Cracking The Code: Ireland’s Independent Game Developers

Written by: John Hyland

Published in Features | More

The games industry now dwarfs, and often trolls, the film and music industries. DFC Intelligence puts the 2012 value of the video games industry at $66bn, compared to film’s $29.2bn and music’s $16.5bn. Last month’s release of Grand Theft Auto V cost, development and marketing included, $265m – outstripping Spiderman 3‘s $258m. But, as with film and music, the big-budget, high-production utterances don’t always court critical acclaim, or even commercial success. And, just like rave-reviewed movies shot on a shoestring and bedroom-recorded albums that made overnight superstars of unknown bands, there are those independently produced games with brilliant ideas that can grab our imaginations, our wallets or both.

Twenty years ago, Star Fox, Doom and Myst were at the technological bleeding edge, requiring large development teams with serious investment behind them. Today you can buy a camera and lens for a few thousand that’s good enough to shoot Hollywood-quality film, the recording software that comes free with some computers would put music studios of the past to shame, and the video-game development tools have advanced to the point where someone can rattle out a Street Fighter clone in less than a day.

The Irish like to think, and perhaps with good reason, that, artistically, we can punch above our weight, churning out music and films that are well received by press and public. So it’s no surprise to find burgeoning creative talent making games, too. Our humble island has already spawned one darling of the international indie games scene. Terry Cavanagh may have moved to Cambridge, but leaving the country, being from the North or relocating your business interests to a Dutch tax haven has never stopped Ireland claiming a success as her own. Cavanagh’s two major coups, punishing puzzle-platformer VVVVVV and thumb-twitching hypno-fest Super Hexagon, have garnered glowing reviews and hundreds of thousands of purchases across multiple platforms, mobile and desktop. These both have the magic indie mix of one great idea and beautiful execution, but Cavanagh also makes plenty of more unusual freeware. His ChatChat is the world’s first MeowMeowORPG, a game in which you can be a cat, take naps, catch mice, and meow at other cats. Don’t Look Back is a side-scrolling, gun-toting reimagining of the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to save Eurydice’s soul.

Eminent emigrants besides, there’s plenty of home-grown talent that hasn’t uprooted itself, both artistically brave and commercially successful, and even an intersection of the two. Talking to developers in Ireland, the same themes occur again and again. There’s a constant tug-of-war between making the games that you and your friends want to play, and building a commercially viable business. You’ll find an overwhelming sense of newness. Even those considered to be well established in the still-nascent scene look at themselves as still finding their feet – be it in terms of securing funding or marketing and promotion. The most heart-warming trend is the pervading feelings of community, co-operation and mutual support.

 

SixMinute are what passes for veterans in an industry so young. Having mostly come from the Dublin development office of PopCap Games – behind the hugely popular Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, among others – they feel they have a good grasp on the recipe for success, and that success is different for different games. John, Séadna and Rory spoke to me about Monster Mini-games. “There are so many games appearing on the mobile marketplaces, it can be hard to make yourself heard above the noise,” John tells me, “that’s why it’s important that we know our audience. Developers can often make games just for themselves, without a clear idea of who else wants to play them, or how to reach those people.” Séadna explains that presentation and feel are key to making a simple idea like mini-games a hit. “Angry Birds wasn’t the first of its kind, and there are plenty of clones of it, too. But it looked professional, and it used the touchscreen in a way that felt good to control.” When he hands me a tablet to play an unfinished version, I am initially sceptical – I’ve played mini-game collections before and am going to have to pretend to enjoy it to be polite. But as soon as the menu pops up, I can see that Monster Mini-games exudes attractiveness. The animations are colourful and chunky in they way that just invites you to touch them, and when I start a whack-a-mole game I’m instantly absorbed and can visualise thousands of people breaking just-one-more-go promises to themselves over and over again. SixMinute pride themselves on a job well done, and have evidently convinced their financial backers of this, as they are a large team working out of a swish office in central Dublin, a luxury that not every independent developer has.

Bright Head Games have made King Croc – in homage to the great 2D platformers of the past – as a show piece in order to attract commissions to build games. They now work on Social Arcade, a selection of mini-games that can be branded for use in promotional campaigns. Ed is quite open with me about the fact that he doesn’t always get to make the games he would like to, but he says “it’s a weird market, stuff that looks great can do badly and stuff that does really well it’s sometimes hard to see the merit in. Mobile gaming has curbed how we look at the market, it needs to be very targeted. Sometimes I worry that it’s too much about understanding your audience and not enough about the game itself.”

Dan from Eyesodic is hard at work on Legends of Dorin: Ravenshelm, a fantasy open-world game, due out next year, which draws a lot from the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age series. Visually and gameplay-wise, it looks like it could have been at home on the PS2 in its early days. That a game of such apparent complexity can come from an independent developer is a testament to the advanced tools available and people’s ingenuity in using them. Even with a game so seemingly impressive, there are hurdles. “It’s hard to stand out with no big marketing budgets,” Dan tells me. “Profits are much smaller, meaning it can be hard to keep developing games.”

