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GDC: Hello Games' MacGyver Mentality

Sean Murray, programmer with indie studio Hello Games, talks development of the Independent Games Festival finalist Joe Danger, and how the studio "kind of had to MacGyver things together."
Part of being an indie game studio means focusing on the benefits of being small, rather than dwelling on the drawbacks of not being big – to think like a guerrilla. That's the idea that Sean Murray, programmer for Joe Danger developer Hello Games conveyed during GDC's Indie Game Summit on Tuesday. “We saw ourselves as the A-Team. We're a motley crew, but we know the landscape,” he said. That wasn't the only 1980s action TV show Murray referenced during his talk. Being an indie also means being resourceful, especially with a small but talented team of just four people. “We kind of had to MacGyver things together,” Murray said. For instance, technology-wise, the studio had to start from scratch with Joe Danger. The game, a cheery 3D side-scrolling motorcycle racing game reminiscent of games like Excitebike or Trials, started off as the back wheel of a motorcycle, jumping off ramps and through hoops. Murray showed a video of the wheel bouncing around tracks, and it was clear that even at that pared down state, the team was already trying to build the fun into the gameplay. “It helped us get the proper vision of things,” Murray said. Murray also said he did a time study across his studio, measuring exactly how much time each member spent on specific tasks, and using a pie chart to show the results. While he admitted that such a survey seems boring in practice, it revealed that Hello Games needed to spend more time focusing on tasks related to actually making the game. The studio made the appropriate adjustments. Hello Games is made up of Murray, who also serves as managing director, Grant Duncan, the studio's artist, Ryan Doyle, programmer, and David Ream, creative director. Together, the group's past employers include big studios like Criterion, Sumo, Kuju, Electronic Arts and Climax. But unlike some indies, Murray said that he didn't go independent because of an animosity towards larger companies. He admitted his decision to go indie was a bit impractical and illogical. “A lot of indies talk about big professional studios as these big meat grinders, and sometimes they are, but I really enjoyed it. It was my dream job,” said Murray. So why go indie? Most companies don't last long, many don't ever release a game and the competition is fierce, Murray said. It just boiled down to the studio's members wanting to control their own vision of a game. “We really wanted to do our own thing. We had been making games since we were kids,” said Murray. And an indie can afford to be flexible in production, powerful in technology, and more personal in marketing, three important factors. Those years spent at larger professional developers also helped the Hello Games team follow their indie aspirations. Joe Danger is slated to release on PC, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, and is a finalist in this year's Independent Games Festival. “We worked with some really amazing people [at major studios] that could teach you a lot,” Murray said. “It didn't help ... form our design decisions of the type of game we wanted to make. ... But in terms of technology, of course that stuff really helps.”

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