Interview with The Oliver Twins
As a lifelong Dizzy fan, I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip and Andrew Oliver AKA ‘The Oliver Twins’. The Oliver Twins where one of the biggest game developers in the 1980’s and continued through the 1990’s. They also where the successful founders of Interactive/Blitz studios and most recently Radiant World’s in which they produce and develop their current project, the excellent SkySaga.
Mark: What influenced you to start creating your own games, and at what age did you gain an interest for becoming developers?
In 1980 when we were just 13 we first became interested in video games as they were new and exciting, because you could interact with a television screen. Our first experience was seeing Space Invaders in a local supermarket. Our parent bought us an Interstate TV console, (a Pong clone ), for Christmas 1980 that we plugged into the family TV. A little later a friend’s father bought an Apple IIe and we would go round his house and play Tax-Man (a Pac-Man clone) for hours on end. Our older brother then bought a ZX81 and put it under the family TV and we loved programming it and trying to see what we could program. Sadly, it only had 1K of memory and black and white blocky graphics so we really couldn’t do that much with it – but it was still exciting and inspired us. We saved money to buy a Dragon 32 which has 32K of RAM, Colour graphics and a decent keyboard. We learnt to program BASIC pretty well on this and moved onto the faster BBC Micro Model B after this, where we were able to learn Assembler (machine code) which was much faster and allowed us to develop higher quality games.
Mark: Super Robin Hood and Ghost Hunters were both commercially successful games, but the Dizzy series is what I feel really made the Oliver Twins one of the biggest names in gaming. The big question has to be, how did you come up with the character and was ‘Dizzy’ always intended to be an egg wearing boxing attire?
Our first major success was with Super Robin Hood on Amstrad CPC and the first game published through CodeMasters. We were quick to follow this up with Ghost Hunters. Whilst I, Philip, was working on Ghost Hunters I was frustrated that I couldn’t define the head and face of the main character properly due to the restriction of 3×3 pixels and only 3 colours. I was working inside Panda Sprites, a utility we’d written to speed up creating animating sprites. My sprite limit for the whole character was 24×32 pixels – so I decided to draw a large face taking most of the space. It looking nice with large eye and a mouth, and I rounded it to an egg shape. In the space left around the sides I only had room for hands and boots and no body or limbs – so I added them in red – making the hand look like boxing gloves. I added some animation and he looked quite cute and very unique. It had been a distraction for a few hours and I went back to drawing the various animations required for Ghost Hunters.
Mark: Back when I first played Dizzy (my first game being Treasure Island Dizzy) I was blown away by the mix of puzzle and action! What inspired you to create the gameplay style of exploring for items?
A few months later, and after completing Ghost Hunters and Grand Prix Simulator we wanted to do another side of an arcade action game, but decided that this time it would be fun to use this funny little character we’d created earlier and put him in a fantasy adventure and borrowed the idea of inventory items for solving problems from games like Zork & Philosopher’s Quest that we’d played.
Mark: The items themselves usually aided Dizzy in his quest, but some were unusual decoys. Was there a story behind any of these unused items, or were they intended solely as decoys?
We often thought of more puzzles and more objects than we actually used. Then as we trimmed the design to fit everything into the memory, we’d end up with a few items left over. We could of thrown them away, but we thought it more interesting to leave them in as it added an extra level of mystery and curiosity in the game. Not every item would be useful – so you were never quite sure. In one game we did have a Red Herring – as I’m sure you can guess – it’s not useful!
Mark: The Dizzy landscapes are very unique! Despite the limitations of the 8bit home computers, the games always had a bright and colourful feel. Were system limitations taken into account when designing the games?
Our aim was to create amazing fantasy worlds full of awe and wonder, where as players moved to a new screen there was a moment of surprise and delight. But also new challenges and intrigue. Obviously memory was extremely tight and we have to design a system to enable this and we came up with a system of building up the scenery through the use of small generic sprites. Each screen took only 200-300 bytes of memory. (the same as a couple of tweets!). Games in the 8 bits days had to be designed around the computer’s limitations.
Mark: The music on all the Dizzy titles was very good, and years later I often find myself humming the various inplay tunes. Was a significant amount of game production time spent getting the music right and was there any influences when creating the music?
We spent very little time thinking about the music to the dizzy games. In fact probably a couple of hours at most. We would simply commission one of the leading computer musicians at the time either Jon Paul Eldridge (a friend), David Whittaker or Allister Brimble and ask them to produce the tunes and sound effects. They’d return these on cassette with instructions on how to tie them into our code.
Here’s our instructions to David Whittaker for the music for Fantasy World Dizzy (Dizzy 3)
Mark: From the drawing board to release how long did a Dizzy game take to design and program?
We challenged ourselves to try and complete every game a in about a month and that was to create both Amstrad and Spectrum versions. The Dizzy games fell into this time frame, maybe running over by a week or two at the most.
Here’s a map of Fantasy world Dizzy (Dizzy 3) –
Mark: What were the main challenges you faced with the series and did you find it difficult to successfully create the next game to ensure it matched the success of previous titles, particularly when moving on to the console versions?
It wasn’t that difficult to follow up each game, as whilst still working on the previous ones, there were always new ideas that we had wouldn’t fit into the current version, be they features or new puzzles, so we’d just put them on a list for the next game.
Mark: Did you always want to create more sequels?
We loved creating Dizzy games, in fact we love creating all games and we wanted to just carry on writing games, but as we moved from the 8-bit era and into the 90’s there were lots of financial difficulties which prevented us from doing so. More details in the book. (More information on the book at the bottom of this article, and a review will be soon here on Voletic.)
