|★ GAMES ★ AUTEURS DE JEUX ★ OLIVER TWINS: THE ORIGINAL GOOD EGG (2008) ★|
|Oliver Twins 2008||Games Auteurs De Jeux|
Since he somersaulted onto our screens in 1987, Dizzy has retained a loyal fan base and starred in many popular games. The intrepid egg had a variety of adventures and arcade games that saw him visiting Magicland, getting stranded on Treasure Island and even trying his gloves at white water rafting. Retro looks back at Dizzy's illustrious past and learns all about him from his creators, Philip and Andrew Oliver.
It was the summer of 1980 when 12-year-old twins Andrew and Philip Oliver had their first brush with videogames. Holidaying in Cornwall the two brothers were exploring a local arcade and were lost in a cacophony of alien yet comforting sounds. Pushing their way past several fruit machines and Penny Falls the brothers found themselves in front of a Pac-Man cabinet. “We were standing there looking at this amazing machine when a guy came along, put some money into the machine and offered to let us play it,” recalls Philip. “He obviously realised how keen we were to play it and we really enjoyed it. If only we'd had more money to waste on games…”
Despite the twins' lack of cash they found ingenious ways to continue their new-found interest back home in Birkenhead. After hooking up with one of their friends whose dad happened to own an Apple 2E they were soon playing the likes of Pinball, Monsters and, of course, Pac-Man for as long as humanly possible. A year later the brothers had progressed to the ZX81, which took pride of place under the family TV. While the machine belonged to their older brother, the twins got to keep it for themselves most of the time (“he never really used it as he'd just discovered girls,” explains Philip). Totally absorbed by the machine, Philip and Andrew were soon working on their own variants of Pong.
But while the ZX81 proved to be a capable starting block the twins realised that they'd need something more powerful. “We quickly decided that we needed something with more memory and colour, so in 1982 we saved up and purchased a Dragon 32,” begins Philip. “Six months after that we once again upgraded and bought a BBC Model B, the computer we eventually ended up releasing our first tiles on.”
The Oliver twins' first success came with a humble home-made program entitled Strategy. The twins had entered their game in a competition on the BBC's The Saturday Show and ended up winning first prize. Acornsoft, a leading publisher at the time, re-named the game Gambit and released it commercially. Spurred on by their success the brothers threw themselves into their new hobby. “Getting published really encouraged us to work every hour that was possible, which, admittedly, got completely in the way of our school work,” recalls Andrew. “Luckily, we were always well received by publishers because we'd had a game already published, even though it probably only sold around 50 copies.”
The boys had arrived and a chance encounter with fellow developer siblings the Darling brothers at the 1985 ECTS show marked the start of a relationship that would continue for another eight years. “They [Richard and David Darling] had had great success by writing games for Mastertronic, but now wanted to go it alone,” says Andrew. “They had a small stand at the show to promote their new company, Codemasters, and what impressed us was that the directors were programmers themselves who understood what it took to write a game. Anyway, Codemasters was impressed by our games and asked us to work on Super Robin Hood. When they estimated royalties at around £10,000 it became something we couldn' turn down.”
ENTER THE HERO
With just one computer to share between them the twins were programming for 23 hours a day, allowing themselves two half-hour breaks in order for the machine to cool down. Sharing gruelling 18-hour shifts, the brothers took turns, with one coding on paper while the other used the computer. The heavy workload paid off, though, as Super Robin Hood became their first number-one hit. While the brothers initially used an Amstrad, Codemasters soon sent them a Spectrum and asked them to start converting games for it. Before long, Ghost Hunters and Grand Prix Simulator followed (the latter saw Codemasters receive a legal notice from Activision due to its similarities to Atari's Super Sprint) and went straight to the top of the charts.
Keen to return to the formula that had served them well in Super Robin Hood, but annoyed with Robin's lack of identity (they only had a 3x3-pixel grid to create his face) they began to experiment…
“ GETTING PUBLISHED ENCOURAGED US TO WORK ALL HOURS - WHICH GOT IN THE WAY OF OUR SCHOOL WORK”
“One morning we were just playing around with how big we could get a face on screen, but that obviously meant not giving it a body,” explains Philip. “We ended up drawing the biggest face we could and simply added arms and legs to it so it actually held together and you could run it around the screen. It only took a morning to complete all the animations but it's still something I vividly remember.” Now they had their character up and running - well, cartwheeling, really, as it was easier than animating walking on their new graphics package - and named (Dizzy) it was simply a case of deciding what sort of game Dizzy would be.
