How the publicly funded Dutch Game Garden helps indie developers

If you’re interested in the Dutch indie gaming scene, and we are, then sooner or later you’ll run into the Dutch Game Garden. It’s a collection of small companies with the motto that they “help the game industry grow,” but what does that entail exactly? And what about the fact that they are sponsored with public funds? We were able to visit the DGG in their home office in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands, and ask them exactly that.

A lot of companies have their headquarters in or near Utrecht, as it’s the spot in the country where all the railway lines come together, making it easy to access. The DGG is no different, except that they are housed in a huge office and event complex right next to the main train station. They moved there two years ago after their last office grew too small.

Prime real estate, indeed – all the more impressive when you realize that the DGG takes up an entire half of one of the massive floors. Once inside, you look over the center of the city in all its seventeenth-century glory, though there is plenty of modern architecture to marvel at as well. You could probably spend entire days here just looking out the window.

The DGG is basically a broad corridor with offices off to one side, small plaques next to the doors displaying the names of the companies within. As you walk along, there are coffee corners with comfortable sofas and easy chairs dotted throughout. There are constantly people walking around, and when you look inside there are even more earnest folks staring into computer screens despite it being late on a Friday afternoon.

More than just games

All the companies I met with during my visit are games companies, but Eline Muijres, Communications Manager for the Dutch Game Garden, tells me that there are others, too. There are a few gadget makers, but also a marketing company and a music studio. The focus is on games, but really anything tech-related is welcome.

So can just anyone rent an office? “No,” Eline laughs, “There is a selection by the Dutch Game Garden who can sign up, not just because demand outweighs supply but also because we’ve found that not everyone is prepared to do what it takes to make their game or product work.”

The selection process for game devs is based on a few factors. First of all, you need a working prototype, just an idea for one is not enough. That prototype needs to have been made by an actual team, too, so one-man-bands are definitely an exception at DGG. “If you work on your own but farm out specific tasks to freelancers, that’s fine, but you need to have some expertise within your organization.” Besides the technical side, you also need a clear goal for your product and a positive attitude.

That last point is especially important, Eline says. “When you come here and you’d like help setting up your company we put you in our start-up support program, where you learn about running the business through seminars from business professionals.” These classes are once a week at the start and go over subjects like legal matters and public relations, but also, for example, about how to pitch your game to a publisher.

Starting out

Not every company in the DGG goes through the start-up program – some of them are alumni, while others have never been in it. It’s completely up to you if you want to join. Currently, about five of the 30 companies are in the so-called incubator. What, then, is the purpose of the Dutch Game Garden, if it’s not helping people start their business?

According to Eline, it’s about working together. “Making games is difficult, it’s an iterative process. When you’re developing games you need feedback, a fresh perspective from time to time. If you’re stuck in an attic, not working together, that doesn’t work.” The DGG focuses on creating a space where people feel free to ask for help and receive it. The pace of change in tech being what it is, small companies need all the support they can get.

Have they succeeded? Eline thinks so. “The community is great, we’ve created a wonderfully supportive ecosystem.“ On top of that, the companies at the DGG are more visible than others, “Apple, Valve, Nintendo; they came to us.” This is aided by the many events the DGG organizes, like their monthly lunch and the indie game festival INDIGO, held in September, an event that is drawing more international press every year. “We’ve really put Holland on the map in that regard,” Eline says.

Funding

So, who pays for all this? The DGG website says that the project is funded by the city and province of Utrecht, two separate entities. So is all the money that goes into the Garden public funds? No, says Eline, “the DGG itself is funded by the city and province right now, though we had some European Union subsidies at the very start. The funds we receive right now are slowly becoming less each year and hopefully in a few years we’ll be able to operate independently.”

That step would be huge, as many institutions in the Netherlands don’t survive the closing of the subsidy-faucet. The DGG is hoping to fund itself through providing counsel and services to the companies under its umbrella, like negotiating on behalf of developers with publishers, for example. When they do this, they take a cut of the revenue generated. “We’re a bit nervous of the move to a not-for-profit organization,” says Eline, “But thus far the numbers are looking good.”

Not that the bills themselves are totally insane – the subsidies only cover the activities of the DGG, the incubator, and their rent. All the companies in the Garden, including the DGG itself, pay rent to the owner of the building, albeit at a relatively friendly rate negotiated by the city. Each company in the DGG is therefore still responsible for its own finances.

Self Made Miracle

One of the companies in the DGG struggling with the financial question is Self Made Miracle (“Yeah, we know that’s a spelling mistake, too late to change it now”). Run by Rick van Ginkel and Ruben van Rooij, they released the game Penarium about a year ago through publisher Team 17. Currently, they’re focused on doing work-for-hire while putting the next game project on the back burner.

“We can’t live off just noodles anymore, we want to have a bit of a war chest before we go fully into the next project,” says Rick. We’re sitting in their office, which is half serious workplace and half college dorm with a wonderfully comfortable sofa. As we talk, we’re taking turns playing their game on the resident Xbox – a hectic, circus-themed platformer with pixel graphics, a wacky story, and just enough on-the-fly changes to keep you on your toes while playing.

