Est. April 2016. III Version 2.0. III
Our exclusive interview with Roll 7’s Tom Hegarty.
By JAY TEE
Laser League has continued to be a regular staple of my Xbox multiplayer gaming. This high stakes sporting title has been years in the making, with extensive iteration and testing before being released into the wild. Including it as part of Microsoft’s Game Pass at launch back in June 2018 was a smart play. Positive word of mouth, and a steady stream of new content, have kept a loyal fanbase totally engaged.
I had the chance to chat with Roll 7’s Tom Hegarty, to discuss everything from playable classes that never made the cut, to the nature of operating a remote development studio. We also delve into the background of the team, and cover future plans for the game.
THE BASICS -
CENTRE STAGE KEY:
Big Picture -
Warp Speed -
Each arena offers a genuinely unique challenge, and force you to mix up your strategy.
JTGA: Lets start with the basics. Where are you guys based?
Tom: We’re actually completely remote. We don’t have an office. The whole team is remote. We try and meet up at least once a month, in a central location in London. We used to have an office down in New Cross. I don’t know how well you know London?
JTGA: I went to University in New Cross. I went to Goldsmiths!
Tom: Ah ok! We actually employ a lot of people from Goldsmiths. One of our QA guys is from Goldsmiths. OlliOlli 1 and 2 were mainly made by ex Goldsmiths students.
JTGA: Nice one! So what’s your background in game development?
Tom: I first ran a separate alternative education company with Simon [Bennett, also part of Roll7], working with young people who were maybe disenfranchised, youth offenders, not in school. We even helped develop qualifications, focusing on all kinds of multimedia stuff. We ended up doing a job back in 2005 for EA Games, via a marketing agency. They wanted to promote their games in this area as part of their corporate social responsibility, offering free workshops to the kinds of young people we were working with. We actually kitted out a double decker bus with loads of laptops, DJ decks, and toured it!
Afterwards, a lot of people started asking us if we could do games design courses. At the time we couldn’t, but, we said “give us a couple of months…”
JTGA: [laughs] “We’ll get back to you!”
Tom: [laughs] And we found a piece of software called ‘FPSC’, which I don’t think they make anymore. ‘First Person Shooter Creator’. I downloaded it, and literally within four minutes, I’d created this room, put some enemies in it, plonked myself in, and I could go and shoot them. And my first thought was: “This is the equivalent of Garage Band for game design”. I went on the forums looking for someone to run the course, and only one person applied for the job: John [Ribbins] who is now our creative director at Roll7.
JTGA: Is there a class or powerup that didn’t make the final cut?
Tom: Yeah there is. There was one called ‘Blast’, where you could blast a hole through lasers by dashing through them, but we realised very quickly that it’s only useful if you’re losing. So you’d only pick it if you anticipated losing, and the lasers rotate so quickly towards the end of each round that it would be kind of useless anyway.
One thing that’s interesting is the game used to be about 25% faster. Our first reaction when it got slowed down was “This is terrible!”. But it was the right decision, because the speed at which the network operates… it just wouldn’t have worked.
JTGA: Are there plans to introduce an early quit penalty?
Tom: There are a few things I can’t go into just yet, but that will definitely be a factor in what we do next.
JTGA: Will OlliOlli, Not A Hero, and / or Laser League ever appear on Switch?
Tom: I would love it if they could be on there, yes. (ED: This interview was recorded before Not A Hero had been successfully ported. So… insert winky face emoji here).
JTGA: Are you planning to support the game with additional content?
Tom: Yes, in the broadest sense. We plan to support the game for as long as people are interested. Going back to what we were talking about before, about how we were feeling… we didn’t know how this would go. It could have bombed. It could have done a PUBG. We’re taking a bit of time to survey and ask “What do people actually want?” before we lock down our plans.
JTGA: What is your own preferred class?
Tom: I’m either Smash or Thief. Those are the two that I use most. If I can tell that the people I’m playing with are jumping in for the first time, then I’ll go as Ghost, to keep it going a bit longer and help them out.
JTGA: In the same vein as Fortnite’s Avengers crossover (with the Thanos limited time mode), is there another IP, either in gaming or from another medium, that you could see being a good fit to partner up with Laser League?
Tom: Hmm… You’d have to go Tron. That’s the obvious one. Something else we’d be interested in doing is linking with genuine teams from other sports. That could be a fun crossover.
I want to thank Tom Hegarty for being so generous and candid answering all of these questions, and taking the time to provide such a detailed look at the origins of Laser League. This was a fascinating conversation, and I’m incredibly grateful that he was so willing to share his unique perspective. If you’d like to read more, check out our official review RIGHT HERE.
Look out for more JTGA coverage, in the days and weeks ahead. Laser League is available now for PC, Xbox One, and PS4.
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From humble beginnings to an instant classic.
Just a hint of the chaos that can ensue when things really get going…
With key art this good, Laser League NEEDS a boxed release!
JTGA: So the core team was established very early on…
Tom: Yeah! And that became that company’s most successful course. We were running it all over London and South East England. In the end, we had about seventy tutors, and twenty five full time staff. Then in about 2008, because we were doing all this stuff, we thought “wouldn’t it be cool to do an anti knife crime computer game?”.
We got funding from various places, and ended up doing two games. One of them was in conjunction with Channel 4, and all the key elements were created by young people, under the guidance of our team. That was kind of how we got into making games. We then spent about four years making games for other people. Marketing teams, education, but always with a socially responsible angle. Everything, from producing stuff for colleges, to a game for young people with ADHD.
By 2012, we decided we wanted to make our own IP. That’s when we switched to doing our own stuff. We’d made enough money doing ‘gun for hire’ jobs, and that gave us our foundation. Interestingly, doing all of those contracts for other people really taught us the discipline of getting a project finished. You have a deadline, and it needs to be done. Let’s focus on the essentials.
