Even small studios typically don’t release more than one game in a calendar year. But Roll7 does exactly that and more, as it was published OlliOlli world in February and its first expansion in June and is just about to be released Rollerdrome and second untitled OlliOlli world expansion (which is scheduled for autumn). It’s a lot in every way and was one of the few topics ComingSoon Senior Gaming Editor Michael Leri covered while speaking with Head of QA David Jenkins and Lead Producer Drew Jones. Jenkins and Jones also spoke of the studio’s love of games built to induce a state of flow, Rollerdrome1970s aesthetics and more.
Michael Leri: Roll7 published an interesting development diary about the game, and it included a look at the game in its very early stages. Obviously, it looks very different now. How did the team come up with the cel-shaded, Sable-esque art style and 1970s tone?
Drew Jones: There is a logical sequence to how it all fits together. The original prototype of the game was always roller skating with guns, and we knew that after making the prototype and making sure it was something people thought was fun, we went ahead and made a game out of it. Because it’s a blood sport, many of the references just fell into place. It’s just a ton of great inspiration from the 1970s in particular, when blood sports were in. There were new things like roller skates and we had movies like that Rollerball and The Running Man [Editor’s note: The Running Man book released in 1982 and the film came out in 1987]. Part of the reason the references are in the 1970s is because the 70s was such a key nexus of the game’s genre.
There are two main reasons why the game has this art style. The first is that we didn’t want it to be photorealistic. And we knew it couldn’t be too busy. There is too much going on, especially when it comes thick and fast, and we need things to stand out and jump out. If there is too much detail, much of the readability of the gameplay is sacrificed. We didn’t want it to be complicated. But we also wanted it to be beautiful. And after looking through many references, we settled on this flat color for simplicity, but also because it’s a striking thing. We already had some really good rendering technologies from OlliOlli world and we just tried to push it in a different direction where it was less cartoonish but still cartoonish.
Rollerdrome is a real system-heavy game, reminiscent of OlliOlli World. Both of these games have a similarly deep foundation of skill-based combos and a high skill ceiling. Given these basic similarities, how does making something like OlliOlli help create Rollerdrome?
Jones: I think Rollerdrome taps into Roll7’s DNA. It has the extreme sports angle, just like previous Roll7 games Laser League which was an arena-based blood sport kind of thing. Not a hero was a fast-paced moment-to-moment shooter. Not through any kind of contrivance, we just ended up with – and I want to say the word “synergy” – a synergy of all these elements. Many of these elements are there in some way shape or form, but not one of them stands out. It’s a fine balance.
What connects all these games and what is at the heart of what we try to do at Roll7 is flow. We want to make a game where players just get into this state where one action leads beautifully to the next. And the player is engaged, but not stressed or taxed. That’s the kind of balance we want to find. Once you really get into the mechanics of the game, you just slide through the level and you pay close attention because it’s easy to make mistakes, but when you get into that groove and you look at the clock, it’s been like an hour .
David Jenkins: The fun challenge of doing these in parallel and being in QA flipping between the two was doing what we did with OlliOlli world in terms of the level layouts. The way that one thing progresses to the next and you hit all these beats, it’s relatively easy to do that in a 2D space compared to doing it in a 3D space. Because in a 2D space, we know how fast you’re likely to go and which direction you’re going. In a 3D space, you can go in any direction at any speed, and that made it harder to put the levels together, but also more rewarding when we put it together.
And to combine that with the extra mechanics, it’s not just about where the ramps, quarterpipes and grind rails are, it’s where the ramps are in relation to the sniper or rocket guy. And it was fun to iterate and contribute to it as part of our broader role in QA that goes beyond just testing. It’s the actual QA bit that I think gets lost sometimes, where we actually assure that it’s a quality product and not just say it works.
The aforementioned video did a good job of explaining how the levels are designed to encourage this kind of flow state that pushes players back into the action. Can you talk about finding that flow state and how important it was to achieve it?
