Philip Oliver makes up half of the UK’s famous Spectrum design masters, the Oliver Twins, originally known for the Dizzy line of games. Now heading up Blitz Games, Philip Oliver recently came into a deal with Burger King to do three Xbox/Xbox 360 titles as promotional tools for the company. Gamasutra spoke with Oliver about the deal, Blitz’s future work in next-gen, the company’s new Blitz Arcade initiative, and investigated the reasons why we haven’t seen a new Dizzy game in years. We also snuck in some vegetarian propaganda while we were at it.
Gamasutra: Who proposed the Burger King deal?
Philip Oliver: Well, I think Burger King obviously has been looking at the fact that they’re trying to connect with today’s youth, and that means gamers, fundamentally. Certainly they’re not after the sub-ten-year-olds, because the competition does that, without mentioning any names. But they want to get the 12-18 or 20 year olds, and those people play video games, and that’s cool and that’s trendy and that’s where they want to spend their advertising money - hence doing things like Fight Night. So they were already active in this market, basically just trying to be more in this area. So that’s one end.
We at the other end were talking to Microsoft, saying we’d like to do something like Fusion Frenzy again. And ideally it would’ve been Fusion Frenzy itself, but Hudson Soft nipped it and took the license from Microsoft, which was like, 'hmmm. That was our game! Not sure if that’s right.'
GS: Yeah, I was a little confused about that.
PO: So were we! We said, 'that’s our game, if you’re going to make it, you’ve got to make it with us!' But we went back and checked the contract, and they do own the IP. We completely created that thing from scratch, from just a brief document that said ‘can you make us a party game for mature gamers, sort of 18+’and that’s what we did for Microsoft, and it did pretty well. But it was a work for hire, which means they do own the IP, which means if they want to go and license it to Hudson Soft, they can, but it was a bit of a shame because we’d have loved to have done the next one.
But anyway, we were talking to them about the fact it was a bit of a shame we weren’t getting to do this, and we really wanted to do another party-style game. We were talking to (Xbox Live Arcade portfolio manager) Ross Erickson and he said his new role in life was Live Arcade, and basically that that would fit perfectly. So, we were having lots of conversations with him, and he came over to visit our studio because we said we were going to get into Live Arcade in a big way, and then during out conversation we said ‘well who funds this?’We’re an independent developer, and we need funding! And he said ‘yeah, well the problem is the Live Arcade division doesn’t have a lot of money to give out for funding.’So we said what about advertisers? Are their advertisers out there who would like to get product placement within video games? He said there might be, and that he’d look out for us.
A week or two later, he gave us a call and said ‘we’ve just had Burger King in touch with us, saying they’d like to fund some games, and they’ve come to me in Live Arcade, and feel they’re not going to be the size of Halo or Project Gotham or something, and in fact it links up well with Live –do you guys want to talk to them?’
So that’s kind of where it started, and it sounded like a pretty good idea. It started as Xbox Live Arcade games, just for the 360, and we bought into that. Three games, Live Arcade, they’d get some good product placement, we’d get some good games out on the system, and it’d be great. It got more interesting as time went along, because we started committing people to the project, and time was moving on, and we started getting to seven months, which eventually fell to six months, when they started saying ‘we want them to be boxed games!’Well, more accurately, they said they wanted them to be Xbox games as well.
So we said, hang on a minute, that doesn’t work with Xbox Live Arcade, and they said “we’ll just put them in a box. ”That makes sure they have to walk into the store, they can’t just pull it off the Xbox Live service, they actually have to come in-store. And we said ‘surely that’s a problem, cost of goods and everything,’ and they said ‘we have a good history with Microsoft, we can work out a deal with them, and we may as well put the 360 and Xbox games on the same disc!’ And we said ‘this sounds quite scary now, because you’re going to ask us for much bigger games!’ Well, that came next (laughs).
So at this point we were committed, and we had fifteen or twenty people at this point into it, working on the designs for 360. We were quite into it, then they upped the size of the contract, so they raised the budget, and we raised the team size considerably. We got up to about 60 people in all.
