How the studio that embraced Danger is coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster
Hello Games finished work ahead of the Christmas holiday “on an absolute high”, says studio co-founder and MD Sean Murray. It had been a good few weeks for the tiny Guildford-based indie: Joe Danger Infinity for iOS was nearing completion, while its next big project, ambitious open-universe space adventure No Man’s Sky, was the topic du jour following the overwhelmingly positive reaction to its reveal trailer during the Spike VGX awards show. “We broke up for Christmas [with] hugs and handshakes, and everyone left to go to spend time with their families,” Murray explains.
Then disaster hit: torrential rain storms caused the River Wey to burst its banks and the studio was flooded. “It was Christmas Eve night and no one was here,” says Murray. He received a text message suggesting there was a problem, although at the time he had no idea of its magnitude. Murray gathered everyone he could, calling upon friends for favours as well as the staff members who were able to return. Late on Christmas Eve, around 8pm, a small group found itself wading through ankle-deep water and attempting to salvage what it could. “It was bad, but not too bad. The water wasn’t coming through the door, as most people tend to [picture], but through the walls and floors.”
Naturally, anything electrical was affected (“PCs that were plugged in had shorted out and things were blowing up”), but at that stage the team of helpers was able to start moving everything out of harm’s way, using desks to keep any surviving electronic equipment above water level. Yet worse was to come. “Apparently, an underground car park next door had been filling with water, and that burst, which meant we were flooded really quickly,” says Murray. “It went to waist height in no time, and by that stage it was coming in [through] the doors and windows. It all happened really quickly, but it meant we were wiped out, pretty much. I’m laughing about it now, but it’s a crappy thing to happen on Christmas Eve.”
Cloud backups meant that the code for No Man’s Sky was safe, but almost everything else had gone. Each member of the team had not only lost prior work – including game concepts – but individual belongings, including music, game consoles and paraphernalia of personal value. The following weeks were difficult ones for the studio, but it’s just about back on its feet, even if its new home is cramped rather than compact, the team having relocated to a small upstairs room. Co-founder Ryan Doyle laughs, “We’re pretty much back to where we started: in a little box!”
That little box was Hello Games’ first office, a single room with a glass front that turned the working environment into a greenhouse during the summer months. But even that marked a step up from its very first home: Murray’s own dining room. Murray and Doyle, together with David Ream and artist Grant Duncan, began work on their first game idea there, having all left behind the security of jobs at Criterion and Sumo Digital without a concrete project to work on. “It was definitely going to be terrifying, but I felt a bit more comforted knowing who I was doing it with,” Doyle explains. “We trusted each other and we knew what each other was capable of, so for me that definitely helped.”
Doyle and Murray both joined Criterion within a few days of one another, at a time when the Burnout developer had around 30 staff and was sited within a residential area next to a pub and a block of flats. “We’ve been sat beside each other practically the whole time, so we’re as close as two human beings can be,” laughs Murray. With the success of the Burnout games, the studio duly expanded, and the two programmers witnessed the transition from front-row seats. “Within three or four years, it [grew to] 200 people, and the team I was on had 150 when I left,” Murray remembers. “When I wanted to get into games, I just didn’t picture that many people.”
The duo spent a brief time at Kuju before electing to leave in 2008. It was undoubtedly a risky move and, at the time, somewhat unprecedented. Although many developers have left high-profile jobs to begin new startups in recent years, it was a different world at that time. “There was no App Store back then,” Murray notes. “XBLA was starting to have titles that were
“Everything was grey, po-faced, grimy and gory, and we wanted to make the polar opposite of that”
doing well, but PSN only really had Sony titles, and what we wanted to do, no one [else] was doing. Now it’s really commonplace. I think now [big studios] expect to be told, ‘Oh, I’m off to make an iPhone game’ every five minutes. But at the time, no one had done that at a place like EA.”
The biggest problem for the fledgling studio wasn’t the lack of floor space, but the absence of a game idea. “We knew the type of game we wanted to make,” Murray says. “We wanted something like the games we’d grown up with – the Sega and Nintendo influence was pretty big for [all of] us, and nothing like that really existed at the time. Everything was grey and po-faced, grimy and gory, and we wanted to make the polar opposite of that. Of course, Nintendo was still doing that kind of thing, but not nearly as well as it used to. Anything that was bright, cheery and vibrant tended to lack depth. We wanted something that was outwardly very simple, but had deep gameplay.”
Thus Joe Danger was conceived. The team quickly put together a demo and pitched it to the only publisher contact it knew. The idea was instantly rejected. Unperturbed, the studio took its prototype to Gamescom anyway. At the Leipzig conference, Murray and company organised several meetings with publishers, but in every case a deal meant compromising its original vision. Dozens of demos and mockups were made without success. One publisher thought the game would be a fine fit for Facebook, while another suggested a firstperson perspective. Worst of all was the suggestion that the crashes should be removed: Joe Danger without the danger.
Murray ended up selling his house to fund development of the game, and the team lived on a diet of ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwiches as it raced its meagre budget to the
finish line. Hello Games eventually signed a timedexclusivity deal with Sony, which allowed Murray to publicise the game via the official PlayStation blog, a crucial factor in raising its profile. The final stretch wasn’t without its hitches, though: on the day Joe Danger was due for submission, Grant Duncan’s final test revealed a game-breaking bug. Faced with the costly process of having Sony’s testers figure out the source of the problem, the team began to burrow into the code. How apt that an errant mole was causing the issue.
