Already gaining positive feedback in the press, Hello Games' Joe Danger looks like it's on track to become a cult hit on digital platforms.
As the game gets closer to release, company MD Sean Murray takes GamesIndustry.biz through the “heartbreak” of the QA process, the struggle to keep heads above water and why the entire project is make or break for the four-man team.
Q: A lot's happened since we last caught up - what's been going on with Hello Games in that time?
Sean Murray: Well, for us it basically never ends - we're totally focused on the game, it's everything, it's what makes or breaks us. So one, we're never happy with it - there probably should be someone to tell us when to stop, but we don't really know when to.
Because we don't have a publisher, because we're doing everything ourselves, if we're not happy with the game we just continue to work on it. It's like the good old days of 'When it's Ready' - that's when we'll release.
We've added quite a lot - people who we've shown it to have seen that as well - and we've been very much in demo mode. Last time we spoke we'd just announced, and that was a huge step for us, to actually get the game out there and see what people think. It was really nerve-wracking.
We showed it at the Eurogamer Expo and everything that we saw there... it was the first time we let people play the game, and every time we saw a little problem, it showed up and we were stood there watching...
It's a really strange thing, because I worked on Burnout and Black, and those kinds of games for years, and they sold millions, but I never got to see someone playing my game. Now that's what I get - we're stood there for every single person that plays it. If there's a problem, we'll see it 100 times over.
Q: Is that really annoying?
Sean Murray: It's heart-breaking - you see it and you just want to get home straight away to fix it... but because there's only four of us, it gives us a really singular focus. Two guys are on the Batphone now fixing bugs - we're just going into QA now, and they've been sending us builds - but they're over in time for the IGF Awards [which Joe Danger gained three nominations for, but came away empty-handed].
Q: So what sort of things changed as a result of feedback from something like the Eurogamer Expo?
Sean Murray: The progression has changed a lot, but what's probably changed the most is the sense of easing people into the game. When you're a developer you tend to make a lot of assumptions - you probably tend to make games quite hard - and I think everybody's had that, where you sit down to play a game and wonder how the developer ever released this, how they didn't know to tell you to press X to release the door, or whatever.
That was the real learning experience for us - seeing that over and over again, showing the people one after another and seeing what they do get instantly and what they don't get. That's just as important. We were teaching people things that they would know implicitly, and that's really annoying for people, so we tore all of that stuff out... It's the learning curve, bringing people into the game, that's what has changed the most.
Q: And how have things been going on the business front?
Sean Murray: At that time we were self-funded, but we were basically just living off savings - that's what that really means. We'd gotten to a point where, if I'm honest, we'd probably been talking to publishers for about a year - there was a lot about releasing a game that's very hard, and we don't want to handle - QA, localisation and marketing - but really we found the process of talking to publishers, especially about digital downloads, really long and arduous... and ultimately fruitless for us.
We got to a point, about a year in, when we thought there was a good chance the game might never get released - we had to think about making the game we wanted to make, and not the one we'd have to change it to in order to get a publisher interested. Would we stick with the vision of the game, and release it ourselves?
That's what we chose to do, and that's when we announced. That was a big deal for us, because ultimately it meant that we were going to publish it ourselves... because conventional wisdom says that when you announce, publishers generally aren't interested.
It's actually been the opposite for us - since we announced we've had a lot of publisher interest, a lot of good press, and it's really helped us in developing the game. Things like the Eurogamer Expo have happened, nominations for the IGF, releasing our first trailer - it's been a really good, if hard, six months since then.
Since we're the publisher, we're dealing with QA ourselves, we've been out here at GDC doing whatever rag-tag marketing we can do, talking to press, going through localisation - and that's off our own back, we're doing it ourselves as a team of four, which is really difficult.
Q: Are you getting used to that now though? You seem a lot more comfortable talking to press, for example.
Sean Murray: I got into this industry as a programmer, and programmer and press don't really mesh... It isn't something I'd think I'm good at, or that I got into the industry to do - but you get to the stage where you're developing a game, you've worked on it for 18 months, you've put every penny you have into it, and that's what makes you talk about it.
Q: What was the reaction to the talk you did at GDC?
Sean Murray: The reaction was good once people saw the game - but that's the problem for everybody on digital download. There are so many good games coming out on XBLA that they don't even register on people's radars. Something like 130 games were released last year, and most people can name maybe eight or ten - and that's not because there weren't great games.
And it's the same on PSN - they don't get talked about, and it's the same for us. We'll say: "We're Hello Games and we're working on Joe Danger," and most people will say: "Who and what is that?"
Q: So in terms of platforms - what's the latest on that front?
Sean Murray: Well we worked for a year just keeping our options open. We developed 360 and PS3 versions and we wanted to see what would work, what we could do. We were new to it.
We found, ultimately, that process was really hard, and there's been a lot of talk from a lot of people that are more experienced than us that XBLA is getting a lot harder to get onto, that it's a door that's slowly closing.
I think definitely that digital download is harder to get into for indies - there are definitely problems there, and that used to be the only way. When we started off it was because there was that opportunity for people to make a game and get it out - or so we thought. We found it a really difficult process, and we think we've got a pretty good game - a pretty playable game all along, and a really simple one to sum up.
If we found it difficult, I think other people would too.
Q: Can you explain how you're working with Sony?
Sean Murray: Through all of that we did talk to Sony on and off - the thing with that is that it's as a third party, which means you're still the publisher. And for four of us, that was a scary idea, to be the publisher, to handle marketing, localisation, ratings, and huge expense - as much as the whole development cost of the game itself.
Ultimately we decided to make that commitment - we believed in the game we were making, we believed we weren't going to be able to make the same game through a publisher - so we decided to go it on our own, put in the extra money, and since we've made that leap Sony has been really supportive.
We're signed with something called the Pub Fund, and that's something that helps developers like ourselves with that publishing process. That's what it's set up to do - to create these electronic publishers, people who are perhaps inexperienced like us.
Q: When Joe Danger is released, and it's been an international success story... once the dust has settled and you're looking back, what sort of legacy do you think you'll leave? Will people be inspired by your story?
Sean Murray: They'll probably be warned by us... they'll think: "My God, I definitely won't set up that games company, it looks really difficult!" That's certainly what we'd think - we were very naïve starting off.
Q: Are you saying you wouldn't do the same again? I'm not sure I believe you.
Sean Murray: We probably would, because while we're naïve, we're also not very clever... I talked about that really long publishing process, and that's probably something we regret - that we didn't just commit to making this ourselves sooner.
But we'd come from bigger development studios, so we were just pretending that we were still doing that, and we were going to have a publisher, and so on. What we've come to realise is that we are really small, and there's no getting away from that.
We probably don't present a great picture to a publisher that's worried about what happens if you get flu in your office, and there's only four of you, or if you're all in a bus that crashes... I guess when you're going to visit a publisher and all four of you are in the same car - that question is bound to come up.
Q: So de-risk the pipeline by taking separate cars?
Sean Murray: Indeed... but even though we have regrets about that whole process, and that it wasn't ideal, it did make our game better. It caused us to question absolutely everything we were doing, and yes - we did have to think about who we were aiming at.
So even though there have been some hard things to get through, we do think it's helped to make the game better.
Sean Murray is managing director of Hello Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.