DGA chairman Horst Streck responds to the discussion that arose around the recently revealed growth numbers of the Dutch games industry in the Games Monitor 2015. “The opportunities were there, but we haven’t been able to seize them.”

In an interview with NRC, DGA chairman Horst Streck responds to their previously published article on the creation of a bubble in the Dutch games industry. “The Dutch games industry has been too optimistic about growth possibilities for a number of years,” he states and adds how numbers mentioned in the press often take on a life of their own. He responds by pointing out how we must put all our efforts in trying to seize business opportunities, for instance by asking for a return-on-investment on certain subsidies and put much greater emphasis on entrepreneurship in the games industry in general.

Read the interview (Dutch)

 

 

Do you have experience with validation of health games or apps? What do you think about the need for validation and methods of validation in this sector? Read on to fill out the survey on validation of health games.

This survey is part of the wrap-up of Growing Games, a support program (2013-2016) to promote the sustainable growth of the Dutch applied games sector. This survey is the next step after the Growing Games consortium published a position paper at the end of 2015 on the state of validation of health games and apps in the Netherlands. That paper called for a more differentiated approach to validation befitting the highly different characteristics of these innovative products.

To further develop a critical view and build upon the position paper, it is crucial to hear what people with recent experience validating health games and apps think about the need for validation and appropriate methods of validation in this sector.

>>> Go to the Validation of Health Games Survey <<<

And remember: it doesn’t matter whether your experience was good or bad, or at a design, research, insurance or governmental organization, or about a game or app for prevention, cure or care; it is greatly appreciated if you share any experience you have had!

Feel free to spread the word in your network, and have others fill out the survey too.

 

(Image: Coach4Life – Little Chicken Game Company)

 

Literary games Puzzling Poetry and Winter are subsidized by Gamefonds and the Dutch Foundation for Literature (Letterenfonds). Game developers collaborate with writers to make these games.

Flemish writer Joost Vandecasteele is working with indie game studio Happy Volcano on the game Winter, in which the story’s dark narrative is determined by gameplay. In Studio Louter and poet Lucas Hirsch’s game Puzzling Poetry players recreate poetry.

The two developer-and-writer collaborations took part in an open call done by the Gamefonds (an initiative of Creative Industries Fund NL and Mediafonds) and the Dutch Foundation for Literate. The three funds want to stimulate the collaboration between the literary world and the games industry.

Puzzling Poetry and Winter were chosen out of almost 50 submissions. Last summer, five projects were selected by the Dutch Foundation for Literature to be further developed. A joint advisory committee selected two games that would receive subsidies for their development. The committee was especially enthused about the manner in which the literary quality and the game design merge into one cohesive whole. Which games were the best and most appropriate to present during the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2016 was also a discussed topic.

Suzanne Meeuwissen, senior policy officer at the Foundation for Literature, stated that the collaboration between games and literature is ‘relevant and exciting,’ especially given the technological developments. “The literature takes place outside of the book through technology, and focuses on a new and younger (reading) audience. It also enriches the process for game developers, as the literary scenarios and storylines add a new and often times surprising layer to a game.”

Puzzling Poetry is a game in which the player is presented with deconstructed poems by Lucas Hirsch and other poets, with as end-goal the recreation of these poems. Next to the meaning of the words, the challenge is to pick up on rhythm and graphical relativity. “Playing with words leads to an unexpected, concentrated way of reading,” according to the selection committee.

The game Winter (by Flemish collective Happy Volcano) is a mobile game in which the player navigates step by step through a world of tiles. With each step, a story unfolds – an inner dialogue written by Joost Vandecasteele, which the player can use to determine the course of said story. The fresh, sleek design by Happy Volcano is combined with a dark, literary story by Vandecasteele.

In October of 2016, Puzzling Poetry and Winter will be presented at Buchmesse in Frankfurt; a presentation for which the games will also be translated into English and German. The Creative Industries Fund NL, the Mediafonds, and the Dutch Foundation for Literature will bring these two selected games to the international book fair, where there will be an increased focus on new forms of literature. This year, the Netherlands and Flanders are guest countries at the fair that is the largest book fair worldwide.

The Academic Medical Center (AMC) of Amsterdam released 2 apps to train and educate medical professionals in playful way to improve the quality of healthcare.

Developer and surgeon Marlies Schijven of AMC explains that Medialis and Dr. Game: Surgeon Trouble are the first games of which the medical information is thoroughly tested. The games have been developed in cooperation with the Dutch game companies Weirder and Little Chicken.

