Region Focus: Netherlands

Region Focus: Netherlands
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

July 24th 2013 at 10:30AM

Develop meets the companies building an industry hub of the future in northern Europe

[This feature was published in the July 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

The Dutch games industry isn’t one to blow its own trumpet. While other regions jostle for a spot on the global stage, and hubs like those in Canada, Germany and the Silicon Valley effortlessly court the attention of media and consumers alike, in the Netherlands studios quietly pump out content at a ferocious rate.

If you’re not convinced that the Dutch games sector has much cultural weight to it, consider some of the titles and studios that call the country home. Killzone: Shadow Fall is a product of local triple-A outfit Guerrilla Games. Indie darling Vlambeer and online giant Spil Games hail for the Netherlands. Even the GameMaker development platform started out life in the Utrecht municipality, as did the THQ-published De Blob IP.

“Although relatively small, the Dutch games industry has always been active on a global stage with triple-A games such as Guerrilla’s Killzone franchise, but also with the booming indie scene and presence in the online space, for example with Spil Games,” offers Maarten de Koning, director of business development for Europe at local games industry talent agency DDM.

“Our industry is becoming more prominent every year, and the fact that Vanguard Games recently worked on Halo Spartan Assault proves that we can compete with other developers worldwide.”

According to a report published by Taskforce Innovation Utrecht Region titled The Dutch Games Industry: Facts and Figures, in 2012 some 330 games companies in the country employed around 3000 staff, with that number ever growing. The previous year games makers in the region turned over 150-to-225 million euros. Clearly, studios in the Netherlands mean business.

A DIVERSE APPROACH

But just why is gaming thriving from Maastricht in the south to Groningen at the country’s northerly province? The simple answer is that it boasts both diversity and infrastructure across the board.

“Today the Dutch industry is extremely diverse,” confirms Lennart Sas, managing director and co-owner of developer Triumph Studios.

“Fuelled by new entrepreneurs and initiatives like the Dutch Game Garden, the industry here now feels like a bubbling cauldron spawning smaller companies that do things their own way, outside of established channels. It seems almost every week a new game or new company pops up.”

And that diversity, argues Richard van Barneveld, strategic director at cloud gaming technology and service provider Kalydo, serves as a foundation for a robust and forward facing industry.

“The Dutch have a very strong global position in various services around the ‘online game value chain’,” he states.

“For example in promotion there is Spil games and IQU, in localisation Utrax, in hosting and distribution Lease Web, for billing Global Collect and Adyen, in middleware Kalydo’s cloud gaming, and for market data and research Newzoo.”

Beyond the infrastructure they can tap into, Dutch games makers are – aside from noteworthy exceptions like Guerrilla and Vanguard – also less committed to the costly and competitive world of console-focused games development.

“Our dependency on major console markets is not very high, and our footprint of small developers and a strong indie community together with our leading role in serious and applied games puts us in a good position to deal with today’s industry challenges and opportunities,” explains Pim Bouman, chairman of the DGA, or Dutch Games Association.

SERIOUS ABOUT INDIE

Elsewhere throughout the Netherlands, independent and small studio culture also thrives, and as with hubs across the globe, an explosion in start-ups means a new generation of talent is in place for the country’s future games industry.

“In the past year we’ve had a few more successes on the entertainment side with Ronimo’s Awesomenauts, the recent Reus by Abbey Games, and Vlambeer has of course been prominent with Luftrausers and Ridiculous Fishing,” confirms Thijmen Bink, CEO and technical director at independent studio Digital Dreams.

“With Ibb & Obb coming out soon and our own Metrico in due time, we’re all building the foundation of what will hopefully be a healthy and sustainable industry, bent on creating new interactive experiences.”

And over on the opposite side of the games industry, the Netherlands has a strength shared by only a few other nations, such as France. Few would perhaps guess it, but Dutch studios making serious games are surprisingly common, and a sub-sector devoted to applied games design is blossoming in the region.

“The Netherlands is ahead of the curve when it comes to serious and applied game design,” says Martijn van Best, communications manager at Dutch Game Garden, a non-profit organisation supporting fostering game developers in the Netherlands.

“Companies like Ranj, IJsfontein, Little Chicken, Weirdbeard and Monkeybizniz know how to make applied games that are fun and visually attractive while fulfilling the task they were created to achieve: to educate, persuade and simulate.”

“Especially in the area of serious gaming the Netherlands has a strong position,” confirms Albert-Jan Pomper, COO of healthcare and corporate specialist Ranj Serious Gaming. “In recent years several global corporations started to use serious games from Dutch developers. Dutch developers started to serve clients all around the globe, for example in the US, Germany and South East Asia.”

But by Pomper’s own admission, securing reliable scientific proof of the impact of individual serious games is tough.

“Finding funding and new business models to scale-up markets [is a challenge],” he reveals, then highlighting that: “improving the cooperation with large corporations by finding our way in their prime-business processes,” as a related task to better.

