Forget Amsterdam, forget Rotterdam, and actually any other city anywhere else in Europe. It turns out that Utrecht is the hotspot where game developers are surreptitiously making millions. How come? The city council realized before any other cities did that the game industry was a rough diamond that could be transformed into a glittering diamond mine. And that is exactly what happened! Managing director Jan Pieter van Seventer of Dutch Game Garden, a start-up developer where most of the Utrecht gaming companies emerge from, explains how this is possible.
Why did Utrecht invest in the development of companies that design games?
“From an economic point of view, the gaming industry is the fastest growing medium in the world. It supersedes film and music. Therefore it is also a future-proof medium. If you say: where do you want to lead the way as a nation – or as a city – then it’s smart to focus on the gaming industry. Dutch Game Garden was originally set up to help start-ups in this region to grow. Since 2002 Utrecht has two full time gaming training programs. One at the HKU and one at Utrecht University. And there is also one at the Grafisch Lyceum Utrecht. Plenty of students who wanted to start a business came from these courses. They did know how to make games. Just not how to publish and release games.”
Where is that growth stemming from?
“When we started out in 2008, there had just been a huge new boom in worldwide industry for all kinds of platforms. The iPhone had just come out. At that time, Steam was still an empty PC app store with nothing to offer. There was plenty of room for new content back then. It was also very easy to start a studio with just a few people too in those days. You could deliver straight to the consumer via a developer. You didn’t have to go to a publisher or to a store. It opened up great opportunities for new gaming companies.”
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So new game developers didn’t have any competitors who had already captured the market?
“Very few. So you easily stood out. You could release a PC game in those days, and you’d be the only one released that day. That’s unthinkable now. There are about 20 or 30 games released on Steam every day nowadays. Steam is the go-to app store for the PC world. it’s where you shop for PC games. They control 80% of the market. If you look at the app store now, there are thousands of new apps – of all kinds – coming out every day. Heaps of games in there too. So the question is: how do you make yourself stand out in the middle of all of that? The abundance of content is the main challenge nowadays. There are a lot of people who make fun things. Anyone with an internet connection can join the rat race now.”
Is Utrecht the leading city when it comes to gaming innovation in The Netherlands?
“Yes. We are the biggest game incubator in The Netherlands and arguably in Europe as well. We are also the first to focus specifically on the gaming industry. There are some other clusters elsewhere in the country and there is a game incubator in Groningen, Indietopia. But we are the first, as are the training programs. Consequently, there was an explosion of new companies and initiatives here: cooperation with schools, healthcare institutions, hospitals such as the AMC (Amsterdam Medisch Centrum), in conjunction with TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research). We had a game made for surgeons in training so we could reach that target group too. This is the generation that plays games. We have come a long way since then and over the past five years things have matured quite a bit. There were a lot of new companies in the first five years. During the past four or five years there has been significant growth at established companies.”
Why is it that the market keeps growing?
“The global gaming market is expanding. New territory is being introduced all the time, even though the app store is full. In China and the rest of Asia there is now a middle class that also all of a sudden have telephones and playstations. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. Besides that, gaming has become much more accessible. The group that are into it has become much larger as a consequence. You used to have gaming nerds. But nowadays almost everyone plays a game on their phone at some point. You now have games for the whole family since the introduction of Wii, and mum and dad get to play along too. Everyone has a mobile device on them these days, and there’s open access to the internet almost everywhere. That’s great for games. There’s a new group of people who want to play Tetris while they’re travelling on the train. Apple’s app store has revolutionized how games are purchased. Because as a customer, once you enter your information, all you have to do is click ‘yes’ if you want to buy a game.”
But are there people in Utrecht who’ve made games there and who have since become millionaires?
“Yes, there are people who have managed to make a couple of million in a couple of years.”
But what kind of games are these?
“One example is Awesomenauts from Ronimo Games. They did that with just seven people. They even released an LP with the game’s soundtrack, an old-fashioned vinyl record. That’s a really cool story. Another success story of ours is Vlambeer. That’s two guys, Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman, who have had an incredible amount of success like with their game Ridiculous Fishing. They won the Apple Design Award in Cupertino, in California.”
How old are these guys from Vlambeer?
“They were around 22 years old when they made that game. ”
So they’ve got it made.
“They’re doing pretty well. They’re working with the two of them and a few freelancers. They were also on the Forbes ’30 under 30 list‘ of the most influential young entrepreneurs in the world a few years ago with Vlambeer.”