Game Developer Interview: The Oliver Twins
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Known primarily for producing that adventurous ovoid, Dizzy, Andrew and Philip Oliver have long held a deep love for video games and their development, starting all the way back with the famous arcade games of the late Seventies and early Eighties. We catch up with Philip to chat about the games and experiences that defined their career up to the creation of that famous egg.
Antstream Arcade: How did your interest with computers and programming begin?
Philip Oliver: Andrew and I were fascinated by early computer games such as Space Invaders and Pac Man and around 1980, when we were 12, played a lot of games on a friend’s Apple II. Our parents bought us a Binatone Pong game that plugged into the TV which was very heavily used, and a year later our older brother bought a ZX81, and we were absolutely hooked on it. We didn’t buy any games; instead we used the manual and programmed our own, starting with Pong-style games.
A: The ZX81 was a bit limited for games – you must have soon moved on?
PO: Yes, we quickly realised we wanted a computer with colour, more memory, speed and a real keyboard. In September ’82, we were able to buy a Dragon 32 after doing a paper round to raise the £200. It was a brilliant machine for the time, and great for learning to program on.
A: What was your first game?
PO: A type-in effort called Road Runner. We worked out how to scroll the screen and felt that the important feature of a listing was to be short, ideally with some neat coding tricks. Ours was to
procedurally generate the road, firstly so it was different each time, and secondly to save the user having to type in a lot of data and it saved on memory. We made it as friendly and efficient as possible, but we didn’t have a printer. So we had wrote the code and asked our mum to take it to work and type up so we could submit it to C&VG. She did this, but not being a coder, kept making small errors, so she ended up typing it up three or four times before we checked it over as error-free and sent it off. The £50 we got as payment we put towards a printer!
A: Why didn’t you just submit the code on tape?
PO: Someone said that months later. Doh! It would have saved the magazine having to type it too. We were young and naïve, so these things can happen.
A: Did you think you could be on to something here?
PO: We knew computers were the future and likened it to the early days of TV and pop music. There were lots of people saying it would never take off, and we always said it would overtake the film/TV and music industry as those mediums are linear whereas video games have no limits, and would improve as technology improved. Because many people just saw the 8-bit graphics on a Spectrum screen, we were mocked for this prediction. We said in the future games would look like movies, and you’ll be able to be the hero. Ten years later, Rare produced the massively successful Goldeneye, so not a bad prediction.
A: You won a submit-a-game competition and appeared on the Saturday Show – what was that experience like?
PO: The funny thing we did to make our submission stand out was to include a small pom-pom creature made from wool with a note attached: “Here’s one of the last bugs we removed”. I remember the call we had and the lady began by asking how old we were. We were only a week away from 16 and were worried because the competition was for up to 15-year olds. But we’d won first place and I remember coming over all faint as the lady said they wanted us to appear on TV that weekend and that they’d pay for us, our brother and parents to stay in a local hotel and appear on the show on Saturday! After the show itself, we were all invited up to the bar and chatted to everyone. I remember talking to Gary Numan, I hadn’t actually heard of him before, but realised when I saw the crowds outside that many other people had!
A: When did writing games start to become business?
PO: We received £2000 from Firebird in 1984, having just turned 17 and still at school. We promptly bought a car, but that together with the necessary computer equipment left us broke. However, in September 1986 we got our big break by meeting with Codemasters, who went on to sell a lot of our games for many years. Our first game for them was Super Robin Hood – I remember taking the cheque for £10,000 into our local Nationwide building society. We’d just finished sixth form a few months earlier, and had decided to start our own business rather than go to university. Our parents could see how dedicated we were but didn’t believe it would work. Dad said take a year out, and if you can earn more than me in a year then go for it. I don’t think we ever knew what we had to beat, but we earned about 100k between the two of us that year so we were fairly sure we cleared whatever the hurdle was. And our parents were incredibly proud of what we had achieved.
A: How did you meet The Darlings and Codemasters?
PO: We visited ECTS [an early trade show in London] and showed all the publishers our previously published games and a new game proposal – Super Robin Hood. There was this new publisher with a very small stand; it was Codemasters and Richard, David and their father Jim Darling were manning it. We showed them Super Robin Hood and they said they’d pay us £10,000. Our jaws dropped. We wrote the game and sent it to them, but the contract was for royalties – 10p a unit. When we questioned it they said ‘but we’ll sell over 100,000 copies – so that is £10,000 maybe even more’. The first print run was 20,000 so Andrew and I thought we’d be happy with £2,000, so let’s sign and see how it goes. It rapidly got to number one in the charts, sold over 100,000 copies and therefore did earn us 10 grand. The immediate impact was to do it again, and not sleep!
A: You were soon at work on your most famous IP – Dizzy. How did that come about?
PO: We loved cartoons and would stop coding for an hour at 4pm every day when they came on. Danger Mouse, Hong Kong Phooey, Scooby Doo, He-Man and Thundercats, and with the success of Robin Hood, we thought let’s create a cartoon character of our own, and a world for him to adventure in. We were writing Ghost Hunters at the time, part Scooby Doo, part Ghostbusters and were disappointed that the head of the character was only 3x3 pixels. Messing around, I said if we had a large head we could add expressions, so proceeded to draw a large head, before quickly realising I’d never be able to put a body on it. So we added the arm and legs directly to the head. We had the idea of making him bob up and down so you could easily see him and our animation accidentally and conveniently gave him the excited and energetic feel. Finally we added the spin jump while playing with a feature in our sprite program that calculated and generated new sprites from specified angles, and the land of adventure was inspired by the cartoons we watched, as well as books such as The Hobbit.
A: By the time of Dizzy’s release, your lives must have begun to change?
PO: The royalties were flowing fast by 1987. We bought a nice sporty car, and the following year a four-bedroom house. We even hired a cleaner! This enabled us to continue to work stupid hours – no distractions or other people! That was a massively productive time – no school, lots of money, and nothing but games. Some might have decided to party – we didn’t, we just worked stupid hours like hermits – but loved it!