Love them or loathe them, computer games have come of age as a home-entertainment product. They are big business, nowhere more so than in the Republic where, according to Sony, one in four households owns a PlayStation, making this the number two "console country" in the world (per capita) after Japan. It seems fitting, then, that one of the rising stars of the industry is 26-year-old Cork-born Padraig Crowley. As producer and lead designer at Funcom in Dublin, the favourable reception to his first PlayStation title, Speed Freaks, has made him hot property in a market where success is hard-earned and well-rewarded.
Top game producers attain cult status, but the lure of the mega buck and a plush Silicon Valley office hold little appeal for him. "I like the Dublin attitude. It's not dog-eat-dog and you can just get on with the job," he explains. "Because Funcom is one of the largest independent developers, there's a nice balance between creative control and solid financial backing. It's the best of both worlds."
A graduate of University College Cork, with a degree in computer science, Crowley's first job was with UK games developer Gremlin, which had just opened a Dublin office. This was his chance to pursue his interest in gaming and become a programmer. "By today's standards, I was late getting into it," he admits. "One of the Funcom team was teaching himself programming by the time he was 12." Although he enjoyed some success on games for earlier consoles, it was the move to Funcom and production duties on the PlayStation title Speed Freaks that was his big break.
The game took three years to develop, and while Crowley was its creator, he's quick to stress the collaborative nature of the project. Working with him were three programmers, three modellers, a concept artist, a musician and two graphic artists. Of the 11-strong team, eight were Irish, including graduates from Ballyfermot and Dun Laoghaire. The all-male team, aged between 23 and 26, inevitably felt the strain of working long hours for months at a time.
"When it comes to creative decisions, there is always debate," acknowledges Crowley. "There were lots of fights and lots of tension, and as team leader I had to be politician and mediator. It's important that everybody feels a sense of ownership."
The idea for the game came from a surprising source: "I'm a huge fan of Nintendo, which has character-based games that didn't exist on PlayStation," says Crowley. "It was an obvious gap."
Speed Freaks is a racing game with a colourful collection of characters and a gameplay that mixes kart-racing action with cartoon road rage. The stylised graphics had a local influence: "Dr Quirkey's amusements in Dublin!" laughs Crowley. "We were regular visitors for inspiration. Arcade games have to have bright and striking images to get you to spend your money."
The icing on the cake for Funcom, a Norwegian company with its head office in Oslo, was when Sony took the title under its publishing umbrella. "It's nice for us that it's made locally, but it's really much bigger than that," says Alison Duffy of Sony Ireland. "This is one of our `pillar titles'. It fills a gap in the PlayStation range and we'd be very disappointed if it didn't sell over 30,000 copies in Ireland."
European and eventually US sales are also expected to be strong for a game that has been well received in the games press and scooped the front cover of the best-selling Official UK PlayStation Magazine.
While Crowley seems determined that the game's success will not change his life, he hopes that it will help draw foreign talent to Ireland. "We've had problems attracting experienced designers and programmers," he admits. "Everyone wants to work in London and LA. But we're getting bigger offices, and with the success of Speed Freaks hopefully that will change."
Sales of a hit game are comparable to those of a hit CD: the Stereophonics album Performance And Cocktails sold 30,000 copies in Ireland, about the same as sales of a top PlayStation game such as Gran Turismo. When you consider that, on average, a game costs £35, as opposed to £15 for a CD, and that the prime audience is firmly entrenched in the teenage bracket - and getting younger all the time - you begin to understand why the music business is starting to feel threatened by the games industry.
While Padraig Crowley is bemused about the notion of acquiring cult status, his colleague Mark Lee provides more compelling evidence that game-makers are the new icons of youth. "I wasted my teenage years playing guitar before discovering that computer games are definitely the new rock'n'roll." He does admit, however, that he is still waiting for the groupies to appear.