A Sidhe is an earthen mound where mythical beings live. It’s also an independent New Zealand videogame company that’s moved away from the hill-dwelling fairy thing to release six titles in the last five years. I’ve known about them for a long while: Like fantasy films, Antarctic storms and flaccid politicians, Sidhe has become part of the Kiwi landscape. But I’d never gotten near the source code, the how, why and what-the-hell of growing your very own game development ecosystem at the bottom of the South Pacific. So I called them up, begged my way in and spent a week learning the secret. Here it is, in seven easy steps, complete with magic beans and beer.

Begin with nothing
In 1997, the Kiwi gaming industry was virtually a blank slate. Two people, Simon Armstrong and Mark Sibly of Acid Software, had made some commercial titles for the Amiga, and Mark was developing the Blitz Basic game-creation tool. That was it. Just like the rest of the Western world, we had teenagers who enjoyed games and would love to create them for a living, but there was simply nothing here: no infrastructure, culture, supply chain, skills base, contacts, reputation, nothing. You want to play zippy-zaps? Bugger off overseas.

Tyrone McAuley, Stuart Middleton and Mario Wynands needed something more than day jobs. They had a combination of business, programming and artistic chops, so they decided to try games. Might be a fun hobby. Might be a youthful risk, one of those early-20s business experiments that don’t last.

Might be a blank slate with some unexpected potential.

Screw it up, then look in the mirror
“In the early years, some of the things we sent out to publishers – I’m embarassed…” Stuart acknowledges. The first three years were brutally messy; professionalism and a knowledge base take time. Simple things can be extraordinarily tough when you start from scratch: How do you make contact with publishers? How do you pitch for work with no track record? What do you say to someone in America to convince them that sending a cheque to New Zealand, wherever the green hell that is, might be worthwhile?

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“Initially we didn’t understand relationships – we thought having a good game was enough,” says Mario. Without good games or relationships, growth is a mystery and it’s hard to sustain confidence. There’s a question that’s very hard to answer, especially when asked by family and friends (explicitly or not): “Why are you doing something so fundamentally ludicrous as starting a videogame company? Really, why?”

Sidhe drummed up $45,000 for a Playstation One development kit, delivered in pieces to Mario’s mother’s house. They had no guaranteed work and no cash reserves, skirting financial, legal and managerial crises several times. Regular income was a fairy myth, and a 45 grand lump of plastic-and-metal magic beans is a tough way to stay awake at night.

As always happens when friends start a business, the founders felt a tension between plugging away with blind faith and trying to keep things in perspective. Coming from an artistic background, Stuart felt the allure of more established environments and wanted to see what the rest of the world had to offer. He withdrew as a director, selling his shares to the others for a pittance, and eventually left for Melbourne.

Defuse the single-game deathtrap
Sidhe grew past 10 people, then 20. They did work for hire and began building a reputation for themselves, making titles like Barbie Beach Vacation and Wordjam Deluxe. Finally, around 2002, things came together on several fronts. They got the contract to make NRL Rugby League, a multi-platform version of one of Australasia’s most popular sports. Soon after, they started on Gripshift, an original game for the PSP which later moved onto the PS3 and Xbox 360 via their respective digital distribution services.

The deadly “all your eggs in one project” trap has destroyed many studios, and getting beyond it was crucial for Sidhe’s long-term stability. Even better, Gripshift gave them their first taste of original IP, the developers’ Holy Grail of game properties. Their success can’t be distilled into a single, fundamental ingredient; hard work, intelligence and commitment are not fairy dust. Growing your own company is a tough slog, even more so when you begin with a blank slate in an underdeveloped local ecosystem. But eight years in, Sidhe was still alive and making games, with the opportunity to take a close look at what they were doing and why.

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Tap dancing across razor blades makes you do some pretty sharp thinking about how to run a game studio.

Talk less, think more
While the world is over-caffeinated and underwhelmed at E3 2008, Sidhe’s three office floors in downtown Wellington are bustling with activity. Everyone’s here, all 85 employees, because they did their industry rounds two weeks ago in a series of appointments across the States.

“We get to have quality time with people. We’re not one of 20 meetings in someone’s day. It just makes more sense,” says Business Development Executive Jos Ruffell, a tall young guy with a beard that speaks of Viking-level South Seas winters.

The ecosystem is now up and humming. There are several projects in progress, the most pressing of which is the PS2 version of Speed Racer, a tie-in to the acid-trip firebomb that was the Wachowski Brothers’ movie. Sidhe has emerged from that fiasco looking good: They delivered Speed Racer on a tight schedule, navigated the one-way streets that are Hollywood relationships and produced a game rated highly among movie-based titles on Metacritic. They weren’t so lucky with Jackass, another licensed property that garnered schizophrenic reviews; thankfully, they had enough games in development to compensate. The studio is now “one to watch,” an outfit of proven ability and contacts still searching for a hit to zoom them up the ladder. Pushing against those limits has made Sidhe think hard about many aspects of their business, from relationship management to staff retention.

“Most of the perceived geographic gap is an illusion,” Jos comments. “If there were a crisis, I could be in L.A. tomorrow morning. But we still pay a lot of attention to relationships. Some of our partners comment that they see us more than their local contacts in the States.”

The style is different, too, and reflects the founders’ personalities: Don’t overhype, don’t overextend, be upfront and honest about your own capabilities. It unsettles some colleagues, especially those used to the manic overselling so prevalent among American developers; but by the second or third go-around, the advantages of under-promising and over-delivering become clear – not least the fact that Sidhe is mindful of the health and longevity of its own fledgling ecosystem.

