Grant designed this robot from life, observing Sean's curious clanking motions and hard carapace.

Grant designed this robot from life, observing Sean’s curious clanking motions and hard carapace.

Way back, when we were making Joe Danger, we wrote a column for Edge about our experiences as a tiny, new, indie developer. Actually, we sort of cringe to read them now, it’s a bit like reading our diaries when we were teenagers. But it’s all part of our history, so we thought we’d publish them here again every week 🙂

Check here for the full set…

Grant Duncan “Do you think there are some people that are actually robots?”

The answer is yes, by the way. There are robots among us, and they all work in the game industry. I’m sitting listening to three of them communicate right now – I’m the only artist trapped in a tiny room with three programmers. While I sit here, drawing a picture of a dog eating a banana, they lounge around like rich lords, in a little circle, pontificating about code issues like they’re discussing French literature. I suspect they might even be plotting evil deeds, talking enthusiastically about ‘virtual operators’, ‘float arrays’ and something about ‘dangling a pointer’. It’s like this every day.

You only need to look at our respective task-lists to know that something is very wrong. My list is somewhat childlike, barely legible and slightly embarrassing. It contains tasks such as ‘work on jelly texture’, ‘build giant doughnut’ and ‘dance animations’. A lot of it has become obscured by a doodle that got out of hand and probably caused me to fall behind on my schedule. A quick sweep of Ryan’s list paints a different picture, or should that be ‘efficiently renders a different image’. It’s all neatly bullet pointed, containing tasks like ‘deferred rendering’ and ‘pre-compile the command buffer’. I have no idea what that means exactly, but it sounds like work of great importance, work worthy of a cold emotionless machine.

I was slightly worried before we started Hello Games that as its sole artist I would struggle to stay motivated. What if Guildford was the place my creativity would die? I was used to working as part of a team of artists, bouncing ideas around and inspiring one another. In times of hardship we’d solve our creative dilemmas by combining our skills, Captain Planet style – though, admittedly, this usually involved a group standing around a monitor, arms crossed, going “make the eyes bigger”.

When I first started working in games I was very surprised at the mixture of people and personalities. Artists, writers, programmers and businessmen, all trying to work together. Creatives and non-creatives making sweet awkward love. When it works, it’s magical. When it doesn’t, it’s like an abusive relationship, and their foul spawn of a game gets squirted upon the world.

Over the years, the games industry has introduced me to some real characters. There was Rude Bill, the coder who liked to tell people that his brain “operates at four times the speed of a normal human”. I don’t know if that was true, but he definitely had quarter of the personality. Then there was Grumpy Tom the artist, who refused to play the game he was working on, saying “I just make it look nice”. Imagine these two people working together and you get some way towards picturing the dysfunctional goings on behind the doors of many dev studios. Not Hello Games, of course. It’s like Three Men And A Baby in here. Only Ryan doesn’t have Ted Danson’s hair and he rarely changes my nappy.

One of the things with working as part of a small studio is that it forces you to wear a great many hats. I wear so many these days the top of my bonce is but a distant memory. Working on Joe Danger, there have been times when I’ve found myself scarily close to wearing the metallic dial-covered helmet of a coder and, in turn, the others have found themselves in the shadow of a flouncy artist’s beret. Truth be told, I feel somewhat tainted by working so close to the code, it’s like the Bog Of Eternal Stench – once touched, the stench lingers… Eternally.

Though I have managed to avoid direct contact with the code so far, I have found myself dangerously close. Entering numbers into spreadsheets and editing XML files, my dignity has all but gone. It’s not only me, though: my three coder comrades have certainly changed, too. Only yesterday I had them gathered around my monitor, arms crossed, stern faced. “I’m having a creative dilemma,” I said. “Any suggestions, guys?” “Make the eyes bigger.” I could have wept.

Artists and coders are different beasts, but over the year I feel like we have drifted away from those labels, or blurred the line, at least. I guess we’re just game developers, now. Maybe we’ve all come too far; maybe there’s no going back. But Joe Danger is our pact. It’s the tramp we killed, and none of us are going to the police.

Originally published December 22 2009

by Grant
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Sean's mind in every interview: "Are they laughing at or with me?"

Sean’s mind in every interview: “Are they laughing at or with me?”

 

Way back, when we were making Joe Danger, we wrote a column for Edge about our experiences as a tiny, new, indie developer. Being part of our history, we’re publishing them here again every week.