PO: And we wound up pumping out something good –even though at times we thought, ‘Jesus, what have we got ourselves into, this is tough.’We managed to get an extra month out of them, because we thought it was just too challenging, and just too tight. We got another month out of them by Microsoft basically agreeing to fast-track them through their QA process, so that was good, and helpful. But we still had to effectively do three original games, two SKUs of each, in seven months. Scary, but we did it! They’re all mastered, they’re all in production, and there’s going to be two million units of each disc.
GS: How did you work that issue of separate builds on the same disc? And how different was it developing each? I assume you shared assets?
PO: Yes, I mean we obviously are sharing assets. If we take one of the games, Big Bumping for example, we’d already started work on the Xbox 360 version when we realized we had to do the Xbox one as well. Our technology is all in-house, and all cross-platform. You’re probably aware of some of our past games. We try to make everything cross-platform. You never know when a publisher will say ‘we want a PS2 one, and an Xbox, and oh, actually, did we say we want a GameCube version as well?’
So when we’ve been going, and upgrading our engine and toolset and everything to the Xbox 360, we were still making it completely compatible. In fact all the assets and everything else were kind of compatible. All we had to do, really, is that there’s a difference of underlying codebase that actually hits the hardware. But we’d kind of built that anyway, as it’s already in our library. As for the assets, we just have to, where necessary, turn assets on and off. You know like on a PC you can say ‘do you want the hi-res models or the low-res models?’We basically have all that functionality built into our toolchain anyway. It’s pretty easy to do that stuff. It wasn’t horrendously difficult to generate the Xbox games from the technology we’d actually got.
We then had to provide builds to Microsoft each month, as everybody does, at the end of each month, and we had to ask, how do we get two versions of the game onto the disc –We actually just provided two masters, and they just put them on the disc. I’m guessing what they did is basically the Xbox just looks for a certain filename and fires it up if it’s Xbox, and looks for a certain file if it’s Xbox 360, then it fires up the separate executables. Basically two separate masters, two separate sets of assets, on the same disc.
GS: Are there serious graphical differences between them?
PO: Well, what we’ll say is obviously with the Xbox 360, we’re not exploiting its full power. The Xbox 360 is an awesome machine. In fact, a lot of people –well –nobody’s really exploiting the power of the Xbox 360 right now. These games were done in 7 months, we’re not exploiting the full power, and I wouldn’t say we’d exactly optimized our code on the 360, either. So effectively, while the games look quite nice on the Xbox 360, they’re not much more than the Xbox versions, which we’ve done god knows how many games on - five, six games on the Xbox? We’ve got a very optimized engine on Xbox, so basically there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference. Effectively, our Xbox 360 games look twice as nice, where in reality the machine is probably 15 to 20 times faster. We’re just not using all that extra power or speed. But a lot of people aren’t, so…
GS: So I guess it’s ok!
PO: It’s going to be really interesting when we start seeing second or third generation Xbox 360 games though. Things like Project Gotham, Fight Night and things like this, they weren’t touching the power of the Xbox 360, I mean there’s a lot more you can get out of that machine, with all the multi-threading.
GS: I was talking to Neil Young from EA the other day, and he was saying that programming for the 360 and PS3 is really quite different in terms of the ways you get the best out of each machine –cross-platform won’t be so simple if you want to maximize the hardware.
PO: It’s going to be interesting. The way we’ve always thought is that we want to be in complete control of our own technology and engine. In fact when Renderware got bought by EA, that completely validated that decision. We also believe that it’s economically viable to keep our engine completely cross-platform, and it worked fantastically well for the Burger King games. Without a cross-platform approach, we wouldn’t have been able to do them - it would’ve been impossible.
What we’re trying to do at the moment is make our technology cross-platform between the Xbox 360 and PS3, which is tough, because fundamentally they do work in a completely different way. We do have some stuff that is working, where the game teams just write compatible code which will basically run on a high-end PC, it’ll run on Xbox 360, and it’ll run on PS3. We are getting there, we are cracking it. It is a tough nut though.
GS: So with the Burger King games, did you have free reign in design, or no?
