While it’s only really in the last five to ten years that Northern Ireland has come into its own as a game development hub, the country isn’t without its own place in video game history. Just like other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland had its own share of precocious bedroom coders at the onset of home computing.
One of those was David Perry from Lisburn, who began submitting his own ZX Spectrum games to enthusiast magazines at age 15. Before long his talents catapulted him to games jobs in industry hotspots elsewhere – first in London, where he worked for Probe Software, and later to California and Virgin Games. In 1993 Perry formed his own studio, Shiny Entertainment, and together with artist and animator Douglas Richard TenNapel created the iconic cartoon platformer Earthworm Jim. Perry was awarded an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast in 2008 for his contributions to video games and continues to work in the industry to this day.
Another of Northern Ireland’s prodigal sons was also named David. Born in Belfast, David Doak originally pursued a career in biochemistry and had a spell working as a research scientist at Oxford University. In 1995 however, Doak switched gears entirely and landed a job at Rare, where he both worked on and starred in GoldenEye 007, in which he appears as a crudely modelled NPC. A few years later Doak founded his own studio, Free Radical Design, which would carry the torch for Rare-style arcadey first person shooters with the TimeSplitters series. In 2016, Doak returned to academia, joining the University of Norwich as a lecturer in game design.
Northern Ireland’s first domestically developed video game was nearly released in 1997. Nitro Racers, a top down racer for MS-DOS, was set to be the debut title from Torc Interactive, a Derry-based middleware company. A demo for Nitro Racers was given away by Polish games magazine Gambler and the game even nabbed a four star review from EDGE ’s US counterpart Next Generation, but in the end it never made it to market.
Around a decade later, some of Torc’s staff formed an unofficial spin-off company called Dark Water Studios in Derry City in January 2007, marking what is probably the beginning of the Northern Irish industry we know today. However, their first game DogFighter was beaten to store shelves by mere days by Hector: Badge of Carnage, an episodic detective game from a Donaghadee-based animation studio called Straandlooper.
While neither Straandlooper nor Dark Water hung around for long, two members of Dark Water’s staff did. Sean McCafferty and Aaron Donaghey, the senior designer and an assistant designer of DogFighter respectively, formed Hypixel Studios off to the back of the hugely popular Hypixel Minecraft server. The team was recently acquired by Riot Games and is currently working on Hytale, a collaborative roleplaying game built around player creativity.
The Northern Irish games industry has grown tremendously in the nearly fifteen years since Dark Water Studios planted those initial seeds. Nowadays, the sector makes up a significant part of the country’s economy, with as many as 30 companies offering either games jobs or jobs in games-adjacent software and technology.
Hypixel Studios, as mentioned already, is one such company, employing more than 70 people and counting, located all over the world. With the support of Northern Ireland Screen, Hypixel are currently running an incentive scheme aimed to attract international candidates to the company which covers all work permit and visa costs as well as a sign-on bonus. Being owned by one of the largest names in the business in Riot Games however, they’re something of an anomaly.
The bulk of the Northern Irish game development scene is instead made up of small independent studios, many with staff in the single digits. White Pot Studios, for instance, are a team of six located in Belfast who undertake client work as well as produce their own IP, including the astrology-themed chill-out game Stargazing. The team operates out of the Northern Ireland Screen-funded co-working space The Pixel Mill, which offers short-term and semi-permanent desk space to start-ups in the Belfast area.
Other previous residents include the strategy game enthusiasts Rocket Flair, a team of 10 working on their ambitious ancient Egyptian city building game Dynasty of the Sands, and Blackstaff Games, a games and animation studio developing high quality 2D content aimed at children.
As well as game studios, Northern Ireland boasts a wealth of immersive tech and games-adjacent companies. Retinize is a growing AR and VR team with a background in high-end film and television production that produces multimedia content for the likes of the BBC, National Geographic and Northern Ireland Tourism. Their work has included scripted VR comedy and drama as well as their own accessible VR animation platform Animotive.
SideQuest, meanwhile, is a platform and storefront for early access VR content that’s free to use for users and developers. The service, established in 2019, welcomes more than 1 million monthly users.
On another tack still is Testif, an all-in-one testing service based in Belfast that offers companies a convenient and secure way to distribute builds, monitor testing sessions and collect user feedback. The company has operated since 2015 with clients including Zynga and Codemasters.
As you’d expect, much of the Northern Irish games scene is centered around Belfast and it’s easy to see what makes the capital such an attractive place to live and work. Belfast has everything you’d want from a modern international city, from historic streets steeped in local charm to newly renovated shopping districts and artsy hubs like the Cathedral Quarter.
Like all the best cities, Belfast is big enough to offer a wealth of things to see and do all year round while retaining a humble, homely feel and still being entirely walkable. The city is host to a number of arts and culture festivals, including the Belfast International Arts Festival in October and the Outburst Arts Festival immediately after in November, a celebration of Northern Ireland’s queer artist community. Not to be missed is Culture Night, an evening in September that transforms the Cathedral Quarter into an open-air arts festival-meets-street party that sees public parks host impromptu concerts and venues take shape in the most unlikely of places.
Of course Belfast is a city with a considerable and often difficult and tragic history. A Black Taxi tour is a highly recommended way to gain a deeper understanding of the story behind The Troubles, stopping off sites that played significant roles in the conflict and taking in the various murals dedicated to the losses suffered by the community. Titanic Belfast is also an essential visit to learn more about both the ill-fated cruise liner and Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage. It’s also an example of the fantastic diversity of architecture to marvel in Belfast, from angular modern designs to grand Georgian buildings like Queen’s University Belfast.
Like Belfast, Northern Ireland itself is the perfect size for exploring. Derry, the second largest city, may be on the opposite side of the country but it’s a little over two hours from Belfast via public transport. The once divided city was designated UK City of Culture in 2013 and has since seen a marked increase in tourism. Have a wander round the medieval city walls – the only intact defences of their kind in all of Ireland – and visit the Free Derry corner, the once bastion of civil rights and idealisms during The Troubles that’s continually repainted to show solidarity with contemporary movements and struggles.
Another symbol of peace in Northern Ireland also happens to be the world’s second largest hedge maze. Stretching over 11 square kilometres, the Peace Maze is an ode to reconciliation and overcoming division that’s sure to win the respect of any visiting game designers; the maze is split into distinct halves, both of which must be traversed to solve the puzzle and escape.
The NI Game Dev Network is THE game development community in Northern Ireland. Founded in 2014, the community is an open-armed community for game makers, players, journalists and anyone involved in games at all levels, from studio heads to students and aspiring indie devs. The network is supported by Northern Ireland Screen and offers a platform to host hang-outs, game jams and more while highlighting some of the work that local devs are up to. They also hand out yearly accolades via the NI Game Awards and compile a round-up of local games jobs up for grabs.