How the Dutch game industry pulls itself out of the doldrums
The job is bigger than it seems. The Dutch Game Awards have not been held since 2017, the organization is fresh. Everything about the event has to be rethought from scratch, from the jury to the venue.
The Dutch game industry has been looking at the Golden Calves with regret for years. A gala, press coverage, pre-screenings throughout the country: the film award gives a face to the national film industry.
The Dutch Game Awards never reached the size of the movie gala, but at least they were – until the money tap trickled off. Gone face. It is a story like there are others, in a Dutch industry that, with a turnover of 225 to 300 million euros per year, lags far behind a country like Finland – with only 5 million inhabitants and a game industry of 2.5 billion euros. Things are not going badly for the largest Dutch game makers, but the industry has been stagnant for a long time. Why? Game makers point to, among other things, a lack of interest from the government, a poor investment climate and brain drain abroad.
It stayed with this rain of complaints for a long time and little happened. Until the industry itself came up with three initiatives in recent years to improve conditions.
1. A consultative body
In 2019, a number of large Dutch studios sat down for the first time for what has informally come to be known as ‘the industry consultation’. Time for a change, they thought. They ensured that a new wind started blowing in the industry.
“Before this, our industry always had that Dutch idea of ’every man for himself’. We were all in survival mode,” says Derk de Geus, initiator of the Dutch Game Awards and the head of the industry umbrella organization Dutch Games Association (DGA) since last year. “But the atmosphere around the meeting changed. We realized that if we wanted the Dutch game industry to be a success story, we had to do it collectively.”
The moment had come, says De Geus. After years of stagnation, the sector has entered a ‘new phase’. “A number of Dutch studios have now grown to a serious caliber. Some have even been acquired by major international players this year, such as Nixxes, which is now part of PlayStation, and Force Field, which is now part of Koch Media.”
The hard core of Dutch game companies that, according to De Geus, “now have their sheep on dry land”, such as his own Paladin Studios and the Delft Triumph, suddenly had money left over to invest in a collective event such as the Game Awards.
What helped was that the ‘industry consultation’ also shook up the culture at the old, already existing interest organization DGA. “As entertainment game makers, we never felt heard there,” says game maker Adriaan de Jongh, known for his game Hidden Folks. The industry umbrella has long been run by people further away from them – for example, on the educational side of game development. That is why De Jongh and De Geus joined the board themselves last year.
2: An investment fund
De Jongh sees his work as ‘building bridges’, building a community of game companies in the Netherlands. The investment climate is his biggest concern. Within the national borders there are few investors with knowledge of the industry. That’s why Dutch game companies had two options for a long time: pitch to international game giants that make blockbuster games, or get small amounts from the Creative Industries Fund NL, which subsidizes small games. Abroad, De Jongh saw how game makers came together to invest in games of a size between those two extremes.
“Why isn’t that possible in the Netherlands?” he asked other successful game makers. No reason, was the conclusion. “We now call ourselves the Midgame Fund, although we are not a traditional investment fund where all the money comes together in a jar. Each participant decides for himself whether he or she invests in a project.”
The rule: game studios that are invested in should be left as free as possible. “We have nothing to do with their choices. We are here to share contacts and for advice.”
The Midgame Fund hopes to be able to finance three to four projects a year with up to 150,000 euros in money per project. They are currently working with two game studios. “I can see how many more beautiful games will come from the Netherlands in the long run, that the makers earn a lot of money and put that back into the Dutch game industry. An upward spiral.”
3: A game city
The Netherlands has various game courses, most of which are aimed at the smaller games that De Jongh wants to finance. The Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUAS) is preparing people for the big blockbuster games, which are worth hundreds of millions of euros worldwide. An asset to the local industry, you could say, but of the graduates who immediately find a job (80 percent), 50 percent get a job abroad, and 98 percent leave Breda.
Matthijs van de Laar did stay in Breda. His successful studio Twirlbound released his first game a few years ago, Pine, which was picked up by Nintendo. A party that Van de Laar would have liked to celebrate with others. “We really missed the feeling that we are together with more studios,” says Van de Laar. “About two years ago we therefore approached the municipality: did they even know what was going on here, with the BUAS?” The congregation was immediately enthusiastic. Together they set up the Breda Game City foundation.
The young initiative currently focuses mainly on helping students at BUAS. “In the meantime, four student teams have contacted us with the question: if we want to start a game company, where can we start?” says Van de Laar.
According to BUAS teacher and game maker Jitske Habekotté, they mainly benefit from a community that can offer guidance. “A lot can go wrong in an industry that only runs on ‘passion’ instead of on a healthy, substantiated work culture,” she wrote by email. She points to unpaid overtime, low salaries and pressure from employers. “We hope to give companies in Breda ideas about how it can be done.”
But the dreams are bigger. “The next milestone would certainly be that we can welcome larger companies in Breda,” says Habekotté. Breda Game City is currently in consultation with the municipality about financial incentives for international game studios. “It is very risky to start one yourself, but I hope that we can get a branch here from a large game company,” says Van de Laar.
Could the ‘city of blockbuster game makers’ have its own blockbuster studio? It is a long-term question, like all initiatives to pull the national game sector out of the doldrums. Martine Spaans is in any case optimistic about the Game Awards. “This is our investment year,” she says. “Everyone in the industry is suddenly excited. We want to continue next year.” She smiles. “It is nice to be able to actively do more for the Netherlands.”