I’ve been thinking a lot about how to define Roll7 because actually, it’s quite hard to do. You could call it the OlliOlli studio but would that really be correct, because what about Rollerdrome? What about Laser League? What about Not a Hero? You’d miss half of what the studio has done.
Maybe it’s that Roll7 is an inventor; I like that. Because think about it: who knew 2D skateboarding could be a thing before OlliOlli came along? Hold the down button and release it to perform an ollie – it’s the foundation of the game. Then gradually layer on other moves and you have an experience that feels more like playing with a tiny finger skateboard than a video game.
And who could have predicted Laser League? It had nothing at all to do with OlliOlli, so where did it come from? It was a multiplayer game where two teams of three fought in small arenas, to activate spinning lasers that would fry the other team. It was unusual. But play it and any trepidation about the idea vanished. Laser League was immediate fun. It’s just a shame it doesn’t seem to be playable anywhere any more.
Then there’s Rollerdrome – and I don’t think I’ve ever played a game like Rollerdrome. A game that marries roller skating and shooting. A game where you skate around arenas, slow-mo annihilating enemies while launching yourself into the air to perform tricks to reload your guns. The concept is so wild it almost makes you laugh. Yet, again, the moment you have it in your hands it makes sense, almost as if there was never any doubt it would work.
Roll7 is an inventor, then, but there’s something else linking the games too. It’s an attitude and an approach, an apparent desire to bring ideas to the fore only if they’re fun first, then everything else second. Maybe that’s why the games can seem so disparate yet, when they’re in your hand, feel so similar. You know a Roll7 game by the feel of it. And it’s this knack of being able to introduce completely new ideas to us, and then utterly convince them of us, that so excites me, because the next Roll7 game could be anything but I already know I’ll want it.
Actually I tell a lie, it couldn’t be anything. I know a couple of things. I know that the next game will be fully 3D, for instance. “Rollerdrome was the first little toe dipping in the waters of fully 3D games, and I don’t think we’re going back,” says Roll7 co-founder John Ribbins, when we meet one crisp November afternooon. I also know the next game probably won’t be skateboarding. “There’s not a lot of competition for 2D, side-scrolling skateboarding games,” he says. “But in the fully 3D skateboarding space there are plenty of established IPs that are already there. At the moment, a lot of the stuff we’re exploring is not necessarily more OlliOlli.”
We’re on the cusp of a whole new Roll7 era.
I meet John Ribbins in London in November 2023, to talk about the studio’s 15th anniversary, which they’ve just passed. It’s a studio that’s been around a lot longer than most people realise, OlliOlli having appeared in 2014. Before that, Roll7 took work from whoever was offering it, making games for Facebook or for Australian space researchers – it didn’t matter. Ribbins, though, isn’t the only person I’m here to see.
With Ribbins is someone else who’s very important to the studio going forward, and unlike Ribbins – or Tom Hegarty or Simon Bennett – he’s not one of Roll7’s co-founders. The person I’m here to meet is Andreas Yiannikaris, lead designer of Rollerdrome, who now, along with Ribbins, is one of two creative directors at the studio (Ribbins is also, technically, chief creative officer). Yiannikaris is leading one new game, and Ribbins is leading the other. There is a third but I get the sense it’s a smaller thing, like the recent Xbox conversion of Rollerdrome.
Rollerdrome itself was an unusual project for Roll7, because unlike all of the studio’s other games, the idea didn’t originate there. Instead, a man called Paul Rabbitte dreamt it up for a game jam, after which a publisher saw it and recommended it to Roll7. “We’ve met this person who has a game that seems extremely in your wheelhouse,” the publisher said. “But it’s a solo dev and we wouldn’t sign a solo person to make a project of this size. But maybe you guys could collaborate. Would you like an introduction?” Roll7 said yes.
Yiannikaris joined the project several months later, after a chunk of work had been done. And the game wasn’t quite gelling. The idea as we know it was there – roller skating and shooting – but how it all hung together was unclear. “Up until my point of joining, there was probably a bit of temptation to do more something in line with what Roll7 had done with OlliOlli,” Yiannikaris tells me, “and make it so it’s a bit more linear and you skate down linear courses and shoot people along the way and score points.”
