Roll7 co-founder John Ribbins is changing the way we make games – for the better

“You always want some theatre in games.”

In 2019, Roll7 nearly called it quits.

After wrapping up development on Laser League, a phenomenal multiplayer game that failed to find a big audience, Roll7’s founders got together for crisis talks.

“We finished Laser League, and we weren’t sure we even wanted to make video games anymore,” admits John Ribbins, Roll7’s creative director and one of the three founders of the company. “Laser League was a burner of a project, so we had a heart to heart to talk about maybe what we wanted to do [next]. We decided that we didn’t want to crunch – we wanted to build a really great team and we wanted to keep making the sort of flowy games we already enjoyed.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

The result was a complete logistical change for the company, but not a huge culture shift: the UK-based developers have always been ahead of the curve, becoming early embracers of a fully remote studio. Here, the rejection of crunch – a term often used in game development for brutal work patterns that could involve long work hours and little rest to try and head internal deadlines – came alongside a desire to “staff up” and keep teams past the completion of a single project. As an ethos, the idea of retaining a lot of staff felt unusual for what was, at the time, an indie studio Still, the gamble has paid off, leading to a golden age for the studio, with hits like charming skate game OlliOlli World and future-set rollerskating shoot ‘em-up Rollerdrome coming alongside a high profile acquisition by Rockstar Games’ owner Take-Two Interactive last year.

“I don’t think tired, burnt-out, people make good games,” Ribbins admits. “We’ve made a few good games with tired, burnt-out, people. But I don’t think it’s particularly sustainable. I also think having time away to do other stuff makes you more enthusiastic about the stuff that you’re going to do during the day.”

Speaking about crunch, Ribbins is candid about something that most studios try to sweep under the rug. “ I don’t know if we’d be where we are if we hadn’t crunched on those early games. Because we didn’t have the budget or the time to make the thing we needed to make in the time and the money that we had. So we had to work extra hours. And maybe it’s a process to get to the point where you don’t need to do crunch. Because I think it’s almost impossible to show up as a new studio with no experience and like no credentials. And it’s very difficult to ask for the full amount of money you need, because you need someone to trust you to give you that amount of money in the first place. So it’s very difficult. I think, if you’re an established studio, and you’ve made some games, then you should really try not to be doing the crazy hours.”

Since it was founded in 2008, Roll7 has differentiated itself from the pack by making games emphasising kineticism. If you’re moving in one of the studio’s fast-paced games, you can almost guarantee that it’s going to feel good. Roll7 make the kind of games that sound simple on paper: “you roller skate around an arena while shooting people” “you ride a skateboard to the end of a series of obstacles” but in reality they’re always tactile experiences that take these simple concepts and imbue them with a bunch of ways to produce an adrenaline high.

“When you make a single player game, you don’t need to be balanced in the same way as a multiplayer game, You just need to make players feel like a badass.”

And it all started, for Ribbins at least, with an Atari ST 520 brought home by his father from school to help a home business that he was intending to start.

“I was about four or five and the Atari ST ends up in my room because our house is quite small.” says Ribbins. “I had a couple of pirated games, and the Automation demo discs and stuff. So I played those. My dad was a teacher, and there was a kid in the sixth form – my dad was head of the sixth form – who would give out these pirated game discs to everyone, and because I was playing games, my dad would end up with them for me, too.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

Ribbins played a lot of games, and eventually, decided he’d try to make them, too. “One of these demo discs had BASIC – a programing language – that let Ribbins create some of his first games.

Ribbins’ first attempt was what he describes as a “terrible text game” loosely based on the ‘80s cartoon Thundercats. The goal? Building Thundertanks – makeshift weapons cobbled together from different pieces of the cat-human’s spaceship. “It would be like: ‘you want to build a Thundertank?’ If you said yes, you’d get: ‘you built a thunder tank! Want to battle?’” A player’s victory – or crushing loss – would then be decided at random.

Ribbins laughed. “I always wanted to make games, I just wasn’t really sure how.” Once Ribbins got his hands on a copy of Games Factory – a PC tool for creating 2D games – “that was really the starting point for more.” He even used it to build an early prototype of [Roll7’s breakout hit] OlliOlli, which started out as “a little sidescrolling skateboarding game with jumps”

From here, Ribbins spent years working on weird little projects, embedding himself in communities making tools for open-source games-makers like FPS Creator. In the process, he learned the nuts and bolts of how to craft games, eventually joining Rolling Sound (which would later morph into Roll7 when they honed in on creating games) back when it was just trying to help kids learn some cool creative skills. “Rolling Sound did outreach courses for the underprivileged young people,” Ribbins explains.”They wanted to do a video game production course, and I thought ‘fuck, I can actually make some money out of doing stuff in games’”.

