Joe Danger: Hello Games interview

Luke (right) looking gormless; Grant (far left) looking suspicious.

The Art Director at Hello Games (you can see why their first title, Joe Danger, is going to be so ace here), Grant Duncan – who is one out of the grand total of four members of the team – was the first person at the Eurogamer Expo I demanded an interview from. Ever the professional, I left it up to the interviewee to point out it would perhaps be better to conduct the interview somewhere slightly less noisy (I like to keep my interview subjects on their toes). I’m rather old fashioned, and like to start at the beginning. So first of all I asked how and why Hello Games came about in the first place.

“We’ve all worked at big studios in the past. Some of us have worked at Criterion, I worked at Sumo Digital, Climax, Kuju… we’ve all worked at various studios in the UK. We all started round about the same time too, about five or six years ago. Dave [Ream], one of the guys I work with, I actually went to school with; we always used to talk about this sort of thing, we always used to make our own Quake levels, come up with our own game ideas, that kind of thing.”

“I started as a level designer for Quake, I used to make maps for leagues to play on. He was working with Sean [Murray] and Ryan [Doyle] at Kuju at the time – Sean and Ryan previously worked together at Criterion. He basically let me know he was thinking of starting up with them, so I started talking to them early on; and when they decided to do it, I left Sumo and moved down to Guildford, a… year and three or four months ago now.”

Lots of lovely money aside, what’s the main difference between working for a big name developer and working in a small indie?

“Well the thing we found is that you have to be incredibly efficient, because there’s only four of us; you can’t afford to be wasting any time. So I could have an idea, pitch it to the guys, and in a few hours we could have an idea working, if we think it’s worth pursuing. Normally in a bigger studio, you’d have an idea, and you’d then have to go through multiple levels of management, for them to actually commit people to something. It’s wasting money, whereas for us we’re very quick to do things.”

Their first game isn’t even out yet, and they’ve already got a regular column in Edge! How did that come about then?

“We all went across to Bath with our PC and our getup, we’d had a playable demo for quite a long time. We showed Alex Wiltshire, who is the editor of Edge. He’s the first journalist we showed it to. They were really positive; they seemed to like us, they seemed to like the game. They said they’d been thinking for a while about doing something interviewing developers, about how a game gets made. We seemed to fit the bill, and obviously we were more than happy to do that, that’s incredible!”

Anybody who goes to the Hello Games website – as they should – will find a wonderful sense of humour thrown around all over the place. Will we see this sense of humour in Joe Danger, I asked?

“Definitely. It’s almost like we can’t help ourselves. Because there’s no-one to tell us not to, it’s quite scary… I could put whatever I want on the website! I could insult anyone if I wanted to – but obviously I’m not going to do that! I could make stupid jokes about Sean’s mum, but of course I wouldn’t dream of doing that. In the game we have that; we’ve got billboards in the background with possibly the worst puns you’ll ever read, and that’s entirely my fault. I did it, and nobody told me off. So it’s in the game now.”

What influenced Joe Danger? The obvious comparison would seem to be Excitebike…

“I never actually played Excitebike. I know Sean was a massive Excitebike fan, but I was a really big fan of Kickstart on the Spectrum. You went over obstacles, it had a level editor; obviously quite basic because it was the Spectrum. Where the initial idea came from, is I basically just brought a load of toys in from my attic on one of the first days. We knew we wanted to make something that captured that childhood feeling of, though you’re just playing with a plastic car, in your mind it’s the most exciting thing. That’s what we’re trying to do with the game, we’re trying to capture what you were seeing as a child. Sean had an Evel Knievel stunt cycle, which I’d never even seen before. We kept coming back to it, you could lay things out, you could smash things about. We knew we wanted to do something with physics, it seemed perfect.”

Joe Danger features a level editor, which is actually used in gameplay in order to complete the single player ‘puzzle’ modes. It’s such a great idea, why hasn’t anybody used a level editor like this before? Well this is Grant’s view, and be warned, he says a naughty word:

“When you’re doing lots of things at once, there’s a tendency to concentrate on one aspect. There’s a lot of games that have multiple modes. You know, ‘this is the driving mode, this is the shooting mode’ and then the driving mode will be absolutely shit. Whereas the shooting mode will be amazing. So if you spread yourself too thin, I think there’s a danger of not developing it enough. We pretty much started out with an editor, so we’ve been developing that along with the game. As the levels have been made with this editor, we’ve been polishing the editor the whole way through. Whereas if you were to add an editor right at the very end of development, you can imagine the amount of problems you could possibly have. I’d be sitting next to Dave, who is the main coder behind gameplay, and I’d be using the editor. So if I had any problems with it, and I was cursing and pulling my hair out, he’d see me doing that and that motivates him considerably to fix it! And once you complete the game, you can then unlock the event levels for the editor so you can then go and edit them yourself if you want to. So you’ll play through the levels once, and then you can go back and… just play around, basically. We want to encourage people to play our games in different ways, and there’s something fun about the editor. It almost feels like you’re breaking the game, you’re making your own fun.”

One piece of information about the game that one would consider rather important, is the format(s) it’s to be released on. There’s no sign yet of which machine you’ll be able to play Joe Danger on, though. Er… why?

“Yeah. We really want to be sure, it would really help us! If it was up to us obviously we’d release it on everything, we want as many people to play our game as possible. We need approval from whichever company, we haven’t decided which one we’ll go with. We have an Xbox 360 version, a PS3 version, and a PC version, that we’ve been developing in parallel. We have all the versions. What we’re unsure of, is the order they’ll be released in. I’d love to see a version on Steam, probably after the console release. We’d love to release it on the PC, because the market is so diverse. When we were showing it at Leeds, a lot of the people who came round were PC gamers, they seemed to really enjoy it.”

A level editor brings up the subject of user created content. Does Grant think that this will become a huge part of gaming’s future?

“I feel it already is, but I think so far as consoles go – I used to do that sort of thing on PCs all the time – it’s getting a lot bigger. Valve started as modders and things. A lot of people who have made levels on LittleBigPlanet, I think, have gone on to be hired as level designers. I think that’s awesome.”

There’s a good chance that some people reading this are hoping to become developers themselves one day. So I asked for any advice he could give to such people… who haven’t already worked at multimillion pound studios.

He had a little chuckle at my cheekiness, then replied: “It’s tricky. Obviously see if you can get into the industry. It’s valuable the experience you can get. Anything, anywhere. You can learn so much about development, how to work quickly and efficiently, that kind of thing. I don’t think there’s any way the four of us could do what we’ve done without being dropped in the deep end with these various big companies in the past. Having said that, I think the best advice I could give to anybody is just to do it. Even if nobody’s paying you to do it, do it because you want to do it. That’s what’s so good about mods, flash games, all that kind of thing. Just because it shows that you’re passionate about what you’re doing; having a background of development like that will really help you.”

What’s the battleplan for Hello Games? Stay as they are, get a little bigger, eventually go back to working for big studios?

“I think right now, we’re all really happy doing what we’re doing. Obviously we’ll probably expand a little bit, because four guys doing what we’re doing is utterly exhausting! I think we’re all on the same page, we’d like to expand to be able to turn stuff over even quicker. We’re keen to keep things like the humour you were talking about, and also with our game we’re trying to be very colourful. We’ve all been inspired by Sega and Nintendo. It’s a game, and it’s not ashamed about that fact. It’s happy to be just stupid and silly, just to make people smile. We want to keep that, that’s definitely going to be a thread you’ll see running throughout our games.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Visit www.hellogames.org. Well go on, what are you waiting for?

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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