After reviewing the Swords and Sandals: Classic Edition I took the chance to catch up with series developer Oliver Joyce to talk about the highs and lows of Flash development. Having played these games back when I was but a nipper, it’s strange and cool to be in a position to chat to the creator of something that I spent hours playing in the school library (they couldn’t block every Flash portal no matter how hard they tried!)
Anna: When did you start making Flash games and what were some of your earliest titles?
Oliver: I started making games in my mid twenties, around 2005, but I’d been programming games in various languages ever since I was a kid. My dad’s old hand-me-down PC ( complete with no hard drive, a monochrome screen and all!) , a book of BASIC programming and I was away. I made a bunch of text adventure games, then various prototypes, attempts at ‘Ultima’ style RPGs and so on over my teenage years.
The first Flash game I made was a title called Wolf’N’Swine, truly a game that came from a bad pun on the famous iD game. It really had nothing to do with Wolfenstein itself, just a ‘whack the penguin’ style game. I really had no idea what I was doing when I made that game, I barely knew how to code in Flash but it somehow compiled and I was pretty thrilled with it.
Swords and Sandals was actually the second Flash game I made, believe it or not. It was an idea that I’d been carrying around in my head for many years and came together pretty quickly in fact, three months or so to make.
One of the more interesting early Flash games I made was a game called Death Row. The company I worked for was commissioned by National Geographic to make a game advertising a show about the American prison system, and I came up with a virtual ‘tamagotchi’ game where you had to try and reform a prisoner in 14 days before he faced the electric chair. You could give the little guy pep talks, make him exercise, buy him books to study, send him to the workshop to make number plates and so on. It actually really seemed to resonate with people, despite the pretty simplistic nature of the game.
A: You mentioned working with a company that wanted you to cobble together S&S IV. Can you explain what happened there and your feelings on it?
O: I’d been working for this company for about four years at the time and we’d had some early success building not only Flash games but a portal for them. In the space of three years I’d punched out three Swords and Sandals games, a spin-off called Crusader and even a reskin for a client, so I was kind of burnt out on it. I wanted to take my time and really think about a proper sequel for S&S. In my mind I was planning a larger ‘quest driven’ game for the gladiators to roam the world and have adventures with.
Instead I was kind of coerced into using a bunch of our old Flash games, reskinning them into this silly ‘party game’ which to me just felt like a cynical cash-in on the brand name. It took me 6 months to cobble all our old games together, put a Mario Party style interface on top of it, but I hated every minute of it. In the end, it actually did fairly well with fans but it never sat well with me – just felt like some weird spinoff. It was the beginning of the end for me at that place, though it took me another 5 years to leave. In the end, I only ever made one more Swords and Sandals game for them and it didn’t sell that well for a myriad of reasons.
A: S&S has grown incrementally with each release, often with only a few changes in each new version. What is the reason for this? Do Flash game players have different sequel expectations to other platforms?
O: Certainly the early Swords and Sandals games were only incrementally different to each other, new weapons, arena champions, a few new skills here and there. I think in the hey-day of Flash, it was all about putting out content quickly, to be consumed quickly. The major game portals just devoured content from developers, so if you could have a bunch of games out at once, you really could build a bit of a name for yourself. Those early S&S games were all about iterating on the basic game loop, seeing what I could change without really changing the fundamental experience.
A: You eventually made wild departures from the core game, what inspired this and what variations are you working on now?
O: To tell the truth, partly a feeling of boredom and constraint – there was only a certain amount I could do with the limited turn-based, side on combat and so I thought the logical move would to be to expand the game world to beyond the arena, see what happened if I tried to apply the turn based combat to armies, or dungeon crawls and so on. I got a little too deep into the lore and characters of my own game world. Every creative fancies themselves as a story teller, and I think I got a bit carried away with the story of my own game world, Brandor. It struck a chord with some gamers but alienated others who just wanted to ‘duke it out in the arena’, not read copious tomes about obscure characters from my games.