Fortunately, it just so happened that Rabbitte was playing around with an arena prototype at the same time. Yiannikaris saw it and loved it, and the direction changed from there. But there was still a lot to do. For instance, there was a melee mechanic, a kick, whereby you could hoof enemies up into the air and “do stuff with them”, Yiannarkis says. But it only worked on some enemies and not all the time, so it was binned. Likewise, arenas were separated into three discrete spaces with linear non-combat skating corridors between them, which broke the level’s momentum, so they were binned too (though I still think you can feel the essence of them in the game now).
By far the biggest issue, though, was balance, because remember, no one had done anything like Rollerdrome before, so how exactly was it supposed to work? How much shooting should there be versus how much skating? “It’s a weird new thing,” Yiannikaris says. “It’s kind of like Tony Hawk but it’s not as in-depth as a Tony Hawk skating game, and it’s kind of like a shooter but it doesn’t really control or move like a shooter.” Who was it for? Would shooter fans like it or would skater fans like it? Or would no one like it and it would collapse in a miserable heap? “It always worried us,” he says.
It’s easy to say he shouldn’t have worried now of course, because critics would love it. In our own Rollerdrome review, Chris Tapsell wrote: “Roll7 blends genres with total mastery in Rollerdrome. One of the most breathlessly stylish and casually, outrageously cool games you’ll ever play.” But Yiannikaris couldn’t have known it would get that response back then.
Nor could Yiannikaris know that several months after the game’s release, he’d be on stage at the BAFTAs giving an acceptance speech. Rollerdrome won Best British Game, not that anyone at the studio thought it would – they all thought Vampire Survivors would win. “I actually said to my girlfriend before I left the house, ‘Should I write something?'” Yiannikaris says. “And she said, ‘No. Because you know what? If you go there and you don’t win, that’s going to be the saddest little piece of paper.'” So he freestyled it. “And I was like, ‘Well I’ve made it through and I’ve said some words…’ But you watch it back and I sort of choke myself up, like oh man I did a great little job on that.”
It shows the trust Roll7 has in Yiannikaris that it had him receive the award (it’s actually something John Ribbins is really proud of – that the Rollerdrome team accepted the award and not the founders) and I think it shows the attitude Roll7 has towards the team and their ideas and agency going forward. But it does beg the question of how someone brought in to help on Rollerdrome, which was a bit of an outlier in terms of how it was originated, can really understand that current running through the studio’s games. Well, it turns out that Yiannikaris had been at Roll7 before.
Yiannikaris was the lead designer of OlliOlli 2, brought in to lead that game while Ribbins went off to work on Not a Hero, so they’ve worked in a similar sort of arrangement before. Why, though, did Yiannikaris not stay? Well, it wasn’t unusual for people to leave at the time. Back then, Roll7 hired people exclusively on fixed contracts, so everyone but the founders would leave after a project was done. Yiannikaris would go off to Bossa Studios to work on Surgeon Simulator, so theoretically, there was no bad blood. Except there was, a bit.
John Ribbins says it plainly: “I think it would be fair to say: OlliOlli 2, we made fucking wicked game that I think everyone was proud of, but I don’t know if everyone had the best time making that.”
Andreas nods, and then adds: “I’ve got a little anecdote that I always tell people to describe it.
“There was a phase where I was deep into development and level design, specifically, of that game, where I was at my desk at nine, I’d work the full day – I’d usually take a lunch break but I’d often eat at my desk – then I’d take some time off to have some dinner in the evening, from seven until maybe nine, and then get back to my computer and work until like one or two. And then repeat that. And doing that five or six days a week.
“I remember this point when I looked at the clock – and I knew that I needed to do a certain number of levels a day to get everything done on time – and it was eleven pm. And I was like, ‘Whoa! I’ve done everything I need to do today. I’m going to finish early tonight.’
“At eleven pm.”
It was why when the offer of working on Rollerdrome came around, Yiannikaris needed convincing to go back. In the years since he’d been at Roll7, though, some very important things had changed.