Medialis

The first app is Medialis (Android / iOS), a game that trains quick decision making skills. The game does this by testing the medical professional with a very rapid quiz that contains detailed questions about all kinds of medical situations in which a quick decision is important, like taking out a gallbladder or severe airway problems. “The user has to chose from 4 possible answers. From the quiz, a score follows that can be easily shared with colleagues or the trainer”, states Schijven. “You can challenge someone, keep track of your scores or share your scores through SMS, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.” The Medialis app costs 3,99 euros and has been developed with gamecompany Little Chicken. “The fun thing is, that everyone can create their own quiz, which makes the app grow spontaneously”, says Schijven. “All the new questions that are applied, are of course checked on medical justness. That way we can control what kind of questions actually enter the game and prevent non-medical subjects or inappropriate information to enter the game.”

Dr. Game: surgeon trouble

The second game is free and is called Dr. Game: Surgeon Trouble (Android / iOS). During this game, something goes wrong and players enter the ‘trouble shoot mode’ in which they have to solve the problem. For instance, the machine that is used for laparoscopic surgery, fails. The problem has to be solved by the surgeon before the next step of the game is unlocked. Dr. Game: Surgeon Trouble has been developed with game company Weirdbeard.

Project “Patiënt safety, Peaks in the Delta”

These games are an outcome of the project “Patient safety, Peaks in the Delta”, of which project partners are Dutch Game Garden, TNO and Taskforce Innovation (now Economic Board Utrecht). Health insurance firm CZ and the Ministry of Economic affairs have contributed financially to this project. Marlies Schijven, professor in Surgery, and specialising in serious gaming, simulation and applied mobile healthcare, is convinced these games are very useful. “A lot of people play games on their phone, you can bet on that. It is proven that surgeon deliver better results when they practice with games. Therefore it is a logical step to develop these games as apps. It is a different way of presenting knowledge. Recent research has shown that de knowledge surgeons get out of these app-games, is relevant. Surgeons who play Dr. Game, recognize problems during surgery faster in a testenvironment, than surgeons who have been trained in the “old fashioned” way.”

Dutch gaming companies are natural allies of researchers and knowledge centers in several fields of interest. Research is a given for applied games, but entertainment games aren’t lacking academic attention either.

Games as a medium have been the subject of research ever since the birth of commercial video games in the 1970s. Academics have published entire libraries’ worth of materials about all possible aspects of games and gaming. Whether it’s about the working of games, their cultural value or technological aspects, gaming is well-represented in academic research.

It should therefore come as no surprise that game companies themselves often have close ties to knowledge institutes, education and individual researchers. The previously mentioned Gamesmonitor 2012 already showed that this is clearly the case: interviews with 77 game companies showed that more than half of them collaborate with research institutes or education programs in the Netherlands, and that a minority has ties to institutes in the US or Europe. These results concern both studios building entertainment games and those involved in developing applied games. Game companies assume different roles in the collaboration, from knowledge receiver or partner for knowledge development to developer of research tools. That collaboration is often focused on education, but research also makes up a large chunk of it. In 2012, collaborations revolved around developing tools to better build games, as well as to develop business models and develop and scientifically validate game concepts.

The latter is mostly represented within the world of medical applied games. Health games have greater responsibility when it comes to proving that a game works the way the developer says it works. A rehabilitation game focused on the recovery of certain muscle groups should not cause excessive strain or train the wrong body parts. Similarly, a game that helps ADHD patients plan their day (see the example following this chapter) should have a proven effect outside the game – if you attain high scores but fail to plan better in daily life, the game is considered a failure.

This is just one of the many areas of research for applied games; think of how faithfully patients attend counseling sessions, skill development in training games, et cetera. For example, the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam collaborated with Amsterdam-based IJsfontein Interactive Media to develop what they dubbed the “abcdeSIM”. ER doctors need to make split-second decisions about which patients to treat first. To do so, they use the ABCDE method: check the patient’s Airway, whether they’re Breathing, and work their way down the alphabet. They use a playful app to train that skill to make quick decisions, but said app has such a proven effect that the hospital has accredited it as an official training method.

This shows how game design can significantly profit from research: it validates the effect and helps convince clients, investors and users. With advantages like that, you think that research is a standard component for medical games, but you’d be mistaken. There is a gap between the wish to have games researched and actually having research done, and that forms a bit of a problem. Building games is a process in which new insights are immediately added to a product; developers work from version to version, and learn from testing between rounds.

