Ireland: A global games hub

20 Oct 2011

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Battlefield 3. Image by EA Games

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Merging console and PC video games with casual and social is a chance for Ireland to create 4,500 jobs. John Kennedy spoke to the chiefs of the world’s biggest games firms.

Any time I visit a video games store I get a surge of pride when I pick up the top selling game in the world that week and look for two logos – those of Irish tech firms Havok and DemonWare.

Havok has made the physics engines that drive realistic graphics in top games, from Battlefield to Halo 3 and movies like The Matrix, while DemonWare is the software that allows gamers to play each other across the globe online.

A battle is under way among nations to become the global games location of choice, and while Ireland has a long history in video games, going back to Atari in the 1970s, the country faces fierce competition from countries such as France, Canada and Scotland.

In recent years, key players like Activision Blizzard, Big Fish Games, Gala, Riot Games and many others have set up international operations here. In the past few months, they have been joined by EA Games’ BioWare division, which is doubling its employment base in Galway to 400 to help launch the Star Wars: Old Republic franchise, Zynga is creating around 60 jobs in Dublin City and PopCap Games is expanding its workforce in Dublin to 110.

A report last week by Forfás said Ireland has the potential to more than double its employment in core games activities to 4,500 people if actions are taken to position the country as one of the most progressive and digitally advanced business hotspots.

Gaming chiefs in Ireland

Last week, local games industry association Games Ireland scored a coup by bringing some chiefs of the global games industry to Ireland, including senior management from Activision Blizzard, Eidos, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Ubisoft, Walt Disney and Warner.

Games Ireland director Barry O’Neill explained Ireland’s opportunity: "The games industry press has made a lot of the fact that the social gaming and casual gaming space may take up to 50pc of the games market next year. What’s often lost in that message is the console industry hasn’t necessarily contracted and social is bringing in a lot of new revenues into consoles.

"We have the scope for a very balanced industry here."

Activision Blizzard employs 1,200 people in Ireland and publishes games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the Warcraft series. It is the world’s No 1 games company, with revenues approaching $5bn.

Brian Ward, senior vice-president of Worldwide Studios at Activision Blizzard, was at the Games Ireland event.

"We’re focusing our new efforts on digital delivery. Call of Duty: Elite, for example, addresses the growing market shift towards social, casual and mobile gaming," said Ward.

"If you asked me two years ago what would attract more console investment into Ireland, for big-ticket games that would have been hard to answer because there wasn’t really a console development ecosystem. But now with the predominance of social and casual games, the next wave and the next most popular games in those areas is likely to come from Ireland as much as anywhere else."

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EA Games’ European studio boss Dr Jens Uwe Intat noted: "To be an attractive place for people to work in this space you just have to continue to offer what you have been offering: a good education; a good place to live for the people who are already educated; and interesting conditions for companies, which Ireland is offering.

"You are in a very good space in terms of the prerequisites. Usually the culture phenomenon of getting studios into places takes a little while, but I think you are on a good path."

He said that ensuring gamers can enjoy the same game on any platform will mean greater revenues for the industry.

"Take FIFA 12 – 3m units were sold in Europe in the first week alone. There are 12 different platforms that the game can be played on."

The most exciting new field in gaming to open up in recent years has been the casual and social gaming business, as exemplified by Swedish firm Rovio whose cross-platform game Angry Birds has spawned a multimillion merchandise industry. EA, too, has moved into the space with Sims Social and it is now the No 2 game on Facebook.

A key player in the casual gaming space is PopCap Games. Founded in Seattle in 2000 by three friends, PopCap Games is the studio behind hit games Plants vs Zombies and Bejeweled, which can be played on the internet, smartphones and PCs.

It emerged in recent months that EA will pay $650m in cash and $100m in shares to acquire PopCap Games.

Co-founder Jason Kapalka explained that Ireland holds many of the right cards. "From where we did start – as a small group of like-minded individuals making something we were passionate about, that’s something you can easily do in Ireland and many are starting to do that. You have a well-educated, passionate group of people here who have a lot of experience in related industries, like the internet and other computer-related things.

"All the conditions are right so I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years if you saw a couple of home-grown Irish companies that came out of nowhere and went on to create great games."

By the numbers:

$55bn: Total games industry revenues in 2010

$82.4bn: Annual games industry revenues by 2015, including consoles, PCs, mobile and social

500: Number of people who could be working in the video-games sector in Ireland by 2015

2,200: Number of people directly employed in Ireland’s games industry

– Forfás

But what does Kapalka think about Ireland’s contribution to PopCap Games? "We’ve been here for five years in Dublin and it’s been great. The operation has developed from localisation to now we’re doing a lot more of the actual development for things like an iOS version of Plants vs Zombies, all of that is being done by our Dublin studios. We’re seeing the team being a lot more creative and working on game-based content rather than localisation or customer support.

"That’s been great for us and the idea is to let Dublin take on more of its own identity as a game development studio in its own right rather than be dependent on other parts of PopCap."

A tireless campaigner for Ireland to achieve its games potential is Dublin Central TD Paschal Donohoe. He urges parents to make sure their kids realise that without maths or science none of the video games they enjoy today would be possible.

"Games are powered by algorithms and quadratic equations. They need to know this if they want to create products of the future.

"This is an exciting industry. It’s thrilling to see Ireland do well but we need to do better. The ball is rolling but we could kick it a lot harder," he warned.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com