PO: There’s an interesting question! We approached this from the idealistic position that they know their products, and we know video games, and tell us what your products are, and we’ll make some cool video games from them. They had an awful lot of ideas, and they really wanted us to adopt a lot of their ideas. We eventually came down on a compromise, and the compromise was they get to fully design one, we get to fully design one, and we have one in the middle.
The one in the middle was a racing game, and that’s obviously Pocketbike Racers, where basically they really, really wanted their characters on pocketbikes. But they would let us worry about the actual mechanics of that.
Sneak King is derived by them, purely from their commercials. It was basically ‘here’s our commercials, we have to have a video game around them.’They threw in all their ideas, and we made it work. With Bumper King, they pretty much let us have free reign. They basically said ‘we know you want to do your own game and everything, just make sure it’s kind of Burger King lighted.’So that’s Bumper King.
GS: Well I’m looking forward to it, especially Sneak King. I’m a vegetarian and I’ll be going in and buying them. Without the food, of course.
PO: Well yeah, there’s that. Does Burger King do vegetarian things, I don’t know! They must have something.
GS: They may, but even if they do I’m sure they cook it on the same grill, and I’m not about to do that.
PO: Yeah, I suppose –my wife always gets a salad if she ever has to eat in these places, because she’s a vegetarian. She’s like, 'I don’t trust these places, it’s all the same grill, same utensils.'
GS: Well, she’s right! So, you sort of touched on this, but what demands did they make in terms of product representation?
PO: Well, obviously they’re paying for this, and obviously they’re fully promotional games, so they wanted their characters to be sort of key to all of the games. The King specifically, but also other characters like the Subservient Chicken, god knows who named that. They were quite precious that the characters had to be very big. What we were quite surprised at is that they didn’t make a big deal about advertising holdings, and putting the BK logo all round the place, they just weren’t bothered about that. And since they weren’t, we didn’t feel it was necessary to put them in.
They were quite precious about how their characters were perceived. So our project managers had conference calls with them virtually every day, just about negative things about their characters. Could the characters be seen as almost being defeated, could they be seen to be not very clever in the world, and they really wanted their characters to be seen as very very positive. Strange, but that’s what they were very precious about. Less so about their logo!
PO: It was a bit curious, but we were happy to oblige. The thing is, Blitz has to work with licensees all the time, it’s kind of what we’re known for. So we basically take on the clients' views, and we’re happy to oblige.
GS: I found it a little odd that they went with a British company, when Burger King is so American. I was thinking maybe they wanted somebody who actually had a king?
PO: Very good. I have to say, this is blowing our own trumpet, but name a company that’s got its own technology, is on 360, is known for licenses on time, on schedule. All the years we’ve been trading we’ve never missed a deadline, and we’ve had some pretty tight timelines in the past, and have always shipped pretty decent games. So, we’ve kind of got a reputation to hit the deadlines when it matters, for licenses.
Also, I think people like Fusion Frenzy, and the Burger King people already knew Fusion Frenzy, so the minute our name was put forward by Ross, to them, they said ‘what, the guys that did Fusion Frenzy? Cool.’And Fusion Frenzy took 8 months to finish, as that was the very first Xbox master ever, so that’s hitting your deadlines!
GS: Do you eat at Burger King?
PO: I will eat at Burger King, I’ll eat at any of these places, quite frankly, I’m not amazingly fussy. I’ve got three kids, so if you go shopping it’s like you have to trade with them. ‘If we’re going to go shopping dad, we’re going to have to stop in at a Burger King or a McDonald’s or something.' So yeah, I’m quite happy to eat at Burger King.
GS: What’s your favorite thing there?
PO: I have to say it’s always chicken. Whenever I go to any of these places, it’s always chicken, and it’s always probably the most expensive chicken burger as well. If I eat at fast food joints, I can afford to pay a bit extra to get the quality one. (laughs)
GS: There’s a lot of talk about video game violence and things –do you think these games will make people want more junk food?
