EA Games Technical Support: Powered by Galway

Electronic Arts (EA), the world’s third-largest gaming company, currently employs 400 people at its European Customer Experience Centre of Excellence in Galway, Ireland to deal with about 3 million support requests each year. It recently announced a further 300 jobs at this facility. We met with Peter Moore, Chief Operating Officer of EA yesterday in Galway, where he spoke about the reasons for this expansion and why the future is bright for EA in Galway.

The methods by which we are getting our video games are changing. Since it was founded over thirty years ago, EA has primarily distributed its games through cartridges and discs sold via retailers. But now, games are more commonly being distributed digitally to our devices – our PCs, tablets and phones – and EA is adapting its broader strategy to include a focus on “direct-to-consumer” with systems like Origin.

EA opened its Galway facility in 2011, primarily to support Bioware’s game “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (SWTOR). This game is one of the main ones distributed via EA’s Origin platform; in fact, 40% of all SWTOR sales were made via Origin. The Galway facility has expanded to support a range of games, including sports titles like FIFA. EA’s sports games are continuing to grow, and Galway is a hub for FIFA consumers around the world.

When talking about the centre in Galway, Peter Moore cited Galway’s incredible talent base and the tremendous cooperation received from IDA Ireland, the government body responsible for attracting inward foreign direct investment. As a key support hub for FIFA, one of Ireland’s advantages is in being a country that really understands the video game as well as the actual game of soccer, so support staff here can help maximise the consumer’s game experience when they ring with some game issues. There are ten contact centres around the world: Galway and Austin are the largest ones staffed by EA employees, and smaller centres are run by external partners for capacity issues.

Typical problems experienced by consumers would be broken games, being unable to progress further (requiring some handholding), forgotten passwords, or issues downloading and getting on to games. The support staff not only fix problems and make the game experience better, but they also upsell, finding out what consumers are looking for and helping them find it by suggesting what games they should play. Most support is through phone or live chat sessions with agents, with asynchronous support via email being queued to deal with later. Timely support is hugely important, as Moore says: “In today’s world, if you’re not picking up the phone in 5 minutes or answering a chat in 2 minutes you are losing.”

While the primary focus in Galway is on Europe, to facilitate real-time problem solving in a nearby time zone, the centre is a 24-hour location dealing with consumers all over the world, with regular hand-offs to other locations. As well as calls, live chat and emails, EA are building tools that allow communities of gamers to solve problems themselves. The new Answer HQ platform was set up to allow users to create forum threads about what is happening to them, facilitating DIY-problem solving amongst a community of gamers that typically loves to work collaboratively. This platform is almost like a game in itself, where gamers can get points, rewards and incentives. EA’s Head of Social & Community, Chris Collins, is also based in Galway.

Galway also houses some more key functions for EA, including their global training organisation for learning and development, policy functions, and central project management offices. There’s also some technical development of systems that can matchmake consumers to support staff. EA worldwide deals with about 20 million support contacts per year: the Galway facility caters for about 15% of that, or 3 million support requests, and this is growing exponentially with social media support requests. The type of people that EA are looking for in Galway are typically those with strong customer skills – good at dealing with people and solving problems – and who already have or can develop knowledge of the game – because those who don’t understand the game are more likely to be ‘called out’ during support requests. Moore also made particular reference to Galway’s strong connection to the university system, with NUI Galway and GMIT providing a source of skilled graduates to EA. It’s easy to attract people to Galway, and EA itself is an attractive place to work due to the energy and excitement around the gaming universe and being in the entertainment business.

Employees get training in the various support platforms and the games, and there are a number of labs dotted around the Galway facility where they can refresh their gaming knowledge. Crucially, employees need strong technical skills to be able to deal with the multitude of systems and tasks required: whether it be working with Salesforce, EA’s Nucleus network (allowing staff to see historical records of what a consumer is playing), or multitasking amongst the various problems currently assigned. Staff get three weeks of training before they are ‘let loose’ on one game, but they can get certification on other games that they may like or want to support. Some support staff go on to developer roles, and others end up in management. Current EA Labels President Frank Gibeau started off testing games and doing customer support for EA in 1991.

