SAE speaks to Philip Oliver, one of the game developer twins who inspired the creator of Minecraft

05 Mar 2019

Philip and Andrew Oliver, known in the Games industry as the Oliver twins, are well-known game developers who won the Guiness World Record for ‘Most Prolific 8-bit videogame developers’ in 2018. This accolade reflects their phenomenal success with the Dizzy series, amongst other titles such as Grand Prix Simulator.

We spoke to Philip about the twins’ background as games developers and learnt more about their latest business venture, a new games consultancy firm called Game Dragons.

Andrew and Philip founded and ran the award-winning Blitz Games Studios for 23 years. In 2017 they sold their next business, the Leamington Spa studio, Radiant Worlds, to Rebellion for a multi-million pound sum. The brothers remained at Rebellion Warwick until recently. After the sale went through they supported the transition process. But as Rebellion manages games from their HQ in Oxford, the brothers saw that there wasn’t going to be a large amount for them to do going forwards. They realised that their passion and enthusiasm wasn’t making a big difference anymore so reached the conclusion that it was time to move on.

That’s where Game Dragons comes in. Their new consultancy firm will provide advice to help developer scaleups, to both investors and brand holders. They want to use their years of experience to help others to grow their businesses. The company has only been up and running for two weeks but Andrew has already secured a commercial deal.

This is not surprising as the brothers have over 35 years of experience in the games industry which makes them very knowledgeable advisors. They started developing games when they were just 12 years old. Philip said: “We were inspired by how magical it was to control pictures on the TV - you could turn it into fun and make games.”

When they first started out, there were concerns from their family about how financially viable it was to make games for a living. After finishing school, the brothers agreed that they would take a gap year, and if they made more money than their Dad that year then they would be allowed to pursue careers as game developers. This early wager clearly paid off, as at one point during the early ‘90s it was reported that over 15% of all UK games sales were attributable to the Oliver twins.

Although they studied computer studies, they didn’t have a large amount of support from their school; instead they used their home computer to write BASIC and over time taught themselves more complicated Assembler language.

The brothers feel that there is a lot that education providers can do to help the next generation of developers. Philip said: “There are a lot of skills to learn and it takes quite a lot of self discipline to knuckle down and learn those skills. If you are being inspired to learn these skills at school it helps. Art is very important, as is music and audio, although me and Andrew never understood that.”

   
 

"THERE ARE A LOT OF SKILLS TO LEARN AND IT TAKES QUITE A LOT OF SELF DISCIPLINE TO KNUCKLE DOWN AND LEARN THOSE SKILLS."

- PHILIP OLIVER, ACCLAIMED GAME DEVELOPER

   

 

Philip adds that paying attention in maths lessons is very important. When asked how schools, colleges and further education institutions can provide more effective support for the next generation of games developers, Philip said: “It’s not rocket science - you have to inspire people by making lessons in the classroom link to skills required for real world desirable careers!”

Philip said that so many people want to make video games for a living, but they need the right guidance. One of the benefits of no longer being full-time employees is that Philip and Andrew can go into more universities and give lectures.

Philip said: “Students are not always getting the right inspiration, direction and tools. The industry is moving at quite a pace, and for education to stay on top of these developments is actually very tough. Developers and studios owe it to society to try and help, rather than criticise, as this is not a responsible attitude. The more you bring education and industry closer together, the easier it is to close those gaps.”

One of the ways the brothers endeavour to close the gap between employers and educational institutions is through their partnership with the Games Education Summit 2019. This conference is set to take place in Sheffield from 15 - 16 April, and will enable more collaboration, dialogue and best practice sharing between education providers and industry experts. The conference will discuss course design and best practice, technology and latest trends, employability and apprenticeships as well as diversity and accessibility.

Another way the brothers will be helping aspiring games developers is by writing columns for GamesIndustry.biz that provide advice to startups, small studios and bigger studios about hiring and nurturing people, working alongside education providers and generally getting the most out of people. The article series will also cover all aspects of video game development and publishing.

Philip and Andrew are doing what they can to facilitate more conversations.

Luckily, Philip observes that there is already quite a helpful culture in the UK games industry, where most people are quite happy to talk to each other and support one another. He views it as a ‘Paying it Forward’ scheme whereby professionals give each other reciprocal advice. He said: “It’s important to remember we’re not in competition with each other - if I make you better it hasn’t hurt me at all. After all, our competition is the rest of the world.”

The UK games industry is enjoying enormous success; last year it generated £3.864 billion. A large contributor to this success was Rockstar Games’ Western action-adventure game, Red Dead Redemption 2. This studio has recently come under fire for accusations that it makes its employees work 100 hour weeks.

