"Gaelic games sell. Not only in ticket stubs, but also in the world of interactive entertainment. Despite receiving a critical bashing, Sony Ireland’s GAA games were the biggest indigenous selling games on the PS2, and with legions of fans of the sport around the country it was only a matter of time before a GAA management sim followed in their wake. But this story is not one of massive development teams and marketing spend. Instead, like every great sports story, it is one where the underdog wins – where passion and commitment are the conduits to victory.

Bainisteoir – Hurling, created by Tailteann Games, received critical plaudits across the country when it was released in 2007 – and it lives up to the hype. Unlike Sony’s productions, Bainisteoir features real-life player names: 1,000 real-life hurling stars in total, including D.J Carey, Sean Og O’hAilpin, Henry Shefflin and Eugene Cloonan. The game features the 32 Irish Inter-County, New York and London Senior Hurling panels. As in the Championship Manager series, players devise team strategies, watch the matches unfold on the pitch, plan player and team tactics, read statistics and listen to commentary. Between the muddy-kneed bouts, they interact with their team’s fans, sponsors and media, as well as opposing managers and players.

When Fergal McDonnell, Tailteann’s Technical Director, talks about Bainisteoir in terms of “intellectual merit”, he is not joking. “We produced what we believed to be a sports game of considerable subtlety and depth. We wanted to exercise the public’s cognitive skills and their intuition – we didn't want to to treat Hurling, 'The Game of the Gods' with a batter and bruise approach.”

Fergal conceptualised Tailteann, and the Bainisteoir project, with his brother Padraig when the pair were studying at the University of Limerick: Fergal, Masters of Technology; his sibling, Masters in Entrepreneurship. Between them, they had working experience in companies like Ericsson, The Ashling Group, and The Irish Dairy Board. Bainisteoir, however, is largely a work of passion.

Fergal served as a Burgess GAA club board member and has represented North Tipperary at juvenile hurling levels – he is the current manager of his club’s under-16 hurling team and coach to the North Tipperary under 15-elite squad. Padraig, meanwhile, represented North and County Tipperary at under-age level and has captained Burgess GAA club to top division glory in both Hurling and Gaelic Football. Also involved in underage coaching, he has a firm understanding of the role of a hurling manager. “The project commenced to ensure Tipperary would once again be capable of winning an All-Ireland Senior hurling title!” says Fergal. “All joking aside, like many a hurler, we realised that we would never reach the levels of an Eoin Kelly or a Tommy Walsh but like many a hurler on the ditch, we felt we could do a better job than the current inter-county managers!

By their own admission, the McDonnells were influenced by 2003’s Championship Manager 4 (Eidos), famed for its groundbreaking 2D match pitch. “When CM4 was in its prime, we thought how great it would be if there was a hurling equivalent,” says Fergal. “And so the Bainisteoir – Hurling project commenced.” The chosen platform was PC “as we felt that sports management games in other genres were most at home on the PC and didn’t always cross over fantastically well to consoles.”

The decision to develop for PC also gave the start-up company an opportunity to maintain full creative control over the project. “With the Irish games industry still very much in its infancy and with no distinct game publisher based here, we were opposed to pitching Bainisteoir – Hurling to a foreign publisher, who would be likely to have little grasp or appreciation of the sport,” says Fergal. “Wanting to control our own destiny, we developed an indigenous path to market. Although it was a riskier path to take, we were also aware that financial rewards, arising from taking such an approach, are considerably greater than receiving development costs, plus royalties, from a publisher.”

The brothers put almost as much work into research as they did into development. They read work by leading authors in sports management (including that of American football coaching legend, Vince Lombardi), as well as books such as Ger Loughnane’s Raising the Banner, and Seamus J. King’s Clash of the Ash. In order to rate different counties abilities and devise individual player profiles, they consumed articles by top GAA journalists such as Enda McEvoy, Christy O'Connor and Vincent Hogan. They examined websites, attaining information about current trends, and analysed GAA coaching manuals. In addition, Fergal completed his Level 1 Coaching Badge “to further comprehend the psychological elements of modern day GAA management”.

As is the case in most management sports games, Bainisteoir’s development process required a surplus of artistic skills, although Tailteann also had their share of technical challenges. “Working on a development budget which pales in comparison to the big boys of the industry was another factor which kept us on our toes,” says Fergal. “It constantly challenged our creativity and innovation levels.”

But the true strength behind Tailteann – which the McDonnell brothers set up in Nenagh, County Tipperary – is in its balance of skilled personnel. Padraig’s non-technical background challenged Fergal to overcome technical problems, providing essential elements for the good of the game. At the same time, Fergal’s technical background allowed him to recognise opportunities that arose during the programming phase. This led, explains Fergal, to a game that “contains both technical excellence and artistic flair”.

The brothers also employed programmers, artists and designers – Fergal name checks MacDara Butler and Oisin Lavery – and formed strategic alliances with interactive design firm Tricycle Interactive Systems. A1 Games Distribution were brought on board to ensure that the game reached the masses, while John Tynan was employed in a Business Development role. Fergal continues: “Play-testers and quality assurance testers, focus group respondents and research assistants, were continually employed throughout the development process. We also used an external team of prime professional advisors and assistants, including top multimedia, graphic design, website design, publishing (including print, replication and distribution experts), PR, advertising, financial, legal, insurance, hurling and business consultants.”

Through the McDonnell’s close ties to the sport, numerous individuals within the GAA were called upon to lend a helping hand. Fergal mentions the National Director of Hurling, Paudie Butler, and GAA Director of Games Pat Daly (who also assisted with player development and coaching frameworks). Official endorsement from the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) allowed Tailteann to use the names of real-life hurling stars within the game. The GPA also helped in the terms of research, play testing, quality assurance and PR.

Although the game was made for a fraction of the price of a Championship Manager, its success in the Irish market is testament to the commitment of the McDonnell brothers and the team around them. “We have been genuinely thrilled with the reaction the game has received from both the hurling/GAA public and the media to date,” says Fergal, adding that by post-Christmas 2007 the company had met their sales targets, although “sales-wise it could always be better!!”. He continues: “Pre-launch I think there were quite a few people who were more than a little sceptical of us. They wondered if a small, unknown independent games studio could really pull off a high quality simulation. From a personal point of view, our biggest worry was whether the game would have a large enough commercial appeal.” And how about plans for a sequel? “We’re in the preliminary stages of the research for an update to the game but we haven’t anything set in stone yet.”

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that indie game developers, even small Irish set-ups, can be successful when armed with a good idea. But it is never easy, Fergal contends. “Most within the games industry agree that the industry is in rapid expansion and that we in Ireland should be positioning ourselves to take advantage of this. However, an Irish games design firm really does need to produce something quite unique to stand out from slick, mega-bucks international competitors.”​