Ten years of Roll7: from brain tracking to Laser League – oh, and selling 4m copies of OlliOlli along the way

Roll7’s origin story is something quite unusual – even by the standards of indie dev studios. Its early years were an eclectic mix of projects and technologies, the culmination of which is become one of the UK’s most recognisable indie developers. A studio that continues to create unique titles, despite not even having a central office anymore!

Happy birthday! It’s been ten years but many’s experience of the company will only date back to OlliOlli in 2013 – tell us about how you began?

Really, to trace Roll7’s history you need to go back to the heady days of the mid 2000s when Tom Hegarty, my lifelong friend and partner in musical crime, and I were running a community education company called RollingSound. We were teaching inner city youth digital arts – music production, photography, film and web design – when we were asked by Southwark Council if we could teach video game design. Our naïve but entrepreneurial response was ‘of course’ and we set about finding someone to teach video games before video game education was a thing. Through the forums of FPS Creator we found John Ribbins, someone who seemed to fit the profile of our company at that point: young, restless, endlessly creative and hungry.

John went on to become the course leader for our most successful and oversubscribed course, training up five other tutors to deliver accredited video games design courses to over 5,000 young people over six years. It was this course that differentiated us from other providers, and helped the company expand to 100 staff working all over London and South-East England.

In 2007, we were approached by young people from our music course who wanted to run a project related to knife crime and thought that a video game would be the most interesting approach – we ended up working with over 30 young people over three months to create a game called Soul Control.

BBC News covered the project and suddenly we found ourselves making another game – in just over six weeks! – for Channel 4 called Dead Ends. We even turned John Snow and his lovely tie into a 3D character to introduce the game! At this point Tom and I sat down together and said: ‘Look, there might be something in these serious-cum-socially responsible games. Let’s do something here!’ We made a substantial investment into incubating Roll7 as a start-up in the sector, with a view to becoming self-sufficient over the next few years.

So Roll7 was born and you progressed onto making games that tracked brain activity, right?

From 2008 to 2013, the studio partnered with third sector organisations and charities to develop games, digital products and marketing campaigns. Focus Pocus was our biggest game, which was a brain computer interface-based cognitive behavioural therapy product for children with ADHD. Ultimately, it was a massive undertaking in a six-month period with a tiny and unexperienced team – but we delivered a product that would have cost over $1m on the open market, for about $100k.

In total we launched six commercial games for the Neurosky headset and this allowed us to gain insight into the process of making and releasing products from scratch. We were also building up a bank of prototypes and IP over these years which were to become the basis of OlliOlli, Not A Hero and Laser League. It was a bit like video game university for us, but with the added pressure of having to run a studio, manage clients and run a whole other business…

Just how big did OlliOlli become? It’s on every platform ever! How did that change the company?

OlliOlli was massive for us. We put everything into that game, the team worked to a level that I would never expect or demand again from a group of humans. The OlliOlli series has shifted over four million units worldwide, and we have partnered with a number of great publishers to get the game onto over 14 platforms.

Before we started production, we had made the end of days decision to say goodbye to all our clients in the gun-for-hire space, to go for broke and focus solely on OlliOlli. The nerves before launch were unbearable, I can remember just how much hinged on the game not being a flop… Then the reviews came in and Shahid [Kamal Ahmad, then director of strategic content, Sony’s internal indie publishing team] at PlayStation invited us for lunch. The game was the fastest selling indie PS Vita title from strategic content at the time and was considered a breakout hit.

The gamble had paid off, and we subsequently moved into parallel development with OlliOlli2 and Not A Hero – those were exciting times!

Do you think in today’s market that games such as OlliOlli and Not A Hero would succeed to the same degree?

I think there will always be a place in the games market for interesting, different video games. There is certainly more of a challenge in getting visibility now, especially for a new studio on their first title.

It’s easy to look at the current indie game space and think that there is no space for anything more, but every year we’re constantly surprised by a new and interesting breakout hit. There’s a lot more stuff coming out every month, but there’s still plenty of space for great indie games to shine.

For us it’s about coming up with a new or interesting mechanic, or a twist on something familiar, but for other studios it’s been about telling an amazing story or dealing with previously-untouched subject matters. It’s all about finding your niche.

Do you think the company has a persona and, if so, what is it and how did it come about?

To a certain extent we are a little bit of an anomaly – we have made games across the spectrum over ten years. I think we would hope to be known best for super-tight innovative toys. Finding something really addictive and enjoyable to play with and building on it.

