A history of GAA computer games

By Niall McCoy

ONE consequence of the coronavirus lockdown has been a significant increase in online gaming, physical game purchases and console sales.

According to a Nielsen SuperData report, global spending on digital games reached $10 billion in March, an 11 percent increase on the March 2019 figure. Online servers Xbox Live and Nintendo Online have also suffered short-term outages as demand for their networks increased dramatically.

Ireland has always had a big gaming community and spent €205 million on games in 2019. That spending was ranked 45th in the world despite Ireland being 124th when it comes to population.

Of course, many of those gamers are part of the GAA community and here we look at the four Gaelic games that have come onto the market. And what the future may hold.

1) Gaelic Games: Football

Playstation 2, 2005

There was massive hype when it was announced in October 2003 that IR Gurus were to launch a Gaelic football game on the PS2 – well from most quarters anyway.

The game, to be published by Sony Entertainment, was to be developed by the Australian company as they had a made a number of AFL versions and it was felt their skills could transfer across.

However, the GPA, who had been working in conjunction with former Longford player Frank McNamee on a gaming prototype, hit out.

The GPA is disappointed that the very ethos of the GAA has been undermined by Croke Park itself, to the detriment of a small indigenous Irish company managed by one of its own, a former county player,” said then GPA Chief Executive Dessie Farrell.

“This company was projecting six additional jobs from our own proposed co-operative venture, but the GAA’s agreement, endorsing the overseas development and manufacturing of a competing product for the Irish market, is a severe setback.”

It brought the image rights issue bubbling to the surface and when the game was released in November 2005, the names and faces of players were noticeably absent. Donal O’Neill, the GPA’s then Commercial Director, did state on Today FM’s The Last Word at the time that they had tried to work with the GAA and Sony on the issue but were “shut out.”

Jerseys, crests and stadiums were present though, with the latter one of the highlights of the entire game.

Croke Park was the centerpiece while a number of Ulster stadiums made the cut, including Casement Park. So we can still see games at the Belfast venue, sort of.

A jazzy TV ad accompanied the launch with an advertised price of approximately £40 or €63 announced. Gamers were encouraged to “bring it home” and many did.

On November 14, 2005, the Tyrone Herald reported that Game in Omagh opened at midnight to accommodate the huge demand, and that store shifted 600 units in its first weekend.

Justin Halliday, who would work on the following two Gaelic games, told Gaelic Life that its commercial success opened the door to sequels.

I think that the first Gaelic Games: Football game, in 2005, sold several hundred thousand copies,” he said. “This showed Sony that there was demand for the Gaelic football on the PS2.”

While the sales were good, there were reports of lots of fans requesting refunds given how poorly received the game was.

While the inclusion of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh on commentary duty was a nice touch, his phrasebook was limited and the use of “right corner-forward” or “centre half-back” for identifying players soon began to grate.

The game-play was clunky, the player graphics unimpressive and point-scoring very difficult with many scorelines resembling those of an u-10 blitz.

A commercial success, but users were unimpressed with the product.

DEMAND WAS THERE…Sales of the original led to a sequel

2) Gaelic Games: Football 2

Playstation 2, 2007

Two years later, the GAA, IR Gurus and Sony Entertainment linked up once again to bring out a sequel to their 2005 breakthrough act – although there was much less fanfare this time around.

Justin Halliday was the senior producer for the game along with Rhys Quinert, and he worked on design with Thuyen Nguyen.

Halliday said that the commercial success of the first game paved the way for the two sequels (a hurling game was launched at the same time), but although they were better received, there wasn’t the same pick-up. Both sold less than a hundred thousand copies each.

There were some notable changes from the original.

A new career mode was added where you could pick one of 32 counties and take them on for a season, league and championship, whilst also running your eye over them in training.

Each county also had a few clubs teams included, although they were named after areas within the county rather than the club itself.

The image rights issues still remained so while real players were not included, the developers did at least include fake names to fill the gap.

Most importantly, a new scoring and passing system was introduced to give the game a much better feel than the original.

Halliday said that the bad reviews of the 2005 game hampered their chances of success.

I think that the reaction was pretty mixed,” he said.

The reviews were average, and people appreciated the improvements we made over the 2005 game. But the original Gaelic Football game, and the Australian Rules Football game that shared the engine, were both rushed, so they were plagued with poor frame-rates and glitchy gameplay.