Check here for the full set…

Sean Murray I’m 17, waiting for my computer arts degree interview and I peek at the portfolio of the guy sat beside me. I’m 13 and Maeve meets me after school, but all she wants is for me to ask Jon out for her. I’m 28 on the way down to Future Publishing’s offices and I’m not interesting.

Mr. PR paid us a visit last week. He’s done publicity for big games, huge ones, and it’s a minor coup to have him drop in and give us advice. He’s slick. He’s loud. He talks fast and like Bono I doubt he ever takes off those sunglasses. If only half of his stories are true, they undoubtedly hide the sort of epic hangover that I thought only happened in 80s comedies. Those who know Hello Games, know we know how to enjoy ourselves, but we can recognise a professional in the field.

Apparently, this is the most important part of games PR: “When someone hires me, they are hiring twenty years of strip-clubs, drunk and disorderlies, STDs, bad hangovers and bodily fluids.” Go on… “When I send a press release, Sean, it goes straight to the top of everyone’s inbox. When you send a press release, where do you think it goes?” He makes me say it. “That’s right. Straight to the bottom.” The joke’s on him, there’s no such thing as the top of an email inbox. Depends how you sort it. Besides, I think we both know I end up in the spam folder, though I like to think at the top.

“Tell me one unique, interesting thing about Hello Games.” It’s a difficult question to answer, for anyone, especially difficult when someone easily dismisses every answer with, “Nobody cares”. Nobody cares we’re a new UK indie studio and are putting everything on the line. Nobody cares that we’re four friends who wanted to do this since we were kids messing around together. Nobody cares we’re living hand-to-mouth, working night and day and loving every minute.

He doesn’t want to play our game, but we insist. Surely this is what’s really important? “There’s only so much you can write about games, Sean, and it’s already been written. People won’t cover a game like yours unless it’s mental, unless they have no bloody idea what’s going on.” It kills me, but I’m sure there’s a certain truth to it, something like Flow or Noby Noby Boy are probably more interesting to write about than they are to play – love them both though I do.

“You are a coder. That’s your job. You don’t talk to people. That’s my job. Know what I mean? It’s like – how do you spot the coder at a party? You can’t – programmers don’t go parties.” You’re obviously going to the wrong LAN parties.

I’ll admit, we poop ourselves at the idea of showing off our game to the press, but I can’t imagine anyone else doing it either. Especially after today. Not that we could afford it (his fees are astronomical, plus expenses), but this isn’t how we want to represent ourselves. No matter how effective.

And so it’s decided, we’ll PR ourselves. Now here we are, a car full of uninteresting, bland people on the way to talk to the press for the first time. I’m desperately running through our story in my head searching for our unique selling point, but all I can hear is a whispering, echoey voice, “Nobody cares…” “Bottom of the inbox…” “Programmers don’t go to parties…”

Then we meet the guys from Edge. We eat pies and have Coke (Diet). There are no crazy stories, but they seem to like the game and later offer us this blog on Edge Online. I guess we are interesting after all and really didn’t need that PR person. The End.

Except it’s not that simple. Actually, Mr PR was right about everything.

It takes us months of hard work, pestering and begging to build up contacts. We cold call and email over a hundred journalists to begin with and only a handful reply. We drive thousands of miles to visit everyone who does and meet enthusiastic people who are obsessed with games, working hard for not much money. People much like us, actually. They even put us in touch with other press and some genuinely beautiful, helpful PR people. Still though we have barely scratched the surface and our emails sit at the bottom of most inboxes.

We lack experience in every area and it shows. We make a ham-fisted mess of our screenshots. We waste two weeks working on a magazine spread that doesn’t get used. We send a press release to Eurogamer and they laugh, rewrite it for us and send it back. We blurt out controversial nonsense in interviews, then have no idea what we just said.

And finally, we learn there’s nothing unique or interesting about us, really. We meet dozens of other developers on the indie frontlines. They have the same problems, the same struggle for coverage, the same ambitions, the same talent, and are making great games, too. We are nothing special. Just another hardworking, everyday indie. And you know what? We’re proud to be counted in that number.

Originally published October 27 2009

by Sean
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The archive: Playtesting

It was so little, and it helped.

It was so little, and it helped.


Way back, when we were making Joe Danger, we wrote a column for Edge about our experiences as a tiny, new, indie developer. Being part of our history, we’re publishing them here again every week.

