A computer game legacy, a cluster effect, a country at the technological cutting edge, or quite simply the ability to present credible stories. That Sweden has become a formidable player in the global computer game business is beyond doubt, but it is difficult to single out any one reason why.
Another best seller? Battlefield 1943 has a lot to live up to. Image: Battlefield 1943
At the gigantic electronic games expo E3 in Los Angeles in June, the lines quickly built up to the gaming company DICE’s stand, where codes were being distributed for Battlefield 1943, due for release this summer. Its predecessor, released in 2002, has sold over 17 million copies, which makes it one of the biggest Swedish cultural exports ever.
Just a few days later, DreamHack, the world’s largest computer festival, opened in Jönköping. The festival is extensively covered by the Swedish media, most recently because people booed and threw tomatoes at Henrik Pontén, chief lawyer of Antipiratbyrån, representing cinema and video producers and distributors, who was there to give a talk on file sharing. Earlier on the event drew media attention after the municipality of Jönköping awarded a special prize to mark its importance for the local community, the business sector and the city’s university.
No giving up on the game
In Sweden, which has one of the highest online rates in the world, the games industry continues to grow. Last year sales rose by 34 percent and totaled more than SEK 3 billion (roughly USD 375 million). And despite the recession, game sales seem set to increase in 2009 as well.
Martin Lindell, information officer with the trade organization Swedish Games Industry says: “Traditionally, the TV and computer game industry manages well during recessions, just like other entertainment industries. When times get worse, people cut down more on travel and luxury items than on entertainment. They simply stay home and play games or read a book.”
More than 10,000 gamers attend Swedish DreamHack, the world's largest LAN party. Photo: DreamHack
And as the Swedish krona has weakened against other currencies, gaming companies have found it more profitable to bring their development activities under the Swedish flag.
“Countries like India and China may have the same technological skills, but that’s where the similarities end,” Lindell says. “Sweden has become known for its progressive approach and its ability to make games that grip you; and technological skill alone cannot compete with that. This explains why DICE was bought by Electronic Arts (EA), for instance.”
Game development in Sweden has also benefited because a number of higher education institutions, notably Gotland University, have started courses in this field. Through its education coordinators, the Swedish Games Industry identifies shortcomings and needs in the courses provided by bringing in the industry to hear what it has to say.
The organization also ensures that the Public Employment Services are given a closer insight into the industry and a better understanding of it, to meet the needs of both job seekers and employers.
Gotland University contributes to the continued success of the Swedish gaming industry by offering a wide range of courses on the subject. Photo: Gotland University
There is, however, only a limited amount of financial support available to developers in Sweden — although the Nordic Council of Ministers did initiate the Nordic Computer Game Program, which provides development support in the form of funding for local, Nordic-flavored productions.
In the long term, this lack of support may prove a problem, because many regions in the world are seeking to tempt developers with tax subsidies and funding. Quebec in Canada, for instance, has attracted many companies by offering such incentives, and these now employ some 5,000 people in the game development sector. France followed suit and pushed through subsidies that were subsequently approved by the EU.
Global from the outset
While the domestic market for Swedish developers may be attractive, it is not large enough to motivate the launching of projects with a price tag of around SEK 100 million, which is what many Swedish productions cost.
“You have to think globally from the start,” Lindell says. “This has worked to the advantage of Swedish developers since it’s meant that we’ve had to learn to create games that appeal to the Western market as a whole, whereas countries like Japan and Germany have any number of developers who have focused mainly on their domestic markets.
“To reach out, you also have to have good market channels. It’s important to have a powerful publisher on your side to maximize consumer accessibility and thereby boost your sales.”
At Grin — Sweden’s largest privately-owned game developer with offices in Stockholm, Göteborg, Barcelona and Jakarta — they confirm the importance of having a publisher.
Per Juhlén, executive producer at Grin, says: “The great majority of them are international players with a close understanding of the markets in which they operate. Whether or not you get chosen to produce a game for a major publisher depends on a variety of factors. You have to have an appropriate technology, and it’s also good if you’ve produced a similar game in the past.”
Silver lining on the horizon
But it’s not all a bowl of cherries. In Sweden, the situation is particularly sensitive, because most games are commissioned by companies abroad. One result is that innovation takes a back seat and companies play it safe when choosing what to invest in — preferably sequels to successful games and film titles such as Grin’s Terminator Salvation game, released fairly recently.
Basing a game on a successful film is a fairly safe bet for a company, as in the case of the new Terminator Salvation game. Image: Terminator Salvation
One developer given notice in May — let’s call him Göran, since he wishes to remain anonymous — believes that the recession nevertheless has a silver lining.
“Many of us are crazy about games and want to go on developing them, so the most realistic course for someone who’s been fired and wants to keep going is to start his or her own business,” he says.
“Many are given severance pay and are able to launch small companies of their own, building games for people like iPhone, Xbox Live and Playstation Network. These small new companies are making fun games that are more innovative than the old ones because the big corporations only dare tread well-worn paths.”
Lindell has his own ideas about what the future will bring: “Hopefully it will not only be the games that get the attention but also the creators,” he says. “I hope that in five years’ time we’ll have the gaming world’s equivalent of Ingmar Bergman and Lasse Hallström. I hope they’ll get the international attention they deserve.”
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Aleksander Kovacevic is a freelance journalist based in Stockholm. He works for the Swedish public service broadcaster SVT as well as a dozen glossy magazines. He was given his first Commodore 64 back in 1983 and is the proud owner of most video game consoles. His favorite games are Super Mario Kart (Super Nintendo) and Phantasy Star 2 (Mega Drive).
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Stephen Croall
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