For one week in mid-May, Hollywood reluctantly steps aside to make way for a barrage of game developers, publishers, middleware providers, journalists, assorted fans, nerds and clingers-on. As one taxi driver excitedly told me (before charging $40 for a ten minute cab ride), E3 was the biggest event in the city’s calendar year. Even restaurant waiters stop blagging about their upcoming bit part in a “major sitcom” and instead namedrop tenuous links with game development studios. The games industry has taken firm hold of Tinsel Town and Oscar, no doubt, has his golden eye suspiciously trained on LA’s downtown Convention Centre.
Big announcements accompanied big displays at E3 in 2004. Perhaps the most significant of which was the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Sony’s first venture into handheld games territory, due for an Irish release early 2005. The PSP impressed with a screen size of 4.3 inches across, and a lithium-ion power cell battery expected to provide 10 hours of gameplay, eight hours of music, and 2.5 hours of movie watching. A queue as long as the Liffey wormed its way to the Sony booth,
where attendees could check out PSP demonstrations of four EA titles (NBA Street, Need for Speed Underground, NFL Street, and Tiger Woods PGS Tour) and view a Spider-Man 2 trailer.
“PSP will do well,” said Niall O’Hanrahan, PlayStation MD in Ireland. “Judging by the reaction of how it looks and feels everything has been very positive. Will there be competition from GBA? I don’t believe so because the two products are totally diverse. Game Boy is for kids – its big sellers are the likes of Pokemon and Uh-Gi-Oh! The software for PSP, and the movie aspect of it will ensure a much broader and older market. Content will be king, which is why the development community will be instrumental in its success.”
Havok has already lodged its foot in the PSP door, as the company will be porting and optimising its physics engine for the devise. “PSP is an incredibly exciting platform for Havok,” announced CTO Steven Collins. “It will be great to port to PSP, which has the power to leverage Havok’s collision detection and game dynamics products.” Currently residing somewhere toward the upper echelons of global gaming kudos, Havok were also in attendance to showcase their technology in some the show’s finest titles (such as Half-Life 2, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, Painkiller and Max Payne 2).
More impressive demos of Microsoft’s XNA (the graphics tool launched in March at San Jose’s Game Developers Conference) were flaunted before us. Scenes of an XNA-developed car crash were screened at the Xbox conference to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience, before Muhammad Ali shuffled onto stage to promote the EA Sports Xbox Live line-up and everyone promptly forgot all about XNA.
Xbox 2 rumours ebbed about the Convention Centre like a dirty secret, but Microsoft was staying schtum. “Of course, we’re thinking about [Xbox 2], but we’re not talking about it,” said a rather irate Michel Cassius, head of Xbox Marketing in Europe. “The day we want to sell the next generation console we’ll talk about it, but for now we’re not talking about it.”
Michel was more than willing to talk about Xbox Live in Ireland, however. With the addition of new features soon to grace Live, including voicemail, old-school arcade games, and video mail, the console’s online prowess was a good cause for bragging. “The way in which ISP’s in Ireland have embraced Xbox Live is great. We’ve only had one Christmas on the service and by the end of this year we’re going to have all the services up and running. We’re also going to have the best game ever to play on Xbox Live [Halo 2]. We’re going to make a blast in Ireland.”
Nintendo, meanwhile, announced its DS device to critical acclaim. The duel-screened “DS” is in fact an acronym for “Developer’s System” and considering the healthy challenges it offers developers, this comes as no surprise. With touch and voice recognition abilities, wireless connection to other DS consoles at up to 100 feet, plus the presence of 2D and 3D rendering screens, this handheld presents a mighty opportunity for innovative development.
2004 was a year for Sony bashing, with Nintendo and Microsoft both launching attacks on the manufacturing giant. “Nintendo DS raises the bar before the PSP will even get started,” boasted Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime, executive VP of Sales and Marketing. “If you’re asking whether the PSP can catch GameBoy Advance, you should ask whether the PS2 can catch GameBoy Advance,” continued George Harrison, senior VP of Marketing. Meanwhile, Microsoft attacked Sony with a short “reality” TV show pitting the two companies together – the winner earning the right to create an RPG based on Donald Trump’s life.
Actually, this was funnier than it sounds although Sony’s Niall O’Hanrahan remained unimpressed. “Taking stabs at competitors is not part of what Sony is. We are trying to expand and develop a market, a consumer base, and promote gaming as part of mainstream entertainment,” he said.
