Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Blitz Games founders, and creators of the Dizzy series, Philip and Andrew Oliver.
The Oliver Twins got their start with computers in England in 1980 with a friend's father's Apple IIe. "We'd go round his house every day after school and play games late into the evening, often at the expense of homework," laughs Philip. "These were games like Zork, Taxman - which looked very similar to Pac Man - Choplifter and Night Mission Pinball. This led to our parents buying us a Binatone PONG machine to plug into the family TV in 1981."
Philip and Andrew moved into their own slice of home computing in 1981, after their older brother bought the recently released Sinclair ZX81. The twins immediately began attempting to program their own versions of games like Pong on the computer. "Back in those days all computers had manuals with type in listings," explains Philip. "We'd type them in to our ZX81, at first, then the Dragon 32 [home computer released in 1982] and modify them. We also raided the local library for copies of Popular Computing Weekly and tried typing all those games in too. Most were for the Apple or Commodore PET, but that didn't stop us trying to get them to work!"
The twins' programming hobby began slowly developing into a career in 1984, when the entered the Design a Game competition on the Jeremy Beadle hosted kids TV series The Saturday Show. "We were 'geeky kids' that liked computer games, a very rare breed, and when a national TV show announced a competition to make a computer game - we felt that was our calling!" Philip says. "Our entry was called Strategy, for the BBC Micro. Because we could only write BASIC we designed a slow 'board style' game that didn't require fast computing, so it did actually play okay. Obviously, we would really loved to have written an arcade action game, but we knew our limits!"
Philip recalls being "incredibly" surprised when the twins found out some time later that they had won the competition. "I remember feeling all faint when I answered the phone and they said, 'Hello this is Central Television'," he muses.
"The concept of being interviewed on national TV in a couple of days time was scary and exciting all at the same time!" he continues. "We managed to keep it a secret at school prior to it being aired, because we had no idea how it would go and we were so nervous - it was a live show too! It actually went ok, well, actually it was really embarrassing but we can laugh at it now. Most people at school caught it accidentally, so Monday morning was a strange experience!"
The twins walked away with a Commodore monitor for their troubles, which they note is still in use in their offices today. Additionally, as a result of the attention afforded to their work, Strategy was picked up by Acornsoft, the UK's leading publisher at the time, and released as Gambit.
"Because we won The Saturday Show competition, we got our first game published easily, that certainly gave us a good head start," says Philip. "The BBC contacted us to write a book on how to program computers, but when they learned our age that fell through, because we were not legally allowed to sign over our IP."
Despite that hurdle, the twins continued writing games, though Philip notes that they didn't see a career for themselves in the industry at that time. "The idea of making games as a career was not in our minds at all," he says. "In fact, I think the idea that anyone could have a career making games would have been inconceivable to almost everyone."
Philip suggests that the main problem faced by the twins at that point in time was in terms of graphical ability, noting that "thankfully, the computers were as poor at graphics as we were". In order to solve this problem, they began work on EasyArt, an art package that allowed the Olivers to see on-screen the graphics they were working on, giving them an easy way to develop graphics that were "good enough" at a time when "others were still on graph paper".
"Our ability in music and sound was non-existent, so I'm glad you didn't ask about that," he laughs.
After releasing war-sim Battlefields and object recognition title Telescope, the twins decided to attempt writing arcade-style games - not an easy task on the BBC Micro.
"Clearly, to get anything running fast you had to write Assembler Code - 6502 or Z80," explains Philip. "Books on the subject were rare, extremely expensive and so complex. They often tried to explain an instruction by showing you the electronic circuitry on the chip - like they thought that would help! There was no internet and no one to ask."
"The BBC Advanced User Guide had a brief introduction to Assembler so we trawled endlessly through that, it was well written but didn't go into any depth. Eventually we started hacking into the ROM of the BBC to try and understand what it was doing and also into several games. At least this info was free, but it was extremely hardcore, very difficult and very time consuming."
