist in the mind, they don’t really exist … that doesn’t mean we can explore what-if’s. Virtual reality might allow us to explore them. That’s exciting. I can be a knight in armour, going on quests through enchanted forests and it will feel like it really is real.”
And with that, Jason Kingsley comes full circle, his work informing his passions, his passions informing his work — and the interview is over.