Unlike films or even music, the people behind video games often fly under the radar.
The gaming equivalents of Spielberg or Scorsese are few and far between, with headline billing limited to one or two stars names.
But as the biggest game of the year, Red Dead Redemption, rides into view on the back of controversy of developer Rockstar Games’ “100-hour week” working hours, these human stories of graft and sacrifice are too easily overlooked.
When the three-man team at Delve Interactive published their debut game Poncho in November 2015 after five years in development, they were very much at the other end of the scale.
The corks remained in the champagne as the game flopped, lost in obscurity among thousands of others on the PC game marketplace Steam.
As studio co-founder Danny Hayes explains, the crushing disappointment left him at rock bottom. It was a devastating blow that saw him lose his home, left him thousands of pounds in debt and suffering a series of mental breakdowns. In fact, in a post-mortem written on gaming business site Gamasutra last year, the indie developer insists that “Delve are still to make a single penny from Poncho”.
But Danny and his team used that bitter experience inspired him to make his next game, CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Game.
“We spent release day filling out CVs,” he tells The Big Issue. “We’d put all our eggs into one basket and the release of the game would cover all the debts we had from making the game and solve all our problems. We literally had zero pounds in our accounts as we launched and it didn’t work.
“I was close to homelessness and it was only when I was in that situation that I understood how easy it is to slip into homelessness because it was only friends and family rallying round me that prevented that from happening.”
Danny and the rest of the team went back to their day jobs, working for other companies in the games industry, as they commenced work on CHANGE in their spare time.
Three years later, the game has arrived on Steam in Early Access form, which means that the developer is still finishing the product but it is in playable form.
Inspired by Danny’s brush with homelessness, Delve’s CHANGE sees the player dropped on to the street with no home, no job and no prospects and asks the question: what do you do now? That means that while your avatar pounds the pavement, you must manage their hunger, happiness and hygiene while earning money with the end goal of renting a flat and securing a job.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
“We’ve gone back to our day jobs this time around, we’ve learned our lesson in that respect,” says Danny. “It’s a risky prospect to make a game of this size and make money and we’re not expecting this game to make money, for this it was more important to raise awareness of homelessness.
“I have always been interested in making games with a political or social focus. I like making games on subjects that no one else is making games about. I also want to treat homelessness with respect because some times when a game tries to tackle a serious subject they can come across as comedic.
“There are other games about homelessness that treat it as a game, we wanted to explore the isolation that comes from being in that situation.
“The idea was to create a sense of the isolation and depression of homelessness and trying to keep it real and authentic but balance it with making an experience that someone will want to carry on playing.”
There are 2,261 active games companies in the UK, according to a British Film Institute study released this month, with 20,430 people employed in development, publishing and retail roles.
It’s big business, contributing £1.52bn in direct gross value added to the economy, but of the thousands of fresh ideas coming out of that, very few allow you to sell a street paper.
The somewhat-familiar title of The Daily Issue can be found among CHANGE’s job system.
It works similarly to the real-life Big Issue, although it’s a little cheaper with vendors buying the magazines for 50p and selling for £1.50 to fit in with the game’s economy.
Where the game differs from reality is that Big Issue vendors do not go through an application process to work as a vendor, but this is a necessary step to fit in with CHANGE’s job system.
Differences aside, street papers offer a hand-up not a hand-out in the virtual world just as they do in real life, with Danny, 27, insisting that it is possible to finish the game without resorting to begging.
“Including The Daily Issue is something we wanted to do because The Big Issue is very much linked to homelessness and people associate the two closely,” he says. “But I found that there are still quite a lot of misconceptions about The Big Issue, a lot of people still don’t know that the vendors buy magazines themselves, for example.
“We wanted to include as many aspects of homelessness as possible and if you walk down the streets in London then you will always see Big Issue vendors so we had to include them.”
CHANGE: A Homeless Survival Experience is available for £7.19 on Steam Early Access. It is scheduled for full release in January 2019
Images: Delve Interactive