The Mak­ing Of…

Roll7 re­veals the tricks and tum­bles be­hind the cre­ation of slick 2D skat­ing game Ol­li­Olli

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED­WARD SMITH For­mat PC, PS3, PS4, Vita Pub­lisher Roll7, De­volver Dig­i­tal De­vel­oper Roll7 Ori­gin UK De­but 2014

John Rib­bins had a lot on his mind in 2012. Rolling Sound, a me­dia train­ing company he’d co-man­aged, had just been shut down after fund­ing cuts by the Con­ser­va­tive-led coali­tion gov­ern­ment. All 100 em­ploy­ees there had lost their jobs and the stress of it had driven Si­mon Ben­nett, Rib­bins’ friend and Rolling Sound’s founder, out of the coun­try in an at­tempt to re­cu­per­ate.

On top of that, the pair’s still-on­go­ing ven­ture, a game stu­dio based in London’s New Cross Gate, was in trou­ble. Roll7 had started in 2008 after Dead Ends, a game about knife crime over­seen by Rib­bins at Rolling Sound, had proved a suc­cess. Now, four years later, it was sur­viv­ing on free­lance pro­gram­ming work and a few ed­u­ca­tional projects for univer­si­ties. Roll7 was stay­ing afloat, but it wasn’t the de­vel­oper Rib­bins, Ben­nett or fi­nal co-founder Thomas He­garty had dreamed of. They’d put out one other game, iOS plat­former Gets To The Exit, but it was hardly the break­out hit Roll7 needed. With money run­ning out, Rib­bins showed up at De­velop in Brighton to try to drum up support.

“The idea was to turn up with an iPad and Gets To The Exit, and try to get it in front of as many peo­ple from the press as pos­si­ble,” Rib­bins says. “But it wasn’t very suc­cess­ful. We didn’t even have a stand.

“By this point, as well as Gets To The Exit, we’d done a lot of other projects for mar­ket­ing agen­cies and places like that. We’d learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t, and we knew we couldn’t just make some­thing and hope that it would pay for it­self. We were try­ing to save up a buf­fer. But the gun-for-hire stuff was re­ally start­ing to suck.”

Un­der­stand­ably stressed, Rib­bins hit the bar on the clos­ing night of De­velop. There he bumped into James Mars­den, an in­de­pen­dent de­vel­oper who’d re­cently launched Co­conut

Dodge for PS3. After shar­ing a few beers, Rib­bins took out his iPhone. He had a pro­to­type skat­ing game that he wanted to show off.

“At the time, it was a su­per-ba­sic three-pixel game I’d made for iOS,” Rib­bins says. “James looked like a skater, so I thought he could try it out. After play­ing for a while, he told me I should show it to Sony. We were both drunk by now, so I just nod­ded along – like, ‘Yeah, sure, ab­so­lutely,’ not ex­pect­ing any­thing to come of it. But he emailed me the next day and in­tro­duced me to Shahid [Ahmad, business de­vel­op­ment man­ager at Sony].

“We set up a meet­ing and showed Shahid what we were work­ing on. I got a kick un­der the ta­ble from Tom to show this skat­ing game, which back then was called Ol­liOl­liOlli, and Shahid played it for about 20 min­utes straight with­out even talk­ing to us. He put the iPad down and

“IT’S DIF­FI­CULT WHEN SOME­ONE LOOKS AT SOME­THING THAT’S TAKEN YOU HOURS TO CODE AND JUST TELLS YOU IT’S SHIT”

asked if we’d want to bring it to Vita.”

By now, Ben­nett had re­turned to the UK and was ready to get back to work. With in­vest­ment from Sony se­cured, he de­cided Roll7 would drop its other de­vel­op­ment projects to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on what was now dubbed Ol­li­Olli.

“When I came back, the company was still work­ing on some other projects us­ing the cap­i­tal we’d saved up,” Ben­nett says. “I told them that mak­ing a game for Sony was the big­gest op­por­tu­nity we were ever go­ing to have, so we shut down all our other ef­forts and put ev­ery­thing into Ol­li­Olli. At least that way, if it went wrong, we could say we gave it our all.”

Sony, how­ever, wanted to re­main hands-off dur­ing Ol­li­Olli’s de­vel­op­ment. Ahmad had pre­vi­ously brought Thomas Was Alone, Hot­line

Mi­ami and Lone Sur­vivor to PlaySta­tion, and was spear­head­ing a push for cre­ative, new and, cru­cially, in­de­pen­dently made ti­tles.