The founders had taken a break because of burnout after Not a Hero, then they returned to Laser League development determined not to let it happen again. “Nobody’s going to crunch. We’re not going to do it,” says Ribbins. But they were only partially successful in their aim. They apparently kept crunch away from employees, for the most part, but not from themselves. “So we were still super-burned out at the end of Laser League,” Ribbins says, “and not really sure if we wanted to make games any more.”
Pushed to an edge, their resolve hardened, and it was then they implemented the sweeping changes they operate by now. “When we came back to do OlliOlli World in 2019, that’s when we were like: we’re not going to do fixed-term contracts, we’re going to grow an actual team full-time, and we’re going to treat that team properly,” Ribbins says. “And we’re not going to crunch – we’re going to have a decent work-life balance and do flexible hours and change the way we make games.”
It helps explain another major development in the studio’s 15-year history, and that’s Roll7’s acquisition by Take-Two (Take-Two’s label Private Division specifically). As of 2021, it’s no longer independent – a status and mindset that has identified the studio over the years.
Conversations began towards the end of OlliOlli World’s development, a game that Private Division would publish. “We started talking to them about stuff we wanted to do next, just purely from a publishing point of view, and they were like, ‘What about if you just became part of the Take-Two family?'” Ribbins says. And while it might not seem like an obvious fit, there was a lot about the offer that made sense.
Ribbins had an epiphany one evening during a games award ceremony. “When we looked at the programme,” he says, “we realised we’d actually been published by every single indie publisher that was nominated for something. And every single time, you are building a new relationship with a new person, a new community manager, a new person, who you’ve got to get the vision across for what the marketing is.” It was exhausting.
Roll7 didn’t want to keep doing that. Roll7 wanted to, instead, inject that energy into building a team – a team it could retain between games and that could become the lifeblood of everything it does. So the idea of having the funding to support that was attractive. Moreover, “We were finding it harder and harder to hire because so many other places were [being] acquired,” Ribbins says, “so now they’ve got private healthcare and dental and all these other things which are super-hard for us to offer as an independent.”
There was also Roll7’s future 3D ambitions to consider, because these games would take more people to make. To that end, Roll7 is now 60 people, and will probably grow more. Doing that on an independent budget would be scary. Less wasted energy; better stability; a permanent team; funding to realise future ambitions – it all added up. So Roll7 signed the deal.
To come back to a question I left dangling earlier, then: what are the new games Roll7 is working on? Yiannikaris and Ribbins are careful not to let any real details slip, but there are some things to glean. And remember, we know it’s probably not a skateboarding game, and I doubt – with Paul Rabitte no longer there (“no animosity or weirdness though, he just wanted to do his thing,” says Ribbins) it’s Rollerdrome either.
Yiannikaris’ game was pitched to him by Ribbins, after another prototype didn’t work out. “I remember we came here [to this same office] and we were just talking all day about things we could do,” Yiannikaris says. “You [Ribbins] threw something out which broadly speaking you knew I would like and be excited about-
“I had a terrible Photoshopped image for the front slide,” Ribbins interjects.
“And I was just like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’ll take that.’ And really, I’ve been running with that very high level pitch ever since.”
Ribbins’ game, meanwhile, came from a prototype Paul Rabbitte had been messing around with before he left, though it’s been heavily iterated on and changed since. What either game actually is though, in terms of genre and gameplay, I don’t know. They’ve both been in development for about a year, though, but Ribbins’ is slightly further along and in full production. With any luck, he tells me, it will be revealed this year.
That’s where I leave Roll7: teetering on the edge of a new era. I wondered, before meeting them, whether Ribbins and Yiannikaris would show any outward signs of their new corporate ownership, but what I saw and heard reassured me. I saw two calm and relaxed people who were at ease speaking their mind, albeit with the slight exception of not wanting to spill the beans on their new games. To my eyes, Roll7 seemed like it always has seemed. No, in fact, maybe it seemed better. Stronger, more stable, more sure. How long that will last, I don’t know, but in a shaken industry, the future for Roll7 seems bright indeed. I can’t wait to see what the inventor Roll7 will dream up next.
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