Corrections: Multiplayer picnics are organized by Jan Willem Nijman and Kitty Callis, and not by Vlambeer as described below. Nijman is one half of Vlambeer, and Callis works for RageSquid.
Imagine for a moment that you are the head of a small country, and that you want to get a piece of the lucrative video games industry—estimated to be worth $93 billion in 2013. Unfortunately, your country has comparatively little in the way of development tradition, and is considered a second-tier market by video game publishers. What do you do?
A decade ago, the Dutch government faced a similar problem. They wanted to reap the economic benefits of a burgeoning games industry, but with no major publishers, one major studio (Guerilla), and no real tradition of development, they had their work cut out for them. So they did what any pragmatic country would do and began building from the bottom up, investing heavily in game development tracks at Dutch universities and offering grants to encourage development. Within a few years, they had a fresh crop of young game developers.
But what was the best way to put their talents to good use without losing them to European development hotbeds like the UK, France, and Poland? Their answer was the Dutch Game Garden: a government-funded incubator that today is home to around 40 independent companies, including Vlambeer (Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers) and Ronimo Games (Awesomenauts, Swords & Soldiers). Since opening in 2006, it has blossomed into the beating heart of the games industry in the Netherlands, serving as a gathering place for developers large and small while nurturing a new generation of creators.
I recently visited the Dutch Game Garden, where I met with its small full-time staff (about seven employees total) and visited a handful of its companies. What I found was in some ways uniquely Dutch, but in other ways a model for industry development in other countries. And as I learned, even the U.S., one of the birthplaces of the video game industry, could learn a thing or two from the Netherlands' approach to fostering game development.
I first learned of the Dutch Game Garden while vacationing in Amsterdam back in January, whereupon I was invited to meet the staff and take a tour of the facility. My curiosity piqued, I boarded a train for Utrecht, a mid-size city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam that had served as the center of religion in the Netherlands until the 16th century.
I was greeted at the station by a tall, youngish-looking American named Matt Donnelley, who proceeded to guide me through a narrow, winding alleyway fronted on either side by restaurants, at one point waving to a group of developers lunching at one of the local establishments. Waiting for us at the end of our journey was a non-descript five story building perched on a local square that at that time housed the majority of the Dutch games industry .
Donnelley, as I soon learned, is kind of the Dutch Game Garden's ambassador. A passionate gamer himself, he displays none of the cynicism that sometimes infects those who have made video games a career. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious as he shares his experiences, whether it's the fun of being able to test multiplayer for Action Henk, a physics-based racing platformer currently available via access on Steam, or the excitement of seeing developers collaborating to make better games. He has the air of being the kid lucky enough to work at the local video game shop.
From his position as Incubation Manager, Donnelley frequently has the opportunity to witness the creative process firsthand. He relates one story from a New Year's Party in 2014, which saw Vlambeer co-founder Jan Nijman try out Action Henk, then still in the early stages of development. "He's playing the game, then he makes the developer get out his laptop and start changing things," Donnelley remembers. "He's saying, 'Now change this, change that, that's better.' He basically went down the list of things that he felt needed changing, and by the end of the night the game played totally differently than it had at the start. And that was in the middle of a party. To me, that was so cool to see. It was like, 'Here's this, here's how to do it, and we're going to do it right now and make it better.'"
He finishes breathlessly, "And that to me is kind of a good example of why I like doing this." Donnelley, it should be mentioned, is full of these kinds of stories. Even he admits that people around the office have heard them all a thousand times or so.
In his day-to-day job, Donnelley wears any number of hats, organizing meetings, listening to game pitches for the Incubation Program, and reading investor proposals. When he's not elbow-deep in logistics, he's the Dutch Game Garden's chief cheerleader, happily sampling games and sharing his thoughts with the developers. As we talk, he ticks just a handful of his favorite games: Action Henk ("I get addicted every time I pick it up"); Reus, a god game ("Watching it come together was so rewarding for me"); Vlambeer's action roguelike Nuclear Throne; and Penarium, a platformer in which a hapless child with a protruding gut attempts to avoid a host of deathtraps.
He stresses that he, and the rest of the Dutch Game Garden, are mostly in an advisory role. They are rooting for developers to succeed; but ultimately, the companies have to make decisions for themselves. "We are not shareholders, or owners or anything. Each company has their own wants and needs and goals, and it is better for them to convey these things on their own, directly. We advise, and try to make sure they are as prepared as possible to do these things, but they make the ultimate decisions for their companies, and how they want to run them.
It's an intense but rewarding job, especially for one as passionate about games as Donnelley. He's been at the Dutch Game Garden since 2012, having joined roughly a year before the organization tasted major success. As a former expat myself, it's easy to tell that Donnelley is in the Netherlands for the long haul. He loves both the country and his job. After all, he's had the privilege of helping to build the Dutch game industry almost from scratch.
After sitting in that conference room talking for an hour and a half, our conversation ranging from the history of gaming in the Netherlands to the nuts and bolts of the program itself, it was time for the actual tour. The first stop was Ragesquid, developers of Action Henk, who were crammed into a small office brimming with clutter. As I came to discover, most of the offices at the Dutch Game Garden are like Ragesquid's, rooms barely bigger than a corner office crammed with people laboring over models and code, their walls covered in concept art and the odd movie poster.
