Videogames are mere pups in the grand scheme of entertainment artistry, young scamps nipping at the heels of old pros like cinema and music. This is a fresh-faced medium compacted into a meagre 30 years that considers anything created over a decade ago “retro”, anything on the wrong side of 1990, a technological relic. But amidst the relentless onslaught of technology, the race to keep up with ever-improving graphics, physics, and network technology, our developer forefathers should not be forgotten. After all, it’s their pixilated people, musical bleeps, and joyous pick-up-and-play titles that took us to where we are today.
Cast your mind back to the 1980’s – long before Havok, DemonWare, and other 21st century Irish game companies began turning heads across the globe. This was a time of bedroom programmers and start-up garage businesses, of an unconsolidated industry, small budgets and huge hopes. Around the world teen and 20-something talent was honing its digital chops and Ireland was no exception.
In 1989, Fran Heeran, an avid computer buff who had coded on the Sinclair from an early age, spotted an ad in a weekly UK trade mag: “Games Programmers Wanted”. Intriguingly, the business was neither based in London nor another industry hub, but in Ireland’s sunny southeast, Waterford. At only 20 years old, fresh-faced from college, Fran was eager to sign up. The company in question, Emerald, had been founded that year by two Englishmen: Dave Martin, an ex-maths teacher who split school for the games industry; and Mike Dixon, whose background was in the music industry. Martin ran an umbrella company called Martec and Gremlin Graphics; Dixon was assigned the position of Emerald MD.
“Another friend of mine, Bobby Healy, also read the ad,” recalls Fran. “We had been in school and at Kevin Street College [Dublin] together. He’d been a Sinclair hobby enthusiast too, learning assembly language from the age of thirteen. We were classic geeks, I guess.” Bobby continues: “I put together a demo tape for the Spectrum z80 and went down on the train with Fran for our interview. I remember being awed by the notion that a real company had a coin-op in the lobby and games consoles all over the place. We both got the job that day. I met Mike Dixon who welcomed me on board and told me how much I would be making – a ton of money for a college student at the time.”
“Emerald had a stunning development team, all ex-Waterford graduates, and I still look back on it as one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with,” says Fran. “The engineering manager, Mike Murphy, was phenomenal. They hired guys on six months work experience during their Waterford Computer Science course degree, all of whom went on to become full-time employees.”
Based in a large three-story house on the outskirts of Waterford City, the young team put their noses to the grind. “It was a superb working environment. Everyone there was very young. We were doing seven-day weeks, all night shifts, but it wasn’t a problem at first because we had the energy. There was a huge buzz from creating games and seeing them on shop shelves a few months later,” says Fran. Replete with IDA grant money and fantastic talent, the decision to locate Emerald in Waterford suddenly didn’t seem so peculiar. What’s more, a few of its titles were big sellers.
Publishers began commissioning Emerald for arcade games or movie tie-ins. U.S. Gold commissioned the team to work on Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and this was followed by the Schwarzenegger spin-off, The Running Man, courtesy of publishers Grandslam. The former King of Pop’s side-scrolling Amiga hit was later released on the Sega platform and although this retread had its differences, the artwork, info and cut screens were all lifted from Emerald’s version, suggesting U.S. Gold sold some of the original’s graphical bits and bobs. The Deep was a “dreadful arcade game” commissioned by U.S. Gold. There was also Vigilante, a Double Dragon styled beat-‘em-up, and an Amiga-based shoot-‘em-up, Phantom Fighter (which the Americans promptly renamed If It Moves Shoot It).
The 1980’s was quite a different beast to that of today, notes Fran. “You could create a game by yourself with the help of a single artist. Typically, Emerald would have one guy coding and another doing the artwork. This was practical back then because you were constructing games in around 48k. Today teams of up to 40 people work on a title. Relationships between developers and publishers were more informal then too.”
“Programmers didn’t take the art department seriously at the time,” according to Bobby. “A programmer never cared what the graphics looked like, so long as the screen refreshed every 50/60th of a second and the sprites were the biggest and smoothest ever seen. That’s what was important.”
Fran also noticed a weighty cynicism about game development from certain sectors. “This was far more challenging than most other occupations, but because games were ‘kids’ stuff’, development was considered a childish job. Gamers were jealous, of course, but the more serious programmers thought it was a joke. It was an outcast industry. Time has proved them wrong because the revenues today are so huge. My parents were great about it, though. My father was a schoolteacher and understood that it was the perfect job to begin straight after college. Emerald gave me a great grounding and appreciation for the techniques and work required for a career in programming.”
The financial recompense wasn’t too bad, even in the impoverished Ireland of the time, and the team had enough money to get by, have fun, and pop over to Geoff’s, their local pub, for the occasional shindig. However, the industry was notorious for working its young coders dry, and after two years those who hadn’t already scarpered were fast approaching burnout. In 1991, Emerald beat them to it. “Towards our demise, we were asked to churn out X titles in four weeks to save ourselves and we delivered some real crap then. I personally built a game from start to finish in three weeks: a five-level beat-em-up with the compulsory baddy at the end of each level. In order to get it out on time, I dumped 90% of the graphics which the art department had so carefully put together,” says Bobby.
Fran had left the year before so wasn’t privy to all the reasons for the company’s collapse. “I was head down writing the games and not looking too hard as to how the business was running, even when I was there. Besides, I was only 20.” Fran adds. “It’s fair to say that the problems were probably financial.”
When Dave Martin and Mike Dixon called it quits, Bobby Healy and a few others from Emerald released an isometric puzzle game called Treasure Trap for the Amiga and PC, featuring a diver walking around a sunken ship. Their company, Doodlebug Designs, was set up with the help of Electronic Zoo. Treasure Trap, although successful in its day, has sunk into the recesses of retro past, while Doodlebug Designs failed to set the world alight with its digital scribbles. Sadly, only one ex-employee remained in game development: Paul McLaughlin, Art Director for Lionhead (Black and White, Fable, etc.). Bobby set up another software company, which he eventually sold to SITA, an airline industry goliath.
As for Fran, he snared a job working on Version 1 of Windows in the UK and is now Director of Product Management for Wicklow-based payment software company, Valista. His brief dalliance with game development is never too far from his thoughts, though, especially since former comrades Frank Somers and Damien Power still work alongside him. He doubts any of them will ever return to game development, though, certainly not as a way of living. It’s a risky industry today more than ever and publishers retain all the control. “I’m still an avid gameplayer and follow the industry closely,” he concludes. “I miss it but it has changed and isn’t the same anymore. But, you know, although it’ll probably never happen, I think game development is something we all yearn to return to.”
The father of pop culture Marshall McLuhan announced a long time ago that the “medium is the message” and if videogames are telling developers anything it’s that the march of technological progress demands we look forward rather than back. But it’s important to remember that small businesses like Emerald, and their now antiquated 8bit eccentricities, played a significant role in our gaming evolution, if only to prove that it could be done successfully in Ireland. Now, who’s up for a game of Moonwalker?