Grow good things and don’t eat babies

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Everyone works a set 9 to 6 workday, five days a week, and since first hiring staff the company has never missed payroll. There are crunches, but they’re kiwi crunches: small and flightless. Sidhe enforces rigorous project management strategies with a distinct lack of foosball tables, massages and other tech industry clichés. It’s a way of getting the job done without devouring your young in the process.

To counter the prohibitive cost of shipping 80-plus New Zealanders to U.S. events like GDC, Sidhe holds its own internal development conference with presentations ranging from Agile code development to pitching ideas to the role of the publisher. Many companies do this kind of thing as a matter of course, but it’s a little more important when you’re 8,000 miles out of Austin or Las Vegas.

The broader habitat for developers has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, with a local Media Design School and several New Zealand universities now offering variants on game development degrees. Sidhe is an active sponsor, partner and adviser to this process and serves as the cornerstone of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, a group of embryonic Kiwi companies keen to get in on the action. As with those other local ecosystem generators, Weta Workshop and Peter Jackson’s film operations, this activity has fundamentally shifted the New Zealand dreamscape. A bored 14-year-old in math class can finally have that light-bulb moment of, “Hey, if I do the right things and I’m good enough, I could actually make videogames for a living.” There’s still a distinct lack of women, but the seismic changes are real.

Show ’em your scars, then head for the barbecue
The flipside of growing young talent is that you need grizzled hands to stack the compost heaps. For experience and a veteran’s perspective, Sidhe handpicks senior staff from overseas, some of whom arrive like refugees from an industry with a growing hunger for its own flesh.

The perspectives and motivations are revealing. Steve Mariotti worked for nearly 15 years on the West Coast of the States, including serving as Lead Programmer on Civilization: Call to Power and its sequel, before moving to Stormfront Studios and, later, Nihilistic Software. The journey included some high-pressure, everyone-getting-screamed-at projects. By the end of it he was married, had kids, and that factory-cog feeling had worn very thin indeed. “I absolutely became disenchanted with the way the game industry was going in the San Francisco area,” Mariotti says. “Having worked my way through the best developers I could find, I struck out for greener shores.”

Andy Satterthwaite started out in early-’90s Britain at Psygnosis, producing Wipeout 2097, Colony Wars and Wipeout 64 before setting up his own company to make N-GEN Racing and Quantum Redshift. He puts it simply: “Down here, I get to be a big fish in a small pond, creating things and helping build a company.” His son was born in New Zealand, and along the way he had the germ of an idea that became Gripshift.

Other senior employees’ backgrounds range from an ex-Air Force officer to several reformed corporate publisher executives. Co-founder Stuart Middleton is back from Melbourne, heading up the Art Department and much happier for it. Everyone, especially the foreign-born seniors, implicitly accepts the upside/downside equation of Sidhe: You’re not going to get rich here, you’re not going to drive a Ferrari and you’re not going to be working on Spore, Final Fantasy, or Gears of War. This is not New York, the West Coast or even Melbourne. But you get your health, at least some of your sanity and, when you walk out of the office on a Friday afternoon, you get to raise your children in Middle-earth, complete with barbecues and moa-burgers.

Those who’ve worked overseas find the naiveté among the younger set charming: These guys really don’t know what the games industry’s like. It’s a good innocence to have. The others have the scars to prove it.

There is no god of independent game companies
“Never forget that this industry is vicious,” says producer Dean Hall. “I don’t think most people, even observers on the edge, fully appreciate the extent of it.”

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There’s no law of the universe that says if you have a big dream, and you’re brave enough to commit to it, then things will work out. For game companies that goes triple. Surprisingly large and experienced development houses still collapse; Pivotal, Stormfront and the troubled Hellgate: London makers Flagship are recent casualties. The untold stories of groups of friends who gave this business a go and failed will fill Valhalla someday.

Sidhe nearly died many times. Despite its growing reputation and strategic hedging, the company remains on a knife-edge in the sense that two or three ill-timed misfortunes could sink it. But they’ve made a beachhead and show no immediate signs of being pushed back into the ocean.

“We think the New Zealand environment could ultimately sustain three or four full-sized game developers,” co-founder Mario says. “We plan to grow.”

On the final day of the internal conference, Mario presents an industry overview with hints of Sidhe’s strategic direction. He sees a murderous yet lucrative shark tank where agility will be crucial, where the risks of being a small independent developer are matched by fast-moving possibilities. The questions are basic but all-consuming: What does it mean to be a New Zealand game company, and what might it mean in the future? Where within the worldwide intellectual property universe could Sidhe ultimately thrive? Successful U.S. independents like id, Epic and Valve are to be admired but not necessarily emulated – there will be plenty of new paths to follow after the industry’s next shakedown period.

Later on at Wellington’s Good Luck bar for drinks, there’s a sense of “next” in the air, alongside bullshit StarCraft stories and E3 odds-making. Part of it comes from not having been hurt enough; part of it’s relief at still being alive. But a lot is genuine optimism, pleasure at the thought that you can make a good workplace and grow it, that the future isn’t necessarily filled with Kafka day jobs or the restrained sympathies of family and friends at another failed zippy-zap lark.

So there you go. You, too, can kickstart an ecosystem from scratch, struggle and squirm and hope to carve out an existence in the space between terrified start-up and giant codefactory. But down here in New Zealand, at least, you no longer have to: All your earthen fairy mound are belong to us. Good night.

Colin Rowsell made a computer game once. His mum loved it. Talk to him on giantmonkeyvirus@gmail.com.

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