Philip and Andrew Oliver have been making videogames since the early Eighties. After winning a competition on a now defunct children’s TV show, they moved into making their own games, and became most famous for the popular Dizzy series. After a successful relationship with Codemasters, the twins went their own way and formed Blitz Studios, which sadly closed down after 23 years.
To start off with, please tell us about Ivan and his Apple II.
Andrew Oliver: Right from junior school, Ivan was a good friend of ours and his dad was a computer programmer. When Apple first started making their early computers, you could buy these things in kit form and make them up. He brought home this brand new Apple II, and he knew exactly how it worked. He’d be working on it, but then he’d let his 12-year-old son Ivan play games on it. He had various games, copies of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, which had just come out in the arcade. People were just starting to copy them across, so this must have been about 1980 when we really got into playing games in the evenings.
Your website mentions how it took six months of paper-round labour before you could get your Dragon 32. That shows an amazing amount of focus for such a young age. Have you always been that driven?
AO: We were something like 13 or 14 and we got 50p pocket money each. In those days it was kind of reasonable, but the point is computers were something like £200 and we realised that it was going to take forever. So it was just a case of doing what we could to speed things up. We would bribe our mum and dad for money in return for washing the car or mowing the lawn. So, yeah, we picked up a paper round because the cash just wasn’t coming fast enough and we wanted our own computer.
Philip Oliver: Luckily, when we got halfway our parents paid the rest.
After getting your BBC, you entered and won a competition on The Saturday Show. Can you tell us a little about that?
PO: Well, it was a funny experience because we received this phone call one evening from someone who said ‘Hello, can I speak to Philip or Andrew?’ Before they had even introduced themself they asked me my age, because they knew we had entered the competition and that some people might lie about their age. They confirmed we’d won this national ‘design a game competition’, so they paid for us to go the studio in Birmingham. Our parents obviously took us there and we stayed at an all-expenses-paid family hotel. The Saturday Show was filmed live and was hosted by Jeremy Beadle, Isla Sinclair and Tommy Boyd, and they were people you really knew back then, and they really looked after us during the filming. The funniest thing, though, was that we didn’t have a video recorder back then, so sadly we don’t have that footage. On the next Monday, all of our friends were excitedly saying ‘You were on the telly! That’s amazing.
The brothers are proud of their work and have kept all sorts of clippings.
So, how did the two of you make games together? We’ve always had visions of the two of you fighting for control.
AO: Philip was the older one, and actually now, as we run our company he takes the more managerial role while I’m more technical. He would generally have the bigger idea and was always looking at the bigger plan while I just loved the hardcore coding. To be perfectly honest, our company was at 70-odd people and I was still coding games like Chicken Run on the PlayStation because I just didn’t want to let go.
You’d both switch shifts back in the day on your single computer in order to get work finished. That’s quite a regimented approach for someone so young.
PO: Yes, we were quite demanding of each other. We always wanted to program, not just for the sake of programming, but also to achieve a result. And the result was getting something published, which was just… wow! If I’ve just done two hours of coding, I wanted Andrew to do two hours of coding, too. We’d get to a point where we would each say ‘I’m going to work for a certain amount of time and now it’s your turn and I’m going to get some sleep.’
Being brothers, could you perhaps get that little bit more out of the other person?
AO: There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and actually if you look at all the software companies, particularly in the UK, they’re all brothers. It’s because there’s an element of competition, but there is also an element of collaboration.
PO: And also when you’re feeling down on your luck, you can’t go ‘Oh, just get lost’, because they’re, like, ‘Well, I live here.’ [Laughs.] It’s, like, ‘I ain’t going anywhere, and by the way, that computer’s half mine.’
Were your games made on the Amstrad then ported to the Spectrum originally?
AO: In the end we wrote some middleware. We wrote Super Robin Hood and paid somebody else to convert it onto the Spectrum and he took a long time. We created the whole of Ghost Hunters while he was still working on copying Super Robin Hood. We ended up writing a system that was compatible with both computers, so that when we ended up pressing ‘compile’ it would generate both versions.
An example of just of successful the twins were back in the day.
So would you say that the Amstrad was much better than both the Commodore 64 and Spectrum?
[Both start laughing.] PO: We were at school and people were either in the Spectrum camp or the Commodore camp. The funny thing is, it’s always been that way. Today it’s the Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft camps.
We’ll lay it on the line and admit that we were Amstrad boys, so we’re quite chuffed you worked on that machine over the others.
