A few weeks ago a new game was announced called Joe Danger - a quirky motorbike title described in a Eurogamer preview as a "stunt-'em-up" - from a small team in Guildford called Hello Games.
They've only existed for about a year, and this is their first title - but with a lot riding on its success, they'll be hoping it can appeal to a strong digital audience. Here the company's MD, Sean Murray, explains why the team left the relative comfort of good jobs elsewhere to strike out on their own, and outlines some of the challenges they've come across in their journey so far.
Q: What made you want to set up a company in the first place, and start out on your own? When you started out it wasn't exactly the strongest economic situation the industry was facing...
Sean Murray: [smiles] We thought we'd get in at the bottom and ride the wave to the top... There was a basic need, I'd describe it as. We'd all gone into game because we loved them, starting in our various jobs at Criterion, Climax, Sumo and those places - for me, and the guys as well, it was our dream job and we were in awe of people who made games growing up.
So when we met, and as we were friends, there was almost an assumption that this is what we were going to do. I'd meet people in the industry and without saying anything about it to them they'd ask when we were going to set up on our own - because all we did was talk about games and the things we want to do.
But it wasn't the case we were terribly unhappy where we were or anything, we just wanted to steer our own ship... though it's more than that, it's the exposure to everything that is the industry. Getting to do all of that for yourself is an amazing thing.
We don't have a designer, we don't have a business manager - we do all of that, wear all the different hats. We've got one artist, so he does everything, as well as animation, and that's a brilliant feeling to be able to do. I think the type of games we wanted to make were a driving factor as well.
Q: Chris Taylor once told me that setting up Gas Powered Games was like finding the rocket launcher in an FPS game - it's the weapon you think you really want, but then when you get it you find out there are some drawbacks: the fire rate is slow, and you can't run as fast, and if you shoot it into the ground next to you, you're in trouble... Does that ring any bells?
Sean Murray: Absolutely - I'd describe our feelings on starting up as giddiness, really. We were back rediscovering a love of games and the industry, and you go back to the basics. You start thinking about your friends playing games, rather than the end consumer and that's brilliant - but it's also terrifying, because if the game is bad it's all you... there's no one else to blame.
Q: I guess with a small team like yours, with four people, everybody has a massive impact on the outcome of the game... whereas in a company of 300 an individual's influence is significantly lessened?
Sean Murray: I think we were lucky before in that we had relatively senior roles, and we could impact the games we were working on, but when you're doing that you become a lead and you stop coding, for instance. So we have now that feeling of when we first started - learning a lot. You're not trying to direct a team, just yourself, and it's all about what you put in - every hour you work on the game makes it an hour better.
There's no barrier to changing things either - you have complete control over that... but again, going back to the rocket launcher example, you can absolutely destroy yourself with that... an infinite ability to f*** it all up.
Q: I guess a lot of people would like to start their own company, but when you've got a good wage, responsibilities, and so on it's a big risk to take. How did you go about financing Hello Games?
Sean Murray: Basically it's us, we're self-funded. We used to have decent salaries that we've passed up - I bought a house with that, and now I've sold it to fund this.
Q: That takes a certain strength in your convictions, and that's definitely a risk...
Sean Murray: Yeah, it's not insignificant, what we're doing and what we've put on the line. We're not eating out of dustbins or anything like that, but we are back in beans-on-toast land. But that's the basic need - it's now or never, but I don't want that to be a badge of honour.
Q: So Joe Danger is the game you've been working on for the past year - what was the thinking behind that?
Sean Murray: Well, we all got together, talked about the games that we loved - and there was something raw in the group about a love of old school gaming. Not necessarily retro gaming, but the feeling you got from games you played when you were kids... games that had charm and personality and good solid gameplay mechanics.
That's something that's started to come back in through Live Arcade I think, and iPhone and PSN - those markets are opening up again and people want to play that stuff. On Nintendo there are a lot of those games that are just whittled down to raw gameplay.
We always wanted to work on something like that - it was achievable, to just concentrate on the gameplay, and while we've announced the game, people haven't had a real chance to play it - I think that idea will come through.
Q: Some games can be sold on screens alone, but visuals alone don't do some other games justice.