Their work paid off, with the brothers releasing Cavey, a Space Invaders inspired prehistoric shooter, through budget label Players in October of 1984. They continued working with Players, though sold EasyArt to British Telecom software division FireBird in late 1984. "We had to do a few publisher meetings during term time and had to write to the Head Master to allow us a day off school from time to time," recalls Philip. "One of these meetings led to FireBird buying 'EasyArt' for £2000! Wow, that was a lot of money for a couple of school kids. Funnily enough they never published it, so we rewrote it for the Amstrad CPC, and sold it to [Interceptor]."
By the time the twins had completed their high school A Levels in mid 1985, they had released another three games with Players, though the relationship had disintegrated after a dispute over the Olivers' pay for Killapede, which ended with the duo selling the game to a publisher named Powerhouse, who promptly went broke soon after.
While the duo believed they had a career in games open to them if they wanted it, it took a little more persuasion to convince their parents - who had hoped the twins would study at university the next year - of the same thing. "We made a deal with our parents that we'd 'take a year out' and see if we could 'make a go of it'," recalls Philip.
Things began to change for the Olivers in September of that year, when they met Richard and David Darling, who were in the process of setting up Codemasters, at the ECTS trade show in London. "Up until then we'd been paid a couple of hundred pounds per game. They said in the meeting that they'd pay us £10,000 if we wrote a game for them," says Philip. "We said we'd just started a game starring Robin Hood and they said they liked the sound of it. We rushed home to write a game as quickly as possible, before they changed their minds."
With the twins working on the game in 18 hour shifts, Codemasters was able to release Super Robin Hood for the Amstrad CPC in November of 1985. The game gained rave reviews, and quickly became a number one hit. "True to their words, our royalties did exceed £10,000," Philip recalls. "This is when we knew there was a good career possible in making video games."
The Trouble With Tape
The Olivers started work almost immediately on their next game for the system, Ghost Hunters, which was released in February of 1986. Soon after, they were sent a Sinclair Spectrum by the Darling brothers, and were asked to port the game, which caused more than a few headaches.
"Tape loading!!! ARGH!!! I'm only just getting over the nightmares!" Philip exclaims. "The Spectrum was cheap and sold very well, so it was a good computer to write games for commercially, but you had to save programs to tape which took ages and quite often you couldn't actually load them back again."
"We had come from the BBC Micro with a floppy disc drive and then moved to an Amstrad CPC 464 also with a disk drive," he continues. "We mostly solved the tape problem by wiring the Spectrum to the Amstrad and writing the games on the Amstrad and pumping the data through the cable, but when it came to mastering time we still had to get the game onto a tape!"
The duo continued working 18 hour days in order to develop their next title, Grand Prix Simulator for the Amstrad CPC. "Cars are cool; especially when you are 18 and just about able to get a driving licence!" Philip explains of the games origins. "Richard Darling had written BMX Simulator, a great top down bike racing game. We thought about doing the same kind of game only with cars. As we started work on it Atari released Super Sprint in the arcades. A month later our game on the Amstrad was in the shops, way before the official Super Sprint home computer versions were released, as a result we got a lot of good publicity and sales went ballistic."
The game sold in excess of 250,000 copies, at a time when a big seller in the UK would often only reach 100,000 units. "Sadly," muses Philip, "We had paid another coder to convert it to the Spectrum and he took six months. If that had come out at the same time our sales would have been five times greater! After this we did all our own Spectrum versions and always released them simultaneously."
Nonetheless, the Oliver Twins were soon billed in the press as the British gaming scene's "whiz kids", which positioned them well to begin work on their next game - a new IP that would target "8-12 year olds with a cute 'cartoony'" image.
"At that point, so many games were written by older gamers trying to write games to impress their friends," says Philip. "Either that or they were writing poor quality games for young kids as they felt the kids wouldn't notice the quality. A couple of character games had already come out, notably our Super Robin Hood that had done really well for that age group. So we thought about making a puzzle game, remember we'd started on Zork, but with a fantasy setting and with problems and puzzles that younger kids would find exciting, interesting and not too difficult."
"We based our characters and situations on classic fairy tales as a good basis for puzzles and settings as they are something almost all kids know. If you want to get to a castle in the sky it's obvious you'll need to plant a magic bean to grow a massive beanstalk to climb. And if you want a magic bean, you'll need to find a cow and take it to the market! It's simple, fun and imaginative and kids of four can solve these puzzles too!"
