Why these revered developers started a game studio in Ireland
By Niall O'Donoghue
When you talk to veteran game designers John and Brenda Romero these days, it's only a matter of time until they mention their new home, Ireland.
During a skype call alongside Brenda from their home in Galway, John, 53, who is best known for designing the PC shooters "DOOM" and "Wolfenstein," reminisced about a conference he attended. He went to a pizzeria to catch up with a friend, who soon asked John: "Why Ireland?"
"I went on for half an hour just talking about everything that's just amazing about Ireland and Irish people and the country, just everything. At the table next to us, a guy got up and he was gonna leave and he came over and he just said: 'Couldn't have said it better myself,'" said John in his best Irish accent, cracking up with laughter. Brenda jokingly called John "the greatest unpaid spokesman for Ireland."
For her, a 54-year-old Bafta-winning designer widely known for her work on the "Wizardry" series, the connection to the country goes back to her great-grandfather. Paddy O'Donovan moved to America at age 12 as a stowaway. Brenda found herself retracing his steps in 2014 when visiting Ireland as a Fulbright Scholar with John, conducting research for a report on the Irish games industry published in January 2015.
The Romeros met with developers and asked them what their dream Irish games industry would look like. They also ran workshops at educational institutions around the country, teaching skills like game design to students, and worked with educators to examine their course material to see if it matched the needs of the games industry.
The couple spent six weeks in the country, stopping by the Blarney stone and staying at Leap Castle, Ireland's "most haunted castle." They visited developers and tech companies like Microsoft. They met with government officials. They even got dragged into a U.S. Embassy event. It was "nothing short of a whirlwind," said Brenda.
And then, they decided to take a "ridiculous" risk. They moved to Galway on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland - far from the tech-hub and capital Dublin - and founded Romero Games in 2015, with Brenda as CEO and John as COO. On Dec. 1, the team released the strategy game "Empire of Sin," directed by Brenda.
The Irish games industry, once mainly known for middleware companies like Havok and Demonware, is growing, now home to development studios like Dreamfeel, DIGIT Game Studios, 9th Impact, Black Shamrock and Spooky Doorway. However, issues including a lack of targeted funding for game development, the post-2008 Irish financial crisis and "brain drain" caused by developer emigration has impacted the growth of the development sector. And so the founding of Romero Games became big news.
"For the games industry, this was like their heroes and heroines moving to the country," said Dr. Aphra Kerr, a professor based in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University and a games industry researcher.
"No smart person would have done this, right?" said Brenda. John interjected, laughing: "We ended up being really smart."
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In the late 1980s, Irish cinema was in a tough spot. The closure of the Irish Film Board was "largely seen as the death knell of a cinema which had begun to make halting steps toward the regular production of features," Irish academic and lecturer Dr. Harvey O'Brien wrote in a 2006 paper titled "The Identity of an Irish cinema."
However, the award winning biopic "My Left Foot" released in 1989, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Jim Sheridan, earned almost $15 million at the box office, an "ironic triumph for an Irish film industry which had seemed crushed and beaten" according to O'Brien. And the release of "Empire of Sin" may just be the "My Left Foot" moment for the Irish games sector.
"A successful mainstream game developed from scratch in Ireland, that could be their biggest impact, that could be transformational for the country," said Dr. Kerr in an interview in July.
Before joining Romero Games, lead programmer Ronan Pearce, 47, weighed an offer to move abroad to keep his job with a mobile publishing company. But his heart wasn't in mobile development.
"I just wanted to work on more AAA or AA game types, and there was nothing [in Ireland], there was literally nothing" Pearce said.
Pearce was working alongside Chris Gregan and John O'Kane at their indie company Snozbot; All three were scooped up by Romero Games. Pearce idolized the Romeros in college and jumped at the opportunity to develop a large, mainstream game in his own country.
"Irish people who've been trying to start something up for years, you're really not starting at the same level as someone like John or Brenda," he said, pointing to the couple's massive network of connections. "They just bring a lot of instant attention to not just the company, but to the area."
The Romeros have been "really good at hiring people back to Ireland because, up until five, six years ago, there really weren't many games jobs here," according to Colm Larkin, head of Dublin based game development studio Gambrinous.
The Irish development scene's recent expansion is partially due to factors like the closure of other large offices in the early 2010s, the increased availability of development tools, and the formation of new incubators, according to Dr. Kerr. However, she found that activity was focused on "really small companies" at this time, noting that "ambitious targets" outlined in a 2011 Action Plan for the games sector were a "victim" of Ireland's post-2008 financial crash.
Brenda's Fulbright report described Ireland as "an excellent, engaged game community" with "the potential to become an industry hotspot." However, she identified issues including brain drain, the emigration of Irish developers due to the lack of available game development jobs. Moreover, the report found that the "technical nature" of games can prevent companies from receiving artistic funding in Ireland, while some struggle to secure more traditional enterprise funding with just a proof of concept.
"If we hadn't already been sold on Ireland, and we were just like 'you know what, let's just go overseas, let's just go to Europe,' Ireland was not the best economic choice," said Brenda when interviewed in July. "It did not offer the same incentives that other countries would."
Screen Ireland currently offers a tax credit scheme for the audiovisual sector, which applies to the cost of cast, crew and goods and services sourced in Ireland for a project, but games are excluded. However, the Irish government intends to introduce a tax credit scheme for "the digital gaming sector" by January 2022 as part of its 2021 budget.