For the 2007 series of games (Gaelic Games Football, Gaelic Games Hurling, and Australian Rules Football), we concentrated on improving the frame-rate and smoothing out the gameplay.

So we vastly improved the gameplay experience for the 2007 games, but the 2005 games had left people with a bad experience, and reduced demand.

The other problem with these games was that we had extremely limited resources to make them, but in the end, they’re on the shelf next to FIFA and Pro Evo Soccer.

And when the games cost the same for players, but have such vastly different resources available for their development, games like GGF and GGH don’t compare particularly well.”

This would be the last Gaelic football game to hit the market, but to this day we still probably dream of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh telling us that “the players are heading in for their half-time cup of tea and banana.”

BETTER HURLING…The 2007 games were a big improvement on the original

3) Gaelic Games: Hurling

Playstation 2, 2007

A hurling game was released at the same time as Gaelic Games: Football 2 and retailers generally offered a reduced bundle price if you bought both together.

Nicky Brennan, then President of the GAA said: “The GAA is delighted to welcome for the first time in its history the licensing of a hurling computer game.”

Like the second football game, it included manager modes and training modes while you could edit club and county teams to include real names. The Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups were also included.

GAA journalist Denis Hurley, of the Evening Echo, reviewed the game at the time and was generally positive, although he did hit out at the fact that penalties were taken like sideline cuts. Poor goalkeeping was another issue that irked players.

Halliday said that the hurling game required a lot of extra work for the 2007 releases as they were starting from near scratch.

For hurling we had to make a lot of changes, including doing a whole lot of motion capture to source all of the animation for the game.

I’m not sure if anyone will tackle Gaelic football and hurling again.

The only way this makes sense is if a developer has a versatile sports engine, like Wicked Witch here in Australia, that work out that there’s enough of a market to take a shot at hurling and Gaelic football again.”

4) Bainisteoir – Hurling

PC, 2007

Marketed as a sports strategy game, Bainisteoir – Hurling brought a management simulation to the GAA market for the first time.

It is believed to have sold in the tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands.

No doubt inspired by global phenomenon Championship Football, now known as Football Manager, the Tipperary-based company Tailteann Games was responsible for the ambitious project.

One of its main selling points was that it had real names, meaning you could keep an eye on how Antrim’s Neil McManus was doing in training or what the press (such as the fictional Irish Guardian) were saying about Armagh’s Paul McCormack.

All 32 Irish counties were included, as were New York and London. County crests and venues were altered though due to image rights requirements.

The features were impressive as you selected a coaching team, dealt with the media and tried to line up sponsorship deals. Diets, stamina training and half-time motivational speeches were all part of the experience too.

The game did suffer from a couple of issues though.

There were some installation problems, particularly for those who used Windows Vista. The operating system had been released just a few months previously and some software and hardware packages needed specific instructions to be compatible.

Secondly, without the might of Sony Entertainment behind the game, it wasn’t as visible in games shops as the PS2 games. That took away some of the momentum that would have been created by a sales surge on launch.

Thirdly, although the game received positive reviews, one issue that it was deemed very hard with P45s arriving rapidly. Getting your training right seemed to be key to staying in charge.

Overall though, the level of detail that went into the game was very warmly received for this GPA-endorsed game. It was clear that it was a fine product with a real local touch.

Denis Hurley, the GAA journalist, was complimentary in his review.

A solid rather than swaggering debut, a provincial championship winner with the potential to take the All-Ireland of future versions can improve on this one.”

Padraig McDonnell, from Tailteann, explained why a sequel never followed – but didn’t rule out the possibility of one arriving down the line.

Not long after the game’s launch, the chance to go from sports simulations to the real thing arose, when we were invited to team up with Warren Gatland and the Welsh Rugby Union,” he said.

Believing the opportunity was just too good to turn down, we focused our collective energy upon the development of the Tailteann Elite Athlete Monitoring (TEAM) System.

As much as we absolutely love hurling and the GAA as a community-based movement, we felt it was in the Med-Tech sector, where our company roots lay, that we could make the greatest difference to people’s lives, and so the Tailteann Medical and Doctot brands is where our primary focus now lies.

Considering how much we loved the game’s design process however, never say never regarding one day returning.”

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