“With Dizzy we wanted to create an interactive cartoon, so we needed other characters and it needed to be an interesting world,” says Philip. “We realised that if we used references from classic stories such as fairy tales we could create a compelling and original world that would also be familiar in some way for the player. We also wanted to use these ideas in a way that would create some more unusual gameplay elements instead of the standard ‘find key to open door' type of dynamic.”
After two months of hard graft Dizzy was finished and ready to be thrust on an unsuspecting public. While the brothers felt that Dizzy was a great achievement, it didn't enjoy the success that Andrew and Philip expected. In part, Philip felt that this was down to a lack of familiarity with the subject matter. “People knew the premise of Robin Hood,” he says. “They knew the premise, they knew Robin Hood; it was one of those free licences that everyone knows about. With Dizzy, though, nobody was quite sure what it was so sales were quite slow, but the feedback was incredibly positive and we received an awful lot of fan letters from Codemasters.” As a result the twins did something that would be practically impossible in today's market - they created a sequel not because of the incredible sales, but because it was what the fans wanted.
Treasure Island Dizzy was completed in less than a month and released 14 months after the original game. Whereas Dizzy took around six months to reach the magic 100,000 units sales mark Treasure Island Dizzy achieved and exceeded the same figure in a matter of weeks and, predictably, went straight to number one. Unsurprisingly, the brothers have their own theory as to why the Island-based sequel became so popular so quickly. “We believe that everyone who had bought the first Dizzy game liked it so much that the minute they saw another one, they went straight down the shops to buy it,” muses Andrew. “As a result of this huge surge, it went straight to number one and those people who hadn't learnt of Dizzy saw it was at the top of the charts and purchased it on that recommendation.”
DIZZY BRANCHES OUT
It was November 1987 and with the twins' friends having packed their bags and left for university, the brothers found themselves at a loose end. When the Darlings jokingly suggested that the brothers should make another Dizzy game in time for Christmas as it would sell at least 100,000 copies, the Olivers took them up on their offer.
“We realised how long it took to write an adventure game, and thought we wouldn't be able to get that out in time,” recalls Philip. “However, we were still avid fans of Pac-Man and used to joke how that game must have been written really quickly. We spent a whole weekend working on a simple, fun maze-based game that would make the projected release date. By Monday morning (and having had no sleep all weekend) we were practically finished. A graphics artist improved the graphics a little and we got a musician to do some sound effects for us. Fast Food was pretty much completed by the end of the week.”
Although Fast Food managed to debut in time for Christmas it never sold as well as the previous adventure titles. The brothers attribute this to the game's quick turnaround time and admit that it lacks the creativity of the adventure games. However, they had no problems releasing similar puzzle games and knew that Dizzy was the reason for their success. “Once you've got something as successful as Dizzy and a huge, ever-growing fan base it became obvious that we could sell twice as many copies of any cool new game idea if Dizzy was in it,” admits Philip. “By including him in most of our new games it just helped make them all the more successful.”
Knowing that the next Dizzy game would need to be another adventure, the brothers took a break by working on the likes of Grand Prix Simulator 2, charity title The Race Against Time and Jet Bike Simulator (the first of Codemasters' slightly more expensive Plus range). By the autumn of 1988 the brothers were ready to start work on Fantasy World Dizzy and introduced a selection of new characters called the Yolk Folk.
Despite their name, however, they and Dizzy aren't actually eggs - or so the twins claim. “He's simply the largest face we could actually move around a screen,” says Andrew. “We were trying to show real expression in the character so that people were engaged by him; needless to say, we felt the face was important.” Regardless of what they actually were, the introduction of the Yolk Folk proved a masterstroke by the twins and gave the franchise a depth that had been missing from previous titles. Dizzy could now interact more with non-player characters and they added a new dimension to the ever-growing series.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Fantasy World Dizzy, though, is that it became a success before anyone at Codemasters had even seen it. “Back in those days, Codemasters was only an operation of about six people - most of those were Darling family members - and we weren't local to them, so as a result we tended to just write what we wanted to write and posted it in,” begins Philip. “It's quite interesting that Fantasy World Dizzy was actually fully duplicated, on sale and a number-one seller before anybody at Codemasters had actually loaded the tape up to see what it was. There was such a high level of trust between us and the Darlings that this wasn't uncommon, and we were all working 18-hour days anyway so it's quite likely that no-one had found the time to load it up!”