Andrew working on FW Dizzy in Sept 89 [you can see where Philip was sitting, before he got up to take a photo]
Mark: If you had to choose, which would you say is your favourite Dizzy title from a development point of view and also which do you prefer to play personally?
Fantasy World Dizzy – was a great experience, we were in our new house. The game came together really well in about 6 weeks and every day we worked on it – it was obvious it would be a number one best seller. It had the Yolkfolk, Dragons, additional lives and some great puzzles and story arcs.
We didn’t have time to play our games or other other people’s games, as we were too busy making games! We made 25 Amstrad games and 17 Spectrum games in that 5 year period – most of which became number 1 best sellers.
Here’s us working in ‘87
Mark: Dizzy has appeared on various home computers and consoles over the years. Which of the systems do you feel offered the ultimate Dizzy experience?
The Amstrad, Spectrum and C64 versions were the originals, but the technology was limited. A few years later we created Fantastic Dizzy for NES & we loved the NES. Whilst still 8 Bit – it had hardware Scrolling and Hardware Sprites – meaning the games were very slick in moving terms.
You can play them in a browser at www.Yolkfolk.com .
Mark: In recent years, Prince of the yolkfolk has been given a HD makeover for the Apple & Android market. We have also seen the release of all new Dizzy adventure titled ‘Wonderland Dizzy’. Are there plans to release more HD re-releases or new Dizzy titles?
In 2015 we released another NES Dizzy game – Wonderland Dizzy – It was a game written back in ‘92 but had never been released, you can play it in the browser here: www.WonderlandDizzy.com
Another Dizzy?… Never say never 😉
Mark: Are there any little known facts about the Dizzy games or their development that we can share with Voletic readers?
Um…Well, when we wrote the first one, we took it to Codemasters as a finished game, and they really weren’t that impressed with it. But, our previous game ‘Grand Prix Simulator’ was at #1 in the charts, and so they thought we might have gained a following, and put on the cover, ‘By The Oliver Twins, Authors of Grand Prix Simulator.’ (Also, I guess, the Darlings – who ran Codemasters, also didnt want us taking it around to other publishers, as we were producing good games quickly.) That really helped it, but it did struggle in the market place for some time. Dizzy was just a slow steady seller for about a year. But we liked it and wanted to improve on it, so made Treasure Island Dizzy, and that went straight to #1, it seemed everyone who had bought Dizzy over that year, all went out and bought the sequel immediately, and that success definitely secured it’s place for sequels.
Mark: Another prominent series attributed to your time with Codemasters was the ‘Simulator’ series. Was it a challenge to create these games which were all very different?
It was fun doing different style games. We didn’t want to get type cast, or bored by doing similar games. Grand Prix Simulator, was the first, followed by Pro Ski Simulator, Jet Bike Simulator, Pro BMX Simulator, Advanced Pinball Simulator, Grand Prix Simulator 2, BMX Simulator 2, Fruit Machine Simulator, Jet Ski simulator.
Mark: In the years following, as consoles replaced home computers and got more advanced. Was game production more difficult?
As we went to console, our team of 2 wasn’t enough and we started working with others like Peter Williamson on Fantastic Dizzy. But by 1992 we decided to get an office and start employing people.
Mark: After many successful years as Co-founder and CEO of Interactive/Blitz studio’s, you have founded Radiant Worlds and released SkySaga. Described as the game “The Oliver Twins always wanted to make”. What can players expect from SkySaga?
An amazing online, free to-play ‘sandbox’ game in which players get to go on fantastic adventures, battle in the arena and create and share amazing player created islands – all set in a fantasy world with infinite possibilities. It’s a grand and exciting vision and one we and the amazing team at Radiant Worlds will deliver on!
Mark: Following the success of SkySaga, what’s next for The Oliver Twins, is there any exclusive news you can give us here at Voletic?
We expect to be very busy on SkySaga for many years!
Mark: After over 30 years at the top of the gaming industry, what would you say are some of your proudest moments?
There are many – but I guess having a book written about our first 10 years being written was pretty awesome. It brilliantly captures so many rich details behind the scenes and preserves it. Being awarded Honorary Doctorates from Coventry University is pretty Special. We had an early Christmas present when Notch, creator of Minecraft, tweeted…
Mark: How do you feel gaming has changed over the years, both for the industry and the players? Do you think the modern landscape is better or worse than the one in the 1980’s?
What we were doing was small time, and considered nerdy and geeky in the 80’s. It was a cottage industry and not considered anything more than a hobby by most. The technology was extremely limiting and technical knowledge was hard to come by. We developed in isolation and our only feedback was via magazines months after development. Our target market was small, mostly kids in the UK. Now it’s very different, the technology is astounding. You don’t design around technical constraints, you design around target audiences and usability. Your target audience can be the world. You can iterate based on players realtime feedback and players metrics. With digital distribution, anything goes – from the small bizarre to epic worlds created by hundreds of people over many years.
Mark: Do you think Dizzy is uniquely British or could it have conceivably been developed elsewhere?
It was a product of the 80’s, of the home computers we had, and a love of fantasy worlds and adventure. We think he’s very British and we like to think of him as the video game character of the UK games industry of the 80’s.
Mark: Was there any point at which you considered leaving the games industry?
Since age 13 and seeing Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man – we were hooked. We never wanted to do anything else other than make video games! We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to follow our passion and our dreams, but don’t underestimate how hard it’s been at times!
Mark: Is gaming just work – or a hobby as well?
It’s our lives!
A big thanks to Philip & Andrew Oliver – AKA The Oliver Twins for taking part in this interview!
Check out their new book telling their story here, and look out for an upcoming review of the book right here on Voletic.
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