That process is at odds with science’s preferred way of studying a research object: as a fixed value, to be observed over a longer period of time. Because of financing hurdles, that “longer period of time” is usually four years – in other words, an eternity in the world of software development. The beta version of any game would be obsolete by the time it would be finished; waiting four years for the study results before being able to build version 2.0 – and waiting another four years for validation research – would be undoable.

While there is a solution to that problem, it requires researchers to start thinking in one-year projects. It’s possible, but that in turn means something in the organizational structure of research institutes needs to change. Another option is to help researchers tag along with game studios during the development process while using more evidence-based research methods. It may not be as prestigious in the world of science, but it would be of great help to game validation. Regardless, the games industry really wants to come to a solution. While we know that many applied games work, we don’t always know why and how they work; something for which scientific help would be greatly appreciated.

Fortunately, science is there to lend a hand. For example, NWO, the Dutch government organization responsible for financing research, is investing in a study on persuasive game design for online treatments in addiction care. How can you develop games in such a way that they stimulate people to change their behavior – preferably for good? Although Ranj Serious Games is involved in that study (as are the Delft University of Technology and the University of Amsterdam), it’s not specifically tied to a single game. This study is not to be confused with research on game addiction such as is being done at the University of Amsterdam; those are effect studies originating from within the division of social sciences.

Similar research is being done at the University of Twente, where in-game characters are taught intelligent “human” behavior, allowing police officers to improve their social skills within a game environment. LOITER, developed especially for that purpose, features “virtual suspects” who react more strongly than in-game characters usually would. Incidentally, the University of Twente isn’t the only university studying the artificial intelligence of non-playable characters; the University of Tilburg is currently focusing on the same subject.

This type of research revolves around games-related computer technology, an area in which the Netherlands is starting to build quite the reputation. Researchers at Utrecht University study digital simulations of crowds: how do you make a group of avatars look realistic while moving? Other researchers focus on the space the crowds move through: automated game design is all about intelligent software generating levels by itself, thereby decreasing the costs for game development.

Meanwhile, TU Delft researchers focused purely on computer graphics and visualizations, combining research on human perception with software development. The premise is that by understanding how we see, games could be using less images per second. That means less computing would be necessary, which leaves game developers with more space to use for other features. Delft has built several of these software packages, which have proven popular with game engine owners: their technology is featured in the Unreal engine as well as Unity.

If you look at it in broad strokes, it would seem that the collaboration between Dutch industry and science is going well. That’s true for the most part, but there are still things to be improved. Research funding is often granted to the validation of applied games and applicable technological research. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, there is an obvious lack of attention when it comes to researching the economic and cultural role videogames play in our society. Who are these gamers, exactly? Why do we play games? And, equally important – especially for a Dutch industry that still has to work on this – how is money being made from games now and in the future?

Another important consideration is the fact that game companies are sometimes asked to contribute to the financing for certain research constructions. This can be a particular problem for smaller studios, who may have to choose between investing in research or in new computers. Some studios are so popular among researchers that they find themselves to be the subject of excessive demand, and have to turn down new projects.

Regardless of issues like these, knowledge institutes provide an important addition to the efforts of game studios. Structurally seeking out scientists and education facilities is a good way for everyone to maintain a fresh perspective. What has proven to work in this young industry, and why? In today’s society, games are not always seen as the interesting medium they are: if you ask the public, they’re still regarded as mere entertainment for teenage boys. However, this view could be changed through scientific validation of the effect of games, technological and scientific insights regarding hardware and software, and economically verifiable revenue models. Games are a young and innovative medium, and there’s lots of growth potential. In order to reach that potential and combat the lack of understanding in today’s society, collaboration with science is key.

How is ‘applied gaming’ different from‘serious gaming’? And what does ‘gamification’ have to do with both? Gaming software explores radical new roads.

As mentioned in a closer look at the Dutch games industry, over half of all games produced in the Netherlands are applied games. While that seems pretty clear at first glance, what exactly does “applied” mean? What are the criteria for one game to be classified as “entertainment” and the other as “applied”?

A clear question, that deserves a clear answer. The only problem? There isn’t one. Within the Dutch games industry, the discussion on the best umbrella term for “non-entertainment” games has been going on for years, and the jury is still out on that one. Terms like “serious games” and “applied games” are used interchangeably, with one party considering them to be very different terms while another thinks of them as synonyms. In Dutch academia, an even more specific form of “applied games” is used, which translates as “application-oriented”. While that seems clear enough, it’s very much at odds with the terminology used abroad – in English-speaking countries, “applied games” and “serious games” are the prevailing terms.