In hindsight, it took me many years to realise that the simplicity of the first few S&S games was what attracted people to the series, and not my pseudo Tolkienesque story. The last game, S&S Pirates, I think, strayed just that little bit too far from the formula. It was by far the worst selling S&S game to date and gave me some real pause to think ( despite it being a personal favourite of mine thematically and so on).
A: Which sites did S&S host on and how do you feel those portals contributed to the Flash game environment? And, if any, which do you still use?
O : The major reason for the early success of the series were most definitely the big guns of the Flash games portal era, Newgrounds and Kongregate. They were instrumental in bringing the game in front of a huge ( and vocal ) audience. The best and worst thing about these sites is the users pulled no punches, if they didn’t like something they would really let you know. Often the feedback would be brutal but hugely insightful. You’d patch the games quickly and really build up a nice relationship with the fans.
These days I don’t really visit the old Flash portals any more. Most of them have gone or now are the domain of HTML5 game developers. They were one of those phenomena that burned brightly then faded with the demise of Flash on the web.
A: You recently released the S&S Classic Edition as well as an Enhanced edition. How have fans reacted to this? Do you encourage other Flash authors to consider the same?
O: For me personally, it’s been a great success! Working with my publisher eGames (who own the rights to the S&S brand and back catalogue), I was able to get access to all the old Swords and Sandals files and give them a facelift and release them to the public in the one collection.
The fan reaction was phenomenal – it’s easily been the best selling game of my career, outselling my second most popular Swords and Sandals 2 Redux easily. I think it’s hard to underestimate the power of nostalgia! Even though I actually believe the redux games are better made, deeper experiences, it’s hard to argue with the originals. People who loved these games as kids are now adults and are reliving their childhoods in these games, and its a wonderful, humbling thing.
And I mean, I do the same – I’m a huge fan of Ultima, and constantly go back and play the original Avatar trilogy, even at the expense of wildly more immersive and powerful games such as Divinity and the Witcher. I guess we’re all sometimes trying to recapture that spark from our youth, and these games are a portal back to that time.
I’d definitely encourage any Flash devs from yesteryear to consider re-launching their games on Steam. If you had enough traction back in the day, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many fans remember your work. It’s not necessarily easy (I was working on code from 2007 the other night, scratching my head at my early work!), but for me at least the results have been a wonderful success and ensured that I can keep making games in the Swords and Sandals series for some years to come.
A: What are some of the upsides to working with Flash?
I think the Flash era was really unique time for the internet, a simpler, more joyful time of silly web games, viral timewasting toys, hilarious animated cartoons and experimental websites. Those days have of course gone, and in its place I feel like we have a much more static, subdued internet. Alas!
A: What are some of the downsides to working with Flash?
O: These days, Flash developers are far and few between. Most of us have moved on. After Apple announced they wouldn’t support Flash on their iPhones, the platform began a slow but sure death spiral to the point where you hardly see Flash anywhere on the web anymore (and have to jump through hoops to turn it on in your browser).
That pretty much ended most Flash devs careers – many moved onto HTML5 technology, others to Unity, others got out of the industry altogether! For some years I’d been working with a Flash based tool called Adobe AIR which allowed me to publish the old Flash games to desktop and mobile devices. It’s been a pretty stalwart workhorse for me, allowing me to make all the S&S Redux games and so on in the last 5 years.
Even AIR has become long in the tooth though. It lacks all the bells and whistles of the dedicated game making tools like Unreal and Unity. For a long time I’d gaze over at those other platforms wistfully and wish I could do nice dynamic lighting, proper water reflections, sweet particles and so on.
Eventually I bit the bullet and made the Switch to Unity. Swords and Sandals Classic Collection was my last game made with AIR and Flash. I’ve been working with Unity this year on a new game, Spartacus, based on the life of the famous gladiator. (You’d think I’d have had enough of gladiators, right?)
Making games in Unity now gives me the opportunity to release on the Nintendo Switch, Playstation and so on – all platforms that had been closed off to me before. I’m starting work on Swords and Sandals VI at the end of the year and I think it’ll be really exciting to see what a new game engine can do for the series.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me today, it’s been fantastic!