Moore says that EA delivers entertainment, but in many respects they are no different to Apple, Google or other large corporations that have hundreds of millions of users to serve. It’s not all plain sailing, because there can be a fairly high turnover rate for customer support staff who don’t have a thick skin, especially when receiving abusive emails from gamers frustrated with a problem. And that’s what they have to focus on, the problem, while understanding the customer and the dynamic involved. It can be very rewarding, and a tremendous launching pad for a career in games (as evidenced by Gibeau and others) if done right. Moore can see those who are natural leaders just from wandering around the facility, stating that it is easy to see those people who are ambitious and have the requisite skills. As part of a “hero academy”, executives from EA often come to the Galway facility to be part of a support team and experience customer support for real.

Michael Lawder, EA’s Vice President of World Wide Customer Experience was asked about the infrastructure and culture in Galway, and how it impacted on EA’s decision to locate there. He spoke of the strong creative and technical nature of Galway’s population, and how EA were very happy with the infrastructure in a facility that was purpose built for being a contact centre. There’s also a good talent pool, with lots of people who want to work for EA. Within four hours of the jobs announcement in September, EA had received 200 CVs. They have since received 1500 resumes that they are currently sifting through for quality talent so that they can interview for the technical attributes and soft skills required in candidates. The high attrition rate can be avoided by a specific recruiting strategy to make sure they have the right people: those who can defuse a situation to solve a problem, to turn an abusive email into an email of thanks. Language is also very important; while the Galway centre mainly deals with English, French and German, around 17 to 18 languages are supported by EA.

Having already made the commitment for 300 extra jobs in Galway, Peter Moore sees digital-to-consumer continuing to expand as EA titles like Battlefield 3 and 4 grow bigger. Next generation platforms from Sony and Microsoft will also be handled in Galway, and “phase two” is currently examining how to grow and expand the facility in Galway. He also complemented the calm atmosphere and “pleasant vibe” in the facility, and we were shown breakout spaces and recreation rooms for employees to play video games and traditional games. EA recently changed the facility from consisting of segmented sections with high walls to a more-open plan layout, which has improved the dynamic of “one big team, all in this together”. Teams are organised in horizontal sets according to games, which also adds to the sports feel. A motto on the facility wall says “Connect, Resolve, Exceed”, and that’s all about getting the right people with a love for the game to help consumers get through those difficult scenarios.

Moore left us with a few thoughts on the future of EA, while referring to his delight with the outcomes of the Galway facility and an investment he claimed no other competitor could compare with. We are currently at the tip of the sphere in terms of how the gaming industry is changing. We grew up with the likes of Sega and Nintendo, and an industry based on taking a cartridge away from a shop. The transformational turmoil produced by the Internet is both an opportunity and a challenge, with direct-to-consumer necessitating investments in a new distribution channel whereby the retailer is no longer the normal route to a consumer. Knowing what the next generation of gaming holds will help, especially the move towards digital and downloading full games in this way, as the focus moves from retailers as the games supplier to EA themselves. Physical media will still be important, but we are seeing a significant increase in direct-to-consumer purchases, not just the games themselves, but in-game ads, new maps, and other content available over a subscription period. This changes the entire focus of what the gaming industry is about.

So You Want to Break Into the Games Industry? Here’s How…

You have a passion for computer games, and you think you want to work in the computer games industry. How should you go about it? You could listen to the advice of Ian Schreiber for a start. Ian has worked as both a programmer and game designer, as well as teaching game design and development at Ohio University. He recently shared some tips with students and young researchers involved in the games area about how to get that ideal games job.

If you’ve ever been a student in college, you probably know that there are always a variety of motivations for how colleges work and what they should ideally do. Student success is the primary one, but that success may not entail you getting your dream job in the career area of your choice. However, what you do in the lead up to that job hunt can help you maximise your chances of reaching your goal. There are two main parts to this: (1) knowing what your goal is; and (2) figuring out how to get there.

For (1), knowing your goal, those already in a games degree programme probably already have a good idea of what the job entails, but for others it may be more tricky. A typical conversation would be: “I love playing games, so the thought of making them sounds really cool.” “Are you a going to be a programmer or an artist or a game designer?” “Oh, what’s the difference?” You need to understand that first before you go any further.

For (2), getting there, the games industry is fairly straightforward in terms of what they are looking for. In the main, they just want to make awesome games. “Awesome” differs from company to company, whether it be a well-reviewed game, one that’s got great gameplay, or one that makes lots of money. They basically want to know if you can be part of the team that can help them make that awesome game.