Check here for the full set…

Sean Murray The counter says “Attempt 67”. Grant is biting his fist and I’m miming at him to just keep quiet. This could be the one and we can all go home. Rob jumps, bashes his head again at exactly the same spot and we all let out a groan. “Attempt 68”…

Every fortnight, we get our Hello Groceries delivered – breakfast, lunch and dinners. We’re always mildly embarrassed by the other companies we share our office with watching us stuff a filing cabinet with crisps and fruit, but we’re getting used to it. We also get a new delivery guy every two weeks, but when Rob from Tesco rings our buzzer one day, we have no idea he’s about to bring Hello Games to its knees.

“You boys minted then? Show us round,” he says. I really like that making games is an interesting, aspirational job. Unfortunately, though, we’re about to burst that bubble. If it wasn’t already clear from the crisps in the cabinet then the fact that this is the entire office is another taste of reality. “You boys must really like each other,” he observes.

He wants to come back to play our game, Joe Danger, and it’s kind of flattering, but this is our baby – no one has seen it but our closest friends. We’re trying to make excuses, but he doesn’t really pick up our subtle, awkward hints. Besides, it’s pretty obvious we’re in most of the time. “I’ll call over Friday.”

It’s always hard to get useful information from a playthrough: you tend to see what you want to see. I read once though that the designers at Valve can’t go home on a Friday until someone new has played through their latest level. The catch is, they have to watch without saying anything. So here we all are, spending Friday evening with Rob and he’s making our game look terrible. What’s worse, none of it is his fault. It’s ours.

Of course our first reaction is to try to dismiss his experience. He doesn’t read tutorials, after all. He skips cutscenes, and can make the same mistake a hundred times without learning a single thing. Grudgingly, though, we realise this also makes him the perfect tester. A talking mole explained the special moves a couple of minutes ago, but he was too busy trying to see if he could kill it. Now when he actually needs to know what he said, there’s no way to find out again.

Still, so what if he’s finding it difficult? He’s a populist gamer, not a true gamer. His favourite game is FIFA, except when it was FIFA Street. Sure he’s got a huge Gamerscore and he destroyed me at Call Of Duty 4 multiplayer, but then who doesn’t? He played his first game on PlayStation and even though he’s now on his second 360, every game he’s ever played has been a multi-million seller.

Slowly we realise this is what makes him so special, so different from our normal tester. He is pristine, untainted by the low quality and high quantity of games that most of us play though. He’s never persevered through a difficulty spike, or had to figure out the controls on a Japanese import. He’s never looked up a GameFAQ, or spotted that secret door behind the unlit texture. He will fall at every hurdle and get snagged on every rough edge, but his love of games is pure and unpretentious. He never sees potential, though every problem is obvious to him and finds them strange and comical. At one point he jumps through a crack in the collision boundaries, giggles like a madman and is convinced he’s found a secret level that we didn’t know about.

And actually, we’re warming to Robbie. Right now he’s stuck, bouncing over and over into something that looks like an exit, but isn’t. So many would have put the pad down by now, but not him. He is focused, determined and, in spite of everything, enjoying himself. You can tell he could be really good at our game, it’s just there are just so many little things we’ve ignored getting in his way. We’ve had focus testing and usability tests at previous companies, but it’s nothing like this. Standing over someone’s shoulder silently watching their frustration grow at something the four of you have made – I feel sick.

Over the weeks, his discoveries about the game have become an obsession and the cause of more arguments than we’ve ever had in the office. Ultimately, nothing major actually changes about the game, but it starts to flow better and smoother through a thousand tiny improvements until Rob, our new mascot, can come back and play through without intervention. Levels get signposted, rewards become obvious, effects are added, colours tweaked, tutorials are snappier – and the graphics are tightened up on level 3.

Rob or his friends would never have bought our game of course. He didn’t know what XBLA, Steam or PSN were before we met. Which is a shame, because he loves Castle Crashers when we introduce it to him (or “that game with the fighting”), although Braid wasn’t his thing (or “that game with the Ginger going backwards”). We’ve learned a lot from him, and he’s definitely got a more critical interest in games now, too. Although I doubt he’ll ever become your typical Edge reader – well not until they add a coverdisk.

Originally published October 13 2009

by Sean
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The archive: Hello world

It’s feels weird to think back about how we started out. We’re almost professional now, with a few games under our belts, more on the way and our own kitchen. But it’s funny to remember all the stuff we used to do. (Maybe only for us.)

