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Bradford MBA Helping To Grow Ireland's Games Industry

Gamer, investor and co-founder of gaming firm Simple Lifeforms Alan O'Dea tells us why his industry is at the cutting edge of design, consumer behaviour, technology and business.

By  Ifeatu Nnaobi

Tue Nov 27 2012

Alan O’Dea says the games industry presents incredible career opportunities for MBAs with a passion for the product.
Alan is CEO and co-founder of Dublin-based  Simple Lifeforms an online games development and publishing company that also provides consultancy services to the games industry around the world. 
He has a BSc in Video Game Design and Technology and an MBA from Bradford University School of Management. He has long been an avid games player and got into the business side of gaming very early on in his career working for several big firms.
Alan is a mentor at the DCU Ryan Academy's Propeller Venture Accelerator Programme in Dublin, working with some founders, teams, advisors and investors building cross-platform location games at their games lab in Dublin. He also mentors at the GameFounders accelerator programme in Tallin, Estonia and at the ExecutionLabs accelerator programme in Montreal, Canada. 
Read on to find out more about this exciting industry, and Ireland's role as a global gaming centre.
On average how many hours a day do you spend playing games? 
When I’m not busy, I find time every week but I don’t usually spend over an hour at each go. I have a lot of friends who could easily spend four hours a night but then again the amount of time you can spend on each game depends on the type of game you’re playing. The Star Wars MMO were designed to be played for hours but you can’t spend that amount of time on a game like Angry Birds. But at Christmas, I could easily dedicate a week of my two-week vacation to playing games. A lot of people use that time to catch up on the bigger games they didn’t play. 
I never pegged Dublin to be a games place? Are there many other developers and games companies over there?
It would surprise you. There are not many indigenous groups but the government identified it as a high growth sector so there is lots of seed money. Dublin is getting a lot of international recognition in the start-up scene. Many people are coming to Ireland to set up games companies. At the accelerator, 60% have come from the US and  30% from Europe. Most of the good games entrepreneurs are from Eastern Europe. I know a European company who just raised money with an Irish venture capitalist. 
What does being a mentor at a Games Accelerator involve?
It’s like grading exams. You have to be harsh in criticism but also helpful because you want them to do well. It’s tough being on the other side. Some of the members have great teams but a poor products, other have a great product but haven’t found ways to make it commercially viable. 
What do you feel needs to change to allow the Irish games industry to grow?
Ireland has specific problems of scale. It’s never going to be a big indigenous creative place on four million people. Ireland needs to think less about the local market and apps success. 57% of all content on App stores are games. The App market is cluttered and competitive. It should be more about building games businesses that can outlast the cyclical nature of business
Why did you found Simple Lifeforms?
The work I had done for my MBA thesis was a toolkit for the UK Trade Association on how the UK video games industry could become competitive in the global market. After that, I helped raise a fair amount of money for a video games developer in the UK, spent a few years interfacing with venture capitalists, and growing games studios from 10 to 200 people.
I had seen the rise of social networks and believe that video games will trend to digitally enhanced television and mobile. I felt that given my publishing experience, I wanted to make my own games so I went into the market as a self-funded developer but the seed funding wasn’t there so I had to refocus on consultancy and that’s been very lucrative. I was able to work for video games companies who are usually very protective. 
What are your all-time favourite games to play?
That’s a very tough question. My favourite game is a really unknown game made out of plastacine. It’s a Claymation game called Neverhood. I don’t think anyone would’ve heard of it. Must have sold just four copies or so. I'm currently playing World of Warcraft. 
Do you think MBAs could thrive in the games industry?
There are very few MBAs working in the games industry and this is a shame because it’s very interesting. It’s a great business in terms of technology innovation and the business models are very cutting edge. 
I mean, when we started Simple Lifeforms, we raised €100,000 in the first two weeks then took another two and a half years to raise other funds because the economy changed drastically. The games market is very unique, sophisticated, and ruthlessly competitive. There is a huge difference between being professional and thriving and simply doing the cool stuff and saying you’re in a start-up. 
People don’t think the games industry presents enough of a business opportunity to build an MBA career on and a lot of people see it as a trading down since many MBAs are people who might have had careers in industries like finance. I see the games industry going through an upturn at the moment but if you’re not a gamer you won’t be valuable.
You need to understand the different types of games created for different classes of consumers. So, there are casual games such as Angry Birds which people mostly play when on the move and Facebook games that people only play when they are on their computers. Console games mostly have a lifecycle of about three years. You also need to understand the nature of micro-transactions and defining growth that way. Additionally, mobile and social networking means more people are spending time playing games. People over the age of 45 are playing games for the first time on their iPads or on Facebook.
What are some games companies we should be keeping an eye on?
Superseller are crushing it at the moment. There’s also Wargaming.net. Finland is throwing out a lot of successful games companies, and Spry Fox are good to look out for. There’s also Ouya, a crowd-funded android based indie platform. I really like Nintendo, they are company that really care about their customer’s enjoyment, thinking back to the days of Super Mario and then forward to their new Wii U. 
What are some of the exciting projects Simple Lifeforms is working on?
I think there’s a great opportunity in location based games. 350 million gamers have access to location games services. So, we’re building a Foursquare-like platform for location games and adding location features to bring the location based experience to existing gamers. Games companies that do well can dominate a particular class the way Angry Birds dominated casual games, or find a niche genre and add features. It’s really fascinating as business sector and as to what we can do for the user. 
At the moment I’m working with an Irish team and Irish investors. I’m very proud of that. We also write a lot about the experience of having run big projects to running smaller projects in lean and agile mode and we’re trying to turn our insights into a book. We think games are an art and a business at the same time and we want to share our experiences. My co-founder Tahdhg Kelly writes for the technology section of Techcrunch and for Edge Online so we have a lot to share!
Read more stories about students, alumni, and programmes at Bradford University School of Management, here