Start-up of the week: Howling Hamster

1 Feb 2016

The Howling Hamster team: Steven Kelly, Trevor Burke and Manus Burke. Photo: Ed Fidgeon-Kavanagh

Our start-up of the week is Howling Hamster, a small and independent game studio located in Galway whose first release, Goldbeard’s Quest, has just launched on the Google Play store.

Howling Hamster co-founder Trevor Burke explains: “Goldbeard’s Quest is a 2D mobile platform game being launched by Howling Hamster, which for some time was just three guys squashed into a nephew’s dining room trying to make a game. Basically living the dream.”

The start-up’s other game Sub Species has been in development for more than a year and should be released for PC gamers through the Steam digital distribution platform in early 2017.

In January 2016, Howling Hamster got accepted into the six-month incubation programme at the Bank of Ireland StartLab.

The market

As Burke points out, the gaming market in all its guises (console, mobile and PC) is the largest earner in the entertainment industry.

“In 2015, gaming had a combined worldwide revenue of more than $91bn. We would like some of that money.


‘The indie game scene is littered with examples of small teams and individual creators making games that somehow capture the current gaming zeitgeist’

“In order to do that, we need to create a quality product and get it in front of as many potential customers as possible.

“The indie game scene is littered with examples of small teams and individual creators making games that somehow capture the current gaming zeitgeist. Whether it be Five Nights at Freddy’s, Shovel Knight or Undertale, all these titles punch well above their weight and are extremely successful. If we could emulate even a fraction of their success we would be deliriously happy.”

The founders

Trevor Burke is the graphic designer of the group. “My background is in traditional pencil and paint artwork but I have been going digital for the past 15 years or so. I’m responsible for the 2D and 3D asset creation, the character animation and the overall look of the game, so, no pressure there.”

Steven Kelly describes himself as an “old school techie” even though he’s 25. “Building websites, game programming and audio design are my main role but I’m no stranger to a soldering iron either,” Kelly says.

Manus Burke is the lead programmer with the team. “I completed my MSc, which focused on analysis of social engineering attacks, at NUI Galway in 2004. I promptly put the degree to good use by spending the next 10 years running poker tournaments around the country and managing a casino in Galway. In 2013, after 10 years without a good night’s sleep, I got back to my programming roots and teamed up with Trevor and Steven to take on the world of game development.”

Trevor adds: “Both Manus and myself are Galway natives, we share the same surname but, to the best of our knowledge, we are not related. Steven hails from that well-known tech mecca Sligo, but has relocated to Galway to help us start up.

“The broadcaster and author Sean Moncrieff once described Galway as the town that never grew up and got a real job. It is a fairly laid-back place and that has seeped into how we run things. So no one is really in charge.

“Each of the team brings something useful to the table and, while everyone can give their input, the expert in each field will have the final say. We don’t want a situation where artists are making programming decisions,” Burke says.

The technology

Howling Hamster’s games are developed using the Unity game engine.

“The professional version we use has a price point, but the free version can be used by anyone who is interested in having a go in games development. It’s where we started out.

“A game engine is like a mixing bowl where you bring your ingredients together.



“The ingredients in our case are the programming scripts, 3D models, and audio assets that are all created from scratch in house. Our assets are built with a large variety of free-to-use programs such as Blender and Audacity and job specific tools like Zbrush and Photoshop.”

Burke said that it has only been in the past five to seven years that a company with limited resources could attempt game development for a global audience.

“Licences for game engines, modelling and audio software cost thousands of euros, but in recent years the cost of development tools has either dropped significantly, gone to a subscription model or become free to use.

“The downside to a lot of people making games is that quantity can replace quality. It is something we are keenly aware of and want to avoid.”

A sustainable business

Unlike most start-ups, which want to scale up and go global, the two Burkes and Kelly just want to develop Howling Hamster into a sustainable, lifestyle business.

“That in a way is our goal. We make games, and if those games make enough money then we make another game, because, despite the long hours, brain-melting problems and things that just plain don’t work, game design is actually a lot of fun and it’s something I would like to do a lot more of.

“If we’re lucky enough to have some success, expand the business and one day employ people – cram more Hamsters into the cage – that would be incredible. Also, at some stage, it would be nice if we could afford a fleet of gold-plated, high-performance sports cars. That would be cool.”

Build it and they will play

Burke says that the upcoming title Sub-Species has already been in development for 18 months.

“And with at least 12 months more to come, some people suggested looking at ways to generate funding for the continued development, to allow us to travel to conventions to market the game and, perhaps, once in a while, buy a sandwich.

“We are fully aware that without a large advertising budget mobile gaming is an incredibly difficult nut to crack, and Goldbeard’s Quest was originally intended as a tool for us to get experience with aspects of the gaming industry like marketing, sales and customer engagement.”

After the soft launch at Akumakon, a sci-fi and animation convention held annually at NUI Galway, it looks as though Goldbeard’s Quest might actually go some way towards funding the Sub-Species development.

“As none of us particularly like the idea of just asking strangers for money, releasing a mobile game to bootstrap Sub-Species is the perfect fit for us.”

Thoughts on the start-up game

Howling Hamster is beset by all the usual start-up problems, mostly funding. But naming the company was probably the biggest challenge.

“It took weeks. From the lows of terrible suggestions to the highs of wonderful suggestions and back down to the lows of finding out that that name was already taken.

“Have you ever tried to name a game company? Don’t bother. All the good ones are taken, the mediocre ones are gone and the awful names are drying up fast. Luckily we got in before the drought. Howling Hamster was a joke suggestion. For some mysterious reason it wasn’t taken and the logo pretty much draws itself. So we bought up the domains and Howling Hamster was born.”

From Howling Hamster’s viewpoint, the start-up scene, particularly for indie game developers, is in an early but healthy stage.

“Galway alone has almost a dozen small independent studios and asset creators, from Tribal City Games with their recent release of Cellular, to Psychic Software and their award-winning game Goblins and Grottos.

“Every year, more and more students are completing game design courses all around the country. Those students, with the right supports, can go on to start their own studios and create games. Games that can make money and create indigenous employment.

“Also initiatives like the Bank of Ireland StartLab programme, which we are currently involved in, provide incubation space, mentoring, marketing support and networking opportunities for businesses at an early stage and are vital in taking start-ups to the next level.

“Creating a game is one thing, turning it into a business is a whole other skill set that often gets overlooked.”

Teamwork is the essential ingredient and quality for a start-up to have, concludes Burke.

“Just to be clear, we’re not in any position to give anyone advice. We’re on the lowest rung of the ladder, but, for what it’s worth, the best advice I can give is to surround yourself with the best people you can find and make sure you’re all focused on the same goal.

“This kind of thing requires long hours and hard work for little or no money, all for a slight chance of success. Anyone who is half-arsed about it simply won’t make it.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years