"Studios like us will only use the extra funds to hire more people and increase game production budgets, so everyone benefits in the long run," wrote Mark Quick, CEO of Galway-based studio 9th Impact, in an email to The Washington Post.
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Moving to Ireland has been great for the Romeros. In America, their children participated in active shooter drills in elementary school. They also experienced racism and racist insults. ("All of our kids are some shade of brown and so there had been some racial issues," Brenda said.)
By contrast, Ireland has extremely strict gun laws, and John's Yaqui and Cherokee heritage is "revered" here, according to Brenda. John was once stopped on the street by an older man who was "incredibly honored" to meet a Native American, recalled Brenda. Separately, John was interviewed by Irish media outlet RTÉ in May when Irish people donated to Native Americans impacted by covid-19, reciprocating donations given by the Choctaw Nation to Ireland during The Great Famine.
Brenda hypothesized that the "uncanny" similarities between Mexican and Irish culture help to make John feel at home in Ireland, and John agreed. The most they generally have to complain about is the weather.
"We created Id Software in Louisiana in a swamp. I mean, you don't have to be anywhere special to make games, you can just do it anywhere. For me, why wouldn't you want to do that in the most amazing country on the planet?" John said.
And so, John and Brenda self-funded their game development studio in Galway. "Basically, a torpedo went into our bank account," said Brenda, dryly.
Romero Games didn't have a game contract for its first year-and-a-half, prototyping various ideas, including "Empire of Sin." The studio released the action game "Gunman Taco Truck" in 2017, designed by Brenda and John's son Donovan Romero, and "Sigil" in 2018, a free expansion created by John for DOOM's 25th anniversary.
Ireland has been kind to the Romeros, and they've been a positive presence in return, attracting international attention, creating jobs, getting involved in the education sector and with community events. Their connections have brought in speakers such as developer Mike Bithell and programmer Brett Douville for events like the Galway Games Gathering in 2017, as well as enabled them to hire internationally.
Imirt, an Irish game developer organization, organizes events, runs an annual awards ceremony, has previously offered funding for Irish game developers to attend GDC and was recently awarded funding to run workshops. Brenda co-founded Imirt alongside Larkin in 2015 and two Romero Games employees are currently board members.
"It gave a huge air of legitimacy for a new organization to have someone so involved," Larkin said, citing the experience and connections that Brenda has acquired during her career as a "huge boost" for Imirt.
John, Brenda and members of Romero Games also run game development workshops at Baboró, a children's arts festival in Galway. Brenda and John, in particular, feel strongly about working with children and introducing them to technology and coding; It is a passion rooted in their upbringings.
Brenda's father died when she was 4. She grew up in a poor household, though her mother always "really believed in technology," said Brenda. "Even when I got into the game industry very early on, she was incredibly supportive. She just really thought: This is something that can take her somewhere."
John grew up in Tucson, Arizona. His biological father was an alcoholic.
"At that point in time, John would've had burn marks on his arms, he would've seen his mother getting beat up," Brenda said.
Money and food were tight. John's father robbed stores at gunpoint on multiple occasions to get diapers. One day, when John and his younger brother Ralph made a mess in the kitchen, his mother, stressed, told John's father to "get rid of them." It wasn't meant to be literal.
"He just put us in the truck and drove us out in the middle of the desert and told us to get out and then took off," John said. He was 6. Ralph was 4. John recognized where they were and decided to follow the truck, spending a half-hour in the desert until his mother made his father bring them home.
John's father abandoned the family when John was around 6 and his mother had to sell their home. Whilst she was working and saving for an apartment, John's family lived with different friends of his mother's for months. Eventually, they moved to an affluent neighborhood in California with John's new stepfather, a defense contractor and retired drill sergeant.
"My stepdad . . . was just so mean that when I heard his truck pull into the driveway I would just turn off the TV and go in my room, and that's before a computer. After getting a computer, I was always in the computer room so I didn't care when he came home," John said.
John began attending a local university aged 11 and went around "every store in town" to use their computers.
"Before I left high school I had published, I don't know, over a dozen games, been in magazines. I was just coding my butt off," John said.
John moved out when he was attending college. He remembered thinking: "I'm getting out and I'm never coming back, and that's exactly what happened."
"Technology can take anybody from anywhere, from nowhere to anywhere, if kids are just given a chance," Brenda said.
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Romero Games couldn't meet in person to celebrate the launch of "Empire of Sin," with Brenda and various developers instead joining a livestream on the Paradox Twitch channel. They did have a virtual launch party though, featuring a magician, musicians and a party box sent out to developers filled with gear like alcohol, feather boas and wigs.
"It's exciting to get it out there into players' hands," said Brenda in an interview post-launch.
It's still a "super busy time" for Romero Games as they address player feedback and work on DLC for "Empire of Sin," which has received mostly mixed-to-positive reviews from critics. "There hasn't been a minute that I've been able to sit back and go, 'Well, that's it,'" Brenda said.
Brenda and John hope that the experience being gained by developers who worked on "Empire of Sin" goes into the Irish ecosystem.
"Eventually I expect that there will be more game companies here. Eventually I expect that people that we are working with now will form their own companies. Hopefully Romero Games will not just be a single-game studio but a multigame studio, so it is our hope to grow, to bring more companies [into Ireland], because the rising tide will raise all ships," Brenda said.
Similarly, the Romero Games employees interviewed for this story expressed pride to be making a high profile title in Ireland.
"[We were] putting together the credits the other day and just the fact that we can say 'made in Ireland,' it's a hugely inspiring thing" O'Conor said.
The Washington Post