Friday 20 October 2017

Meet Michael Finucane, the man who brought video games to Irish gamers in the 90s

Creative Director of the upcoming PlayersXpo on the evolution of gaming in Ireland

Michael Finucane, Creative Director PlayersXpo
Michael Finucane, Creative Director PlayersXpo

Vinny Fanneran

The Ireland of 1994 would be unrecognisable for those too young to remember but in particular when it comes to video games. Michael Finucane, co-founder of Gameworld (later Gamestop Ireland) and Creative Director of the upcoming PlayersXpo 2017 remarks, “...there were only really two specialist stores, Game from the UK and FutureZone who used to be Virgin. They later merged to form Game PLC but they only had about 60 stores altogether at the time, not a huge number.”

“The market was very different back then, it was dominated by Sega with their Mega Drive and Nintendo with their Super Nintendo. The ill-fated 3DO was about to be launched. Myself and Kevin Neary, my business partner, had done around 6 months of research, we knew who we were competing with - the few dedicated stores, people like Smyths and HMV who had a games section and the stores who had a stack of games next to the kettles.”

While the idea to sell games to dedicated gamers in a dedicated space came easy, the ‘space’ itself was fortuitous but looked far from ideal to begin with.

Luck Meets an Idea

“So we were lucky enough to get a space at the back of Chapters bookstore in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin, around 250 square feet. The guy who owned Chapters was very good to us when we started and cut us a great deal on the space but we knew would need our own place to succeed.”

“Kevin and I had been to all the banks and each one knocked us back. We eventually got to the ‘lender of last resort’ which was First Step at the time and we were told by the fella there that we were obviously bright lads - we should go for jobs with the civil service. He thought that video games were a fad. I will always remember that”, he says.

Finucane and Neary took public transport home, understandably deflated. But a ‘lift’ would come immediately on return to the shop floor.

“We got the bus back - we were that tight for cash. We had started off with around £3,500 and an overdraft facility. Kevin and myself couldn’t afford to hire many staff so we had left Kevin’s brother and my nephew in charge of the store. So, we got back and they had taken in what we had forecasted for the week’s sales in just a few hours. We went from being devastated to feeling this can work. It was a major lift. ”

Bolstered by the impressive sales in their tiny retail space and convinced that the lenders were wrong in ignoring the idea of an Irish-owned dedicated gaming retailer, Finucane and Neary set about improving their business sense and moving out on their own.

“We were very lucky then to take part in DIT’s Fast Growth programme, that was a huge step for us - they were great at mentoring us and offered fantastic support. That later went on to become the Hothouse programme. And yeah, after about a year where we were, the chap from Chapters had just bought a building on Lower Liffey Street and suggest that we actually move into it.”

Growing Pains

While business was good enough to justify the ambition of the pair, Gamesworld still had problems obtaining funds for their growth. The Lower Liffey Street branch would open only partially at first. Finucane and Neary would fund opening the rest of the store as sales came in.

“We didn’t have enough money to fit a whole store, we didn’t even have the money to stock a whole store. Kevin and myself had opened the previous June with only a few thousand but we really needed to get out on our own. So we took the store but had the counter at the front with only a small section of the store open.”

Even with the minimised square footage to fit their small budget, Finucane and Neary’s new shop would have a spartan opening party of sorts.

“Gamesworld actually had a launch party at midnight when the Sony PlayStation was released and people who came in to buy the console helped us paint the store. We couldn’t afford to replace this old carpet that the builders had mixed cement on so we shampooed it. We shampooed it so much that it shrank and had to place masking tape down the middle. When people were getting their 5p, 10p or sometimes a pound back in their change, they’d tell us to keep it and put it toward a new carpet”, he laughs.

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Portrait of a Sony PlayStation video game console photographed on a white background, taken on August 2, 2013. (Photo by Jesse Wild/Edge Magazine via Getty Images)

The standalone Gamesworld was becoming what Finucane and Neary had hoped - a friendly place for gamers to hang out, chat to other gamers and sometimes, hopefully, buy things. The sense of variety and expertise that a dedicated retailer offered was clearly important also but Finucane  feels the former made Gamesworld unique.

“It became a place for gamers to hang out on a Saturday, just have fun or meet people who liked similar games, a hub really. We had these lads who would get the bus up from Kells almost every Saturday and bring in their games to trade. In fact, we gave one of the guys, John, a job. He went on to become manager of DC in Northern Europe for Gamestop.”

In many ways, Gamesworld shadowed the direction of the games industry in general. The PlayStation was marketed heavily towards teens and adults, making video games ‘cool’. The console’s huge popularity worldwide and with Gamesworld’s customers was instrumental in their early success.

“We managed to import a PS1 (Sony PlayStation) two days after launch and sold it for £2,000 (the PS1 would eventually launch here at £299) that same week. That was the demand for it, even a year before it was launched. It was very difficult to get one from Japan but it got us a lot of press. A gentleman called Kevin McIlroy in the Game Chamber, who wrote for the Sunday World, did a huge piece on us and that was our first major PR we got as a retailer. It let the ‘hardcore’ gamer know that we were serious.”

