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The game industry has had a bigger impact on the media system of the Netherlands than you may think. This blog reports on research performed by Erasmus University Rotterdam researcher, Annie Heslinga. In it she explores how pioneering Dutch game companies forged connections between game developers and a series of national and international actors at the turn of the twenty-first century that proved to be instrumental to the development of the industry.

Source: “Het ware verhaal achter A2 Racer & Davilex.” (blog). January 1, 2018.

Early beginnings and maturation

Dutch game developers have produced successful games across genres since the 1980s. The Games Canon, an overview of games in Dutch history from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, highlights the many accomplishments of the Dutch game industry. Despite the significance of the Dutch industry as early as the 1980s, the vast majority of information about the industry became available only in the mid-2000s with the emergence of policy and organizations for the game industry. Prior to policy recognition, the Dutch game industry garnered attention in 2005, when Sony Interactive Entertainment acquired Guerilla Games, then developer of the triple A Killzone series and, more recently, the award-winning game Horizon Zero Dawn.  In the early 2000s, academic programs had already been established for games studies and game development at the University of Utrecht and the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht respectively. In 2003, an international group of games scholars held the first conference for the Digital Games Research Association in the Netherlands, reflecting a need for the study of games, both as media and as industry.

A slew of computer and game magazines and news media reflect an active consumer and hobbyist market for the early Dutch game industry. MSX magazine (founded 1985) and Hoog Spell (founded 1990) are just two examples of the Dutch language publications which distributed information about games and consoles in the Netherlands.

In the 1990s, however, there was little support for the Dutch game industry. Formal educational programs for the game industry were scarce in the Netherlands. Developers were often self-taught, picking up new techniques from other game enthusiasts through the early gaming communities, such as the demoscene, or through personal contacts. Dutch game developers were left with the difficult task of leveraging support, both at home and abroad, for the production of games. Triumph Studios co-founder, Lennart Sas comments on the state of the Dutch game industry then –

“In the 90s, there was really nothing here in the Netherlands. There were no engines we could license. No books we could borrow. We had to actually speak to one another.” – Lennart Sas

Building (inter)national networks between game studios

One takeaway from the study of early Dutch game companies is the importance of networks, both national and international, for the procurement of projects and distribution of games. On a national scale, Davilex built a network of distributors for the sale of software and its first games in the mid-90s. With the success of A2 Racer in 1997, featuring the A2 highway as content localized for the Dutch market, Davilex internationalized its business, with offices in Germany and Poland and international publishing deals with the likes of Koch media.

Rather than publish their own games, later entertainment game companies sought connections with established, often international, publishers to strike deals or to hone their release strategy (or both!). Publishers and distributors in the United States and Europe have been key to the development of the Dutch game industry. Triumph Studios did an internship with Epic Games, the current developer of the Fortnite series, in United States in the mid-90s. This internship helped them to redesign the initial idea behind their first release, Age of Wonders, and led to publishing deals later in the company’s history. Two Tribes secured the release of its first game, Toki Tori for Gameboy color, through Japanese publisher CapCom. Connections between Dutch developers and international media companies were often made at international conferences, such as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Networks with other Dutch game companies on a domestic scale also shaped opportunities open to game developers. National networks were established through demoscene, school, and later organizations for the Dutch game industry. Codeglue partially attributes the success of its games to local factors, such as collaborations with other Dutch game companies and public funding for the game industry.  On the other hand, Martijn Reuvers, the co-founder of Two Tribes, a now defunct developer, laments the limited access to support for established companies in the Netherlands —

“The attention of the industry was always on the new game companies. They thought that since we had published a few games, we must be fine. We also wanted to be part of an incubator program, but we could not anymore.”

The quote from the Two Tribes co-founder indicated the benefits which organizations for the Dutch game industry offer developers, such as the incubation program hosted by the Dutch Game Garden and the lobbying activities of the Dutch Game Association.

Serious games – cross-industry collaboration

Serious game companies, on the other hand, pursued collaboration with a more diverse array of actors on a national and an international scale. &Ranj Studios founders produced some of the first digital animation in the Netherlands for the raunchy children’s show Purno de Purno. Serious game studio Ijsfontein produced an innovative online-interactive television show Tattletoon and later Typo-toons for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.

In addition to the early collaborations between Dutch broadcasting and both &Ranj Studios and Ijsfontein, Michaël Bas commented upon the importance of marketing and communication industries for the early games &Ranj Studios produced. Both serious game companies work in close cooperation with research organizations and universities to produce games for health, corporate training and other industries. Collaborations between these companies and diverse industries are foundational to an understanding of play as a means rather than an end.

In the words of Ijsfontein co-founder Jan-Willem, “what we do is more about psychology. If you are only making a specific type of game for a specific platform, then you really have to adjust your studio. Or end your studio and start a new studio when technology changes.”

“Psychology was our survival strategy,” adds co-founder Hayo Wagenaar, “but that also has to do with how we approach games as playful learning”.

The approach of serious game companies to play rather than games themselves allowed for cross-industry connections in the Netherlands and abroad. The serious game industry itself represents a unique niche within the larger Dutch game industry ecosystem.

Looking to the future

The only constant is change in the game industry, and the early Dutch game companies still in existence have learned this lesson well. In the early 2000s, collaboration between the diverse group of players which constituted the Dutch game industry ecosystem created opportunities for game companies. Today, transformation in the game industry continues in the sphere of online gaming, with the release of devices and platforms driving new business models. As was the case of pioneers of the Dutch game industry at the turn of the century, the need for innovative and opportunity-seeking approaches to play remains in the present day.

read the full report Game changers: the emergence and development of the Dutch game industry ecosystem (1990s-2000s).