Rohan and Leigh Harris are siblings. They’re also the founders of Flat Earth Games, a video games company with a precise mission: to create experiences that mirror the ones they had growing up together as brothers. We spoke to the team to discuss games, growing up, and how the games we play help change us into the adults we become.
To children growing up in the 80s, the home computer was colossal. An object that didn't exist previously but then, all of a sudden, was there. It was an object of wonder, a toy that wasn’t a toy. Something you approached timidly, used with caution, and treated with an awed respect.
It was something you had to share with your brothers and sisters.
But for Rohan and Leigh Harris the home computer was the beginning of something. The start and end point of a story that would bring them together, set them apart on separate paths, and eventually bring them back, full circle, to where they started.
Not A Single Dead Arm
And, of course, it all began with games.
“All we had to start with was this collection of basic games,” remembers Rohan.
“It was called FriendlyWare, wasn’t it?” Says Leigh.
Rohan and Leigh Harris don’t act like normal brothers. Rohan claims they’ve never fought -- at least, not physically. Not a single dead arm. According to Leigh that was the end result of some serious Zen parenting, an upbringing that, now, allows them to work in relative harmony, starting up their own video game company in order to build their dream game.
Like most brothers, Leigh and Rohan are different from one another. Leigh talks a little more lazily -- he enjoys the act of communicating, and peppers his conversation with adjectives I have to Google. Rohan is far more purposeful, as if words are just these silly things he has to use to get his point across.
It makes perfect sense that, in Flat Earth games, Rohan is the coder, while Leigh does the bulk of the writing, and the promotion.
But they have video games in common.
“The reason why I got into programming in the beginning,” explains Rohan, “was because the games we had were crap!
“They were on this IBM PC my Dad had bought to run his business on. It was a collection of games, some of which were really interesting, some of which were terrible. The only thing they had in common was they crashed, all the time.
“They would crash and I didn't know what the fuck to do, so I would stab the keys and, because it was GW basic, I hit F1 which printed the source code. I remember looking at it and thinking, wow, this sort of makes sense...”
“I remember Othello,” says Leigh. “There was a golf game, there was battleships...”
“And a football management game,” laughs Rohan.
Bizarrely, of all the early games Rohan and Leigh played together, it was an ‘Oil Tycoon’ game that stood out.
“You played as a businessman,” laughs Rohan. “You had to figure out when to drink other people's Milkshakes. It was all text, but the thing that got me into it was they tried to make it really serious to the point where you could actually print off your end of year statements. We had this dot matrix printer belching out financial statements of drills in Texas! It just added to the immersion of the game, it made it all tangible.”
“I was addicted,” adds Leigh. “I actually got pretty good at the oil one, but I forgot it even existed! I learned how to play Othello and Battleships. We just kind of got really stuck into it. Because when it's the only toy you have, you just sort of go for it. We knew the whole thing inside and out.”
Video games are nothing if not preparation for some tangible real life task. ‘Games as management’ was a theme that ran throughout Rohan and Leigh’s childhood. Sometimes the games we play as children sometimes have a profound impact on the adults we become.
“We turned everything into a game when we were kids,” says Leigh. “I remember we used to share a bedroom, we had bunk beds, and I would create impromptu RPGs on the fly and I would play Dungeon Master. I'd create a world challenge based on anything, like school, and Rohan would come in as the player. I would have this huge book of notes on what things were and where objects could be.
“And when we were young, we didn't just play in the back yard, we invited all of our friends over, collected all the monopoly money and created these little mini economies and we'd all pick different professions! I'd usually run the bar and the casino -- the bar of course, just being juice!”
“Then we stopped using monopoly money and started using bottle tops,” laughs Rohan. “We flattened them, and spray painted them to make silver and gold pieces!”
And it was around this time that Rohan and Leigh began trying to build their own video games.
“Both of us were into programming,” says Leigh. “Rohan was more serious about it, but I knew the basics. I didn't actually get it working, but I tried to make a game based on Tugs, the old TV show. It was like Thomas the Tank Engine, except with boats!
“Later we put some serious work into a top down space simulator -- by that time I was doing all the art and Rohan was putting together the engine stuff so we could actually fire thrusters and have space ships have momentum.
“How old were we then… 15?”
“Yeah that sounds right, you were about 15,” replies Rohan. “I was maybe 17?
“Programming always interested me,” he continues. “It's weird getting into programming when you're really young, because you get to school and they say, 'okay we're going to teach you algebra. Here are two pears and here are two apples.' I'm like, 'how many variables?' You suddenly realise high school is going to be boring!”
Screw That, Just Come And Work Here
Despite Rohan’s passion for coding, Leigh was the first Harris brother to make it into the games industry. His first job was a strange one -- recording gory footage for the Australian Classification Board.
“When I was 15 when I did work experience for a company called Direct Soft, “ begins Leigh. “They distributed games for a lot of companies, but primarily Take Two. I kept in touch with the guys, and even did my high school assignment for business studies on them. Eventually they were bought out by Take Two and became an official Take Two distributor.
“As I was getting closer to finishing my HSC, I had a chat with the MD and he asked me what I was planning to do after I graduated. I said, 'uni probably'. He said, 'screw that, just come and work here'. He asked me when I could start, I said my last exam was this Friday. He said, 'okay, you start Monday.'
“He took me in and said, we have to get all these games classified, so what we need you to do is play through them, and find the nastiest goriest stuff you can, and record it onto VHS! So I was doing that. That was my job out of high school -- coming in and recording footage for Take Two.”
I ask Rohan if any sibling rivalry surfaced upon hearing his brother had landed a sweet gig straight of high school, but at that point he was busy doing his own thing. Accumulating the skills he would later need help found Flat Earth Games.