So, the challenge is showing them that this is something you can do. You need to provide credible evidence that you can do it. How? The most obvious way is simply by making games. If you’re not already making computer games on your own because you love doing it so much (and you’re already in a games course at college), then you might want to consider changing degrees because what do you think you are going to be doing full time after graduation?

If it’s not an activity that you will love doing, Ian said you should re-consider going into it as a career as the pay is lower and the working hours are worse than some other similar careers. (Check out Glassdoor to read about validated anonymous people working at various companies, either praising their companies and the benefits, or spilling dirt on their employer and why it sucks to work there. For example, Valve gets good reviews.)

You need to decide if this really is a career you want as it’s better to find out as an undergraduate before going to industry and burning out. Five-and-a-half years is the average length for a career in the games industry before burning out (that’s a full career, not a single job), so you may want to go do something else. But, if you listen to Ian’s advice, do your research first, and still eventually go into the games industry, you will probably enjoy it and it may well be the best job ever.

Ian is co-author of the book Breaking Into the Game Industry: Advice for a Successful Career from Those Who Have Done It. He wrote the book with another industry veteran, having himself worked in the games area for 12 years. As part of his research, the authors asked a series of games industry leaders to provide paragraph-long answers to questions being asked all the time, and the resulting combination of answers has worked a useful guide for job seekers in the industry.

Ian cited personal experience in his quest to become a games designer as opposed to just a programmer. Having programming skills is useful because if you don’t know what’s easy and what’s hard to code, your game designs will be brilliant but impossible to execute. Games companies are also very cautious in hiring designers since a mistake on the part of the designer can have serious repercussions that can bleed across departments. It’s a position of trust, and if the company already has a designer, they tend not to want to give that trust to anyone new.

To get into game design, you have to “play nice” with others: start to work with game designers, approach the work very carefully, show some design prototypes you did on your own or some ideas you had that got into the final version of a game: basically, build up some evidence to show that you can be a good game designer too.

There are other ways to demonstrate that you have a range of non-technical or soft skills that a company is looking for, whether it be relevant non-technical subjects studied (that history minor may be relevant for historical games) or your ability to work in a team. Show that you have a track record of working on a team with other students, and if the opportunity arises, try and take leadership positions in games being developed in or out of class. It’s good to show that initiative: that you are capable of doing things without being asked or required to, for example, by showing that you made games outside college on your own because you wanted to.

There are some in the games industry who claim that they would rather not have done an undergraduate course, but instead would have spent every moment teaching themselves how to make games and doing nothing else. Ian disagrees: college makes you more rounded and helps with breaking into the industry. The most useful thing about college and spending four years in a safety net from the outside world is that you have this time to experiment on games projects and ideas that you couldn’t get away with anywhere else – and you can do it without costing a publisher $3 million dollars on a failed project. You also have a bunch of like-minded people in college with similar interests and career goals, and that’s a huge resource you can make use of.

Ian also talked about the difference between entertainment games and serious games. Jobs creating serious games are a lot less competitive than the entertainment games industry, and with fewer applicants it can be easier to get your foot in the door. But attracting less people means that serious games tend not to be as well polished as entertainment games. The area is really challenging and interesting, and serious games are certainly harder to make than entertainment games. They not only have to be fun or profitable, but there is also that additional purpose that weighs down on you like a giant weight. It can be very rewarding to be able to say “my game helped end a war” or “my game helped save 500 lives”. Ian advised those interested in serious games to attend events like “Games for Change” or the Serious Games Summit.

He stressed the importance of going to games conferences and networking, as this is very important in the games industry. The saying “it’s what you know” is better put as “it’s what you know AND who you know” for the games industry, as you have to know the right people if you want to get that ideal job.

If you haven’t built any complete games, mods (modifications to existing games) can still work well in a portfolio, especially if you can point to it and say that you thought a particular game was good, but this was a weakness you found after your analysis of the game design, and this is what you did to capitalise on that and make it better (it needs to be more than a funny-shaped level).