Ribbins was lined up for an interview. “At the end I asked how many other people had applied, and it turned out I was the only person that had applied over the age of 16. So, I got that job.”

Eventually, Ribbins and Rolling Sound’s original founders Simon Bennett and Tom Hegarty decided they wanted to make video games, working with Channel 4 on titles like Dead Ends while picking up gun-for-hire contract work, helping other studios complete their own projects. This led to a little-known mobile game called Gets to the Exit, which Ribbins admits sold “like 300 copies” before “vanishing from the face of the earth”. It left the team thinking “hmm, maybe we can’t do this.”

“You always want some theatre in games.”

Then came the team’s smash-hit, OlliOlli, released in January 2014. OlliOlli came about, Ribbins freely admits, because he didn’t like doing work for hire. “ I didn’t really like the games that we made for other people, so I’d go home and make games that I wanted to make in the evening.” A lifelong skateboarder, he couldn’t resist taking another crack at the side-scrolling skateboarding game of his youth.

“We showed OlliOlli to Sony in 2012 and they said ‘do you want to put it on the [Playstation] Vita’,” said Ribbins. The team weren’t familiar with the company’s new hand-held console, which had launched worldwide that same year. “We said yes, and then Googled ‘what is a Vita’,” he recounts. Remarkably, the skateboarding game would go onto win the BAFTA for best sports game in 2015, batting away titles like Trials Fusion, Forza Horizon 2 and even FIFA 15. “That BAFTA was the turning point,” Ribbins adds. “Suddenly we were saying ‘okay, maybe we can do this after all.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

While OlliOlli was being developed back in 2012, Ribbins – who had created the prototype for OlliOlli in an engine that didn’t work on the PlayStation Vita – went back to poking and prodding at prototypes. What followed was the first iteration of Not A Hero, an ultraviolet side-scrolling shooter that launched in 2015.

“I was working on Jeffrey Archer – a game where you’re a guy with a bow and arrow named Jeffrey – and it didn’t really work but it had a cool cover system and some ideas, and that became Not A Hero. Cult indie hit Hotline Miami had come out that same year [2012] and they were with Devolver Digital, so we got in touch with them on a whim, and said ‘we’re making this ultra-violent game, are you interested?’ Devolver said yes, and we had to go back and say “thanks, but can we start development in a year? We’ve just agreed to do something else.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

After the success of OlliOlli, Sony was also keen for a sequel. As a result, both Not A Hero and OlliOlli 2 launched in 2015, the three games arriving within 18 months and establishing Roll7’s distinct brand: ultra-smooth movement and a flair for showmanship that means even doing basic things – a skateboarding jump, reloading a gun – feels incredible.

“t I feel like when you make a single-player game, you don’t need to be balanced in the same way as a multiplayer game,” says Ribbins. “You just need to make players feel like a badass.”

Ribbons points at the way enemies clatter through glass windows when shot in Not A Hero – a neat trick in the code means anyone shot near a window will smash through it rather than slump down to the floor. “You shoot a guy, he falls out the window and that’s cool. You always want some theatre in games. You do a jump in OlliOlli and some train goes by underneath. You’re like, ‘I’m jumping over a train!’”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

One mainstay of these Roll7 games was also punishing difficulty levels: several PlayStation 4 controllers were probably sacrificed at the altar of OlliOlli 2. Now, that often-infuriating skill level is something that Ribbins feels he’s moved away from as a developer.

“It’s something you see a lot: people pick your game up and play it for a bit, and they’re like: ‘oh, no, I’m not good at this’. That always kills me. I always want to tell them: “you will be good at it. It’ll feel good!” You want to get people to get that dopamine hit faster.”

“You want to get people to get that dopamine hit faster.”

“If you look at the trajectory of difficulty in our games, I think we’ve tried harder to make more people feel like they are good at a Roll7 game over time” he says. “OlliOlli is like: get good or don’t get past the first level. We’ve moved away from that with our games.” Accordingly, the studio’s newest title, Rollerdrome, aims for a mix of accessibility, and moments of theatricality.