And what about the related term “gamification”? That’s when insights from game design are used to playfully achieve a shift in company culture. While this type of work is an intrinsic part of game design, most people in the industry don’t see it as being part of “serious gaming”. Digital simulation programs are a similar exception. Fire chiefs in training who work with 3-D simulations of disasters don’t immediately assume they’re dealing with a games company. In their minds, the simulation programs are ‘simply’ provided by IT companies, and in a sense, they’re right. After all, game companies are also IT companies…

It’s helpful to take a step back and examine why these new terms were introduced in the first place. Throughout the past decades, several social processes have become more efficient through automation. The downside is that the human aspect has been all but forgotten: although people think machines and computers are useful, they often also see them as cold, distant and impersonal. The more important automation becomes for daily life, the more important it is to improve human-machine interaction. Key aspect in this is the way humans “experience” communicating with machines; the way a computer program can anticipate human emotions.

This is where gaming comes in. Game designers have always been about creating the optimal experience, about designing games based on user experience and applying psychological insights in their design. These skills are vital when it comes to making the shift from “cold” to “warm” automation, wherever automation is used. This explains the stellar rise of applied games and the amount of terms invented in a relatively short period of time: gaming offers several solutions to the demand for “more human” software, and it comes with several industry-specific terms. This is why applied games are used everywhere from healthcare to the Dutch army and in countless other areas; the demand for “more human software” is the same wherever you go.

A second important reason for the rise of applied games is that playing and achieving results motivates people. That insight was known way before automation came into play – think of play traffic environments, where kids re-create traffic situations using go-carts. Another example: sports, traditionally motivating people to perform at the best of their ability. It should come as no surprise that training simulations hail back hundreds of years: in the army, war games are considered to be the perfect practice material. That also explains the success of digital simulation games within the Dutch army, emergency services and the maritime industry, all of which have a long-standing tradition of training through models and scenarios.

For these types of service industries, using software is a logical progression from existing means, not in the least because it often comes with cost reductions when compared to traditional methods. So-called “situational training” for emergency responders are traditionally major operations in which no expenses are spared in order to re-create something like a traffic accident as realistically as possible. Digital simulations offer the same, for a fraction of the cost. The fact that course attendees can repeat digital simulations also allows them to fix mistakes they made last time.

However, professionals aren’t the only target audience for applied games. While medical applications can very well be targeted to doctors, there’s been a recent increase in games helping patients with their affliction. Think of rehabilitation games or apps helping patients understand and monitor their diabetes at home, or programs increasing awareness of certain medical issues. One particularly clear example is Into d’Mentia by Amsterdam-based studio IJsfontein: a shipping container transformed into the living room of an elderly person suffering from dementia, allowing players/visitors to experience for themselves how disorienting it can be when your memory fails you.

It could be argued that Into d’Mentia isn’t even a traditional game anymore, but a role-playing game set in a space that uses software to interact with visitors. There is no competitive element or scoring system; visitors have nothing to gain but insight. This is typical for many applied games, especially those focused on improving general and work-related processes through gamification. Many applied games focus on education and industry, on customer loyalty and on training personnel. Gamification has definitely made it to the big league: well-known advisory body KPMG even has its own “game desk” to guide companies through change processes. Why? On its website, the company states that “our expectation is that by the end of 2015, half of all companies will be using game techniques for their innovation projects.” KPMG also predicts that “40% of the Global Top 1000 companies will be using gaming for transformation processes, in one form or another.”

Despite these great leaps, applied gaming still isn’t considered to be very successful. Good examples are still few and far between, and nongame companies only incidentally venture into that direction, especially in the for-profit industry. There is definite potential, but applied gaming hasn’t reached its big breakthrough yet. There are several reasons for that. For example, communication with new clients prove difficult: clients and studios don’t always speak the same language, which means applied game projects sometimes don’t even make it through the meeting stage. An often heard complaint is that clients need to go along with game companies’ “agile” design method, which uses brief intervals to move a concept forward. It’s a method that couldn’t be more at odds with the long-term planning culture of large institutions and the bureaucracy that comes with it: while they focus on end products, game companies focus on projects and project courses.

Others have reservations about the size of the industry as a whole and of individual companies. Specialists notice that the demand for applied games currently exceeds supply. The overall production capacity is simply too low. While there is a definite desire to upscale as an industry, that requires time, vision and energy. That smallness of scale sometimes prevents companies from flourishing: failed products – be it by inexperience, lack of time, or budget – lead to dissatisfied customers, and it doesn’t take much to destroy a game’s reputation.