PO: (laughs) I thought you were getting on to Reservoir Dogs there, but you didn’t! You’re on to gnash again. We can talk about that! Will the games make people eat more junk food? I don’t know. I’m hoping that Burger King feel this is a hugely successful marketing campaign, and I’m hoping a lot of people will go and talk about Burger King and these games, and how they’re really good and everything, and the level of loyalty and their sales do go up. So, in some ways yes. Is that us promoting people eating fast food, I don’t know! Could be, but me personally, I’d say, well fine it’s fast food, but can’t we make sure they’re better quality when you go in? I have to say I think Burger King does try to do that. I think Burger King is kind of slightly more up-market than its competitors.
GS: So you’re not kept up nights thinking about people getting fat?
PO: I’m not awake at night doing that, no. I was awake at night worrying if we were going to hit our deadlines! This is a massive campaign for Burger King, they’ve put so much money into this, into the inventory, into paying us to do these games, into all the TV advertising around it and everything, and if we missed by a few weeks, it would have completely screwed everything. And there wasn’t a lot of slop in the schedule to miss. We couldn’t say ‘oh let’s just put a month’s slop time in there,' because that just cuts directly into development, and we’d have to lose a lot of content. So that kept me awake at night, but they’re all mastered now, we’ve had our champagne, and we’re all very happy.
GS: Hooray! So did you manage to slip Dizzy in there somehow?
PO: No, we didn’t get Dizzy in there, how do you know about Dizzy, you’re American! What do you know about Dizzy?
GS: Hey, I do my research! He is a food product after all…
PO: Oh, lay an egg. No, there’s no Dizzy in there, we’re fond of Dizzy but that was years ago. The problem with Dizzy is the IP is owned by Codemasters, and we can’t do anything without their permission, and every time we ask for their permission, they say no! So we can’t do anything. And every time they ask us, and they don’t ask us that often, we sort of feel like saying ‘no,’just to be sorry for. But we signed a deal with them just a bit ago for some mobile phone stuff, so maybe that’ll happen.
Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk
GS: I was just thinking that would be a very appropriate easter egg, as it were, for the Burger King games.
PO: Oh absolutely, and you know a couple of years ago we had a campaign to them, a sort of pitch document to produce Dizzy games for them, and they would always be sold at Easter as the 'Alternative Egg.' So parents didn’t have to buy chocolate every year, they could buy the alternative egg. But it didn’t go through.
GS: Switching gears to the newly launched Blitz Arcade, did you fund that partially with your Burger King winnings?
PO: Yeah, absolutely. The guys paid well, they got us up to speed very fast on our technology, and we got an awful lot of people focused on those sort of small games, and on Xbox 360, and a good relationship with Microsoft to do all this kind of stuff. We kind of figured we wanted to go into this area anyway, which is why we were talking to Ross Erickson in the first place, and we would’ve already had games on Xbox Live Arcade if it wasn’t for the fact that we diverted to do this. So now that those games are finished, we’re going straight onto this, in a big way. We want to be a major developer of downloadable games, not just for Xbox Live Arcade, but for the Sony system and the Nintendo system.
GS: Have you heard much about what Nintendo’s going to do in terms of third party originals for Virtual Console?
PO: I believe that on the other line is a conference call between the person at Nintendo and the head of our arcade division, right now. We’ll know a lot more in about an hour’s time I guess.
GS: Wish I’d called you an hour later!
PO: Well, actually I don’t know it, because it’s the other guys who are dealing with it. We’re such a big company now, the reason we’re calling it divisions is that I’m sort of stepping back from the front of things, and they’re kind of business units in their own rights. So Chris Swan, who’s actually heading up Blitz Arcade, he’s basically handling everything. He’s going to sort all his contacts out, sort out the financing, the people, he’s got to do everything! So I just say yep, you go along and do everything. I’ll give a bit of advice, and I’m here, but really, I’m going to just let you run with it. He knows what he’s doing, he owned much of the Burger King stuff, though he got a few managers to help him.
GS: It’s good to hear that Nintendo will be doing some actual third party Live Arcade-type stuff, because I was under the impression it would be majority retro stuff.