Competitors within the Irish games community, on the other hand, showed the rest of the world an impressive display of solidarity when we all came together for a Sony meal hosted by Niall in Il Sole Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Xbox Ireland (who had kindly treated the Irish E3 journos to some delicious grub in Spago, Beverley Hills, a couple of nights previously) sat alongside Sony. Retailers GamesStop, Smyth’s Toys and Xtra-vision, developers like Kapooki alongside middleware providers demonWare. After the meal, everyone crossed the road for pints. The night culminated in a mass drunken rendition of “You’ve Got The Music In You” with the former singer of the New Radicals, who we bumped into on the street.
Soaking up the fun at the demonWare party was (l-r) Niall O’Hanrahan, MD Sony Computer Entertainment Ireland, and Sean Blanchfield, CTO
“My overall business in Ireland is (to) try and get the industry localised,” Niall later reflected. “If I can narrow my views down to a local level, ensuring business, product and marketing are local, then that’s what makes a global industry. I was encouraged and delighted to see the number of people [at the Sony meal] from the diverse parts of the industry – from retail, distribution, journalism, publishing, development, middleware. It was encouraging to see and be part of.”
The day after the Convention Centre closed its doors, demonWare hosted a shindig in an Irish pub in Santa Monica – an L.A. Lakers basketball game on the TV accompanied our festivities. As official middleware partners for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and despite being in business only one year, founders Dylan Collins and Sean Blanchfield have much to be proud of. What had they got up to at E3?
“We had a bunch of follow-on meetings from GDC with developers, and Microsoft and Sony, regarding their next generation stuff,” said Dylan. “We eschewed laptops, because it’s not easy demoing network technology, and instead explained to people what we do. They all understand it conceptually, and most only need ask a few specific details like ‘How much does it cost?’ and ‘Can we evaluate it?’ Developers generally don’t have an awareness of the middleware scene. Sure, they know Havok, but they have been around for five or six years. They don’t know the network guys because we’re not established brand names. In that respect, conferences like this are crucial.”
The reputation of Ireland’s middleware offering is growing fast, although our geographical location has caused the demonWare team to make short-term plans about a U.S. presence. “Our clients on the west coast of the States, for example, are not going to get real-time support because they’re eight hours behind, so we plan to set up an office in California by early 2005. We’ll be putting in place a couple of sales guys, one or two support engineers, and we’ll keep as much of the engineering division in Ireland as we can.”
Also attending demonWare’s beer-soaked bash was Maggie Daleo, Senior Market Advisor for Enterprise Ireland in California. Part of Enterprise Ireland’s global overseas incubator network, this Santa Monica based office assists Irish digital media companies in expanding their Californian networks. “Ireland has a huge potential, especially in middleware,” she said, adding that Hollywood’s fixation with Ireland, and Irish locations, makes her job that much easier. “I spent a day recently visiting Trinity College and DCU and the standards of technology are incredible. There are three prongs to our current strategy: the wireless industry, the gaming industry, and animation. I believe that the Irish games industry has strong growth potential.”
demonWare bash in Santa Monica (l-r): Maggie Daleo, Enterprise Ireland, Santa Monica; Dylan Collins, CTO demonWare; Matt Powers, Senior Producer, EA; Neil McGreevy, BBC.
Throughout the short but tumultuous history of the United States the Irish have always made an impression and now we’re turning heads through game development. But despite our strong presence at this year’s Expo, more can still be done. On the E3 floorshow, there was a succession of countries displaying their gaming contents: Korea, Australia, Scotland, England, Sweden, but no Ireland. Our industry deserves more and governmental support is required pronto.
“Ireland needs to formulate its industry recognition and start flying the banner,” said Michael Griffin of Irish developers Kapooki, who was at E3 to shop a couple of pre-production concepts. “All of those national initiatives were funded by their respective governments. The Australians, for example, have acted as financial guarantors for developers. Korea has spent a significant amount of money promoting their industry in the West. These are countries recognising this sector and giving it a united platform and a polished look and feel.
“Moving forward, it’s crucial that there’s someone lobbying for our needs. I recall Dermot Ahern claiming that he’d have 30,000 jobs in the Irish games industry after a recent trip to Japan. If he wants to be the champion for the games industry, then more power to him!”
The sun set over the smoggy roof of Los Angeles and another E3 shuddered to a halt. The assorted games developers, publishers, fanatics and hacks, left Los Angeles, filled with optimism about the industry’s future; the city’s waiters returned to bragging about their acting bit part with Tom Selleck in 1993. Me, I flew back to Dublin thinking that if we’re impressing the global games industry in California, then we must be doing something very right back at home.
Author’s Bio: Pavel Barter is a Dublin based freelance journalist.