Philip is not impressed with the coverage the Rockstar Games ‘scandal’ has been given, he thinks that it has been vastly blown out of proportion by a journalist that has found one or two people that are hacked off after a long week at work. He doesn’t believe that Rockstar has exploited their employees, and understands that many of these people will have been paid to work voluntary overtime. He acknowledges that there may have been pressure on employees to work said overtime, but he says it’s hard to get things done on time otherwise. Philip said: “You have to put pressure on people to knuckle down. It’s hard graft and you don’t enjoy it much when you are in the trenches, but once you are out of the trenches and can see everyone enjoying the thing you have created it gets a lot better.”

Philip compares this pressure to exams, highlighting the fact that exams are the method by which, schools, colleges and universities encourage people to study harder. He uses his daughter’s education at Cambridge as an example. He recognises that at the time it can be tough going, but ultimately students will look back proud of what they have achieved and will be in a better career position as a result.

He points out that you don’t succeed without hard work. He scoffs at the memory of early interviews that talked about his and Andrew’s ‘rockstar lifestyle’, as he remembers it as anything but lavish; the twins worked 20 hour days for five years, seven days a week. He laughs as he reflects on the fact that they hired a cleaner to cook and clean for them so that they could spend that valuable extra time working. He even ponders what else they could have got done if online shopping had been around when they first started out as developers.

It certainly sounds like a career in the games industry is not for you unless you are prepared to work extremely hard, and occasionally make sacrifices in your personal life.

The hard graft will all be worth it in the end, though. Philip believes that those who worked on Red Star Redemption 2 will have this accolade on their CVs and portfolio for the rest of their life. Although he doesn’t think Rockstar Games has exploited its workers, he adds: “If employers are stupid enough to exploit talented people, then those employees absolutely could and should find new employers.”

One might think that the way to avoid being pressured to work long hours at a large corporate studio would be to start your own. But Philip is quick to caution aspiring games developers against starting their own business. Philip points out the fact that there is lots of competition from people with more experience and warns that 80% of your time will be spent on bureaucracy - chasing people, having meetings and following up payments.

He said: “Some people absolutely have a passion and want to do it on their own and to those people what I would say is you have an enormous amount of learning in front of you - you have to accept that a large portion of your time won’t be spent developing games.”

Philip says it is a lot easier to make games for a living if you work for an established studio because that is what you will be doing on a day to day basis. He says the most important key to getting in the door to these places is, above all else, passion.

Working for an established studio, especially smaller indie studios, is not without its challenges though.

The rise of free-to-play titles like Fortnite: Battle Royale is an interesting and dangerous market for independent studios to try to compete with. Philip said the mechanisms you have to code into these titles are very laborious, and you have to use analytics to constantly refine them. He said: “It is not very creative or fun to do this type of development.”

But, overall, he does think the rise of free-to-play titles is a good thing for the Games industry. He compares Fortnite to the effect the Harry Potter series had on the literary world - sure, you may have a short term effect on the rest of the games industry, whereby gamers don’t play or buy anything else, but in the long term they will be looking for similar products. Crucially, though, these titles are contributing to more people playing games than ever before.

The makers of Fortnite, Epic Games, are sponsoring GamesDE19.

Philip said: “I like to think that the people who have these massive hits will double down and make a lot more great games, which is great for employment and also entertainment. But it is also important for them to invest in the next generation of developers, whether that’s sponsoring people, offering internships or engaging with universities.”

Free-to-play titles combine with speculation that Google’s Keynote Presentation at the Game Development Conference on 19 March could see the launch of a Google console/streaming platform to suggest that there could be big changes on the horizon for the industry. Philip and Andrew were one of the first to get behind PlayStation, so we were keen to hear his thoughts on the future of streaming.

Philip said that streaming tech is phenomenally important to the future of the games industry - the main reason being that when you buy a game, the download times are phenomenal, and will only keep getting bigger because games are getting larger and larger. He added that software updates are a major hassle because they stop you getting at the fun.

He is briefly sidetracked by talking about how cars will soon have software updates too. He tells me that Andrew has two Teslas, having got his first Self Drive Tesla Model S car four years ago. From the way he gushes about his own electric Jaguar, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Philip and Andrew are men who seriously like their machines.

He adds that a move towards streaming is convenient for the customer and the publisher, as the consumer won’t have to wait to get a game delivered via Amazon or go to a shop, and the publisher won’t have anyone else taking money out of the value chain. Furthermore, updates can happen without inconveniencing customers. He compares the model to Netflix, which he feels is a far more streamlined user experience than going to Blockbuster and struggling to find a film the whole family a) actually wants to watch and b) hasn’t seen before.

Philip highlights that it is very expensive to put infrastructure in place for widespread streaming, but every year that goes by it gets easier. He said: “At first only the richest companies can afford to play at this game, but it is obvious, natural and a way of things to come.”

Talking to Philip was certainly an insightful and positive exploration of how education and industry can continue to work together to get the best out of each other. We hope to see Philip and Andrew at SAE in the future.

In the meantime, follow the twins on Twitter to see their latest projects and be the first to read their articles for GamesIndustry.biz.

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