One valuable piece of advice from Ian was not to throw in everything you’ve ever done into your portfolio. Your portfolio should be your strongest stuff, because the entire set is only as strong as the weakest link and should show the best you are capable of. Don’t pad it out with early work like that badly-drawn polygon animation with lens flare. You need to put in your work that shows what you can do – whether it be mods, design documents or full working games. Of course, this depends on the company. Showing a Half Life mod when applying to Valve will carry a bit of weight!

If you’re a budding programmer, you may also wonder about the demand for those with artificial intelligence experience at undergraduate or postgraduate level. If you can show working games with some AI, this can be pretty compelling, but the downside is that not everyone needs an AI programmer (certainly not FarmVille?), and the academic notion of AI often differs from real gaming requirements. The perfect academic AI will win in the best and most efficient way possible; the gaming AI will put up a good fight and maybe lose, but it will be fun to engage with and demonstrate intelligent play to make the game feel more awesome.

There’s also the commonly-asked question of how those in the games industry can balance their time playing for fun and making games. Making games is very demanding and time consuming. You could spend up to 16 hours a day to get that next milestone out the door, and may not get much time to play. But as a professional game designer you need to play games because you are doing “research”. As seen on the show Extra Credits, there’s a difference between playing as a designer versus playing as a player. As a designer, while playing you are analysing your own play. “Oh, I’m feeling joy with this level. Why is that?” It’s a bit like a professional comedian dissecting another’s jokes: something is lost along the way. For a designer, shutting off that analytical part of brain is very hard, but you can still play games that are different in nature to those you are making and enjoy them.

And that’s what it’s all about in the end of the day. Someone somewhere has made a computer game for your fun and entertainment. Hopefully you can do the same for somebody else someday soon.

Ian was speaking at the International Games Innovation Conference, run by IEEE’s Consumer Electronics Society.

From Arcades to Apps: The History of Computer Games is Repeating Itself

Image adapted from Wikipedia.

Seamus Blackley, co-creator of the Xbox, has a theory. The new arcade is the tablet, the mobile, the app-powered touchscreen device of today. What we are seeing today in games apps has all happened before: we just need to look back to the arcade games boom of the early 1980s, in particular their adoption by a widespread demographic. But we also have to learn from the arcade games crash and make sure that the same doesn’t happen to the games apps ecosystem.

Blackley was the keynote speaker at the International Games Innovation Conference, run by IEEE’s Consumer Electronics Society, where he spoke about the birth of arcades and what it means for those now in the games industry. His new company Innovative Leisure has recruited a venerable team of arcade game veterans to build arcade-like games for touchscreen devices. He is also known as a transforming force in the games industry, revolutionising how many play games today when his team at Microsoft articulated a vision for a games system powered by a personal computer – the Xbox.

A self-confessed games nut who got into the games business because he loved video games more than anything else, Blackley felt so compelled to make video games that he was inexorably drawn in. As he says himself, at one point he woke up wondering what he was doing in the industry, what it meant, how could he make a success for himself there and how would he explain this new industry to his parents or to friends at parties (although this became easier as games became more mainstream). In the 80s, you got a blank stare for being a games designer, and many were unaware of the computer technology powering these entertainment devices. There was a curious and refreshing cultural disembodiment as people responded to games like an entertainment medium and not a technology. “Non-computer” people had permission to play games as they became a widespread cultural trend: they weren’t a geeky activity as computer culture was only just starting.

Before the birth of the computerised arcade games era, the earliest electromechanical arcade games like pinball were a wonder to behold. In fact, they provided the context for computerised arcades because without them the audience wouldn’t have appreciated the leap in gaming when the first video arcades were released. Computer Space, shown on the right hand side, was the first commercial video game to be sold in 1971, based on the Spacewar! PDP (mainframe) game from the 60s and displayed on a TV vacuum tube. Similar to Asteroids, it featured an animated starfield with flying saucers shooting at the player’s rocket ship. What was novel was that the player’s bullets could track a ship and could also be controlled by the arcade buttons. But many still wondered what this thing was and why no TV shows were being displayed on this tube-like screen in a big box. Computer Space was eventually a failure because it was too much and too complex: people just couldn’t figure out what was going on with it. Pong came soon afterwards, in turn inspired by the earlier game “Tennis for Two”, and through its simplicity it achieved more widespread success.

