At E3 2003, the West Hall held its own share of surprises. At the foot of the vast Nintendo showcase area, and around the corner from Sony America’s wares, stood the Scottish Games Alliance booth. The size of this Caledonian stronghold rivalled developers Kemco and Tecmo next door but drew more quizzical glances than most other attractions in the Hall. “There’s a games industry in Scotland and they can afford to promote themselves in California? But no other international countries are represented at E3… How did that happen?”
In truth, the Scottish games industry is incredibly healthy and enjoys a situation which its Irish counterpart could turn toward for inspiration and emulation. VIS Games, in full force at the SGA stand, develops content for the three major platforms (PlayStation, Xbox, GameCube). The company was founded in Dundee and employs 200 people in four studios around the UK. Triple A game State of Emergency (published by Grand Theft Auto’s Rockstar team) was produced under the VIS banner, and more are now in store: The Powerpuff Girls; Evil Dead, A Fistful of Broomstick; and Tom and Jerry, War of the Whiskers.
In 1996, Robin Mair of Scottish Enterprise and Chris van der Kuyl of VIS began chatting about game development in Scotland. This lead to an exploratory meeting for game developers from around the country and the SGA was subsequently born.
“The Scottish Games Alliance was formed almost as a subsidiary of Scottish Enterprise, so there is significant funding available,” VIS’s PR guy, Barclay Dakers shouted over E3’s cacophonous multimedia din. “This is one of the reasons we are capable of coming here and setting up in such a prestigious hall. All of us clubbing together like this makes it much more viable for smaller Scottish games companies and developers to attend E3. We’re seeing a phenomenal amount of media attention in the North American market as a result.”
Chatting to Barclay soon revealed two key areas where Ireland might concentrate in order to nurture its game developers: education and funding. Within the next three years, Scottish Enterprise is investing £25m in the country’s creative industries. A new venture capital – Fund4Games – has been specifically designed for game developers, allowing companies to apply for venture capital of between £250,000 to £1m.
“Gordon Brown [UK Finance Minister] visited our studio a couple of weeks ago,” continued Barclay. “One of the topics under discussion was the fact that the games industry is now huge, employing several thousand people and bringing a phenomenal amount of money back into the country. We asked Mr Brown what he was going to do for us and talked about specific tax breaks for games developers. The Minister was supportive and he is going to look into it. You never know… it could be the start of something which will help further promote our industry.”
When it comes to learning the ropes of game development, Scotland is also uniquely blessed. Abertay University in Dundee was the first of its kind in the UK to offer a development course, covering every aspect of gaming and allowing insights into the business. Summer work courses are also available, whereby students are taken through a project’s development process. “It makes students very employable,” said Barclay.
The sheer scale of talent in Scotland is phenomenal, specifically around the Northeast, and this is largely due to the unique model that Scottish Enterprise has created. Some of the developer talent showcased at the SGA E3 stand included Simian Industries (mobile Java games), Denki (Go! Go! Beckham, GBA), Steel Monkeys (Rocky, GameCube), DC Studios (NBA Jam 2002, GBA), middleware and music producers.
Digital media creative industries directly employ around 25,000 people in Scotland and Barclay Dakers was keen to point out that Ireland has the same potential. “I know for a fact that there is enough talent in Ireland to create a viable industry, whether they are in the programming departments, R+D, or the artists. Now it needs a focus in order to generate the business.” Well, that’ll be gamedevelopers.ie, then.
Certainly, E3 was awash with Irish talent but high-profile middleware providers Havok aside, most of it appeared to be ex-patrioted. Dave Perry, CEO of Shiny Entertainment, is currently riding the crest of a wave after collaborating with the Wachowski Brothers to produce the multi-platform Enter the Matrix. With as much hype surrounding the game as the movie sequel itself, Perry has been launched into development big-league but he contends that his career wouldn’t have taken the same trajectory had he not left his native Belfast.
“There’s lots of talent in Ireland and I meet Irish people in the industry over here [in California] all the time,” he said. “But it is easier to be based in America because the games business is progressing at such a rapid rate and there’s so much work available. Ireland is mined for talent but the talent is leaving. It would be great if that could be reversed.”
Peter Donnelly, an Executive Producer at LA’s Climax studios, hails from Dublin’s Northside and attended E3 to promote the Xbox title Sudeki. Peter used to clone databases, then began developing multimedia titles for Microsoft. He spent an increasing amount of time in the U.S. before finally packing his bags and moving to the land of Uncle Sam to develop games full-time. When asked what he would do if a significant industry began in Ireland, he admitted that he would relocate back home in a flash.
“Ireland’s position as an IT leader is there for us to exploit but we’re not doing it and I don’t know why. It’s a risky business, a hit driven industry, but it’s also a million-dollar industry and the battle for the living room is going to get bigger. Opportunities are there. There’s a company in Donegal called Torc Interactive who make very good engines and I hope they are getting the support they need. We have immense talent – look no further than Havok – but without sufficient government backing we’ll never be able to accomplish all we can,” said Peter.
A sad note to end on? Perhaps, but one final glance at the Scottish Games Alliance booth provided reassurance. Scotland is not only exploiting the country’s key strengths in knowledge-based industries, high-level skills, technology and innovation, but it’s also prospering as a result. We have the talent; now it’s time to create an environment within which digital media companies can flourish. Then we can finally prove that long after the Celtic Tiger’s bark has faded, its bite can still make a lasting impression on the world.
Author bio: Pavel Barter is a freelance journalist and member of Dublin-based guitar band the West Seventies (
www.thewestseventies.com). Both activities, he admits, beat working for a living.