Jones: For me, every action should lead to the next. IN RollerdromeIf you do a trick that will replenish your ammo and you come back down, you’ll be presented with a lot of options. You can turn left and face a ramp. You can go forward where there might be an enemy. Or you can turn the other way and do a grind or something. The options are always there, and players never have to think too consciously or too hard about the next action. The next act is just always there, and because there is constant movement, it’s almost like a fait accompli. Like you have to make your decision about what to do next because you are moving towards it.
One of the eureka moments is when you hit that loop of doing tricks to recharge your ammo and killing enemies to refill your health. It is the core that can be repeated in the gameplay. Once we had it, it really started behaving as I just described. The skating and shooting just complement each other and you really can’t do one without the other and both really pull you in to take the next action. With a little bit of refinement, we got to the point where it’s not autopilot, but your brain is active and it’s doing the work, but it’s not a conscious thing. For me, when you really get into the zone, it’s relaxing in a really perverse way because you’re shooting guns and rockets.
Jenkins: You really hit the autonomous state. I used to teach kickboxing and learning goes through the cognitive phase, then the associative phase, then the autonomous phase. And the autonomous phase is where you start to hit the right flow state. You don’t consciously say, “Oh, there’s an enemy over there. I think I’ll switch to the shotgun.” Your brain doesn’t think these things in an extended way. You just feel and it all starts to take shape. And that’s when you can start planning ahead, and that’s when you start really getting into the nitty-gritty.
I like how the shooting and trick mechanics are tied together through the scoring system, and while the scoring system isn’t crucial to the game, it should almost feel like it is. Just as you as a player would want to get a high score even if it doesn’t make any difference to anything.
Roll7 is releasing two games and two expansions this year. How did it all get so close? And how does Roll7 handle it without overexerting his team members on the ground?
Jones: When Roll7 heard about the idea, it was an idea they wanted to take seriously. I think they loved the idea so much they thought it should be a Roll7 game. It just makes too much sense to do so. OlliOlli world was already in the early stages of development at the time, so we weren’t too far behind.
It’s not exclusive either, but we tried to maintain two separate development teams. It’s hard to make a video game and it takes a lot of mental energy and you have to really dive into it, so for many roles and departments we basically ran two different development teams. Certain people on the developer side worked on both projects, but we definitely didn’t want to spread people too thin, because if people are a bit fragile, they tend not to deliver the best results. The main department that worked on both games is QA.
Jenkins: And what we tried to do was to make sure that we did it in an intelligent and deliberate way. It wasn’t just a case of everyone doing it all at the same time. We had some people who were dedicated to the project for a long time, and then we would bring other people over and rotate people around to keep them fresh and prevent them from burning out and doing the same thing over and over again. But we also did it to keep fresh eyes on the projects. We did a lot of internal testing with the other team. We did some internal testing with Private Division, which was great. We had a lot of people get their hands on this game to help make sure it was exactly what we thought it was and exactly what we wanted it to be.
We made some very conscious efforts in QA, especially to tell certain people, “Don’t touch it. Don’t go near it. Leave it alone. I know it looks great, but leave it alone a moment, we’ll come to you. You’ll get your chance.” And we would give them a questionnaire and record their footage of their first playthroughs so we could get their brand new, pristine experience, but also from a QA perspective because we have a unique perspective on games. We tend to be the ones who play the most, not just our own games but in general, and we tend to be the ones who just enjoy games the most and have an eye for detail and are pretty good at giving feedback. This is why we do what we do; we are suitable for that kind of thing.
QA did a lot of crossover, but in terms of how we do it without feeling stretched, the producers did a hell of a job structuring things, planning everything, and revealing deliverables and all that fun stuff that most people don’t see or care about about in relation to the wider gaming audience. And what you don’t see in dev diaries is how much effort goes into making sure the game is actually ready when it needs to be ready, and a lot of effort was put into making sure it was, and that we never reached a point where we didn’t have enough people or time.
I feel like we’ve pretty much always had exactly what we needed at any given time, and that’s very much down to the production team and Private Division for giving us the freedom to do that and stay true to who we are as study. It’s been a really good mixing and balancing of everything and it’s all come together and I just can’t wait for people to play it and tell us how great it is.