By June, the Olivers had completed the game, Dizzy, an adventure platformer billed as "The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure" that featured a heroic egg in the game's title role, simply because the shape proved easiest for the duo to animate and rotate. After a year of other titles that saw, at one point, five Olivers Twins-developed games in the national top ten, the brothers released Treasure Island Dizzy.
"The idea of series of games in those days was a pretty new concept," says Philip. "Pretty much all games were new every time. It actually took a while for the first Dizzy game to sell a decent number of copies as nobody really knew what it was going to be, but it sold well for a long time and the word of mouth was always very positive. As a result we wrote Treasure Island Dizzy and it immediately went to number one. We're convinced that everyone who bought the original Dizzy went on to buy Treasure Island Dizzy in the first week of release. Then we knew we had a huge repeatable success on our hands!"
The sequel eventually saw release on platforms other than the Amstrad, including the Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, PC and the NES. Philip notes that, although they had seen massive success with previous titles, the series came to represent the high point for the Olivers in the '80s. "Everybody remembers Dizzy, when we were creating those games we knew after the first that each would be huge," he says. "To this day, so many people fondly remember Dizzy. And because we created virtually everything in the first few, they really feel like ours!"
"Dizzy was successful in the UK, and in countries in Europe, but it had never been sold in America," adds Andrew. "We wrote what we believe was a very good Dizzy game for NES released through a small distributor called Camerica. It had great reviews and beat Zelda for Best NES Adventure in the leading gaming magazine at the time. Whilst we switched our focus to console development, Dizzy was still selling well. So we allowed another local developer to take over writing Dizzy games. Interestingly, most of those guys work for Blitz now."
The other titles kept coming from the duo, including 1987's Advanced Pinball Simulator, and a Pac Man clone starring Dizzy named Fast Food that took the brothers just over two weeks to finish. By the time the decade was closing out, the market was beginning to change, and Philip and Andrew realised they needed to change with it in order to keep up. Though they continued working with Codemasters until the end of the decade, the wheels were in motion for the duo to set up their own company, which would eventually happen in 1990, under the name Interactive Studios.
"We aimed to produce one game per month," explains Philip. "Our Amstrad and Spectrum games, over the first couple of years, were done in around this time, but when we started writing games for the NES things really slowed down. That's when we knew we couldn't keep doing all the work ourselves and had to start building a team. That's when we set up the company and started employing people."
"It was strange," he continues. "We had no idea how expensive things would be, and we made the mistake of assuming everyone we hired was as talented and driven to create games as we were. Sadly, our first recruits simply weren't and it took a while for us to get to grips with picking the right people at interviews and then giving them the right direction and motivation."
The early '90s proved a fruitful time for Interactive, as they continued outsourcing Dizzy titles for Codemasters, while developing a relationship with Acclaim and working on their own titles, like Judge Dredd for the Master System and Game Gear, and Marko's Magic Football for the Mega Drive. The latter also received a Sega CD port in the US, which gave the duo the technical knowledge necessary to work on ports of Bullfrog's Syndicate and Theme Park for the system.
Andrew notes that setting up Interactive had seen the brothers take a consistently smaller role in actual game development, commenting that Philip had begun to step back from the front line "pretty much as soon as we started employing people". After the company released WarGames for the PlayStation in 1998, Andrew also settled into a managerial role, becoming the company's Chief Technical Officer.
"WarGames was the last game I wrote," he says. "I was mainly responsible for the 3D graphics engine. we were around 60 people at that point. I wanted to keep my hand in and I'm very glad that I did because as C.T.O. now I have a much better understanding of the technology involved in 3D games."
The Blitz Shift
In 1999, the company became Blitz Games, and has stayed consistently busy since that time, working on major licenses like Pac-Man World 3, Chicken Run and Barbie Horse Adventures, as well as Fusion Frenzy for the Xbox, which Andrew describes as a "great game".
"Microsoft commissioned us to produce a party game for mature gamers," he explains. "Developed in only 9 months and the very first game to launch - I think we did an excellent game and it's one of my favourites to play with friends and family."
