Develop finds out what makes Germany’s thriving banking capital a nexus for game studios large and small
[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Reliable and abundant transport connections probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Frankfurt. But speak to those that have spent time in this curious metropolis and you find that getting around is one of its greatest strengths, and part of the reason why it has become a bastion for games development.
Frankfurt Airport was the third busiest in Europe in 2012, and the eleventh in the world. The city’s main railway station, Frankfurt Central Station, sees about 350,000 using it. Its two underground railway systems connect the relatively small city centre, and population, which just clears 687,000, with its densely populated suburban surroundings. All of this, and the fact that it is Germany’s banking capital is why games developers have chosen to settle here.
But while Frankfurt may have all the right connections, does it still have the capacity to support the changing games development scene that managed to grow there?
GET YOURSELF CONNECTED
To answer that question, a look to the studios and what brought them to Frankfurt in the first place is needed.
“When we decided to move from the small Bavarian town of Coburg back in 2006, we asked the 110 employees we had then what city they’d like to relocate to. Frankfurt was the winner because of the international flair it has to offer,” says Crytek managing director Faruk Yerli.
You can’t discuss games development in this city out without talking about the studio behind Crysis. Crytek is the sector’s biggest employer in the region, making console titles as well as licensing out its own CryEngine, which has helped to ensure that competition in the third-party engine market isn’t a two horse race between Unreal and Unity.
“It is a rather small, with a population of less than one million, but it feels like a real metropolis – not only because of its skyscrapers and its many high-rise buildings,” Yerli continues.
“Frankfurt airport is another key strength. As one of the main European hubs, it is easy to get direct flights to all major destinations around the world. Its central location within Europe and Germany also make it a major rail and highway transport hub. Frankfurt is home to many game development studios and internationally operating publishers. All of that makes for a strong and connected game cluster.”
Jan Klose, creative director of Deck 13, a long-running Frankfurt studio best known for its comedy adventure brands and RPGs, also has much praise of the city’s infrastructure.
“Frankfurt’s city life has experienced an enormous overhaul during the last decade, being topped with the reconstruction of a whole quarter of the old city centre. Shopping, partying or just hanging out at the riverbank is much more attractive now than it used to be,” he tells Develop. “Nowadays, Frankfurt truly is a great place to live and meet people, and is definitely allowed to call itself ‘the world’s smallest metropolis’.”
In fact, the city is so well connected that some studios don’t even need to have all their departments in one place to benefit.
Cliffhanger, founded by Jan Wagner in 2006, is an independent studio with 35 staff producing core-focused games for mobile and desktops platforms.
“Frankfurt is international enough to get people interested in moving here and connected enough to get to anywhere in the world quickly. It is also a great connection spot to advertising and film, sound and technology suppliers – while most of our development happens in Vienna, most of our business is made in Frankfurt,” says Wagner.
SMALL, BUT MIGHTY
There is broad agreement from the developers that we spoke to about the city’s excellence as a hub for business. A topic that sparked more varied opinions, however, was what exactly Frankfurt’s core development strength is.
Asked whether the urban centre has a particular studio model that defines the city, Crytek’s Yerli says: “Not really. I think Frankfurt is pretty versatile in that regard. From triple-A to social and mobile games studios, to Nintendo’s European headquarters, to Sony Computer Entertainment – there is nothing Frankfurt and the surrounding region is really lacking in industry terms.”
It’s fair assessment. Frankfurt is home to the likes of Keen Games, which makes titles for console and PC, free-to-play outfits, such as Playzo, and service companies, such as Dynamedion. And as Yerli points out, major publishers including Sony, Nintendo, Namco Bandai and Bethesda – and tech firms including Samsung and HTC – have offices in Frankfurt. While they do not necessarily develop their products in the city, the presence of these names indicates that it is frequently where meetings and deals are struck.
