Ireland at the games: who dares wins?

2 Sep 2004

In the end it was the same old story: an Irish team’s hard work and preparation was ultimately overcome on foreign fields by stronger overseas opposition. No, this wasn’t at the Olympics or even amongst Irish football clubs in Europe — instead a different kind of game was taxing the minds of another Irish team this summer. Five students from Dublin City University and Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology took part in Dare to be Digital (DTBD), a competition for developing computer games, hosted by the University of Abertay in Dundee.

Unfortunately, in a very strong field, the Irish team of Andy Rohan, Angus Lynn, Brian Murray, James Murphy and Shane Culliton were not among the medal winners. Not that the Irish team was despondent — even before knowing the outcome, the team told that they are keen to continue their development in the games industry in Ireland, if possible. Their experience can also be passed on to other students here who may be thinking of similar career paths.

As part of the DTBD experience, seven five-man teams were billeted on the Abertay campus, with access to leading-edge computer labs and a 10-week time frame to develop an original video game. During that time games industry experts visited the teams and gave presentations, passing on hints and advice. This mentoring covered not just the technical aspects of games development but also issues around character design and use of sound effects as well as business issues such as marketability.

At the end of the 10 weeks, every team’s completed game demo was on show for judges and later the public.

The £2,000 sterling awards were appropriately handed out in a darkened room; top prize went to City Scrawlaz, an online game that mixed creativity with civil disobedience, where the player must leave their mark with stylish graffiti around a town. Pixie Dust, a puzzle game set in a lush woodland environment, won the innovation award. Both games featured excellent animation and distinctive looks. Winner of the technical excellence prize was Just Add Water, a lushly rendered split-screen 3D game. The winning games were all developed by teams from Scottish universities.

Ireland’s entry, Red Ruckus, was a zany concept based around a Fifties-style B-movie where the main character has been transformed into a monkey that totes a ray gun and runs around a college campus fulfilling tasks for a mad scientist.

Despite all of the frivolity, DTBD isn’t simply a bit of fun for the summer months: it’s serious business. The judging panel included representatives from Electronic Arts (EA), Microsoft, BBC Interactive and Rare. As well as looking at the games prototypes on their own merits, the judges got the chance to see potential future employees up close and gauge their programming and artistic skills for themselves.

The extremely intensive 10-week development cycle also put the students into a replica of a real working environment are 70-hour weeks are not uncommon. Most crucially of all, deadlines are unmovable — this was one project where getting an extension from the professor was out of the question.

It may have been a hot-house environment but the Irish team emphasised that there was a good, co-operative atmosphere between the teams. Helpful suggestions flew back and forth as teams played each other’s games and gave feedback on developments. Part of the dialogue on Red Ruckus was actually recorded by another team’s developer! Microsoft’s Xbox account manager Adrian Curry, who judged this year’s event, acknowledged the steep learning curve that the Irish team had travelled by comparison with its Scottish counterparts and he praised the research put into the game’s visual style.

The location of the event was significant: Abertay is home to one of the world’s first dedicated computer games development courses and its renown has spawned a host of imitators — some 63 others around the UK at last count. Ireland, newly grasping the games opportunity, will only have such degree courses available for the first time from this coming college year.

This meant that the Irish team competing this summer had no formal background in games development, which in the end proved one hurdle too many to overcome. By contrast, many of the rival teams had been specifically studying games development for several years and were more prepared for the challenges involved. Some, though not all, even chose to write their game entirely from scratch without using gaming engine software. To put this in context, one of the precocious programmers on City Scrawlaz confided that he had spent two weeks of the allotted 10 in Singapore on a business development course.

That, in a nutshell, sums up what Ireland is up against. In this regard, the Athens analogies really hold true when we look at the bigger picture. As the analysis into Ireland’s Olympic performance continues, questions are being asked about the preparation and the facilities available to athletes. However, as far as the local games industry is concerned, these issues have begun to be addressed with the aim of making Ireland truly competitive in the digital arena.

A delegation from the Digital Hub and the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative travelled to Dundee for the awards ceremony to support the Irish team, although there was a separate, related agenda for them. Irish participation in DTBD offers positive, hands-on experience of the sector for students that our own country can’t provide yet.

The group also wanted to see how the indigenous games sector can learn from, adapt and use some of the projects in Abertay. For example, the university has close ties with the digital media sector that has sprung up in Dundee and this is a model that bears closer inspection, especially as a cluster of games companies is already based in Dublin’s Digital Hub.

There may have been no prizes this year for the team behind Red Ruckus, who nonetheless came up with an impressive, quirky and imaginative game. The hopes are that a win for Ireland and the wider gaming sector may lie ahead.

By Gordon Smith

Pictured with Irish entrants James Murphy, Andy Rohan, Angus Lynn, Brian Murray and Shane Culliton at the international Dare to be Digital awards were Philip Flynn, CEO of the Digital Hub (left), and Andy Kerry MSP, Scottish Minister for Finance (seated)