The Irish games industry suffered a blow recently when Big Fish Games revealed on 21 August that it will close its office in Cork. The European headquarters of the video-game and software provider have been a fixture at City Gate in Mahon for the past four years and, just last year, IDA Ireland heralded an expansion of its cloud gaming R&D initiative.
At the time, Big Fish believed it could do for casual gaming what Netflix has done for film and TV, transferring this market to the cloud and delivering games through a user’s platform of choice.
Eighteen months since that announcement, Paul Thelen, CEO, pulled the plug on the premium cloud delivery service as part of a realignment of resources intended to continue the momentum the company is building in fast-growing areas, such as free-to-play and online casino games.
For months now, the Irish Government has lauded the Irish games industry for its growth and job creation. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has practically placed the sector on a pedestal, as the knight in shining armour come to rescue the Irish economy.
Yet the sudden change of course for Big Fish in Cork poses a question: is the Irish games industry relying too heavily on foreign investors?
“The games industry was born in the last couple of years, but the key issue that I see is that there’s all these Irish developers and there’s all the people out in the world who can spend money on them – it’s just that in-between bit, where very few of them even know where to start. So that’s where I’m going to come in with a very set plan.”
These are the words of Jamie McCormick, an Irish games industry expert who has worked for Gamesworld, DemonWare, Xbox Live Gaming Centre, Jolt and Gala Networks Europe. He works as marketing manager for Shankill, Dublin-based Flashpoint and also lectures and works with Irish game and app developers to help bring their games to international markets.
Last year, McCormick took it upon himself to comprehensively document the true state of the sector in 2012. Following up on data collated in 2009, McCormick’s study noted a 300pc leap in the number of active game development teams working in Ireland to a total of 51.
With a second report due in November this year, McCormick reveals that figure has more than tripled in 2013. So far, his database holds the names of 158 companies actively working in the games industry in Ireland.
The forthcoming report will be the first to document the games industry in Northern Ireland, too, providing all-island results, as well as the opportunity to compare and contrast development in the north and south.
Irish games development clusters
What McCormick has clearly identified, though, are five development clusters on the island of Ireland: in Dublin, Galway, Derry, Belfast and a Munster hub comprising companies in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary.
In the works is an interactive map of Ireland that will highlight these hives of activity, using colour-coding to signify different categories: be they publishers, developers or retailers. McCormick predicts that Dublin will sport all the colours of the rainbow, while Galway and Cork will have a smattering of colour and other counties will be a blank canvas.
The idea is that, at a glance, the viewer will be able to determine where the gaming activity is happening in Ireland. This information is useful to the likes of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, and also to developers themselves, as well as graduates and job-seekers in this sector.
Another aspect of McCormick’s research is an ex-pat survey asking developers why they left Ireland and what it would take for them to come back. While some have set up roots in their new-found home and others are simply too fed up with the inclement weather, other respondents have said they would come back if the right job was in Ireland for them.
Using McCormick’s map, the developer diaspora could see clearly how the industry may have changed since their departure and also discover where in Ireland they could best apply their skills.
So, if Ireland can hold onto its newly graduated developers and entice the emigrants back home, what’s next for the indigenous Irish games industry?
“One of the issues that I found is that there’s no anchor in the internet for Irish games to latch onto, to actually get into the internet,” said McCormick. He doesn’t blame this on the Irish media, either, as he understands that many journalists don’t know where to find out about new Irish games, or where to begin looking.
Games database and website in the works
To tackle this problem, McCormick is also working on an Irish-made games database called Get Irish Games and an industry website built on user-submitted content called Irishgamesindustry.ie, both of which will complement the information that will be published online through the 2013 report.
By presenting this information through a number of different formats, McCormick hopes to build up the online presence of Irish games. “If you type in ‘Irish games’ [in a search engine] at the moment, you can’t really get anything that you can buy,” he said.
Get Irish Games and Irishgamesindustry.ie will also aid McCormick’s new venture, Scraggly Dog Games, though they will be open to all Irish developers and publishers, north and south.
Scraggly Dog Games (named after the founder’s mini-dachshund Pluto after he’s been for a walk in the rain) is McCormick’s lifeline for those starting out in the industry. The company has been set up specifically to work with Irish developers and help to internationalise their games and get them to market.
From development to business
McCormick has a 50-point plan he will apply to every game he works with in order to get the business side of things up to scratch in terms of marketing, PR, business planning, documents and systems.
The problem, as McCormick sees it, is that talented games developers aren’t necessarily shrewd businessmen. “Most of these people, they just don’t understand how to sell their products. They know how to make them, but they didn’t make it as a business; they made it because they like making games. That’s where Scraggly Dog has been established.”
This is not down to ignorance, McCormick said. It’s merely that writing business plans and marketing a product is out of the scope of many developers’ knowledge and training. The result of this is that there are Irish developers earning about €20 a day, which is not enough money to run a business.
McCormick’s plan is to help Irish developers increase their revenue streams, if not on their first game then on the next one, and the next one.
“A lot of companies have got funding – they’ve got a competitive start-up fund or they’ve got some sort of grant – but they’re not paying themselves. They’re using this to pay for their equipment, their software licences and other useful stuff,” he said. “I really want to get those companies making €200-€300 a day.”
Eventually, McCormick would like to see the developers he works with reach a point where they can sustain a development team, pay themselves and afford other dining options besides Pot Noodle.
“It’s a maelstrom of creativity that’s out there. And it’s really just getting some of it focused in the right direction,” he said.
Interactive timeline of Irish games industry
If anyone’s close enough to see the action as it happens, it’s McCormick. His research has led him to develop an online interactive timeline of the games industry in Ireland, tracing its roots all the way back to the Seventies.
Dots on this timeline signify the establishment of new companies and these markings become increasingly frequent as you approach the present day. McCormick expects more to spring up before the new report is published, too, reasoning that a lot of the development-focused college courses established three to four years ago will be churning out their first and second rounds of graduates. These eager new additions to the sector will already have a final-year project under their belts, and some may be able to build a business on that alone.
The establishment of these courses, as well as Government policy decisions and other developments that have impacted the games industry, are also documented on the timeline where their influence can be seen.
McCormick hopes his efforts to boost the industry will make a dent on his own timeline. “I know I can make a change,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 1 September
Gaming image via Shutterstock