Codemasters had nothing to worry about as Fantasy World Dizzy was a great improvement on its predecessors and proved a massive hit with reviewers and fans. After working on Ghostbusters II for Activision and Operation Gunship for Codemasters, the brothers decided it was time for another Dizzy game and came up with the excellent Kwik Snax, a superb puzzler that remains Dizzy's best venture outside of his traditional adventure titles.
CALLING IN THE CONTRACTORS
With new consoles coming onto the market, Codemasters was eager to break into the lucrative US NES market (at the time, the system had over 20 million sales compared to 1 million for the Spectrum) and quickly had the brothers get a conversion of Treasure Island Dizzy ready to show off at the 1990 CES trade show. After the demo received great interest, Codemasters decided to release new versions of Fantasy World Dizzy and Grand Prix Simulator. However, it also wanted to keep releasing titles for the home computers, so after some deliberation the twins decided to contract out Magicland Dizzy to Big Red Software so they could continue work on the new NES titles.
“There simply weren't enough hours in the day for us to write all the games we wanted to,” says Andrew. “We were very friendly with Big Red Software (who, incidentally, we now employ most of) and had a lot of respect for the work that they were doing on their games. Between us we worked out a rough storyline and were very happy with the game that they produced. They then worked on Dizzy Prince Of The Yolk Folk which they designed almost entirely on their own and we were exceptionally pleased because it really captured the full essence of what Dizzy was trying to achieve. In some ways it did this better than our own games had done up to that point.”
The Big Red Software titles proved popular and the studio went on to develop the substandard Panic Dizzy! and the excellent Seymour titles that have more than a few Dizzy similarities. Last but by no means least was the decent but flawed (it was much too big) Spellbound Dizzy; but despite its problems it proved one of the most successful Dizzy titles and was a fitting end to Big Red Software's partnership with the twins.
“with the Dizzy games we wanted to create an interactive cartoon”
While the home computer versions of Dizzy were proving immensely popular the twins were finding working on the NES (and later the Master System, Mega Drive and Game Gear) a completely different proposition… “The transition to consoles was hugely difficult for us,” admits Philip. “We had been producing games incredibly quickly but as we moved onto console we were now up against games like Mario and, later, Sonic The Hedgehog. This meant that games took an awful lot longer to produce, the quality of the graphics had to be higher and overnight we found the games were taking ten times as long to write. On consoles people wanted more on-screen movement and faster action rather than actual thinking. This is one of the reasons why the first Sonic was so hugely successful as [Sonic Team] tapped into fast action-based gameplay. Obviously, Dizzy was not well suited to this and that was probably why the Dizzy games finally declined in popularity - people wanted more action games.”
While The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy did prove popular, it never achieved the sort of sales that the twins had hoped for. They predicted the game would sell over half a million units but the figure was nearer to 125,000. In part this could hav been due to the fact that an ongoing legal battle with Nintendo and Codemasters over the Game Genie meant that the game missed the lucrative Christmas holidays and ended up getting released the following April. Dizzy was starting to wane in popularity, but for the fans, the biggest insult had yet to arrive…
“ there simply we ren't enough hours in the day for us to write al l the games we wanted to”
Dizzy was slowly starting to run out of steam, and while his games continued to sell they no longer automatically reached the coveted number-one spot This wasn't due to complacency by the twins or Big Red Software, gamers simply seemed to be growing less excited by Dizzy's continuing adventures and arcade games. Dizzy Down The Rapids (which started life as a mini-game in The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy) was a typical example and impressed few critics or gamers. Bubble Dizzy also divided audiences and even its unique conception wasn't enough to save it. “We got the idea of Bubble Dizzy from just watching the bubbles in a lemonade glass and sitting there thinking about how they would go up and then burst, only to be taken over by another one,” reveals Andrew. “We thought we could make that idea into some interesting gameplay. We were also inspired by the excellent C64 title Nebulus and wanted to create something similar but with a different angle.”
