"On the day we moved into our office, we were really excited," says Sean Murray, one quarter of Guildford's latest gaming microbrewery, Hello Games. "Four lads striking out on their own for the first time. When we got there, the office's previous occupants were moving out. They'd just failed to start their own indie dev team. They offered us their old monitors. That dampened our excitement a bit."
Spend any time with Murray and his three team-mates, programmers Ryan Doyle and David Ream alongside artist Grant Duncan, and you'll find that hard to believe. The foursome exude boundless enthusiasm from every pore, giddy with excitement that they're finally getting to make stunt-'em-up Joe Danger, their dream project.
Refugees from Criterion, Kuju and Sumo (the last game they worked on was Geometry Wars: Galaxies), the guys have thrown in everything they've got (Murray even sold his house) to go it alone. "We wish we could say our creative juices had been mercilessly squeezed out of us by the cogs of corporate developers," says Murray. "But the truth is, we quite liked working at our respective companies. It just felt like we had to go and make our own games though. Ryan, Dave and I were so excited about starting, we forgot to even hire an artist."
Crowding round the monitor in the Hello Games office (which is smaller than most developer's bathrooms), Grant boots up Joe Danger, their debut game for PC, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. A daring stuntman permanently attached to his mortorbike, Joe is a bit retro, complete with cape and perma-smile, a sort of Jovial Knieval. "It's the old riches to rags and back to riches tale," says Murray. "We'll probably have Joe bunnyhopping up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at some point."
The lights go green, and Joe's instantly tearing down the track, ducking under hurdles, leaping over buses and pulling off awesome stunts. Messages constantly flash up on screen telling you how awesome you are while the combo meter at the bottom of the screen goes ballistic. Get one of the letters that ultimately spell out the word D-A-N-G-E-R and you'll trigger an awesome sample from a popular eighties power ballad ("We haven't actually, uh, cleared that sample yet," says Ream). As Grant Duncan bounces off a platform that triggers a spiralling line of time-limited ghost coins, it's clear this is pure old-school Nintendo-style sugar-rush gaming, three lanes of terror that keep the pulse pounding from the beginning of each course to the end.
On each run the aim is to gain one or more stars, either by capturing a gold cup, collecting the coins or letters, hitting certain targets or finding a hidden star. Fans of the older Tony Hawk's games will recognise this model of level unlocking, and the influence spreads to the tricks too. Combos can be linked together with wheelies in a similar style to manuals in the skating games. Build up your stunt meter by pulling off some sick moves, and you'll fill up your boost bar, Burnout-style.
It's quickly revealed that Joe's bike is the least physically realistic two-wheeled beast since Street Hawk, and even while in the air he can accelerate, break and even double-jump, making the game into something far more like a platformer than anything else. "We're really inspired by Super Monkey Ball, and the sick player videos that people released around that time. We want to give players all the tools to do incredible things," says Murray.
By this point, the trending topic in your brain's Twitter feed will no doubt be #gameslikeTrials - but Joe Danger is definitely the Excitebike to Trials HD's Kickstart. While it has that 'one more go' factor, it's much less about endless self-flagellating restarts and more about having fun. "You're always unlocking something new," says Ryan Doyle. "That's something Alex [Ward] at Criterion taught us, it should be like a pinball machine, with the player constantly being given feedback and rewards."
Which is not to say Joe Danger is easy, as I find when I wipe out on my first attempt at a jump, landing neatly in a shark-infested tank. Brilliantly, Joe is grabbed by an unseen shark and dragged rapidly back and forth in the tank, finally clambering out, only to slip back in. "It's a definite nod to Lance Murdoch," says Murray, smiling. Simpsons fans will remember Lance as the faded stuntman who encouraged Bart to jump the Springfield gorge with the immortal words, "Bones heal, chicks dig scars, and the United States has the highest doctor to daredevil ratio in the world."
The team is well aware that variety is key to Joe's success, and they've already created over 150 levels, although they expect to get that down to around 50 for the finished game. Alongside the normal tracks there are six-man boss races (which see Joe taking on the Evil Team in chaotic free-for-alls), challenges and puzzle levels. "We keep forgetting to show people the puzzle levels," says Ream, "but they're a great way of getting people used to how the level editor works. Oh yeah, there's a level editor as well."
It's unlikely to challenge LittleBigPlanet for wannabe mass appeal. In fact, Media Molecule's offices are just around the corner from Hello Games, and there's clearly a pecking order. "We're above a tile shop, they're above a tile-and-bathroom shop," Murray notes. But it's certainly quick and easy to use. "Ryan knocked it up in secret," says Ream. "I was sat there giggling to myself for weeks," Doyle confirms. "I just thought he was being weird again," adds Duncan.
Although it's already ridiculously fun, the guys are still bubbling with new ideas. With release still some way off, the Hello Games boys are sitting on a ramp high above a vast canyon of development time, revving their engines and raring to go. Whether Joe Danger will jump the gorge of player expectation and handlebar-stand its way into gamers' hearts, or simply crash and burn in the valley of apathy, is currently unknown. For now though, the least we can do is to cheer them on.
Joe Danger is due out on PC, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade in spring next year.