Kiwi firm foots it in world game market

AUCKLAND (03/26/2004) - Having to continue mainstream IT consultancy work to earn enough to prop up an emerging games software company proved a benefit to the latter, now successful business.

Tyrone McAuley, technical director of Wellington's Sidhe Interactive, says it's good to have the management experience that comes from IT consultancy. It perhaps gives Sidhe an edge over some of its competitors, whose staff come purely "from technical and creative beginnings".

But the experience of developing games, he says, has added nothing original to his practice of mainstream IT development.

Sidhe (pronounced "she") has made enough of a name for itself to be involved in producing one of the first games for Sony's new PlayStation Portable (PSP). Technology New Zealand helped Sidhe position itself with a NZ$55,000 (US$35,500) grant to look into the capabilities and limitations of the handheld machine and developing games for it.

Packing PlayStation-style gaming into a palm-sized package with wireless capability, the PSP could lead to the evolution of a new type of gaming community, McAuley suggests; those who seek out opponents by wireless signal in buses, trains, cafes or streets, have a game or two and move on, or perhaps make a long-term friend.

Earlier this month McAuley talked about Sidhe's story so far to an audience of NZ Computer Society members.

Sidhe was the classic story of three enthusiastic game players who worked in consultancy, tried out game creation with a basic authoring tool (The Net Yaroze) and thought they could move straight into the world market.

The new company did have one piece of recognition early, when Sony gave it a developer's license for the PlayStation One, on the strength of a game concept Sidhe showed it.

"Most other developers haven't got a license that quickly, even when they had titles that have already sold well." After trying to go too big, with a complex game called "Chronicle", Sidhe pulled in its horns to a relatively simple tank-battling idea. It was still two years before the company got its first break into the market, with a contract from Australia's Chrome Studios to produce "Championship Surfer".

The business side of game creation took some getting used to, McAuley says, and even now he sometimes longs to get away from the account books and business deals and back to coding for a while.

"We've been thinking about hiring someone else to help with the business side." Being an electronic pursuit does not seem to make those in the gaming business network-aware when it comes to doing deals, he says. There is still a need to travel to meet a prospective publisher face-to-face, and a New Zealand company can still expect to suffer from physical remoteness from major markets.

The technical side of game creation has been aided a great deal by a prepackaged product called Renderware, which does much of the detailed work, Sidhe has written middleware to interface with it and can now work at a higher level.

When the company first looked for government help, he says, it hit the common difficulty of finding the right source of cash.

"We were told 'you're not art and you're not really technology; we have no bucket to put you in'." Persistent effort by the company, friendly forces in the funding agencies and more flexibility in the funding process eventually got Sidhe backing. The current grant is its second slice of government assistance.

As a maturing company, with 30 staff, Sidhe will now have to plan for the longer term.

"We must invest more in R&D and develop some intellectual property of our own," McAuley says. Work to date has been performed for "publishers" and its current big success, Rugby League, is the first game that has actually had the Sidhe name on it.

Another lesson is to coordinate its projects better, so as to spread and manage the risk. "We will try to have a backbone project (to make reliable income) a mid-tier and a high-risk project running at the same time."

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