When they finished their first game, Gambit, at the age of 14, Blitz Games Studios wasn't even a twinkle in the Oliver Twins' eyes - yet here it stands today as one of the UK's largest remaining independent development houses. A diverse business, the company is split into six divisions under the Blitz Games Studios brand, which encompass mature titles (Volatile Games), serious games (TruSim), family titles (Blitz Games), proprietary middleware (BlitzTech), downloadable games (Blitz Arcade) and education (Blitz Academy).
Blitz Games is the label that would best incorporate the Olivers' initial forays into the industry but, adversely to this, the output has shifted somewhat towards licensed titles rather than original content. This does not seem to faze the brothers, however, who choose to focus upon the benefits that the sales potential of licensed titles provide. "Blitz Games stands for the mass-market value games, and that has an exact correlation with licensed games," says Andrew, Chief Technical Officer at the company. "And that's okay, because it's a foundation that gives us a solid, stable company which allows us to go and experiment with other things." CEO Philip agrees: "If the buying public always looked out for original games we'd be able to create a lot more of them. It does come back to commercial realities and the people who ignore the commercial realities end up going out of business."
Konami's Karaoke Revolution
It is under Blitz Games that much of their present Nintendo content is appearing, with titles such as THQ's fitness game The Biggest Loser, a tie-in to the TV show of the same name. It is usable both with and without the Balance Board, the latter "by telling you how to hold the remote" and is due out sometime later this year. Other titles include Konami's Karaoke Revolution 2009 for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii and Activision's iCarly for Wii and DS - neither of which are aimed at the 'hardcore' market, but nonetheless feature new technology that could set them apart from the competition. In Karaoke Revolution's case it is BlitzTech's own character creation system; in iCarly's case it is use of DSi functionality. The Activision-published game will be one of the first DS titles that has an expanded feature set when played on the latest model of the system. "It has proper DSi features using the camera. There's clearly some launch stuff from Nintendo themselves, but third parties haven't really got on board with it," Philip explains. Technology plays a huge role at Blitz Games Studios, so it is unsurprising to hear that they are taking advantage of DSi and are also using Motion Plus in Wii games currently in production.
If Dizzy was to slot in anywhere in the company it would be under Blitz Games. There is clearly a desire for a return - but only if they had the financial security to back it. "If it ever came back we'd want it to be really cutting edge," says Philip.
Dead To Rights: Retribution
Through Blitz Arcade the Olivers have worked with Namco-Bandai on properties such as the forthcoming Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao and the Geometry Wars/R-Type-alike PowerUp Forever on Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. They have also recently released puzzler Droplitz on the same formats - plus iPhone and PC - via Atlus USA. As for ever seeing abandoned Nintendo 64 title Dragon Sword on the download services, don't hold your breath - Philip declines chances of a comeback. "Dragon Sword was a great game at the time, but it was a third person battling game. There would be no point bringing that back as it would just look aged."
Previously tasked with working on Reservoir Dogs, Volatile Games (the mature arm of the company) is now working on Dead to Rights: Retribution for Namco. A third person action title based around police officer Jack Slate and his canine partner Shadow, Dead to Rights: Retribution is not the standard action game. They are understandably keen to remain coy at this point, but Philip could not help but show his enthusiasm. "There's an awful lot of big fight scenes in there, but there's also a lot of emotion."
Invincible Tiger: Legend Of Han Tao
As its moniker suggests, BlitzTech is the company's division dedicated to the advancement of game development technology. By using an engine that is scaleable across all formats, they are able to pull impressive performance out of any system. The House of the Dead: Overkill demonstrates this most obviously on Wii. As licensees of the tech, Headstrong Games were able to build assets to a HD-standard before gradually downsampling them to the point where the system was comfortable handling it. The current main project - of those revealed - is their development of stereoscopic 3D technology. As Chief Technical Officer, Andrew is spearheading the movement that they believe to be the future of visuals in the industry. By donning a special pair of glasses - very different from the red and blue-lensed anaglyph 3D glasses of old - and playing the game on a 3D-enabled TV, games can come to life more than ever before.
