It may be relatively early in 2014 seeing as how it’s still January, but a rather pivotal title is on the cusp of being released. No, I’m not talking about the well-received Double Fine throwback title that is Broken Age, nor am I doing some more hyping for TitanFall. Both of those games may be awesome in their own right, but the small London based team atRoll7 have done something that is much more important in a sense: they’ve delivered an entertaining skateboarding game on the PlayStation Vita.
Perhaps it’s beginning to be looked upon as a sport whose peak has faded in terms of the revenue it can deliver, but skateboarding is still pivotal as ever in our culture and amongst people. Sadly though, that hasn’t translated to a lot of good video games since Tony Hawk is in retirement and Electronic Arts has put the Skate series into their ever growing warehouse of cancelled projects/franchises. Yet here we are with Roll7 delivering PlayStation Vita owners the title that is OlliOlli.
A bit of a departure from the skateboarding games we’re accustomed to seeing, OlliOlli goes for an approach that’s both simplistic yet complex in what is required of the player. Tricks may be done rather easily, but stringing them together and actually completing one of the many treacherous stages is where the enjoyment, and deep difficulty, derives from.
Roll7 Director/Producer Tom Hegarty sheds some light on the direction of OlliOlli and how the team approached tackling a skateboarding game in this interview with Shogun Gamer.
Ian Fisher: Roll7 has garnered lots of attention lately with the imminent arrival of OlliOlli for the PlayStation Vita. So what’s the story behind the origins of Roll7 and exactly how did the premise of OlliOlli first come about?
Tom Hegarty: The concept of OlliOlli actually came about by John, one of the guys who owns Roll7 as well. He was a sponsored skateboarder in his youth when he was about thirteen years-old so he’s pretty good and he knew a lot of stuff. He [John] was also a big gamer and back in the mid-90s he had a vision to actually merge the two. So it took around fifteen years for us to actually do something with that idea, but we set Roll7 up in 2008. Originally we were doing games for other people, such as the NeuroSky stuff, and we loved doing that and it definitely helped us to get game ideas. But ultimately we wanted to develop our own games and it didn’t necessarily have to have a health impact behind them or to help people; we just wanted to create cool arcade style games.
So we started developing some demos of various stuff which were very, very basic. We had this game called OlliOlli and it was very fun and addictive and we found we were just playing it in the office all the time. It was actually my only game of choice when I picked up my iPhone and I know that sounds like, “Oh, I like my own game!” [laughs], but there was just something about it when you go back for that one more try.
We were at a conference in 2012 touting our previous iOS game and we bumped into James Marsden, who is the Director of FuturLab and we showed him the game and he loved it. James said that we should talk to Sony and he literally sent an email the next day (we never met the dude before) showing us to Shahid [SCEE Senior Business Development Manager Shahid Kamal Ahmad] saying that we needed to talk. So we met up a few weeks later and literally Shahid and his team were hooked. I think Shahid was just playing it on the iPad and just let the other two guys take the meeting. So that’s the kind of brief history of Roll7 and OlliOlli.
Ian: The market has been a bit dry as of late when it comes to games in the skateboarding genre, but there’s still a yearning amongst some players for more titles to be released. Considering that the skateboarding genre has usually been rather focused, perhaps a bit too narrowly, with past titles such as Tony Hawk and SKATE, was there ever a feeling of worry amongst the dev team that OlliOlli would be too outside the norm for some players considering the basis of the game?
Tom: It’s got a very different control system than Tony Hawk and everyone would pick it up, see a skateboard, and then start pressing the Cross button or waggling the analog sticks round and round only to see that nothing is happening. We knew obviously how big the genre was and we were big fans of it ourselves, but I think we underestimated just how embedded in people’s psyches that control scheme was. We had some testers play it one time and this one guy hit the nail on the head and said, “Your problem is that everyone who will want to play this will pick it up and want to play Tony Hawk. So you’re almost trying to rewire ten years of learning.”
