It all started back in 1998 when two blokes; one teaching game design at what was then the ‘Ludo’ course run by Senior College Ballyfermot and the other an occasional student, decided to start a game development company. It was a different time back then, the doyens of contemporary Irish games development were still just nascent twinkles and it seemed to us the ideal time to start our own little enterprise. So it was that David Hennigan and Noel Corrigan, over many a late night discussion, decided to form Pooka Games.
Like I said, it seemed like a good idea. At the time the Celtic tiger was roaring, all kinds of crazy people were setting up companies and attracting ludicrous investment capital, why not us? We knew the industry, past and present, we were part of a community of talented people who wanted to develop games in Ireland and we had the vision; a sense of what games were going to become and a tonne of ideas that would take the world by storm.
Although we were confident in our knowledge of games we were aware of an equally
large gap in our knowledge of actually setting up and running a profit making business. The obvious solution it seemed was to contact the local enterprise agency. It was a good idea, there was a wealth of information on the fundamentals of running a business, and better yet, we got our own mentor; to advise and assist us budding entrepreneurs. It became obvious very quickly that for all our technical knowledge of games development we were lacking in a broad range of skills. Confident that success was always just around the corner and that the many people who enthusiastically supported us would chip in where necessary, Dave and I plunged into the corporate world with gusto and learned some harsh lessons.
After just a few weeks of research we realised that games, especially the kind we wanted to make, were very expensive. When engine licensing, media production and all of the costs a legitimate business had to bear were factored in, a seven figure sum suddenly appeared at the end of our first balance sheet. Considering that at the time our combined net assets were barely enough for a day trip to Bray, this was something of an obstacle. Sure, we could have started small, made a few Flash games, tried our hand at web design and as it turned out we took on a few projects on to make ends meet but our vision seemed ever more distant. We soldiered on nonetheless.
On the advice of our mentor we began work on a business plan; this involved detailed research and analysis of games development, accurate costing of software and equipment, personnel requirements, property leasing costs and so much more. It was a long list and every shred of useful information was hard come by. The situation is somewhat different now with more information about the industry available to the public, but we found then that specific information about typical sales figures, profit
margins and budgets were held by a range of marketing and consultancy companies and sold at a premium rate.
This process lasted over three years with constant revisions necessary as the market changed and we realised what investors were looking for. To our credit we had created a very efficient, low cost games development company. The problem was it existed only on paper. The hard work was convincing investors that this was a viable opportunity. Over the course of three years I lost track of the venture capitalists, prospective publishers and service providers we met but it seemed that we were asking too much. As one bellicose Australian put it ‘I see the vision but I don’t see the hurt’. (The ‘hurt’ in case you are wondering is what you are prepared to put on the line and the only thing that matters is money.)
It would have ended there and maybe it should have, but a bright idea came our way; Gaelic Football. To be honest our interest in developing a game based on Gaelic sports was somewhat mercenary. We knew our own untested ideas would never get funding but with the G.A.A franchise we were part of Ireland’s greatest brand. We put the word out that we were interested in pursuing the license and people started contacting us. A senior figure in the G.A.A. phoned Dave and arranged a meeting (we were so impressed we even wore suits). He told us there would be support for any Irish company to produce a licensed game. Buoyed up by this turn of events we attended a ‘First Tuesday’ meeting and made our pitch to potential investors, business cards were exchanged, meetings arranged.
Our sense of impending success was palpable when Electronic Arts approached us in early 2001. They gave us projected sales figures, met with us on several occasions and put us in touch with experienced producers attached to EA sports. With all this going for us how could investors not jump at the chance? Very easily it turns out. The sales and profit analysis did not appeal and there were doubts about the popularity of the title in a non-Irish marketplace. We had slashed our budget, developed another source of revenue for ‘Pooka Games’ and attended every possible forum involving potential investors, but no one ever committed. That’s not to say we ever got a definite ‘No’ from them, just sickly sweet praise for the idea and enthusiasm for our future. Sometimes it seemed as if they enjoyed dangling the carrot in front of us only to not return our calls and disregard our emails.
By this stage it was midway through 2002 and another development company was competing for the G.A.A. endorsement. They were based in Australia and already had a track record developing AFL games for the PS2. By then we had had enough. We offered to assist with development of the product for a 2004 release but after some confusion with non-disclosure agreements our contact with the relevant parties petered off. The truth is we were pretty much disillusioned with the whole process. I was recovering from an illness and Dave was working full time.
Looking back, we should have signed off officially but once we were out of the picture as a major player, phone calls and emails were not returned, meetings were cancelled and so Pooka Games just fizzled out. I would be the first to admit that we were too ambitious but we learned from it and there was plenty of fun and moments of high drama to keep it interesting. It is unlikely that myself or Dave will try to resurrect the Pookster, although we both still share the belief that we could bring the next generation in games to the next generation consoles. The ideas and the vision are still there but so too is a hard won knowledge about the realities of working in the games industry.