Irish game development poised to break out
David McGovern, Brenda Romero and other devs on why Ireland's games industry may finally come into its own
David McGovern is COO at Dublin based DIGIT Game Studios, an Irish free-to-play mobile gaming studio who received major strategic investment from Scopely in May 2015. He's also an Irishman. But when he made his first step in the gaming industry, he had to make it in Great Britain and not in his home country.
"When I finished college I wanted to go into games, but I had no choice, I had to leave the country. Like, that was basically it." Heading off to a QA role at Codemasters in England before eventually wending his way back home to co-found DIGIT, McGovern's tale is a typical story of Irish talent leaking out the country.
The likes of Terry Cavanagh, Barry Meade at Fireproof Studios and Sean Murray at Hello Games are often cited as British success stories, yet each one of them comes from an Irish background. And whatever the precise reason behind the appropriation of them as "British" success stories, it is clear that Ireland has historically struggled to keep talented game developers on its shores.
Change, however, appears to be on the way. A ground swell of local game development talent within Ireland has begun, slowly but steadily, to form a nascent gaming community. Talented developers are beginning to return home to support the growth and the impact of the government's support for larger tech companies is gradually trickling down to help developers.
Ireland might be well on the way to becoming a vibrant and distinctive gaming scene, but it appears clear that the grassroots movement needs a defining success story and champions from the top in order to reach its full potential.
Building the developer community
The current state of the Irish games community is best seen as a young but tight-knit community of smaller (usually independent) developers, with a stronger emphasis on artistic creativity.
There are a number of reasons for why this is the case. The first has been the rise of self-publishing as a general global trend since 2008. The arrival of the App Store, the growth of Steam as an indie gaming haven, and the steady opening up of consoles has allowed developers to succeed outside of the confines of the big companies.
"When I came back to Ireland it was only going to be temporary in the beginning... I was surprised as there was a scene that was about to take off"Llaura McGee
This is particularly important in the case of the Irish scene because it has had so few major game development companies on its shores. Though Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, Bethesda and Nordeus all have offices in the country, they specialise in ancillary services such as customer support, marketing, and finance. Historically, this has meant that game developers have had to move abroad to realise their ambitions. But with the means of production and distribution now in their hands, Irish game developers have been able to resist the lure of a move abroad.
The closure of Popcap by EA in 2013--one of the few examples of a major studio deliberately setting up its game development efforts in Ireland--led to a significant diffusion of talented developers into the wider scene. Many of those who left went on to found their own independent gaming studios. DIGIT Game Studios and SixMinute are just two examples of companies founded by ex-Popcap employees in the wake of the company's collapse.
Finally, to explain the artistic emphasis of many Irish games, developers have also been able to tap into broader creative strengths in Ireland. In particular, the local animation scene in the country has helped game developers create distinctive art styles for their games. The dozens of Oscar, Emmy, and BAFTA nominations that animation studios have racked up for the likes of The Book of Kells, El Tigre, and Octonauts is testament to this strength.
As a result of all these factors, Ireland is blessed with an increasing number of smaller developers who are creating visually arresting titles. StoryToys, headed up by Barry O'Neill, has seen its richly animated games and books for children on the App Store front page; the hotly tipped Darkside Detective by Paul Conway and Christopher Colston originated in the Galway Game Jam; BitSmith Studios has created the Celtic inspired Ku: Shadow of Morrigan and roguelike RPG FrankNJohn.
The creative energy within the scene today has even helped to attract talent back to the country. Llaura McGee, the developer of the Writers Guild of Ireland-nominated Curtain, returned to Ireland from Scotland in 2013 and has since stayed there due to the renewed strength of Irish game development.
"When I came back to Ireland it was only going to be temporary in the beginning" she said. "I left for Scotland in 2011 and there wasn't much of a scene here, but when I came back I was surprised as there was a scene that was about to take off."
And McGee isn't the only developer to return. Two of the three co-founders of DIGIT Game Studios returned to the country to found the company and the scene itself is becoming notable enough to attract talent from elsewhere.