We looked at our control system and we knew it was different, but once you get into the rhythm and the timing it feels really nice. At first it might not since you don’t know what to do and that’s when we decided to work on a Tutorial. So the Tutorial actually sets outside the rest of the game and we made that decision because we really needed to teach you the core concepts. The game is tough, we want it to be tough and be like Super Meat Boy on a skateboard – that’s what we’re aiming for. But you then got a double challenge if the control scheme is different then you have to teach that first and then you have to teach the players as to how and why we’re going to trip them up in the game.
Ian: It was an interesting analogy you made that OlliOlli is like Super Meat Boy on a skateboard, so what was the balancing act like of making sure the game and the levels were difficult, but it wasn’t so hard to the point that people would put the game down and never touch it again?
Tom: It was a tough one, it was really tough. You see that we’ve got the Amateur and the Pro levels in the game and we felt that with the Amateur levels we could be a bit more lenient and teach people about what they’re going to do. With the Pro levels we were like “let’s make this nightmare world” and this is where we can really go crazy and make sure people have to be completely precise. It took us a while to get there though because as I said this is only the second game that we’ve developed. So we would make an easy level to put out in testing and people would come back and say they still couldn’t play it. So we were like let’s make it easier and then you kind of get to the point of, “This is really easy and no one is going to want to play it.”
The Eurogamer event in London was the first time that we took the game out and people could actually pick it up properly and we were like, “Right, we think we got there now. These are the right levels.” We knew that we could create the really tough levels since that wasn’t a problem. It’s in a way easier to be a bastard as a level designer than it is to be a nice one and actually train people up. [laughs] But that was a really fun part of the challenge, if you get to the Neon stage, even if it’s the Amateur one, it’s tough but you got enough skills. A key part of it, and it’s a much referenced game, but Meat Boy you always feel like it’s your fault. If games can make the player understand that something is really hard but they know why they got it wrong then they’ll forgive you for it being hard.
Ian: Earlier you mentioned how you had to essentially rewire how people went about playing OlliOlli since they were so accustomed to the Tony Hawk style of play. So when you and the team were first developing the game did you ever have any control scheme alternatives or was it always the one method that’s in the final game?
Tom: The original demo was on ioS so you would use your left thumb to flick a trick and your right thumb to land. So that’s where that basic scheme came from in terms of launch a trick and land. When you get that rhythm going it feels really nice so we didn’t want to lose that went we went to the Vita, but obviously we suddenly had sticks and buttons to play with so that was very cool. Sony did very much say to us that they would love us to look at the features like back-touch, front-touch, and how we could use those meaningfully. We did actually do some exploration and at one point since we had it where you could almost do flips by using the rear touch by drawing a little circle or something like that.
We tried some stuff, but it just didn’t feel natural since you had to suddenly shift your hands. It’s such a fast paced game that it just wasn’t flowing as naturally. So we went back to Sony and told them, “Guys, we appreciate you brought us on the platform etc., but we don’t think this works.” We were expecting them to be like, “What is it!”, or, “You need to use the back-touch!”, but they were like “Okay, cool.” It was very nice to know that they wanted to put the game first and if you could use those features then that would be great, but if your game doesn’t need them or doesn’t work with them then they’re just happy with a good game on their platform.
Ian: What sort of tone did the development process of OlliOlli have? Was it a fairly straight forward project to execute, or was it hard at times to reign things in given the various directions that the core concept and the many design elements could’ve gone towards?
Tom: There was quite a bit that got dropped. Originally the game was going to be an Infinite Runner, although obviously that’s a much bigger game within itself. We didn’t make the decision to change from an Infinite Runner to what it is now (a series of defined levels), until about June. So we had already gone quite far down the road, but what made us change our mind was when we were at E3 and we were demoing the game and it just got to the point of getting stuff into the Vita and working, that the Infinite Runner stuff wasn’t working properly yet. We didn’t want to necessarily take the game out in that form since it was an early stage and didn’t give out a good impression of what we wanted to show people. So we actually pre-built six or seven levels just to take it out there, and on the plane over I was literally learning them all to make sure I could play them when people came over to have a look.
