Almost 200 students, educators and members of the industry gathered at the Awakenings 2004 conference at the Northwest Institute for Further and Higher Education (NWIFHE) in Derry on October 15, 2004 to discuss the future of digital games in Ireland. Speakers included Jason Della Rocca of IGDA, game designer Graeme Devine (Ensemble), Chris Van Der Kuyl (Vis Entertainment), Marcus Mäki (Remedy) and Robbie Hegarty of the NWIFHE.
Della Rocca set the tone for the day when he pointed out in his opening speech that the health of the industry depended on a healthy mix of licensed products and original IP. He urged Irish developers to "chase the leprechaun" in order to create products that appeal to a wide audience without denying their cultural roots. In tandem with alternative business models, such an approach would help to diversify the audience for computer games and create a sustainable economy in years to come.
In the following keynote, Graeme Devine asked the provocative question ‘Where has all the innovation gone?’ He deplored the inevitable slowdown of innovation in a consolidating industry, the ‘arms race’ between developers, and the industry’s exclusivity to fresh talent. But he also pointed out that the games industry hadn’t reached the apex of the growth pyramid yet. "The industry is not a pyramid, but a skyscraper," he said, "There’s still a lot of room for invention."
After the lunch break, Chris van der Kuyl of VIS Entertainment spoke about the possibilities of outsourcing in the game design process. Likening the games industry to Hollywood, he said that it was time to move on from the studio system to the modern era. While industry giants like Electronic Arts aimed to own every part of the production process the future would belong to small companies which were able to mobilize a specialised workforce for individual steps of the production process. In the future, van der Kuyl expected a massive growth in outsourcing, with less than 5 per cent of production actually taking place in-house.
Markus Mäki (Remedy) then shared his insights into building a successful European development company. He stressed the importance of aiming for the American market, as European markets were generally too small and too diverse to support local development. He also emphasised the role of original intellectual property, such as Remedy’s Max Payne brand, for surviving in the highly competitive games industry.
The last speaker was Robbie Hegarty of the NWIFHE. He discussed the role of educators in the games industry, pointing out that formal education was becoming increasingly important. While developers had relied for a long time on recruits with self-taught skills such as modders, this was no longer an appropriate model due to the growth of the industry. At the NWIFHE, the growing demand for formal education in the games industry has been met by the formation of two games-related courses, ICE and CREAM. While there were now more than 30 such courses in the UK and more than a dozen in Ireland, Hegarty said, the British financial sector was generally not as supportive of such endeavours as in France or the US.
The conference closed with a panel discussion between all speakers, which were joined by Michael Griffin of Kapooki games. Chaired by Jason Della Rocca, the panel discussed whether it was possible in today’s marketplace to make a game with a budget of less than 5 million Euro. While Griffin pointed out that there was a huge market outside the hard core of AAA titles – e.g. wireless and web-based games – he stressed the importance of breaking into that market segment by following the path of original IP.
Unfortunately the panel failed to identify alternative business models that would enable Irish developers to create a sustainable national industry and succeed where many others had failed. Thus, at the end of the day, the future of the Irish games industry looked not as bright as many of the attendants might have wished. But at the very least, Awakenings 2004 should contribute to everyone’s awareness of the challenges which lie ahead.
Author: Julian Kücklich is a PhD student at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.
Further accounts and pics:
See Jason Della Rocca’s blog
IGDA threads on our own forums
Article on NWIFE courses