JTGA: You can definitely see that focus on nailing the core essentials across many of your games, especially in Laser League with the clean art style and two input controls…
Tom: It’s about acknowledging what we’re good at. We don’t have a massive art team. For Laser League, we did get a bigger budget, and we’re really pleased with how it looks, but Not A Hero and the OlliOlli games were made with one artist. Ultimately, when you’re playing, it comes down to readability. That’s something we put a lot of work into, along with balance, and it’s something we’ll continue to tweak.
JTGA: How long has Laser League been in development?
Tom: John [Ribbins] showed me the initial concept after we had just signed OlliOlli, either in late 2012 or early 2013. At the time, the game was called Ultra Neon Tactics. We went up to an event in Birmingham, looking for potential investors for the studio. On the way home, we got stuck on a train. John got his laptop out, and said “I’ve been working on this thing. Have a look”.
This was the initial version of the idea. It had asteroids going across the screen, gun turrets that would track you around the arena, and I think you, as the player, could shoot at one point as well. He started prototyping the concept, removing the asteroids because they were getting in the way. The gun turrets were a bit annoying, so we removed those as well. We realised the best part was turning on the lasers to trap your opponent. At this point, everything was random, so the laser nodes would appear wherever, and some would turn on automatically.
Once we started actual development, we realised that the randomness of everything wasn’t what was going to make this game fun. It should be about learning a pattern, knowing you could trap people at certain points, or a particular power up would appear that you’d have to defend or retrieve.
Tom: [cont.] When we were touting OlliOlli and Not A Hero with Devolver [Digital], we’d go to places like E3, PAX etc… and John would always get his laptop out and show the game. One day, Devolver had a spare slot at EGX, after someone else pulled out, and they asked us whether we wanted to put it out there. It ended up getting more players than OlliOlli AND Not A Hero combined! Then in 2014 we hosted a media day for journalists (back when we had our office in New Cross). We were showcasing OlliOlli 2, but we also set up Ultra Neon Tactics using an old 4:3 monitor that looked very old school, and a bit shoddy, and everyone who went hands on said “THIS should be your next game”.
But we had to be honest and say… if we want to put this out, we have to take the time to do it properly. The game had so many bugs. Also, if we released it as it looked then, how would it be received? It’s pixelart. Automatically, you’d lose a huge percentage of your potential player base.
JTGA: That’s interesting, because I know I’ve looked at pixelart games in the past and immediately made a snap judgement. Having the right aesthetic is so important…
Tom: Yeah. With OlliOlli, it has its own unique style. It’s pixel-
Tom: In the past, we were heavily influenced by stuff like Hotline Miami. We loved the vibe of games like that. But Laser League was an odd one, because it seemed like such a new concept. Often people say it reminds them of Asteroids, or something like Snake 2 on old Nokia phones, where you go off the top of the screen and reappear at the bottom. But they were never really in mind. I think when we decided we wanted to take Ultra Neon Tactics and turn it into a much more ambitious project, we’d look at, and reference, other games in terms of their ambition and what they achieved, as opposed to how they played.
The thing with Laser League, and something that’s still difficult for us today, is explaining it to people who haven’t played it. If you say ‘Tron’, that doesn’t really mean anything.
Tom: We’ve basically invented a new sport. That’s the thing that got us really excited, to take it from dots on a screen to people who can knock each other around, and have classes with unique abilities. We describe it being like ‘Gladiators’, not the ITV television show with ‘Wolf’, but… [laughs] That’s our next game!
Other studios definitely inspired us by their ambition. Hello Games [developers of No Man’s Sky] did the Joe Danger titles. We thought that was incredible to go from those two games, to something as big as NMS.
We found ourselves in a similar place. We did the two skateboarding games, and we could have gone straight to OlliOlli3, which we had a lot of people asking us to do. Not A Hero was a completely new IP. It had narrative, and very different mechanics, but it still felt like it fit with what we’d done before. So we asked ourselves: what could we do? What could our big thing be?
JTGA: What’s the feeling right now, amongst you and your team, now that the game has shipped?
Tom: It’s always a weird one when you finish and you’ve just released. It’s such an intense period up to launch. It was particularly intense for us because we did the Early Access version, which for all intents and purposes, is a game launch. Something we’re very proud of is the lag free experience that you get when you play online. That took a lot of work. The game itself was probably done last August or September , but after that it became about optimisation and making it run as smoothly as possible.
You have a lot of multiplayer games that completely fall over on Day 1. Coming out of Early Access, we knew the game was stable, but when Xbox hit, especially being on Games Pass, we knew that we were guaranteed big, big numbers. And, thankfully, everything was OK. I think there’s definite relief, because although we’ve had a few reports of network errors, they really are few and far between. We knew we wouldn’t really get a second bite of the cherry. It had to be right first time.
Within the gaming industry, people know what Roll7 are about. But in terms of the wider community, we know that we’re bringing this to a broader audience, and we have one opportunity to get it right.
JTGA: So how do you QA and test a game like this? When you’re such a small team and have so many things to consider?
Tom: We make sure QA is involved from the start. We’ve got a guy called Sam, who has been with us since OlliOlli, and he looks at it very much from a game design point of view. From Day 1, he’s looking at it going “This isn’t right” or “That’s broken” and helps us shape and fix it.
From June , 505 Games [our publisher] brought on a team of testers from Testronic, a QA company. We had a team of six guys based in Warsaw, Poland, working across all three platforms. It was great working with them. Then we’d always try and make time for the entire team to just stop, pile into matchmaking, and actually play the game, which was a good way to get everyone talking and giving feedback.