Hello Games' Sean Murray
Joe Danger dev on creative freedom, retail decline and failing college
Hello Games has been something of a quiet success story. The company's debut game, colourful and cartoonish stunt-racing PSN title Joe Danger, broke even on its day of release and has continued to turn over nicely.
Now, the team are gearing up for Joe Danger DLC and a brand new project, doubling the team size to eight and taking over a new office.
At the Eurogamer Expo earlier this month, GamesIndustry.biz took the opportunity to question company MD, spokesman and all-round nice guy Sean Murray on Hello Games' winning formula, what sort of candidates have been applying for jobs and why Sony have the best fanboys.
Q: Let's talk about Joe Danger, which was a fantastic success story for a debut project - breaking even on its first day on PSN. How are sales figures sitting now?
Sean Murray: Well, it's one of those crazy things. We'd love to talk about our sales figures, in lots of detail actually, because we think they're really cool. We're really pleased with the success.
We can't, really, like most developers, but I will say that, actually we thought our sales at the start were really good. We were happy with that, just what we had in the first few days - if it had stopped there we would have been happy actually, because it meant that we could keep going.
What we didn't realise was that we hadn't done any advertising, we didn't have any PR people or marketing people, so every copy of the game that had been sold was being done by word of mouth. The really nice thing about that is that it's kept up. It's continued to sell pretty well, actually.
I think, I hope, that's because the game is actually good, people are enjoying it and telling other people about it. We certainly see that, there's a lot of referrals. It's a nice feeling to know that people are buying it because their friends have told them that it's good.
Q: That must be doubly satisfying, to know that people are buying, not because they've seen a £40,000 ad on the side of a building, but because a friend has said 'buy this, it's great'.
Sean Murray: It means more, actually, that a friend has said to someone, that's good, buy it. We like those people!
Q: You seem very pleased with your experience all round working with PSN - they seem to give you a lot of freedom and support. Do you have any ongoing arrangements with them to make more PSN exclusives?
Sean Murray: We don't have a contract like that with Sony. There's nothing to stop us doing, say, a PC version of Joe Danger tomorrow if that's what we wanted to do. Sony has actually been really really supportive and really really helpful, and hasn't asked for much more in return than the delivery of a good game.
We definitely want to work with them again, but there's nothing tying us to say we'll never work with anyone else again or anything like that - and we're excited to do some other stuff, definitely.
The thing that's blown us away, and this sounds like a really cheesy thing to say, is how supportive the community has been. Everyone knows that Sony fanboys are the best fanboys. [laughs] They're the most hardcore! They've been really supportive - they, hopefully, seem to associate Hello Games with a top title on PSN, and that's a big thing for us, a huge deal.
Q: You defend your independence and creative control fiercely, it seems very important to you. If Sony came to you with an offer to buy, on the proviso of you retaining all of that freedom and creative control, would you consider it?
Sean Murray: Okay, I presume that's the sort of position that Media Molecule are in, and I think it's really interesting that Sony are doing that with developers, and they do seem to let developers have that sort of creative control - the way you describe it is this ridiculously ideal situation for a developer, but from what I hear, they do seem to do that.
Even so, we do maintain our independence above anything else. If we do come up with an amazing idea for an iPad game, we want to be able to do that. We want to be able to...It's not just platform - it's whatever our crazy idea is.
If it doesn't fit with the future of whatever publisher then we still want to be able to explore it, and that's why we got into what we're doing. For the time being at least, while we still have money, we're happy to be ourselves and make the games we want to make.
In fact, we're incredibly scared and wary of any kind of controlling factor. Sony hasn't been involved in the making of Joe Danger, really, and sometimes we had to ring them up, before the game came out and say "are we still on?" and they'd say, "oh yeah, you've got a slot booked in" and that was the only input they had.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about your quote, when you said that XBLA was a 'slaughterhouse' for developers. Do you still feel that? Is Microsoft driving away innovative developers?
Sean Murray: I think the reasons we said that... When I look at different platforms, at digital download in general, it's a really difficult market to be in. Microsoft talk a lot about their XBLA and their products on XBLA, but when they do they only really talk about five games, and those are the top five games. No one really remembers the 110 games that get released a year that don't do that well.
So, we were very wary of that situation when it was our very first game, it was a scary proposition for us. I don't think that Microsoft are driving away innovation, but when I look at the catalogue on XBLA and I look at the catalogue on PSN - I think there's a lot of very interesting titles on PSN. There's a lot of really appealing and different ideas, and I think that's just through the level of 'hands off' that Sony allow, certainly from what we've experienced, that just allows developers to make what they want to make.
