The Olivers? Twist
Tuesday, 14th September 2010 at 8:00 am
Exactly 20 years after the Oliver twins founded Blitz Games, the pair are heading up one of the globe’s most distinct studios
There’s a furious energy at Blitz Game Studios’ Leamington Spa base that you’d think would have waned in the 20 years since its famed founders the Oliver twins set up shop in 1990.
Conversations unfurl with ferocious pace as staffers tear through the gangways that subdivide the desks, and all the time there’s an atmosphere more typical of a new outfit’s opening week.
People duck into meeting rooms with urgent messages, stay a while to wax lyrical, and suddenly depart with starting gun urgency.
And yet Blitz Games has two decades behind it, and many years at its location in Leamington Spa. Where that heritage shows is in the organised chaos that covers Blitz’s desks, shelves and walls.
To draw comparison with a long occupied bedroom would be a little unfair, but the Olivers’ kingdom feels a great deal more homely than that offered by the designer lines so familiar in the headquarters of development’s nouveau riche studios.
Media Molecule’s new Guildford office is dominated upstairs by a cold metal breakfast bar; Blitz has a free tuck shop.
Pin down Philip and Andrew Oliver for a moment between their constant lively engaging with their employees over projects ongoing, and it’s clear who fosters the energy, character and charisma that is so abundant at Blitz.
The pair’s passion is infectious, and clearly they have passed on their spirit to those around them.
All very charming, but modest eccentricity isn’t the making of Blitz; with six divisions covering core games, downloadables, serious gaming, education, indie publishing and middleware, the company is thriving on some other fuel than personality alone.
“The mix here between realism and creativity is interesting” says Philip.
“It’s because we come from the route of being extremely creative, but, over time, we’ve really grown up, and have a bigger respect for doing business. That’s been really important to get us where we are today, because there have been too many other studios who have only worried about the creative. You can’t do that when running a bigger business,” adds the man who carries the title CEO, when in reality his role, like his brother’s, encompasses a great deal more than the assigned acronym suggests.
From the off there is talk of evolution and growth, but delving a little deeper into the secrets behind Blitz’s 20 years of success, it is clear that from day one the Olivers approached development with a pragmatism that still defines their success.
In fact, the sense of realism predates Blitz’s foundation as a limited company in 1990, and goes back to Philip and Andrew’s famed passion for making numerous games from their home as ambitious young teenagers in the early 1980s.
“When we got into writing our very early games one of the things that differentiated us from the other people making games, was that they were making games for themselves. They would play a shooter in the arcades, and then try and make it for the Commodore,” explains Andrew, who carries the title of CTO.
“We just thought about the fact that we wanted to publish a game, and get it out there to an audience that would want it. We were thinking about an audience, and being realistic. We saw that systems like the Spectrum were best suited to cartoon games, so we thought about the kind of audiences that liked cartoons.”
When the Olivers won a development competition on the popular kids TV programme Saturday Show, which saw their first game published in 1984, their hobby quickly became something more serious, and spurred on by a visit to the stand of the fledgling Codemasters at a trade show in 1985, they quickly began to make games to sell to the publisher.
A period of intense creativity began that saw seven per cent of all games sold in the UK in 1986 carry the Oliver name, making them every part The Beatles of British game development. That pace and fervour exists in far more than residue form today, and every impassioned conversation about working with Kinect or the virtues of serious gaming evokes a strong feeling of what must have been going on in that golden era of the Olivers’ early careers.
That same period also saw the establishment of a prototype that would not only play prelude to the BlitzTech middleware solution, but also establish a template for modern game development.
Andrew and Philip created their own cross platform development environment that would allow them to build games for the era’s number of competing home computing formats.
“We built that, not because we wanted to make lots of money, but because we wanted the widest audience. We wanted to make lots of games to reach lots of people. That was always our goal; just get it out there.”
THE SPICE OF LIFE
Years later, after a number of firsts including debuting the release of games on CD and beating the original Xbox to launch with Fusion Frenzy, which hit consumers a week before the Microsoft console that was its host, Blitz has an interesting challenge.
Without a defining triple-A title, consumers would be forgiven for wondering what has been keeping Blitz so busy. While the firm’s core gaming division Volatile has crafted Dead to Rights, the Olivers don’t yet have their Grand Theft Auto or LittleBigPlanet.
Mention that, though, and everyone at Blitz is keen to highlight the boom or bust nature of investing everything in the next Modern Warfare. Variety, it seems, is more than the spice of life at Blitz; it’s the bedrock on which 20 years of expansion is built.
