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The winner takes it all: Northern Ireland’s booming video game industry

Around 25 video game development companies are currently operating around Northern Ireland. With video game sales booming around the world, Pavel Barter takes a look at how the local industry is levelling up

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Hytale is a game made by Hypixel Studios

Hytale is a game made by Hypixel Studios

Hytale is a game made by Hypixel Studios

Hytale is a game made by Hypixel Studios

A screenshot from Buildings Have Feelings Too

A screenshot from Buildings Have Feelings Too

Inertial Drift is made by Level 91 Entertainment

Inertial Drift is made by Level 91 Entertainment

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Hytale is a game made by Hypixel Studios

In December 2018, two Northern Irish video game developers were preparing to launch the first trailer for their new game. Aaron Donaghey and Sean McCafferty had been working for three years on Hytale, alongside a squad of developers who were dispersed around the world, as part of Hypixel Studios. The team had previously worked on an independent server for Minecraft, one of the biggest video games of all time, until they set up their own operation.

Hytale promised to take the player-crafted landscapes of ‘block-building’ games to new heights, through a Minecraft-esque world that included stories, mini-games, and much more: “Disneyland inside a game”, as the developers described it.

But until that month in 2018, they had kept their plans secret. “We took a long time to get the trailer thematically right,” Sean McCafferty, chief operating officer of Hypixel Studios in Londonderry, says. “We wanted to hit all the notes that would resonate with the audience. I remember taking bets about how many views there would be in the first weekend. Some people said, 20,000 or 40,000. I said, ‘Half a million: go big or go home’.”

By the end of the first weekend, the trailer had amassed 10 million views. Currently, the view-count stands at 58 million. “We always knew it had legs, we just didn’t know it also had a fast motorcar and possibly a rocket,” Sean says. “We were completely overwhelmed by the response and how it resonated with our audience.”

Video games are big business in 2021. According to research from Ofcom and the UK games industry, 62% of adults in the UK played computer games last year, and game sales leapt to £7bn. The Northern Irish games industry is ideally poised to profit from this demand.

Since the scene started emerging around 15 years ago, it has grown to encompass 25 studios and contributes millions to the NI economy, according to NI Screen. Studios produce a variety of titles. Recent examples include Buildings Have Feelings Too, a city-builder game from Belfast-based Blackstaff Games, released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, in which players upgrade buildings inspired by landmarks such as Belfast City Hospital. Supermarket Shriek, by Belfast’s BillyGoat entertainment, is a madcap kart racing game; Stargazing, from White Pot Studios, mixes puzzles and astronomy.

The teams behind these games range from one or two person operations to studios of 15 to 20. Hypixel Studios lead the way. In April 2020, the studio was acquired by Riot Games, which developed and published League of Legends, one of the biggest PC titles in the world. This led to the establishment of a 3,500 sq ft studio in Derry.

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“Riot would have loved us to end up in Santa Monica or downtown LA,” Sean says, who worked from home prior to the acquisition. “But myself and Aaron wanted to stay here because this the place where I was born and bred. The talent is here. Derry is home for me.”

Independent SMEs make up most of NI’s game development community. “Many of them have publishing deals with larger operations and have grown organically over the last five years,” Rory Clifford, interactive manager at NI Screen, says.

Level 91 Entertainment in Belfast is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Hypixel. Michael O’Kane and Tom Mathews founded the studio in 2017. “At the core, it’s just the two of us,” Michael says. “I did all the programming, design and business stuff. Tom Mathews did all the art.” The developer, who is 29, began masterminding their first release, Inertial Drift, a street racing game, during his placement year at university. Inertial Drift features 20 tracks spread across five locations, one of which is inspired by Antrim’s north coast, and was released to consoles and PC – in digital and physical formats – in 2020.

This arcade-style racer received rave reviews for its graphics, gameplay, and control mechanisms. Most AAA games have budgets to rival Hollywood blockbusters. But Inertial Drift, which won Best Game at 2021’s NI Game Awards, cost around £100,000 to make. It illustrates how independent developers can find their own space in the market.

“The barrier for entry, in terms of game technology, has been removed,” Rory Clifford says. “Game engines, such as Unity and Unreal, are free to use for studios. Self-publishing is becoming more accessible on mobile and Steam [an online game distribution platform]. You can also self-publish on the major consoles: PlayStation and Xbox.”

NI Screen has helped nurture this nascent sector. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” Michael says. This agency might be better known for supporting film and TV shows such as Game of Thrones, but it’s also embedded in interactive entertainment and provides development and production funding for games.

In 2019, for example, it invested £218,000 in Paleo Pines, a simulation in which players become dinosaur ranchers, by Co Down-based Italic Pig. In 2016, Belfast-based Inlifesize released Evil Dead: Endless Nightmare, which received a £65,000 NI Screen investment. The title recouped £177,000 in sales, according to NI Screen’s 2018-2022 strategy. Northern Ireland provides other areas of support for young gaming talent.

The Pixel Mill, a co-working space based at the Ormeau Baths in Belfast, provides free desks and Internet access. “We run support programmes there and have mentors who provide advice around game design, publishing, production, accounting, and legal,” Rory says.

Educational institutions have many incentives for young people. In February, 2021, Ulster University announced a £1m investment in a top virtual studio at its York Street campus in Belfast, which will give game developers the tools to motion capture actors. Epic Games, creators of Fortnite, has endorsed Ulster University’s videogame design courses.

The region, however, faces a challenge when it comes to retaining talent. NI alumni – such as Dave Perry from Lisburn, who created franchises like Earthworm Jim, made games for the Matrix movies, and sold technology to Sony in 2012 for £273m – had to leave home to find success. “Brain drain” remains a problem, according to Sean McCafferty. Hypixel Studios, alongside NI Screen, offer financial relocation packages, which they call the “Mon’ Home” scheme, to encourage game developers return to Northern Ireland.

The cost of business is also hampering growth. Following the budget in March, the region is threatened with a 25% corporation tax rate: double that of the Republic. But despite economic obstacles, Northern Ireland has nurtured a community of developers who are celebrated at events, such as the NI Game Awards, and supported through organisations such as Games NI and the NI Game Dev Network.

Other industries – animation, music, services and products – can thrive from the success of the NI games scene. The creators of Inertial Drift, for example, outsourced the game’s audio and character animation aspects from two local studios: Boom Clap Play and Taunt Studios. Hytale has the opportunity for trans-media spin-offs: from cartoons to merchandise.

Hypixel has yet to announce a release date for Hytale, but anticipation for the game has not waned, with fans describing it as Minecraft 2.0. “The plans are nothing short of world domination,” Sean says. “We’re pushing into full production and things are looking better than ever.”

For smaller outfits, such as Level 91 Entertainment, the ability to maintain a career in game development while remaining in NI is reward enough. “Since I was in university, I thought I was going to have to go to England at some point,” Michael O’Kane says. “But that hasn’t happened. I don’t see the scene disappearing – it’s only looking better.”


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