PO: Yeah, that’s not what we’re proposing at all, we’re proposing new, fun games. One of the things we’ve had problems with in the past few years, and if you know Dizzy, you know mine and Andrew’s background. When we were writing these games years ago, you could pretty much just come up with any idea. You go –‘you know what? Jet skis, they’re cool, let’s do a game about them.' Then a few months later, the idea of fighting ghosts or whatever is pretty cool. Let’s do that. Essentially you kept going ‘that’s a bit cool, let’s do a game about that.' But in the last few years, it’s been impossible! You go ‘that’s cool, but oh, well, we can’t do anything with that!' We’ve had a devil’s own job trying to sell Possession. We think zombies are really, really cool, but trying to convince publishers to sort of part with it, and it is a lot of money, and I can understand it from the other side, there’s an awful lot of money at stake, so you can see what the problem.
With Live Arcade, you say ‘that’s a bit cool, that’s worth five dollars of anybody’s money,' and we can just do it! And the games will be pretty cool. The technology that we’ve actually got here, our engine is kind of straight onto the Xbox 360, and it runs on Sony’s EDI system, which will be renamed obviously, and it’ll run on the Nintendo system, because you know we’ve got a launch title on the Wii with SpongeBob, so our engine is completely road tested. So we’re effectively letting Chris Swan and all his people, just have all that technology and make some cool games. While they could be 2D games, what’s the point? It’s kind of easier for them to do 3D games, and basically just don’t make them huge. But they can make some really fun 3D games on subjects which in the past haven’t justified a $40 price tag.
GS: Do you think it’ll be possible to do one game across multiple platforms, or will you have to tailor make games for each system?
PO: I believe, and the line that Sony and Microsoft and everybody uses is ‘individual negotiation.' What I’m hoping is that our games are good enough that we will have a good hand in negotiating (laughs). But I believe it’s an individual negotiation. If they’re funding them, they’re pretty much going to make them exclusive, I’d imagine. If the developer is funding them, then I’d think the developer’s got this sort of stronger hand, and more high ground to say come on guys, you don’t need an exclusive on this. But to be honest we’re yet to see on that one.
GS: Have you heard about this LiveMove thing?
PO: No, I haven’t, but I do think that with the controller the people at Nintendo were absolute geniuses. Two years ago, because obviously we saw some early dev kits, you just saw what Microsoft and Sony were doing, and the amount of processing power they were putting into these things, and how much it was going to cost them to make these machines, and it’s just like jesus, these two heavyweights going up against each other, and there’s Nintendo on the sidelines and I’m thinking ‘guys, I wouldn’t like to be where you’re sitting right now.' How the hell are you going to compete with that?
And to be honest, they said ‘we’ve got something coming, and it’s going to be a revolution,' and I’m thinking I don’t know what you’ve got, but I can’t see how you can compete. But then coming out with what they’ve come out with, it’s like –that’s genius! Basically these two heavyweights have gone in with sledgehammers, and you’ve come in with this sort of very nice small hammer which suits so many of the customers down to the ground very very nicely, and does what they need.
There’s the hardcore market, the ‘I expect an epic and I’m willing to pay for it’people, and they tend to be your sort of 16+ or whatever, and Microsoft and Sony have gone after those big time. But there’s this other market, the sub 16, and I know I’m really generalizing there, but they just want good value for money, and fun. And let me tell you, that controller gives you fun. And the processing power inside the machine is good enough. It’s good enough to make any fun game that you want to. And that controller will give you kind of new and original games that the other platforms can’t even do, with all their power. It’s a masterstroke, I have to say.
But I think with the other platforms, and I know I’m being politically correct here, I like doing epics too, and it’s great to have these machines that’ll be so famously powerful, that we’ll have games that look better than movies.
GS: It is good to be able to do both…so do you think the Wii will be able to take back some of the European market for Nintendo?
PO: Well, Nintendo seems to have been making a profit over the others, and I think both the 360 and PS3 will do really well, but specifically I know that with the sub-16 year olds, when we talk to publishers like THQ, and they have a Nickelodeon game, they say ‘well we’ve got to have it on Wii, and maybe not the other two.' So they’ve basically taken a huge slug of the market exclusively. I think each of them will sort of take equal slices, really. I think that’ll be good for everybody.