“We had this one fea­ture we wanted to get rid of, some mu­sic-linked game-edit­ing mode,” Rib­bins says. “So we went to Sony and I spent about half an hour talk­ing, non­stop, try­ing to jus­tify bin­ning this thing. When I’d fin­ished, Shahid just said, ‘I’ll be hon­est, you had me at the first sen­tence. I just wanted to see how long you’d talk for.’ Sony al­ways in­sisted that this was our game, and we could do what we liked.”

Sony left Roll7 to its own de­vices, and with a lot of de­ci­sions to make. “When we re­alised we’d been given so much trust and con­trol, it was kind of a wow mo­ment,” says Ben­nett. “How­ever, that quickly turned into ‘Oh, shit,’ be­cause now there was no one guid­ing us.”

Roll7 had be­come used to build­ing games based on oth­ers’ spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Now, it was shoul­der­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing a ti­tle of its own imag­in­ing, to be sold on one of the big­gest la­bels in the in­dus­try. The ini­tial months were es­pe­cially pres­sured for Ben­nett.

“Ev­ery mile­stone meet­ing we turned up to, we knew there were some re­quire­ments for that mile­stone that hadn’t been met,” he says. “Plus, we’d de­cided to build our own en­gine, which meant that, for a long time, un­less you know a lot about cod­ing, there wasn’t a lot to see. There’d be big dead­lines com­ing up and we wouldn’t have any­thing to show. It made me think we weren’t ever go­ing to get it fin­ished.”

Sony might have been hands-off but it did of­fer support. Roll7 had ac­cess to its test­ing depart­ment and picked up a lot of feed­back, par­tic­u­larly about Ol­li­Olli’s dif­fi­culty. “Sony’s tester couldn’t play our orig­i­nal ver­sion,” Ben­nett says. “There was one meet­ing with Shahid where we were dis­cussing the game while this guy just sat in the cor­ner say­ing, ‘Fuck! Fuck it!’ over and over. The game def­i­nitely would have been harder – too hard – with­out Sony’s in­put.”

Ol­li­Olli also had to pass Sony’s tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments check­list, a cat­a­logue of rules and stan­dards that had to be met be­fore the game could launch. “It was so in­tim­i­dat­ing,” Ben­nett says. “It was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure we passed it, but I knew all th­ese sto­ries about even big stu­dios that hadn’t [made it] through. I felt way out of my depth. For­tu­nately, Spencer [Low, pro­ducer at Sony] was very for­giv­ing.”

Still, de­vel­op­ment on Ol­li­Olli was pro­gress­ing slowly. Work­ing along­side se­nior pro­gram­mer Nikos As­fis, Rib­bins was strug­gling to get the en­gine to ren­der on Vita. He’d

de­signed the back­ground tiles for the first level, but trans­fer­ring them to the screen was dif­fi­cult. Roll7 had com­mit­ted to Ol­li­Olli at the be­gin­ning of Fe­bru­ary, 2013. By the end of March, the stu­dio had ren­dered just one part of the game: the top-left-hand cor­ner of the first level’s back­ground.

“I re­mem­ber the point that that hap­pened,” Rib­bins says. “I was in the of­fice with Niko at about 1am, and we were singing and danc­ing be­cause we’d fi­nally ren­dered this grey square. The next morn­ing Si­mon and Tom came in and un­der­stand­ably weren’t quite as ec­static as we were. We’d got some­thing to ren­der, but this was about two weeks be­fore we had to go and show Sony a work­ing game.”

Roll7 had a lot to do. Ben­nett was cut­ting deals with the mu­si­cians who’d pro­vide the sound­track while Rib­bins worked on art and de­sign and As­fis con­tin­ued to pro­gram. That core team, plus He­garty, was ex­tended by free­lancers, who’d come and go when­ever Ol­li­Olli needed art­work or im­prove­ments to its in­ter­face. It was gru­elling, which be­gan to take its toll on Rib­bins’ and Ben­nett’s re­la­tion­ship. “It felt like one long ar­gu­ment be­tween John and I,” Ben­nett says.”I had a break­down about half­way through, be­cause I never thought we’d fin­ish the game.