Breaking down the pillars of a Roll7 game would be: super-refined game mechanics, simple systems with a huge scope for mastery, combo and score-based gameplay, amazing curated soundtracks, and unique and varied art styles.

I think to a certain extent our outward facing personality changes based on how involved we are with the marketing of the game. When we were making Not A Hero, we went pretty method and got really into the bizarre world of BunnyLord.

During Laser League – a more serious endeavour – we were much less involved in the outward marketing of the game and we more focused on letting the game speak for itself.

I think that now, ten years in, we would like to be known as a pedigree UK studio that has stood the test of time and continues to create new and fun ways for people to play.

Laser League, in retrospect, what worked, what didn’t, and why do you think it struggled to find an audience despite being critically well-received?

Laser League has been a massive success from our studio perspective, the game has reviewed incredibly well – 9/10 from Edge, Essential award from Eurogamer, plus two Golden Joystick nominations.

What worked? Our step up to full 3D in Unreal Engine and synchronous multiplayer. That was real progress for the studio and something we will take with us moving forward into new projects. The core game loop from our perspective really worked well, we essentially invented a new sport from scratch! Getting that balance during development was a lot of work, but it paid off.

With the PC launch we came out at a bad time for multiplayer games, competing with peak PUBG and Fortnite. If you don’t get that initial critical mass of players in your multiplayer game it can be hard to recover. Nobody wants to play a bunch of bots, even if our AI is great. We have a wonderful community of people who have stuck with it since day one and a great number of people are discovering the game through PS+ and Xbox Game Pass. It’s a slower build than we would have hoped for, but it’s our first foray into the multiplayer space and we’ll take many of the lessons we’ve learned from this into the ‘next thing’.

Ultimately, from our side we shot for a double-A level super-ambitious synchronous online multiplayer game, and over-achieved on what we ever thought was possible – Laser League remains a great example of a game with all the potential to still make an impact. Who knows, maybe it will be our Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars! [the predecessor to Rocket League]

You were based in Deptford, but now all work remotely, why the change?

We made the decision back in 2014 to make Not A Hero as a remote project. Basically, it came down to cutting travel down for staff, giving people more autonomy with their roles, attracting talent from beyond SE8 and South-East London generally, and ultimately saving a shedload of loot on studio overheads.

After the success of Not A Hero, we decided that we would fully embrace the ‘distributed team model’.

For Laser League we scaled from ten to over 35 people, in five months, and managed to attract some of the leading lights from triple-A studios who were looking for a change.

After the project we ran a survey. Two thirds of people said that work/life balance working remotely was better than being in a studio. I guess our major concern was always whether we could maintain our quality, but the reviews have allayed any fears there. We became one of the biggest fully distributed studios in Europe and this unique structure will allow us to expand exponentially in the future. Our next five-year plan sees this model expand into larger teams and parallel development.

How many of you are there now? How do you work in terms of full-time vs contract workers and how do you scale the team based on the needs of the project?

Currently we are around ten. We have a core of full-time staff and an infrastructure of long-time and trusted freelancers. We are in prototyping and pre-production mode on three projects and have contracted the studio down accordingly.

For the last five years this approach has allowed us to manage cashflow carefully and protect the studio from the well-documented pitfalls of maintaining a large team when there’s no project. Moving forward, we might scale up the core full time team but only if we can maintain a clear pipeline of original IP development.

You’ve generally used a publisher rather than going it alone, why is that?

Our five-year business plan from 2013 to 2018 was to develop four new IPs but minimise our risk and downside from self-funding. This was achieved by working with a number of publishers and funders across our IP portfolio.

To a certain extent, it was about being realistic about our knowledge of the industry in 2013. We were a new entry to the whole scene. Five years later we are in a unique position where we have managed to build substantial reserves and ongoing revenues from a multitude of partners, while testing the water with a number of publishers and seeing both how people work, and what works for us moving forward.

We are not ruling out self-publishing in the future – we did originally put OlliOlli out ourselves – but the kind of projects we are looking at currently would most likely need a partner somewhere along the line.

How are going about creating your next game? Do you subscribe to the idea of iterating lots of ideas to see what works or do you fall in love with one early and get stuck in?

We have a big backlog of prototypes from 2013 to 2018 – there are two or three that are really interesting at the moment – and we are working them up into clearer ideas. This is the best part of the job, it’s when almost anything is possible, and we intend to spend a bit more time doing it this time around – the studio is in a solid financial position moving forward, so we are in no rush to begin something unless it really grabs us. We will jump into full-scale development when we have both the right idea and the right partner in place. 

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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