Building up our game design industry
Can Ireland get to the next level in the fast-growing €2bn social and mobile gaming sector, asks John Reynolds
IF you're a fan of iPhone or Facebook games like Farmville or Bejewelled, you'll know how addictive computer games can be -- and the next big title you play could be one that has been designed by some of the burgeoning sector's finest minds right here in Dublin.
The hope is that more high-value game design and development work -- driven by firms like PopCap -- can be attracted to Ireland given the advantages we can offer the industry.
To date, we've managed to create our own small but successful niche here -- the success of David O'Meara's Havok, which grew out of Trinity College and whose technology can now be found in the biggest games in the world such as Call of Duty, and of Dylan Collins with Demonware and Jolt Online Gaming has been a testament to this.
Other firms such as Vivendi, Microsoft Games, Activision, Zynga and EA (which recently bought up PopCap for €535m) have also been attracted by our tax rate and talent base.
The gaming sector as a whole has grown rapidly over the past decade -- with hit games like Halo and Call of Duty making hundreds of millions of euro on their first days of sales -- to become a market worth an estimated €50bn by 2013.
On the back of the growth in Facebook and smartphone use however, the likes of Zynga, PopCap and Jolt Online Gaming are carving out a valuable niche in the sector. Zynga is PopCap's largest competitor and is planning an IPO next year that could see it valued at as much as €7bn.
It's common for firms in the sector to give their employees a share of the spoils, according to PopCap CEO David Roberts, who was in Dublin earlier this week, meaning that any increased success of the industry here over the coming years could see more talented people joining the likes of Mr O'Meara and Mr Collins in the multimillionaire league.
"We have quarterly profit-sharing for everybody, but also, having been acquired by EA, all our staff here have just been paid their stock options, so it's an exciting time for the Dublin office," said Mr Roberts.
Finding the talented people that can share in those spoils is a challenge, he admits -- in the past they recruited passionate interns and trained them up and will probably continue to do so -- and about half of the firm's 80 employees are Irish.
But Ireland offers the sector several key advantages, he adds: the support from universities, the presence of a community of global technology giants such as Google and Facebook, and the fast-growing cloud-computing industry, the infrastructure for which is also increasingly used by PopCap and its peers.
"A lot of the time, universities will ask us what we look for in a candidate and what kind of people we hire. They do this more than would happen in the US. The universities seem to care a lot more.
"Another strength is that Google, Facebook and their peers are here. Facebook's presence means we have a great relationship with them and that's important to us because of the social games we make for Facebook users," the PopCap CEO added.
"Ireland's efforts to strengthen its cloud computing industry will also benefit the games sector. It's proving to be a very big change for our industry and it's helped our office here because access to some of those technologies is easier than it might be in some other countries," he said.
The EA buyout will also allow PopCap to strengthen its operations here and will allow it to farm out the less creative work to an EA team, meaning the most talented staff in Dublin can concentrate on the important creative, high-value work.
And it is that work that will underpin any further success for the industry in Ireland, driven by combining experienced games designers with talented younger employees.
"The gaming industry has been going through dramatic changes over the past three to five years -- more than how it changed in the past 20 years, so it's important to have a broad range of experience levels," Mr Roberts added.
"Experienced games designers like our lead game designer David Bishop are a huge asset, but it's also important to have fresh talent who understand how people interact with Facebook and their iPhones today. Our plans to expand this studio are still to be decided, but we're still hiring for this year, having grown from 55 to 80 employees so far this year.
"We haven't planned for next year yet but, having looked at some of our new projects, we'll try to do a lot more here," he concluded.
Sunday Indo Business