OlliOlli – a tale of skateboards, hangovers and Sony’s big indie love-in

olliolli ps vita

I suck at OlliOlli. Partly because I was hungover when I met Roll7′s John Ribbins and Tom Hegarty at last week’s Develop conference. And also because it’s hard. Miami Hotline meets skateboarding hard – that weird Stockholm syndrome style frustration where you’re definitely going to fling the Vita any second. Just after you’ve had one more go to check.

OlliOlli - skateboards and hangovers

(Just to clarify I was meeting Roll7 after a night of awards and conference stuff so everyone looked puffy eyed and full of regret. It’s not like ‘a thing’.)

To be honest I can’t reasonably appraise it based on one slightly shaky ten minute hands-on but I can say I like the concept and I look forward to trying it again when the colours don’t hurt my eyes. Its simple pixel art style belies a challenging reliance on timing and precision that I was never going to nail while nursing a cautiously optimistic hair-of-the-dog pint. Using X you kick along side scrolling levels jumping stairs and grinding rails, nailing tricks to keep both your speed and score higher than your dignity. Failed on all counts there.

According to creative director John Ribbins it was originally harder. “[We're] starting on levels 6-10″ he explains. “They were the original opening levels but were then moved after testing to make levels 1-5 more straightforward”. So while I’m being dropped in the deep end face/knee/spine first there will actually be a more gentle introduction as the basic concepts are uncovered.

Levels have a Canabalt feel as you grind rails, trick over stairs and other drops while trying to nail perfect landings by tapping X at just the right point. It’s not a procedurally generated world though. “We realised it’s kinda more fun when you know what’s coming and you have the ability to perfect your run” mentions director Tom Hegarty, “It gives us the chance to make some of the levels almost like puzzles – you have to know when to grind it and how to grind”.

NewKickflipWithGround edit olliolli


And it is a game about perfecting runs that will appeal to those who like chasing scores. The mechanics are formed around a puzzle-style pursuit of perfecting scores and acing levels. “With the perfect landing, the later you leave it before you press X the better,” says Hegarty. (By now I’ve let them play because it’s for the best – the resulting chain of tricks, scores and combo multiplayers proves this was a good decision.) “What becomes more important later is that, if you get a perfect landing, your recovery from a trick – where he crouches down and comes back up again – is faster. So there are sections later where, if you don’t get a perfect landing, you don’t have enough time to launch the next trick before you slam”.

olliolliThe complexity opens up further according to Hegerty. “It does the same thing with grinds so if you wait until the last moment until you hold the stick then you get a locked grind, you get less friction and you can grind further. So we work puzzles into that where if you don’t lock the grind then you run out of speed and you won’t be able to continue the combo”. And I’ve not mentioned using the triggers to add spins or the ability to rotate the stick in Street Fighter-like quarter circles to perform more complicated tricks.

Perhaps what’s most interesting though is how the game in its current state is the result of the collaborative process between a seven strong indie development team and mega-Sony. The set up SCEE has with indies sounds like an attractive deal for both parties – the small studio get all the benefits of being supported by a big company, with little pressure to do anything other than make its game. Sony on the other hand get to have the game on its platforms when it’s done. Although it looks like gamers are real winner here thanks to a load of interesting PS3 and PS4 indie games heading their way.

“We were showing it to people a year
ago and James Marsden from FuturLab
said you need to show this to Shahid

It’s a process that started at another conference. “The initial concept demo was on iOS,” says Ribbins. “We were showing it to people a year ago and we met James Marsden from FuturLab (the developer behind Velocity and other PS3/Vita games) and he said you need to show this to Shahid [Ahmad, senior business development manager at SCEE]“. That opened up the connection between Sony and Roll7 but it’s a surprisingly easy going arrangement. “They fund the game but we can self publish it, so that’s a great help in itself” explains Ribbins.

As well as access to the internal Dev Net – a developer support community – Roll7 also benefit from regular meetings and playtesting provided by Sony. “The feedback’s been really interesting,” says Ribbins. “We go and meet them for every master and in-between they get playtesters along as well, and all the advice they give is ‘take or leave it.’” It seems to be a much more fatherly overwatch than controlling boss. “They say, ‘look, this is what we do, we’re experienced gamers. We’d like it if it did this or that’”. Part of their advice actually brings us back to where we came in: “Originally the game used to be much harder. If you didn’t press X exactly? Dead. One of the things that they actually suggested is that you should always land [if you press X]. Now you get the sloppy landing”.

The advice is taken on a take or leave it approach says Hegarty. “What’s great about it is that it’s up to us whether we implement it. Maybe if we went back to them and it wasn’t a skateboarding game anymore they’d want a word, but within the context of what we’re doing? It’s up to us. They’re not forcing your hand to go and do stuff. They want something of quality and they’re going to guide us from their experience but it has very much been our lead”.