"The community here is really close and in touch," McGee continued. "I was actually part of organising this event called Inis Spraoi, it was on this tiny island called Inishboffin which is off the coast of Ireland. It was the second year we've run it and we had lots of Irish people, but we also had people from the US, the UK, and Europe come along."
So with talented small development studios popping up all over the place and events such as Dubludo (founded by BitSmith Games' Owen Harris) helping developers to come together, the grassroots scene is creating a positive environment for building distinctive games on all platforms.
"There's a really good tight knit community of people that are coming to work together," said James Kelleher of Lonely Beast Apps.
In search of top-down support
Despite that success from the bottom up in forming a gaming community, there remains a problematic vacuum between the grassroots gaming scene and the upper echelons of Irish government.
That's not to say that Ireland doesn't get technology at a state level - far from it. Ireland is home to offices for the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Etsy and Groupon (among others).
The reason for this is partly historic (Ireland and the U.S. have tended to be close as nations) and mostly due to the incredibly competitive corporate tax rate levied on these companies by the Irish government. The country's 12.5 percent corporate tax rate in Ireland comfortably outguns international rivals, with Britain hovering at 20 percent, Japan at 35.64 percent, and the U.S. at 40 percent.
And though, like the major games companies, most of these companies house their ad sales, finance, and marketing teams in the country, they offer enough development opportunities to help keep talented Irish computer scientists in the country. Amazon, for example, based their Web Services operation in the country, helping to sustain local development talent in the region.
The presence of these tech companies is seen in almost entirely positive terms. When I asked Kelleher about the impact of the likes of Google in the city, he said "I'm glad they're here. They run developer events all the time and I've been to a fair few events - it's not bad at all."
This point of view is echoed by McGovern. "I would have a very positive view on that, because one of the key reasons why we decided that Dublin was a good place to do this was because of tech talent," he said. "Because of these big companies coming here, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, all these guys, these are attracting talent not only from abroad into Ireland but also encouraging people to stay in Ireland and study in computer science courses knowing that there are good opportunities there."
However, despite these positive points of view, there remains an understandable belief that there is a distance between these big companies and the developers on the ground.
Part of this is reinforced by the geographic and aesthetic differences between the two worlds. Standing at the top of Barrow Street in Dublin, where Google has two shiny office blocks connected by a bridge they built over the main road halfway down it, lies a derelict factory and a street of weather-beaten terraced houses. There is a very real sense that the redeveloped dockyards, done so on the back of ample tech capital, are distant from the centre of the capital about a 25-minute walk away.
But there are more practical manifestations of the distance between giants and grassroots. Christopher Conlan of Pewter Game Studios spoke to me about the difficulties his studio had in getting recognised by Microsoft, despite the fact they were the first Irish indie developer to be working on an Xbox One game.
"They have R&D tax credits, which are brilliant for tech companies...But even when you look at the process for applying for that you can see it's very engineered towards science companies and big blue-chip tech companies"David McGovern
"Microsoft made an attempt to help us here, but there's no Xbox team so there wasn't much they could do when we said we were the first team", he said. They were, however, well equipped to run events that did further the interests of the company.
"There was a game jam they held to help try and get apps onto the Windows Phone store," Conlan told me. And that is, of course, completely understandable. Private companies, despite what corporate social responsibility bods will tell you, are always going to be focused on making money and doing things in their interest.
But that means there needs to be support from elsewhere, and particularly the state, to help solve developer problems - which is why the government's lack of direct support for the games industry is a big barrier to developer ambition in the country.
That lack of support from the Irish government appears to be one of definition. Rather than apportioning it out as part of the arts, gaming is considered a part of technology.
This has two important impacts on the industry. The first is that games do not qualify for the new Irish Film and TV Tax Credit introduced in January 2015, meaning developers miss out on tax relief.
Second, and arguably more difficult for developers, is that forces them to apply for funding and tax credits that technology companies as a whole apply for. Conlan explained to me the process behind Enterprise Ireland's competitive start up fund, which offers €50,000 to successful applicants, and why developers are penalised.
