Out of Limbo

VIDEO GAMES. Commercially, times may be as hard as ever. But creatively, the Danish game industry is riding a wave of success and inspiring new enthusiasm among policy-makers, embodied by a recently negotiated subsidy scheme earmarking 2.7 million euros for game developers over the next four years.

Fresh on the triumphs of the monochrome Xbox darling Limbo, the taglines just keep on coming: "Danish games get an afterlife", "The end of purgatory" – insert your own doctrinal metaphor here ...

Large studios are important, but they tend to struggle in Denmark. The reason being, that, in a global perspective, they are really only mediumsized.

Large studios are important, but they tend to struggle in Denmark. The reason being, that, in a global perspective, they are really only mediumsized.

Just a few years ago, the sound bites were ominously clustered around "Game over" and "Out of energy". And for good reason. The Danish game industry had been dancing on the edge of meltdown for years.

The Danish Game Industry

Number of studios: 72

 Total number of employees: 552

In small companies (1-9 employees): 20%

In medium-sized companies (10-49 employees): 24%

In large companies (50+ employees): 55%

Revenue (2009): 51 million euros

Source: Computer Game Zone

Report made by Jan Vang from Aalborg University in collaboration with Copenhagen Entertainment, Danish Producers’ Association, the Computer Game Zone and with support from the European Regional Development Fund

Only two studios were working on prestigious, large-scale console titles, so-called AAA games. IO Interactive, of "Hitman" and "Kane & Lynch" fame, had long been a flagship and a fount of dreams for aspiring young developers. But it had also been foreign owned since 2004 and had recently been downsizing at a discouraging rate. Meanwhile, Deadline Games, maker of the over-the-top desperado shooter "Total Overdose", stumbled and came apart in 2008, further feeding sentiments of impending doom.

Winds Shift ... Finally

But of course, crisis can sometimes lead to rebirth. Around the time of Deadline's collapse, Danish politicians, after years of debate, finally came out for video games as a legitimate cultural product and a business worth stimulating.

This enthusiasm took two forms. First, a threeyear, 1.6 million euro cultural subsidy scheme running under the auspices of the Danish Film Institute was set up in 2007 to provide early funding for game projects for children. Second, funding was provided for the Computer Game Zone, an organized effort "to support Danish game developers in their growth, through business development, education, export initiatives, knowledge sharing, etc."

The subsidy scheme was renewed in the recently negotiated 2011-2014 Film Agreement, embodying the political consensus that video games have become an "important medium of cultural transmission for children and youth." Accordingly, 2.7 million euros will be distributed to game developers over the next four years.

Game makers would have preferred a larger sum, but most agree that the scheme has been successful in identifying promising projects and may well have kept small companies afloat.

Huge or Small

"Though the amounts are still modest, the money has been all-important. Without the game scheme many small companies would have had great trouble finding initial funding," says Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, video game PhD and CEO of Copenhagen-based Serious Games Interactive.

This sentiment is echoed by Rune Dittmer, CEO of Press Play of awardwinner "Max and the Magic Marker" fame. Dittmer, too, considers the funding level insufficient.

"The game support scheme is not ambitious enough. As a society we have an obligation to care about the cultural products that citizens spend time on, a public service obligation, as it were. And Scandinavian games are recognisable. A game like "Kane & Lynch", for instance, is quite complex compared to mainstream AAA fare," Dittmer says.

Jan Neiiendam, who heads the Computer Game Zone, applauds the scheme for encouraging small teams to experiment with diverse platforms and business models. "We've managed to escape the shadow of AAA games and focus on much more realistic forms of production," Neiiendam says. "But the scheme also builds on the virtues of the AAA world by forcing small developers to be crystal clear about their ideas. And with diversity and clarity of vision comes a much stronger foundation."

Both Egenfeldt-Nielsen and Dittmer share Neiiendam's optimism. But while they represent the non-AAA approach, they also express concern at the demise of the large studios. To Egenfeldt-Nielsen, larger companies "provide stability and constitute all-important training grounds for young talent."

"While small game studios may well be dynamic and embody all the charms of youthful enthusiasm, they are also fundamentally vulnerable. If one or two gifted people move on, large studios will quickly adapt. But for small companies such a situation can spell disaster," he says.

Dittmer adds, "Large studios are important, but they tend to struggle in Denmark. The reason being, that, in a global perspective, they are really only medium-sized. And the market for medium-sized productions may be evaporating. These days you may be better off being huge, small or closely affiliated with a platform provider."

The Near Future

Will Danish games be able to cash in on the current wave of creative success?

"Failing is easy," Neiiendam says. "You just need to maintain the Chinese wall between culture and commerce and keep thinking of creative fields such as film and games as separate domains. In other words, we need collaboration across ministries and media, and we need more companies with a proven track record that can attract investors."

Egenfeldt-Nielsen agrees that thoughtful cross-media partnerships are key, adding, "Game developers also need to diversify, to cultivate niches within areas like 'serious games,' mobile and apps in general."

Both politicians and an increasingly cohesive and vocal industry seem determined to prevent Danish games from sliding back into near-obscurity. But a lot is hinging on the fate of IO Interactive and the ability of small companies to grow into larger, more stable entities.

The ubiquitous religious metaphors of rebirth and redemption need to be replaced. Hopefully, pundits in the near future will have reason to reach for uplifting tropes like "New levels," "Power-ups" and "Extra lives." Even if that last one is still a bit Biblical.


Two recent game titles showcase the ambitions of Danish indie development. Travel through a hostile underworld or visit medieval Florence for a dive into European history ...

Monochrome Mysteries: "Limbo"


"Far too many games spoil the atmosphere by explaining everything to death," "Limbo" game director Arnt Jensen said in 2008. "By letting "Limbo" play on uncertainty, we keep the player's mind active, which makes it easier to become immersed in the game."

Selected by Microsoft for its Xbox 360 Summer of Arcade promotion, "Limbo" launched as a paid-for download and sold 300,000 copies within the first month.

Deviating from the standard model at an early stage of production may have caused some observers to worry. Was that the self-important voice of inexperience speaking?

Even before publication, however, all such worries were laid to rest. The game, a stylish black-andwhite 2D platformer, in which a young boy navigates a mysterious, hostile forest environment in search of ... something, won hearts early on. A YouTube trailer drew a million views, creating massive expectations. As the launch date neared, the game began to attract awards and accolades like there was no tomorrow.

Prizewinner at Independent Games Festival and seven-time nominee for the Game Developers Choice Awards, this uncompromising indie-title has come to epitomize the hopes of many Danish developers while once again bringing a homegrown game into focus.

Learning from the Black Death: "Playing History: The Plague"


Do dry textbook descriptions of medieval pandemics leave your students unmoved? Don't despair. Expose them directly to the Black Death!

In Serious Games Interactive's point-and-click adventure "Playing History: The Plague", the player must learn to navigate the streets of medieval Florence to save a young boy's family from the plague infecting every aspect of life in the city.

You play through a series of challenges, while learning about complex issues of social life in a specific historical setting undergoing a major crisis.

Mikkel Lucas Overby, commercial director at Serious Games, explains: "Denmark has a strong tradition of developing product niches focusing on play, learning and storytelling – just consider LEGO and Hans Christian Andersen."

Building on years of research into the potential of video games as learning tools, the company aims to quietly revolutionise the education system. "As we grow older and start school and work, we seem to disconnect play from learning. This is entirely irrational and flies in the face of everything the research tells us," he says.

Even before its launch in fall 2010, the browserbased game was awarded first prize at the European Best Learning Game Competition in July.