That's just because PSN is the only place you can really self-publish a game. The only route on XBLA is through Microsoft as a first-party, or through another publisher. So you always have a publisher. On PSN we're the publisher, so we're totally in control of everything.
I'm a big supporter of developers, so, I think that having developers in control of their own games is always going to lead to higher quality games. I could be completely wrong there. [Laughs]
Q: Do you think that the market is turning in favour of the small developer as financial risk becomes increasingly unpopular?
Sean Murray: The thing that I see is that we're approaching, strange though this sounds, the end of this console cycle. I think in the next three years we're going to see the end of this console cycle and the beginning of a new one. I think whenever that happens the last few years are filled with a lot of licenses, sequel etc.
I'm really excited that there are these new ways to create games, like digital download, XBLA, PSN. A lot of the stuff on Steam is way more interesting to me than a raft of new sequels at next year's E3 for example. I'm a lot more excited for that stuff, and I think a lot of people are.
You see the way that Minecraft, for instance, is on fire at the moment, you know? People want innovation, it's just that at this stage, publishers don't want risk - and that's what they're saying. I think that's really short sighted, to me, but then I'm a small developer. I think it would be really risky not to innovate at the moment.
I think that what I hinted at before, about there being an awful lot of titles on XBLA, and there being a really variable level quality on there, I'm really looking forward to the next year on PSN. Personally, for titles that are coming out, there are a lot of titles that haven't been announced yet that are some of the titles that I'm most excited about.
I think it will be interesting to see what does well over the next year.
Q: In the light of that, would Hello be interested in a boxed game?
Sean Murray: I'm not just saying this, because we've made a download game, but surely everyone must think, boxed titles are not going to be the way of the future, and high-street stores are not going to be the way of the future. We've already seen it happening with music, with DVDs. You would think games should be at the cutting edge of that, but they're not - they're following slowly behind.
But in regard to a massive, triple-A high budget game, if that's what you mean, I think we're going to make very high quality titles. Very innovative and risky titles that grab attention in that way, that are games we don't have to advertise so much because people want them - that's what's worked for us with Joe Danger and that's what we'll continue to do in future and that allows us to do one thing, which we've always been very excited about, and that's to be involved with the development of our game ourselves.
For Joe Danger, I was one quarter of the whole of that development process. One quarter of Joe Danger is me. I would hate to give that up and go back to being one hundredth of whatever we do next. That makes me shiver, just the thought of that.
Q: Last time we spoke to you, Hello Games was looking to expand with some new hires, how has that process been?
Sean Murray: We just put up one little ad on our site and we've had a ridiculous number of CVs. It's been a bit scary, because there's no-one at Hello Games to deal with that. We've had hundreds and hundreds actually - I would say well over a thousand CVs over the last six weeks or so.
Which is more than I would have gotten when I was at EA, when I was trying to hire someone and we had agencies and headhunters and so on. I think that really shows that people are really interested in that smaller development team and cycle.
We're desperately trying to find the right people, because I guess if you're four people, you better make sure that whoever you hire you really get on with well. We're found some really good people so far who are hopefully going to join us in the near future. We've moved into a new office to accommodate that because where we were with another person oxygen would have been a problem.
We're kind of in the midst of that expansion, that doubling of the team to 8 people.
Q: So what sort of CVs were you seeing? There's been a lot of people who've been looking for new jobs recently because of forces outside their control, were you seeing those people applying or mostly new graduates?
Sean Murray: We've had quite a range of people across the board, probably a wider range than you would normally see applying, from people with absolutely no experience, people who always wanted to get into games, and we've had people who are indie developers themselves who want to team up and collaborate, and we've had people who've been working in the industry for years and years.
We've some CVs that you wouldn't expect. I think that within that, what we've found, and I hope this doesn't sound bad, but we've found graduates really interesting, juniors, people who don't have much experience, they kind of fit in with us really well - maybe because we really don't know what we're doing!
We're excited about working with people who are really enthusiastic. I don't know if it really comes across but we are very enthusiastic about what we do and it's very hard to interview someone who says - 'I've been at such and such large studio for ten years and I just want to be a network programmer. I've been that before and I'd now like to be a lead network programmer.' And we say, well, there's only us here, you know?
With us, you do everything, and we really enjoy that. So there have been people from really experienced studios who are really good, who can do that. Something that we've found is that it's amazing how quickly people can get jaded in this industry. You can have people interviewed who've just joined the industry two years before and they're already telling you how terrible everything is. How they've worked on three canned games in a row or whatever.
You desperately want to rescue them from that, but you also want that freshness and enthusiasm.
Q: Do you think that the UK is doing enough to produce high quality graduates? Are we promoting things like maths and physics enough?