Many of them are just starting out, having come together at the University of Utrecht, HKU, or one of the Dutch other universities with a strong game development track. They come to the Dutch Game Garden through events like the group's periodical network lunches, where budding developers are invited to show prototypes and pitch their games. There they begin to make contact with the community at large; and when they eventually graduate, many either join the Game Garden's Incubator Program, or simply opt to rent space so that they can be closer to other developers, as Vlambeer has done for several years now.
The benefits to joining the Dutch Game Garden Incubator Program are numerous. Once a company joins the collective, they have access to both a variety of formal classes and the expertise of their fellow developers, who can speak to issues like publisher contracts and building engines, as well as more mundane topics like giving an employee effective feedback. Each month, the Dutch Game Garden also holds sessions called "Incubation Intervisie," where developers from around the country come in to discuss their experiences. On the side, there are more informal get-togethers like the multiplayer picnics started by Vlambeer, where developers will play each other's local multiplayer games and give feedback.
Before a company can become part of the Incubator Program, though, they have to formally pitch their idea to staffers like Donnelley, who then advise them on whether it's feasible or not. "We've had to say, 'We don't think it's going to work. Please come back when you have a team.'"
He recalls the case of Wispfire Studios, which he says had the idea for an ambitious RPG. "They wanted to make this huge BioWare-style RPG, but they didn't have a programmer," Donnelley says. "They left, but came back 8 months later, and in that time their programmer had practiced and gotten better, but their next idea was also too big. So we worked with them; one week we'd focus only on lighting, then the next week was only movement and physics, and so on. Finally, knowing all that, they came up with plan for a new game. We looked at it, then had two other companies interview them separately and give their views, and we said, 'You can do it. Your idea has merit. Welcome to the program.' It was interesting watching them figure out how to do this. They managed to come up with something within their skillset."
(As an update to the above, Donnelley later clarified via email, "I wish I could take credit for helping them with their weekly testing/growth, but that was all them. After Messiah didn't work out (more on that in a minute), they tried another game, but it was also too big. Then they decided to have shorter, 'game-a-week' projects, each exploring one subject as described. However, this was all on their own, outside of DGG. After they did those, they came to us, and seeing that they had taken the time to figure out exactly what they could and could not do as a team really impressed me in their second interview." He added that the team wanted to make a "story-driven godgame about cultural evolution" and not a BioWare-style RPG (though it was every bit as ambitious); and that they did have a programmer from the beginning, but not one experienced enough to make the game they wanted).
The resulting game became Herald, a "3D interactive drama inspired by 19th century history" that recently featured at Casual Connect 2015 in Amsterdam, where it won the prize for Best Narrative in addition to being nominated for Best Art in the Indie Prize Showcase.
In addition to its develop-focused programs, the Dutch Game Garden showcases games through events like the Global Game Jam, which they co-organize, as well as Indigo, in which eight to ten games are selected and shown to the public. Indigo is the big one, the Dutch Game Garden's chance to show their best face to the masses. At last September's Indigo event, the Dutch Game Garden had around 1700 visitors, Donnelley says. The games selected for the event were a mix of those developed by companies in the building, studios from around the country, and students. Going forward, the Dutch Game Garden plans to deemphasize other events, instead focusing on Indigo.
In general, the atmosphere around the Dutch Game Garden is remarkably relaxed, with relatively little in the way of drama between developers. "People are very open to sharing their results and code and ideas and process. I've had outsiders come in and be surprised by this. They'll say, 'Wait, there's no NDA? What if someone steals it?' But they aren't concerned about that. I have no idea why, but they just aren't concerned about it."
The culture of cooperation also fosters an atmosphere where everyone is rooting for each other to succeed. "I really liked the Awesomenauts release party," says communications manager Martijn van Best. "The guys from Vlambeer created a mini-Awesomenauts, which was a very tiny Smash Bros. like game. They made it specifically for them and played it that evening. It's part of the special edition, and it's cool to see that they're doing things for each other."
I can personally attest to this atmosphere for enthusiastic creativity. Walking from office to office was a bit like being back in school, with each group of students eager to show off their final projects. I ended up playing games the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, beginning with Action Henk and continuing through Herald and Penarium before settling into the rather swank offices of Digital Dreams, where I took in the audiovisual puzzler Metrico amid mood lighting and soft music. I finished up with Bounden, a dancing simulator developed with the assistance of the Dutch National Ballet, clutching one end of an iPhone as I spun around a small office with its programmer, Bojan Endrovski.
"I love that Bounden exists. It's so cool," Donnelley later exclaims.
Alas, not every story has a happy ending. A few days after I visited the Dutch Game Garden, Bounden's creators, Game Oven Studios, announced that they would be shutting down in April and going their separate ways. In their farewell post, they wrote, "We have had the pleasure of being in the Dutch Game Garden for its best three years."
