No Man's Sky: Is Ireland ready to build the next big tech startup?


It is the most talked about game of the year. It is a virtually endless universe of monumental scale never before seen in a video game — or anywhere else for that matter. No Man’s Sky, which was released earlier this week offers players the chance to visit and explore any of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets, each populated by unique landscapes, atmospheres, plants and animals.

Adam Boyes, a vice-president at Sony PlayStation, described the game earlier this year as “potentially one of the biggest games in the history of our industry.”

And all of this was created by a team of just 15 people, led by a man from Waterford.

Sean Murray, the co-founder of Hello Games, a tiny UK-based studio, which built No Man’s Sky over the course of the last four years, was born in Waterford in the early 1980s. While he grew up in Australia from the age of just two, Murray retains a trace of his Irish accent to this day, allowing us to at least loosely claim him as our own.

The question we need to ask however is, if Murray was growing up in Waterford today, and didn’t leave for Australia, would he have the facilities and resources to develop his talents and establish Hello Games as an Irish company?

To date, the teaching of computers and specifically coding in schools — both primary and secondary — has been patchy at best. A lack of resources, a lack of necessary skills and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of educators has meant that those entering third level computer science courses have little to no experience with coding.

While this has changed in recent years thanks to efforts like CoderDojo, there is still a lack of a coherent infrastructure within the education system to allow for the development of children like Murray, who show a natural aptitude for these tasks.

Last month the Minister for Education Richard Bruton finally called on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to consider introducing the teaching of coding to primary school students. A new draft mathematics curriculum won't be ready until the spring of 2017 at the earliest and it is unclear how likely the introduction of coding will be.

Two years ago the UK government made computer science a “foundational discipline”, making it mandatory for all primary and secondary school students. One year later a study showed that the programming language Python (used in video games) is now more popular than French in primary schools.

Estonia introduced compulsory coding lessons back in 2012 and the eastern European country is now being referred to as a “digital tiger economy” alongside Sweden and South Korea, all of which outranked the UK in the recently published study measuring the ability of 10 countries around the world on their readiness to compete in the digital economy.

Ireland is viewed with envy by those abroad for its glittering roster of tech giants who call this island home. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and many more all have major outposts in Ireland, employing tens of thousands of engineers.

The problem is this type of environment is not conducive for nurturing indigenous tech companies, startups looking to make a mark on the world and potentially one day grow to become a global player — companies like Hello Games.

With a recognised lack of qualified computer science graduates from Ireland’s universities, smaller companies will struggle to compete with the giants of the industry who can offer huge pay packets and much more job security.

Now, more that ever before, geography is being made irrelevant by high speed connectivity and instant access to a global market, especially in industries like software and video games. A company of less than 20 people based in a small town 30 minutes outside of London has made the most talked-about game of 2016, and there is no reason that could not happen here.

But in order for the next Sean Murray to build the next No Man’s Sky in Waterford or Dublin or Cork or Longford or Galway or anywhere in Ireland, the government needs to facilitate the development of students' ability to code while nurturing an environment where Ireland can grow its own technology ecosystem.

David Gilbert, 

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