Sean Murray: I think... I'll get myself into lots of trouble for saying this, but, we've had really great applicants who've done computer science and things like that and we've had really great applicants who've done games specific stuff, but we've been shocked in some cases with how little real world skills people have been given by certain games courses.
I think that's something that's talked about within the industry, maybe not said that often, but I think there are some games courses that are almost taking advantage of people who see the word games and get excited about that. We've had some very clever people who've sent CVs in who've just spent three years not getting the right skills really, and those three years could have been better spent elsewhere.
GI: Do you feel that sort of thing should be regulated more? That there should be a list of qualifications which are industry approved?
SM: What I'd like to see is that, if you do have a games course, that you've got people who've been very successful in the industry moderating that. Who are used to hiring and who are involved in working in the industry.
Sometimes I feel that there's a lot of outdated information probably being taught for a start, and also that maybe some of the lecturers or the people involved in setting up the curriculum maybe haven't been involved in the industry enough. Or they have been, but not on very successful games.
You just never want to see that sort of situation, where those that can do and those that can't teach. It shouldn't be that way round. I think that's down to universities to make sure that they have the right people and the right advisers.
I think it comes from that. I don't think it's any particular course or concept. I think you can teach people how to design a game but you need the right people teaching that.
Q: In the last couple of years you've started your own small business in a time of massive economic hardship, and it's paid off. Do you feel that the industry has been insulated somewhat from the recession?
Sean Murray: I think that what we hit when we were developing Joe Danger was that publishers weren't signing games at the time, and I count myself lucky that we didn't get signed up at the time, but there was definitely an effect. That effect then trickles down to a lot of companies who work in work for hire.
Certainly I've noticed that while there may not have been loads of layoffs, you see a lot of studios getting involved in other types of games development. A lot of people going into download and self-publishing, a lot of people doing Facebook games and things like that. I think that goes back to what I was saying earlier in that you're seeing a lot of reliance on licences and 'me-too' games that are very easy to sign.
I think that's a real shame because those aren't the type of games that tend to do really really well and set new ground, it's always innovative titles that do that. I think that kind of self-fulfils really, that will hurt the industry further down the line. I think that's a shame. The part I really care about is that it hurts gamers. If there are less games coming out that I'm really excited about then I get really annoyed. [laughs]
Q: We mentioned the Minecraft phenomenon earlier, it's just passed a million users, it's making a lot of money. Does that give you faith in the indie scene or does a secret part of you want Notch to implode spectacularly?
Sean Murray: Not at all. We are so buoyed by that kind of success. Castle Crashers doing well, has opened the door to so many indies to be on XBLA, that's a door that a lot of publishers would just find it easier to close and would like it closed. To be honest I'm sure Microsoft or Sony would find it easier to only deal with much bigger companies and not have to deal with these bloody little indies, you know.
We cheer for any success that happens. I have to say that Minecraft has sold about 300,000 units, something like that, and I think top games on PSN and XBLA are hitting those kind of numbers, so it's not a phenomenon from that point of view. Without saying too much, Joe Danger would be in that sort of area.
But I think Minecraft will go on to do more and more, it's on the ramp upwards. I think it will do one million or two million units, it's a fantastic experience. What's exciting about it for us is that it's very new. It's a game that's going quite viral. It's not a Facebook game, it's a proper PC game, the most old school and RPGish mechanics is doing really well and I'm excited. I don't want to see Facebook games doing well!
I cheer that on, and I see it growing and I think that's exciting. It shows that word of mouth is becoming everything, it can work for all indie games in that way. You don't often see a sales graph going that sort of way. It's something new and it's really exciting.
If we meet him in the pub though, we'll be asking him to buy the drinks.
Q: Can you tell us anything about the new project?
Sean Murray: I guess we sound like a proper developer when we say this, but we can't really talk about that right now. But in our case it's not because there's some crazy press plan or something like that, it's just because we're not sure how things will work out. In fact, we're sure that whatever we have planned now is going to change hugely by the time people get to see it!
But I can say that we've learned a lot of lessons from Joe Danger, and that we know that whatever we do has to be different. It has to grab attention. We have to rely on that. We have to make sure whatever we do is good - I was giving a talk today about that.
It's not a classic, Duke Nukem, 'it's ready when it's done', but we have to trust in ourselves to know what game we want to make and then make that. And make sure we make that however long it takes, before we show anybody, before anybody else has any input into it. We need to grab people with that screenshot. That's the thing with digital download, it has to be sold on people's impression of it. They have to say 'I want to play that' and tell their friends about it.
That's where we're aimed. The idea that we're working on, or I should say ideas that we're working on, is stuff that we've been thinking about non-stop for two years. We're really excited and passionate about it. It's a little bit more ambitious.
Like I said, wait and see what we do with eight people.