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."
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 [email protected].