Sunday 15 July 2018

There's something primal going on in a games studio in Roscommon

The Irish-French duo behind gaming start-up Irrelevant Fish are inspired by the natural beauty near their studio where they develop their games , writes Louise McBride

‘Gaming is the art form of the technological age. It combines creativity and storytelling with computers,’ says Niamh Cunningham. Photo: Brian Farrellover
‘Gaming is the art form of the technological age. It combines creativity and storytelling with computers,’ says Niamh Cunningham. Photo: Brian Farrellover
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Some of the best ideas come about by chance, and indeed it was a random exchange during a heated philosophical debate which inspired the unusual name for a rural gaming start-up.

Irrelevant Fish is the first gaming start-up to come out of Lisacul, a small picturesque village near the busy Roscommon town of Ballaghaderreen.

The company was set up about two years ago by Roscommon woman Niamh Cunningham and her French boyfriend, Pierre Aclement.

"Pierre and I like to have philosophical debates," says Cunningham. "At one point, we were walking around Dublin and we had got into a very heated debate. In the course of that debate, Pierre asked me: 'What about the fish?'. My response was: 'The fish is irrelevant'. But our debate had caught the attention of people who were walking past us."

Realising how ridiculous their conversation must have sounded to passers-by, the pair burst out laughing. "We said if we ever have a company, we'll have to call it Irrelevant Fish'," says Cunningham.

And so the name was born.

Cunningham and Aclement, who have been together for about three years, met in Canada when on a working holiday visa.

"We were working in the same ski resort at Lake Louise, high in the Canadian Rockies," says Cunningham. "When the visa ran out, we decided to come back to Ireland. We both had an interest in being our own boss - and starting our own business."

Cunningham and Aclement both have a background in software development. "We also have a love for creativity - and we wanted to mix our software skills with our passion," says Cunningham. "One of the industries which most combines creativity and storytelling with computers is the games industry. Gaming is the art form of the technological age."

So the couple set up their own independent game development studio - and called it Irrelevant Fish.

The company launched its first game, Primal Flame, about two years ago. The game, which is available in Apple stores worldwide, has sold well.

"From the 4,000 games added to the app store on our release week, Primal Flame was featured by Apple under 'Best new games' for the US and Chinese app stores," says Ms Cunnigham. "This was a wonderful boost for sales, and allowed us to be profitable within a few days of launch."

The Primal Flame game begins in complete darkness with only the sounds of a forest to be heard.

"We wanted to create the feel of being immersed in nature when playing this game - as we ourselves were immersed in nature when developing it," says Cunningham.

It's not hard to see where their inspiration comes from. The couple work from Lisacul, which is surrounded by forests, bogland, farms, rivers - and the ruins of old stone buildings.

"Being in the midst of nature is very helpful for creative companies," says Cunningham. "You get to experiment. It's very peaceful out here. Everyday we take a walk around country lanes. It's a nice way to reflect on your work and to come up with new ideas."

Cunningham, who is 32, is a computer applications graduate of DCU. She grew up in Lisacul and feels that this has stirred her in the creative career direction she has taken.

"Growing up in the country help a child develop their creative side - there are so many opportunities to make things and to explore," says Cunningham. "Going out to the fields as a child sparks the desire for adventure. That helped lead me to the more creative side of a career, and got me interested in painting and drawing as a child."

She brings this love of painting and drawing into her games, and is particularly inspired by the 19th Century German romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich.

"The recent movie The Revenant reminded me of Friedrich's work in that it portrayed that sense of the sublime - the isolation and danger of such a harsh, unforgiving, but at the same time incredible and beautiful landscape," says Cunningham. "My favourite painting of his is Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. I like it because I find it mysterious. The lone figure is standing on a precipice facing into the unknown. But what he is contemplating is open to interpretation. I think he embraces the sublimity of a wild and unknowable future with energy and hope."

It seems that Cunningham is also embracing the future in this way.

She describes the Irish games industry as an exciting one to be in.

"It is a big form of entertainment today - it has been growing so much that it is set to surpass the movie industry," says Cunningham. "Our typical audience are adults between the ages of 25 and 35. The advent of mobile gaming changed a lot in relation to who is now playing games. The female audience grew massively over the last few years and mobile games opened the door for more women to start playing on PC and console too."

Anyone who is familiar with popular video games will know how violent computer games can be.

This has now changed, according to Cunningham, who takes a completely different approach to her games.

"Traditionally games were often involved in violence, but in the last eight to ten years developers have been coming out with games that try to include more meaningful story lines - and more beautiful art forms," says Cunningham. "People have a real desire for something unique with aesthetics and a good storyline. We want to create games that are not only fun but which have the extra value of being enchanting and unique in some way."

Studios such as hers are "holding their own" against the larger triple-A games companies, which often have big development budgets behind them, according to Cunningham.

"Independent developers have the ability to take risks and innovate - and to do something out of passion," says Cunningham.

As the development cycle for games is so long, the company also develops business apps for its customers. "We work primarily with a French website development and consulting company which commissions us to develop apps for its clients," says Cunningham.

"Our projects have ranged from a 'product demonstration' app for a marketing company to a complete geo-localised delivery app for a French logging company.

"In 2014 we worked on a prototype of an innovative 'interactive cinema experience' app for a French start-up Cinext, and it demonstrated our prototype at the Cannes Film Festival, so that was exciting."

Not surprisingly, the couple enjoy playing video games themselves.

"Playing games is also an important part of the company's development - it helps us to keep an eye on the independent games industry," says Cunningham.

The couple are currently developing an action adventure game, which it expects to launch in late 2017.

One entire level of this game is set in a landscape inspired by the Calanques - a national park in the south of France. Aclement, who is from Lyon, does most of the artwork for the games - and so he brings his knowledge of the landscape of southern France to the company.

"French people are very determined and passionate about what they are working on, and Pierre brings great energy and determination to new ideas," says Cunningham. "I think he likes Irish people's ability to have the craic while being productive, and our general upbeat nature - remembering to have fun along the way."

Sounds like a good mix for any company - fishy name or not.

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