Irish gamers gung-ho about risky future

27 Apr 2004

“There’s risk, but there’s also substantial rewards,” says Stephen Brennan of Dublin’s Digital Hub, one of a growing group of individuals hoping to ensure that the creative force that is Ireland gets its rightful chunk of the burgeoning US$20bn computer games industry. At yesterday’s O2 Digital Media Conference, the long, perilous road to Ireland’s potential digital dominance of the games industry was emphasised.

Despite the existence of world beating software players like Havok, which makes the graphics engines behind many of the leading Xbox and PlayStation 2 titles, and the passion exhibited by new players like AxisThree, the Irish games industry is still pitifully small by international standards.

According to Peter Mee of games company Meedja, at the close of 2003 there were only 19 games development companies employing 360 people. “Enterprise Ireland claims that the digital media sector in Ireland currently employs 800 people, so the games sector makes up a considerable portion of this.”

Yesterday’s O2 Digital Media Conference, organized by Digital Media Intelligence, heard that it costs on average US$10m to make a games title that could have any chance of widescale commercial success and that the topline games for Xbox, PC and PlayStation2 gamers would need budgets similar to that of making a movie.

Digital Hub’s Stephen Brennan told the conference: “There’s a high potential for Irish games companies. We are growing a testbed for new games through the roll-out of broadband and finally games companies are able to trial network-enabled games. But there is a greater need to get people interested in this potential and this means a greater need for showcasing the technologies at home and abroad.

“We have, as a nation, a great capacity to be artistic, innovative and creative, the key aspects of what game creation is all about. But Ireland needs to foster a market that can compete internationally. The industry here needs to learn more about what is coming up next and attack that market,” Brennan said.

Brennan highlighted various initiatives such as the recent Dare To Be Digital competition that encouraged student games developers to compete for an opportunity to work with the University of Abertay in Scotland, a spiritual home of sorts for games developers, for six months. Red Ruckus, a game developed by students from DCU and Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, was chosen yesterday to compete against other game titles from all over the world.

Peter Mee said that the local industry is organizing itself around the Nokia-sponsored and has since established an Irish chapter of the International Game Developers Association. “We are seeing new companies appearing all the time.

“In order to foster growth, it is important that the nascent games industry in Ireland becomes eligible for Section 481 funding, similar to what’s available to the film industry in Ireland. It is an embryonic industry with established international funding mechanisms. The industry should also be eligible for R&D tax credits because that’s exactly what it takes to make a game title, a lot of R&D. It costs at least US$10m to make a triple-A game title.”

Peter Lynch of Eirplay Games said that there are opportunities for start-up games companies to attack the low-to-mid tier of the games market, particularly the ‘casual gaming’ aspects such as mobile games and web-based games, which people play for short periods of time. “The games business is predominantly a ‘hits-driven’ industry. Only the top 10pc of games actually make money, the rest break even. The overall industry is a US$20bn+ industry. Casual gaming, however, is an area where we could look for growth for Irish companies hoping to get started on the road before trying to gather the huge resources required to create triple-A titles. Mobile operators are prepared to pay for games that help them derive revenue from data traffic. Ovum estimates that the wireless gaming sector will be worth €4.4bn in 2006.”

Hilary Kenna of the Institute of Art, Design and Technology gave a very sobering, realistic outlook on Ireland’s games industry potential. “Economically, it is a high risk game requiring long term investment and commitment. Development costs are rising and skills is something that Ireland will need to invest in seriously if it wants a slice. Games publishers are reluctant to give money to risky titles that might not sell.

“From an Irish context, the indigenous games industry is still in its infancy and it is clear that there’s not a lot of spare money floating around. However, to the country’s credit, it has a proven track record in creative content like movies and music, so why not games?”

Kenna called for debate on approaches that could be taken at third level towards training graduates for this industry. “This economic opportunity is something that we as educators should capitalise on,” she said. “However, apart from getting the approach right, funding is still an issue.”

It is clear that Ireland may have the potential to partake in the games industry. The passion and intelligence is there, but the money is not. Despite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern TD emphasising that the games industry could create up to 5,000 new jobs in Ireland, it is time to debate the opening up of R&D tax credits as well as Section 481 funding to the embryonic games industry in Ireland. The risks are huge, but so are the rewards.

By John Kennedy