Holy Union

Partnering with major players like PlayStation and Psygnosis would continue to drive Gamesworld into the public eye. Psygnosis titles, Wipeout in particular, would epitomise the ‘cool’ that games would go on to represent.

“We worked really closely with Psygnosis. So much so that I met my wife, Dawn there when she was a marketing manager for Psygnosis UK”, he laughs. “But Wipeout was the subliminal title that changed video games forever. It brought it out of the bedrooms and literally into the clubs. It was an amazing title.”

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Wipeout

With video games revenues increasing and gamers maturing into adults with disposable incomes, Finucane and Neary’s success would not go unnoticed. In 2003, shortly after Sony launched their PlayStation 2, the pair along with financial director Paul Hennessey would sell 51% of their stake in Gamesworld for $3.5 million.

“We got invited to meet the two top guys in Paris and, of course, we said ‘yes’. They were a US-only chain at that stage but they were among the biggest players in the world so we were excited to meet them. So we got two Ryanair tickets to Beauvais, met with Dick Fontaine and Dan DeMatteo and got on really well. It became very clear that to them that our business was a microcosm of theirs and the guys said that they wanted to invest in us and the team, not just the 11 stores and the distribution company. They could set those up anytime, they could open eleven stores in a day. So they wanted us to stay on-board and wanted us to build it, be their international people. So we took it. It was a great opportunity and we had a great ten years or so there. My only regret is that I didn’t take a breath to appreciate and enjoy what was happening.”

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A GameStop video game store in New York. (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)

Neary would leave GameStop in 2011 while Finucane would depart in 2012. While many credit the pair with incredible foresight in leaving before digital distribution began to bite hard, Finucane claims none.

“The entrepreneur inside of me was starting to kick. I once described it as ‘being in captivity’ but it wasn’t a negative experience at all, it was fantastic but it was time to go. Some comments on Reddit seemed to credit me with far more foresight than I actually had. GameStop is an evolving company, diversifying its business, bringing in pop culture and technology brands, we could see these things happening, that GameStop still had a future. Even now a hefty percentage of digital sales still happen in store (in the form of purchasing credit for use online).”

From Retailers to PlayersXpo

After few years away from the gaming industry, selling new and pre-owned tech to the people through Smartspot in Navan, Co. Meath and online. Laptops, phones, DVDs and even Lego are now Mick’s demesne at Smartspot but one can’t help but get the feeling he missed the gaming industry. After all, the idea for PlayersXpo 2017 and who it is for are Mick’s own.

“PlayersXpo is for the ‘Family of Gamers’ and I will tell you why - the average PS1 owner was 23 years of age, that was 22 years ago. There’s a high chance that they have relationships and children - someone like myself is typical now. I look at my own family - I was lucky enough to meet my wife through the industry so she plays games. I have four children, the 17-year-old son is a big gamer online but he’ll play anything he can get his hands on. My eldest daughter is 15 and she is a Sims nut, when she was younger she loved the Nintendo DS but now it’s all Sims.

And they are just normal teenagers nowadays.”

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Michael Finucane

Mick and Dawn’s younger daughters, 8 and 10, follow in this tradition. But for them and millions of children like them, Minecraft is the be-all and end-all of gaming and YouTube is the new television.

“Knowing all of this and with my experience, I want a 360 degree gaming experience for PlayersXpo. I believe gaming can be very ‘tribal’ or ‘clannish’ - it’s very much community-based. People want to be associated with their community much like someone buying a Man United jersey with Pogba on the back. So you end up getting the gaming t-shirts and the beanie hat and you tell other people that this is who I am. You can go as far as the All-Cast Irish Gaming guys and get a Pac-Suit!”

“I want as many people to attend PlayersXpo to see the whole cultural aspect of gaming and how much gaming has changed. You aren’t going into the stores to buy games now but we are consuming more games than ever - it’s just that 32% of it is done on mobile devices like smartphones now. Downloading doesn’t allow you to experience or witness certain things, people didn’t queue up at midnight for all those launches and rush straight home to play the game, they queued up to experience the theatre, the goody bags, the cosplayers and comraderie. That is the essence of what I want PlayersXpo to be; that experience - the part you cannot put in a box or send down a fibre cable.”

Ireland has seen a number of conventions, good or bad, over the last year but Mick still feels we are underserved. After all, the gaming industry is worth around four times what the music industry is worth and we have dozens of music festivals. Some are for different genres, age-groups or demographics. Some reach for the booze-filled party festival while some court everyone.

“The exciting thing about gaming conventions is that, like music festivals, they all offer something different. You wouldn’t say no to Body & Soul because you have tickets for Electric Picnic, they are different experiences; conventions like PlayersXpo are good for gaming in general in Ireland.”

But one thing that Mick doesn’t want at PlayersXpo are the wait-times and the queues seen at other major events.

“We actually under-booked each session. The CCD holds around 8,000 people but we are selling 5,000 tickets for each session. We want PlayersXpo to be about gaming, not queueing.

People will be able to experience the atmosphere in comfort with minimal delay.”

PlayersXpo, Ireland’s ULTIMATE gaming event is taking over The Convention Centre, Dublin on the 28th & 29th of October. Get your tickets here.

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