Digit Games Studios, the new High King of gaming

12 Feb 2013

(Left to right) David McGovern (COO), Richard Barnwell (CEO), Fergus Duggan (art director), and Martin Frain (CMO) of Digit Games Studios

Digit Games Studios has ambitions not only to unleash a new kind of game, but a potential media brand empire that would be the envy of Rovio and Zynga.

About 20 years ago there were two types of people you would encounter in a college bar. Those who had read J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and who usually kept quiet about it, and those who hadn’t and were likely to be out on dates.

For Richard Barnwell – a self-confessed hardcore Tolkien nut and seasoned video-games industry executive – that perception has changed, thanks to what Peter Jackson has done in bringing Tolkien’s world to the big screen, most recently with The Hobbit, as well the success of HBO’s adaption of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. In other words, fantasy has not only moved out of the exclusive realm of nerds, it is big business.

In the coming months, Barnwell’s company Digit Games Studios will launch a new online video game called Kings of the Realm which represents not only a radical shift in how people play video games, but it will be accompanied by the launch of a series of books by Penguin and, if Barnwell has his way, a TV series or movie – and plenty of merchandise to accompany it all.

Welcome to the future of video games where publishers endeavour to attract players but also significant revenues through brand empires as demonstrated by Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, and by Michael Acton Smith’s Moshi Monsters.

At present somewhere in Dublin’s docklands some 20 game designers, software developers and artists are putting the finishing touches to Kings of the Realm, a massive online world where ordinary folk get a chance to rule their own empires. Think Age of Empires only with orcs, elves and dwarves.

What is significant about the game is it represents a new departure in how games are played. Instead of a different version specific to a particular device, gamers can play the same game across any connected device they wish – from an iPhone or iPad to an Android device, Windows Phone, a web browser or even on Facebook – what Barnwell calls ‘seamlessly cross platform.’

What is also significant about the launch of the game – “some time mid-2013” – is that it could represent the beginning of a global games publishing industry in Ireland.

Games business in Ireland

Video game machines for Atari were built in Ireland in the 1970s. Companies like Havok and Demonware have provided vital middleware technologies for the console business. And in recent years, the IDA has won key investments generating hundreds of jobs from companies like Riot, Gala, Big Fish Games, Activision and Electronic Arts who have come to Ireland to build the business and technical operations to support their global efforts.

But aside from a thriving local indie games scene no international game brand has ever been published from Ireland.

Digit Games Studios set up shop in Dublin in April last year. The team – consisting of two Irish founders and two UK founders – has contributed to major games such as Tomb Raider, Star Trek Online, Colin McRea and Mirror’s Edge, to name a few.

Barnwell is the former CEO of Jolt Online and an adviser to GameStop. CMO Martin Frain, who has worked at Atari, Hasbro and EA, recently worked as marketing director of Stan James. Art director Fergus Duggan worked at Jolt, Monumental Games and Circle Studio. Head of studio David McGovern was head of studio at Jolt and was previously mobile QA lead at PopCap Games.

On arriving in Dublin, the company raised seed funding of US$1.25m and in recent weeks it emerged it raised a further US$2.5m in Series A funding from ACT Venture Capital and Delta Partners, paving the way for a further 25 new jobs.

A simple retweet on the arrival of Digit to Dublin by Sir Alan Sugar caught the attention of bosses at publisher Penguin and a close collaboration on Kings of the Realm to build a media brand began. Penguin currently has two books in progress around the Kings of the Realm franchise.

In terms of business model, Kings of the Realm will be free to play across devices but Barnwell says the company will generate revenue through micro transactions for virtual goods and sale of physical merchandise.

Inspiration from other video games publishers

Rather than Rovio, Barnwell said Digit is inspired by the example of the new generation of video games publishers, such as Supercell, the Finnish company responsible for the hugely popular game Clash of Titans that is bringing in revenues of an estimated US$500,000 a day from the sale of virtual goods.

Another inspiration is the US company Kabam, publisher of the Kingdoms of Camelot franchise which has built up an audience of 60m online gamers in the US and last year brought in revenues of US$100m.

“If you develop a business model where only 5pc are spending any money, it is important that those that do spend a lot of money,” said Barnwell.

Digit’s differentiator against Supercell and Kabam, Barnwell said, will be its seamlessly cross-platform technology and its media brands.

“The key thing to understand is our vision,” said Barnwell. “We’re not a team planning to be just a game developers. This is a bigger play – the ambition here is significant in that we are creating our own brands and intellectual property (IP).

“We have four games lined up for the next two years which we intend to become very strong brands. The first one is Kings of the Realm and if you think about the general media space and the biggest movie of the year, The Hobbit by Peter Jackson, this is where culture is. Game of Thrones has a new season coming out in April. People are starting to accept fantasy as a genre.”

He added that the game will also include its own social network in which gamers can foster a sense of community. “The IP is great in-house, it’s a big story and is well targeted and it fits in with where we believe the other media industries are going.”

Anticipation is high for the new game and currently up to 50,000 gamers are testing the game online as part of a closed beta project.

Games publishing industry for Ireland

If Barnwell and the team get it right, they could kickstart the beginning of a games publishing industry from Dublin. A recent Forfás games industry report has pinpointed 2,500 new jobs in the video-games sector in Ireland by 2014 and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, TD, has established an industry group consisting of executives from the major games companies present in Ireland to spearhead a strategy to make the jobs happen.

“It’s imperative that we are not the only games publishing outlet in the country. It’s crazy that we are the only one,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell’s logic is simple. To succeed in its endeavour it needs to attract talent from abroad, from places like India, China and Singapore. To attract these talented executives, many of whom have young families, they need to know that if Digit doesn’t work out there are other companies they can join after moving to Ireland.

“We need to get the ecosystem growing here,” said Barnwell, who said it is an easier prospect to attract this kind of talent to London than it is to Dublin at this point.

It was Barnwell’s own experience of working in Dublin for two years that convinced him Dublin was the right place. He was also confident he could attract Irish executives strewn across the world’s gaming industry to return home.

“Our lead artist, for example, was in the UK for 15 years before he got the opportunity to come back to Dublin. There are senior Irish games executives all over the world, from LA to Canada and the UK, who want to move back. We’re not having too many problems attracting people to Dublin.”

So, can Ireland become a global games publishing hub, rather than simply supporting the industry?

Barnwell is emphatic: “Yes, but it’s going to take time. It will depend on the appetite for education and investment. The universities are doing a really good job, and the maths and engineering skills are strong. The key is encouraging the experienced guys to relocate to Ireland while nurturing the youngsters.”

A version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Times on 10 February

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