Words by Jack Clayton
In the playground of sports videogames, there's a couple of top dogs who, given half a chance, would happily punch you in the face and steal your lunch money.
The studios behind football games like FIFA, and war games like Call Of Duty, ride around town on their cashcows every year, making grand statements about "...improved goalkeeper animation..." and "...gaping bullet holes...", before milking them dry and starting the process all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Introducing Roll 7; the makers of BAFTA-winning skateboarding game 'OlliOlli' and it's critically-acclaimed sequel 'OlliOlli 2: Welcome To Olliwood'
It's always nice then when a little guy, let's call him David, rises up against the odds and knocks out one of these videogame Goliaths with only a slingshot and a handful of pebbles. Introducing Roll 7; the makers of BAFTA-winning skateboarding game 'OlliOlli' and it's critically-acclaimed sequel 'OlliOlli 2: Welcome To Olliwood'
You might not have heard of them, but earlier this year Roll 7 beat EA Sports' gargantuan ladfest 'FIFA 2015' to win Best Sport Game at the BAFTAs. We headed down to their office in New Cross, South East London, to chat with company director Tom Hegarty (pictured, above right) about success, skateboarding, meeting Linford Christie, and their future plans for action-sport spin-offs.
With the beaming look of a champion etched upon his face, it would seem, on first impression at least, that Hegarty is still coming to terms with the BAFTA win.
"That was crazy. We genuinely didn't think we'd win, at all, to the point where we didn't write a speech until we were actually sat in the ceremony. John Ribbins, the other Roll 7 director, got his phone out and typed the whole thing up on there, just in case. Linford Christie came on stage to present it, and said our names. The whole thing was really surreal."
It was completely pitch black so, of course, I managed to fall straight into the pit.
At this stage Mpora needs to know, because Mpora is extremely childish, whether Roll 7 challenged British sprinting legend Christie to a race round the car park.
"No, but he (Christie) did offer to sort us out a lawyer. Whoever did the stage at the BAFTAs decided to build a moat between where the screen was, and where the stage was. It was completely pitch black so, of course, I managed to fall straight into the pit."
They may have dodged the opportunity to don their running shoes, and take on a man who once ran 100 metres in 9.87 seconds, but when it came to celebrating their BAFTA win, the boys certainly didn't leave anything on the track.
"Yeah, it was pretty much an all-nighter. It was on a Thursday, and I don't think I sobered up until about Sunday evening. I haven't been that drunk since University."
"We ended up going right to the top of The Shard. I think we rocked up there in our tuxedos at about 3 o'clock in the morning. They probably thought "Who the hell are these bellends?" They charged us like £35 just to sit there. Honestly though, I think we did it well. It's very likely that will never happen again, so we had to go all out."
If you think Roll 7 are all late-night parties, and no work, think again. As you'd expect, the research and development phase for an award-winning skateboarding game like 'OlliOlli' is a long and arduous one.
"YouTube is the place where loads of skaters put their super slow-mo tricks up. So we were painstakingly watching those, literally frame after frame. Those videos are incredible. You obviously know the tricks are incredibly technical, but when you see them slowed down and actually watch the way the weight moves on the board it's...insane.
A lot of people ask us "Where's the jump button?" but, you know, you don't jump when skateboarding.
"We actually did a lot more of this for 'OlliOlli 2', because one of these things we wanted to do for the sequel was make the different tricks a lot clearer. The feedback we got on the first 'OlliOlli' was that people were just wangin' the stick around."
"They weren't quite sure how their input was making any difference. So we wanted to give you, the player, the feeling that success depended on how tactile you were with the stick. We analysed videos for every trick in the game."
Moving on from the lengthy research that went into the game, we began discussing with Tom the games' innovative control system (thumbs = feet and body).
"The idea was that the left thumb is meant to be your feet on the board, and the X button is meant to be, you know, stomping your landing! A lot of people ask us "Where's the jump button?" but, you know, you don't jump when skateboarding."
"The way we developed the left stick was very much based on how you prepare your body. So, you know, pull it down...get into position and then different movements of the stick would determine how you rotate your body or move your legs to do different tricks."
Speaking from personal experience, Mpora can confirm that ‘OlliOlli 2: Welcome To Olliwood’ is one seriously addictive mothertrucker. We asked Tom what he thought it was about the games that make them so damn addictive.
"Quick reloads are definitely a part of it, but we wanted to make sure that when you slam, when you fall, you know it's your fault. Because there's nothing worse than playing a game and feeling like you've been cheated or something took you by your surprise. Pressing X just before you land isn't intuitive. It's something you have to learn, kind of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Once you get the flow it feels really satisfying."
