In a spin: The Oliver Twins tell us their personal video games industry history
The Oliver Twins, now founders of GameDragons, are best known for creating legendary video game character Dizzy. But they have a much more varied and interesting history within the UK interactive entertainment business.
Ahead of Develop next week, where Andrew Oliver will be joining us on stage on Thursday 11th July to discuss retro games, we’ve pulled together this interview we conducted with Andrew and Phillip in Leamington Spa earlier this year to chart both their personal history of the industry and to understand some of the key turning points in the sector’s path.
The Oliver Twins started their careers ahead of the 30 Years of Play campaign. As we’ve seen across the campaign, the 1980s were a great time to get – shall we say – an informal start in the sector. And their starting point was no different at all.
Philip Oliver: We started back in the 8bit days with home computers - the humble ZX81 was kind of our beginning.
But as teenagers we just really got the bug for video games, for playing them, playing games to each other and challenging each other. And very quickly that turned into ‘hey, I wonder if we maybe could write these things’ and learning the skills required to actually make our own games.
The 80s saw us as classic bedroom coders, in my bedroom, because I had a bigger bedroom. At first, we were making games for each other then to impress our mates. And then we were very fortunate that we won a TV national competition – first prize – in 1983.
In the mid 80s we had an enormous amount of success by producing a lot of very good video games for the Amstrad PC, the Spectrum for all different formats for the likes of Codemasters and Activision. We even got some Guinness World Records for creating the most video games.
Andrew Oliver: That labelled us as geeks to everyone but we were happy with that. But after that, we were then able to publish at school. It was a very sharky market back then. But we’d go down into Woolworths and WHSmiths and various places and see our games on the shelves. We never really got that much money, but as school kids to see your games in the shops was quite cool.
PO: Absolutely. But things changed when we finished sixth form and didn't want to go to university, our parents said we could have a year out to make games, but to prove its real job because you've never been paid much. Our expenses buying blank media cost more than the revenues.
So our parents said “go do for a year but if you can make more money in that year out than your father earns then you don't need to go to university”. We thought ‘brilliant! We've got a target’.
We changed our focus of our business: ok what would people buy, [and] who would give us decent money for this. The first game we wrote for them was £10k. So we had that done within the month. It went spectacularly well, so we did that again and again and again.
AO: There’s one lesson in there: it's that we turned from thinking about making games as a hobby to thinking ‘we’ve got to focus on money’. The only way we could carry on making games was to focus on money. So that’s what we did.
The volume game
One of the secrets to the Olivers’ success was their ability to prodigiously release games when there was an appetite for low cost games. Their method for doing so was to build an engine and process to do so, demonstrating early in the industry’s history the value of getting the workflow right early.
PO: How did we make so many games so quickly? It helps that there wasn’t a lot of memory and you didn’t have to do graphics.
So the interesting thing we did is actually focus on making some editors, making an engine and we found that we spoke to other developers of the time who’d spend six months possibly even a year making a game.
They said ‘you’ve got it get it absolutely bespoke, every line the code has to be correct’. But we said we’ll make a specific engine but all of those games underneath are the same. There were simulator games where if you look at them, they all have a similar pattern, some had boats, some had cars some had bikes.
AO: The code in those simulator games is the same from one game to the next. In fact, I have to say, ProSki simulator and Grand Prix Simulator 2 are 99% the same code! You just had to change the graphics.
PO: Ultimately you are just looking at efficiency. And effectively, it was like middleware in the fact that we had our own tools and our own engine.
AO: We could actually spit out a Spectrum and an Amstrad game at the same time. Every game we designed took about a month on the Amstrad. So we would do it on the Amstrad first, and then we take about a day to convert it over to the Spectrum.
In terms of development tools, we were using Amstrad with ROM and a drive and plugging it in so we could iterate fast. Now that is absolutely what everyone does now, but I do think we were about the first to have that kind of development set up.
PO: I think the other cool thing about us being two brothers and twins is that we could shorthand everything,
We kind of knew what each other was thinking. I could sort of say look, I’m going to do this guy running around some levels shooting arrows and you’re going to do the levels.
We almost didn’t need to do much more design there because we knew exactly what we were going to do. He’s got the same reference points as me and he knows kind of what I’d be thinking. And we’d mash it all together.
The rise of the PlayStation One
Following the Oliver Twins’ early successes, the next defining phase of their careers came as a result of the arrival of Sony’s PlayStation One.
