Dubbing the PlayStation Vita's OlliOlli one of the games of the year might not be saying much when we're only a couple of months in, but I'm fairly certain it'll retain that accolade for me when 2014 is out.
A deliciously tactile 2D skater that winds score attack around a set of polished trick mechanics and neat level design, it's the kind of game that can consume entire lazy winter weekends.
It's something in the gentle balance of learning as you glide through the opening amateur levels, and in the steely challenge of perfecting the pro levels to unlock the ferocious high-tier 'rad' challenges. They're so ferocious, in fact, that there was a time when developer roll7 feared they couldn't be beaten.
"There's a box you have to tick when you submit the game, and it says have you played the game 100 per cent all the way to the end," roll7's director Tom Hegarty tells us in their New Cross studio. "And I think the first time we submitted we hadn't actually completed rad mode. We were really worried that we'd submitted a game, and ticked that little box...."
"We had a moment where we'd put in rad mode and it worked," remembers OlliOlli designer John Ribbins. "Someone asked if anyone's beaten all the levels in rad mode. So, I said I won't be seeing anyone for a bit..."
OlliOlli was beatable -- just -- only after Ribbins put in two 16-hour days exclusively attempting the hardcore levels. It turns out they needn't have worried, anyway. Just over two days after OlliOlli was released, someone had seen through the entire game from start to torturous finish. It's a feat that still surprises roll7.
As does the success and response to its first console game. "For me, the big fear was that people wouldn't get the controls," says Hegarty. "Someone told us at Develop last year that we're undoing ten years of Tony Hawks muscle memory, and that's when I started to really worry."
"We had no idea how it was going to be received," says Ribbins. "We'd been working for 18 months on the prototype, and were so involved in it. By the time we finished the only thing we could see in OlliOlli were all the mistakes. Not that you can't enjoy it anymore, but in playing it and building it you've done so many three million point combos that the thrill of going 'Oh My God, A Million!' has gone."
Over the course of those 18 months, OlliOlli had changed a fair amount. It started off as a randomly generated infinite runner -- and a loose resemblance to Canabalt still lingers in its aesthetic -- before evolving into a more rigidly designed score attack game. It's a shift that came, as some of the best design ideas do, through happy circumstance. As the team were preparing to head over to E3 for OlliOlli's first public showing, it realized its random level generator wasn't quite working so set about creating a one-off level just to have something to show.
"Tom spent something like seven hours on the plane to E3 and just playing that one level and getting it perfect," says Ribbins. "We called it Joytown -- and he was like, 'I've been rinsing Joytown'. So then we thought maybe we should just build levels you can get good at."
The switch to handcrafted levels works wonders for OlliOlli. It's what lends the game its balance, as well as its difficulty spikes (Base Five can basically go and do one), and without that foundation it's hard to imagine the basic skating mechanics working so well. There's thought in their design, essentially, and it comes via a surprisingly hands-on approach to design.
"The actual assets -- what will go in, with ledges and rails -- that was all in paper first, and then the most terrifying Excel document I've ever made," says Ribbins. "I think I spent a month trying to get really good at Excel, and modelling how many pixels he'd go off any particular obstacle at any size at any given speed, and you could modify variables in the Excel spreadsheet, so you'd see that if you had this many obstacles what kind of score you'd get."
Getting through the console development process wasn't necessarily easy, though. Sony offered a helping hand, as well as vital feedback -- at one point OlliOlli used all the face buttons and would only recognise perfect landings until roll7 was recommended to pare it back a little -- and has helped the developer through the sometimes tricky submission process.
"We had a few nasty surprises," says Hegarty. "We knew it was going to be quite tough -- we were pretty sure we weren't going to pass first time, but we'd been through a dry run so we knew there were some bits. The first day we got one 'must-fix' bug back. Then I think we ended up with nine 'must-fixes' -- so yeah, we took it back. We didn't pass the second time. Then we didn't pass the third time. And then, well -- fourth time lucky, as the phrase goes."
Even then there have been hiccups, from the lack of friends' leaderboards -- "There was that facepalm moment when reading the first review," admits Ribbins -- to a bug where an intermittent wi-fi signal causes the game to crash. A patch is being worked on right now, though it's not helped that the problem can only be replicated in Hegarty's kitchen. "The current fix that we're suggesting to people is flight mode or turn the wi-fi off while we work on a patch," he says.
Those issues aside, the release of OlliOlli has been a success, and it's interesting to make comparisons between launching on the PlayStation Vita and roll7's experience of launching on iOS with its last game, Get to the Exit. "We can't really talk numbers, but it is doing well," says Hegarty. "I think it's the fourth best seller in the Vita store at the moment. We kind of put aside expectations, though. I think iOS was definitely a one-day spike -- a one-day spike, and it went down to barely anything."
"We basically spent all the money we made on iOS on the launch party," jokes Ribbins. Was that on just a couple of bottles of beer? "No, it was J2O. It wasn't extravagant, put it that way. I think even then we had to top up the money just to cover that off."
"We've been really pleased with the Vita," says Hegarty. "Because we're self-published, Sony can't give us figures for other titles, so we try not to get too carried away. It's quite easy to think there are 4.5 million Vitas, if we just get 10 per cent of that... You're literally plucking figures from the air. But we're really pleased with how it's doing."
Sony's obviously happy with roll7, and with OlliOlli itself, and it's a relationship the pair hope to continue. "We're looking at how we can do more OlliOlli," says Hegarty. "But there's nothing concrete at the moment..." The PS4 development kits roll7 took delivery of recently might offer a clue, and even before roll7's ready to announce what its future plans are for PlayStation there's another game in development for leftfield publisher Devolver due for unveiling before the month is out. If it maintains the quality and verve of OlliOlli, there's every chance it'll be another highlight of 2014.