Ahead of 2013’s Dublin Web Summit John Hyland, of culture magazine Totally Dublin, took a tour around the city’s independent games industry to find a creative boom and an ‘overwhelming sense of newness’.
The games industry now dwarfs, and often trolls, the film and music industries. DFC Intelligence puts the 2012 value of the video games industry at $66bn, compared to film’s $29.2bn and music’s $16.5bn. Last month’s release of Grand Theft Auto V cost, development and marketing included, $265m – outstripping Spiderman 3‘s $258m. But, as with film and music, the big-budget, high-production utterances don’t always court critical acclaim, or even commercial success. And, just like rave-reviewed movies shot on a shoestring and bedroom-recorded albums that made overnight superstars of unknown bands, there are those independently produced games with brilliant ideas that can grab our imaginations, our wallets or both.
The Irish like to think, and perhaps with good reason, that, artistically, we can punch above our weight, churning out music and films that are well received by press and public. So it’s no surprise to find burgeoning creative talent making games, too. Our humble island has already spawned one darling of the international indie games scene. Terry Cavanagh may have moved to Cambridge, but leaving the country, being from the North or relocating your business interests to a Dutch tax haven has never stopped Ireland claiming a success as her own.
Cavanagh’s two major coups, punishing puzzle-platformer VVVVVV and thumb-twitching hypno-fest Super Hexagon, have garnered glowing reviews and hundreds of thousands of purchases across multiple platforms, mobile and desktop. These both have the magic indie mix of one great idea and beautiful execution, but Cavanagh also makes plenty of more unusual freeware. His ChatChat is the world’s first MeowMeowORPG, a game in which you can be a cat, take naps, catch mice, and meow at other cats. Don’t Look Back is a side-scrolling, gun-toting reimagining of the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to save Eurydice’s soul.
Eminent emigrants besides, there’s plenty of home-grown talent that hasn’t uprooted itself, both artistically brave and commercially successful, and even an intersection of the two. Talking to developers in Ireland, the same themes occur again and again. There’s a constant tug-of-war between making the games that you and your friends want to play, and building a commercially viable business. You’ll find an overwhelming sense of newness. Even those considered to be well established in the still-nascent scene look at themselves as still finding their feet – be it in terms of securing funding or marketing and promotion. The most heart-warming trend is the pervading feelings of community, co-operation and mutual support.
SixMinute are what passes for veterans in an industry so young. Having mostly come from the Dublin development office of PopCap Games – behind the hugely popular Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, among others – they feel they have a good grasp on the recipe for success, and that success is different for different games. John, Séadna and Rory spoke to me about Monster Mini-games. “There are so many games appearing on the mobile marketplaces, it can be hard to make yourself heard above the noise,” John tells me, “that’s why it’s important that we know our audience. Developers can often make games just for themselves, without a clear idea of who else wants to play them, or how to reach those people.” Séadna explains that presentation and feel are key to making a simple idea like mini-games a hit. “Angry Birds wasn’t the first of its kind, and there are plenty of clones of it, too. But it looked professional, and it used the touchscreen in a way that felt good to control.”
SixMinute pride themselves on a job well done, and have evidently convinced their financial backers of this, as they are a large team working out of a swish office in central Dublin, a luxury that not every independent developer has.
Bright Head Games have made King Croc – in homage to the great 2D platformers of the past – as a show piece in order to attract commissions to build games. They now work on Social Arcade, a selection of mini-games that can be branded for use in promotional campaigns. Ed is quite open with me about the fact that he doesn’t always get to make the games he would like to, but he says “it’s a weird market, stuff that looks great can do badly and stuff that does really well it’s sometimes hard to see the merit in. Mobile gaming has curbed how we look at the market, it needs to be very targeted. Sometimes I worry that it’s too much about understanding your audience and not enough about the game itself.”
Dan from Eyesodic is hard at work on Legends of Dorin: Ravenshelm, a fantasy open-world game, due out next year, which draws a lot from the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age series. Visually and gameplay-wise, it looks like it could have been at home on the PS2 in its early days. That a game of such apparent complexity can come from an independent developer is a testament to the advanced tools available and people’s ingenuity in using them…
Read a full version of this feature over at Totally Dublin’s website.