We talk to the new wave of studios reinvigorating the local development hub
As a country, the Netherlands is well served by contemporary stereotypes. Once you’ve got the tired clichés about windmills and tulips out of the way, that is.
Dutch culture is considered liberal, its populace hip, friendly and intelligent, and its cities and rural sprawl desirable and beautiful.
In short, it’s known as a nice place to make a home, and for that reason it has established itself as the host of a thriving games industry.
From giants like Ubisoft and Nintendo, which have their Benelux headquarters in the Utrecht province, to prolific indies such as Codeglue and high profile powerhouses including Guerrilla and Spil, the famously flat country houses a rich and diverse games sector that has positioned the nation on the global development stage.
The reason for the Netherlands’ international standing? According to Maarten de Koning, MD and co-founder of Dutch studio, consultancy and funding outfit Green Hill, it’s a factor that transcends the games industry in isolation.
“Historically, the Netherlands has always been an international player,” he says.
“People are brought up and raised with this heritage. Speaking two or more languages is standard, as is working with different cultures. Healthy businesses are a result of this, and definitely a strong point in the fluctuating and fast changing industry we’re in.
"Working with different kinds of parties internationally is definitely one of our biggest strengths.”
There’s also a chorus of Dutch developers keen to point to entrepreneurialism as a national forte, and many see that spirit as a foundation for the Netherlands games industry as a global player, despite the country’s relatively small size.
“We are entrepreneurs, and as such we are very capable and willing of starting our own companies,” asserts Thijmen Bink, CEO and technical director at creatively daring Dutch indie Digital Dreams, before detailing some of the region’s other strengths.
“We have games studios that have been around for over a decade, and they share their experience and opportunities with the younger ones. The Dutch government is also becoming more aware of the economical importance of the game industry, and acts accordingly.”
Bink is clearly optimistic, and he’s not alone. Knock on the door of almost any Dutch developer – and particularly those in the indie and mobile space that is clearly a specialty of the country – and you’re likely to be greeted by somebody poised to sing the praises of their homeland.
An example is Marcel Pordon, CCO of mobile and social specialist Youdagames, who highlights both entrepreneurship and a flair for design as archetypically Dutch attributes, before addressing other strengths of the country.
“Like always, the Dutch aren’t afraid to look further than just their own borders,” he states.
“Creativity and design in general are some of the most important strengths of the Dutch, and that is also reflected in game design, which is also stimulated by good games education.”
A high number of trade bodies also bolster the Dutch games sector, including the Dutch Games Association.
“The DGA’s mission is to create a healthy climate for the Dutch games sector,” explains Peter de Jong, CEO and co-founder of developer Codeglue.
“It does so, amongst others, by stimulating entrepreneurship and forming an active lobby towards the government and other trade sectors. Like the Dutch games industry, it’s a pretty young organisation, but in the last couple of years it has achieved a lot.”
Other’s point to the substantial volume and robustness of indies in the country as core to the might of the Netherlands.
“There are dozens of companies who know how to make innovative games,” says Derk de Geus of studio and Unity Asset Store content provider Paladin.
“They seek each other out for advice and feedback. They are lean and agile, and know how to adapt to changes in the environment. They have street smarts and they are willing and able to take risks.”
And it is there that de Geus has hit on a point that almost every Dutch developer agrees with; collaboration and cooperation is something the country’s games industry does especially well, in part due to the nation’s modest landmass.
“Because of the relatively small size of the Dutch industry there is a lot of cooperation, both in technology and personnel,” says Derk van Wingerden, project manager at trade body Invest Utrecht.
“You see this amongst others in the formation of the Dutch Games Association and at events like Indigo and the Festival of Games.”
And that devotion to a collaborative effort extends beyond the boundaries of the games industry, in part due to a cultural habit of establishing media hubs at a rate seen less often in other countries.
“As an example, Paladin is located in a redesigned factory in The Hague,” offers de Geus.
“We share this amazing location with 100-plus creative companies: architects, product designers, web start-ups, games companies. We can learn from these companies and collaborate with them. This is a good foundation for services like serious titles and brand games.
"There are dozens of locations like this in the Netherlands - no wonder that there is a growing ‘applied games’ community here.”
Certainly visitors to events like GDC can see the closeness of the Dutch games community that gathers for such occasions, and despite a friendly rivalry, some confess serves as a fuel for their dedication to games making.
Time and again words like ‘family’ are applied to the companies spread from Maastricht to Leeuwarden.
“We’re one big family,” confirms Digital Dreams’ Bink. “There is a large group of devs and related people that come to every little event there is. We are happy to show each other our prototypes and lovingly share experience, advice and connections.”
While Bink admits this is the case in many other games development hubs, he insists it occurs on a much more regular basis in the Netherlands.
A perfect example of such a collaboration is that shared by indies Codeglue and Sparpweed.
“Because there are so many smaller development studios there’s also a lot of collaboration between them,” says Codeglue’s de Jong, whose studio worked with Sparpweed on a PlayStation Network game game called ibb & obb.
“Sparpweed is responsible for the concept and design of the game, and Codeglue is responsible for the technical implementation and the animations,” explains de Jong. “I think more studios in the Netherlands are working alike.”
MOBILISING SMALL STUDIOS
It is, however, unrealistic to paint a wholly positive picture of today’s Dutch games industry. As in any country with a blossoming development sector, the Netherlands faces challenges, especially for smaller studios looking to establish themselves locally before taking their product worldwide.
“Our home market is tiny, which makes it difficult to bootstrap your way to success,” admits Rik Haandrikman, director of business development at GamePoint, a Netherlands-headquartered online portal.
“The rise of mobile and social gaming has made life quite a lot easier though; you don’t need to be in the US to develop a game that can keep millions of Americans entertained.”
And, says Tim Vogel, CEO at mobile and serious gaming studio Infinity Lane, the country can offer less jobs than there are eager and trained post-graduates.
“The size of the industry and country is a big challenge here,” he states. “There are a lot of games development students graduating each year with only a handful of jobs available. This makes it difficult for students to find internships or jobs within the Netherlands.”
HOLLAND OF OPPORTUNITY
Still, the opportunity available to those in the Netherlands easily matches the challenges, and as a result a balanced perspective prevails.
“The current market is changing fast and key players are focusing on a wide variety of platforms like mobile and cloud gaming,” says Green Hill’s de Koning.
“This uncertainty, the fact that even publishers don’t know in what to invest, is something that has an impact on our future as well. Luckily, Dutch developers are strong on mobile and can adapt quickly. Therefore I think our future is bright.”
The last word, however, goes to Invest Utrecht’s van Wingerden.
“I think our games industry has a bright future ahead,” he concludes. “In a quickly changing landscape chances keep on presenting themselves.
"Games have proven themselves both in the field of entertainment as in the applied games. Now is the time to professionalise and grow companies in a sustainable way.”