In June 2010, Joe Danger finally debuted on the US PlayStation Store, and the team anxiously waited to see if its game was to become a hit. As the number of players on the leaderboards continued to climb, Doyle became convinced there was another bug, but the figures were genuine. Within 12 hours, Hello Games had made its money back.
A sequel, Joe Danger 2: The Movie, and an iOS spinoff, Joe Danger Touch!, followed, by which time the team of four had become eight and then ten, but not before it had bought itself a new home. The months spent fixing up the place were worth the effort: during our prior visit to the studio we saw a bright, happy working environment decorated in the kind of colours you’d naturally associate with the creators of Joe Danger. Indeed, the man himself used to greet visitors on their arrival – until, that is, nature intervened. The studio’s Twitter account painted a tragicomic picture. “A life-size cardboard cutout of Joe Danger went floating past face down,” it said. “Poor Joe. He’s taking this the worst.”
And with good reason. Joe was due to make his second smartphone appearance in Joe Danger Infinity. Meanwhile, Joe Danger 2: The Movie was supposed to be part of the Mac and Linux editions of the next Humble Bundle. Suddenly, releasing them represented quite the challenge for a company that now had no computers. “The next few weeks were really tough,” Murray admits. “We had a pretty crazy week where we had to get furniture, network, electrics. We had to build about 20 different PCs, Macs and Linux machines, and get all our iOS stuff [together].”
With a little outside help, Hello Games was able to get Infinity ready for launch on the App Store by the second week of January. It was critically well received, but more importantly for the ailing studio, it was a commercial success. By the end of January, it had topped the App Store charts in 17 countries, in the process becoming the most successful Joe Danger game to date.
It was a boost that came at just the right time, but before the studio moved onwards, it had to move upwards. “We’re actually now in a much smaller room upstairs from where we were,” says Murray. And there are still problems with its new home. “The electrics are out, there’s water on the floor, that sort of thing. We’re hidden away in this very cramped little room where there’s not really room for all of us.”
Even so, Hello Games isn’t far away from getting back to full-time development. “We’re basically in the process of setting things right. We decided to stay in this office but get it redone, so hopefully within the next few weeks we’ll properly have our office back. In the meantime, all that changes [about the way we work] is that everything is a bit more difficult for us.”
While the physical damage from the flood was immediately evident, the psychological effect was more of a concern to Murray. “We were in [the office] during the Christmas period, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the thing I was most worried about throughout it all was that the team would be really disheartened, that it would affect morale, and people would find it hard to work.”
But the process of everyone helping out may have brought an already close-knit group even closer together. “We’re all pulling together,” says Doyle. “Everyone’s really focused and in a good
Murray jokes that one positive side effect is that the studio now has experience of fluid dynamics
mood, and totally excited to be back and working on a game we want to be making.” Murray jokes that one positive side effect of the crisis is that the studio now has firsthand experience of fluid dynamics, though admits he’s keen to stay away from direct references to the flood in No Man’s Sky. “I don’t want us to be known as the studio that flooded; I want us to be known as the studio that made No Man’s Sky.” So has the event galvanised the team to make an even better game? “Absolutely!”
The road to recovery has been a long one, but it looks like the toughest part of the journey is coming to an end. Murray suggests that when things return to normal, more staff may be hired to work on No Man’s Sky, casually mentioning that he’s been flooded with applications – “no pun intended”. Any new recruits will need to be prepared to work hard, with Murray determined that “this is the time to really get our heads down”.
As with the darkest moments of Joe Danger’s development, it’s the studio’s excitement for the game it’s making that has helped it overcome such hardships. That sense of optimism ties into Murray’s vision. “The emotion of the game for me,” he says, “is [found in] that great expanse, the undiscovered country. I think that is key to this kind of experience, which is optimistic, which is cooperative, which in some ways is us against the universe.” The parallels with Hello’s current situation are inescapable.
Friends from other studios have described Hello’s recent woes as a microcosm of indie development, with its wild lurches from triumph to disaster. “We announce No Man’s Sky and then we’re flooded and lose everything!” laughs Murray, displaying the sort of humour that has undoubtedly helped him and his team overcome a crisis that may have sunk others. “I was talking to the guys here and saying it feels like a moment in a film or a book, a classic ‘hero’s journey’ moment, that down-but-not-out [narrative] arc. We’ve been beaten, but we’re not dead. And now we have to come back.”
With its bright visuals and bracing challenge, JoeDanger harks back to the fondly remembered Sega and Nintendo games of the early and mid-’90s.
JoeDangerTouch! introduced a wealth of playable characters.
JoeDanger2:TheMovie ie featured a number of affectionate film parodies. .
NoMan’sSky uses procedural programming to build an entire universe. Fortunately, it was saved by cloud backups from being lost in the flood
Founded 2008 Employees 10 Key staff Sean Murray (co-founder, MD), David Ream (creative director), Grant Duncan (artist), Ryan Doyle (co-founder) URL www.hellogames.org Selected softography Joe Danger, Joe Danger 2: The Movie, Joe Danger Touch!, Joe Danger Infinity Current projects No Man’s Sky
JoeDanger2 was more ambitious than the original, with an expanded multiplayer mode among its host of additions
Sci-fi exploration game NoMan’sSky represents quite the departure for Hello Games, but it will bear some of the studio’s hallmarks. Sean Murray says that the team hopes to match the immediacy, the responsiveness and the 60fps smoothness of JoeDanger