All photographs in this article are the property of Philip and Andrew Oliver and are used with their kind permission.
The Oliver Twins are simply synonymous with the home computing revolution of the 80’s and 90’s.
Born in Liverpool in 1967, they grew up with a passion for the futuristic world that they saw in the tv shows and cinema releases of the day. Starting out on a ZX81 and working towards new computers by doing paper rounds and using birthday money, they soon became hooked on programming games and tools on a variety of systems. When they couldn’t find what they wanted or needed, they would work on creating it themselves. Initially, their programs were featured on magazine pages for others to type out, but soon they were winning competitions and getting noticed by others in the industry. They gradually learned code that was increasingly sophisticated in order to produce better results on a greater variety of machines. This gave them the ability to create the same game for multiple formats. There are so many titles that it would be impossible to list them all here, but memorable ones included ‘Dizzy’, ‘Grand Prix Simulator’, ‘Robin Hood’ and the art tool, ‘EasyArt’.
Before they were even 18 years old, they had critically acclaimed releases in several genres and decided to scrap the idea of university and become full-time developers. The road wasn’t always easy with legal wrangling and issues with getting paid in a timely fashion. However, they are now credited with some of the most popular titles of the home computer age and worked with porting titles during the console boom too.
I interviewed Philip and Andrew to find out about the history of their computer creations and to see what they think of the industry as it stands today.
Orange Bison – On a personal note, my dad is an identical twin and always begrudged the identical dressing and being the ‘and’ of the pair. They also worked for the same companies and in the same profession in the past. Have you ever struggled to stamp your own identity when you work so closely in the same professional field?
Oliver Twins – Firstly, we don’t much care about appearance, so having to dress the same when young didn’t bother us much. Although it does mean that when we look back at old photos we don’t know who is who. Our projects and work have always been teamwork. We like dividing ambitious plans and getting the results faster. That’s why everything tends to be credited as “The Oliver Twins”.
OB – It was disappointing to read around this time last year, that production on SkySaga had ceased. I know that this project was immensely important to you both. Where will you go from here?
OT – There were so many people disappointed by Smilegate’s decision to put SkySaga on hold and a decision we don’t understand. We were massively disappointed as it was developing brilliantly and we had an amazing team. Right now, it would be properly released and we’re confident it would have been huge, but it’s not the first time we’ve been let down by publishers, so we’re pretty accustomed, sadly, to taking stock and coming up with another plan. We can’t help thinking where we’d be if some of those people that made some crazy decisions had not made them. Our new plan was to sell the company to Rebellion, a great UK games developer and publisher and work with them in creating some awesome games like Strange Brigade!
OB – You had so much success during the home computer boom but often struggled to get paid properly and on time for your hard work. In the age of freelancing, zero hours contracts and the gig economy, what advice do you have for those who are also struggling to get their earnings for projects?
OT – To be honest it’s really tough. We often say the challenge isn’t making the games, it’s being paid to make games!
So our advice is to take a job in the games industry – it guarantees you’ll get paid. If it’s a good company you’ll work on great games, make many friends, learn from them and earn promotions.
Many say they want to go it alone, thinking they know better, and want to reap success like Notch, and some would even site us as examples of how it can be done. But honestly – it’s SO tough, to make a game that makes money, that often you’re better off working for a company that has already found the way to finance your career.
If you have to go it alone – remember it’s less about the game and more about the marketing and business model. You need a great concept, money to make it, excellent production, a way to get it noticed and a business model that means players will give you money for the experience.
Each one of those steps must be handled brilliantly – any ‘weak link will break the chain’.
The advice, you might think you know best, but listen to people, seek advice, get people to critique your game, your business plan etc, and when you’ve heard all the feedback – make a decision. Too many people like to keep things secret from the very people that would help them.
OB – There is a new wave of interest in coding, programming, and development for games. Lots of our readers are game developers themselves either professionally or as hobbyists. What advice do you have for those who want to get into Indie game development, or get their work noticed in a saturated market?