Sean Murray: No, we'll live or die by how it plays, but we think it plays well. We wanted to make something that was fun, and from when we started - literally a couple of weeks in - we were sat playing something that was fun, and we've just built on top of that.
We came to the idea by sitting around talking about different ideas - we all had ideas, and we had to come to an agreement. There was one idea we kept coming back to, and it really solidified when we were playing with a bunch of toys, using them to demonstrate, building little levels with Lego and that sort of thing. There's something very powerful about demonstrating your ideas with Optimus Prime or GI Joe in your hand...
Q: It sounds like iteration has been pretty crucial, when it comes to focusing on gameplay?
Sean Murray: Yeah, I hope so - we've had it playable from day one and iterated since then, and then there's also that amazing ability to not have to run ideas past someone, so we can just add. There's subtlety there that I think will surprise people... I like to paraphrase the old saying, that it's 1 per cent perspiration and 99 per cent iteration - just taking that raw idea and making it better through play-testing.
So we're not doing anything because a publisher has said they want it, or because it needs to tick a milestone box - we're not thinking in those terms. We're able to iterate and focus on that entirely.
Q: You've not announced a platform for the game yet?
Sean Murray: No, not yet. We've been through pretty much everything a new studio can go through - what we did when we started was to have this plan of "We build it, they will come." As I said, we don't have a business manager, so we just concentrated on making something, and then... let's see.
Then you get to a point where you realise you don't have any dev kits, and we don't really just want to be PC-based - we've always been console developers - and also I think those are the markets that are really interesting to us.
And as well as that, as a new studio we can't put ourselves into a corner - every publisher you meet, every platform holder... it's almost Catch-22, they want to see it on a console of some kind.
So then we started working on that, building up our list of contacts, and it takes a really long time to get dev kits in, to start talking to publishers and platform holders. We approached it in such a way that we weren't going to rule anything out, like working with publishers and be indie through and through, because we weren't sure how that business model works.
So we made our game and hopefully we're talking to the right people now to be able to announce what platform we're on in the future.
Q: The digital download space is a pretty interesting place - but some bigger companies are starting to spend big money on games there... so how do you compete with that?
Sean Murray: Well, for us the main thing is the gameplay, but as well as that I think the game that we're making does have high production values and we don't think our game is more worthy because it was only made by four people - hopefully it will have a personality that other games don't have, but we feel we have to compete, that's not an excuse.
We're making the best game we possibly can - but I think you're right, as a developer it is a shame that, while I don't think the door is closing on those platforms, it is getting a lot harder to open, and there are a lot of people saying that.
That's just economics in some ways - it is a closed market. There are only a certain amount of slots, and they're maintaining those to hopefully increase quality for the consumer. The only thing that is a shame in that is that more traditional titles will end up being non-XBLA.
Q: Do you think there's a danger for consumers that, partly because of the economy and partly because of the maturing process, the creativity becomes less important?
Sean Murray: I think at retail, if you look at the keynotes from E3, the majority of announcements were sequels, definitely. That puts games as more of a form of software, almost, where it's just different versions, and improving versions, rather than something that's full of new ideas.
I think having said that, you look at some platforms like the Nintendo DS, and it has the widest, weirdest range of titles on there. You can play anything on a DS, and there are so many different genres.
Q: But then again, isn't that also a problem - the sheer amount of product out for the DS?
Sean Murray: Yeah, with a more open market that certainly happens. I think the iPhone is a good example of that, where it's just the widest open door on the market. That means you'll have niches catered for, which is great, but it also means that your title might be lost, and you might have your amazing new Sudoko game come out on the same day as three others.
That is a difficult business to be in - it's the sheer volume of titles. As a consumer, that can be great, but it can also be terrible, because you look on there and sometimes the quality isn't there, or it's a confusing platform to find a game that you want. Knowing that you're going to be one of those many people makes it a difficult platform to start out developing for.
Then you've got the opposite side of things, like XBLA which is generally two slots a week, around a hundred games per year. It's a known quantity, and it's managed, but it also means it's going to get harder as the market grows - that means there's a loss, that some of the riskier ideas and projects aren't going to be on that service.
Sean Murray is MD of Hello Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.