Saturday 16 December 2017

Quest for jobs gives computer games specialists everything to play for

With an estimated value of $65bn, there is scope for Ireland to become an international hub for creation and servicing in the sector

Peter Flanagan

WHEN the rocket- propelled grenade struck, the troops didn't seem to have a chance. The commander tried to rally his men and ordered them out of the damaged Hummer.

When they got out, the soldiers were greeted with an apocalyptic scene. The Manhattan skyline had been blasted to shreds by Russian gunships and falling debris laid waste to American troops on the ground.

By the time the Americans had fought their way to the New York Stock Exchange, they had taken heavy casualties and the canyons around Wall Street had been destroyed in scenes eerily reminiscent of 9/11. The Red Invasion, so feared by generations of Americans and The West, had finally arrived.

Don't worry, the Irish Independent hasn't turned into a Tom Clancy novel for the day. The scene above is the opening mission from the latest "greatest computer game of all time" -- 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3'.

The game was launched with huge fanfare last week, and has quickly become the fastest selling video game of all time. As with the latest iPhone, gaming fans queued overnight to buy the game when it was released, with some shops opening their doors at midnight.

It might be hard to believe for some, but the computer game industry is seriously big business these days.

The raw numbers are staggering. By some estimates the business has now overtaken the DVD industry, and is worth around $65bn (€48bn). It is expected to pass $73bn within the next two years. Some 6.5 million copies of 'Modern Warfare 3' were sold on the first day of sale in the UK and United States.

Given those sort of numbers, the idea of using Ireland as an international hub for video game companies is an obvious one. But is it even possible for Ireland to be a viable destination for video game companies? And if so how would we do it?

In truth, the gaming sector is already here, and it's here in force.

ActivisionBlizzard, which created the Modern Warfare series, employs some 600 people in Cork. A division of EA Games, which runs such blue chip franchises as 'FIFA Football' and the 'Medal of Honor' series, has 200 staff in Galway.

That is on top of a legion of smaller firms which are involved in the industry as well. Employment in the games sector has increased more than five-fold since 2004, to the point that close to 2,000 people now work in the sector, and that excludes support services such as animation and e-learning.

But can it be more? And can the number of employees be bumped up quickly? The IDA expects the industry here to add 50pc over the next two years.

By and large, the industry here is made of foreign multinationals, and the vast majority of employees (around 90pc) are involved in support services, such as technical support and other sectors.

Those are jobs that are relatively low down in the gaming food chain. The pattern of employment follows other international industries that set up here.

In the financial sector, the early jobs were in what might be seen as the lower end of the business before progressing to the point where the higher skilled roles followed.

A report by government think tank Forfas last month said the growth in gaming produced numerous opportunities for growth in Ireland, especially given changes in the sector overall.

Going back to the Atari games of the 1970s, computer games were always played on a console or a computer. Even as the internet became more and more prevalent, most people still went out and bought video games to play at home. That has begun to change in recent years however, notably since the advent of the iPhone and Facebook.

The future of game play is now seen as being online, with games such as 'Farmville' and the huge 'World of Warcraft' and 'Second Life' series available only on the web. Instead of going into HMV and buying the game in a box, the user registers on a website and plays online.

That change in the industry may put some sort of cap on the traditional games growth but it has created huge opportunities for Ireland. According to the Forfas report, "the rapid and ongoing transition of the games sector towards digital and online distribution provides unique insights into the emerging digital economy".

The main opportunity areas for the development and growth of the games sector in Ireland, says Forfas, are creative game development and servicing, as well as what it calls software solutions and online publishing.

Creating the game -- coming up with the idea in the first place and making it a reality that is user friendly and challenging -- is the challenge for all game developers.

As anyone in a creative business knows, you can have all the skills in the world but if you haven't got an idea or product that people will pay to use, you don't have a business.

Forfas acknowledges that studios tend to keep their creative talent in the one spot, and that is usually where the company was set up in the first place, but it points out that the bigger international firms employ the "hub and spoke" approach and "establish and/or acquire a number of studios in different locations in the quest for new innovative concepts, teams of developers or particular unique geographic or cultural aspects".

There is hope that Ireland can become a hub for developers but with only a relatively small indigenous industry in place, there is a need to attract smaller studios from overseas and offer incentives to set up here, which would create a hub for gaming down the line.

Pursuing the smaller companies that don't employ many people at the moment but could scale up quickly is something the IDA is now doing, with Barry O'Leary repeatedly saying his agency was focusing on the "second tier" of technology firms that it may not have actively sought before. That will be crucial in the years ahead.

Just like the wider technology sector, Ireland has been successful by creating a hub of excellence by attracting the likes of Google in 2003 and then other firms like Facebook and LinkedIn followed once they saw there was a supply of suitable employees available locally.

If Ireland is to become a gaming centre, changes will have to be made, with next generation broadband badly needed in particular. It only makes sense that companies based on playing games on the internet have the best internet connections and biggest capacity possible.

Ireland may look well placed to get itself a piece of the $65bn pie, but we aren't the only country looking to get involved. Becoming an even bigger hub than we already are will not be without competition and more and more countries want a piece of it.

Scotland, of all countries, already has a sizeable video game industry. Rockstar North, the firm behind the controversial but hugely successful 'Grand Theft Auto' series is just one of a number of companies based there. Rockstar is now headquartered in Edinburgh but the majority of the industry is built around Dundee.

Like Ireland, Scotland has a limited number of indigenous industries, and like Ireland, it realises how important video games are to its economy.

When entrepreneur Sir Gerry Robinson, addressing the 2009 Global Irish Economic Forum, mentioned the Scottish gaming industry as a sector Ireland should target to relocate here, headlines such as "Irish target Scotland's computer games industry" quickly appeared in the Scottish press.

In fact the UK as a whole is a direct threat to Irish growth in technology with London's "Silicon Roundabout" already a hub for thriving start-ups.

Still, few would argue that Ireland shouldn't be pursuing the gaming industry with all the vigour it can. An unemployment rate of 14pc means we need to chase any jobs going. If more jobs can be squeezed out of the sector then that will be very welcome indeed. And before you ask, no, they won't all be based on fighting Russians in New York.

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