Cork man's 'Dangerous Joe' gamble pays off

AN IRISH-born entrepreneur topped the charts last month with iPhone app ‘Joe Danger’.

Cork man's 'Dangerous Joe' gamble pays off

Made by Hello Games, Joe Danger’s eponymous main character is a motorbike-riding, daredevil stuntman based on the seventies toy, Evel Knievel.

Despite describing itself as a ‘tiny indie studio’, the Guildford-based games studio launched its first game Joe Danger in 2010 to critical acclaim, becoming one of the highest reviewed games on PlayStation 3.

In January 2013, Hello Games published Joe Danger for iOS devices, and the iPhone app reached number 1 in the Apple App store in 30 countries and has sold 1 million copies, as well as being the highest-reviewed game on Metacritic. Hello Games also released a sequel Joe Danger 2: The Movie in 2012.

Not bad for a company which began in 2008 with four friends sitting in an office sifting through a box of old toys.

“Setting up a games company is a bit like quitting your job to write a book or to be in a band. Everyone assumes you’ll go back to your real job after a few years. It was a bit of madness but we really believed in it,” says Cork-born founder of Hello Games, Sean Murray, 32, who sold his house in order to fund his start-up company with three friends.

“It’s great to see the success. It’s done really well for us, and built up a recognisable name for the studio,” he says.

“One of the lads on the team had a box of toys from his parent’s attic and we were using them to create game scenarios. We were looking at the Transformers to see how they moved. Then we saw the Evel Knievel stunt cycle toy, and we spent the first week in our new offices firing Evel Knievel out of windows and through the doors of the other offices. We started to think about what this guy would be like, who constantly crashes all the time and still gets back up. We started to form ideas around it.”

Two years later, and with just four people working on the development of the game (compared to 250 people who work on a single title in bigger companies) Hello Games released Joe Danger.

“On the iPhone we’re actually rated 3 years-plus, whereas a lot of games are aimed at 18 or older. We grew up playing Nintendo and Sega games which weren’t overly violent or gory. That’s a real aspiration for us and that’s something we broke away to do. Lots of people would say our game has a childlike quality to it, and that it’s like playing with toys,” says Murray.

“A really broad range of people play Joe Danger, more so than other games. We get fan mail from 60-year-olds, and from parents with children. We get it from people who are fighting in Afghanistan, and from people in hospital.”

Murray acknowledges that the rise of downloadable games has made it easier for smaller studios to self-publish new game titles.

“The kinds of games we make are download games — you can just go online and download them and you can’t get them in a shop. This is a new thing and it’s the first time studios of our size can get a game out,” says Murray, whose company currently employs 12 people.

Murray began writing computer programmes on the family Amstrad when he was six.

“I always knew I’d end up doing this. I was totally hooked and I never did anything else. My older brother would buy gaming magazines and they had little bits of code at the back and I learned from that. I’ve heard about CoderDojo being set up in Ireland and think it’s a great idea. Coding actually helped me lots with school,” says Murray.

A survey by last year found that the computer games industry was one of the fastest growing sectors in Ireland, with a 91% rise in employment since 2009. Enterprise Ireland (EI) has led the way to help game studio start-ups, introducing a Start Up fund in 2010. Last week, Games Ireland and EI launched GameSpace in Dublin’s IFSC, a central meeting and development space for new computer game start-up companies.

When Murray graduated with a degree in Computer Science from University College Cork in 2002, there were few grants for would-be games developers, and he moved to the UK.

“If there had been grants available then, I would’ve stayed in Ireland,” says Murray, who worked for gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) and Kuju, before establishing Hello Games.

His advice to budding games developers is simple. “The biggest mistake people make is to think that playing games is a qualification. All the people in industry always seemed to be writing out designs, drawing characters and learning programming at home when they were younger. The main thing is to actually start doing it in your spare time.’

Hello Games are currently developing a top-secret, next-generation title for the PlayStation 4, due for release in 2014.

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