Ben Clavin is the co-founder of Pewter Games, an indie games studio based in Dublin. Their first game, The Little Acre, was released on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One on 13 December 2016 to critical acclaim. Sean Clerkin talks to him about the difficulties faced by the fledgling games development industry in Ireland.
For readers who may not have heard of the game, what’s the elevator pitch for The Little Acre?
The way we’ve always described it is that it’s a hand-animated adventure based on 80’s escapist fantasy films like Labyrinth, The Neverending Story and even something like The Pagemaster. Those stories of a real world and a fantasy world and characters travelling back and forth between the two. The art style is very heavily influenced by Don Bluth’s Disney films. That old-school, “technically a terrible idea but still looks great” style.
What’s your background?
I’m from Tallaght in Dublin and I studied philosophy in Trinity for four years. I guess I did it because I didn’t know what to do but after years of floating around in this weird degree, I kind of got into logic. I think it was something to do with having something to latch onto in the storm of not knowing what to believe.
Did that interest in logic lead you to programming?
Exactly. Logic is what interested me. Philosophy just gives you this weird, all-round skill set. So I did the MSc in Digital Games at DIT.
Dublin is no Silicon Valley in terms of games development. Was it a bigger risk to set up a company here?
People [the government] do want to help, which is different to America where it’s more of a “do it yourself” mentality. The problem here is really communication. There are [grant] systems out there but they generally don’t understand gaming. The applications we are eligible for were set up for the tech industry. In other countries, grants for gaming companies are often done under the arts programmes so you might go to the film board, for example. Ireland doesn’t have that yet – here we’re not arts, we’re tech. Hopefully, that changes.
Tech is easy to communicate because it’s about “what problem am I fixing.” Games don’t really fix problems, other than boredom. So it was tough to get the idea across but the support was there in the end. We got Enterprise Ireland funding, started off down in the NDRC [an investor and incubator for startups, based in Dublin] and we got some private investment. We got a publishing deal with an English company. You have to approach people in a very open, communicative way to make them understand why they should support you. In England or America you could say “we’re making a games company” and people would understand immediately.
How did you go about selling it to investors?
We always imagined that we were selling apples. So, what’s the business plan there? How would you grow enough apples, how would you sell them, at what price and where? We tried to avoid explaining Steam and Xbox etc. Often it would just confuse people.
Games are closer to film in terms of the production timeline, so you have to factor that in when looking for investors and make sure they are aware of that.We spent two to three years [on The Little Acre]. It’s very start-stop at the beginning. If we had the funding and the team from the start, it wouldn’t be too bad but compared to some cool app idea you could have, it takes a lot longer to take to completion.
Was it challenging to find the talent you needed here?
For art, not at all. There’s a booming animation industry in Ireland. There are so many jobs going, there’s so much talent. One of the best things we did was to go to the student animation shows in Ballyfermot and IADT. We were able to get the best people on board because we were offering them a position in an art style that no one else was going to allow them to do; the flip-book style. I think it was also an attractive proposition because first of all, it’s a video game, so that’s cool and second, they had a lot of creative input.
With programming, it is definitely harder to find people with the right skills. We got a guy named Andrew [O’Connor], who started a company called BatCat Games. He came in towards the end of our project and he’s probably the only guy in Ireland with experience in Xbox and PlayStation integration! There’s a lot of work in that and a lot of rules. Xbox and PlayStation are very strict with what you can and can’t do. That’s the only role we struggled to find someone for – I would recommend Andrew!
What about getting a publisher?
You can’t get a publisher in Ireland. I’m pretty sure there actually aren’t any. You’d be looking for marketing experience in the games industry and press contacts and all that stuff. There’s just not that level of industry connection here.
Are things looking up for the Irish games development sector?
It’s got a good thing going for it and it’s going to get bigger. Guild of Dungeoneering came out in 2015. We are launching on consoles. I think Irish companies are coming to realise they can do this too.
One of the worst accolades you can get with games is “best in Ireland”. We’ve always tried to hold ourselves to an international standard. We’re thinking, “it might hold up on the Irish stage but if we’re at PAX, will it still look good?” Everyone knows what looks good on the campus of an Irish college but that’s not good enough anymore. If people keep judging themselves by international standards, I think the sector will continue to grow.
When we were starting there were really two companies: BitSmith and BatCat. They were the ones who had gone to GDC or released a game on Steam. They were the ones that we looked to for advice. Now, if you’re just starting up, there are way more companies you can approach for advice and contacts. I think it’s going to keep getting better.
What kind of support do Irish studios need to compete internationally?
We need to be treated as part of the arts, along with musicians, actors, writers. It is art! With the current environment where we are considered tech, sometimes you’ll be pitching against a medical device for funding. It’s like, give the money to them, they’re going to save lives – I’m making a video game!
Can you see a big Triple A studio ever coming from Ireland?
Not born from Ireland. I mean maybe, it would be stupid to say no but I don’t think that’s the way we’re built. Obviously, we have DIGIT and they are definitely aiming to be that. All the luck to them but I think they are the only ones with that ambition. Everyone else has an “I want to add something to the marketplace that isn’t there yet” mentality.
Can we expect to hear from Pewter Games about your next project soon?
First, there are going to be some more platforms for The Little Acre.
Is it coming to the Switch?
I wish! Not yet, though we are official Nintendo developers. We met them at GDC and we’re set up but we haven’t touched anything yet. We might, it’s not a bad idea. We’ve got other ones coming out over the next few months.
We have got a brand-new game but it’s very early on. We’re putting the wheels in motion right now.
The Little Acre is available on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One now!