Kids of the '80s
Our interest in computer and video games started in 1980, aged 12, when we first saw a Space Invaders arcade cabinet and our parents bought us a TV Pong clone for Christmas. Shortly after a friend showed us a bunch of games on his dad's Apple II computer that we played far too much!
A year later our older brother bought a Sinclair ZX81 which had 1K RAM and only a black and white character mapped screen. We spent many hours trying to write very simple BASIC games on the family TV, but concluded we needed a better computer. Combining newspaper round money, pocket money, Christmas and birthday money, we bought a Dragon 32 and set about writing better games, now with 8 colours and much more memory!
It didn’t take long before we upgraded again to a BBC Model B computer and got our first big break winning a National game making competition on The Saturday Show in October ‘83. Spurred on by this success we ratcheted up efforts writing games between schoolwork, with the ambition of getting our games published.
Our first published work was Road Runner, a type-in listing in Computer & Video Games in ‘83, but we quickly followed this up with more BASIC games that were published on cassette tapes. We learnt 6502 assembler enabling us to write faster, higher quality games, but soon discovered getting graphics into games was a major bottleneck using graph paper. So we developed an art package, followed by a sprite package, both of which were published by Interceptor Software, after which we moved over to an Amstrad CPC 464 and re-coded both from scratch, this time in Z80 assembler.
We spent our sixth form, developing more games, each better than the last, but finding publishing deals for them proved tricky. Even though the games didn’t sell very well and publishing deals were poor, we really honed our skills.
By the Summer of ’86 we had finished our A levels, and not wanting to go to university, we convinced our parents that we should take one year out to try and set up a business developing games. Everyone around us thought we were mad, but we didn’t want to do anything other than make games.
Full of enthusiasm and ready to take on the best, we attended ECTS, a national computer show in London, to pitch an idea we’d devised by studying what games people were buying. We found a new company there called Codemasters, established by two brothers our age, David & Richard Darling. They were impressed by our catalogue of published games and suggested they’d pay £10,000 for Super Robin Hood, an idea sketched on A4 paper at the time, and would publish it at the budget price of £1.99.
Not wanting to let this deal slip away, we set ourselves the daunting task of completing it inside a month. We were working in Philip’s bedroom in our parents' house and our schedule meant we worked shifts of 18 hours per day, seven days a week, eating while we worked. During the periods when we were both awake one had to prepare their code on paper, whilst the other used the computer, making sure the computer was used 23 hours per day, with two short breaks to allow it to cool! The Darling brothers loved the game, but said that they’d be paying us via royalties, 10p a copy, but they’d advance us £2,000 to sign the deal. Whilst initially we were disappointed, they did a fabulous job of publishing and distribution and the game went to #1 in the UK budget charts and within months we’d earned around £10,000.
Let’s do that again!
We’d worked exceptionally hard, but we were so proud of what we’d created and felt we had to follow up with another game, again to be written in a month. We decided to do another platform game, but with a different theme, set in a haunted house. This was Ghost Hunters, and Codemasters suggested we convert it to the Spectrum, the best selling platform at the time. Success followed again, but this time on 2 platforms!
Newspaper and magazines started writing stories of us being whizz kids. When developing the masters of Ghost Hunters, we saw the Darling brothers were driving smart new sports cars. We decided we wanted one too and thought that if we wrote a game about sports cars we might get enough money to buy one! Our next game was Grand Prix Simulator and this sold even better than the first 2 games. Writing a game per month, with insane work schedules, was becoming a habit and we loved it!
Dizzy with success
For our next game we returned to the platform genre, this time theming it to a cartoon fantasy world. We extended the game mechanics to include puzzle-solving where the main star of the game collected objects to solve and progress the adventure. We designed a cute little cartoon character named Dizzy to be the hero.
We added a flash on the box that said “The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure” as that’s what we were trying to achieve. Sales were not as good as our other Codemasters games, but reviews were good. However, over time, rather than sales declining, they kept increasing, until eventually, we knew we needed to make more Dizzy games.