Honourbound

 

Riding on the success of a game and getting the next one out doesn’t seem to be easy. BatCat Games currently have Honourbound in development, following up last year’s P-3 Biotic. Honourbound is a 2D side-scrolling beat-‘em-up set in feudal Japan, and is about a year away from completion. Much more complex than their previous endeavour, Andrew talks about how difficult they sometimes find development. “There’s a massive learning curve there for us. There have been challenges in every discipline. We’ve gone through several iterations of art style now, trying to find the one that is the best fit for the experience we’re trying to convey,” he tells me, and that’s just the development side. “Talking to publishers, finding the funding, building to deadlines, managing a team. They’re all things we’re having to figure out on a daily basis.” There does seem to be a lot of help on hand from other developers, and Andrew is hugely positive about the developer community in Ireland. “There’s a huge amount of potential here, and some really passionate and amazing people involved in the industry. I think what we all need to strive for now as indie developers is a higher level of quality in the games we’re making. We’re a small community and everyone is quite close and friendly, but that can make honest criticism of your games difficult to come by. Nobody wants to be a dick about a game that someone else has poured their heart and soul into.”

Not being able to find someone to be harsh enough about your game because everyone is so lovely sounds like one of those good problems, but one to which bitSmith Games found an innovative solution. Owen and Ralph say that as a small company they had terrible trouble finding enough people to properly playtest , their game released last year. “We decided the best thing to do was to offer free pitchers of beer in The Shakespeare to encourage people to come play our game, break it, then tell us what went wrong,” Owen tells me. “People got an awful lot more honest with their criticism after a few beers, too,” Ralph adds. But feedback is priceless, Owen insists. “People will play the game in ways you never expected, and end up walking on the sky by accident. You can never predict the number of problems that can arise. It’s like trying to fix a Jenga tower, but it expands out at the top and all the bricks are move each other even when they don’t seem to touch.” Finishing a game is one part they didn’t expect to be so difficult. “The first 90% is the easy part,” Owen tells me. “It’s the next 90% that’s the hard part.” bitSmith Games’ next game – FranknJohn, a brawler set in a Tim-Burtonesque funhouse – will be one of the first tranche to be crowd-funded by Gambitious. Instead of the usual crowd-funding formula of stickers and posters for providing support, funders will be offered a financial stake in the game.

franknjohn

 

All of the developers I spoke to stressed how important interaction with the rest of the community is, either informally, through business arrangements or even just meeting them at events. dubLUDO is a gameplay testing a feedback event, State of Play is an event run by DIT for developers to showcase their current projects, the Web Summit invited a panel of game developers to speak last year and there are plenty of smaller workshops and game jams – caffeine-fuelled events where developers design and build games all in one go. bitSmith Games’ Owen says it’s vital for people in such an infant industry here to check in with each other: “Isolation and inexperience leads to stagnation,” but that this hasn’t been too much of a problem. “The other tech companies in the NDRC Launchpad were shocked at how open and sharing the games companies there were. They felt much more in competition – only one app that books restaurant tables can survive – but with games it’s good for all of us if an Irish company does well.”

Digit obviously subscribe to this way of thinking, as they are currently housing BatCat Games and bitSmith Games, and encouraging their progression. Digit might be seen as the godfather of the Irish indie developers, spoken about with reverence by everyone I asked, and pursuing an ambitious project of their own, Kings of the Realm, a free-to-play strategy MMO that will be available cross-platform on desktops and mobile devices. Fergus tells me that Irish games companies will have to start setting their sights overseas to find audiences for their games, “Digit is passionate about nurturing that community and encouraging people to build games out of Ireland. It may seem counter-intuitive to invite competition but, ultimately, it creates a more dynamic gaming community.”

beatbreakers

 

Sharon from Time Machine Games – working on their new multi-player cascading tile-match game, Beatbreakers – insists that the community is still in flux. “It’s very new in some ways and there’s always new people coming into it,” she tells me. “There is a higher ratio of males to females but that is changing, I think. There have been a few cases of mistaken professional identity – where people don’t realise I’m actually involved with the game as a writer, not just a groupie, stuff like that.”

Maybe it is an industry that still does need to change, and it still is early days. Ralph from bitSmith Games says that “being the first means that you get to make all the mistakes.” But they’re happy to share their mistakes, and their successes. I asked Owen what makes a success, what advice could he share? “Make the game you love, and your passion for it will shine through in the end.”

 

Games to watch, as nominated by other indie developers:

Ship Antics by Studio Powwow

An adorable-looking open-world adventure, with a serious emphasis on cute pirates and fun puzzles. Studio Powwow has serious animation credentials, and what can be seen so far of the game looks nothing less than beautiful.

 

Discman by LoPoly Games

A 2D puzzle-platformer about a former discus champion who’s feeling a little bit down, so need to fulfill his destiny. Many in the developer community are visibly excited about this. There’s a playable demo at lopoly.com/Discman

 

FranknJohn by bitSmith Games

FranknJohn is a twin-stick brawler about a boy who’s made out of two boys, and battles his way through waves of enemies to find out why, using his extendible head a s a weapon. Due out next year.

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