When you think of video games and Ireland, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Perhaps you recall the visit to a stereotypical Irish pub in Broken Sword and its Infamous Goat Puzzle (a puzzle so memorably obtuse it has earned its capital letters)? Or the decision to create official GAA football and hurling games for the Playstation 2? Maybe you were even one of the few to play PS3 curio Folklore, which combined Celtic mythology with Japanese RPG tropes to predictably odd effect?
Yes, representations of Ireland in video games have been equally uncommon and unusual down through the years, barring a handful of homegrown indie titles. But what about behind the scenes? That’s where things get quite interesting…
Jamie McCormick has been volunteering with Dr Aphra Kerr's GameDevelopers.ie site since before it launched in 2003. Dr Kerr, Senior Lecturer at NUI Maynooth, has published academic research on the Irish games industry - most recently The Games Industry in Ireland 2009, with University of Limerick's Dr Anthony Cawley. Jamie, though, wanted to look at things from a different perspective.
“What prompted my non-academic research was two things,” Jamie explained. “They were the Forfas report on the Irish Games Industry in 2011; and the inclusion of games for the first time in the Action Plan for Jobs, which further solidified games as a distinct sector (following their inclusion in Enterprise Ireland's Competitive Startup Fund). They had some figures there, and grand plans to double the size of the industry.
“I had one look at the figures, couldn't see where they got them from, and embarked on a six month audit of the Irish games industry - doing surveys and getting game developers across the country. This culminated in my report, The Games Industry in Ireland 2012, which had a broader remit than Aphra's,” Jamie recalls.
A recent documentary from director Geoff Newman taking a look at the Irish game development community
Jamie’s report looked at almost everything involved with the games industry here: from retail to marketing; from support services to - of course - actual game development. It even encompassed the likes of the Xbox Live Gaming Centre, a multiplayer gaming social venue in Dublin where Jamie himself used to work.
He conducted open research, publishing information online as he went along. “This only happened with the help of getting people to submit information, with lots of texts, calls, tweets, emails, pints and attending events,” Jamie says. “EI, IDA and Invest NI were also very helpful at the time, helping me fill in gaps, and complete big chunks of the database.”
However, as soon as Jamie completed the database, it inevitably went out of date. More people involved in the industry both in Ireland and in the North contacted him, looking to be added. His research stalled in 2014, alongside the closure of his Irish publishing venue, GetIrishGames.ie.
Jamie’s work had resulted in the creation of a timeline and an interactive map of the games industry here. However, he says at one point there was a lot of information offline, just sitting unused on a hard drive.
“At the recent State of Play [an event for developers held at DIT] I was listening to Chris Gregan, formerly of Playfirst and now with his Open Source Fungus project,” Jamie explains. “He inspired me to get the research back online.” And it was decided that GameDevelopers.ie was a natural home for the information, encouraging the creation of a more in-depth, freely accessible timeline that could be easily updated.
Jamie says “the ultimate goal is to have a close to real-time, online, drag-and-drop list of companies to show the history of the games industry in Ireland. The prototype is online now, and the community can bring it forward.”
The Little Acre, from Dublin-based studio Pewter Games, is due out next year
A look at the timeline as it stands is fascinating, with plenty of recognisable names spread out over 35 years of activity. As Jamie explains, Ireland became involved in the gaming industry at quite an early stage, “with Atari in 1978 Tipperary producing arcade machines, and then Limerick making Atari 2600's. I just got a message on Twitter the other day letting me know about the Atari Centre in Mosney, Co Meath in 1984.”
Companies such as Namco, Microsoft, Sony Computer Entertainment and Intel are some of the biggest names to have had Irish bases over the years (many still do). In terms of actual finished games from Ireland, some of the most memorable include PS1 kart racer Speed Freaks (produced by Funcom Dublin) and cult indie hits VVVVVV and Super Hexagon (made by Monaghan-man Terry Cavanagh, who is now based in London).
Perhaps most intriguing, however, has been the Irish role in the creation of popular ‘middleware’ - software designed to assist other developers in a variety of different ways. Gamers have likely seen the Havok logo dozens of times as games load up, and the Irish company’s physic engine has been used in some of the most successful games ever made - from Call of Duty to Skylanders. The company, founded by Hugh Reynolds and Steven Collins of the computer science department in Trinity College, was acquired by Intel in 2007.
Demonware has been another middleware success from Ireland, and it too was acquired in 2007 (by major publisher Activision).
So there’s plenty of history there, but Jamie says he has been surprised at how much valuable information ‘the internet has forgotten’ over the years. A central goal of the timeline is to get that information back out there wherever possible. There are still plenty of gaps in the timeline, and the team at GameDevelopers.ie are eager to hear from anybody who might have anything to add.
Jamie says they’re looking for “everything and everything” - whether that’s information from people who worked at any of the companies, or photos, screenshots, artwork and videos that could help bring the timeline alive. “There's a lot of independent games stores around the country which could get themselves listed too,” Jamie adds. “We have a contact form on GameDevelopers.ie where people can submit content, or by tweeting info to @gamedev_ie on twitter.”
That’s the past, but what about the present and future? A quick glance at the timeline shows a flurry of activity in recent years - but is that just because the information is more readily available? Things are progressing, if slowly at times. Last year, veteran video game designer Brenda Romero spent six weeks in Ireland, working and meeting with students, third level students and government & industry representatives. A report is due with findings and recommendations following the visit, and the industry is also currently awaiting a sector action plan.
“There's a catch 22 for larger developers,” Jamie explains. “Irish people emigrate to where the AAA level work is, and if an international game development studio set up here they'd struggle to find this quality of talent locally in enough numbers. But the indie scene is going from strength to strength, year-on-year through all the events, workshops, and cross pollination. It's a maelstrom of activity. Production values, quality, gameplay and fun are improving with each game. But while many smaller devs - maybe straight out of college - are struggling to get commercial traction, veterans - such as those who cut their teeth in Jolt Online or abroad - are a lot further along.”
The gaming industry in Ireland perhaps suffered its most high-profile blow in 2012 with the closure of the Dublin branch of PopCap games, with the loss of almost 100 jobs (although it should be pointed out that PopCap owners EA expanded their Customer Experience Centre in Galway around the same time, which employs several hundred people). PopCap is the studio responsible for several megahits like Peggle, Bejeweled and Plants vs Zombies. Its Irish studio only lasted six years.
While it was undoubtedly a big loss, Jamie suggests the closure may have had some positive effects. “While Popcap left Ireland, the people left behind didn't hang around,” he says. “SixMinute (Pick a Pet) studios in Dublin and Rocket Rainbow Studios (Hay Ewe) in Galway have set up proper studios.
“There's a lot of teams rising from one company failure like a phoenix, so I'll need to figure out a way to make a family tree of the industry,” Jamie observes.
There are several other encouraging examples too, according to Jamie. “Richard Barnwell and the team in Digit have certainly set a new standard for locally developed games with Kings of the Realm. There are also the likes of Bitsmith Games (Kú: Shroud of the Morrigan & upcoming Frank'n'John) as well as Digital Furnace (Onikira) and Gambrinous (Guild of Dungeoneering) which all look like great, fun games, so things are certainly bright.” Digit, for example, is in the middle of a significant hiring campaign. Guild of Dungeoneering launched last month to critical praise and a very enthusiastic response from gamers:
Ireland’s reputation as a tech hub only seems to be improving, and there’s good reason to expect that will impact the gaming sector here too, Here’s hoping there’s a long and busy timeline ahead for the gaming industry in Ireland - whether that’s through indie studios, big name companies investing here, or the people who create the technology that helps make the games we all know and love.