AO: I have to say that the Amstrad was slightly geekier, but it was without doubt a better machine. We really got on well with the Amstrad and there weren’t many people producing games for it, which was where we really excelled. Amstrad was certainly better than the Spectrum, but the Spectrum was more commercially successful, so we primarily designed it on the Amstrad then made them work on the Spectrum.
PO: Were we in the Commodore 64 camp? No, we weren’t. Should we have been? Probably.
How did your parents feel about your chosen profession?
AO: We have two older brothers and a sister and they had all gone to university, so it was assumed that we would, too. Even though there were programming courses at university, they were programming databases and mainframes and no graphics were involved, and we just had no interest in doing that. It was actually our head teacher who convinced our parents that we should take a year out and see if we could make a living out of making games. They probably thought we’d fail and get it out of our system.
PO: It didn’t work. [Laughs.]
AO: Before, when we were writing games, we had to go to school every day, so suddenly we had all day long and we met up with Richard and David Darling, who were just setting up Codemasters. We showed them some demos and they said ‘That looks really interesting. You could publish games through us. Go away and write a game and we’ll see how it goes.’
PO: I can remember asking them at ECTS [European Computer Trade Show]. ‘This Robin Hood game, what would you pay us for that?’ When they turned around and said £10,000, we nearly fell over ourselves. The most we’d ever got at that point was £200 and we would have snatched their hands off for just £500.
AO: A month after the game’s release, a cheque turned up for $10,000, and six months later we’d had about three number ones [Super Robin Hood, Ghost Hunters and Dizzy], so it was becoming pretty obvious that we weren’t going to go to university.
Why did your collaboration with Codemasters continue for so long? Did you see the Darling brothers as kindred spirits?
PO: They were good friends, who we respected.
AO: They were computer programmers who’d had a few very successful years and wanted to move into publishing, but they needed someone to write the games, which was where we came in. It was a mutual respect for each other. They tended to their part of publishing, organising and putting a portfolio together, while we wrote a lot of their games. We used to go on holiday together. We’d go skiing, jet skiing, quad biking and we’d enjoy camping trips together. We were mates.
PO: In fact, we even bought a speedboat together.
The twins received honorary Doctorates from Coventry University in 2008. Oh if you’re not sure, Philip is on the left and Andrew is on the right.
Codemasters was pretty much a success from the word go. Did you not think back then that you should be doing this?
PO: Definitely, when we look back at it now as business people. But back then we were just school-kid programmers who were thankful to have our games published. We put our heads down and we just worked stupid hours and we didn’t think about anything else and we were happy making games and getting well paid.
AO: We’re still making games now. We’re just making them in a different way. The money they were paying us and the fact that our games were selling really well made us just want to make more, better games.
What was the secret to your success back then?
AO: Hard work. We didn’t get anywhere without a lot of hard work.
PO: Definitely, and also thinking about the audience. We’d think ‘Right, we’re selling this on the Spectrum. What kind of person would buy this game?’ One of the things we did with Dizzy was ask ourselves who owns a Spectrum. Well, it’s eight- to 12-year-olds. There are a few girls in there as well, so what would they want? We always used to think of it from that point of view. We wrote games for our audience and not for ourselves, which many did back then.
AO: Therefore a lot of our games were quite different. It’s amazing. You go back to some of those games and they’ll kill you in 30 seconds because they’re just so hardcore.
What was it like working for the console market?
AO: The major difference was that it was a cartridge and a completely different business model. You were making a one-off master that had to be completely reliable as duplication was very expensive. So it was completely different from what we were used to. Our early games were very UK-centric, although they did get around Europe and I do remember having to translate games into French, German and Spanish.
PO: I remember trying to translate something into Japanese once on my own. That was hard work.
AO: The games going onto cartridges was a big deal. You couldn’t make mistakes. It had to be 100 per cent reliable and bug free.
So it was quite tough then?
PO: Definitely. There was such a pressure on the quality assurance and making sure it was right.
AO: We were pretty good on the Spectrum games, making sure they were bug free, but you could always replace duplicated cassettes if someone found a problem or complained, whereas cartridges (as with the CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays of today) you really have to get it right first time. Actually, it does worry me that the industry is starting to fall back into the: ‘Oh, it’s all right, we can patch it later’ mindset. I think it’s a really messy thing to do. I actually liked it when we went to cartridges and we had to be regimented and make sure it was perfect first time.
Notable Oliver Twins Games
Super Robin Hood
Advanced Pinball Simulator
You can read the rest of our interview with the Oliver twins in issue 66. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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