There was a great sense of entrepreneurial spirit in bringing these arcade games to the masses, but there was a terrible problem unanticipated by the producers: copying. They hadn’t trademarked their games (why should they?), and Pong became so successful that it was copied multiple times. So, what to do next? The arcade game producers hired teams to come up with ideas and play around with them, going beyond the different manifestations of Pong to produce driving games, flying games, etc. Games started appearing all over the place, and the instantaneous growth in the scope and range of arcade games in late 70s and early 80s was completely extraordinary (sound familiar?).

At its heart, the arcade game industry was essentially a refrigerator manufacturing business, but the market was huge. Asteroids alone was a $4 billion business, producing over 80 thousand cabinets in the 1980s. The Battlezone Asteroids-type arcade game was a technical design disaster by today’s standards: high voltages inside the case, fluorescent lighting, plastic shrouds, and featuring a 400-pound cabinet in case people would try to steal it (and people did, stealing pickups that were used for transporting the games and leaving the pickups behind). The arcades were extremely profitable: these cabinets would make $400 a week for an Asteroids-type machine.

To illustrate the growth of this industry, in 1978 the US domestic games business was $50 million. Three years later, there were $900 million in sales of cabinets and $5 billion was spent on these arcades in quarters. In 1982, this figure rose to $8 billion in quarters ($19 billion in 2012 money). Atari at that time was the fastest growing company in the history of the human race (Blackley referred to articles in Business Week from that time and how you could almost replace the name Atari with Facebook to produce modern articles word-for-word). To give context, in 1982 the music industry was worth $4 billion and the movie industry was $3 billion. Pac-Man itself eventually became an industry on the scale of the entire movie business at the time.

Nowadays, people often compare these primitive games with fully-featured gaming environments like Modern Warfare, but forget that today’s games are being launched into a very mature and games-aware audience. Also, the games of the 80s weren’t just being played by a niche of gamers, but rather by a universal demographic of people. For those amazed by the wide-ranging demographics of those now playing games on mobiles and tablets, this really is not new news. There are other smaller similarities: the achievement badges with high-quality designs and artwork from arcade games like Asteroids or Gravitar are very similar to those given out on XBLA, PSN or iOS games today. The games trade shows are just as silly as they were back in the 80s when they were invented. And there’s even some cosplay!

What we are facing now is not a brand new situation that no one has ever seen before: there has been no sudden horrible change in the demographics of the world that is causing consumers to behave in some insane way as they take up gaming. We again have a culture that gives permission to play games just like it was 1977. You can be enthusiastic, you have permission to be a gamer, and companies are again talking to a whole audience of people that they haven’t been able to talk to in nearly 20 years. It is interesting to see the corner being turned again, but there is a pattern in human endeavour that has dogged us since we started keeping records.

A new idea is introduced and sees initial success. People get accustomed to it, but then we lose the context for that idea, it declines, and it takes a long time to build back to where you were (there are numerous examples of this from TV or movies to computers). Games also had that effect in the 80s: players with high scores became virtual heroes appearing on talk shows, and there were TV shows consistently at the top of the ratings with kids just playing video games and audiences cheering them on. People got sick of it, and games went away to become more of a hobby interest, with the marketing of games being targeted towards this hobby audience.

Now, with games re-emerging from their hobby audience demographic back into the mainstream, the danger returns. The need for novelty in games begets the demand for a range of games catering to different tastes, which in turns leads to exploitation and over production, with the inevitable crash. Unfortunately, the video games business did an excellent job of crashing itself in 80s. As an example, apparently there were more cartridges produced for the game ET: The Extra Terrestrial than there were Atari 2600s to play them on (many are apparently buried under concrete somewhere in New Mexico). Everyone knew it was crazy, but games were so extremely popular that they felt that they had to do something like that. Blackley refers to this Atari internal memo from Innovative Leisure colleague Rich Adam where he bemoans the impact of what he terms “License Fever” on the quality of video games. If you start to feel that you need to exploit a business because of its scale, you are beginning to disrespect the customer and will crash yourself.

