When multinationals go pop, Irish gaming start-ups emerge
WHAT happens when a multinational firm decides to shutter its Irish operation? Do staff just filter off into other multinational jobs? Or can indigenous entrepreneurs emerge? It's the ultimate post-IDA question: are multinational outfits actually creating an ecosystem that can be self-sustaining?
One case in point is the demise of the video game company Popcap. In September 2012, the US-based developer that makes hit iPhone games 'Bejeweled' and 'Plants Versus Zombies' closed down its Dublin office, letting almost 100 people go.
The move was a surprise: Popcap was one of the more successful 'casual gaming' companies out there. Could its Irish developers strike out on their own?
"Since Popcap closed down, we've had quite a few ups and downs," said JP Vaughan, former senior Popcap developer and co-founder of a brand new smartphones games firm, Rocket Rainbow.
"When it left Dublin, a few of us thought to set something up and give it a go. But we were probably a little delusional in terms of funding. We thought we could just put our hands out and get money. We found that Irish investors regard gaming as a risky business."
Vaughan spent almost six months with startup co-founders Christian Schinkoethe and Zhou Wang putting together a game they thought might be a hit.
"It was based on something with free play built in," he said. "That's where a lot of the market is now and it's what a lot of big games publishers want to see from developers. But we just couldn't find the fun in it. So we put it on the shelf to think about things again."
In the meantime, all three took jobs elsewhere. But they stayed together as developers, making games after work. Then came a breakthrough.
"We decided to get a game together for Gamescom (a major gaming conference) and we were the only Irish developers there. A lot of people seemed to like what we were doing, so we applied for €50,000 from Enterprise Ireland under the Competitive Startup Fund and got it."
A year later, the trio have a mobile game ('Hay Ewe') that is earning plaudits and has just been picked up by a well-known international games publisher, Team17, for international distribution. The company is now based in Galway with two people working from Dublin.
If Rocket Rainbow is taking off after Popcap's departure, fellow post-Popcap startup Six Minute is positively flying. The Dublin-based gaming firm, which now has nine people working for it, just launched its second game in the Philippines.
"Within two weeks of Popcap announcing the end of the Irish office, we had the bones of Six Minute going," said Seadna Long, one of five co-founders of the new firm that specialises in 'monster mini-games'.
"We do consider ourselves quite lucky in terms of timing. We knew that Enterprise Ireland wanted to back people at that time, they wanted an Irish success story to come from Popcap."
Six Minute's other co-founders are John Halloran, Rory Walsh, Brian O'Donnell and Paul O'Donnell.
Was going from a developer to a business owner a difficult transition?
"We had five founders from the start and everyone told us that there was no way all five of us would be here in a year's time," said Long. "They said that we'd have rows and contractual disagreements and that some of us would leave. But that hasn't happened, partly because all of us know what our areas of expertise are."
Despite the good timing and harmony between founders, Six Minute's developers still face some serious challenges.
"The gaming industry is a very tricky one," said Long. "And there are some misconceptions. Everyone assumes 'Angry Birds' was an overnight hit for (developer) Rovio, but that was their 16th game. And while Supercell's Clash Of Clans is now the biggest mobile game, that didn't make any money at all in the first year."
But despite the slog, spending too long at a game can be the wrong move.
"You could spend three years on a game and it might be something no one wants," he said.
"So the key is to try and make it as quickly as you can, release it as small as possible and if the numbers are positive, that's when you can spend a bit more time. Like maybe three months."
In this vein, Six Minute has created a series of 'monster mini-games' that don't depend on long-term engagement.
"When we were leaving Popcap, the most popular games were ones such as 'Draw Something' where people took turns," said Long. "But while they did really well around the world, they had a huge drop-off after two to four weeks as people got bored. So our idea was to have lots of minigames, played on mobile devices versus friends."
Six Minute now has an office off Dublin's Camden Street. "It's certainly stressful," said Long. "And until we have a big, successful game, we'll know we're not a complete success."