It was interesting because learning the levels suddenly became really good fun. So you could plan what you wanted to do. We realized that it was actually more fun when you knew the route and you could plan for it. Because we wanted it to be tough in terms of slamming a lot, it made more sense if you slammed a lot but you were like, “Alright, I’ll nail it this time because I know what’s coming.” So that was a big shift in terms of what we wanted the game to be. Once we changed to defined levels we originally wanted to keep the infinite mode in, but we just ran out of time and didn’t get to include that.
We would’ve love to have full leaderboards in there as well. We’ve had some feedback from people saying they wanted full leaderboards (you can see your score position in relation to who is number 1), and it seems like such a simple thing but it’s actually a complex task getting across the PlayStation Network compliance-wise. But having said that, we’re really happy with where we got the game in the time we had.
Ian: Currently OlliOlli is scheduled to appear exclusively on the PS Vita. Since hitting the market the Vita has gained a solid following of indie developers either via the PS Mobile initiative or through standard releases. Since the team at Roll7 could’ve released OlliOlli on other platforms, what do you think the main draw has been for indie developers when it comes to the Vita?
Tom: Well I mean Sony have obviously done a tremendous job at positioning themselves, in terms of consoles, as the home of indie I suppose. Some people may disagree with that, but they’ve done a good job positioning themselves and getting to know them personally they’ve really followed that mantra through – it’s not just something that they say. So that was really important to us and the fact that they were prepared to offer support and that they understood that we small studio, we don’t have the same resources as the bigger guys, and that we were going to need help along the way.
For example we were having serious issues with our audio engine half-way through the build; we were literally stuck. There’s a dev site for Sony where you can put problems up to get an answer and we couldn’t get to the bottom of it through that. So we just sent an email out saying, “Look guys, we’re stuck”, and one guy from Sony actually came out to the studio to visit. He ended up coming back three or four times and we gave him a Thanks in the credits of OlliOlli. So it’s that kind of support, and I’m not aware if it’s available on other platforms, but knowing that it was there with Sony was important for us.
In terms of PS Vita specifically, after our first iOS game in July 2012 we really wanted to move to console. The tough arcade games we wanted to make were more at home on the console since the players that play on the console are more accommodating for those types of games. Yeah, you can argue that there are hundreds of millions of people with iPhones and smartphones, but are they all hardcore gamers? Probably not as it’s only a small percentage. When the Vita opportunity came up it seemed like the perfect platform especially since we wanted to expand the trick set of the game. Obviously the Vita doesn’t have the extra triggers that the regular Dualshock has, but in a way that kind of worked for us since it meant we kept the game nice and simple. As you know, you just use the left stick, the Cross button, and the two shoulder buttons to spin. So it made us to keep it simple in a way. It’s also really good since it’s such a powerful machine that it allowed us to get some nice high-resolution images for the backgrounds.
We think it’s a great machine, I’m not just saying that because our game is on it, but it’s my console of choice at the moment since it suits my life-style. Having a kid it can be difficult having time to squeeze in some gaming at times, but if you can just sit down on the sofa and play for a bit it works out nicely.
Ian: OlliOlli’s home may be on the PS Vita right now, but is there any chance we could see the game follow in the steps of other games which have first appeared on the Vita first and then make the leap to the PlayStation 4?
Tom: At the moment I should say that it’s a PlayStation Vita exclusive, and Sony has given us this opportunity so we want to stay true to that. In the future with Sony’s blessing we would obviously like to see our game on the PS4 since it would be amazing. So we’ll see. There’s nothing in the pipeline at the moment, but we would love to do it.
Ian: On the bigger picture side of things, what has it been like to see the UK development scene change so much as it has in recent years? Certain aspects of the industry are still thriving there as evident by studios such as Media Molecule, but we’ve also seen a lot of studio closures over the years such as Realtime Worlds. Being a developer in the UK, are you somewhat skeptical of where things will be in the next few years or is your attitude more of an optimistic one since smaller new studios may begin to surface?
