It’s August, 2015, and inside the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, a closing ceremony is taking place. It’s a summer Saturday afternoon and there are more than a hundred people inside the main hall. They are trying out the games of the first graduating class of Stugan, a Swedish non-profit accelerator that brought together 23 game developers from around the world to spend two months on the games of their dreams in a cabin next to a lake in the middle of the woods.
Stugan could be seen as an eccentricity, but in Sweden it’s a natural outcome of what’s happening in the local industry: Studios are lending a hand to organize events, provide mentorship and give talks and that highlight their common problems. From the moment Stugan was born, developers, entrepreneurs and authorities helped by offering funding, contacts and housing. After the years it took to make Swedish games a commercial success, the industry is at its peak, and game developers and entrepreneurs are trying to give back what they have learned and help newcomers break into the industry.
One out of every 10 people in the world has played a Swedish game, according to a report published by the Swedish Game Association, and the country has experienced a boom in game development in recent years. It grew from 106 game studios in 2010 to more than 213 in 2014, and the number of employees nearly doubled in the same period. Apart from big games like Mirror’s Edge and the Battlefield and Just Cause series, the panorama is also packed with casual games like Candy Crush and indie games like Minecraft, Hotline Miami and Year Walk.
And it all started in the demo scene.
Oskar Burman has been making games for more than 20 years, since the early days of game development in Sweden.
He is one of the co-founders of Stugan, and this afternoon he has been walking around the exhibition of Stugan projects, explaining to visitors the idea behind the program. After some time at Electronic Arts he received a call from Rovio to start a new studio in Stockholm. He didn’t hesitate, and soon he was convincing old friends from the triple-A industry to join him in making casual games (he ended up resigning in March 2016).
But Burman’s career started in the demo scene. In the eighties and nineties, enthusiasts gathered to show off advanced computer graphics and how they pushed the boundaries of their computers to do unexpected things through small programs. They benefitted from the fact that the Atari, Amiga and early computers didn’t have much graphical power and any small tweak could make a difference.
“How can [someone] make his computer show 256 colors when the specifications say it can only show 16?”
“How can [someone] make his computer show 256 colors when the specifications say it can only show 16?” The demo scene was a place to show 3D computer graphics combined with nearly impossible technical achievements. “[This extreme overclocking process] doesn’t happen anymore. Like suddenly making your iPhone transfer stuff 10 extra speed than what the manufacturer says,” Burman says. The demo scene gatherings were similar to the one taking place today at the museum, with teams showing and explaining how they have experimented with new concepts. In the ‘80s, these gatherings were also chances to build companies, because they allowed developers to meet each other and get attention from entertainment companies.
One group that followed this path was The Silent, which later became Digital Illusions, now DICE. Its general manager, Patrick Bach, remembers how the four founders knew each other during that time, making demos for the Amiga, and how that pushed them to work on their first game, Pinball Dreams after signing a contract with a British publisher. The studio, located in the heart of the Swedish game development cluster, is now home for more than 300 employees working on games including the newly announced Battlefield 1. They still have a pinball machine in the studio as a way to remember how it all started.
DICE was one of the first game companies in Sweden and often tries to help the local scene. It organizes meet and greets at their offices and has a special focus on supporting the inclusion of women in game development by sponsoring events and having some of its female leads serve as role models to women interested in games. Bach says that DICE is always trying to make better and more ambitious games.
He also has a theory on why Swedish companies have found success in games, a reason that can be summarized in one word.
The Swedish Game Association is located in the heart of Stockholm. Per Strömbäck is the spokesperson of the organization and works full time with a team to assist studios and develop a strategy to help the industry continue growing. He thinks one of the pillars of the Swedish industry comes from an old Scandinavian tradition. “We have bad self-confidence,” he says. “Our cultural history is full of myths that we are not good enough.” One of those myths is “jantelagen.”
In 1933, Danish writer Aksel Sandemose published a novel in which he introduced the concept of jantelagen (“the law of Jante” in Swedish), which developed the idea that it’s inappropriate to achieve individual success. Scandinavian countries embraced this idea as part of their culture and it’s still a widespread concept now. Some Swedish game developers will never think they have achieved success, so they will always try to make better products. It was the same during the early days of the demo scene — there was always someone who had a better project.
