The rise of entertainment games

“The diversity in gamers, games and gaming platforms is mirrored in Dutch game production.”

As mentioned in a closer look at the Dutch games industry, the games industry consists of entertainment games and applied games. Although this clear distinction seemingly separates the industry into strongly contrasting parts, that isn’t quite true: applied games only catch on if they’re fun to play, and research shows that entertainment games can be especially useful for developing fine motor skills and problem-solving abilities. It also helps foreign-language speakers learn English.

Dozens of entertainment games are produced in the Netherlands every year. Although nobody knows the exact number, that information isn’t really relevant; in the end, it’s not about how many games you offer, but how many you sell. Games in different genres, for different platforms, games that appeal to different types of gamers and different markets. That distinction is also very relevant: after all, ‘entertainment games’ is an umbrella term that covers a multitude of games. It makes a lot of difference whether a studio builds console games, browser games, or games suitable for mobile devices. Those all call for different distribution channels, different ways of presenting the game, different stakeholders… not to mention a different audience. Or, better yet: audiences, plural.

All of these are subject to quick changes, and the gamer audience most of all. Gaming has long been the domain of young men, the group that had been playing video games in arcade halls since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the rise of home computer systems added children as a target audience. Teenage boys remained the dominant group, mostly because the fledgling industry consisted of twentysomethings building games they enjoyed themselves. Games weren’t targeted at adults, nor were women and girls seen as a serious audience.

Over the past years, that has changed significantly, with women discovering games en masse. In 2013, the American Entertainment Software Association calculated that the “average gamer” was a 34-year-old woman, and that female gamers outnumbered their male counterparts. This shift is largely thanks to the rise of home computers, smartphones and tablets; game consoles and PCs are no longer the only gaming platforms out there. Another reason is that most games include a social component, providing new reasons to play; think of the chat function in WordFeud that grandma uses to catch up with her granddaughter. Conclusion: in 2015, gaming appeals to all generations and both genders.

This diversity in terms of gamers and gaming platforms is mirrored in Dutch games productions. The aforementioned Killzone franchise is developed for core gamers who own a Playstation4 console. Vanguard Games targets the same audience, but mostly focuses on games for smartphone and tablet. Since tweens prefer PC gaming, Spil Games developed their popular girls’ game Sarah’s Cooking Class as a browser game. Their older brothers play PC games as well, but prefer downloading a fantasy war game like Age of Wonders III by Triumph Studios. In the meantime, people of all ages enjoy the Tetris-like puzzle/building game 99 Bricks Wizard Academy, developed by studio WeirdBeard. Et cetera, et cetera.

Platform and target audience shape the games, and with it, the identity of the game studio responsible. Studios usually specialize in building for either a single or several platforms, because of the specialist knowledge it takes to fully understand that platform, both technically and economically. At the same time, some companies specialize in technically transforming a game so it can switch to a different platform. A company like Nixxes makes a comfortable living by porting other people’s games to new platforms, so they can reach new groups of gamers.

So, does that cover all entertainment games, then? Not really. Besides games sold directly to consumers, there is another important category: promotional games. Ad agencies often order advertising games themed around new products; free games focused on increasing consumers’ brand awareness. Think of Facebook games, or games on company campaign websites and the like. Although the market is currently declining, it’s still bread-and-butter business for many studios.

Many of these game productions don’t show up on people’s general radar. They’re often temporarily available, not particularly creative, and generally have short playthroughs. But as with any rule, there are notable exceptions. Utrecht-based studio Sticky is building promotional games for Hollywood blockbusters (think The Hobbit, Godzilla, The Maze Runner) one after another, all with high production value and significant playthrough. While a game like The Hobbit: Barrel Escape is available at a campaign website, its production value measures up to any other full game.

In short, the world of entertainment games is quite diverse. But just how successful is it, really? That’s a difficult question to answer. For every successful studio out there, there are several others with less positive results. Studios that scored a massive hit with a certain group of gamers might well miss the mark entirely with their next game – or the other way around. Large studios have gone bankrupt, while small-scale businesses have flourished. We’ve seen major layoffs, while other companies have refocused and started anew. In that sense, the Dutch games industry is just like any other, although it’s subject to a very volatile market.

Dutch studios are keeping their head above water for the moment, but there are definite concerns. The games industry is international, and by those standards, the Dutch industry is a mere dwarf. The 150-225 million euros that the Dutch industry generates annually is a mere drop in the ocean when compared to the estimated 79 billion dollars generated worldwide. Dutch studios follow important trends like the breakthrough of digital distribution and the rise of mobile gaming, but these trends are generally set in other countries. Although that’s not a bad thing per se, it does require a sharp eye for market developments, a great feel for marketing and ample entrepreneurial spirit. It would be an understatement to say that this isn’t equally well-developed in all companies; most independent or ‘indie’ studios still hold on to the romantic ideal that everything will be all right as long as you’re creative and a hard worker. That might be true for an expanding market like we’re seeing at the moment, but what happens when decline sets in?

Despite this important observation, it should be noted that many of those small-scale studios are performing admirably. Vlambeer has even risen to gamer fame. With a number of highly popular games to their name and an active community of loyal fans, they’re guaranteed a golden future in the world of gaming. And then there’s Abbey Games, which put the nearly forgotten genre of God games – in which a player controls an entire people – back on the map, and is very successful in that specific niche market. These two studios prove that creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit go hand-in-hand.

Companies like these have an extensive network and are characterized by a very open company culture: there’s no harm in asking, and the Dutch indie world is small enough to know someone who might have the answer. These are companies that reap the benefits of formal start-up constructions like the Dutch Game Garden, an incubator with locations in Utrecht, Hilversum and Amsterdam, or Indietopia in Groningen.

Another thing these small-scale companies have in common is that their games are sold as a purely digital product. For a long time, games were sold on CD-ROMs or other carriers. That meant high distribution and store promotion costs; something not all studios could afford. For that reason, smaller studios found themselves at the mercy of game publishers. With the rise of the Internet, these studios are now able to digitally distribute their games through dozens of channels. Smartphone games can be provided in the digital App Stores of Apple, Microsoft or Samsung, and it’s no longer required to go through a publisher. The same goes for PC and console games: large companies like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft increasingly notice the value of smaller, often downloadable games users can play on their Xbox, PlayStation, or WiiU. And that has a noticeable effect on Dutch game companies.

So, is small really beautiful when it comes to the Dutch entertainment games industry? In part, yes – but there are still risks involved. As mentioned earlier, these small-scale companies struggle to grow, and marketing remains a weakness. That growth problem isn’t just the companies’ own fault, though. For one thing, the Dutch games industry has trouble securing venture capital. Another problem lies in the nature of the games industry itself: if the game is successful, it generates funding for the next production. If it doesn’t, the studio immediately ends up in financial troubles. While remaining small is the smart choice, it often directly interferes with developers’ larger ambitions.