On the other hand, Cliffhanger’s Wagner says: “I think it is actually the small to mid-size model. With the exception of Crytek, most of the devs have between fluctuating between 20 and below 100 employees. We have seen the rise and fall of consoles, PCs, browser, mobile and we managed to survive. There is also a special bond of respect between studios here, I think.”
Furthermore, the bond the Wagner speaks of has been manifested tangibly in the form of trade body Gamearea.
“Our purpose is to promote the economic, political and public position of games companies in Frankfurt and the Rhein-Main area,” says Gamearea board member Max Bimboese. “The games industry is recognised to be one of the most technologically advanced and dynamic industries, both by the local government of Frankfurt, as well as by the regional government of Hessen.”
Boasting a list of over 30 members, Gamearea’s primary achievement to date is helping to establish programmes to promote the industry with public funding.
“These programmes are one achievement of Gamearea’s close work with the governmental institutions. As always, funding could be more and we are working on it,” adds Bimboese, whose work we’ll hear more about later.
WORKING ON IT
This year, Develop has previously investigated Hamburg and Berlin. How Frankfurt stacks up when compared to its cousins tells us more about the region’s prospects on the world stage.
While the city’s success stories have led some to proclaim Frankfurt as the next “triple-A Mecca”, Cliffhanger’s Wagner is more measured about this would-be dev ‘hotspot’.
“Well, in the first place it isn’t a hotspot – there have not been massive amounts of money pumped into the industry here, as in Berlin. We haven’t seen the quick rise and fall of a certain business model, as with Hamburg’s many browser companies, and we certainly don’t see the tax-exemption based industry growth as in Canada,” says Wagner. “At the same time, while we may be less hip, we are also less driven by the short-termism that goes with it.”
From the slow down of some of Hamburg’s biggest browser companies, such as Bigpoint, perhaps it’s healthy to exercise pragmatism at this point. Survival and adaptation is what its about, says Wagner, and many of his peers tend to agree.
“The biggest challenge nowadays is to find employees,” says Jan Jöckel, MD of Keen Games. “We have so much to do and the business is growing here. We have built a very strong base and now we need developers who would love to join us.”
In addition to sourcing talent and the cost of labour, Michael Liebe of Deutsche Gamestage also feels that the city’s primary draw, its transport network, is presently under threat.
“From outside, what I can observe is that Frankfurt, as a city, is getting more and more competition in Europe,” he says. “For a long time it was the central communication hub thanks to its massive airport. Air transfer is turning less centralised, so that has an effect on the city.”
Does that mean Frankfurt needs more support from its local government and trade bodies in order to meet these shifts?
“Frankfurt studios do not need the support,” Keen Flare CEO Pete Walentin argues. “We are strong and stable. We take care of ourselves. The city and region is aware of the importance of the games industry, and they support us wherever possible.”
However, Wagner feels Frankfurt does need more support, especially when it comes to getting games recognised on a even keel with the rest of the arts.
“We have been struggling for proper support for a long time – while the city of Frankfurt has always been very supportive, on a regional and national level games still are way behind the films as a creative industry,” he states.
“To me, this damages the potential for creating games outside the immediate market value – elevating the art of games to something more relevant for society at large beyond being a favourite pastime. I think if politicians did not see it as a kind of glorified IT industry with an added ‘bad for my kids’ effect, we could be much further along as an industry.”
Manuel Scherer, general manager of Rhein-Main-based Uniworlds Game Studios, adds: “I think this is something we have to work on. The trade bodies know about the games industries, but there’s much to be done. This doesn’t necessarily mean tax breaks. I think public acknowledgement is one of the most important steps that have to be pushed forward more.”
Frankfurt is by no means unsupported, though. The aforementioned Gamearea association has been working with the Frankfurt Centre of Creative Industries to kick-start funding programmes for developers of all sizes in the region.