Aren’t they worried about shifting their priorities so much that they lose sight of making games? “No,” says Ruben, “we enjoy it too much to not do it.” He says this as he expertly dodges yet another bomb thrown at him by a low-flying zeppelin while his character jumps around between platforms. The game, in essence, is your unarmed character ducking and weaving nasty things thrown at him by a sadistic ringmaster. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.

When asked if they could have made it this far without the Dutch Game Garden, Ruben answers, “I don’t think so,” while Rick is a bit more pensive. “Maybe. We had no idea of the business side of things, the workshops really helped. The DGG also got us a lawyer when we were negotiating the publishing contract, which was great.” I take the controller for a bit and get creamed almost straightaway, while Ruben continues. “The classes they give you really taught us to prioritize. We knew how to design and program, but if you’re new to the other side of it, they’re great.”

Their eyes light up when talking about the particulars of Penarium. They obviously thought a lot about how to make the game, and it shows. The basic artwork might turn some people off, but they’d be missing out on some smooth gameplay. Both Rick and Ruben talk of their annoyance of difficulty spikes in games and how they tried to make it escalate a lot more gradually. I’d say they succeeded admirably.

Turtleneck Studios

Fewer worries about finances are found at Turtleneck Studios, a small studio of nine people that works from the DGG’s annex in Hilversum, about 10 miles from Utrecht. “I like all the networking opportunities here in Utrecht, but I prefer the peace and quiet of the Hilversum office,” says Alanay Cekic, co-founder and visual artist. If there is a networking opportunity in the main office, all he needs to do is jump on a train for a few minutes.

For Alanay, the financial question is all about maintaining the balance between work-for-hire and working on their game, Rite of Ilk. “We have done work-for-hire, but I also funded the project by tending bar in the city. Right now we’re working full-time on the game.” When asked if they could have gotten as far as they have without DGG, he thinks for a moment. “Probably, but they made it a lot easier. When you leave school you have all these great ideas and the people here helped us stay grounded.”

Many projects, after all, get stranded on feature creep when every single good idea gets thrown into it. Alanay admits that other developers helped them stick to the core principles of their game. Rite of Ilk still remains a pretty ambitious project, featuring cooperative gameplay as you navigate two characters attached by a rope around their waists through a landscape filled with environmental puzzles.

I saw a demo for the game at Firstlook Festival and I was stunned by the excellent visuals; they even rival that of some AAA titles, no easy feat for an indie. But there’s more to it than just being pretty. Perhaps inspired by DGG, Alanay says the game is focused on “teaching players that you need to cooperate.” Rite of Ilk is slated to come out in 2018.

Wispfire

When it comes to ambitions beyond merely having fun, Wispfire is the go-to studio. Having met business director Roy van der Schilden at Firstlook, where he was presenting a demo of their interactive period drama Herald, I was happy to sit down with him again. We were joined by Nick Witsel, who is in charge of Wispfire’s marketing.

The studio joined the incubator in 2013 after several months spent in a local attic (the Dutch equivalent of being in your parents’ basement), working away on the prototype for their game. What is the biggest benefit of the DGG when compared to where they were before? Nick is quick with an answer: “Having an office gives you great motivation, you can see other people work and that gets you going, too.”

Roy agrees, and adds that, “The workshops were great, they were sparring exercises where we were able to really sharpen our focus on where our game was going.” Both agree that they’re unsure if they would have made it without the DGG’s help. “The input from others really eases the production process,” Nick says.

And what a production it is. Their office, not a small space by any means, feels crowded with all the people in there working to make a highly polished product. The story centers around a young man of mixed cultural heritage who is heading back to his roots in the East. “We’re trying to create something more than just entertainment, a story that might tread on people’s toes and start a discussion,” says Roy.

I was already impressed by what I had seen of Herald before, but seeing the motivation and ambition at work made me very curious for the end product when it comes out early next year. In the greater scheme of gaming, it’s great to see a small studio that’s trying to push the boundaries the way Wispfire is.

Digital Dreams

Not that Wispfire is the only company pushing how far they can take games. Digital Dreams co-founder Roy van de Mortel explains that they’re a DGG veteran. “We’ve been here since 2010, I don’t see us leaving unless we go through a huge expansion.” Right now there’s six people working on the company’s new project in an office that could, in a pinch, house a few more.”

What’s Roy’s take on the DGG? “It’s changed a lot in the last few years, for us the biggest advantages are gone because we’ve been doing it so long, but we still enjoy just being here. I like it more than the last office, though, even just because that one was on a square with a lot of bars and the beer-breaks were becoming too much of a habit.” He laughs.

He continues, “I don’t think we could have succeeded without the DGG. They did a lot for us but what stands out is when they took us to Gamescom in Cologne a few years ago and showed us the convention ropes.” The mentoring by DGG’s professionals worked out well for Digital Dreams, they were able to get their game Metrico onto the Vita and have just wrapped up a version called Metrico+ for all other platforms.

“It’s not a port, but a revisioning,” says Roy. “We decided to change a lot about the game from the Vita version, make it more accessible and more fun.” I take it for a spin on Roy’s laptop and I have to say it’s very original and pretty fun once you get into it. It’s a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before, where each puzzle is linked to a statistic that you yourself generate. It’s very hard to describe, but I recommend anyone to give it a try.