By John Robertson
'Bennett and Hegarty' might sound like the title of an ill-advised '70s buddy-cop serial, probably set in New York, but the reality is more humble. From their small studio-cum-office in London's New Cross, wedged between a church and a railway line, Simon Bennett and Tom Hegarty run Roll7 as co-directors. Their independent development studio is responsible for OlliOlli, OlliOlli 2 and Not A Hero.
After university, Simon and Tom set up an education outfit in 2003 dubbed Rolling Sound. The goal being, in Bennett's words, to use "music, photography, film, animation and web design to help re-engage 'at-risk' young people that had fallen out of traditional learning."
From there they were asked if they could teach video game design and, despite having no experience in the area, they said they could. At this point John Ribbins, Roll7's creative director, came on board and set up the video game learning program for them. A few years later, seeing the good work they'd done with their game design course, Channel 4 asked the team to create a sequel to a game they'd made that highlighted the realities and dangers of knife crime.
"It was then that we began to realise that there might be something to these computer game things," laughs Bennett as he concludes his brief history of Roll7.
So what is the UK really like for studios of Roll7's size, as a place to create games?
"In all honesty, I think we take it for granted that in the UK, and London especially, we're part of a really well-connected space," explains Bennett. "It is one of the best and most creative places to be making games.
"We work with Devolver Digital as a publisher and I've never spoken to the other development teams they work with – whether they're in Spain or Canada or wherever – and thought that we're missing out on something better by being based in the UK."
Of course, the tax breaks that the government announced for the industry in 2014 represent an enormous boon to the UK's independent gaming scene. Certainly, the new regulations provide UK-based developers with a benefit that they didn't previously have; one that is still absent in many other countries.
For a studio of Roll7’s size, each release has to be at least a minor success to continue operating with a healthy balance sheet. So any kind of financial aid can be hugely beneficial, and Roll7 seem to be in no doubt over the positive impact that tax breaks could have.
"I've been looking into the tax regulations a lot and working out what it all means, and it's massively beneficial," smiles Hegarty. "The setup is a little strange when you first look at it, as it says you must reflect certain things from British culture to qualify. When you dig into it, though, there is a subset of criteria that you can hit and still qualify.
"From that perspective it can be a little fiddly and I can easily see people thinking they have qualified because they have met a lot of the criteria and scored a lot of points, but actually the points haven't come from the right areas and so they haven't.
"The content of the game is taken into account to a fairly large degree, though, so you can score points for being set in the UK or having UK characters. However, you can also score points for having characters and places that are of undetermined nationality – so there's nothing that rigidly says 'you have to do this to qualify'."
The obvious question is, would a studio change its creative vision specifically to fall in line with the tax break qualifications? Roll7’s answer is pragmatic: this is a business, after all, not an art collective. Hegarty explains that while there's always a part of him that will naturally resist any creative changes based on finances alone, the reality of keeping a small studio running in somewhere as expensive to operate as the UK can force your hand.
If Roll7's next game is successful then an enormous amount of money can be saved through the tax breaks. Enough money, suggests Hegarty, to fund your next game. For that reason, flexibility is key to being able to continue making games over the long term.
"The economy is picking up now and I think we're going to see a lot more regional development funds and publisher purses loosening for independent developers," interjects Bennett, on the point of sourcing capital for independent game development. "I think the next year to 18 months or so is going to be really interesting here in the UK and maybe get even better than it is now."
Economics isn’t the whole story, though. The UK is a comparatively small and well-connected country, which can result in valuable access to real people. Roll7’s London location gives them plenty of opportunity to interact, face-to-face, with publishers, players and creative peers in a way that would be very difficult to achieve if they were based somewhere more remote.
The London-effect has been a bonus that Roll7 hadn't really considered or predicted. It’s been particularly helpful in cementing their partnership with Sony for OlliOlli's initial release on PS Vita. Being able to arrange last minute meetings with companies like Sony, says Bennett, has "made a big difference".
The high concentration of other developers in London is also a great advantage for young studios. Not only does this give you access to people that will provide quality feedback on your game/s, but they also understand – and can empathise – with how challenging it is to design, create, market and release a game as a small team.
"I can't speak so much for other parts of the UK – although I do know there's also a good scene in Middlesbrough and the Midlands – but in London there's a great indie scene and people are often meeting up and looking over each other's work," explains Hegarty.
"We're still quite heavily involved in those scenes," says Bennett. "Being totally honest, though, we're less involved now because we're so busy with making games and staying on top of the commercial pressures that come with running a business. Those things mean we can't always go down to the pub on a Monday night and meet up with other people.
"Also, a word of advice for anyone just starting out in this industry: it's important to keep in mind that making friends with other indie developers and having them tweet about your game doesn't mean you're going to be a success and sell lots of copies.
"You need to do the legwork of contacting every relevant journalist and getting out to press in the right way. You can't use more successful indie devs to market your game, they have their own games to worry about. Being part of the UK 'scene' doesn't guarantee you success."
Both Bennett and Hegarty agree that the existence of these get-togethers, combined with the sheer quantity of UK-based studios creating games, indicates that this is a country now benefiting from a shift towards a start-up culture within the gaming space. That’s creating more job opportunities, leading to more creative expression and gaining the independent sector greater respect from both publishers and potential investors.
"I think it's an excellent place to create games," concludes Hegarty. "Yes, there is some red tape to go through and the wording of the tax breaks is odd, but the fact is that the tax breaks are now there and that's is going to a be a massive help to us and others. It could be a lot worse… we've got no reason to be jealous of developers in other countries."
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[Featured image credit: eBoy via WhatAnArt]