You Had Me At Hello

Hello Games' Sean Murray on the teething pains of indie development, and how to love a project after six months

Sean Murray and Hello Games are one of the more modest indie success stories. Not modest in terms of achievement, but very much so when it comes to shouting about it. The studio's debut title, Joe Danger, saw a success on PSN which allowed the company to expand and make new hires at its Guildford office for a new project, still very much under wraps.

Success brings exposure, and Sean himself is now a regular speaker on the conference circuit - a phenomenon which he says "must mean I'm a terrible coder - they just want me out of the office." caught up with the CEO after his opening keynote for the indie games track at Develop earlier this month, to see what advice he had for people looking at indie development.

Q:The general theme of your presentation today was some of the harsh realities of indie development which are often glossed over. Why is it so romanticised?

Sean Murray:Well it's a funny one, indie games, isn't it? It's the tortured artist. The tortured artist isn't a great place to be but it's also an aspirational place to be in some ways. Everyone wants to be the tortured artist because it implies that you're producing great art.

It's almost people glossing over the realities of being on the breadline and starving. That kind of thing. Chopping your ear off. It's seen in a whimsical way, in a fantasy way. The reality of chopping your ear off is probably quite grim.

So I don't want to de-romanticise indie development because I have a great love for what it is we do and I want people to get involved in indie gaming and be interested in indie development, but I do think the details are interesting, and I do think it's important for people to hear what those realities are.

I think what I was saying in the talk was that I went in completely unprepared for any of those realities. As they hit me one by one I thought, 'I'm the only person who's ever been through this. Therefore, I must be doing everything wrong. It means my game is wrong. Terrible.'

It meant that I wasn't cut out for that sort of development. I expected indie development to be making games in a wooded glen. Ideas coming to me in my dreams, from looking at the shapes of clouds, that inspiring me to create beautiful art. It would be done in a week, that was a key point as well.

I think that's the single biggest thing that people don't talk about. That any game idea, or any project in life, pretty much - after the first few weeks makes you doubt whether it's a good idea.

Q:So it's like picking up a guitar and thinking you'll be the next Hendrix?

Sean Murray:I think it's the same sort of thing! I actually got a guitar when I was about 14 I think. It was really hard to play, initially everything I tried to play sounded terrible and I felt that meant that I should give up because no great guitarist has to go through that. It's much smoother and easier, pretty much instantaneous for them. [laughs]

Q:So what is the biggest reality shock for most new indies?

Sean Murray:I think probably the biggest thing for me was leaving a job which was 9-5 that I'd stopped enjoying as much, and then doing something full-time which I had up until then been doing in my spare time, at the weekends.

I'd been making little games, and prototypes. Exploring, funny though this sounds, programming! Solving nice problems that I didn't get a chance to do at work. I'd been doing that side of things and that's what I expected it to be like. I expected to do full-time what I'd been doing part time.

That, to me, sounded amazing. Like the easiest week's work I could possibly have.


Joe Danger in action.

The reality is that, unlike when you're doing it in your spare time, when you're doing it full time, no matter what it is, it does become different. You do go through those phases of doubting what you're doing. Of disliking what you're doing.

I think that's the single biggest thing that people don't talk about. That any game idea, or any project in life, pretty much - after the first few weeks makes you doubt whether it's a good idea.

When that hit me I thought, well that's because it must be a terrible game idea. It's because I'm not cut out for this. I think that was the single biggest shock, definitely. Only by talking to other people did I realise that everyone seems to go through that.

Q:You worked full time at a studio before starting - would you recommend a period of that before going indie?

Sean Murray:I think people can definitely become an indie developer straight out of university. I think people can not go to university and still be a successful developer.

But like anything in the world, experience helps. I don't know for me personally, how I would have done what I am doing now had I not had that experience. Because starting a proper games job is in itself a huge shock. Probably doing that alone taught to work 9-5, having been a student for a few years.

But it's definitely a very valuable thing. From the few statistics I gathered for my talk today, that was a trend. Those that were doing the best, that was a common factor. That they were university educated, that they were multi-disciplined, that they had a lot of experience in what they were doing, in whatever form. That really isn't that surprising.

Q:The first steps certainly seem like the hardest, particularly in terms of getting noticed. Do you think that micro-studios and start-ups are adequately represented as a potential business resource?

Sean Murray:I think that we work in an amazing industry, in that the press, in particular - but gamers as well, approach game development as a completely level playing field. They don't care where a game came from. In fact, unlike movie-going audiences and the people who buy books, gamers and gaming press are almost inclined to play favourites and give a disproportionate advantage to little developers like us.

We don't want that to end! [laughs]

On the other side of the industry, in business terms... I'm not sure whether that applies. I think it's very interesting to me that someone like PopCap is being bought by EA for $750 million or whatever the final figure ends up being, whilst some of the most interesting games I see end up having to rely on kickstarter funding or loans from friends or whatever.

In most of those cases they're just looking for the sort of funding which just keeps them in beans on toast, they're not looking for crazy amounts of money. I find that very surprising from a business point of view, given that any one of those could be producing the next Plants Vs. Zombies or the next Peggle or whatever. Easily.

