Games without frontiers

Technology | Tue 15 Sep | Author – Colin White Gaming illustration

Colin White speaks to industry experts about the evolution of the international and domestic games industry – and what Ireland needs to do to compete on a global level.

Although my venture into the world of gaming was relatively brief during the 1990s – it began with the Commodore 64 and ended with the Sega Mega Drive – the industry has always held a fascination for me. The seemingly endless technological advancements since the first games console in 1972 – the Magnavox Odyssey – have moved at a rapid pace and show little sign of any stagnation.

The worldwide games industry is a modern phenomenon and currently generates more revenue than the recorded music and movie industries combined. The growth has been consistent, and while the music and film industries currently undergo a period of flux, the games industry has proved itself to be a more robust business.

A recent revelation within the industry has been the boom of ‘casual gaming’, typically found across tablets, phones and browsers. Games such as Angry Birds, Plants v Zombies and Clash of Clans are being played remotely on a massive scale.

Public policy expert and entertainment lawyer David Sweeney knows the industry well, having worked with major companies and the local industry for over 10 years, advising the top multinational games publishers and game console manufacturers on legal, licensing, funding, privacy and trade issues.

“It’s the most interesting of all the industries I’ve worked in, as it is constantly reinventing itself with new technologies. It’s so fast-paced; the business models keep adapting, and therefore so too do the type of contracts required,” he says.

Unlike the music and film industries, the games industry has developed models that are not as vulnerable to piracy, and has recorded huge growth. The industry is now currently worth in the region of €65bn a year.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Sweeney was part of a taskforce set up in 2012 by Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton to highlight the steps necessary to tap into the wealth of opportunity that a thriving indigenous games industry could bring.

One of Sweeney’s main points of focus was on improving the education system to allow the creation of more qualified graduates for the games industry in Ireland. Projections about a tax break, legal analysis, as well as details about British and French systems were supplied to the government.

“We lobbied for specific tax breaks for the industry, which were and are non-existent, and for proper state funding which is still a tiny fraction of the millions paid out to Ireland’s film industry. We also wanted to increase the level of investment from abroad. Finally, we wanted a change in the school curriculum, at both primary and secondary level. We’ve been very slow to react compared to our British counterparts, where computer science is on the school curriculum,” notes Sweeney.

However, after extensive meetings, the Government implemented none of the advice offered. “I feel like the whole process was a great waste of time and effort. The British now have a tax break and funding for its games industry. Our film board secures lots of funding every year, so why can’t the gaming industry receive something similar?”

Irish game designer Andrew Deegan is a founding director and producer at Sugra Games, a company that develops and publishes games globally for mobile devices. He has been involved in the games industry for eight years, working as a game designer and producer for companies such as MegaZebra Social Games (Germany), Jolt Online (Dublin) and two of his own companies – Breakout Interactive (Dublin) and Sugra Games (UK).

The latter company has benefited from UK funding, and Deegan believes that the current UK model is one that should be emulated in Ireland.

“Presently, the UK is a far better environment than Ireland for games-specific funding, which is a pity, as so many talented small teams have emerged in the last five years,” says Deegan.

“Ireland needs some games-specific support from both the Government and the private investment community. Games are actually a cultural content product, just like TV, film and animation. Grants and funding should be provided for it in a similar way that the UK, Canada and other European governments provide.”

MASTERS OF TECH

The Irish education system has been criticised for its reluctance to introduce more computer-based resources that could feed into the imaginations of a generation for which technology is so important.

There are several third-level courses on offer in Ireland covering different disciplines for students looking to pursue a career in the games industry. Deegan, however, believes the content is too general with many of these, and he says he would like to see more specialised courses available.

“Many courses cover a range of skills: everything from games design to business and basic programming. The problem is, companies do not want to hire generalists – they want specialists.

“The best games are created by specialised individuals who are masters of their discipline, be that programming, art, animation, or games design, who can work together as a team to create a great experience. To compete in the global marketplace, generalists just don’t meet the quality standard. And yet, that is the type of graduate we are training.”

Our film board secures lots of funding every year, so why can’t the gaming industry receive something similar?

At present, Ireland’s big players include Digit Game Studios, Storytoys, Blizzard, Origin (formerly EA Download Manager) and Havok, while SixMinute, Studio PowWow and Butterfly Games are also showing massive potential for growth.

However, despite the recent hiring campaign by Digit Game Studios – who recently announced 40 new positions – the reality is a harsh one for those looking to obtain a games development role in Ireland at present. “It is a very challenging task,” agrees Deegan. “That is one of the main reasons why I decided to start my own company.”

According to the tech entrepreneur, “The companies developing games with access to funding are looking for very specific specialised skill sets, which do not exist here at the moment. There is a disconnect between the skills of the graduates and the requirements of the funded games companies, in my opinion.”

David Sweeney adds: “Most of the current jobs in the games industry in this country are not development jobs; most are customer care, quality control – not the development jobs that will grow the industry.”

MANAGING MISOGYNY 

A worldwide issue that the industry has been slow to address is the lack of female games developers. In an evocative keynote speech at Inspirefest in Dublin this year, Brianna Wu of Spacekat Games spoke about the daily barrage of misogyny she faces.

A talented software engineer based in Boston, Wu has been forthright in her views about how women are “erased, bullied, belittled and not taken seriously in the video games industry”.

Wu believes that a major reason why sexism is prevalent in the games industry – and in society in general – is due to unconscious biases. “It’s these biases that individuals are not aware of. Most development teams in our field are dominated by men. They work in a system that was built by men and that serves men. Every single time that a woman speaks out on what’s going on in tech, we deal with an avalanche of people minimising our opinions.”

Deegan also highlights this as a concern. “In my opinion, the problem starts with parents and schools through gender-oriented activities for children from a very young age.”

There’s been a massive worldwide increase in the amount of female gamers in the last number of years and Wu is confident that a seachange is taking place. “We are winning. We are making changes in the game industry. I’m unwilling to have a career while I stay silent,” she enthuses.

TOMORROW’S WORLD

The free-to-play and freemium mobile markets have emerged as the biggest in the industry. Candy Crush Saga (King.com), Clash of Clans (Supercell) and Angry Birds 2 (Rovio Entertainment) are perfect examples of this; all are predominantly played on mobile devices.

Virtual reality (VR) technology is an exciting new medium in which to experience games, and it is expected to revolutionise the way people play. Deegan, however, sees this group as a small subsection of gamers.

“For most of the market, people will continue to consume games in their favourite medium, be that on mobile or on a screen of some sort. The quality of games on the mobile platform has increased dramatically. Of course, VR is exciting – but it will not have as wide an adoption as mobile, which will remain the biggest platform.

“Personally I think content is king. No matter the platform or the technology, if a developer makes an entertaining, high-quality experience that meets an audience’s needs, enticing them to return again and again for more, then that game developer has a bright future,” concludes Deegan.