Think of the world’s most significant games development hubs, and you might not immediately consider Sweden.
And yet this is a country that has created a wealth of global hits in recent years. Trophies from award shows across the planet today reside in Swedish studios’ display cabinets, and a wave of talent is making a new home in cities like Stockholm and Malmö.
This is the nation where EA Dice makes Battlefield, where LittleBigPlanet Vita is being partially-developed, and where Angry Birds outfit Rovio has set up a new studio. It is also the home to indie mega-hit Minecraft.
Seemingly from nowhere, Swedish developers have together thrust their country in to the development sector big league, attracting a wealth talent from all over the world.
Alongside studios such as Tarsier, Starbreeze, Massive and Avalanche, tools and services providers including SimplyGon, Hansoft and LocalizeDirect attract a global client list.
In 2011 alone, Sweden’s games business’ annual turnover increased by a remarkable 50 per cent. And in Stoockholm 1,000 devs are today employed in producing games, making the city one of the top five industry employers in Europe.
Quite simply, the country can no longer be ignored.
“Considering how small our population is, I feel we are very prominent on the global stage,” says EA Dice senior producer Patrick Liu.
“Although the games development scene is fairly small in number of people, it certainly has left a permanent mark on the global scene when it comes to successful studios and games.
"I think this is thanks to a relatively established technical progress in the country, and a very healthy entrepreneurial vibe, especially in Stockholm, with lots of start-ups in tech businesses.”
Numerous Swedish developers are keen to back Liu’s perspective, and as with its neighbour and friendly rival Finland, it’s clear there’s a pride in the output of a country famed as a pleasant place to make a home.
“Sweden has long been one of the most active games development countries in the world,” offers Peter Lübeck, studio director at Malmö-based Tarsier, which is working with Double Eleven and Sony XDev Europe to bring Media Molecule’s lauded LittleBigPlanet series to Vita.
”It is constantly gaining momentum. The larger studios are growing, as well as the small and medium ones. Start-ups are popping up everywhere, and the quality of the results of games development education and competitions has increased dramatically in the past few years.”
Clearly, then, Swedish developers are besotted by their homeland, and delighted by its success in the games sector. But why is the country proving to be so prosperous in such a fiercely competitive industry?
“The most important success factor is our small home market,” offers Per Strömbäck, managing director of The Association of Swedish Game Developers.
"Sweden shifted its focus to the global audience when the PS2 was released. That was the juncture when the local audience could not sustain a development budget for the new platforms and it gave us a head start on larger countries like Germany and France that kept focus on their home audience for another console generation.
”Also, Swedish culture has a healthy perfectionism, promotes honesty and transparency, endorses creativity and has a strong sense of collective effort, all of which make for a perfect development environment.”
Strömbäck has highlighted an important point. Community is indeed particularly crucial to Swedish business, and it’s something that generates unanimous enthusiasm from developers, tools outfits and service providers.
“There are quite a lot of events organised by the studios where people from different parts of the games industry meet up to socialise, and staff moving between studios obviously leads to a lot of best practice sharing,” states Samuel Ranta-Eskola, senior producer at project management tools firm Hansoft.
“I would say that the two clusters – Stockholm and Malmö – are pretty independent of each other, but within them there is a large sense of community.
"There is no cross-studio collaboration business-wise that I have seen thus far, but I would not be surprised if that was going on between some of the smaller studios.”
Swedish games devs also typically work together to attend international conferences, and like many other important hubs round the world, there’s a mutual appreciation within the country for one another’s work.
“Importantly, we’ve never had to compete for contracts, only for talent,” adds Strömbäck. ”There is this sense that there is enough fish in the sea for everyone. Now if we can only find enough fishermen.”
BACK IN THE DAY
Looking back over the history of the Swedish games industry, it also becomes apparent that the country’s governing authorities have long-supported the establishment of computer technology as a part of everyday life in Sweden, from Malmö in the south to the country’s northerly-most point.
From the early days of the personal computer, the authorities have strived to build an especially tech-literate populace.
”In the late nineties the Swedish government subsidised computers for home usage, which lead to a high number of people having access to computers at home,” explains Ranta-Eskola. “In addition to this, the Swedish IT infrastructure was well-developed early.”
These two components were key in driving Sweden’s initial boom in the computer technology sector, which saw many successful dot-com companies setting up as the internet became an ordinary part of day-to-day life across the West.