GROWING PAINS

And it not just the serious gaming industry in the Netherlands that has difficulties to address; it is a touch ironic that one of the most apparent hurdles to progress that warrants addressing is born of a positive root.

“The newest challenge, in my opinion, is that we are in the growth phase at the moment,” puts forward Sicco Maathuis, owner of Brightling, which makes applied games around wellbeing.

“So we should get ready for the maturity phase, to be ready for the future.”

It’s a positive approach, and reflects an optimism evident across numerous Dutch games companies, but the fact remains that, relatively, the development space in the Netherlands is yet to grow beyond its youth.

“Because the industry is still quite young here, there isn’t yet a strong network of veteran devs to provide guidance to students and start-ups, to speak at events and at schools,” confirms Hermen Hulst, managing director at Guerrilla Games. “As time passes this will solve itself.”

Hulst also believes that the Dutch industry suffers somewhat from its geographically fragmented nature, with studios arguably spread rather thin across the country.

“The largest game dev community is Amsterdam, but the province of Utrecht has provided the most support to schools, events, and incubators,” he states. “I think the city of Amsterdam, with its global appeal, has the best shot at becoming an internationally relevant game dev hub like Guildford, or Montreal, so that is where to focus should lie for industry efforts.”

MONEY MATTERS

Furthermore, like almost anywhere on the globe in the modern economic environment, securing finance can be tough for Dutch studios; a problem compounded by the lack of enough locally based publishers and investors. And that is not the only concern those from other hubs will be able to empathise with.

“Another interesting problem we’re facing is the amount of students graduating from game-oriented education,” adds Digital Dream’s Bink. “Since the games industry became hot four-to-five years ago, a lot of schools have jumped on the bandwagon.”

Bink and his colleagues are now seeing the first students to emerge from these new courses to enter the jobs market in a sector that’s still establishing its national foothold.

“The older companies are able to support only a small percentage of these aspiring game developers; the others need to look for a job abroad, or create them themselves,” says Bink.

But institutions recognising the games development business is by no means a bad thing in every case, and while opinion is divided, many point to the involvement of government, trade bodies and educators in the sector as an increasingly positive influence.

“The Dutch games industry has seen great support in form of investment in specialised colleges and courses,” offers Sas of Triumph Studios.

“I think that schools like NHTV in Breda and HKU in Utrecht belong to some of the best game schools in Europe. More so than film and TV, the games industry is also able to benefit from innovation and subsidies, which are mostly tech focused. We shouldn’t complain, really.”

Furthermore, there has been a substantial effort on behalf of Dutch games companies in the country to gain government support, as the DGA’s Bouman highlights.

“More and more the lobbying of the Dutch Games Association seems to be paying off. We are now recognised as a key growth market by our government, and we’re working together to find out ways to further unleash our potential. Comparing our sector to the film industry here is difficult; that sector is used to getting support for their productions because of the relatively small local market they’re operating in, and the cultural value they represent.”

As it stands, today the Dutch government today supports games developers by recognising them in a broad creative sectors category, and as such, studios must work hard to stand out among television, film and other established industries.

“The games development sector doesn’t get the same recognition as we see with the TV and film sector,” suggests DDM’s de Koning.

“It’s still a fairly new industry for the government and/or financial institutions. That makes it difficult to get financial support that other sectors do have.”

“The information I have is that most, if not all, government support for the creative and games industry has stopped here, making it ever more challenging for young Dutch game companies to make a mark in the international market,” adds Kalydo’s Tops. “Powering that from your garage is very, very difficult.

“Social media and video conferencing are nice, but face-to-face contact with potential business partners is still the key in this business.”

But is government support through funding even relevant? Not everybody in the Dutch games space thinks so.

“I don’t know any good examples of titles that have been enabled by government funds,” says Guerrilla’s Hulst, who’s own first-party studio is funded by Sony.

“I don’t think that ‘game funds’ is an effective way to encourage the growth of the industry anyway. All the local success stories are self-funded, privately funded or
publisher funded.”

LOOKING FORWARD

However various parties feel about such support, where most do agree is in believing that the Netherlands games industry has good times to look forward to.

“With an increasingly promising output by game design studies, new development studios and young indies are receiving worldwide attention,” says Dutch Game Garden’s van Best.

“Vlambeer releasing Luftrausers on Vita, Abbey Games getting high marks for god game Reus; we believe in a bright future for the Dutch games industry.”

Kalydo’s Tops is more measured in his perspective, but remains confident that if he and his contemporaries focus their resources and skills, then the Netherlands can become a bigger cultural  and economic force with regard to games development.

“Concept and IP development is a good strength in Holland,” he asserts.

“Big game development isn’t, so finding a way to collaborate more and better with other outsource countries with big development experiences and adding our conceptual power is something that can grow our industry. Also the services and technology sector is something we excel in.”