"On top of that, we think the music has really helped. We get a lot of people saying that the soundtrack really helps with the vibe of the game. When we started, the game had more of a classic punk rock soundtrack. We realised that it just didn't work because the game is already a really intense experience. Punk rock disturbed the flow, and if you're slamming on a level 50 times which isn't uncommon, you want a nice chilled vibe to accompany that."
Just like every action sport ever conceived, every video game in creation has a wealth of influences that makeup it’s DNA. ‘OlliOlli 2’, for example, has been compared to the speedy, blue-haired, legend Sonic The Hedgehog. We asked Tom about such comparisons, and whether this was an intentional part of the game’s development.
“The Sonic comments are really interesting, because it wasn't until very late in the development when we introduced the curvy terrain into the sequel. That we started to get the type of flow like Sonic The Hedgehog."
"Our level designer said if anyone says 'It's like Sonic The Hedgehog', he'll be really, really pleased and '...go happy to his grave'. So, it's good that you've said that. Those Sonic comparisons came out of how we designed the levels."
"John (Ribbins), when he was about 14 actually came up with the idea for the original 'OlliOlli', and it took him about another 14 to 15 years to do anything about it. But he'd always wanted to do this 2D style skateboarding game because those side-scrollers, like Sonic The Hedgehog, were the kind of games we were playing in, you know, the early to mid 90s."
Those Sonic comparisons came out of how we designed the levels.
With two hugely successful skateboarding games already under their belt, we were eager to know whether Roll 7 had any plans to complete the trilogy by making an ‘OlliOlli 3’.
"Not at the moment, but not because we don’t want to do it. Just because, well we’ve got ‘Not A Hero’ which we’re finishing up at the moment. In all honesty, the last two and half years have been really hectic so I think we’re going to have to take some time to work out what we’re doing next."
“In regards to an ‘OlliOlli 3, it’s interesting because ‘OlliOlli 2 was the kind of game we wanted to make originally but one that we didn’t necessarily know how to do initially. By making ‘OlliOlli 1’, we realised that ‘Oh, we can do X, Y, and Z.' We then brought that knowledge into the 'OlliOlli 2' development. So if we did OlliOlli 3, we’d have to consider what we could add to improve the experience."
“Another thing to consider is that the game moves really fast, and there’s only so much mental bandwidth you can expect the player to provide. If you add too much stuff, it will get to the point where you’re asking players to press things all the time."
"Our concern there would be that the game would start to lose it’s flow. Saying that, there are other areas we could go into. We’re just about to launch the local multiplayer, and we’d love to do online multiplayer. We’ve also got a cool idea for a halfpipe, infinity, mode."
It would seem then that, for the time being at least, 'OlliOlli 3' is very much a sequel idea rather than a full-steam ahead project. Tom did hint, however, that Roll 7 might have some other action-sport based titles up their talented, game devvin', sleeves.
"Well, 'BikeyBikey' is something we've discussed. I did used to BMX, when I was kid, so I would love to do something based on that. I think snowboarding though, is the one where the control system would lend itself best to the mechanics we have already. Especially now we've introduced curved terrains, and kickers, into the skateboarding world of 'OlliOlli'. I think snowboarding would be a natural fit."
Of course, it would have been rude of Mpora to leave the offices that gave birth to the most succesful skateboarding game in years without getting the lowdown on whether these guys' can skate.
"Myself and the other guys who run the studio (John Ribbins and Simon Bennett) all skateboarded in the past to various degrees of success. I'm the worst by a long way. I'm quite good at some sports, but skateboarding I could never get down."
"I can get on a board, and go, but as soon as I start trying tricks it all goes wrong. I'm 34 now, so even if I land properly there's always a danger that something might snap, somewhere."
"I used to hang round the Southbank many years ago, and a lot of my friends were very good. John (Ribbins) was actually sponsored in his youth by Route One clothing, so he really kind of knew his stuff."
"On the day 'OlliOlli 2' came out and we got the reviews we all went outside to try some stuff. John was poppin' some good tricks, where as I just kept falling on my arse."
And, so, here endeth the interview. After our chat, Tom invited me to try out the new 'OlliOlli 2' multiplayer mode. I confess that I probably overstayed my welcome a bit here, but let that stand as a testament to the excellence and addictiveness of this great little update.
Players will soon have the chance to take on their mates in a variety of seriously fun modes (including Race, One Spot and Points). If this all sounds like your kind of thing, and why wouldn't it, this 2 to 4 player mode should be out sometime in the next month.
All in all, the Roll 7 lads seem like a top bunch. They came together with a vision for a deceptively-simple looking skateboarding game, rose up against all the odds, and pooped all over the FIFA parade. Seeing where they go from here, and whether they can top the BAFTA success of 'OlliOlli', will certainly be a journey worth following.