It’s simple to forget there was life prior to No Man’s Sky at Hello Games. The studio, which is still little now, started small: “4 individuals in a space” as co-founder Sean Murray puts it, rather wistfully, when the initial group began deal with the PS3’s Joe Danger. Speaking to Murray and Steven Burgess, who’s taking the lead on The Last Campfire, the strangely enough mournful puzzle-adventure that got here through surprise release the other day, the focus is quite on that sort of independent spirit.
There’s some fond memories there, when Murray talks over the studio’s history, beginning with the now-familiar story of the modest Joe Danger roots and how the group rapidly swelled to “15 or 16” individuals on No Man’s Sky at the peak, prior to choosing the 25 that comprise the internal Hello Games group now. But the core group’s not the one dealing with The Last Campfire. Burgess, along with Chris Symonds and James Chilcott, comprise the totality of The Last Campfire group. The primary bulk of the Hello Games group is on something else totally.
The setup now is all a bit full-circle. Burgess and Symonds were on “a small group” of about 18 individuals within a much bigger one at Frontier Developments when their previous video game, 2008’s LostWinds, remained in development. After that, it was basically exclusively Burgess that directed the deal with porting Hello Game’s own small-team video game Joe Danger to iOS (“We dealt with that together, however Stevie did all the work,” Murray half-jokes).
“The example the devil would pertain to you at midnight with…”
Sean Murray, on No Man’s Sky’s runaway success.
Joe Danger came out on consoles and PC naturally however “truly discovered its success,” Murray states, on iOS with Joe Danger Touch. And now they’re back, “an even smaller sized group within an even smaller sized group,” as Burgess puts it, making The Last Campfire. Murray himself is eager to play that balance up, talking with some fond memories of the micro-studio indie days and the intent to attempt and reproduce it “as much as possible. We desire individuals to have that experience and I believe that is very important and ideally does feel various” to operating in a bigger group.
“We wished to offer other individuals in the studio the chance to have that experience that we had,” he describes, “due to the fact that I believe that was extremely developmental for us and we didn’t wish to simply be, you understand, 4 old farts informing individuals ‘well on Joe Danger this took place,’ despite the fact that we’re still that, undoubtedly. But ideally we are raising the next round of old farts, with the Campfire group. There’s 3 people, and there’s an entire lot of additional aid beyond that, however they’re truly the designers dealing with the video game.
“The people remain in their own workplace, this is quite [a situation where] we’re attempting to reproduce all the… all the ‘enjoyable of being an indie studio’,” he chuckles. “Whilst ideally still making money a wage and all of those examples that imply that you’re not putting your life on the line either.”
There’s a qualitative argument to be produced that sort of setup, as Murray does: “So for example, art sensible, a thing I enjoyed about Joe Danger was that you might take a look at it and every bit of art has actually been made by our artist Grant [Duncan], you were taking a look at – or sort of entering – his creativity, and he simply had total control. It’s the exact same on Campfire, it’s a beautiful sensation.” But reading in between the lines there’s another factor for it, truly, which is the long shadow cast over Hello Games by the dizzying launch of No Man’s Sky, and the subsequent shift far from that micro-studio spirit that it needed.
“I believe No Man’s Sky was a… an insane ol’ journey,” Murray states when I bring it up – and ask if there have actually been any lessons discovered, so to speak, from what some would call a touch of overpromising in the lead approximately its troubled launch. It was “a video game that I believe from the minute that we revealed it, ended up being a spaceship, you understand, straight to the Sun all the method up.
“I believe every developer would accept that kind of journey as a kind of a mixed blessing, right? I think most developers would be like ‘it’s signing a deal with the devil,’ to accept that you’re going to have everyone in the world interested in playing it. It’s the kind of thing that the devil would come to you at midnight with, right? A contract that would be like: you will be one of the biggest selling IPs of this generation, you’re going to be on stage at E3, and have all these, you know, incredible adoring fans. And then you would realise that there are some difficulties with that. Campfire’s a very different proposition.”
The final piece of the cyclical puzzle, here, is Apple. The Last Campfire’s coming out on just about every platform under the Sun, but – and I should add that this conversation was taking place with someone from Apple on the line, as Murry himself did jokingly – Murray was keen to emphasise how it was actually developed with iOS in mind. “It has a very native feel to it. We were developing for iOS for like five years, our very first builds were on that, so whilst we’ve adapted it for other platforms, and I’m really proud of that, one of the things that I am most proud of, in particular, is that it feels so at home on iOS. That was a big thing for us from day one.”
For Murray it was “a meeting of minds,” about the type of game The Last Campfire team wanted to make, as well as what a platform could be about. Referring to a question I asked about the market for these types of indie video games – a silent, besmocked character wandering through an enchanted forest, and so on – and whether some might claim it to be a tad crowded, he added: “You may say, “Oh, the market is saturated,” but I think actually, on iOS, there is an open space to kind of tell really nice, complete stories. “So it was lovely to be approached by Apple, and kind of a good meeting of minds on Arcade with what they wanted to do there in trying to push ‘premium quality’, complete titles on iOS.”
“Having said that, we want Campfire to stand out amongst that field and be something… something different and also something that feels deeply at home on iOS.” He emphasises the fact that much of the marketing so far has placed emphasis on the atmosphere, over the real experience. “If you look at its contemporaries of Abzu, or Journey, or Brothers [A Tale of Two Sons] or whatever, there is room for many stories in that style… Campfire, at its heart, is a puzzle video game and it has probably a higher density of puzzle gameplay – and gameplay variety across it – than people are probably expecting from the trailers they’ve seen so far, which tend to focus on the evocative.”
Putting the pieces together, though, above all The Last Campfire just seems like a chance for the studio to reset, after the freneticism of the last thing it launched. It seems a conscious attempt at getting away from the bigger team, bigger spotlight development, even if Murray himself and the core No Man’s Sky team is focusing on something else. “We’re working on something new, ambitious, that’s kind of unannounced, and we’re working on No Man’s Sky,” was all Murray would say. I wonder if he, in particular, will still crave a bit of the spotlight, now the worst of it’s died down, but for now he and the team just seem glad for the change of pace. “We’re kind of extremely happy,” Murray says, “I suppose, with where we are now.”
(Correction: due to a transcription error this article previously stated Hello Games reached 50 or 60 individuals in size, when in reality it was 15 or 16. Apologies from us, and the short article’s been upgraded!)