But times have changed. Nowadays, you need a joystick and instead of inflating a pig's bladder, you go out and buy
a game centre and some games at inflated prices. And while we have established ourselves as a realistic future hub of European e-commerce, we seem to have simultaneously stopped inventing games, at least for the moment.
The lack of Irish involvement in the games industry is surprising considering that we are a global leader in software production. The worldwide computer games software industry is worth in excess of USD20 billion per annum and it's getting bigger all the time as the Internet expands. Overall software sales are on the rise for the first six months of 2000 compared to the same time period last year. In total, the segment saw growth of 18.9 percent (and a dollar growth of 16.2 percent). Game Boy Color software sales (thanks largely to the success of Pokamon) grew by 108.6 percent since January in the US alone. The market will reach USD25 billion by 2003.
In the multi-billion dollar console market the Japanese lead the way. This isn't likely to change anytime soon, though Microsoft is attempting to enter the fray with its X-box game console. At the moment PlayStation is bigger than Hollywood.
IRISH STARS ARE FEW
But Ireland's participation in this lucrative sector is minimal. Because of a lack of funding and a shortage of quality training, few Irish companies can brave the international market. One of Ireland's few successes to date is Havok, a young Irish company that launched itself at the same conference in San Francisco that Bill Gates used to launch his X-Box plans. Based in Dublin, Havok's team licenses the multi-platform physics and dynamics technology that game developers use to create real time dynamics and physical environments in 3D games. The company's products are widely used in game development on both Playstation and PC platforms. These are the technologies and game development tools on which virtual gaming realities are built.
Havok technology offers powerful, real time physical simulations for game developers. Integrated rigid body, soft body, fluid, cloth, aerodynamics and particle dynamics can be simulated across all consumer level hardware platforms including PC, Mac, Linux, PS2 and that upcoming X-box. If a percentage of those who are brought to the theatre as a child grow up to become playwrights, so too
will a percentage of those who play computer games grow up to become game developers.
On current figures, Ireland could have a more developed industry within a couple of years -- Ireland has just passed Japan as the number one place for console sales and console games sales per capita. The breakdown of console and software sales throughout Europe reveals that the U.K. and Ireland have the biggest slice of the pie at 39 percent of the market, with Germany second at 29 percent, followed by France at 18 percent and the Netherlands at six percent. Germany currently accounts for 37 percent of all PC sales in Europe, while the U.K. and Ireland pull in 48 percent of all console sales. Ireland must be producing potential games developers in their droves.
But there is currently only one dedicated games course in the country: Ballyfermot College's LUDO course, which includes Computer Animation and Modelling, Design and Production, and Theory of Game Play, as well as Multimedia
and Web Authoring. Training is an issue that must be addressed by government and industry if Ireland's games sector is to expand.
Funcom, which employs 28 people in their Dublin offices, is one Irish company that has survived despite the adverse conditions. They are currently making a sequel to a Playstation game they made last year, Championship Motocross 2000. Funcom is involved in the development of next-generation Xbox Games for Microsoft and a number of its PlayStation games have received Benchmark Status in their Genre awards from Sony.
For companies like Funcom, proper training courses would provide the supply of talent they require to maintain their momentum. "Funcom is working with the colleges to streamline courses here in Dublin to encourage the creative and artistic talent that we have here in Ireland," Managing Director of Funcom Olivia White told ElectricNews.Net. "We need more of an awareness by our young people that companies like us exist and that we are operating in an international environment and can provide long term employment."
Despite the success of companies like Havok and Funcom, the potential for the industry in Ireland remains largely untapped, both in terms of venture capital and Government support. The venture capital specialists are traditionally
attracted to 'straight' e-commerce operations and dot.coms, not to game development. And does anyone really think that any of our policy makers could distinguish between a Quake engine and a seismograph?
One man who can is Tom Murphy, a member of Ireland's Quake team. According to Tom, there are some grounds for optimism. "The developer skills are already present here and the Irish IT sector generally is strong. Irish game players have a strong infrastructure and organization behind them: the Irish Games Network [www.ign.ie]," he said. "We have a world class Quake team who are actively looking for sponsorship, having won the 4 Nations Championship and qualified for the playoffs of the European Championships. We also have 5 players through to the Professionals Championships in Germany too. And there are strong reporting/reviewing sites here too, like www.playerofgames.com."
Murphy says he hears Irish gamers bemoaning the lack of a native industry all the time. "Irish gamers rue the lack of a solid industry as they would all like to work in it. There is a great waste of talent especially in the artistic side of the industry, the guys who draw and animate the characters and the textures for their world. There is a strange mix of high-tech and art needed in the games
industry and Ireland has both in spades."
A small Irish games company called Rawshot conceives, designs and produces original Flash games. The company started up in 1999 and currently employs six people. Rawshot is now developing an interactive Flash games site called Freechili, which will also be offered on a sponsorship/licence basis. "I think the future of the games industry in Ireland has got to be on an international
platform," said Susan Jordan of Rawshot. "I believe that we have to be producing games with worldwide appeal to stand any chance of surviving. It would be similar to the Irish film industry. It cannot survive without international
interest and the subject must have international appeal."
An example of the cutting edge work currently being done by Rawshot is the combination of interactive motion graphics with enterprise level databases. According to Jordan, the stakes are high and getting higher.
"Unless Irish companies find an international platform for their work, the industry here will never be a serious contender. Enterprise Ireland should step in to provide finance and market such a showcase. We have been asked to showcase our work at Cinemagic 2000 in Northern Ireland in December, but this invitation came through the UK. Enterprise Ireland doesn't seem to have their fingers on
the pulse of the games industry here."
Enterprise Ireland recently indicated that it would be expanding involvement in the entertainment and games sector over the next five years, but the feeling amongst many of those waiting to get involved in an Irish games industry is that if funding doesn't come soon, vital ground will have been lost.
Emmet Cole is at