Befitting the ever-changing nature of the games industry, companies are always coming and going at the Dutch Game Garden. Some of them grow so big that they end up moving out of the building and striking out on their own, as in the case of Abbey Games, though they happily return for events. Others, like Game Oven Studios, break apart and move on. Reasons vary from money problems to a founder suffering some sort of emergency.
"The nice thing about having a building like this where there is no time limit is that they are here everyday getting to know each other," Donnelley says. "They'll often go and join other teams in the building as freelancers, then go fulltime."
For their part, all three of Game Oven's key figures seem inclined to keep making games, which means that they will likely continue to appear at the Dutch Game Garden in some capacity. But they aren't the only ones in the midst of a major transition .
Spiders in a Web
By the time you read this article, the Dutch Game Garden will have vacated their current building in favor of an events center that will put them closer to the train station. The new location will have only one floor instead of five, with some of the non-incubation companies moving on.
"Being all on one floor now, I am curious if it will be easier for the companies to mix and mingle more naturally, since they are not separated by distinct floors now," Donnelley mused over email earlier today.
The move is part of the Dutch Game Garden's next phase of development. With their current five-year grant set to expire after this year, they are reevaluating their priorities and thinking about what they want to do next. One plan, says van Best, is to secure additional income by expanding to other cities, which will bring with it additional grants, licenses, and rental fees. On March 3, they will open a location in Breda, a small town in the south of the country that is home to one of the biggest international game development study programs in the Netherlands. The Breda office will bring the Dutch Game Garden up to three locations, joining existing spaces in Hilversum and Utrecht.
"Instrumental to these expansions (and the initial success of Dutch Game Garden) has been the cooperation with local governments and study programs, as well as existing companies," van Best tells me over email. "In local government-speak that's called the 'triple helix' approach."
Aside from expansion, the Dutch Game Garden is looking to foster the next generation of developers. They point to Lionade (Check-in, Knock-out), Ostrich Banditos (Westerado: Double Barreled), Reptile (Lethal League), Fru Games (Fru), and Vogelsap (The Flock) as developers who are ready to make a name for themselves. Interestingly, most of the existing companies appear to have no interest in "getting big," as it were. There is an indie ethos in the Netherlands that extends even to "giants" like Guerilla, which numbers only a couple hundred people and is heavily active in the community.
But despite the lack of development in traditional metrics like AAA games, the Dutch Game Garden and the initiatives that have accompanied it have been a huge success. You could even call Dutch game development cutting edge in the way that it has embraced platforms like Steam and mobile, both of which have come to the forefront of gaming since its inception. In the meantime, developers like Ronimo and Vlambeer have expanded Dutch influence abroad, and domestic talent has exploded thanks to the encouragement of university game development tracks.
These days, the Dutch Game Garden's influence can be likened to that of a spider in the web, van Best says. "When people who want to know about games, but don't know much about them, they come here. We have a very extensive network, and we can point them to someone they should speak to. We have a lot of contacts with schools and with different layers of government. In that sense, we are always the organization in-between."
The Dutch Game Garden's importance is such that even Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte has spent a day in their offices, though he didn't play anything. "He did not play because he didn't want to look foolish being bad at a game," van Best laughs. "The last Prime Minister had a faux paus where he stepped on a skateboard and fell over."
Compared to American video game policy, which has been by turns ignorant and outright hostile, Rutte's visit is almost dazzling. President Obama supposedly has a deep interest in games culture, but you won't find him mingling with game developers. Granted, that's the difference between the Netherlands and the U.S. Rich as it is, the Netherlands is still a comparatively tiny country, making it easier for the government to focus on one area of artistic and economic development. The American federal government has somewhat larger concerns.
But still, the U.S. could still learn a thing or two from the Dutch approach. Game development tracks at U.S. universities have grown in recent years, but they are still largely seen as the province of scam artists looking to rope in impressionable students, and grants are hard to come by. A state like Minnesota, which has long desired to become a tech hotbed, could perhaps use the Dutch model to build up its own corner of the games industry, thus giving it the foothold it so desperately wants. The matter in which the Dutch have built up their games industry is a counterpoint to those who claim that government can't do anything right; though, sadly, the climate of dismissive hostility toward gaming in the U.S. makes the implementation of any such policy unlikely.
As for the Dutch Game Garden, it's apparent how much appreciation the developers have for the organization and the community it fosters. When something good happens, Donnelley says, creators can't help sharing their excitement with the Dutch Game Garden's staff. "When Self Made Miracle got their publishing contract [with Team 17], that was awesome for me because I had spent two weeks with them everyday going through it. I was just... happy. I was excited. This company that I really liked convinced a publisher to give them money. And the cool thing is that whenever something like that happens, they always come to our office and say, 'Hey guys, guess what? Something good happened!'"
Martijn van Best, meanwhile, expresses the Dutch Game Garden's impact in typically direct terms; words that stay with me as I walk past developers playing catch in the hallway and out into the darkened streets of Utrecht.
"To put it bluntly, no one wants to see us go," he says. "It's a proven concept, and it's going well."
No need to worry on that front. After close to a decade of growth, the Dutch Game Garden isn't going anywhere.
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