For instance, when we were making Joe Danger we wrote a column for Edge about our experiences as a tiny, new, indie developer. Actually, we sort of cringe to read the articles now, it’s a bit like reading our diaries when we were teenagers. But it’s all part of our history, so we thought we’d publish them here again every week 🙂

Check here for the full set as we publish them…

So young, so fresh. So beautiful.

So young, so fresh. So beautiful.

 

Sean Murray I’m not sure how I got here. Its 6am on a Sunday morning, August 2008 and one of my best friends, David, has just fallen asleep on my shoulder. Stansted Airport is slowly waking up around us as the sun rises and I’m feeling pretty low.

On the way here a truck pulled into us on the motorway. I like to think hardened gaming muscles saved us, but as the truck lurched out in slow motion and Dave adjusted his sleeping position on the back seat, one thought was clear in my mind – the upside of a fiery pile-up on the M25, at least we wouldn’t have had to go to Leipzig.

Three hours ago we were all still working on the build, leaving just enough time for a quick playthrough before jumping in the car. The game crashes five different ways in as many minutes, but it’s too late – time’s up and we need to pack up and go. Ryan and Grant look a bit shellshocked as we leave, wishing us luck.

Neither of us has been to a trade show before and we have no idea what to expect. We certainly don’t know how to pitch a game at one (or if that actually, really happens anymore). We try to run through it on the plane – “maybe you say this”, “then I could say that”, but it just doesn’t sound like us, and it’s making us both more nervous.

Our hotel room looks more like an orphanage dorm, but Dave is finally able to crash out and I start coding on my little laptop (Christ. I wish I brought a mouse). At some point during the night David suddenly wakes up, pushes me aside and works a miracle on the build, and finally we can head out to grab some food.

The decision to come here was completely last minute, but lately we had a building need just to show our project to people we don’t already know. We’re not really sure what we are looking for, whether we want to sign up with a platform holder or maybe find a publisher, or even if any of them will be interested. All we know is that we’ve spent three intense months in a tiny room and we need to see what’s going on outside.

9am the next morning at the Leipzig Centre we have the first of five meetings over the next three days. Dave sets up the laptop in a quiet corridor and I fetch our first publisher. The three of us crouch round the screen – this can’t be how it’s supposed to be done. Mr. Publisher has had no sleep and is fading fast as we fumble over ourselves getting out some basic introductions.

Then the game boots. Suddenly we remember what this is all about – and it’s easy. I stop for a second and realise we’re both on our feet shouting, joking and giddily cutting each other off (to the annoyance of everyone trying to get past). We’ve lived and breathed the game for months. Despite our nerves, talking about and playing it is actually really enjoyable. We give him the controller reluctantly, but he loves it, totally oblivious to the bugs and glitches we are so painfully aware of and there’s nothing he can ask we haven’t already thought about.

Then things get serious, he phones his boss to join us and our fifteen minute meet and greet, turns into two hours. Suddenly we’re being asked all the questions we don’t have answers for – will we sell the IP, what is the budget for five platforms, what royalty terms are acceptable… We hand over a build and videos and arrange to meet again.

Our heads are spinning as we leave, but we’re buzzing. Cut to spontaneous high fives and Space Channel 5 style strutting. After that it gets blurry. Our five meetings turn into ten, then over twenty. We meet investors, publishers, agents and other developers. I meet two former employers, one wishes us luck, the other the opposite. We get cocky and ambush people at their booths. We blag a meeting with the VP of the world’s biggest publisher – who falls asleep during our introduction (we leave it a few minutes before banging the desk). We get kicked out of the Sony party (to be fair, we weren’t really invited) and survive a lock-in at a very German pub. We make a lot of excited, shouty calls back home (always first pretending something terrible has happened) and we learn a lot, about the business, about our game and about independent development.

Nearly a year later, our game has progressed hugely and we still haven’t announced or decided a final route to market. What happened in between has been the most stressful, fun and intense year of our lives – and now we get a chance from Edge to write about it. How cool.

In that time we’ve built our own engine, bought dev kits, signed contracts, lost deals, had huge fights, bigger celebrations, met the press, travelled the globe, pitched to publishers and made a game we’ve always wanted to. We’ve all been making games since we were kids, but I realise now we’ve never known much about how the industry really works. I think we’ve probably done everything the hard way – but hopefully someone might learn from one of our hundreds of mistakes.

Originally published September 29 2009

by Alex
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