For many, the arrival of Sony’s console spelled trouble for their businesses. A number of legendary companies founded in the 1980s and early 1990s reached their demise at the end of the decade as advances in console tech put added pressure on their businesses (principally through raised costs of running a team capable of making games for it).
But for the Olivers, the arrival of the Playstation opened up their business to a huge new market. This, as the explained, had a major positive impact on their lives.
PO: We shifted over to producing console games in the early 1990s. But sadly there was an issue in production costs with console games.
Everyone was suffering because of the cost of cartridges and the time it took to produce them, you’re never sure how many you’d sell at the point of ordering this very expensive inventory.
There are some classic stories; the NBA series, they’d have to order in their cartridges in August before they had even started marketing - they’d order 4 to 5 million copies.
And if you make a mistake, you either sell out and you miss an opportunity or you’re sitting on all of this inventory that you have to shift. In fact, the reason why Glover 2 didn’t happen is because they ordered too many of Glover 1 than what was sold.
So when the console scene started getting a bit shaky, we decided to go after the Playstation. Sony chose CDs and they were cheap.
The inventory cost was very very cheap. Sony put their levy on top, obviously, but you could go from having your console games produced in 6 weeks to having discs duplicated in 2 or 3 weeks, and if you needed a rerun, you could have that ready in a week.
That was fantastic and it made a huge difference to our company, Interactive Studios. As the PS took off, so did our company. We started with 10-12 people and in five years we were 100 people thanks to the Playstation.
AO: It seems obvious to back the PlayStation One. But back then when you went to talk to the publishers, many of them said that ‘Sega and Nintendo have got this market sewn up completely, you’re joking!’.
Which is why there were big companies that did phenomenally well and then went bankrupt. They stayed with Sega and Nintendo, and the high risk of those cartridges.
We looked to Playstation and we thought ‘well this fixes the business side, and the creative’. It’s a fantastic machine. Its 3D, gobs of data, you’d have to be careful loading the levels, but it had a huge ability to have a huge amount of content. So that was the huge success for us.
PS2’s growing pains
The PS2 is rightly remembered as one of the biggest consoles of all time. But the transition to it was as painful for the industry at large as the shift to the PS1.
This time, the challenge also came to Andrew and Oliver’s door. They explained how the PS2’s initial ‘hardcore’ pitch caused their business model some challenges.
AO: We had a lot of success on the PS1. We did do some titles for Disney and Dreamworks towards the end of the era making family friendly games like Lilo and Stitch. And by that time, there were probably about 100m PS1s in the market and our engine was pretty slick.
But with the PS2, when the shift happened, it was an enormous amount of work for us to shift over.
Due to its big jump, we had to rework all the tools, all of the engines and the way we work too. The level of fidelity also meant you had to increase your overheads. For example, you couldn’t have an art team of six people, you’d need an art team of 20. Costs went up about four times.
And we had to do it for a small market. The PlayStation 2 was marketed at hardcore players at first. So for that first Christmas, you’d be lucky to sell 5 million copies.
PO: So the big thing there became how can you improve your tools, do I make everything more efficient to drop those costs down. We had a sticky few years while the transition, but then the PS2 won through.
And it became even bigger than the PS1! It took time, but when business picked up we managed to hit our maximum size. At it’s height, we had 235 people working with us.
The rise of the Wii
The Nintendo Wii had a profound impact on the video games industry. The low cost motion controlled console was a major success for the company, selling tens of millions of units worldwide and encouraging new players into the market.
The fitness market proved a particular success story on the Wii. In our recent best selling game awards, a number of the biggest selling titles of all time in the UK were fitness oriented Wii titles. And this success was something Philip and Andrew were in on the ground floor for.
PO: We had great success on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 when that generation arrived We could see the new consoles coming in a years time and we tried to sign up. But people were saying ‘we’re just doing the hardcore at the moment, the racers and shooters’.
And then the Wii came along and it opened up games incredibly. We did 13 Wii games and, I have to say, the most royalties we ever made was from the Biggest Loser, which was based on an American TV show about losing weight.
AO: Wii Fitness that came with the machine people liked it, it did really well, but then people were like ‘I’m done now’. So we followed up with the Biggest Loser and the game worked really well. The Wii had such a long tail.
The impact of the financial crash
The financial crash had a major impact on the UK video games industry. Following 2008, much of the global economy experienced a sharp economic contraction that upended consumer-spending habits and discouraged business investment.
This, naturally, hit the industry. But as it also combined with the emergence of digital distribution and mobile as a viable platform (and the tail end of the great peripheral controller age), video games experienced a particularly turbulent time.
