Northern Ireland

Technology hub taking NI games industry to next level

Man playing video game Image copyright David McNew/Getty Images
Image caption Earlier this month it was reported that the video games sector now accounts for more than half of the UK's entire entertainment market

Belfast's buildings are set to walk and talk in a new video game, as Northern Ireland seeks to boost its gaming industry.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the UK sector is now estimated to be worth £3.86bn - making it the fifth largest market in the world.

Buildings Have Feelings Too has been created by Blackstaff Games.

It is one of seven start-ups based at Northern Ireland's first games incubator.

The Pixel Mill in Belfast's Ormeau Baths Innovation Centre is ensuring the game will be just one of several from Northern Ireland rolled out this year.

Image copyright Blackstaff Games
Image caption Buildings Have Feelings Too, currently in development, is being produced by Blackstaff Games

"It is city management and the buildings have personalities and can walk and talk to each other," Blackstaff Games creative director Benjamin Donoghue said.

"We are using some Belfast buildings as central characters, such as The Merchant Hotel and the old Bank of Ireland building on Royal Avenue."

The mill, which opened in November, is funded by Northern Ireland Screen with support from the Department of the Economy.

Image caption Donal Phillips of NI Screen said the Pixel Mill would help gaming companies share creative and technical skills

NI Screen has invested more than £1m from 2014 to 2018 to support more than 30 companies develop content.

Although there is also industry investment in the sector, it is still very much in its infancy and NI Screen has now entered phase two of its so-called Opening Doors strategy.

Image caption The Pixel Mill provides a range of facilities including meeting rooms, event space and a user testing lounge

NI Screen's interactive executive Donal Phillips said the facility would act as a landing point for anyone coming to Belfast, and increase collaboration locally and internationally.

"The Pixel Mill is a games studio incubation space to help early stage teams get essential business skills," he said.

"They need a space for knowledge sharing on creative and technical skills, the aim is to hothouse teams that can attract investment and deliver projects."

Mr Phillips said there had been a shift of skills to the gaming sector from the animation and visual effects sectors.

He cited digital distribution and the launch of the iPhone as a significant factor in growth.

"We have gone from two or three studios in Northern Ireland trying to catch a break to between 20 or 30 companies working on gaming projects," he added.

"The big changes were digital distribution and access to tools.

"To get a game made in the past, you might have needed a team of 10 to 20 developers, now a team of two or three can make a high quality game."

Image caption Brendan Drain is a director with Brain and Nerd who created the game Predestination

One company based at the Pixel Mill, which started as two people, is Brain and Nerd, whose space game, Predestination, is available on digital gaming platform Steam.

"We are experts in crowdfunding, we were the first Irish game to be successful on Kickstarter back in 2012, with Predestination," said Brain and Nerd director Brendan Drain.

"We had two crowdfunding campaigns - the first one asked for $25,000 (£19,500) and we got $50,000, the second one got $20,000.

"Now we have some space to work in and collaboration, we have seen some great collaboration."

Image copyright Brain and Nerd
Image caption Predestination allows players to "colonise habitable worlds, meet alien races, and wage war"

Outside of the mill, Kevin Beimers is the Canadian director of Italic Pig, an established County Down-based studio.

He moved to Northern Ireland more than a decade ago to become art director of a digital animation company and recognises the game changer of digital distribution.

"I moved to become part of an animation studio - they then turned one of their properties into a game called Hector: Badge of Carnage," he said.

"Before the App Store and Steam, the only way to get your game published was if you had lots of money or had been in the industry a long time.

"We have a strong indie culture and mentality in Northern Ireland, there are no companies of 3,000 people making billions on a game worked on over eight years."

Mr Beimers is also a representative of Games NI, the association of developers.

"Games NI is about how collaborative the Northern Ireland scene is," he said.

"Everyone knows each other, we share resources, sometimes we share staff and advice.

"Five years ago, 30 to 40 people would have met together on average, at the last event we had between 80 and 100."

Image copyright Hypixel Studios
Image caption Hytale is the first stand-alone game from Hypixel Studios

In Londonderry, Aaron Donaghey is project leader for Hypixel Studios.

"Hypixel is an international team from all over the world mainly involved in running Minecraft servers," he said.

"We have an international team of about 50 people - three are based here in the North-West."

Last month, Hypixel announced its first stand-alone game entitled Hytale, and Mr Donaghey is excited by the opportunity.

"We decided to take control of our destiny and make something we were wholly responsible for," he said.

"We did a trailer announcement for Hytale in December 2018, I was hoping for a million views, we are now sitting at 30 million."

Elsewhere, "the few studios in Derry" are largely one to two people operations, he said.

"It is not a busy scene, but not through want of trying," added Aaron.

Image copyright Billy Goat Entertainment
Image caption William Barr of Billy Goat Entertainment who signed a deal with Microsoft in relation to its game Supermarket Shriek

Back in Belfast, Billy Goat Entertainment is looking forward to the launch of Supermarket Shriek later this year after signing a deal with Microsoft.

"It is a timeless tale of a man and a goat in a shopping trolley trying to navigate various precarious obstacles," its director William Barr explained.

Image copyright Billy Goat Entertainment
Image caption Mr Barr described Supermarket Shriek as a "timeless tale of a man and a goat in a shopping trolley"

"At the end of January, there is a global game jam and people get a chance to make a game from scratch, myself and a programmer at the event in Belfast last year came up with this idea."

Despite Belfast's buildings rocking the virtual world, Mr Barr believes the Pixel Mill is a firm foundation for the gaming industry in the real one.

"The Pixel Mill is a great idea. Games tend to take a while to make - this will accelerate the process," he said.

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