Ultimately, it appears that those that make up the Dutch development sector know where the responsibility lies in terms of moving forward. As Brightling’s Maathuis offers in conclusion, it is the studios, tech outfits and service companies that call the Netherlands a home that must together proppel themselves further into the limelight, ultimately striving to take a stage with the likes of Montreal.

“The future lies with us,” he says. “As long as we like to outperform the expectations of our customers, listen carefully to people around us and hold steady the course we aim for, we will get there.”

And with that clsing comment, the Netherlands’ games makers must all return to their work, developing games of every size and building a collective contribution to the global industry.

CASE STUDY: GUERRILLA GAMES

If the Netherlands has a poster child of the capabilities of its studios, it is surely Guerrilla Games.

Founded in the year 2000 as a number of small Dutch studios merged, in 2005 it was acquired by Sony, and seven years later, welcomed the UK’s Sony Cambridge into the Guerrilla Games fold.

Guerrilla really made a name for itself with the 2004 release of Killzone, which has since been synonymous with the PlayStation hardware line. In February this year, in New York for the unveiling of the PlayStation 4, the studio’s Killzone: Shadow Fall took centre stage, wowing the assembled developers, press and other industry figures with its impressively muscular console visuals.

And, based as it is in the hip city of Amsterdam, Guerrilla has never struggled to attract new talent.
“I find that particularly the city of Amsterdam is a very attractive place for creative people,” offers Guerrilla managing director Hermen Hulst. “It’s got a cool, edgy vibe, it’s international, it’s got lots of cultural venues and museums, and it’s easy to get to. These are important factors for games developers considering a move, of course alongside [looking for] an attractive project and studio.”

Fortunately for Hulst, Guerrilla ticks all those boxes. The Killzone franchise remains an alluring prospect for those keen to work in a triple-A environment with Sony’s hardware teams a phone call away, and the studio itself is as chic and colourful as the best of them.

And, clearly, Hulst is besotted by his homeland’s wider industry, and is also keen to highlight its current spate of growth.

“On a global stage the Dutch games development industry is still a relatively small community, but it is growing quite fast,” suggests the MD. “Until recently there wasn’t really an industry as such to speak of. Since a couple ago of years you see new start-ups popping up everywhere, and some of the smaller teams scaling up.”

And he’s equally optimistic about Amsterdam’s own fortunes in games.

“The industry will continue to grow in the Netherlands, and I think Amsterdam can become a real hub for game development in the Netherlands,” concludes Hulst. “I think over the coming years most Dutch games conferences and events will move to the city, and an increasing share of new studios will set up shop here.”

Guerrilla Games is almost constantly hiring, and developers interested can find out more at the studio’s own website or via the official PlayStation jobs board.

www.guerrilla-games.com

CASE STUDY: KALYDO

Considering the relatively small size of the Dutch games sector, which employed some 3000 people in 2012, the nation has an abundance of service providers and tech companies.

One of those is Kalydo, which offers a cloud gaming technology and platform based on file content streaming for PC and browsers.

Having already ranked up 150 million play sessions served in over 15 countries worldwide, Kalydo offers MMO publishers ‘instant playability’ for any kind of title accessed from either the desktop or browser.

Furthermore, Kalydo offers its partners a tailoured analytics system, used to measure the conversion funnel from numerous perspectives, both in and outside of a given game. What’s more, Kalydo-supported games can be ported in the browser to any social network, from Facebook to Kongregate.

Based in Eindhoven, Kalydo sprung into life in 2006 and today counts Cartoon Network, Gameforge, COG, Chiyu, Gamigo and Gravity amongst its clients.

And like many of his colleagues and peers, Kalydo’s strategic director Richard van Barneveld is confident the Netherlands has the industry foundation needed to maintain an ever-growing business.

“The strongest competence of the Dutch game industry is facilitating game developers and publishers around the globe to become successful,” he says. “For example, the Kalydo Cloud gaming team – initially started as development studio – has made it their mission to aid game publishers and help developers improve the user experience and increase conversion rates.”

But why is the Netherlands so competent with the provision of service and technology for games makers? Van Barneveld believes he has the answer.

“There are several reasons why Kalydo and many other Dutch companies are strong at game services. First, we are a small country with a long trading and distribution history, we speak the most languages in Europe and enjoy the most trading agreements with countries around the globe with interesting tax rates,” he states.

“Secondly, The Netherlands has one of the best broadband infrastructures, next to Korea.”

Meanwhile, according to the Kalydo CEO Doki Tops, it is a national sense of collaboration that has got the specialist and its contemporaries where they are today in the business.

“The Netherlands is a small country, so splitting ourselves up into smaller entities is crazy,” insists Tops.

“Internationally we collaborate with everyone and internally we split up. I love what Nordic Games has achieved; a big presence for companies from different nations. My dream is that Belgium,the Netherlands and Luxembourg will do the same.

“We started the EU for crying out loud,” he concludes with a smile.

www.kalydo.com