Manuela Schiffner, director of the Centre of Creative Industries, says: “We assist companies in many ways – no matter whether it’s a one-person business or a group; no matter if the goal is on a local scale or international level. Thanks to our excellent network with municipal authorities and the local business scene, as well as to our extensive knowledge about various industries, we can provide valuable support starting and running a business in Frankfurt.
“The industry association Gamearea is a strong partner of Frankfurt Economic Development. Together we offer the networking and knowledge transfer platform Gameplaces, which is an integral part of the Frankfurt, Hessen and German video and computer gaming industry.”
Moreover, Frankfurt Economic Development wants to encourage the development of innovative games and is urging developers to submit titles for its European Innovative Games Award.
Schiffner adds: “The importance of video games as an economic factor cannot be stressed enough. The Frankfurt Economic Development and the City of Frankfurt are proud of this dynamic industry and offer long-term and individual support for the games industry’s needs.
“Video games drive the creative and technological industries to ever-new heights. They are a promoter of innovation, and is this they are perfectly at home in the city of Frankfurt.”
ALL THAT WE NEED
The struggle for new talent and a rising cost of living is a concern, but neither are uncommon issues for a city of its stature.
“We have the same troubles everywhere,” says Dynamedion managing director Pierre Langer. “Times are always changing and so are requirements by the market and audience. We had some great boom years with online browser gaming recently, while now everything seems to shift to mobile and new consoles. So this transition phase is exciting, but not different to any other game dev in Germany.”
But perhaps such things are a stumbling block to Frankfurt’s ongoing regeneration.
“Frankfurt is an ever-evolving city that is positively affected by being a melting pot for lots of different nationalities,” says Crytek’s Yerli, whose studio is soon to release Ryse: Son of Rome for Microsoft’s Xbox One. “That makes it a vibrant place to live and work.”
Crytek, Deck 13 and others are making great strides to ride the changes. Meanwhile, the region’s developer association Gamearea is helping to drive discussion and bring the issues that matter to the corridors of power. With the right actions, Frankfurt’s developers seem assured to have a thriving future ahead of them.
CASE STUDY: CRYTEK
A steadfast desire to make the impossible a reality characterises Frankfurt’s largest independent developer.
Founded in 1999 by Cevat, Avni and Faruk Yerli, Crytek has steadily established itself as one of the world’s most progressive studios, producing the very first Far Cry game, as well as the award-winning Crysis series.
Along the way, it has diversified to become an engine supplier and expanded its development studios.
Crytek general manager of games Nick Button-Brown explains how the studio is evolving to face the new gaming landscape: “We are making some great progress at the moment. The team is working really hard to finish Ryse: Son of Rome as a launch title on Xbox One, and I’m very excited about their progress. Warface has got major updates around the world; not least of which is its upcoming release in the Western territories on our social gaming platform Gface, complete with an Xbox 360 version coming in 2014.
“The team in Nottingham – Crytek UK – is making great progress on our reinvention of Homefront, and we have a number of projects we haven’t talked about yet. So basically our focus is on making these games the best and most immersive experiences possible.”
Button-Brown adds that it recently rebranded its fourth generation CryEngine, so as to be ready for the next wave of console hardware.
“We have a lot of effort going into research at the moment, both centrally and through the games teams, and all of that work is really driving our engine forward. I think Ryse is going to set a benchmark for visuals for this next hardware generation, but we are also focusing on our tools and pipelines as this is the best way to help deal with the increased fidelity required by and for the next generation of games,” he says.
Looking further ahead still, Crytek is moving into the arena of self-publishing.
“This a really interesting step for us, where we can connect with our players more directly and focus on the games as a service,” says Button-Brown.
All this growth means the studio is on the lookout for talented individuals who can come up with new ways of doing things as well as help it to deliver the impossible.
“In terms of our games, in the end it all comes down to the people,” concludes Button-Brown. “We have really talented teams and individuals, and these are the people that keep pushing us forward and help us get even better. We certainly are ambitious for our games and are planning for each one on a long-term basis.”