Hello Games

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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

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