"Each call would usually see over 100 applications, with EI whittling it down to 30 companies to make an in-person pitch, and then up to 15 of those are awarded the fund," he said. "Usually each call focuses on a particular type of industry. Games are usually included in the calls for technology-related start-ups. There was one in April just past for 'Internet, Games, Apps, Mobile, SaaS, Cloud Computing, Enterprise Software, Life Sciences, Food, Cleantech and Industrial Products', for example."
Furthermore, R&D tax credit applications are designed in a way that hampers game developers further. As McGovern explained to me, "They have R&D tax credits, which are brilliant for tech companies. You know, you can go and you can claim X percentage of salaries back based on doing research and development. But even when you look at the process for applying for that you can see it's very engineered towards science companies and big blue-chip tech companies."
Irish game developers, therefore, are placed in a position where they know they have to compete with tech firms for success and cannot be sure of receiving any specialist support. So it's little wonder that the patchwork of smaller companies that form the industry are mostly relying on bootstrapping themselves, as they can't qualify for valuable funding or relief that could help them take off.
Championing the industry
Therefore, the Irish games industry is in need of some form of leadership to help the vibrant grassroots community transform into a wider scene. And there are two areas in particular that the industry hopes will change that situation.
The first is a figurehead for the industry and one that may surprise people reading this. Brenda Romero, the legendary games writer and author, has become an unlikely champion for Irish game development following the award of a Fulbright Scholarship in 2014.
The scholarship, which was awarded specifically to help her examine the Irish games industry from top to bottom and produce a report, sparked off her interest in Ireland's gaming scene.
"The goal was that I would write this report and I guess kind of leave it and go back to my normal life, but the community of game developers there is just incredible," Romero told me. "And I've remained actively involved with the game developers there. John [Romero, Brenda's husband and original Doom designer] and I are looking forward to returning and seeing our friends there."
"There's so much stuff happening there on so many different avenues, and so many things happening there you can tell it's a scene just about to break out"Brenda Romero
Romero was particularly engaged by the quality of the grassroots scene. "There's so much stuff happening there on so many different avenues, and so many things happening there you can tell it's a scene just about to break out. You can just tell. And it wasn't just me that felt that way; it was John as well."
Romero's support has been considered invaluable to a number of developers in the scene. Practically all the developers I met told me about her role in organising a big gathering at her house at GDC 2015 and how she relentlessly championed their interests at the show.
At the same time, what many developers also told me is that they felt that Ireland needed a big gaming hit to call its own for a number of reasons. The first reason is that it'll help wake the government and international investors up to the potential in the scene. Whether that is a titanic free-to-play hit in the manner of a King or, as McGee pointed out, a Vlambeer indie success that sets off the investment train, the presence of a hit game in the country was seen by many as a key precondition for opening the world's eyes to Ireland's potential.
Second, a big hit could help diffuse more talent and more capital through the country. While the dispersal of Popcap talent post-2013 certainly helped the industry, McGovern suggested that a larger success could help spread the wealth and entrepreneurialism too. Referring to Finland as an example of this, McGovern claimed, "You have companies like Supercell, which is, like, obscene. The amount of revenue that company makes is insane. So that then usually feeds down to the employees as well. Your employees get bonuses, and they get stock options, and they sell their stock, and they get people leaving companies and certain events [like] that. Then they have a certain amount of money that they can actually say, 'Okay, now I'm going to set my own thing up.'"
But perhaps most of all, I got the sense that the industry there was hoping for a success because they wanted one to call their own. In a genuinely non-parochial sense, I felt that there was a determination amongst Irish developers to make up for time and talent lost to the UK, Europe, and US, a determination to make their own success stories.
And they are well placed to get that breakthrough gaming hit, whether they receive help from the government or not. There are a reassuringly high number of interesting, creative titles coming out from developers based on Irish shore.
But as shown in the UK, Canada, and Finland, providing support for a growing games industry at the right moment can kick start a significant national movement. Perhaps it is the right moment for the Irish government to get involved in supporting this burgeoning scene.