Straandlooper set to become a big draw
Animation firm's chief Richard Morss talks to Margaret Canning about the growing success of its iPhone game
From a loveable anthropomorphic lifeboat to a foul-mouthed detective who lives life closer to the edge than the suspects he interrogates, the creations of animation company Straandlooper in Donaghadee, Co Down, are attracting plenty of attention.
Dog-eared, fat and with a less-than-ethical approach to his work, detective Hector is the star of Hector: Badge of Carnage, a game initially created by Straandlooper for the iPhone. Together with his hapless assistant Lambert, he stumbles through the fictional town of Clappers Wreake, the 'crime capital of Britain'.
Now Hector has been embraced by San Francisco company Telltale Games with Badge of Carnage released for the iPad, PC and Mac. That's left the creative team at Straandlooper working around the clock to produce chapters two and three of Hector.
The character's full title, Hector: Fat Arse of the Law, is enough to indicate that this game isn't for the easily-offended. But for anyone with a black sense of humour and a weakness for witty writing, the 'flawed, misanthropic anti-hero' Hector has plenty of charm - though it's strictly for the over-16s.
Joint Straandlooper managing director Richard Morss explained how Hector was born of a desire to tap into gamers' nostalgia.
"The idea came to develop a point and click game referencing back to the old LucasArts games like Monkey Island.
"It induces great nostalgia for the 1980s generation who are looking for those games."
The word of Hector reached influential app review sites, helping it reach audiences.
Big gaming companies have a mighty marketing muscle which a small-scale operation like Straandlooper - with a staff of just seven - lacks.
"Part of the problem facing independents like us, who are pretty tiny, is that we have to do it through our own efforts," said Mr Morss.
"Deals are few and far between, so getting taken on by Telltale Games was a coup.
"It vindicated our decision to do the game."
Back in the day, the only outlet for an animation series was broadcasting. "It's easy to fall back on what went right before, and without the broadcaster's validation you couldn't move forward at all," said Mr Morss.
"And getting a series to broadcast is a long and winding road - raising money, which can take years, and between five and seven years to recoup the money you've spent by gaining returns from broadcasters and licensing.
"We can't do that any more as a company. We have to look at ways we can be direct to the consumer."
The advent of the iPhone and the cheap and cheerful world of apps has made it easier for companies like Straandlooper to get a foot on the ladder. But a greater presence is still desirable, as Mr Morss points out.
"Finding a partner willing to risk making the games in the current economic climate was too good to turn down," he said.
"We were paid a five figure sum, but that was reinvested back in. We're intent to try and grow and make new intellectual property and consolidate our position as one of the top 100 developers."
Mr Morss is quick to credit his colleagues in Straandlooper, including Dean Burke who designs, animates, illustrates and composes music; Kevin Beimers, who created a game engine for the first release in the App Store; and graphic designer Ciaran Oakes.
The market is the 16-34 group. "If you've done something successfully, why go for another market?" said Mr Morss.
Lifeboat Luke couldn't be a more different character from Hector - aimed at the three to seven market and a tie-in with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Lifeboat Luke has been beamed out to audiences in the Middle East, US, Republic, Denmark, Romania, Portugal and Slovenia.
It was the creation of Alastair McIlwain, also managing director of Straandlooper.
Mr Morss (60), is a former actor who became a scriptwriter, then a controller of children's programmes for one of ITV's regions. He later branched out into animation production, working as an executive producer on Reboot, overseeing Roger and the Rottentrolls, which won a Bafta, then Tiny Planets from production firm Pepper's Ghost.
Those have all been successes in the UK and further afield, but Mr Morss is happy he came to Northern Ireland for his more recent venture. He, Mr McIlwain and Darryl Collins co-founded Banjax Productions in 2002. McIlwain and Morss left in 2007, setting up Straandlooper a year later.
Mr Morss said: "The support in Northern Ireland for creative industries is wonderful compared with a lot of the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland Screen does a terrific job of supporting companies here and the Arts Council too with the Creative Industries Innovation Fund. Invest NI have been very helpful and overall we have had a tremendous lot of support."
But there are a lot of hopes resting on Hector's flabby shoulders. "If we can capitalise on the success of the game then we can start to talk to distributors and possibly arrange finance for a DVD.
"But it's a highly competitive world and suffering from the same thing the rest of the world is."
As for the name, the website helpfully explains that Straandlooper is Afrikaans for beachwalker. Ancestors of the Kalahari bushmen, they were small, slight and had big heads and, according to Straandlooper's own blurb, were viewed by some as "useless freaks". As veterans in the animation industry, Mr McIlwain and Mr Morss confess they often describe themselves as "on the brink of extinction".
Hopefully Hector, not to mention his sweeter-natured stablemate Lifeboat Luke, will keep such a fate at bay for quite some time yet.
Star Wars creator is a force of inspiration
LucasArts games have inspired companies like Straandlooper to create 'point and click' games with incorporate lively characters and zippy storylines. LucasArts was founded in 1982 by filmmaker George Lucas to create interactive platforms for his blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One of its most famous products is the Monkey Island series, a user-friendly pirate game set in the Caribbean which began life with The Secret of Monkey Island in 199. From the days of the Atari ST and Commodore 64, Lucas games are now released on Xbox, PlayStation and iPad. The fifth Monkey Island was released with Telltame Games, the firm unleashing Hector upon the world.
Funding gives boost to digital thinking
The Creative Industries Innovation Fund was set up by the Arts Council and Northern Ireland Screen with the support of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to help digital content development. The first round of the latest fund will focus on digital content projects including businesses involved in animation, web and mobile content, music, television, film and e-learning. Money from the first fund went to support 133 businesses, according to Arts Council chief Roisin McDonough. These ranged from Oh Yeah Music Centre studios and rehearsal space, to goldsmith Garvan Traynor, whose work has featured in films Closing the Ring and City of Ember starring Bill Murray.