Tabitha, Brains, Tempest: names which don’t exactly trip off the tongue like Gordon Freeman, Solid Snake or Jack Carver. Still, around the turn of the millennium, these pixilated scamps were familiar to thousands of young PlayStation fans. They were the Speed Freaks, stars of a wobbly kart racer awash with effervescent eye candy; and you can forget about their cod American accents because these cartoon critters were Dubs through and through. From a global perspective, Funcom Dublin (the birthplace of Speed Freaks) was a mere blip on the development radar, but in the history of Irish development its significance is far greater. For the first time, Irish developers began crafting entertainment for the PlayStation generation. What’s more, their games weren’t half bad.
Funcom’s genesis was in colder climates. In 1993, the company formed in Oslo and began work on two projects, A Dinosaur’s Tale and Daze Before Christmas. The following year, while production continued in Norway, Funcom Dublin Ltd. was set up with 20 employees and a contract for an early PlayStation title, Impact Racing. Jørgen Tharaldsen, Funcom Product Director recalls the reasons behind the creation of an Irish premises. “We decided to set up an office in Dublin because of several factors, one of the most important being the art resources in the city. We saw the need to have a department within Funcom which could specialise in console games. While looking for interesting places we naturally explored every detail from recruitment to rent, wages, taxes and more. We chose Ireland in the end… there were mostly advantages, as we saw it, compared to many other places. ”
Having found a suitable office on Furze Road in Dublin’s Sandyford Industrial Estate, Funcom set about recruiting staff, many from design courses at the National College of Art and Design in Dun Laoghaire and Ballyfermot PLC. “We recruited locally, actually there were (almost) no Norwegians working at the Irish office,” says Jørgen. Senior Software Engineer Gareth Lewin, who joined the company a few years into its incarnation, hailed from further afield. “I started working on game development in Israel. The Israeli game development industry is very tough, and after moving from failed company to failed company I started looking for jobs abroad. I tried the USA, but due to Visa problems, that wasn’t a real option. I was very much into MMORPG’s, so I sent an email to Funcom (who were developing Anarchy Online at the time) and got a response that the Dublin studio wanted to interview me. I went for an interview, it went well, and I relocated to lovely Dublin.”
In 1998 a publishing deal was struck with Activision for a scrambler motor-racer called D.I.R.T. The deal fell through but the game steamed ahead and the following year the newly monikered Championship Motocross featuring Ricky Carmichael was released under THQ’s mantle. “We also released a 2001 version of this series. I am very proud of the realistic control we were able to get into this title, and still think this was the best motorcross game which was released for PS1,” says Jørgen. The next project to be released was Speed Freaks, in August 1999. The game had been picked up by Sony Corporation, under a deal wherby Funcom would receive royalties on each copy sold as well as a lump sum fee. It was launched in North America, under the title Speed Punks, in early 2000. “The game was geared towards a younger audience and got rave reviews. It was considered by journalists to be the best karting game on the PS1, competing against games like Crash Bandicoot Racing, Mario Kart on Nintendo’s platform and others.”
In July 2000, buoyed by the success of these two PlayStation titles, Funcom announced that its Irish branch would now focus resources on the (then mysterious) Xbox platform. By this time the Dublin office employed 25. “After evaluating the Playstation 2 and the Xbox technology for several months we have taken the strategic decision to go for Microsoft’s new gaming console,” Funcom President, Andre Backen, said at the time. “We believe that Xbox has significant market potential due to both cutting edge technology and Microsoft’s marketing muscle. On top of that, exploiting the new technology reduces our development cycle by several months, which also cuts development costs by approximately 20%.”
But in Norway changes were afoot and the writing was on the wall for Funcom Dublin. The Irish studio only developed console titles but Funcom had seen considerable success with online products like Backgammon and Paradigm Shift (1997), Funcom Hearts and Funcom Spades (1998). By the end of 1999, almost 20,000 games of Backgammon were played every week on Funcom’s site. The potential for massively multi-player online games was now coming to fruition and
Funcom Norway began work on the largest project it had ever undertaken. The result, Anarchy Online, was an ambitious sci-fi RPG – a huge success but also a huge investment, and for the Irish team there were disastrous repercussions. The office closed in August 2001 after six years and three unique successful projects.
“We had to close the studio in order to put all focus on Anarchy Online,” Jørgen Tharaldsen contends. “It was not an easy decision to make, but seeing that we are performing very well again today, while also being back in the console production area, I guess you can say it was the right decision. Like many other game developers we faced some rough times, and we had to focus on what we thought would benefit the entire company the most. Seeing we spent some €17m on the development of Anarchy Online before launch I guess you can say it was easy to put the focus on the MMOG side of our business.”
Sadly, Funcom Dublin’s only Xbox project – Jet Sprint MX – was abandoned, despite being close to completion and looking a good deal slicker than most next gen speed boat competition. The various programmers, artists, and other staff members flittered off to other jobs in Ireland and throughout the world. As for Funcom, the company is set to launch Dreamfall – the sequel to Funcom Norway’s The Longest Journey (1999), considered by many to be the greatest graphic adventure of all time. The company now has branches in Switzerland and North America. Today there are no hard feelings about the company’s closure, either from former employees or Funcom. For Gareth Lewin, who recently worked on Microsoft’s Sudeki, the memories are “very fond. Funcom Dublin was the most friendly place I have ever worked at, probably partially because of the Irish influence. Sadly I’m in contact with very few people from there, but there were some amazingly smart people there.”
Tabitha, Brains and Tempest, may slip further into the ether of gaming history with each passing year but their very existence is resounding proof, if needed, that Ireland has the talent to create console games to compete on an international scale. Funcom Dublin was no freak of nature; perhaps instead a unique precursor to what still lies ahead.
Pavel Barter talks to Matthew Lloyd, Funcom Dublin veteran
How did you get the job with Funcom Ireland?
“I knew about Funcom from reading a newspaper article about them. I was a student in Ballyfermot College of Further Education at the time, studying computer animation and thought ‘this place is right up my alley’ I started out as a graphic designer but moved on to in-game modelling.”
What are your memories of the rest of the team?
“ I worked with one of the most talented group of people I have known. I was sad to say goodbye to them all. I learned so much there.”
In terms of the working environment, were your offices impressive?
We started out in Clonskeagh in a medium sized office. A couple of years later we moved into a larger office in Sandyford. It did always seem a bit cramped but that’s because we all needed a lot of space to stand our Star Wars figures.”
What were the advantages and disadvantages for a developer based in Dublin?
“The main advantage was the fact that we were the only company developing games in Dublin at all. There was only a few of us in there and you had to know your stuff to get in. However if the only games company in Dublin goes under then you are in a bit of a state trying to find work. ‘Would you like fries with that?’”
In your opinion, why did Funcom Ireland eventually close?
“Because of ‘over spending’ on behalf of the Norway office and the great wisdom that the Xbox ‘would not produce the goods for online gaming’.”
When did you leave and what did you go on to do next?
“I didn’t leave willingly. We were all told on a Tuesday that the company would be going in liquidation with the loss of all jobs and we had to clear our desks by Thursday: don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out! I was very fortunate to land on my feet, and soon after being made redundant landed my current job as a teacher in Computer Animation and 3d Modelling in Ballfermot College of Further Education.”
More info on Funcom
Did you work in Funcom? Share your memories with us on the forums. See under general discussions.
Author’s Bio: Pavel Barter is a freelance journalist based in Dublin and a regular contributor to gd.ie.