For the Oliver Twins, this led to the end of their studio which was named Blitz at the time of closure.In our chat, Andrew explained why that happened.
AO: You should go back to the financial crash - what that did was it made all the publishers put the brakes on, ‘only safe bets guys!’. The major international publishers were looking at their share price and saying ‘cut the portfolio back a bit.’
Not everyone took that approach. some people, like Rebellion, who reinvented themselves very quickly as a publisher on Steam and they did very well. But there were a lot of developers who just went to the wall.
I’m afraid Blitz was one of them. We didn’t reinvent ourselves quick enough. We had a great strategy.
You had the licensers like Disney and Dreamworks, who we were working with to bring family friendly titles to market. They were saying when the market flourishes, then we’ll get to you. But when the going gets tough, they said ‘we’re going to hold back because it’s just the hardcore’.
So people were looking sideways, ‘ok lets get onto the smartphones’ instead. And THQ, one of the companies we worked with alongside Nickelodeon said ‘can you do a Spongebob game, but because its on a smartphone on such a small screen we will pay you a couple of hundred thousand’.
They were paying depending on the screen size - the smaller the screen, the cheaper it must be to make right? And it comes from cinema - if you are making an IMAX movie its going to be big. A regular screen, a TV screen, there’s differences
We did a couple of these small titles but they cost an enormous amount to make and people would only pay a few dollars for these titles. Then suddenly everything went free to play and that changed everything.
If it hadn’t have been for those third parties who were supposed to be paying us but didn’t… There were several big companies that were supposed to pay us in a contract, and just didn’t.
PO: We had a plan, but people starting to pull back. So we did a voluntary insolvency. It was the moral and right thing to do.
Looking back, looking forward
Finally, we rounded off the conversation with an opportunity to consider how the industry as a whole has changed over the past few decades.
For Andrew and Philip, there was one particular headline: the doubters in the 1980s have certainly been proven wrong. But they also spoke about what they want to do to continue to support the industry as it grows.
PO: Theres no way we could have conceived how big it would get. Its crazy to think about... one time a journalist walked away from us, this must’ve been about 86, and as he walked away having interviewed us for a little local newspaper column he said ‘good luck guys I hope you make some money before uni’.
And said, what?! We dont want to go to uni, we want to do this forever. And he said ‘well, you know, it's a bit of a passing phase’. And we said you’ve missed the point.
AO: We were saying we were at the start of a new creative force, did you not hear what we’ve been saying?!
PO: We were like in a few years time, video games are going to be more awesome than watching the latest James Bond movie. And you will be James Bond, and you will be in control, and you'll be able to explore. And he said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ he just laughed it off. Its a shame he didn't write that bit up. He thought it was so absurd. So we always knew that that would happen.
AO: We didn't realise how difficult it would be to realise that goal.
PO: But we also didn’t realise where we’d be inside of that goal; we didn't project that.
We are based in the UK, we want to support the UK industry and we think we can really help a lot of businesses really flourish.
AO: It's not just the businesses as well, we would like to do more with universities. There were so many people inspired to work in this industry…
PO: And that's what this industry needs, really talented people
AO: Britain is doing phenomenally well. We do punch above our weight when it comes to game development for the worldwide market. It is absolutely enormous and games have taken over film and music.
Those things are so cool, and yet, most games companies say they want to expand and they have potential to sell more if they could make it better or faster. All the students are coming through the universities but there's a bit of a disconnect
PO: For those students to fill those holes.
AO: Yeah, and its understandable that the companies are like ‘well, we dont necessarily want to take on loads of grads and train them up’ but its like well, what have these students been doing in the three years, they have been trained. There should've been jobs ready to a reasonable degree.
PO: Some of those studios need to understand it’s an investment and part of business
AO: I remember the early days of Blitz we had no choice but to take students. But we had some absolute brilliant stars
PO: So we want to make a really positive different to help close that gap. Now, we cant completely close the gap, the gap might never be closed, but if can help with say 50% of the gap. That's affecting a hell of a lot of people, a lot of peoples careers, but also those businesses are going to flourish more. So we’d like that to be a bit of our legacy as well. One of the things we don't want to be our legacy is ‘you’re the guys that created Dizzy’ - when we were teenagers! Back in the 80s…
AO: A long time ago! We are proud of it but we’ve done a lot more since.
Check out what we’re up to at Develop and across the country for the 30 Years of Play campaign here.