“We have a deliberate diversification strategy,” explains CFO and finance director Richard Smithies, a long serving friend of the Olivers who joined the team in 1994, seeing its head count climb from 110 then to almost 230 today.
“If you think about it, the industry is subject to massive uncertainties and changes. That’s exciting, and we really like that, but you must be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. We’ve seen a number of fantastic studios go bust in recent years because they’ve done just that.
“You’ve got to have diversity in clients, and genre, and platform. You can’t be a jack of all trades, master of none. In everything we do, we try to be master of that trade, and with a lot of hard work we are. There’s a lot of strategic thinking behind the way that we are, and we’re continually willing to move and evolve; our work with our Kinect titles shows that.”
Amidst the myriad of projects glimpsed through closed doors pushed ajar for a tantalising second during Develop’s tour, a wealth of on-the-record Kinect titles are underway, including ‘movie karaoke’ release Yoostar 2 and the much-publicised family title The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout.
Those are the work of the Blitz Games division. Meanwhile Volatile busies itself with traditional games, and the Blitz Arcade concerns itself with download titles and short-session experiences.
Elsewhere the thriving TruSim serious games division focuses on the development of advanced realistic avatars, which often see adoption by the medical sector for training purposes.
Meanwhile Blitz Academy provides both a link with and service for educational establishments, as well as training opportunities for internal staff to better their skills.
BlitzTech provides an increasingly popular engine for licensees looking to match Blitz’s quality of development, and marks the final of Blitz’s current six divisions
There’s also the popular Blitz 1-Up element of the company, which gives indies and bedroom coders a hand with anything from tech and creativity to marketing and distribution – all for a proportional share of the profits.
The company boasts two R&D departments – one for art and one for tech – an impressive audio facility, and relatively sizeable internal teams dedicated to pitching, PR, biz dev, and asset creation.
Not bad for an independent developer, and a sign that Blitz’s mantra of diversity and agility is one taken very seriously. The challenge there is management, and Blitz’s solution is the Studio Development Group; a hand-picked band of discipline specialists that weave together the separate projects.
Blitz does implement a traditional, relatively flat managerial structure of the vertical nature, where below the execs and managers sit project leads, each supported by groups of artists, coders and other creatives.
To stop those collectives becoming cliques, the STG, based in its own space in the heart of Blitz’s building, provides a horizontal management structure. The STG head of art, for example, provides connection between each project’s artists, meaning progress and initiative is shared and fostered.
Philip demonstrates this management structure with conjurer’s arm movements that somehow make perfect sense, and he’s keen to point out that the STG are an essential element to the secret of Blitz’s ongoing success.
Another ingredient in Blitz’s recipe for longevity is its partly altruistic contact with the grass roots of game development, largely through Blitz Academy and Blitz 1-Up.
“Blitz 1-UP is, in a way, a natural extension of things like Blitz Academy. It allows us to be in touch with up and coming developers, and see where ideas are coming from, and lets us be involved in cool indie projects that are often slightly left of the mainstream,” confirms Blitz 1-UP producer Neil Holmes.
“Also, a lot of these guys could end up coming to work with us at Blitz.”
Spend a day at Blitz, and there’s so much enthusiasm for what the company offers it can almost overwhelm. The dedication to the workforce is striking, and the creative energy truly exciting – it’s little wonder that Blitz is currently enjoying an outbreak of staff celebrating ten or in some cases 15 years serving the company.
“There really is method behind what must seem like madness, and there are constants of passion and enthusiasm. Everything has just got more professional over time, and ultimately, we want to be the Pixar of the games industry” concludes Smithies.
No sooner has the CFO finished, and Andrew rushes to offer advice to other studios looking to go the distance: “You have to take good paying projects that you not only believe in, but that also take your studio forwards. Always doing sequels doesn’t move you forwards, unless you can really bring something new to the table.”
“We do what is right; not what everybody else does,” adds Philip with a confidence as humble as it is assured. “We have been around a long time – just look how old we are – so we have seen so many companies and so many technologies come and go over time, and we do genuinely know what the right thing to do is.
“For that reason we don’t wait for other people to approve of how we do things; we honestly are masters of our own destiny.”
With a keen eye on the future, a sustainable business model and a dedicated workforce, things look good for the studio. The Olivers joke that in another 20 years they will look like their iconic platforming offspring Dizzy the Egg, but they’re certain their team will still be creating games with the same buoyant attitude.
“Look at his face,” says Philip, prodding his Dizzy mug. “He’s bald, but he’s optimistic.”
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