“I wasn't really jealous,” says Rohan. “Actually, I thought it was awesome, because I ended up playing a lot more games!”
“At this point I had left high school, and the only job I could get was repairing computers. I did that while programming on the side for a few years. Then I became a full time programmer, and that's what I've been doing since.”
Rohan also discovered another passion -- film-making. A move that largely came out of the fact he’d given up hope of making video games for a living.
“I'd always liked the idea of making movies,” explains Rohan. “But it seemed like something that couldn't happen. If you want to make a film you have to buy all that equipment! But when digital film because a reality I started to get interested.
“At this point I had given up all hope of making video games, so I went and made a bunch of movies, and discovered how much I enjoyed the producing side of things. There was something fun about getting 10-20 people and saying, right we need to be here and we need this amount of time to get these shots, and make sure everything worked...”
“You liked the strategy management side of things,” laughs Leigh.
“Yeah exactly! It's the same thing again!”
While Rohan was honing his coding skills, Leigh was busy learning the business of video games distribution. After a couple of years at 2K, Rockstar decided it needed its own base in Australia, and Leigh along with two others from 2K were tasked with setting up the office.
“Rohan was making movies, but at that point I was purely working on Public Relations for Rockstar,” says Leigh.
“It gave me an incredible sense of proportion, just understanding what video games actually had the capacity to sell, what made video games popular, and how to talk about them -- or how not to talk about them and when not to talk about them! It just made me understand the reality of things.”
Pretty soon, however, Leigh turned his view to smaller end of the games business. With the smartphone revolution, Leigh began to wonder if he could turn his hand to the smaller end of the games business. He wondered if he could make video games, instead of helping sell them.
“Rohan was saying he got into making movies when it became digital,” says Leigh. “In the same way we got into programming because we could. If the iPhone hadn't happened, we probably wouldn't be making this game. As soon as that market sort of became feasible, it became something we could talk about.
“From my background I thought there is no reason why a well produced idea couldn't work. It dawned on us that the potential to work together with a small group of people was real.”
Leigh Harris was exhausted. He had been lying on his couch for precisely five minutes when his phone rang. For a second he thought about ignoring it, but the called ID read ‘Rohan’, so he answered.
“I rang up Leigh,” says Rohan, “and said... um, I think I need your help with something!”
While in the process of writing an article, Rohan had begun discussing the concept for a game he’d like to play. At first it was simply a rhetorical tool -- Rohan was writing in support of some proposition, and this imaginary game, like most of his words, was simply a way of getting his point across.
But the more he wrote, the more he thought to himself, 'I’d like to play this game'.
“The idea wouldn’t leave my mind,” says Rohan, “and I ended up expunging that part of the article because I didn't want anyone else to steal the idea! A little while afterwards I started twiddling my thumbs and thinking, 'this is a really good idea. I think I can make this'.
“I wanted to check that I wasn't completely insane, so I called a friend of mine, who runs a game company. I rang him up and said, ‘do you want to hear a pitch? I just want to know what you think’...
“You weren't necessarily 'pitching' it,” interrupts Leigh. “You just wanted to run the idea of a pitch past him, right?”
“Yeah, exactly,” continues Rohan.
But Rohan’s friend took his ‘pitch for a pitch’ seriously. Very seriously. He liked Rohan’s idea so much that he wanted to have lunch the next day to discuss it.
Hence the frantic phone call to his brother Leigh.
“Rohan called me, but I was too tired to hear it at first,” he remembers. “Rohan tends to get really excited about ideas and talks endlessly about them. I was getting hammered by words that made no sense to me at the time!
“Rohan asked if I would come along, and I was like, 'that's Future Leigh's problem'! I said I'd come along, and caught the ferry along to Manly to meet up with the guy. Aside from the brief phonecall, I still didn't really understand what the game was about!”
Several meetings, and one 60-page design document later, and the Harris brothers had a deal. Epiphany games would provide support for Leigh and Rohan for a percentage of the profits. With Epiphany’s help, they would finally be able to design and create the kind of games they played together as children.
“We had everything sorted on the contract except the number,” says Leigh. “We didn't know how much they wanted, but we had a fair idea of what we thought was reasonable and what we would accept, because we knew we weren't really holding any of the cards. So when we went in to sign the final contracts, we saw the number and I just thought, 'that's a few percent lower than I thought'...
This Makes Sense
When it comes to the actual game, Leigh and Rohan are light on details. I get the distinct impression that Leigh, as a former PR professional, has a very distinct plan for how and when he wants to release information on their pet project.
I do eke a few scant details -- a Settlers-esque art style with management mechanics. The company's name 'Flat Earth Games' yields other clues -- think Civilization, think Populous, think of all these games and add a personalised, human touch.
It's a game that could only be made by two brothers with a shared love for the games that brought them together as children.
"Really we're making this game for our nine and seven year old selves," admits Leigh. "We're making games that we would have loved to play back then, games that we sorely miss nowadays."
We ask Leigh and Rohan what their nine and seven year old selves would have thought about the game they're now building, together.
"They'd probably have a go at me for making it too cartoony!" Laughs Leigh.
"Yeah, definitely," agrees Rohan.
I wonder what Rohan and Leigh would have thought of this strange notion -- the idea of these two brothers, as adults, creating games for a living. Together.
"We probably would both... well, we were quite arrogant when we were kids," says Leigh. "We probably both would have gone, 'yeah, that makes sense'!
"We just didn't think it would take ten years of us randomly going on separate independent paths, developing these different skill sets, to make it happen!"
You can find out more about Flat Earth Games here!