The Games Master

Brenda Romero opens up about gender equality, her love of Galway, and the evolution of the games industry as she speaks with Better Business about Ireland’s continuing global influence.

 

The worldwide games industry is a modern phenomenon. The sector has become one of the most profitable entertainment industries in the world, with recent reports suggesting revenues could to hit $180bn by 2021.

Brenda Romero has been a major player in the area of game design for decades. Best-known for her work on releases such as Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, Playboy: The Mansion, Def Jam: Icon and Wizardry, the creative director has worked with a variety of digital game companies throughout her distinguished career – Atari, Sir-Tech Software, Electronic Arts – and now heads up Romero Games alongside her partner John Romero in Galway.

In terms of the shifting gaming landscape, the entrepreneur has seen the transformation of the industry firsthand since she first entered it in 1981.

“It’s gone from trading disks friend-to-friend, to baggies hanging in stores, to boxed games in stores and then to full digital distribution,” she explains. “Above all, I believe that games have finally emerged, not just as a commercial industry, but as a cultural art form. Games are used, not just to entertain, but for education, news, health, as well as in many other fields.”

Emerging technologies have allowed millions of people around the world to enjoy gaming as a shared activity. “Th ere has been a tremendous change in the way that games have been marked and sold in the last five to ten years,” Romero describes the evolution of customer habits and expectations. “Digital distribution is now standard, and consumers are far more educated about what they want in games as a result. It’s been a benefit for developers too, as we can communicate directly with a large number of gamers to discover what features they like and don’t like. We’ve also seen a rise in the influencer method of marketing and this has hugely affected the games space.”

The industry in Ireland is in great shape. In late 2018, an Irish games company developed the country’s first AAA game [games industry equivalent of big budget release] and, in general, Irish companies and individuals have been incredibly influential in the gaming industry. However, Romero believes many haven’t received the recognition they deserve. She says: “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which transformed the most popular genre across the world, was created by Brendan Green, originally from Kildare. Demonware and Havok are gold standards and backbones of many AAA games, while current head of AR/VR at Oculus, Colum Slevin, has long been a part of our industry. And there are countless indie success stories like Gambrinous with Guild of Dungeoneering doing great things.”

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Groovy Galway

Pitching Ireland as a games hub has been problematic in some respects, with the games industry only receiving a minuscule fraction of the millions paid out to Ireland’s film industry. Romero would like to see more done in terms of tax benefits for Irish game developers, as well as more grants and funding provided in line with other EU nations. “The State is great about supporting art and technology companies,” she states, “but games tend to fall in a grey area between art and tech. If you look what our neighbours do in terms of funding supports, particularly in France, you can see how much more we could achieve.”

Operating a cutting-edge gaming firm in the west of Ireland may raise some eyebrows, but those in the know will be aware that Galway is home to a plethora of major tech companies – Electronic Arts, Oracle, Cisco, HP and SAP – as well as a healthy sprinkling of independent game companies.

For Romero, the vibrancy and warmth of the city is what attracts many firms here. “Galway has everything you need to have an amazing tech business: access to great internet speeds, creative people, programmers, a quality of life that’s second-to-none and great educational institutions from which to attract local talent,” she declares. “There’s always a buzz about Galway, and that’s the kind of environment you need to make great games. Our office is right in city centre and I can’t imagine a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

In a career littered with numerous success stories, Romero considers the team she and John have built in Galway as her biggest professional achievement. “You can have a great idea, but without a great team you’re not going to get very far,” she enthuses. “This team is so much more than purely talented, though. We genuinely respect and like one another and enjoy making games together. I can’t tell you how great that feels, but anyone who’s experienced a dysfunctional crew and an amazing crew can tell you.”

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Appropriate certification

Romero works within an industry that has been criticised for its ethics around the use of overly sexualised characters and the levels of ultraviolence within games. Having researched this area extensively, Romero stresses the importance of certification. “Games are similar to movies or books in that they cover a wide variety of subject matter,” the BAFTA award-winning game developer informs. “I believe adult content in video games, specifically sex and violence, should be handled similarly to the way it is handled in movies, namely through ratings and age restrictions on the content that is not age-appropriate.”

Equally important is that equality, inclusion and diversity are front-and-centre in any discussion about the future of the industry. But what does the future of the gaming industry in Ireland look like? To some extent it will depend on how successfully the Irish education system rolls out computer-based resources at both primary and secondary level to entice a new generation into the sector.

A common misconception is that gamers are predominantly male, when in fact this is not the case, and Romero has been openly critical regarding levels of sexism and misogyny in the gaming industry.

“My hope is that we will see more women entering tech fields in general,” says the longest continuously serving woman in the video game industry, “and this begins with introducing all kids, both boys and girls, to computers and to coding or computer-created art at an early age.”

These advances could signify an exciting new chapter for gaming. For the industry to reach this level, individuals like Brenda Romero will be pivotal in pushing the agenda of inclusion forward.

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