Andrew also notes that working on multiple titles at once has allowed Blitz to avoid some of the problems they faced in their first few years as Interactive. "After losing a lot of money in the early days as we found our feet, we felt we had to have at least 3 or 4 games in production at any one time, so if the publisher stopped paying for some reason, the staff would merely accelerate production on the other games in production," he says. "Our staff are our biggest asset and it's our job to respect them, look after them and provide fun and exciting projects for them."
"We have always tried to shield them from some of the harsh problems the industry has faced over the years so they can focus on producing great games and not worrying about looking for another job. We've had good times and bad, but our policy has always been to run a steady path through out, banking or re-investing profits from good times to see us through the bad times."
"There have been too many challenges to mention," he adds. "It's not always easy being an independent games developer - especially one that's never had external funding."
Nonetheless, he feels "extremely proud" of what the company has achieved. "We have an amazing portfolio of games," he comments. "We've worked on virtually every platform and with almost every publisher. Sadly we've never been lucky enough to have a break out hit, but we've consistently delivered above and beyond clients expectations and they've pretty much all sold very well. Seeing our games in the shops and in the charts still gives us a buzz, although we know we'll never be able to dominate the charts like we did in the Spectrum days."
Philip also admits some degree of nostalgia for the bedroom programming days of the '80s, recalling that "it was fun being able to just write what you liked without having to justify everything and getting bogged down in legal paperwork".
"We'd love to bring Dizzy back," adds Andrew, "but clearly everything would need a massive overhaul and the problem is that would cost a lot to develop. Then you have the problem that he'd be released into an extremely competitive market up against many major licenses that are extremely well known and popular - often from TV or films. So it's unlikely he'd return."
Burgers And Beyond
Recently, the company has developed three titles for Burger King - Sneak King, Big Bumpin', and Pocketbike Racer - which are currently being sold in the restaurants, and which Andrew describes as "a milestone in advertising funded games".
"We were talking to Microsoft about a sequel to Fuzion Frenzy for Xbox 360," he explains. "This conversation changed into one about Live Arcade mini-games and at the same time Burger King contacted Microsoft to produce some party games based on the Burger King characters for the Xbox 360. They were keen they games were high quality, great fun and produced to a tight timescale - something we've shown time and time again we can do. So we were commissioned to make three games starring their characters and to be sold at an amazingly low price in BK restaurants."
The four divisions that currently exist at Blitz have allowed the company to diversify enough to allow more offbeat jobs like the advertising games to be developed by their Blitz Arcade imprint alongside more traditional Blitz material under the regular company name, which Andrew classifies as "mass market, family orientated character action games often working with the licenses". Additionally, the company houses Volatile Games, which focuses on "mature games", like the recent Reservoir Dogs, and TruSim, who are "creating training games for large organisations".
As well as more games "in the pipeline intended for the 18+ gamers", Andrew notes that Blitz is also looking toward generating more original content. "Obviously it takes a brave publisher to back original games, but the rewards can be there for those who do," he says. "They are so expensive to make nowadays that it requires external funding as we're not about to bet our company on one."
Philip suggests that the best option for original IP from the company exists through the Blitz Arcade arm, noting that "the advent of electronic distribution systems such as Xbox Live Aracde" means "small, relatively cheap original games are possible again".
"Blitz Arcade is producing smaller games, primarily for electronic distribution and this gives us a better opportunity to inject real creativity and produce original games," says Andrew.
"We are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity and we intend to!" Philip enthuses.
With the future of the company seemingly very secure, the brothers also note that their own relationship is equally steady. "We've had very few fallings out and we've always worked very well together," muses Andrew. "All our game playing experiences, certainly in the early years, were always with the same games. So, when designing and writing games, we'd relate to one another very easily as we have had such similar experiences and reference points - certainly that's how it was in the early days."
"Although now, as the company has grown, Philip, as CEO, is more involved with managing the office, the support teams and external relationships and my role focuses on looking after the development teams, ensuring that we deliver the best games on schedule and budget. It's an even split and one we both feel very comfortable with. The important thing is there's a huge level of trust and we both know that the other would never have any other agenda other than just making great games!"