Over the next few years, we created 7 more Dizzy adventure games and, since he was so popular, we also created 5 Dizzy arcade games starting with Fast Food. People couldn’t get enough of Dizzy and he became one of the most famous video game characters in the UK and across Europe. He even made it to America on consoles.
Let’s Simulate that
After the success of Grand Prix Simulator we were keen to create more simulation games inspired by popular pastimes or aspirational sports. Next up was Professional Ski Simulator, inspired by Marble Madness combined with a recent holiday to the alps! Alternating between Dizzy games we then added Jet Bike Simulator, Fruit Machine Simulator, Pro. BMX Simulator and Advanced Pinball Simulator.
Having not been satisified with the original Spectrum version of Grand Prix Simulator, we created a sequel, and also created BMX Simulator 2 and Championship Jet Ski Simulator.
All the Simulator games sold very well and Codemasters worked with other developers to create many more.
Beyond Simulators and Dizzy
Not satisfied with just creating the Dizzy and Simulator games, we had other ideas too. With our insane working hours and efficient development environment, we were able to also produce 3D Starfighter, The Race Against Time and Operation Gunship.
On the side, we were approached to convert Incredible Shrinking Sphere (ISS) from the Commodore 64 to Amstrad and Spectrum, for Activision.
They were delighted with this and offered us Ghost Busters 2. Being massive fans of the original film we couldn’t say no, and produced the Amstrad and Spectrum versions alongside doing all those games for Codemasters.
From Computers to Consoles
By the end of the 80’s, the sales of 8-bit games declined in favour of 16-bit games on the Atari ST & Commodore Amiga. Other small teams had been converting all our games over to these platforms and we were delighted with this. We felt that creating original games on these platforms would be much slower and more expensive for us to create. We were also concerned by the level of piracy on these computers, meaning it was hard to earn more than the increased development costs.
In January 1990 we visited CES in Las Vegas and our eyes were opened to the potential of consoles, mainly the NES. Here was an 8-bit cartridge-based machine where games were selling 10 times the volume we were used to seeing and at very high prices. Looking at the quality of the games, we were sure we could compete with the best, and produce them quickly.
Over the next couple of years, we produced 10 NES games, starting with the massive Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy, which won Game Players Best NES Graphic Adventure Game 1991.
Once NES game production started, we moved to Leamington Spa to be closer to Codemasters. They allowed us to use portacabins on their grounds, an old farmhouse, to work from, but as you can imagine this wasn’t very pleasant. After a year of this, we decided to find ourselves an office in town.
During this time we worked with other developers to create new Dizzy games and port our games to other platforms. This worked well, but as the workload increased we decided to start hiring people to join us in our new office and help production.
This additional capacity gave us the ability to start producing other formats of our games ’in-house’.
Games like Firehawk and Robin Hood on Amiga were converted from our NES titles. We also started producing Master System, Game Gear, Megadrive and Genesis versions of our games.
All good things come to an end
Sadly producing cartridge games, particularly NES cartridges, caused Codemasters some legal challenges and things got very difficult for them and their North American distributor Camerica. This resulted in delays in our games being released and many not being released at all. Since all our game contracts were based on royalties, that meant not getting any income for quite a lot of them, at the time we had just increased our costs by taking on offices and staff.
Eventually, we had no choice but to cut our ties with Codemasters and find new publishing partners. This lead to us creating Marco’s Magic Football, and versions of Judge Dredd, Theme Park and Syndicate and many more after that.
Ultimately Interactive Studios grew and we changed the name to Blitz Games. There are far too many games to cover so we’ll finish the story there in 1993.
THE STORY OF THE OLIVER TWINS
"This is the inside story of two brothers who turned a love of games into a business that inspired millions. It follows the birth of home computers, classic British 8-bit games and the creation of Dizzy, one of the most famous video game characters of the 1980s.
Juggling school work and pioneering game development from their bedrooms, the most prolific authors of Amstrad and Spectrum games number an amazing 26 #1 bestsellers, 34 original games and around five million sales, and at one point representing over 15% of all UK games sales. Let’s Go Dizzy!"