“Early on in development I was keen that we funnel players to these cool set-piece moments, but Paul [Rabitte, creative director on Rollerdrome] was keen to say that there should be the potential for badassery and the potential for theater. If we script it, it starts to wear thin when you play it over and over again. Now, instead of there being a perfect line of things you have to hit, we’ve put a lot of elements together and now the player makes something happen: ‘you backflip just as a rocket is about to hit you, and then you dodge to the side and it hits an enemy instead.’ They were right, I was wrong –it’s so much cooler doing it this way.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

It certainly feels cool as you roll away from enemy gunfire and come up shooting, taking out a sniper across the arena while weaving around another thug with a baseball bat trying to slug you.

This move away from doing things the hard way has extended from their games, too. Going back to Laser League, Ribbins admits it was “a bit crushing” when it failed to find its audience after launch, saying it’s indicative of making a multiplayer game. “You either find your users and you get a really good group of people, or you don’t and suddenly the Steam forums and Reddit are full of ‘this game is dead’ posts. It’s difficult to come back from that.”

The creation of Laser League had been a bruising time for Roll7, too. “During development we were thinking, ‘man, this is really difficult.’ Just because you put in all the really hard work, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna pay off.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

The end result was to look at what elements felt crucial to the beating heart of Roll7. “We wanted to make good games. This meant no more crunch, but also working with the same team over time, because if we wanted to try new things with each project. Ribbins admits that comes from two different areas: “If you’re going to have a team that sticks around after every project, you can’t work them all hours of the day to hit publishing milestones.”

Ribbins, who got married during the pandemic, also mentions that priorities shifted for the founders and the studio. “Si and Tom have both had kids, I’ve got married. It just feels like it’s worth spending more time with your families, and less time working every hour of the day making games.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

Now, with a few teething problems, Roll7 has ditched crunch entirely. Part of this desire for a healthier work/life balance might have been why the team also went ahead with their acquisition by Take-Two Interactive subsidiary Private Division, something Ribbins admits mostly served to make it easier for the studio to make games – and give workers visa sponsorship, proper benefits and decent perks – meaning they can concentrate on making games, and not expending energy on pitching or trying to retain talent.

“Private Division are the best publisher we’ve ever worked with; it was an easy decision for us to go with them,”

“Private Division are the best publisher we’ve ever worked with; it was an easy decision for us to go with them,” says Ribbins, referring to the relationship between Roll7 and Private Division pre-acquisition, when Private Division worked with the team as a publisher for OlliOlli World.

“When OlliOlli came out, the general manager at Private Division, the most senior person there, told us: ‘I finished it at the weekend, it was great.’ And we were like ‘wow, they actually played. They’re not just here to sign the checks, they actually care about the project.’ It was definitely the most frictionless relationship we’ve had up until that point. So when they said they were interested in us getting married, and moving in together, we were like, Well, this has gone really well. It seems like a great fit.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

Now, Roll7 get to just enjoy the ride, and is getting closer to finding out what games feel most natural. “Players and press have described our games as having flow, and that’s something that we want to amplify: we have a fantastic group of people here, a nice culture around the process of making games, and I want us to keep growing and keep making cool new stuff, and keep improving our culture. I’d like us to keep making flowy, dynamic, kinetic titles and ultimately I’d like us to be known for that kind of gameplay.” adds Ribbins. “I like the idea that you could pick up one of our games without knowing who made it and just know it was a Roll7 title.”

In the meantime, Roll7 is now a two-game studio and Ribbins grins enigmatically, saying you could “surmise” they have new games in development, but that Roll7 wants to keep making “slightly leftfield games that surprise and delight players and wear out their thumbsticks.”

Roll7's John Ribbins
Credit: Nic Bezzina for NME

A couple of weeks later, at the Rollerdrome launch party, a huge amount of Roll7 developers celebrate the launch at a roller disco in North London. While the crowd isn’t entirely Roll7 – family, friends, press and other industry figures have all been drawn in by the prospect of getting their skates on – it feels like a celebration of what has to be one of the best years for Roll7 so far, with both OlliOlli World and Rollerdrome looking like game of the year contenders.

It’s hard not to see this as the best-case scenario for a studio looking to move away from crunch. While creative endeavours and unhealthy working practices are often romanticised – “hustle culture” being praised even as the industry advocates for a healthy work-life balance – it’s rare to see a company that takes the slightly more sedate route and priorities sustainability and employee health, however, it feels like in addition to their commitment to making games where the movement feels good, Roll7 (and Ribbins) biggest legacy is going to be that you can develop top-notch games without the human cost. What could be more important?

Find out more about OlliOlli World and Rollerdrome at Roll7.