That happens all the time. New genres, exciting new games come from unexpected, at least from a business point of view, places. People seem totally taken aback when something like Minecraft comes out.

And the vast majority of those people would never have got funding, and they would have been looking for tiny amounts of funding. Especially considering the huge amounts which are being spent on developers who are arguably at their peak.

Q:So many indie titles, and indeed companies, seem to get their break through on services like Steam, the App Store, PSN and Xbox Live. How important are those edifices to indie success?

I think if I had a time machine and went back to Sean two years ago, and told him everything that was going to happen, he would have run a mile.

Sean Murray:I think without the support of at least one of those outlets, the chances of success are reduced from tiny to almost non-existent. I think that if you talked to other indie developers, they might say, we've been turned down by Steam, or XBLA or PSN. It's a really common thing to hear, but it's also often a real finishing blow for any studio.

Often people are 100 per cent relying on it. Not just their approval process, but with someone like Apple you are 100 per cent reliant on them promoting your game. Without that, the service is nothing. It's the same for Steam, it's the same for XBLA, PSN, being on their services is only worth the amount of promotion that you're going to be blessed with.

I think they are also in complete control of that scene, in complete control of the output of indie developers. It's kind of a scary place, but I think we're certainly lucky to have them. If you look at the last generation, you couldn't make a PS2 game unless you were with a publisher and had a pretty sizeable team. There were no other options.

Q:Industry working models are changing worldwide, from permanent large teams to more fluid arrangements. Part of the new model seems to be an encouragement of talent sharing and collaboration. Is that a valid model for indies?

Sean Murray:I would obviously definitely believe in collaboration. I definitely believe in working together with people, but... I think really good games, really great games, come from the heart of a very small core team always working 100 per cent focused. That is kind of where the magic happens. We always look to have, for our own team, everyone permanent and believe in their long-term development. That we'll all improve together and start to gel as a team.


The Hello Games team at the Eurogamer Expo in 2009.

That kind of means everything to us, that everyone is equally involved in the game. I think it's perfectly possible to get that with collaboration, just that little bit harder. I think that's why we haven't done that. I think in the trends that I've seen you see more success amongst developers who are not outsourcing a lot of work, that are working as a really tight team.

Part of that is just because they normally so small - if you have a two-man team and one of those is outsourced, it's crazy. It makes a lot less people when you're 300 people and some of those people are in Eastern Europe or somewhere. It's a much bigger problem when you're just two or three people.

Q:You talked about the difference between yourself and the Sean of two or three years ago in your presentation. What would your single best piece of advice be to him now?

Sean Murray:I think if I had a time machine and went back to Sean two years ago, and told him everything that was going to happen, he would have run a mile! He wasn't prepared for it. I think it's good that I didn't know everything that was going to happen!

But if I could have visited him, at various stages of development, and told him - 'This is normal. You're not, necessarily, rubbish because your game doesn't look as good as you feel it should, or because you feel really constrained by having a really small group of people', or that 'it doesn't mean that you're an idiot because you've run out of money, those are just the harsh realities of the world'.

That would have been the really helpful advice. Just reassurance. There's nothing more reassuring than hearing from somebody who has had success. Who has made it through a problem. That they were where you are right now.

I think that's the most helpful thing that indies can talk about. I don't want to de-romanticise it or anything, but I think it is important to tell people that, if you are going to cut your ear off, it's really bloody painful.

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Latest comments (4)

Simon Dotschuweit MD SE / CTO, Dorado Games10 years ago
Great article, this msg and others like it should really be spread more, mentioning the realities and then encourage people that you can make it through them. In our industry there are still too many talking about "yeah its a cakewalk, get success in 24 hrs" or the other extrem "indie? you gonna end up a pennyless bum anyways so why not give up right now". So thanks Sean really appreciate hearing about your story, wish you more success out there, keep us posted on any future lessons learned!
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Hyunwoo Ko 2D Artist, IUGO Mobile Entertainment10 years ago
Thank you for this article. It is definitely important to have the reality check of telling you that 'cutting your ear off' is indeed painful and no sugarcoating will change that fact.

Unless there is something that can work as a 'morphine'... Maybe that can ease the pain, but the pain will always be there... Gogh definitely had no morphine in his time. :P

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Hyunwoo Ko on 26th July 2011 7:01pm

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Stefano Ronchi Indie Game Developer 10 years ago
I'd disagree with Sean on one point: that you need to rely solely on the platforms that host your games. Sure, it helps what coverage they give you, but there is no reason why you cannot chase review sites (EG, IGN, rock paper shotgun etc.), indie sites for interviews, word of mouth, ads in the local paper -marketing is such an important thing that leaving it only to the platform holder is cutting your own legs off.

And if cutting your ear off is painful, I'd assume that is too.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
Great article, although I too had the same thought as Stefano as I was reading - surely even a small indie studio can do a bit of canvassing if they have a solid product, and as Sean himself says, the small guys are sometimes greeted more warmly than the behemoth conglomerates. I can speak from experience and say that mid-sized websites such as Thunderbolt Games and Honest Gamers would be more than happy to run articles on indie devs or their output as well.
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