Irish games industry shoots for success

26 Oct 2004

Ireland’s games development sector may not be strictly new, but calling the recent inaugural Irish game developers conference ‘Awakenings’ seemed somehow appropriate. There is an undeniable momentum now in the indigenous industry taking in startups, established companies, dedicated third-level courses and strong interest from state development agencies that all suggests a sector preparing to take its next steps.

The country’s growing development community now comprises 22 companies, North and South, across a range of activities that includes mobile, multiplayer, PC and console games and middleware. The all-Ireland aspect was reflected in the choice of venue, Derry’s North West Institute of Further and Higher Education.

The conference organisers assembled a strong international panel who between them detailed the state of the wider games industry, including lessons for Ireland which is at the start of the curve. Parallels with Hollywood provided much of the jumping-off points for discussion throughout the day. Jason Della Rocca, program director with the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), set the scene in his keynote address.

Just as major movie studios are betting bigger budgets on ‘safe’ material such as comic adaptations, sequels and franchises, so games publishers are risk-averse, preferring movie tie-ins or sports games as reliable sources of profit. With that comes a reluctance to invest in a great original idea.

“Great ideas are a dime a dozen. The real challenge is to execute on that idea and bring it to fruition,” Della Rocca said. However, that execution takes in skills beyond programming and a recurring theme of the conference was the need for project management abilities – traditionally in short supply among gamers – when producing a game with large amounts of developers, a set budget and immovable deadlines.

Asking whether it was justified to turn to Hollywood, sports or books to serve as the basis for games ideas, Della Rocca answered his own question with an impressive list of original titles including Pokemon, Zelda, The Sims, Doom, Quake, Grand Theft Auto, Myst, Monkey Island, Tetris, and Command & Conquer. But there was an important caveat. “The vast majority of original games lose money. Licensed games don’t cross into huge sales but more of them break even,” he claimed.

Breaking away from the parallels, Della Rocca said that the interactivity inherent in games marked them out as a very different beast from films. “A movie is a linear story. Games require the player to make decisions and change outcomes.”

Renowned developer Graeme Devine, who has been in the industry for over 20 years, brought the audience on a whirlwind tour of gaming landmarks, pointing out the era of Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-man as the “golden age of game design”. “The design had to be good because the graphics and sound were so bad,” he laughed.

In the age of the Atari 2600 console, a single programmer could write a game in three months. These days, Microsoft allocates 100-man teams to write a game over two years, costing between US$15m and US$25m to develop. “Be passionate about games development,” Devine urged. “If you’re working on a game you don’t like, that’s a problem – you’ll be working on a bad game.”

Devine lamented the loss of innovation in the industry. New momentum will come, he believes, when the industry develops a ‘word processor’ – a tool to make creating something complex like a game an inexpensive, fast process. In the early part of the last century, movie cameras cost millions, so they were owned by Hollywood studios and there was no independent filmmaking because no-one could afford a camera. “Now I can go to Dixons, buy a digital camera and editing software and make a movie. That industry has got its word processor. There’s a low entry point for everyone and that’s a good thing. The games industry doesn’t have that right now.”

Tony Kelly of Torc Interactive, who heads the local chapter of IGDA, wanted to push home the message to Irish developers that original intellectual property (IP) is the preferred direction for the Irish sector to pursue. Low-level outsourced services such as testing and quality assurance are “at the bottom rung of the ladder,” he said. “As soon as cheaper places come on stream, that development will leave.” Ireland’s reward will come from pursuing higher value jobs in the games hierarchy. “Original IP is riskier but there is a higher return on investment,” said Kelly.

Chris van der Kuyl of Vis Entertainment pointed out that outsourcing can work where specialism in niche areas is required. “If you’ve got technical skills no-one else has, people will come to you.” As the games industry comes under greater pressure, companies are increasingly outsourcing. Drawing on another Hollywood analogy, van der Kuyl cited Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment as an example. A small production house of no more than 15 people, Amblin hires large numbers of contract staff from a range of disciplines to fill the jobs needed for a specific movie. “The games industry is going in the same direction and the model’s already there to copy,” he suggested.

Van der Kuyl was also able to provide a Scottish perspective, with potentially valuable lessons for the Irish development scene. Government development agencies, he said, had done “a tremendous job that made a positive impact on the Scottish games industry”. This included making sure that the country’s gaming alliance was prominently represented at prominent trade shows. As an example of what the Scottish games development sector has achieved, the successful Grand Theft Auto was built in Dundee.

Markus Maki, chief technology officer of Remedy, the Finnish company behind Max Payne, agreed that it was possible to build a successful developer in Europe – although that may not represent the market for the end product. “You have to develop a game for the global market, not the indigenous market,” he said, adding that Ireland has an advantage because it is English-speaking and closer to the US mindset. Startups shouldn’t expect fast growth, he cautioned. “Game development is 1pc innovation and 99pc hard work and you need to be in the top 10pc to make a profit, but ask yourself, are we in this business to make crappy games that don’t sell? Aim high and aim mainstream.”

Van der Kuyl emphasised that any local industry based on IP is on a firm footing, “but if it’s just being used for bodies, then it’s very fragile”. He added that IP doesn’t necessarily have to be as narrowly defined as a games concept. “It also covers technology such as Havok.”

The Scot got bonus points for namechecking the Dublin company which creates leading-edge middleware for other games developers to use but his message – music to the ears of the estimated 150 conference attendees – was clear: “It can be done. You can create original IP in a small economy successfully.”

By Gordon Smith