A closer look at the Dutch games industry

Dutch companies earn money through games. The Netherlands has a sizable games industry, but what does it look like?

What is the Dutch games industry? If you ask the average gamer, they’ll probably mention Guerrilla Games, the studio behind first-person shooter franchise Killzone. If you press on, perhaps provide a few hints – Ridiculous Fishing? Awesomenauts? – they might name smaller studios like Vlambeer or Ronimo Games. But if you mention successful studios like WeirdBeard, Abbey Games, Codeglue or Spil Games, chances are most gamers won’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

Is that all? Or are we simply asking the wrong people? Although the abdominal surgeons at UMCG Hospital in Groningen may never have heard of Guerrilla, they’re very familiar with Grendel Games. After all, they train their surgical skills through playing Underground, an applied game developed especially for them. Fire chiefs responsible for operational procedure exercises will know E-Semble, a studio that supplies virtual training simulations. Finally, the dredgers at multinational Van Oord in Rotterdam have come to greatly appreciate V-Step, a company specializing in maritime simulations that help prepare dredgers for hands-on situations.

All in all, it’s safe to say that Dutch game studios aren’t equally well-known across the board. Still, there are about 330 companies currently building, publishing and selling games throughout the Netherlands. That number was taken from the Gamesmonitor 2012, the most recent in-depth study on the industry. However, that number doesn’t include a few dozen companies that don’t consider gaming their core activity, but that still develop games. For example, the Dutch army develops its own revalidation and training exercise games, and there are a number of ad agencies that employ in-house game programmers. And while they significantly add to the success of the industry as a whole, specialized freelancers aren’t included in that list of companies either.

In addition, there are several companies that support the industry, while not developing games themselves: server farms specializing in games (cloud gaming is experiencing significant growth), companies analyzing game marketing data, or academic institutions doing fundamental research on games and gaming.

Those companies that spent more than half their time building games, employed about 3,300 people in 2012. Although there hasn’t been an in-depth study on the industry since, that figure is now obsolete. There are 32 games education programs in the Netherlands, from which several hundreds of new game developers graduate every year. How many of them actually find a job in the industry remains unclear. We also know the annual industry turnover of 2012, which was somewhere between 150 and 225 million euros – again, not counting turnover for game-related parties like the Department of Defense and ad agencies.

It’s safe to say that the creative industry in the Netherlands is thriving, and that there’s money to be made in developing games. In that sense, the Netherlands is no different from other developed Western countries. But what does the Dutch games industry actually look like? There are a number of things that stand out. For such a small country, the industry is quite large; bigger countries like France and Japan have a comparable number of game studios. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that the Netherlands focuses more on so-called ‘serious games’ or ‘applied games’ than other countries do. On estimate, at least half of all Dutch games production consists of games that help people train, learn, and manage change processes. The other half consists of so-called ‘entertainment games’, which ­revolve around the experience of gaming itself. The next few chapters will deal with both of these forms in further detail.

Another thing that stands out is the small scale of most companies. There are about a dozen medium or large game studios in the Netherlands, of which Guerrilla Games is the largest, with 230 employees. However, most Dutch game studios are run by ten people at most. That makes us very different from the industries surrounding us: game studios in Germany, France and Great Britain are generally larger. Size does matter here: you need large teams to develop prominent entertainment titles for game consoles, also known as AAA games. It’s no wonder that Dutch game studios generally specialize in different areas: mobile games, small-scale PC games, browser games, et cetera.

Besides their relatively small size, Dutch studios are often quite young as well. While some companies have been around for over a decade, most studios haven’t reached that anniversary yet. Those newer studios often employ savvy twentysomethings who know that in these times of digital distribution – think Apple’s App Store, or Steam for PC – having one solid idea is all it takes to make it big. There are definite pros and cons to this approach. Like the results of the Gamesmonitor showed, the industry is quick to grow horizontally, if not vertically. In other words, while the number of Dutch studios increases, they don’t show a lot of company growth.

Is that a bad thing? That really depends on your point of view. A pessimist would look at the risks of all these young and eager companies: inexperienced startups entering a dynamic and extremely competitive market. An optimist would see small-scale, unorthodox companies with a creative and innovative approach to games and new media in general, exploring them in ways nobody thought of before. Take an innovative project like Story Wall by Groningen-based Studio Bleep, an app that helps kids in hospitals overcome their fear. Simply use your smartphone to scan a cow printed on the wallpaper, and it will start talking to you on-screen to set you at ease. Another example is entertainment game Bounden, developed by a game studio from Utrecht called GameOven. Two people dance while holding a single smart phone between them, and the game shows them exactly how to move. You won’t get away with simply swaying back and forth, either; the in-game choreographies were created by the Dutch National Ballet.

The Dutch games industry is very innovative, and that innovation extends beyond the games themselves. For example, as a Sony studio, Guerrilla helped develop high-tech hardware for Sony’s Playstation4 console. Software package Game­Maker, popular among game developers, was also developed by a Dutch studio. So was ( )distribute (programming language for do distribute), which helps companies safely share their games with journalists and gamers. Haarlem-based iQU builds analysis software that allows game companies to follow gamers digitally, often throughout several games. It’s a very specialist area, and they’re one of the international market leaders. And then there’s the more fundamental research on IT, artificial intelligence, and other game-related software issues that’s being done at several Dutch universities.

All in all, the Netherlands can boast a great knowledge structure when it comes to computers and IT, and the games industry both adds to that expertise and uses it. You’ll find more on that in the final chapter. A broad IT culture is another vital part. Dutch people are generally highly educated, and the Netherlands offers solid opportunities for technical education. In addition, most of the population owns smartphones, PCs and tablets, and we reap the benefits of a modern glass fiber network and multitude of radio masts for mobile traffic. The Netherlands is one of the most well-developed countries in terms of Internet penetration and use. Of course, this is largely due to AMS-IX, a large Internet hub connecting European and transatlantic cables. That hub is the reason why an American cloud hosting company like Softlayer came to the Netherlands in the first place.

In order to understand the Dutch industry, there are two other important areas besides technology that need to be addressed. First of all, the games industry is part of the creative industry, and as such meets the requirements for financial support under the so-called ‘top sector policy’: government policy meant to stimulate the knowledge economy. That funding is used to improve the creative infrastructure – stimulating a startup culture, partnering the games industry with the business world and academic institutions, or encouraging Research & Development for games.

Secondly, the culture within the industry itself shapes the form the industry takes on. With only 3,300 people, the industry is still very manageable, and its transparent culture means sharing knowledge and insights is no problem at all. Even the smaller studios are part of a well-formed industry network. New companies connect through startup structures like the Dutch Game Garden, an ‘incubator’ for smaller game companies that currently has three locations throughout the country. With its own industry magazine (Control Magazine), annual game awards, trade fairs and consumer events, the dialog between stakeholders remains dynamic as ever. In the end, that’s what makes the Dutch games industry so quintessentially Dutch: it’s a small country, and we need to help each other out wherever we can.