With Christmas approaching, Codemasters decided that it wanted another Dizzy game for the home market. Though Spellbound Dizzy had proved popular, Codemasters wasn't happy with the price it was sold for and intended to change it for Dizzy's next outing. “Codemasters was concerned that there was relatively little profit compared with how successful Spellbound Dizzy had been,” explains Philip. “Unfortunately, the jump from £2.99 to £10.99 was huge, mainly because there were no mid-price points available. As a result it had to be more polished, higher quality and produced in a large box and supported by a good marketing campaign. It was not unusual for games of this quality to go out at £9.99; therefore, we saw no adverse reaction to it. I think up until then, the Dizzy fan base had been very pleased with what value for money they were receiving on the previous games. By the time we got to Crystal Kingdom Dizzy, they just accepted that we were now the same price as everyone else.”
Despite the brothers' claims, Crystal Kingdom Dizzy didn't prove that popular with fans, and they saw through the cheap extras that Codemasters had bundled with the game in order to justify the much higher price.
By this point, the strain was beginning to show between the twins and Codemasters and their final few games hit several problems. The brothers decided to port several of the NES titles over to Sega's Game Gear and Master System as they would be fairly easy and cost effective to convert. As production continued the twins' relationship with Codemasters soured and they decided to cancel Dreamworld Pogie (one of the planned titles) when several staff left and the Olivers were unable to replace them.
Work continued but faced further problems when Codemasters' marketing department explained that none of the titles would receive separate releases. With little choice in the matter, the brothers bundled the remaining planned games (Wonderland Dizzy, Go! Dizzy Go! and Dizzy The Adventurer) onto one compilation. But even this proved problematic as Codemasters stated that it didn't want two adventure titles on the new compilation. Wonderland Dizzy was dropped and the brothers quickly converted Panic Dizzy! to replace it. With the twins losing staff and being forced to live off their wives' earnings they decided to break away from Codemasters and form their own company.
Sadly, the production of future Dizzy games on later consoles and computers no longer proved to be financially viable (a big difference to when Treasure Island Dizzy was made), and with Codemasters and the twins both owning a fifty-fifty share on the Dizzy IP no more games were released. Fortunately, this may change in the future, although as Philip points out, it's going to need to be a very good game.
“We do have discussions with Codemasters every now and then about resurrecting Dizzy, and we've even done a few art tests in recent years [take a look at www.fantasticdizzy.co.uk], but neither company wants to revive him just for the sake of it. Both companies have established good reputations for creating a huge variety of great new games that are arguably better than Dizzy ever was, so if he were ever to make another appearance it would have to be something really special.”
Despite having no firm plans for Dizzy's future, the twins are more than happy with the support he continues to get. “The demand to bring Dizzy back continues to be very gratifying and we know from the many emails we receive and the people that apply to work for us that Dizzy inspired a lot of people to get into the games industry,” confirms Andrew. “With Dizzy, though, you have to realise that there's a big difference between people's fond childhood memories and the quality of top-selling character games today. If he came back he would have to compete with the likes of Jak And Daxter and Ratchet & Clank - and those types of games require big budgets and many months of development. If there's a publisher willing to commit to that kind of investment, though, then they can definitely count us in. There's also been a lot of interest in people wanting to play the original Dizzy games on some of the handheld formats recently so maybe he'll make a new appearance on mobile phones. We'll have to wait and see.”
If Dizzy does ever return, the brothers know exactly what type of game he would appear in and have already envisaged his next adventure. “We feel that the Shrek movies completely captured the personality, storyline and imagery we had always dreamt of but were unable to achieve with the technology at the time,” reveals Philip. “If we ever get to make a new Dizzy game, that's exactly the sort of direction that we'd like to take him in.”
For the moment, though, the twins are simply happy that Dizzy continues to exist in gamers' hearts and are pleased with the success that he's achieved. “We think - and we may be wrong - that it's because Dizzy conjured up a great deal of imagination in people's minds that was very unusual at the time,” says Philip. “Clearly with the technology that we had we were only scratching the surface to tell the story and introduce the characters, but people's imaginations were sparked and they were able to fill in the gaps, a little bit like the way people read an awful lot more into books, and the imagery that they conjure up in their minds is often far more impressive than when Hollywood makes a movie of that same book.”
Regardless of whether Dizzy returns or not, it's obvious that both the Oliver twins and his legions of fans still have a lot of love for the exploring egg and will continue to support him in the future.
» Auteur - Dominic Robinson