Blitz Arcade's kung-fu beat 'em up Invincible Tiger uses this technology - and it does so to dazzling effect. While the game is playable on a standard TV set, in 3D mode the game's visuals rapidly become more interesting after a very brief period of adjustment to the glasses. As you run across the 2D planes, you begin to notice branches creeping out of your screen while delicate cherry blossoms float from nearby trees and right into the space between you and the TV. Better yet, your character will also leap and climb towards you or further back into the world via doors and trees as you have him utilise the interactive elements of the environments, which are conveniently highlighted by a red sheen. The experience comes together to give a distinct, convincing impression of depth unlike anything found on a standard TV set. As well as elements of the game appearing before the screen, the landscapes also stretch backwards to give the appearance that the game is not restricted to a flat display panel, extending more deeply to make the world seem more tangible. That Blitz Games Studios is so invested in the technology even before TVs enabled with the technology are widespread is encouraging for their future output - and if you are lucky enough to have a 3DTV already, Invincible Tiger will be out in a matter of weeks on XBLA and PSN.
Blitz Academy. Image taken from Blitz Games Studios' website.
The Oliver Twins' concerns do not lie merely within game development; some of the work carried out by their company stretches into purposes that are more practical. TruSim is the division dedicated to developing training simulations for use by the likes of the military and medical industries. Their reasoning is that, as technology becomes more advanced and visuals become more realistic, TruSim applications will be able to prepare people for situations before they encounter them under real circumstances. The company has worked with leading medical and training experts on a number of prototype simulations.
As you delve further into the brothers' interests, it's easy to notice a desire to aid others alongside traditional games development. As well as their aspirations with TruSim, they're also happy to help in a capacity closer to home - the games industry itself. To those already within the world of gaming, the Blitz 1 > Up Initiative is intended to give a leg-up to smaller developers in need of advice or more substantial help. "Small groups, even individuals, can come up with a great game and maybe even start pulling it together but it's very difficult for them to get all of the way there," says Philip. "We've gone through the mill so many times and we know exactly how to make games, so we talk to people and give them advice. We're helping people get their games out there."
For those clawing at the doors of the industry and having difficulty getting started, there's Blitz Academy, which banners up the company's free annual open days for students and lecturers. "Blitz Academy is an extension of our internal training programme and the outward facing part is there to advise on how best to get into the industry, which will hopefully help more people realise their dream," explains Philip.
Finally, as founding members of TIGA they assist the industry in a more authoritative capacity. It's a trade association incorporating members of the industry, including representatives from developers such as Kuju, Climax and Rebellion, and its role is to look after the interests of developers and represent the industry to those outside of it, such as government and consumers.
The passion and determination from their youth has not dissipated - it has instead morphed to focus on proving new technologies rather than their own abilities as they had to in the past, when they were referred to as 'one hit wonders'. They disputed this opinion by stubbornly churning out success after success. The release of Super Robin Hood was a definite turning point in the eyes of both brothers: "The money changed from hundreds to thousands. It was our first game in the charts," says Andrew.
And while traditional business partners might get sick of each other, being twins has proven a boon for the Olivers. Andrew sums up their working attitude: "Growing up together we've seen the world in the same way, so we have the same experiences and the same sort of direction and passion". Their similar outlook often leads them to make the same decisions and this is emphasised well in a story Philip tells about one of their internal procedures. At Blitz Games Studios everybody is given the chance to submit game ideas in the form of one page design documents, which are placed on the company intranet for colleagues to vote on. PowerUp Forever and Droplitz both came about via this method. "I submitted a one pager on a game idea," explains Philip. "And he submitted a one pager. Turns out they were almost identical - people would think we're twins!" Unfortunately for them, their shared idea did not garner enough votes to be made.
Treasure Island Dizzy
Nobody could have expected that the single year that they took out before university to take a shot at the games industry would have been so successful, and yet here the Oliver Twins stand today, much further away from their humble beginnings than could have been anticipated. Now in charge of a successful company, the feeling is strong that they could never go back to just being a duo: "We wouldn't have enough patience, tolerance or skill
"Those were just very long days and long evenings working on stuff that we ultimately felt very proud of, because it was our creation. These days we still get to say 'that's our company' when we see our new games come out. We're really proud of the games we make. We may not physically make them, but we have a lot of input," Andrew finishes. "I think we've got to the point where we just want to create cooler, newer, and more diverse projects going in different directions."
A great big thanks to all of the lovely people at Urbis who were involved in the arrangement of this interview, and to Andrew and Philip themselves, of course, for taking the time out to talk to me. Thanks also to staff at Blitz Games Studios for their post-interview help.
Videogame Nation is still at Manchester's Urbis exhibition centre for over a month yet, so make sure to check it out. The next event will be a talk from Arthur Parsons, head of design at TTGames, on Sunday August 26th for the princely sum of £5. Take a look at the other remaining events here.
Previous coverage of the event on Cubed3: