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Interview: EA, Criterion Vet Murray Forms Indie Hello Games, Talks  Joe Danger

Interview: EA, Criterion Vet Murray Forms Indie Hello Games, Talks Joe Danger Exclusive

September 30, 2009 | By Simon Carless, Staff

September 30, 2009 | By Simon Carless, Staff
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive

Tiny UK studio Hello Games has announced its first title, Evel Knievel-inspired stuntman bike racer Joe Danger, on its way to digital platforms.

The studio co-founder is former EA and Criterion's Sean Murray, who's held lead programmer and technical director roles on games like Black and Burnout 3. But now, Murray and just three friends -- veterans of UK studios like Kuju, Climax and Sumo Digital -- have struck out on their own.

As he describes it to Gamasutra: "We're all young upstarts who climbed our way to the top of the pile in big companies and have now gone back to being just four guys in a tiny office in Guildford UK, grafting tirelessly over our super polished arcade masterpiece for the last year."

We decided to have a chat with Murray about his brave new venture, Joe Danger, and reinventing as an indie.

When was Hello Games founded, and what made you want to strike out on your own?

We started up around the middle of last year, working on my dining room table to begin with. When I joined the industry, it was absolutely my dream job. I'd been making games since I was a kid and this was an amazing opportunity.

I loved it, but I've never thought of doing anything except starting up on my own. I think that's the same for all of us. Dave [Ream] and Grant [Duncan] used to make Doom levels together as kids, I was always tinkering with some game or other, Ryan [Doyle] is the same. We didn't even discuss it that much to begin with, it was just assumed, we'll work together and start a new company. We had that instant connection, that is so rare.

What did you learn from working at a bigger company that you think will differentiate you as an indie?

We have met hugely talented individuals since we started out on our own. Other indies who are having to do everything for themselves - audio, graphics, coding... everything. We are constantly learning from them, and experiences like that are what it's all about for us. We are in awe of people who haven't worked in the industry before and had to learn the development process alone.

We were lucky enough to work for some amazingly accepting and open companies previously. Ryan and I joined Criterion around the same time. After our first year we were both brought into a room and asked to pick an area to lead. In a company full of some of the most talented game developers in the world, that's a fantastic opportunity to learn from the best. Hopefully that gives us a nice head start, but we just feel we have so much to learn.

How did you come up with Joe Danger as a project, conceptually?

It's funny how it all came about. We know each other so well the type of game we were going to make was just implicit. Once we had an office, we spent a couple of days just giddily spinning in our chairs, before we actually settled down to design something. We knew the type of game we wanted to make - just not the actual one we were going to make.

Grant had a box of toys he brought down from his attic. Something kind of beautiful happened when he brought those in. There was an instant power to demonstrating your latest game idea with Optimus Prime in your hands. I like to think we designed our next five games that first week, just setting up toys on the office floor.

But we kept coming back to one toy, an Evel Knievel stunt cycle. We just sat and actually played with it, building bigger and bigger ramps, launching it out of windows, down corridors. We started to build this little character around who this hapless guy was. The world's most determined stuntman. It kind of tapped into the character you imagined as you played with those toys as a kid. Designing the game from there just flowed naturally.

Are there particular facets to it that you feel are new, or is 'new' over-rated vs. 'fun'?

I imagine the aim of any games developer is to entertain, we'll certainly never be ashamed of saying our focus is on fun. Having said that, I remember reading somewhere Hirokazu Yasuhara, saying they realized on Sonic a player can't have fun if nothing is new. Sonic's a good example of something that wasn't necessarily a ground-breaking game, but it did innovate in hundreds of ways, big and small.

When people play our game, I think they are surprised at how fresh it is. It's a racing game, but it's secretly a platformer, and also one where you are holding a combo and constantly thinking about your score as well as exploring.

Some of the press who have spent time with it have said they don't really know what to compare it to - but landmarks like Crazy Taxi, Excitebike, Sonic, Super Monkey Ball come up a lot. Which we totally love, but I think we're our own game.

What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of working in a really small team?

Something we often say to each other is that this is the most productive we've ever been in our lives. I think that's especially true because we are bringing our industry experience into a small team. So it's all the process and technology, but we've left behind lots of the production overheads.

Kind of the best of both worlds. Something that surprises people is just how tight knit we are, we're a proper little band. That comes from working intensely in a confined space, but also we were friends before this ever started.

Ryan and I have sat side by side each other for years now, Grant and Dave grew up together. When it comes to working we have a kind of hive mind. Grant never has to do any concept art, he can just scribble and everyone knows exactly what he's after.

We definitely have to wear lots of hats, though. There are more roles for us to fill than there are people. I think we're trying to make a pretty big game, we don't have a designer, we don't have PR, or a business manager. There's just the four of us.

Do you have a particular preference for one or multiple PC/console SKUs to release this game? What's the ETA?

PSN and XBLA are markets that have a lot of barriers to entry. We'd love to bring our game to every platform if we could. Even on PC, it's really important to get someone like Steam on board. I guess it's really naive, but we had this concept of, if we build it, they will come.

So we just put together a PC build, then a PS3 one and an Xbox 360 [build] as soon as we got our hands on dev-kits. We're slowly building up our list of contacts and talking to the right people, and we'll announce our plan as soon as we can.

With a such a small team though we would struggle to bring it out on everything all at once, even if we were allowed to. I made a Linux and Mac build in my spare time just for the hell of it, I have no idea if anyone wants it!

What small-team games are you particularly enamored of?

Personally I'm a huge fan of Flash games. You have a huge community of the most prolific and talented small groups out there. Most of them can't make a living unless they regularly get played by millions of people, so you have games that get to the core of the player's experience instantly.

It reminds me of arcade games in that way. People like Brad Bourne with Fancy Pants Adventure, the guys behind Auditorium, the Casual Collective who made The Space Game - we really admire those people and we love their games.

What's the one thing that people would be surprised to learn about Hello Games?

I have no idea. How about this? We once got arrested in our office. We were working so late on a Sunday, they assumed that we were trying to rob the building. It was actually surprisingly difficult to convince everyone that we worked there.

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