Gaming once seemed the domain of teenage boys and uber-focused ‘computer geeks'.
It still is — but with the advent of mobile games such as Angry Birds on the Apple iPhone App Store, and the huge popularity of social networks games like Farmville, more and more of us are dabbling in computer games.
Experts on gaming say it could become a viable industry in Northern Ireland with courses in games development at Belfast Met and the University of Ulster laying the foundations for future careers.
Over the border, the young gaming entrepreneur Dylan Collins embodies the riches which await those who can make it big. He sold his company Demonware for $15m. His latest baby is a tongue-in-cheek app called FarmVillain, a riff on the ubiquitous Farmville which allows users to grow genetically modified crops and invited neighbours to go hunting.
There are already some ‘green shoots' of life which mean Northern Ireland could soon share in an industry which contributes around £1bn to the UK economy every year.
Derry company Dark Water launched an online game called Dog Fighter a few months ago and has achieved some success with its invention.
And educational game JellyFlug, conceived in Co Derry, won a category award at the recent CONNECT £25K awards run by the Northern Ireland Science Park. Wee Man Studios in Belfast dreamed up the iPhone Galactic race.
The 50 or so people working full-time in gaming in Northern Ireland know they have some hard work ahead if they're to succeed in the hard-to-crack games market. But trends and the times we live in could be on their side.
Christian McGilloway, who teaches interactive game development at Belfast Met, said: “Gaming is massive at the moment, now more than ever because it’s not just geeks like us playing in our rooms any more. Social games like Farmville or Wii games are where the massive market is at the moment.
“Gaming has gone from something a group of boys did in their bedroom to now people planting crops on the sly at work, or bowling in the pub on the big screen.
“Currently the quick-play casual game is flavour of the month. There are so many devices out there now from android phones to the famous iPhone to Xbox live and Playstation Network.
“However there is a lot of interest in both serious games and augmented reality at the moment, and with new advances in the iPhone 4 a lot is possible.”
He said there was some government support for eager games specialists. “ Invest NI has taken two trips to the Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) for app development games, and out to South by Southwest [music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas].
“However all these trips are not gaming specific — instead they are app development and multimedia-related. Trips to the game development conference in San Francisco should be next on the cards.”
He is not short of suggestions about what should be done to help Northern Ireland develop a viable gaming industry.
“A serious look should be taken at how to not only upskill our people here but also how to attract outside investment.
“The educational institutions need to work together to provide clear and strategic progression routes from National Diploma level through to Masters and then onto employment. That way industry will start to build here, as this will be where the talent will be. This is true for companies establishing themselves in Scotland next to Abertay University.”
Dr Shane Wilson, who teaches games development at the University of Ulster, agreed. “I think we |require a joined up strategy involving central government, employers within the games industry and universities.
“We need to look at how we can create a sustainable foundation for growth and initiate that encourage and reward innovation within the sector.
“The local universities and further education colleges are producing some very bright and technically creative graduates. Additional support to assist these students in incubating their ideas without fear of failure would be very useful.”
And it’s a market that can only grow. “Traditional media such as film and TV are playing a less important role in the lives of children. Children are spending more and more of their leisure time with interactive entertainment such as video games and less on TV. This trend is likely to continue.”
His graduates have gone on to work for big games studios like Blitz games, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Disney Interactive and Climax studios.
And graduate Jim Murray is now chief executive of Troll Inc, which invented JellyFlug. Mr Murray said:“It's cartoony and inspired by Angry Birds, which is in the app store. Games that adults will be aware of because they are a bit of craic. JellyFlug is an educational computer game but not too focused on the curriculum. It's an example of a game which shows how the world works — in this case, the world of bacteria.
“If someone pours detergent down the sink, you see a waterfall cascading down.”
“iPhones are a big market because there are 100 million users, of which 40 million are under 17.
“I think now is probably the best time to go into the [mobile games] industry. Five years ago you required 20 to 100 people to launch a game but with mobile gaming small-scale teams can make games that sell millions because of the system which Apple uses.
“You can get a small app out of the door for under £10,000.”
Mark Nagurski is Derry's digital champion and helps run digital events around Northern Ireland. The achievements of Wee Man and Dark Water not withstanding, he warns it’s early days for gaming in Northern Ireland.
“Companies like Dark Water Studios and Wee Man Studios are turning out some really impressive work, but the industry in Northern Ireland is still in its infancy. That
said, the more new ground that companies like these break, the more likely we are to create that cluster of smart, experienced and ambitious people that the sector will need to really grow.
“It's so encouraging to see projects like Jellyflug winning awards and getting attention. There is certainly potential here, and the success of companies like Demonware, Jolt Online and Havok in Dublin shows what's possible.”
Lee Fallon is commercial director and finance director of Dark Water, which released Dog Fighter on the digital distribution platform Stream, putting it worldwide with less outlay than the usual retail route.
“It has not sold as well as we wanted, but those are the pitfalls,” he said.
“Computer gaming, like the music industry, can be hit or miss.
“Multi-player gaming needs to have people playing together on dedicated servers and we haven’t reached critical mass. But we are going to try and do things in the next month to correct it.
“We have listened very hard to the community of people who use the game.
“It’s tough but we have seen other games that have taken six or 12 months to take off from launch.
“Small developers are trying to compete with big studios who have budgets of millions of pounds. But those indie developers can |use various tricks like mentioning other major games so that they register when people search online for those major games.”
Mr McGilloway wants to ensure students are job-ready.
“The most important thing is for educational bodies and companies to work together to ensure that students are being produced with jobs in mind.
“Belfast Metropolitan College ran an excellent conference in March called INGAGE which was the final event of a three month after-hours program where members of industry came in to talk to and mentor the students.
“More of this is needed. There should be more collaboration between the colleges and universities as there is a great amount of talent here.
“Ingage was a huge success and the twitter coverage was amazing, all of the students felt involved and a great sense of accomplishment to all of their games.
“Funding and resources for these is essential.”