Game on! We’re at the start of something big

16 Feb 2012

For a long time we told ourselves that the notion of Ireland producing big-budget gaming titles was a myth, deluded even. But I’m becoming less sure that it is impossible. Let’s just say the Games Ireland Gathering 2012 this week revealed a wealth of pent-up ambition. The genie is out of the bottle.

I detected an energy and spirit that I hadn’t seen or felt in this country for awhile and that instinctively feels a little out of place in recessionary Ireland. The word is hope.

Some 350 games industry professionals crowded a room at GIG 2012 in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin yesterday to attend master classes, demos, workshops, you name it, to put Ireland on the map for video games. In addition, there are understood to be 350 jobs available among the firms that attended yesterday.

Entrepreneurs rubbed shoulders with seasoned professionals from Microsoft, Activision Blizzard, PopCap Games, Demonware, Big Fish Games and Electronic Arts.

Opportunities for video game start-ups

I don’t know who said it but someone in the crowd nailed it: “There has never been a better time to be a small independent games developer.” Most of the crowd murmured in agreement. Dylan Collins, the entrepreneur who at 26 sold Demonware to Activision for US$15m, caught the mood and said emphatically to the young firms: “Enterprise Ireland has offices all over the world – use them as your own.”

Forfas predicts that by 2016 the number of people employed in gaming companies will more than double to more than 5,000 people, driven largely by job creation through inward investment by players like EA Games (Bioware), Big Fish Games, Gala Networks, PopCap Games and many others.

But what appealed to me yesterday was the sense that small, independent games companies could actually create viable employment for dozens of people in each instance and not just projects that employ hundreds. Think about it: viable employment in exciting entrepreneurial enterprises up and down the country. For this to happen we need belief – and lots of broadband!

Most of the conversations among the growing coterie of developers who produce mobile games centred on not only the style of games but tactics and strategies for publishing on platforms from iOS and Android to web, PC and consoles, like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

But ultimately, the sense of destiny that exists for independent game producers to sidestep publishers and go straight for the consumer fuelled the excitement.

What needs to be understood here is while Ireland’s population size is quite small, the impact of our talent on industries like gaming and music is totally disproportionate. We punch above our weight, get used to it.

An example of this is Phil Campbell, an architect from Portrush who has allowed his imagination to roam free and has been instrumental in designing globally successful games like James Bond, The Godfather and Tomb Raider. He is starting up a new company in Belfast to focus on the opportunities he sees in augmented reality – or real life gaming, as he calls it.

Teen programmer and entrepreneur James Whelton recounted the intense focus and competition among the growing membership of CoderDojo, who are all vying to create next-generation gaming experiences based on whatever programming languages they can learn first. One kid in Kerry has managed to mash Pac-Man with Portal, while 10-year-olds and 11-year-olds want to be the next Harry Moran from Cork, who at 12 became the world’s youngest Mac App developer and whose game PizzaBot shot to the top of the app charts. Bragging rights are on the line.

“Our CoderDojo on Arranmore off the Donegal coast attracted over 120 kids – that’s more than quarter of the island’s population!” Whelton said.

During the evening, a number of the promising young video-game start-up companies got up to strut their stuff and show just how they were beginning to go global.

Games studio BitSmith Games revealed how it raised €2,000 in just five hours via Fundit for its upcoming game Ku.

Galway games firm Tribal City Interactive, which is focusing on the casual iOS games market, said it is looking for interns and graduates and its latest game Into the Twilight is about to be published by Big Fish Games and another game, Flip the Switch, is to be co-published with US games firm MadToro.

Limerick-based Open Emotion, which employs more than a dozen people and has so far published 13 games, revealed how it has developed successful titles such as Mad Blocker Alpha and Ninjamurai, which have sold 30,000 and 40,000 copies respectively on the iOS platform. The company is planning versions of these titles for the PlayStation Vita.

Open Emotion’s Paddy Murphy also revealed how the company has helped kick start music licence sales for chiptune artists via games like Revoltin’ Youth and I Kill Zombies.

Murphy stunned and amused the room with his next news, that Open Emotion has been working with Limerick band Rubberbandits to develop a game – Revenge of Steven Forward – that will be demoed at the Games Fleadh in March and will be released in the Summer.

Redwind Software’s Conor Winders and David McMahon swaggered onto the stage to recount how it could all go awfully well and horribly wrong and then right again in a heartbeat when it comes to developing iOS games. Winders told how developing trivia games allowed them to spawn successful franchises that ultimately landed major deals, such as the right to bring out the Official Broadway Challenge and Official Elvis Challenge games. They even created the Justin Bieber challenge, but let’s not talk about that.

Their gaming creation prowess has landed gaming app contracts with Heineken USA and new games are on the way on behalf of the creators of Name that Tune and a new game called Name that Movie, which they demoed and which will launch next week.

Barry O’Neill of Ideal Binary showed the depth of design talent that exists in Ireland by showing some of the creativity involved in producing digital media titles. Ideal Binary, which recently raised €750,000 in venture capital, has produced at least two iOS book apps – Rumpelstiltskin and Red Riding Hood – and three apps in its 3D classic literature series. The immersive e-books are designed to be enjoyed by children on iPad, iPhone and Mac devices.

All in all, the spirit and élan demonstrated at the Games Ireland Gathering has been inspiring. I can only say that I think we’re at the start of something big.

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