In some parts of Sweden, it’s dark for three full months. That, some say, is the perfect excuse for making games.
Jantelagen also highlights the importance of being part of a team and working well with others. Game development is a team activity, and in Scandinavia decisions are usually made by consensus. If everyone on the team supports an idea, it will be better executed than it would be if they were forced to do it.
Strömbäck thinks the Swedish mindset is the main reason why the game industry is booming after the initial boom of the demo scene. Another essential reason — apart from education, English language skills, broadband access, an active consumer market, freedom of speech and access to international airports, he says — is Swedish weather. There is an old saying in the country that claims, “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing.” It’s an elegant way to complain about a climate that is usually rainy and cold. In some parts of Sweden, it’s dark for three full months. That, some say, is the perfect excuse for making games.
Although Sweden has become one of the hubs of game development in the world, not everyone is willing to move there and work in games, especially because of the tax system. In basic numbers, Swedish studios can’t compete against other countries for talent. However, high taxes come with benefits like free education and free social security.
“Once somebody has moved here and started to discover these benefits, and particularly if you start a family, then it turns on its head and the tax system becomes a reason to stay,” says Strömbäck.
For the locals, and for those who decide to stay, becoming indie has the same spirit of the early days of the demo scene.
Jonatan Crafoord has been making games for 10 years. He worked as a sound designer for triple-A studios until he decided to quit his job, start his own team and make an original game. That game is 20,000 Leagues Above the Clouds, where you are the captain of an airship and its crew and you’re traveling through a world full of flying islands above the clouds. Crafoord and his team have been working on this steampunk adventure for three years, and they spent two months of those three years at the Stugan program. The afternoon of the closing ceremony, Crafoord is there showing the latest version of the game.
Like Crafoord, there are other developers trying to make independant games in the Swedish game scene. Almost 10 years ago, while working at King, Markus “Notch” Persson started working on Minecraft as an independent project. Some years later he founded Mojang, his own company, and hired a team to release it commercially. Soon, thousands of people were playing Minecraft on the internet and it was even used in schools as a learning tool. In February 2015, Mojang’s success led to the company getting purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.
Tommy Palm, the former games guru at King, decided to quit his job and start again. In a way, he was also becoming indie. “This is my fifth startup,” he says.
Studios like Simogo, Mediocre Games, Image & Form, Dennaton Games, Coffee Stain Studios and Might and Delight are following the same paths while offering a wide range of experiences that are pushing forward the industry in a way the triple-A or casual game industries can’t.
Tommy Palm, the former games guru at King, decided to quit his job and start again. In a way, he was also becoming indie. “This is my fifth startup,” he says. His idea was to make VR games for the masses, so he recruited a team of experienced game developers to start making prototypes.
From the demo scene days, when hobbyists got together to show how they could do amazing things, developers have always been keen to challenge the limits of hardware and software. Now they are doing the same on the triple-A, casual and indie scenes.
Palm is also one of the co-founders of Stugan, and during the closing ceremony that summer afternoon of August, 2015, he seems happy but also anxious. Stugan was not only a free summer camp where developers could spend a couple of months making their games in the middle of the woods. It was also a way to give those developers a taste of their culture, and it allowed them to inspire and motivate others by sharing how they make games with the world. He was then thinking on how to keep the summer camp open in the future, and after some months of planning his team got everything it needed for their next edition. In July 2016, the second generation of stuganeers will go back to the forest and spend the summer making the games of their dreams.
Sweden has become a game development hot spot, but that hasn’t changed much for local developers. They are still trying to make games as best as they can, and they are still cooperating with their peers, as they did during the demo scene. Because it’s in the culture, and it’s in their mindset to help others fulfill their dreams.
About the author: Luis Wong is a freelance game journalist and a game developer. He co-founded LEAP Game Studios, based in Lima, Peru, and currently works for NetEase Games in Guangzhou, China.