Tom: Interestingly enough when we first signed with Sony they had just shut down their Liverpool Studio which had around 2,000 people working for it at the time. So it was a bit of an odd time. It’s an odd one for us because as a small company we started in the tough times and I think it’s a bit easier if you start in the tough times because it’s not like you earned anything before. So we weren’t around six or seven years ago when there was lots of money flowing about to these new studios. So we didn’t come about with a load of overhead since we’re just a small team. So we were like, “Right, we don’t need much to survive so let’s see what we can do.” So that’s how we pushed forward.
I’m very positive of the future. We’re in London and FuturLab, who we know, is down in Brighton and there are so many studios down there at the moment doing cool stuff. There’s Pebble Studios as well which is home to a lot of creativity. The Develop Conference is down there as well so there’s a really good scene right now. It’s the same in London now too. There’s a London indie developers event that happens every month so it seems like a lot is going on. As you know Unity was just released on the Vita so that makes it even more accessible for smaller teams as well. .
Ian: As a small development team what sort of mantra does Roll7 want to adhere to in the future when it comes to the projects that are released? You’ve already done some rather diverse work already with stuff such as NeuroSky, and the rhythm action prototype you created, so can we expect the next Roll7 game to be a huge departure from what OlliOlli provides, or will the basic set-up of being fun and easy to play be the central goal of the studio?
Tom: With NeuroSky we were doing that to show off the tech since we were working with the company that made the headset. So that was a slightly different project for us in a way, but in terms of our own games I suppose they are diverse to a degree, but they all kind of carry a similar theme of we want to work around one or two strong mechanics that feel addictive to get into. So they’re easy to pick up, but you can then exploit those different mechanics in various ways. We’re also into arcade style games. We want the gameplay experience to be a few minutes, or in the case of OlliOlli twenty or thirty seconds, but there’s something about it that just compels you to press that Restart button.
We really like short and difficult bursts of gameplay that if you do it in one chunk you feel really good about yourself. A studio that we really aspire to is Vlambeer. That kind of style of gameplay is something we’re really into. Super Crate Box is a great game and it’s always intense. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’ve gone anywhere at all, but it’s immensely satisfying about that level of difficulty. That’s the level we want to get to; even though the player may be slamming and getting killed all the time they keep pressing the restart button and once that happens then we know that we’ve done our job.
Ian: OlliOlli is a game that I have a feeling will be in my Top 5 of 2014 list, but for you personally what element of the game do you enjoy the most?
Tom: I think first off that we actually got a console game released we are super chuffed about. We’re literally a few blokes in an office in one of the dodgier parts of London so to actually have something on the PlayStation is pretty amazing. If we had to drill down, I think the Daily Grind and seeing the feedback that has come out over the last week once writers and journalists have gotten ahold of it, we love the Daily Grind. Did you have a go on the Daily Grind yet?
Ian: Yeah I made a few attempts with scores I’m a bit too embarrassed to publicly say, but I really loved the concept of it and how it offers up a rather intense competitive edge to it either amongst friends or players around the globe.
Tom: When you look at skateboarding it’s all about risk and reward. So in your mind you might go for this ridiculous 360 and you can practice it over and over, yet when your mates come over you just slam. As I said the stuff we’ve seen so far is great. I think someone Tweeted, “OlliOlli is better than sex” and they included a picture of their high-score. Someone else Tweeted that they messed up their run of the Daily Grind and that there day was essentially ruined. So to see that we kind of created that tension, which is what we wanted to do, is brilliant. So I think that’s the thing I’m the most proud of.
If you’re a longtime fan of skateboarding games and you own a PlayStation Vita then I think OlliOlli will easily deliver the sort of game that you want. It may be different than what we’re used to seeing, but the craftsmanship behind the game and the approach that Roll7 has taken results in one of the most enjoyable games I’ve experienced.
Article originally posted on January 20, 2014