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Oliver twins: “Failure to change results in complete collapse”

The veteran development duo ponder the biggest changes in the industry ahead of their Nordic Game talk

Adaptability is the key to survival in this ever-changing industry.

That's according to Philip and Andrew Oliver, the UK-based brothers who form one of the longest-running games development pairings in the industry. The twins began their careers back in the 1980s, rising from submitting type-in games to magazines to running large-scale studios. While the Olivers continue to hold a position in games development today - heading up SkySaga creator Radiant Worlds - many of the fellow developers they have encountered over the past three decades have been less fortunate.

"It's very interesting to see our friends and fellow developers come and go over the years, and learn from where some got it really right and some got it very wrong," Philip Oliver tells GamesIndustry.biz. "But, more often than not, failures weren't about their lack of passion, creativity, commitment or even making good games. It was their inability to change or in many cases simply becoming vulnerable and unlucky.

twins

The Oliver twins through the ages

"I think it's unkind to name individuals who have fallen from grace, but let's look at some companies... there's Atari, Acclaim, Infogrames, Hasbro Interactive, 3DO and THQ. They all failed to change when change was required, resulting in complete collapse and failure not only to their own companies, but also causing massive damaging ripples across their partners and the industry." 

The Oliver twins themselves have strived to remain adaptable. It's been no smooth road - with the most notable bump being the closure of their company Blitz Games Studios back in 2013 - but the brothers have learned from every twist and turn along the way, determined to keep looking forwards.

"Having seen so much change, you start to see the benefits and risks of change and recognise when it's a good time to shift focus, a time to invest, and when it's best to just sit tight," says Andrew Oliver. "Less experienced people have sometimes avoided change for fear of the unknown and got stuck in a fading market or failed to move with the times or to innovate."

He goes on to say that while they both remain "very proud of all the games we've made over the last three decades", hindsight has shown that they could have changed and adapted faster to certain trends in the industry. There were key moments throughout their careers where a different choice or a little more risk could have led to better things.

"During the '90s we made games of films and toy brands, but we should have probably created more of our own IP"

Andrew Oliver, Radiant Worlds

"During the '80s, whilst we had great success, we should have negotiated better contracts and not invested all our money and efforts in supporting one direction," he says. "During the '90s we struck gold by backing PlayStation and making games of films and toy brands, but we should have probably created more of our own IP. During the '00s we had some great success with peripheral games, with so many karaoke, EyeToy, Kinect and Wii games, but maybe we should have been looking at the online and free-to-play space a little sooner."

The Olivers are just two of the UK development icons GamesIndustry.biz has brought on board for part of this week's Nordic Game Conference. They will discuss the various lessons they have learned during their careers in a talk entitled 'The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same' - and both are keen to stress that there is more to be gained from such reflection than just nostalgia.

"History has a habit of repeating itself, and whilst we think of it as a fast moving innovative industry that's always tackling new technologies and markets and re-inventing itself, you can often see familiar patterns from what's gone before," says Philip. "That's why understanding the past is helpful in predicting and tackling the future, and why experience is a valuable asset. 

Andrew adds: "The industry used to be much more predictable with its cycles, usually driven by the next wave of console releases, but now we have the market fragmenting in many different directions too, so if you understand what happened and why, then you can predict more accurately what is likely to happen in the future."

The twins are expected to touch on the various business models that have developed during their time. The rise of free-to-play, for example, has opened new opportunities for developers of all sizes, but it has also created a myriad of new challenges - and an often punishing marketplace for smaller studios. While it's unlikely this particular model will disappear, are there any the Olivers hope to see return?

"In many ways, getting games made and sold is very similar now to when we first started, but with a newer, tougher challenges for small devs"

Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds

"There are pros and cons to all business models and development methods so it's never really as simple as preferring one over another," says Philip. "In many ways, the approaches to getting games made and sold are very similar now to what they were when we first started, which is great to see, but with that comes a lot of newer, tougher challenges for small devs starting out, so no approach is perfect."

Andrew agrees, adding: "As Philip said, not all models in the past were ideal, but to just ignore them as 'failed models' is only half the story. Understanding why they failed will ensure you can come up with a new method that suits the way you work and can be a hybrid of what's gone before, but itself is new and better."

Of course, focusing on the past and learning from it is never enough; games businesses must always be looking forward as well. But given the cyclical nature of the industry and the many changes the Olivers have both seen and adapted to, what do they expect from the decade ahead?

"A lot can happen in ten years - smartphones and Minecraft didn't exist 10 years ago," says Philip. "Let's hope that VR gets comfortable in both form factor and play experience and that game design issues like movement are elegantly solved. It has the chance to really capture the imagination of the mass and casual market, but it still has lot of challenges.

"Whilst new technology is always cool to us gamers, we need to all focus on what the mass global market really wants. Whilst a game requires technology as a platform, it's the experience and engaging content that counts, and not showing off the technology. For the player, it's about the immersion, engagement and being entertained, no matter who they are, or where they come from.

"And lastly, making gaming social is so important, games will all be more successful if they can entertain friends together - wherever they are in the world."

Click here to check out the full list of the Nordic Game talks curated by GamesIndustry.biz.

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