Burnout vets talk guerrilla tactics for indie studios

GDC 2010: Hello Games managing director Sean Murray discusses the development process of his four-man squad's IGF grand prize finalist Joe Danger.

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Who was there: The 2010 Game Developers Conference's Independent Games Summit continued on Tuesday with a session hosted by Sean Murray, managing director of independent startup Hello Games. Murray's four-man team boasts veterans of such studios as Criterion Games, Electronic Arts, Sumo Digital, Climax, and Kuju, having worked on such franchises as Burnout, Black, Geometry Wars, and Sega Superstars Tennis.

Evel Knievel has nothing on Joe Danger.
Evel Knievel has nothing on Joe Danger.

What they talked about: Hello Games shot to notoriety in early January after its first project, stunt racer Joe Danger, picked up Independent Game Festival nominations for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Technical Excellence Award. With the IGF Award ceremony occurring in lockstep with the Game Developers Choice Awards on Thursday night, Murray, along with Joe Danger artist and level designer Grant Duncan, demoed the game as part of their session, titled "From Big Studio to Small Indie: Guerrilla Tactics From Hello Games."

Murray began by addressing why the four-man squad left their big-studio jobs to found Hello Games in mid-2008, saying that in actuality, there really wasn't a particularly good reason. In fact, Murray, who is a programmer, said that the consensus was that leaving was "a really stupid thing." To prove his point, he rattled off survival statistics of independent studios, saying that of the hundreds of new indie shops, one in 10 survive one year and only half go on to release a game. Of those that do, only one in 10 make it past the three-year mark.

To be among those that do survive, Murray and his team emphasize what they call "guerrilla tactics." After all, he said, Hello Games does compete against the majors when it comes to getting its title attention. He went on to compare his crew to the likes of the A-Team, saying that Hello Games' members are all industry veterans who know the gaming landscape well and have solid camaraderie with one another.

As for the brass tacks of actually making games, Murray and his team quickly realized that they have much more flexibility when it comes to production. Murray said that his last team comprised about 150 people. That scale, he said, leads to an institutionalized way of thinking that dictates a big team is needed to do anything.

However, the programmer did note that Hello Games maintained many of the classic methods for making games, such as milestones, prototyping, and playable iterations. The reason for this, he said, was that these techniques help ensure that important changes that need to be made to the game can be caught early when it is still easy to fix problems.

Murray also addressed the way Hello Games approaches technology, as compared to how it was done when the unit worked at the big studios. Namely, when the studio's developers worked at a big production house, the technology was all dictated for them and well defined. However, the rigid structure hampered their ability to do things the way they wanted to do them. At Hello Games, Murray said that the studio basically "MacGyvers" technology together, forming it in the fashion that best suits their needs.

Before running out of time, Murray also briefly touched on the importance of productivity. He said that what worked best for his team was to keep detailed logs of how much time they spend a day on everything. With these, they could figure out how long they were spending on, say, programming, compiling, and debugging. In turn, this information helped streamline their development process so that they could spend more time actually making the game.

Quote: "We're going to do this, and we're probably going to crash and burn doing it."--Sean Murray, on what the mentality was like when he and his partners left the big development houses to form an independent studio.

Takeaway: An independent studio allows developers far more freedom and flexibility when making games, particularly when it comes to building customized technology. However, just because a studio is indie doesn't mean established development techniques should be tossed out the window.

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