While new initiatives for wider dissemination are underway, especially regarding health games, such things take time to develop fully. One example is the Centre for Applied Games, founded in Amsterdam in 2014. Among its many activities, it acts as applied games publisher and is home to the Applied Gaming Fund. There is also Growing Games, a development program for applied games in which 25 partners from industry, knowledge centers and governments invest to support the above-mentioned upscaling. These are much-needed initiatives, because investment activity is lacking so far. Companies producing applied games should dare ask for more venture capital, while clients should dare sign on for follow-up investments. Since neither of those things are happening at the moment, many games don’t reach their full potential.

Games marketing is also seeing some big leaps, like the promotional cooperation of four larger game studios – Grendel, Little Chicken, Ranj and IJsfontein – who have banded together under the name ‘G4 applied games consortium’. These new initiatives add to the strong reputation Dutch applied game companies already have. And that reputation extends beyond the border: many companies work internationally.

That often begs the question whether the success of Dutch companies is something “typically Dutch”, much like Dutch Design is characterized. Is there a single recipe, a blueprint that makes Dutch parties stand out on the games market more than their foreign counterparts do? If you take the above-mentioned into account, you would probably answer “no”; Dutch companies, products and goals are too different to group under a single umbrella blueprint. Still, when it comes to why Dutch parties stand out, one particular aspect is often mentioned: client and contractor are quick to find a knowledgeable third party. The medical industry especially views subjecting new products to medical research as a given. Does this game work the way it was intended to? Does the project have any negative side effects? Other, nonmedical games also involve specialists: psychologists researching the motivating aspect of games, and industry specialists like independent business experts monitoring game contents. If there is such a thing as a “Dutch school” of applied game design, it’s rooted in the constant exchange of knowledge between clients, game studios and research institutes.

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.

“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.

May 13th during a special Dutch Games Association (DGA) Day, organized in collaboration with CLICKNL|Games and Dutch Game Garden, a new online platform for the games industry was launched. Together with the launch of the book gamesNL and the premier of gamesNL the movie, this day marked the beginning of a new strategy for the DGA. The aim is to develop te Dutch games industry to a European top 3 position in the following years.

During three workshops and a lively panel-discussion with members from the games industry and the Dutch government, the main question of the day: ‘How to get to a European top 3 position?’, was discussed. The Dutch games industry is a vibrant industry that consists of people with a great passion for games and gaming and belongs to the European top already on a creative level. Entrepreneurship and business knowledge are getting more and more attention and The Netherlands, as a small country, is performing well in this respect. But the ambition of the DGA is clear: we want to rise above the size of our country and be part of the European top 3. DGA Chairman Horst Streck concludes the panel with a note on collaboration: “It is only through intensive collaboration and sharing knowledge, both inside the industry and from the industry to the outside world, the governement and other sectors, that this industry can grow. The online platform support a knowledge network, collaboration and knowledge exchange. The book and the documentary are there to inform people outside the industry in Holland and abroad.”

Investments: money, knowledge and experience

Simon Usiskin (co-founder iQU): ”The Netherlands have not had a big exit within the games industry which means that private investors don’t have an interest in the sector. On the other hand, because of the success of companies like Rovio and Supercell, the Finnish games industry is seen as an exciting sector for private venture capital. Successful entrepreneurs tend to help each other and invest in each other’s start-ups and reinvest in the next generation of games start-ups and the government agency supports the private investor throughout the process. But I also have to say: the Dutch must be more ambitious and have to develop a more risk-taking culture if we are going to be one of top 3 games countries in Europe; let alone the number one!”

Lennart Sas (Co-Owner Triumph Studios): “Because of Dutch labour laws it is not an attractive option to hire a lot of people. On top of that, our passion is to make great games, not to manage a large team.”

Michiel Sala (CEO Little Chicken): “I don’t see many people with an economical background like me coming to work in the games industry. It’s time for a special games MBA.”

How research can contribute to the support of growth for the industry

The importance of research in the process of supporting growth for the industry was addressed by Berni Good, founder of Cyberpsychologist Limited, in an inspiring keynote. She pointed out the importance of psychological knowledge about the behavior of the gamer in the development of both entertainment and applied games. Michiel Sala (CEO Little Chicken): “Scientific research is important for the development of our sector. I would like to see that researchers would conduct research on questions that are posed by companies, in stead of researchers deciding for themselves what to research.”

After de keynote and the panel-discussion, the book gamesNL was handed to Marjan Hammersma, Director General Legacy & Arts at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. After the book was officially handed to her, she also started gamesNL The Movie to conclude the day.