“This was very beneficial to the games industry, and we can see a lot of the effects from this strategy now,” Ranta-Eskola continues.
“I can’t say there is any particular segment where the Swedish games industry is especially strong. It feels like it’s thriving in all areas as well as driving development on some of the newer platforms.”
Another factor that some games companies in Sweden feel is important is the business culture that is working practice not just in the technology sectors, but across the nation’s various industries.
”Most Swedish businesses are very flat in their organisation, creating an environment where staff can be creative and experimental,” says Christoffer Nilsson, CEO, of localisation specialist LocalizeDirect, before moving on to discuss a Nordic institution that many Finnish devs also credit with fostering talent on their side of the border.
”Historically we used to be very strong on the programming and tech side with the demo-scene providing a breeding ground for games programmers.
"We then followed up with improving our graphical capabilities and most recently also mastered the design functions which has manifested itself in some very impressive titles in the last few years”
Few would be surprised, however, to learn that Swedish games developers have their own set of challenges to overcome before the country can hope to rival the world’s gaming superpowers.
Most developers start to address Sweden’s obstacles to progress by joking about the region’s infamously gloomy winters, but the weather is in fact the least of their worries.
”I think our isolation and distance from everyone else affects our recruiting a lot,” says a realistic Liu, who also refutes the idea that Sweden has to put little effort into attracting overseas talent.
“On one hand it’s hard to get people to move here; on the other hand once you’re established here you’ll most likely stay within the community for a while which helps talent retention.”
Donya Labs and Simplygon VP of sales and marketing Martin Ekdal adds: “The recruitment aspect might be a challenge because of, again, the relatively small population.
“Finding niched people for specific tasks is harder than in the UK, US or Canada for instance. The combination of a very international industry and high regional taxes might cause talent to seek jobs elsewhere and make it hard to keep talent in Sweden.”
The last substantial task for Swedish developers to address is one that will be familiar to anyone who has seen their own country push for the likes of tax-breaks, as Martin Hultberg, head of communications and user research at Massive details.
”Right now I think one big challenge is subsidies,” he says. ”Some countries get government sponsored subsidies which make it more likely for large publishers to invest there. We don’t have that so running a studio here can be a bit more expensive than in other places.”
Certainly, Sweden has not managed to attract as many publishing giants and mega-studios as the likes of Canada, but to dwell on the negatives is to misrepresent the overwhelmingly optimistic outlook of nearly every studio that calls the country a home.
Unlike many other regions, where the relationship between educators and studios is sometimes defined by a troubled relationship, numerous developers are upbeat about the country’s games education courses.
”We have a good mix of traditional engineering universities that are heavy on maths and physics as well as more games focused institutions,” confirms Nilsson.
”Our game-centric courses have now been around long enough for the ex-students to be in hiring positions and they know the institutions very well.”
Ekdal adds: ”From our tools and middleware point of view, Swedish universities produce great programmers with great math skills, which is absolutely necessary to us.
"There is no way we could do what we are doing without that. Students seem to find jobs in the industry, both nationally and abroad which says something about the quality.”
Elsewhere positivity is again directed at Sweden’s games development start-up culture, which has managed to embrace the likes of iOS, PSN and Steam with aplomb, perhaps inspired by the sensational fortunes of countryman and Mojang Specifications boss Markus Persson.
”Stockholm is currently clearly a tech start-up hub, not just in games, but also in technology overall,” suggests Liu.
“There’s a strong entrepreneurial scene here, so we are likely to see more new and disruptive initiatives coming from here in the future, whether they’re new technologies, business models, companies or simply games.”
And while some are unsure about the games industry’s jobs market in the region, Liu is also quick to point out that a critical mass in terms of talent could see a snowball effect coming.
“That would grow the talent pool and number of options even more. In short, I think the future is looking very bright,” he says.
There’s hope too, for the big studios that have pushed Sweden’s games sector into the limelight. With Battlefield 3 and LittleBigPlanet serving as perfect examples, it is clear the Swedes know a thing or two about triple-A.
”I’d say it’s looking good for the large studios as well, with many great IPs either being developed from scratch here, or left in our care,” concludes Tarsier’s Lübeck. ”Far Cry and LittleBigPlanet are just two examples of the latter.”
Big and small, studios are undeniably prospering in this Nordic region. Together, those that make up the development hub are proving that you don’t need tax-breaks and a booming population to make a mark on the global stage.
Sweden is a small country with its populace spread thin, and yet today it is every bit a leading force in making games.