The way that people purchase and play games has changed radically recently. Much has been made in a variety of media articles about the death of consoles, about social media taking over world or the death of social media, and so on. Facebook has changed way that we think about talking to customers online; iOS has changed the way we think about marketplaces and digital downloads; Amazon has changed the way we think about hosting our content and data. The world is changing, but we can still try to engender that feeling of specialness in getting a game for the first time. This is when a teenager drives all the way to a store to get a new game and spends $16 on a plastic disc because they love the medium so much. Blackley advised us not to squander that, to remember how much we love games and to recall that moment when you first saw a game that was really special, that changed your life. He wants game producers to focus their efforts on recreating that and passing that moment on to the audience. A love of gameplay, a spirit of innovation: these are the things that makes the video games industry a really good business.

Just as I was writing this article, Seamus Blackley coincidentally wandered by and we had an interesting chat about the the origins of his name (while working at Looking Glass Studios as Jonathan Blackley, his colleagues gave him a new name – Seamus – that he adopted informally at first and later formally through a name change). He asked me to mention in the article that he was a mean bastard, but actually he’s an inspiring guy. Thanks Seamus!

Savvy Bears: Secure Online Gaming for Children

Savvy Bear is a virtual world for children between the ages of five and twelve years old to play, interact, and learn, in a safe environment. The Dunboyne, Co. Meath-based company was founded in 2010 by father of three John Joyce, who saw a gap in the market for a virtual world that was both educational, and crucially, safe for children to play in.

“I was watching what they were doing on the likes of Disney’s Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters and I said, “I think I could actually develop a product like this.”

John, who is a graduate of computer science from Trinity College, Dublin had seventeen years’ experience in the technology sector before looking at the virtual world space and deciding, “right, I’ll give it a go.”

“I set the company up last July/August and that’s kind of how it started, just from a concept in my head to saying, “OK let’s give this thing a go”, and that’s what happened.”

John is aware that Savvy Bear are not alone in this space, but feels that his product’s educational value, and its safety, set it apart from the rest.

“The unique selling point is that we have an educational part to our product, so there is a school in the game if the child wants to go into the virtual world school, and learn Irish, English, maths, geography, history and science.”

The Irish, maths, and English educational modules on Savvy Bear are all free, as well as optional; if a child wants to simply play or interact, they may do so. The virtual world’s chat function contains only pre-selected words and phrases that a child may choose from, such as “hello”, “thank you”, or “you are funny!”, which ensure that the chat remains innocent and cannot be hijacked by Internet prowlers.

“Our product is 100% safe, continues John. The other games like Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Panfu, they have an open chat policy where you can potentially chat to the child. We don’t, we just have pre-selected words in the game, so we’re 100% safe, which is crucial for a parent. We’ve a little bit of education in it, but it’s great fun, and it’s ad-free.”

The educational aspect of the game is pitched very much as an option and part of the fun, rather than the sole focus of the game, so from the child’s perspective he or she is playing at school rather than attending it or doing homework. Also, any phrases which are chosen in English are translated on the dashboard in Irish as an added educational aid.

John readily acknowledges that it is remarkable to think that he has created a virtual world for children from as young as five years old.

“I’m 39 years of age, this stuff didn’t exist when I was growing up. If you look at a twelve year old child or a ten year old child with a phone and they’re twittering and they’re maybe doing something on Facebook. You can’t turn it off, it’s just there, it’s 24/7.”

With digital devices and worlds so commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the uptake of Savvy Bear amongst children has been high so far. The game has taken on a certain momentum; an appearance on the Irish Dragon’s Den secured some valuable publicity; but Savvy Bear’s growth until now has been achieved without any marketing budget.

“We’ve been going since January and we’ve just over 30,000 people on it (15,000 of which are regular, active users), and it’s been played in 102 countries. It’s just taken off, which is fantastic, you know?”

In anticipation of this growth, Savvy Bear have updated their software to cope with increased demand; behind the cuddly teddy bears, there is a back-end which has to cope with potentially thousands of visitors at any one time.

“What the user sees at the front-end is probably the easiest part, the art and animation. The hardest process in that was listening to a child describe it, or they might sketch out a hair salon and say, “this is what we’d like in a hair salon.”

“At the moment we’re using five or six pieces of software, so we have Flash, php, Gimp, Ubuntu, and we’ve a piece of software that we’ve invested in recently called Smartbox, which Facebook use and allows us to handle thousands of people per second, which is a big issue for any virtual world.”

John laments the fact that he had to locate Savvy Bear’s servers outside Ireland due to what he sees as a “sad” lack of broadband infrastructure.

