19 September 2012

The Celtic Games Tiger

(Note: This post was written before Popcap consolidated it's operations) 

In Ireland today there are hundreds of people who make their living from the games industry. From international studios like Popcap in Dublin to BioWare Ireland in Galway, both studios of Electronic Arts.

Dublin has become a hub of the industry in Ireland with developers like 2PaperDolls and middleware companies – the physics engines developers use to make their games – like Demonware. While Affinity Tech and Havok lie side by side in the Digital Hub.

Affinity Tech, a small start-up studio working on four games – the first being Joe v Banker is rapidly engaging the interest of global distributors with the unique ideas that are the core of their titles.

“We’ve got Santa v Banker coming up in October. They’re trying to repossess the sleigh; it’s completely off the wall. So it’s getting a lot of attention,” says Michael Rochford, the studio’s founder.

“We never expected to take off like this but our wacky ideas stand out so major distributors are looking at us. I can’t say which ones, yet.

“There was a piece about Joe in the [Irish] Times; there was a piece in the Sunday Times. Enda Kenny (Ireland's taoiseach or prime minister) played it. There was a great reception at the Tippereary Game Fleadh (a fleadh being Irish for a festival or gathering).”

Havok, by contrast, is one of the most established names in gaming. Players all over the world have seen the Havok name and logo on their games boxes. This company, founded in 1999 by Trinity College students makes middleware engines for some of the biggest games in the world and proved such a success that the company was bought for $100 million by Intel in 2007.  

A logo you've probably seen once or twice. 
The Call of Duty series, the biggest entertainment franchise in any medium (Modern Warfare 3 – the latest entry in the blockbuster series made $750 million in five days) sports the Havok label as do many of the game industry’s other major franchises such Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted.
Yet the games that are made in Ireland, Popcap’s Plants v Zombies or BatCat Games’ P-3 Biotic aren’t triple A franchises like Call of Duty they’re often quick casual titles. 

Paddy Murphy of 2PaperDolls says: “There were a lot more challenges to being a game start-up back in early 2010. There was no Games Ireland,” the industry body which represents the game studios in Ireland in a similar manner to the Electronic Software Association (ESA) in the US, “Enterprise Ireland hadn’t quite bit the hook on games as a viable idea yet... There were very few other companies doing game development in the country to use as case studies...

“All in all, it kind of felt like an insurmountable task. The local county enterprise boards had no idea about the game industry, so trying to talk them into giving money to a games start up back then … well... that was no easy task.”

Murphy, the founder of OpenEmotion Studios in Limerick, the largest independent games developer in Ireland left for 2PaperDolls earlier this year to work as the company’s community manager and both he and Rochford were especially optimistic about the future of the games industry in Ireland.

“It’s growing quite rapidly,” says Murphy. “There is some really good stuff being developed and the important thing is, companies are finally starting to launch products.

“As long as the games industry here continues to mature and we continue to see studios like Pixel Wolf and Kahoot emerging and releasing titles in the coming months, I think Ireland has definitely secured itself as a burgeoning spot for Independent game development in Europe,” Murphy continues.

As for how the industry has evolved since he established Open Emotion Murphy comments “dramatically... There is an industry here now, for one thing.

“The biggest change is the emergence of so many video game start-ups. When we founded Open Emotion Studios, there was maybe one or two other game small home-grown indie studios operating in Ireland. Now, I think there is between 18 and 20. Over a 2 year period that is some huge growth. I just hope it’s sustainable.”

His view of the Ireland’s opportunity to grow as a major center for games is echoed by Rochford who says “the government predict an extra 2400 jobs by 2014 in the games industry, that’s reasonable. We’re definitely on the upswing; there aren’t many professions that can say that.”

Yet both developers agree that more can be done to promote the industry. Rochford argues that the industry would benefit from tax cuts.

“Oh absolutely, there should definitely be tax cuts, we haven’t gotten any money from the government. We’re entirely self-financed. [It’s important] that games be recognised as art, they are absolutely art.
“We’re not getting paid because we haven’t released anything yet but we hope to be. So yeah tax cuts would definitely help.”

Murphy however, holding the belief that such a move would by and large only help the major, established studios, isn’t quite so convinced that tax relief would be a silver bullet for the obstacles the Irish industry faces.

“I think tax cuts become this mythical thing that will solve all our problems. I mean, don’t get me wrong tax breaks are awesome and to bigger companies a la Havok, or Popcap they have a huge effect. So if you are trying to draw in larger scale, international businesses having a competitive tax rate and schemes is very important

“One thing I learned in my time at Open Emotion however is that for small businesses, tax breaks don’t generally matter. Most small game start-ups spend their first year (or two) scraping by with very little profit. So, the illusion that Ireland getting tax breaks would suddenly make things easier for small developers is not necessarily true...

