‘And this here is Morrigan, the reinterpretation of the Irish goddess of sex, death and strife; we based this game on her.’ Owen shows me another poster of one of his video games, created and produced by his company, bitSmith Games. The office is what you would expect from a small company of this type: nerdy, intelligent-looking guys –no girls– slumped behind laptops, some of them wearing massive headphones. Their boss, Owen, is someone you couldn’t imagine working for a bank: a self-confident giant, over 2 meters, with a goatee and earrings.
Video games. I’ve heard of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, but the last games I played were PacMan and Donkey Kong, sometime in the previous century. But I’ve heard it’s a booming business. Owen provides a bit of background information about the industry. ‘Until now China was primarily seen as a market that made only pirate games. There was no money there, they would just copy. Now that the games are free and the audience is that huge, people are trying to monetise Chinese players for the first time – to use an ugly phrase.’
He founded BitSmith Games just two years ago. Before that he was installing computers, and solving network problems, which was interesting for a while, until it became boring. ‘I started working in IT when I was about 15, there was an IT boom then in Ireland and they simply couldn’t find enough people. Some friends and me were hired to install a network in a law firm in ’95. It was crazy.’
‘Were you a whizz kid?’
‘Not really. I enjoyed video games. I learnt computers as a means to be able to play video games. I inherited a very old computer, thrown out by my mother’s office, and it was not an office that required good computers, so it was really, really bad. I upgraded the thing, made it much faster. So I was able to play games like Doom or Monkey Island. It had a strange impact on the city, because all of a sudden there were a lot of kids in their early twenties who had a loads of money, while the rest of the country was still poor, it was the late 80s.’
We moved from his office to the canteen of a hip business centre, filled with tech start-ups. Heavily sponsored by Google, Apple, IBM and others. You see, one thing Ireland has done very well: it invested in a very robust infrastructure, which attracted a lot of technology-based companies – and lot of tax cuts that helped too. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, they all have their European HQ here. Twitter is across the road, LinkedIn is around the corner.’
In Dublin online companies become real companies, providing real employment.
Meanwhile he orders a vegetable shake, ‘Is it gluten free?’
The waitress tells him there’s a tiny bit of gluten in it, so he decides to order coffee instead.
‘I’m eating extremely healthy at the moment; I’m trying to loose weight. I’m loosing 4 kilo’s a month. I’m 112 now, used to be 140.’ He says he’s doing the Paleo-diet, so we discuss diets before getting back to business: ‘What’s it like being an entrepreneur in Ireland?’
‘The government has set up some really great initiatives. They supported a number of business accelerators, which are really helpful for us, and it is because of this we’re more than a bunch of guys with laptops but a real company. They also have lot of start-up funds. We were founded with 65,000 Euros too. And thirdly, they match investors. If they invest 10,000, government does the same.’
‘So the government has a share in the companies?’
‘Yes, done through Enterprise Ireland, a special body. I think it is really important that the government invests in emerging businesses, now more than ever, because these businesses will provide the jobs of tomorrow. It’s the way to recover from a recession.’
‘Is it going better?’
‘Yes, it’s up and down, but we’re beginning to see more good news. The end is near, I think
‘Don’t know. I’m utterly incapable of answering. It’s a mystery to me.’
‘What is the status of and entrepreneur in Ireland?’
‘People are tremendously supportive, they like the idea. There’s a huge amount of entrepreneurial spirit in this country. They like it when you’re trying to build something. And when you tell them you’re making video games, that doesn’t hurt as well. You know, the thing with Ireland is that everything we’ve been told that is safe, has turned out to be really unsafe. For years and years the mantra was: put all your money into property. Bricks and mortar. There’s a really healthy cynicism about the established way of doing things. All of the safe jobs, all these companies we’ve been encouraged to work for, are laying off people. As a result of that, added to the entrepreneurial spirit, the status of an entrepreneur is good. The closest I got to criticism was that people said: why don’t you move to California? There you will get 500,000 dollars of investment within 2 weeks. Or you will be hired by one of these companies and they will pay 150,000 dollars a year. But I’m very happy here.’
‘Also happy in Europe?’
‘I’m a massive fan of Europe. I like to see as much of it as possible, I travel a lot. I love seeing the different cultures and architectures. You know, my grandfather fought in both world wars, he told us a lot of stories about it. And given the bloody history of Europe it is truly amazing to see what’s happening now, the past decades. I think there is great potential here. In terms of planet earth, this is our best: an open fair society.’