My daughter has a question about OlliOlli World. Simply put: in a game where you die and restart a lot, maybe ten, fifteen, twenty times a level, does it help if it's funny? Did the team at Roll7 make OlliOlli World funny on purpose, so we wouldn't all get furious?
Thomas Hegarty, the co-CEO and co-director at Roll7 is surprisingly willing to field a question from an eight-year-old who didn't even make it onto today's Zoom call (she's busy Skyping with Bethesda). "So in my opinion," he pauses for a second. "It's not necessarily comedy so much as giving the player something, right? So in this case, we're giving them a laugh. But in other cases, you can give them something else. And it's still: 'I've earned something through this death', rather than, 'I've just stopped, I've just failed.' For me at least it's about making sure that when the player does have those bad moments, it's also a good moment."
He laughs a little wistfully. "Earlier on in development, we actually had a - we had to get rid of this mechanic - but basically, when you slammed you could just fiddle with both sticks, and there wasn't really any rhyme or reason to what you're doing. You couldn't quite tell, but the more you did, or the less, the player just wiggles and worms along the ground. And it was brilliant. We really wanted to keep it in, but then it was just a QA nightmare, because you could slam down about 20 metres from the finish line and then slowly worm your way over the line."
Conclusion? "It was hilarious. But it just became a different game."
Actually, this is a good place to start - on the process of adding stuff and seeing if it works or not, on the process of not making a different game. I'm talking to Hegarty - and lead designer James Varma - because OlliOlli World is about to get its first DLC, a sci-fi package called VOID Riders which arrives 15th June.
VOID Riders! What a glorious name. The premise is simple: aliens have arrived in Radlandia - granted, some were already there - and they want to collect skating samples for a deep space skate park. Or something like that. The important thing is: aliens! Which means tractor beams have been added to the game, allowing you to grab your board when you enter the purple strip of light and get lofted into the air. And the aliens are lofting other bits of the world into the air too - ramps and rails and obstacles. And this means there's a lot more verticality. And this also means new items for the character creator and all that jazz. More stuff! More levels and story and jokes and chances to slam into the ground and restart.
When I first saw the artwork for VOID Riders, I wondered about it. OlliOlli World is a game with a dizzying amount of stuff in it, but somehow it's still very coherent. So when you add more stuff, how do you make sure it fits?
"Being cohesive was one of our game pillars," Hegarty says. "And that applies to the narrative, the people in the world, the visuals, everything. Even if it was a really weird reason, there had to be a reason for that thing."
That doesn't mean there's a list of do's and don'ts for how you add things to the game, though. Rather, Hegarty says, "We're always very aware of not making something that's just too gimmicky. And adding something in for the sake of it." He pauses. "It can't break the flow, it's got to be additive to that experience."
The temptation with a new idea can be to chuck it in everywhere in a level. "It's like, okay, this potentially feels like a different game now," laughs Hegarty, coming back to that phrase. "But once you then work out how it fits in to the combo system and the tricks and how you can spread that across a level, hopefully, you end up with something really meaningful and interesting."
"You're not really looking at specifics in terms of like, what are the the the areas that can't be explored? What are the types of things that can't be added?" agrees Varma. "It's more like, what is the vibe of the world? And when you add to that vibe, it works a lot better."
The tractor beam is a case in point. My worry about adding mechanical things to a game as pure as OlliOlli is that every new thing you add actually reduces your options - in the same way that, say, Portal 2, with all its new ideas, ultimately felt a bit more restrictive than the first game. But that tractor beam!
"The reason why I think the tractor beam fits well is that we're adding to something you already know," Hegarty explains. "You use the grab mechanic to essentially activate the tractor beam each time - so you're not actually learning the new mechanics, such as a different way of doing it.
"When you play OlliOlli, there is potential for a cognitive overload," he continues. "You know, we're aware that we're asking the player a lot. And that's why with OlliOlli World we looked at what we could strip back - we don't demand that you press X to land, that's now an optional mechanic. And all the time you need to be looking at that balance and try to put yourself in the position of the player to understand how they're feeling. Is it too much? Is it fun? There's a fine tightrope to tread the whole way through."
The tractor beam felt cool immediately. And just watching the new trailer I am already itching to try it out for myself - along with the new character creator items, the new levels, the new story - all of it. It speaks, I think, to a team that knows what it's doing, even when it appears, initially, that it's doing a bit of everything: aliens, cartoon monsters, ghosts.
What a journey for this series, eh? And that's the thing about OlliOlli World. How far the series has come while remaining coherent. I ask Hegarty and Varma if they could go back to the release of the original OlliOlli and then see where the series is today, would that trajectory make sense?
"The first OlliOlli was made in the days of making super hard games. And that was our mindset. Our strapline was "Don't slam on your face", and, in brackets, "you will slam on your face". We're just going to pummel you. And we did.
"Where we are with OlliOlli World, it's kind of like we've reversed that. We have these conversations where we say, 'why should we punish the player for not playing in the "best" way to play?' Why don't we reward the player when they do something really good. And when they maybe don't do it, we just don't punish them. That, for us, was quite a bizarre thought - to literally flip the game on its head."
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