A Conversation with Roll7, the Indie Studio Thrashing Gaming's Big Boys
Not even a BAFTA can buy security in a city like London, but Roll7 balances inspiration with perspiration to produce brilliant games nonetheless.
When Deptford-based developers Roll7 released OlliOlli for the PlayStation Vita in January 2014, few could have predicted that a side-scrolling skateboarding sim would be the shot in the arm for a genre long neglected by bigger studios.
With its balls-hard gameplay and retro graphics, OlliOlli went on to garner a host of awards, beating the likes of FIFA 15 and Forza Horizon 2 to the BAFTA for Best Sports game in March 2015.
Co-founded in 2008 by friends Simon Bennett and Thomas Hegarty alongside creative director John Ribbins as the sister venture of RollingSound, a youth multimedia training company, Roll7 has come a long way.
Following its first dalliance with gaming, Dead Ends, an anti-knife crime game for Channel 4, the team released an iOS game, Gets to the Exit, in July 2012. It flopped massively, as many independent mobile releases tend to.
But that doom and gloom is long gone. The surprise success of OlliOlli resulted in a publishing deal with Devolver Digital, and Roll7 recently released a sequel to their skater sim, OlliOlli2: Welcome To Olliwood. Waiting in the wings, with its release date just days away now, is the studio's hyper-violent, pixellated-blood-everywhere actioner Not a Hero – a new game that further establishes the team's unique voice in their chosen industry.
Just as Not a Hero was about to go gold, I sat down for a chat with Simon Bennett to discuss the challenges faced by indie developers, and the problems people run into in even trying to define what "indie" means in 2015.
'OlliOlli2: Welcome to Olliwood', official trailer
VICE: You launched OlliOlli2 in March by giving it away for free through PlayStation Plus. Why?
Simon: Obviously we're quite a small studio, and Sony offered us a sort of buy out, just to give the game away for free for that first month. The game has been downloaded two million times worldwide, so far, so for a tiny studio based in Deptford in a grimy little £600-a-month shithole office, to have that kind of exposure for what we do is awesome.
How did Roll7 first come to work with Sony?
We got introduced to [senior business development manager for Sony] Shahid Ahmad through another indie studio called FutureLab. We showed him a couple of projects we were working on and John had this little prototype idea for a skateboarding game, which at that time was called OlliOlliOlli. John really didn't want to show it to him. Tom kicked him under the table and said, "Dude, show him the fucking game." He played it, disengaged from all of the conversations that were going on, turned around to everyone after about half and hour and said: "Right, we want this on PlayStation Vita."
As a small company with some successful games under your belt now, what are the prospects for expansion?
[Laughs] This is where we're doing everything in reverse. When we started OlliOlli, there were five of us. For OlliOlli2, the core team was about seven people, with four or five freelancers. And then Not a Hero, ultimately, has been made entirely by John with one artist, one sound designer and a small handful of people who have been involved in a freelance capacity
Most people would think: "You've finished OlliOlli2, it's been a massive success, so you scale up, spend hundreds of thousands building OlliOlli3 on all platforms with a team of 25 people and you get a big marketing budget." But what we're good at as a studio is coming up with ideas for games. We've managed to make Not a Hero with people working remotely and that process has been thoroughly enjoyable.
Presumably that's key to success for a company of your size?
The indie scene is tough. We've not made enough money from our games yet to be able to live comfortably in London and have a future that exists solely in gaming, ad infinitum. I think that's the tough reality.
I guess most people assume that because a game wins awards the people who made it are raking it in. So what does Roll7 look like now?
From this point now, there are two people finishing off the Combo Rush mode for OlliOlli2 and on Not a Hero there are about five freelancers who are involved to a certain extent, but after that the studio just goes on hiatus. We're just stopping for a bit to relax and work out what we want to do next.
It's a humble approach.
I guess the difference is that with RollingSound we had all of the crap associated with having a medium-sized company. Having sold the business and having nearly lost our houses, we realised that none of that stuff's worth it. As individuals, we want the freedom and the flexibility. So at the end of May, the Roll7 office is actually no more. That's the first time we've mentioned that anywhere, but yeah, our physical office in Deptford will no longer exist in May, which seems even more ridiculous now I say it. [Laughs]. That's what's happening next.
When does an indie studio cease to be an indie studio and become something else?
[Laughs] I think you see this all the time. I mean, technically, none of us are indie. If you look, the rise of the indie publishers in the last few years has been staggering. You've got so many small publishers who are picking up these smaller indies. Are they then indie? Would you call us indie now?
To be totally open and flexible and free and do literally whatever the fuck we want is scary, but it's awesome – Simon Bennett
I'd still view you guys as "indie", but that's looking at it from the perspective that you operate in the way that you want and have your own voice.
Oh, absolutely. I think there needs to be a new name. It's interesting – we were nominated for Best Micro Studio by Develop last year. Micro Studio? I just think the terminology's wrong. We're independent in the respect that we own 100% of the shareholdings of the business. We're able to talk freely and openly about everything we do. I guess it's a relatively misleading term that can lead to some frustrations, especially when you get fans saying "I thought you were indie," and then finding out that actually there's a publisher involved.
But working with a publisher like Devolver, I get the sense that you guys have a blast. You might not be "indie" per se, but there aren't any restrictions on the way you market yourselves.
Yeah, you're totally right. And it does allow us to stand out massively. The video that went up on VICE about Not a Hero – there's absolutely no way that would have been put out by most studios, let alone an independent studio, but for us to be able to remain this size and be able to do that is awesome. I think what's funny is behind the scenes, to get to the stage where you're able to be like that – there's so much work in order to be able to actually talk with that tone of voice.
'Not a Hero', Vote BunnyLord gameplay trailer
You need to earn that respect.
Absolutely. But it's cool seeing there's a less stale way of getting your stuff across. What we're doing with Not A Hero and [the game's sort of lead character] BunnyLord, from a marketing perspective, is awesome fun. To be totally open and flexible and free and do literally whatever the fuck we want is awesome. It's scary, because there's no one there to stop you from doing something ridiculous, but it's awesome.
And what's not to love about BunnyLord? He's the most interesting candidate in this election.
Oh, there's going to be a lot more from BunnyLord. He's about to get physical in Westminster. Keep an eye out. It's going to be fun.
Not a Hero is released on PC on May 14th with PlayStation 4 and Vita ports coming later in 2015. Pay Roll7 a visit at their official website.
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