“It’s dif­fi­cult when some­one comes, looks at some­thing that’s taken you eight hours to code, and just tells you it’s shit,” Rib­bins says. “What caused the most ar­gu­ments was work­ing out

Ol­li­Olli’s metagame: de­cid­ing how peo­ple would progress through lev­els and how we’d en­sure they knew enough about a me­chanic be­fore mov­ing on. Orig­i­nally we had this idea that play­ers would be­gin with no tricks ex­cept an ol­lie and would learn more as they pro­gressed. But to test the game, we had to throw all the tricks in to see how they worked, and we had so much fun play­ing it that way that it seemed wrong to force peo­ple to go for ten hours be­fore they’d un­lock [them]. So we had to have a re­think. Things like this were al­ways a bone of con­tention.” Come sum­mer, Rib­bins was hard at work on

Ol­li­Olli’s an­i­ma­tion. A skater him­self, he could draw the sim­pler tricks, like kick­flips and shu­vits, from mem­ory. But the rest re­quired some re­search.

“I found an amaz­ing YouTube chan­nel where this guy had filmed ev­ery skate­board trick in 10,000-frames-per-sec­ond slow mo­tion,” Rib­bins says.” They’d even filmed it from this side-on an­gle, so it was ba­si­cally in the view that we used for Ol­li­Olli. A lot of work was es­sen­tially ro­to­scop­ing that down to our character. I’d start by map­ping ev­ery trick an­i­ma­tion onto a pixel stick­man and then I’d es­sen­tially trace over that in the more de­tailed art style.”

It was a long process, be­cause Rib­bins’ en­thu­si­asm for the sub­ject meant he wanted to en­sure the de­tails were spot on. “It was im­por­tant to me was that if you did a 180 spin and landed it, you’d then be rid­ing back­wards,” he says. “That was some­thing we hadn’t seen be­fore in other 2D skate­board­ing games, though we quickly re­alised why. If you want to have your skater fac­ing the other way, you have to go back and re­draw all his an­i­ma­tions so his back is to the screen. We ended up hav­ing to make some­thing like 7,000 frames of an­i­ma­tion. But as a skater, I wanted a 360 flip to look like a 360 flip.”

While Rib­bins fi­nalised the an­i­ma­tion, Ben­nett hit the cam­paign trail. He flew to LA for E3 and de­moed the game to whomever he could. Some got it, oth­ers didn’t, and Ben­nett was still feel­ing shaky. “I wasn’t in the best place,” he says. “We were at the Sony stand, with just this one Vita, ba­si­cally show­ing the game to any­one who came past. I think we met with about five jour­nal­ists and although some picked it up, oth­ers just didn’t take to it. So when I got back to London we had this big meet­ing and tore the game apart, spent about three months dis­man­tling it and test­ing it over and over. Even so, we’d kind of set­tled on the idea that it was go­ing to get slated and not do well. We thought it would be the end of the company.”

After a few fin­ish­ing touches from Rib­bins, like a lit­tle green bar un­der the board that would in­di­cate a per­fect grind, Ol­li­Olli was ready to go. It launched in Jan­uary, 2014. Ben­nett couldn’t be­lieve the re­cep­tion.

“For about two weeks I’d get up and open Twit­ter and it was just like a dream,” he says. “I couldn’t un­der­stand how this thing that peo­ple hadn’t re­ally taken to just a few months be­fore was now get­ting all this love. It had been the worst nine months of my work­ing ca­reer. By the end, my friend­ship was John was pretty much in tat­ters. It was only be­cause Ol­li­Olli had be­come such a huge suc­cess that we were able to sort of hug each other and cry.”

Roll7 threw a party and in­vited ev­ery­one along who’d worked on the game. John Rib­bins once again found him­self at a bar, think­ing about Ol­li­Olli. But he’d come a long way since De­velop in 2012, and so had Roll7. After a few hours of drink­ing and play­ing Nid­hogg, which had also re­leased that month, Tom He­garty checked his phone. “He looked up and shouted, ‘We’ve won Gamespot game of the month!” Ben­nett ex­plains. “It was the in­au­gu­ral award, and we’d won. It felt like fate, be­cause it just so hap­pened we were all to­gether right at that mo­ment. We or­dered some tequila. There were tears. It was over­whelm­ing.

“Peo­ple who don’t know Roll7 might think we just came out from nowhere. But we’ve paid our dues. We’ve worked our balls off mak­ing games and do­ing jobs for other peo­ple, and it’s been a very long road.”

Orig­i­nally, the idea was the trick list in Ol­li­Olli would be un­locked grad­u­ally, and play­ers started with a ba­sic jump

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