OT – To make games, you have to love games. The idea that this is a way to make a fortune is just nonsense. It’s a huge amount of work, lots of people start, most don’t even finish their first game, of those that do, they can’t find a route to market. Even those that are published mostly go unnoticed. A few are able to pay the bills to make the next game, and a fraction, we’re probably talking less than 1% actually make some good money. Those are the kinds of odds. Sorry. But, if you really want to make games, then get Unity and make a game, don’t let people stop you or say you can’t do it. You can be immensely proud of what you achieve. If you’re lucky, it’ll work out great, if not it should help get you a job in the career you love. Established games companies want talented people that can make a game on their own. They will understand how tough it is to make money from them, and that won’t be held against you.
OB – You had a penchant for buying some very nice cars back in the day. Did anyone stand out as a particular favourite?
OT – Great 🙂 Well, I, Andrew, particularly like nice cars. So, mine have been:-
A shared second hand Datsun Cherry – if you start low, it’s easy to improve on! 😉
We upgraded that to a Honda Integra from the royalties of Grand Prix Simulator. The plan was to make a car game that gave us the money to buy a nice car. It was nice, but clearly the royalties didn’t stretch into super-car territory!
After that, I bought a Toyota MR2 – Mk2 (the mini Ferrari one) from Fantasy World Dizzy Royalties and then a Mitsubishi 3000GT. I eventually changed this to a Mazda RX8, a nippy little car, but with a very limited life engine!
A few years ago I bought a Tesla Model S, and have since bought my wife a Tesla model X – they are stunning – easily my favourite. I never intend to buy petrol again!
Philip, has been a little more modest, but picks up his new Jaguar i-Pace (100% electric) car in a few weeks time. It’s be red – like virtually every car he’s ever bought. Red cars go faster he says!
OB – In some of your games, you were keen to encompass some educational aspect to the gameplay. In particular, Magic Maths stood out to me as something kids in my class would have loved back when I was a teacher. What do you think about the use of games for learning by children, at home or in the classroom?
OT – Games are fun, they engage the way traditional education really struggles to. But education can be made fun, like games, if people took it seriously and made the necessary investments. There was an overused expression around 10 years ago, and that was to ‘Gamify’ things and that included education, training, marketing etc. As gamers, we all know we learn stuff when playing, but it’s usually fantasy things and not useful in the real world. But, we feel that there will be a huge industry from making learning fun with games. But it’s often done poorly, underfunded and doesn’t deliver fun + education. Think about how TV programs can be just for fun; films, comedies or soaps. But the same medium can entertain and educate. Take for example the BBC Natural History programmes like Planet Earth and often with David Attenborough. The same could be true of games, and we really hope they do.
OB – Do you have a favourite character that you have created?
OT – Everyone remembers Dizzy – sadly characters like Zapper, got overlooked. Glover is often remembered fondly and it’s great that Konami continues to use Lily and Swampy after we introduced them into Frogger 2.
It would be great to see Zapper return.
OB – You have developed and adapted code for all sorts of systems from home computers to consoles. Which has been your favourite platform to develop for?
OT – There’s an elegance and art form in creating games in very small amounts of memory, on very limited hardware. We still find it hard to believe we were fitting huge games into 34k of memory – the available RAM on a Spectrum and between 64k & 256k on the NES. So 8-bit computers will always be our favourite – since that where we wrote our games. The Amstrad CPC was the best home computer, but the Spectrum was where the sales happened that gave us such success. The NES was a great console. After the 8 bit days, it was often a case of being part of a team or managed them. They were great games and very talented people we were working with… but it’s was hard to call them our games and have the same attachment to them.
OB – What are your favourite games to play (that weren’t created by yourselves!)
OT – Interestingly – we didn’t play our own games… well only enough to AQ them. Once we’d created the master copy – they never got played again… well until YouTube came out and we tried playing some for our Oliver Twins channel. You can tell we didn’t play them! In fact, we think everyone that has ever bought one of our games has played them more than we have!
We tend to spend our time making and not playing. Even when we’re playing, it’s more out of research to learn from and improve what we’re working on.
But my favourite game (Philip) will always be the simple elegance of Pac-Man the game that got me hooked and changed my life. Andrew is a massive fan of Mario Kart and buys and plays ever new version, having been hooked by the first on the N64.