“However, tax breaks and incentives can never be bad, so despite the above - Bring it on!” he concludes.
In his budget in April the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced tax cuts for the British games industry. 

Whether or not the government in Dublin was prompted by this announcement or because they consider it necessary regardless it was reported by The Journal earlier this year that Finance Minister Michael Noonan is considering breaks for Irish studios.

Any such change would likely be carried out under Section 481 which currently caters to the film industry.

Yet there are things the government can and should do to promote the industry Murphy argues:  
“One thing to be clear on here is that I genuinely believe that we have a government that actually does a tremendous amount for emerging sectors,” he says. 

“In the US, it’s rare that people would get as much government assistance as the developers here. They generally have to head almost immediately into a venture capital route.

“The Irish government’s grants and [their] assistance give Irish developers a better chance of remaining more wholly independent,” from publishers Murphy says. “I think that an area the Government could improve in is highlighting the talented companies on the international stage.”

2PaperDolls, which recently released Mind of Man – or MOM for short – a iOS game that’s based on your tweets is reflective of the general direction of the industry in Ireland. These quirky games that usually bypass consoles.

What your Mindprint? 
“I don’t know if consoles will make a move completely away from physical content in the next few years,” Murphy says, “but I definitely believe that the costs associated with developing a console and then the actual cost of manufacturing and distributing the content itself, a services model a la Netflix seems to make more sense in the long term.

“Then the service provider need only upgrade the servers/systems and the end user only has to worry about upgrading their Internet connection and maybe a small subscription fee per month.”

Of course it is a noteworthy attribute of Irish developers that despite those costs and the relative lack of international knowledge of the industry here that Irish studios do look to produce on as many platforms as possible, consoles included.

“When we started out we were just looking at PC,” says Rochford. “But this is bigger than we ever thought it would be, we’ll put it (Joe v Banker) on PC, then to look to mobiles, then to consoles.”

While Murphy, when he was still at Open Emotion, released the PlayStation Mini title I Kill Zombies. 
The developer, quite recognisable in the industry by the red cap he almost always dons, believes Irish studios have a responsibility to promote themselves as well and it’s a duty where that considers many developers fall down on. 

Murphy, who attended the recent Rezzed and Develop conferences in the UK, suggests that Irish game makers could benefit enormously from attending these regular events where developers can meet and interact with others in the industry.

Commenting on the number of Irish studios represented at those shows he says “[there was] not enough of a presence, in my opinion. I understand that the time and cost of going to trade-shows can be daunting but at the end of the day, there are just so many amazing deals to be done.

“I know that BatCat games made some incredible contacts while at Develop... Even for 2PaperDolls, Lee and I acquired a huge amount of interest just by throwing some stickers and beermats around the show floor and talking to some journalists who were present.

“I feel that there are ways that Irish developers can approach the cost of these shows, without resorting to another hand-out from Enterprise Ireland. If, for example, someone from each studio went to GDC (Games Developer Conference) Europe or gamescom (the annual German event that has become the biggest public games conference in the world with over a quarter of a million attendees) and those people collectively rented a house or two the cost of Accommodation would be so minimal, it would be ridiculous not to go...

“While I was at Open Emotion, we secured most of our big contracts and publishing deals at GDC Europe and so when Irish companies say they can’t go, they are, in my opinion, gambling. By not attending, you could miss a life changing contract, a new licensing deal or any number of other opportunities...”

Today there are around 120,000 gamers in Ireland alone, yet the relative small size of the native market usually forces developers to think globally even from the very earliest stages. It is also why many Irish developers tend to work on the mobile or PC platforms which can reach far broader audiences than traditional home consoles.

As such the need for Irish studios to be represented and push their titles to the largest possible market is obvious. In spite of which not every developer sets the global games’ market in their sights from the beginning.

“We were just hoping to get picked up in Ireland,” Rochford recalls, “then, once we were successful carry on to the UK, to Europe and go from there.”

Rochford, speaking in the stylish refurbished offices of the Digital Hub admits to being surprised by the enthusiasm for Affinity Tech’s productions.

“We’ve got four games we’re working on,” he says, “Joe comes out in September, than Santa in October, then we’ll look at the kids game (which was originally intended to be their first title), try to launch that early next year.”

The fourth game has not been officially announced, though it follows in the unusual steps of the games that will precede it, the games that made Affinity Tech stand out from the crowd. Rochford and his team have had the unlikely good fortune to be noticed by three global distributors.

In an industry in which it is possible for anyone with a knowledge of programming to make a game Affinity Tech has, for now at least, been placed under the spotlight which may yet come to reflect well on the rest of the industry and the talented teams that make up the indigenous game studios in Ireland and, in the words of the Ireland's illustrious author Oscar Wilde, “all publicity is good publicity.” 

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