“The reason we have the servers over in London is because the broadband is a lot better and you get 100% up time, whereas unfortunately, in Ireland you can only guarantee 99% up time, and with a virtual world the last thing you want is to be down.

“When you’re using things like Google Analytics and you’re looking at my market which is the whole world, and you look at the size of Ireland, it’s a little dot. And you think, “why can’t people access the game in Roscommon?” It’s because there’s no broadband there.”

John hopes that the initial growth he has seen will continue and is confident the market is there for Savvy Bear to achieve this.

“I’ve had lots of people say that there’s loads of people in the gaming space, and I say, “that’s correct”. Gaming is massive, but there’s no-one in Ireland or England at the moment developing a virtual world forchildren between five and twelve. We’re it.”

Games Fleadh 2011: Gaming Practice for the Real World

The Games Fleadh is a gaming and programming festival hosted by the Tipperary Institute which brings students from all over Ireland involved in the different elements of computer game development together to compete against each other while being judged by some of the top names in computer game development.

This year the event, which is co-ordinated by Philip Bourke of the Institute’s Information and Communications Technology Department, attracted representatives from Microsoft, the event’s main sponsor, from Havok, Open Emotion Studios, Demonware, and Nevermind Games amongst others.

According to James Greenslade, Director of Information and Communications Technology Department, the Games Fleadh, “Stems from about eight years ago when we in the college, along I suppose,with every other college in the country, had a difficulty with software development students and programming students who were programming with no real focus.

“We saw it as a conduit for students from every college in the country to pitch their programming skills against each other and therefore get a bit of competition going that would interest them, that would showcase their skills, and they’d have a day out for it”.

However, the key to Games Fleadh’s success is undoubtedly the stellar cast of industry professionals it attracts every year, giving the students unparalleled access to a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Mark Lambe from gaming start-up Nevermind Games, acknowledges the importance of networking for young game developers, “You walk in here and there’s Damien from Demonware or such and such from another company and all of a sudden you know five other people, and then next time you have a problem you think, ‘I’m gonna email that guy and annoy him until he fixes it.

“What has happened since Microsoft came on board is that they offered us their XNA development platform, so we’ve had two real competitions in the past five years, the XNA Ireland challenge and the Robocode competition,” explains James Greenslade.

This year, the DirectX challenge was a new addition to the Fleadh. DirectX is a set of Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) made by Microsoft, which is used for enhancing games. This year’s DirectX and XNA challenges licenced the intellectual property of Konami’s classic ‘Frogger‘ game.

Philip Bourke explains how working with a recognised title makes it easier for students get their concept across, “Because they’re working on existing IP, everybody knows what it is, so now they can have a new take on it, like, ‘I did a Window’s Phone 7 version of Frogger.’

“Immediately the people on the other side of the table know the game and they’re interested in seeing what the student achieved.

“The idea of the Direct X challenge is it’s a beauty contest and kind of a skills contest that shows what you can do with 3D Direct X. Take 3D graphics and make it as wonderful, as flashy or as technically difficult as possible”.

Michael Meagher is Academic Engagement Manager with Microsoft, “What these competitions do is they allow students to get real life skills. The thing about working as a gamer is people want to know what you’ve built and how good it is, so being able to go in and pitch an idea is very important and competitions like this and environments like this are really important to help build out those type of skills.

“What we want to see as a result of this is more people developing which is going to help the economy here in Ireland. We need more developers, game developers, and gaming itself.”

Paddy Murphy, is co-founder and C.E.O. of Open Emotion games, the Limerick-based studio behind Mad Blocker Alpha, acknowledges that even gaming professionals can take something positive away from an event such as this, “We came here last year and it was really good last year, but this year has kind of outdone it.

“Some of the stuff I couldn’t get over. There are so many bright students in Ireland doing this stuff, that it’s cool to see their input and their take on things, instead of just thinking you know it all, that’s the big problem”.

Microsoft’s Michael Meagher echoes the importance of producing young game developers, “What these competitions do is they allow students to get real life skills.

“The thing about working as a gamer is people want to know what you’ve built and how good it is, so being able to go in and pitch an idea is very important and competitions like this and environments like this are really important to help build out those type of skills.”

Main article picture: Finn Krewer, a student of National University of Ireland, Galway was the winner of the DirectX challenge.