Tough times for indie game start-ups


While state funding is available, independent Irish gaming companies face stiff competition and long hours to get their work to the market, writes JJ WORRALL

WHILE ENTERPRISE Ireland funding in the independent video games sector is greater than ever before, start-ups in this space have warned they’re facing a “very crowded landscape” when launching a new title.

With the “gold rush” of mobile games app development now “fairly much over” according to BitSmith Games founder Owen Harris, many companies are now focused on multi-platform releases.

“Some people are still intoxicated by stories of wild success in the mobile phone space, but really the App Store, or Android Market are a lottery,” says Harris, who believes the PC gaming market is a more stable, “relatively huge” market for independent Irish gaming companies to aim for.

Harris, like other independent developers, is looking forward to next week’s worldwide release of the US documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Available for download this week, it delves into the torturously-long process of bringing a game to the PC or console market.

The filmmakers behind the documentary, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, say that in the case of their subjects “the journey is a lot harder and darker than the games designers thought it would be”.

“It takes over every facet of their life,” says Lisanne. “They work 20 hours a day trying to get it finished. They’re trying to get it out there but with no guarantee of success.”

It’s a tale that many in the Irish independent games space can relate to. “We don’t have huge games content creation in Ireland,” says DIT game design lecturer Hugh McAtamney. Outside of a “myriad of part-time developers” creating mobile apps there is a small creative community cropping up that are working full-time on their creations though, often with the help of a €50,000 Competitive Start Fund (CSF) from Enterprise Ireland.

Enterprise Ireland’s Tom Cusack, who helps manage the CSF, says that with 15 of these grants given out quarterly, “roughly three or four per quarter are companies focused on the games industry”.

The aforementioned BitSmith Games gained a CSF and has just finished up a year’s work in creating the iPad, PC and Mac versions of a Celtic mythology-based “2D side scrolling runner-style game” called Kú with various release dates across those platforms from August to October.

Then there’s BatCatGames which also qualified for a CSF. Run by Andrea Magnorsky and Andrew O’Connor, they launched their “twin-stick arena shooter set inside a petri dish” called P-3 Biotic on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace in January.

Taking a year to bring together during their spare time, the pair have quit their jobs and begun working full-time on a samurai-based follow up to P3-Biotic since February.

Andrea Ravenet and Paddy Murphy’s independent studio 2paperDolls has just released its Twitter discovery game Mind of Man. Derry-based Aaron Donaghey is behind Black Market Games whose first title Dead Hungry Diner is a PC-based action-puzzler. While Kahoot Studios was set up only two weeks ago by former Open Emotion Studios employee Eoghan O’Donovan.

Open Emotion Studios is one of the trailblazers in the independent gaming space, opening in 2009 and operating from offices in Limerick and Dublin, creating games such as Ninjamurai and Revoltin Youth, which appeared across Sony gaming platforms. Murphy and O’Donovan both left the company this spring as it closed the Dublin offices due to “financial conditions”.

Both leaned towards Open Emotions perhaps trying to “cover too many bases” as being the reason for its troubles. BitSmith Games, BatCatGames, Kahoot and others all operate with between one to four staff on board, and as Kahoot’s O’Donovan puts it: “I think that if you didn’t love it you’d have a very hard time creating anything worthwhile.”

BitSmith Games’ Harris agrees: “I gave up a bloody good IT job to do this so having made that sacrifice I was very focused on making this work.”

Many of the gaming experts who spoke to The Irish Times doubted whether Ireland currently has the design expertise to make numerous independent games worthy of major platforms like Valve’s Steam, Xbox Indie Game Live or Sony’s PlayStation Network.

However, having experienced success in this area this year, BatCatGames’ Magnorsky says the talent pool is out there. She pointed towards DIT’s MSc in Digital Games and Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s Computer Games and Interactive Entertainment Development course as good breeding grounds for potential designers.

“We receive emails from people wanting to work with us pretty much on a daily basis, but companies are very young so it’s hard unless you start up your own company,” she says.

For DIT’s McAtamney there is one solution: “This is where we need the tax incentive,” he says, referring to the Section 195 artists’ exemption tax.

“Musicians, writers and actors have that and independent games designers need to have that as well, you need to treat games designers as artists and provide them with that incentive.”

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