Louth’s creative cluster
|by Pavel Barter
Dundalk is actively seeking to become a hub for game development and creative media. Singing siblings the Corrs may soon have to step aside and allow other hometown talents to take center stage, writes Pavel Barter.
At first glance, Dundalk is merely a bypass on the way from Dublin to Belfast, but dwell a while in this border town and discover a hive of creative activity with further initiatives in the pipeline. Steven Collins, Havok CTO, hails from here, as does Niall O’Hanrahan, managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment Ireland. A few years back there were high hopes for Taintech, a local games development company which was in contract negotiations with a US publisher before its untimely demise in 2001, but more recently luck has shone brighter on Meedja Ltd. who is busy working for international publishers on game and e-learning projects.
Meedja’s Peter Mee describes why he thinks Dundalk has become a significant technology location: “It’s well served with infrastructure between Dublin and Belfast. We can get to Dublin airport in 40 minutes – quicker than some companies in Dublin – and since it’s an IT college town there is a steady supply of graduates from technical courses like computer programming. Plus it’s much cheaper to live up here!”
Acting catalyst for the emergence of local game development is Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT). Alongside a powerful selection of partners (including Enterprise Ireland, IDA, FAS, Louth County Enterprise Board and the private sector), the Institute is working to establish creative media industries alongside education in the town. After all, creative industries are now recognised as a key factor in the global knowledge-based economy and their value is set to dramatically increase over the next few years.
Founded in 1971, DKIT has a student population of around 3,000 full-time and over 1000 part-time students. Certificate, Diploma, Degree and Post Graduate levels can be taken in Engineering, Science, Nursing Studies, Computing, Hospitality Studies, Business and Humanities. Now two freshly proposed courses are gaining momentum: a BSc in Computer Games Programming (planned to launch September 2004) and a BA in Computer Games Design (September 2005).
Denis Cummins, Head of the Computing Department and presently on a one-year secondment, is overseeing the establishment of these courses. “One of our main motivations is that students have been turning away from computing as a discipline over the last couple of years. We’re conscious of the need to make the subject interesting and attractive to students. Projections for the games industry – for example, the Forfás study, A Strategy for Digital Content – are extremely optimistic so we see it as an area of huge potential. Although the industry is pretty small in Ireland, it is a global business and geographical location is not a huge concern.”
Caroline O’Sullivan, Multimedia Lecturer in DKIT and co-ordinator for another proposed course (BA in Communications and Creative Multimedia) continues: “For the last 18 months, it has been a college initiative to become more involved in the area of creative media. A feasibility study was carried out for the Dundalk region as well as the college, investigating the prospect of setting up a cluster of creative media industries. That study recommended certain areas which we should investigate to develop new courses and new companies. Unlike computing, multimedia has had no downturn, so we realised that these courses might give people strong technical skills while also allowing them the opportunity to be creative.”
Has Irish academia overlooked the games industry?
“I think so,” nods Denis. “Most of the institutes and universities have delivered mainstream computer science and software development courses but they haven’t looked at niche areas. For example, we recently introduced a computer science degree programme with an emphasis on Internet technologies and developing web applications. We are careful to include the core competencies that you’d want for any software engineer, and wouldn’t want to lose those, but we still have scope within the programme so students might go straight into a particular domain such as games.”
The team behind the two game courses involves staff from both the Humanities and the Computer Science Department (with Meedja’s Peter Mee drafted in for industrial liaison). Initially, they explored the idea of franchising Dundee-based University of Abertay’s game development programme. Abertay was interested but DKIT eventually decided to opt out in order to add its own flavour to the course.
Although strands within the BSc in Computer Games Programming have yet to be cemented (indeed, the course itself is still awaiting HETAC validation), the curriculum is likely to include Programming, Game Science & Maths, Digital Media, Software Engineering, System Structure, Game Development, Professional Development, and Creativity, with student projects thrown in for good measure. Talent from DKIT’s Computing, Maths and Creative Multimedia Departments should befit many of these strands, although teachers with professional industry experience will also be vital.
“We’re going to advertise nationally for lecturers,” says Caroline. “Because of our proximity to the border, we’ll advertise both in the Southern and Northern areas. Ideally we’d like people in the industry to come in as guest lecturers or maybe take a course in a particular area – maybe teaching five or six hours a week. We’re already talking to Havok and another couple of companies.”
High standards will be expected from applicants. There will be a two Honours minimum requirement, a B in Honours Maths prerequisite, and the group will only consist of around 20 students. The course might sound elitist but Denis Cummins reckons that it won’t be tough finding exceptional candidates. “My hunch is that many of these applicants will be very motivated, enthusiastic, and will come to the course with a lot of knowledge,” he says.
In tandem with the development of these courses, and also emanating from the feasibility study into establishing a cluster of knowledge based industry in the North East region, comes the Creative Media Enterprise Graduate Programme. Proposals to focus on industries which merge technology and the arts - delivering firms and employment in areas such as film making, video, multimedia, animation and music, alongside game development - have led to a 12-month pilot enterprise training programme targeted at graduates with an innovative business idea in the Creative/Digital Media industry sector.
This joint initiative of Dundalk Institute of Technology and Queens University Belfast was launched in 2003 and is aimed at start-up businesses from around the border counties, North and South. The interview process was recently completed and ten graduates based in Dundalk and ten in Belfast will soon begin the programme. Trying to actively establish companies in Dundalk feeds directly into DKIT’s projected courses. “If you’re going to start setting up businesses in this area you’ll need graduates suitably qualified to go and work for them,” says Caroline O’Sullivan.
The concept of a creative media cluster and a suite of educational programmes in a town which many of us still consider a bypass on the route to Belfast is likely to become a reality, simply because liaison and strategic planning between development agencies in the North East and Cross-Border region is extremely efficient. Plus there is the added bonus that Dundalk’s Regional Development Centre is based in DKIT and has an impressive history of setting up new businesses and getting entrepreneurs off the ground.
And what of DKIT’s long-term future? “We’re considering a B.A. focusing on the less technical aspects of games: design creativity, scriptwriting, and so on. That might have a slightly more popular appeal; the entry requirements might be a bit looser. Also, a Masters programme in Digital Content Management and an E-Learning programme will probably come into being about 12 months after the games course,” says Denis.
“The strategy for creative media is very impressive because it’s got the whole town involved,” says Meedja’s Peter Mee. “What we need now is a major company in the industry to locate here: one that smaller companies can feed off or service. That will give the area a profile and a place for all these students to go to. While Meedja will probably outgrow our base and move off [DKIT] campus, I can tell you one thing for sure. We’ll be staying in Dundalk.”
For more information:
Dundalk Institute of Technology:
DKIT Games Courses: Denis.Cummins@dkit.ie Tel: 042-9354507
Creative Media Enterprise Programme:
Regional Development Centre: Irene.Monaghan@dkit.ie Tel: 042-9370413