In the shadow of Gamescom: Germany's game scene struggling to grow up

Germany hosts the world's largest annual gaming convention, Gamescom, which last year drew 340,000 attendees and 635 exhibitors from 40 countries. Gamescom kicks off again this week in Cologne for what is sure to be an even bigger, sardine-packed public weekend. For these few days, it feels like Germany is the place to be for video game developers – and then the show leaves, exhibitors return home, and German studios large and small face the realities of operating in a country still in game development puberty.

Germany's video game industry is finding its footing economically and socially, and there's a quiet undercurrent of discontent among developers. Things are getting better – states in Germany offer a handful of programs for studios to find funding, though these trail behind the support seen in countries such as France, Finland, Sweden, Canada, the UK or the Netherlands.

"The German government is clearly not doing enough to support our industry," says Timo Ullmann, CEO of Dead Island 2 developer, Yager. "But our local governments – Berlin, Bavaria, Hamburg – are much further ahead of things and have identified our industry as an important partner. However, there is always room for improvement. There are simply not enough projects being run in Germany to support a greater number of studios and developers. And that is what we would need in order to have a more flourishing scene. Eventually we will get there over time, but I am unsure how to fix it."

For the German studios that do exist, funding is hard to come by. Smaller, independent studios especially face the stigma of being seen as "hobbyists" or as too risky for investors to take seriously. Sebastian Kreutz, CEO of Düsseldorf studio Frame6, says that his company gets most of its support from larger studios, such as Crytek and Ubisoft Blue Byte, where he used to work as a marketing artist.

"There are more and more studio-publisher hybrids, but financial support or investment in ambitious projects during the seed stage is something that barely happens," Kreutz says. "Most smaller teams are start-ups or former student teams and thus are considered too high-risk. Several smaller teams lower their burn rate as a selling point down to a level where their solvency horizon reaches only one or two months. We actually participated in a pitch aimed at smaller teams last year and one producer talked openly to us. He told us that we were the only team that calculated the development budget realistically, but that was also the reason why we didn't get a publishing contract."

This thread follows through to the German government's prevailing view of gaming as a less serious industry aimed at providing entertainment to children, not adults. German authorities notoriously ban and censor violent games in the country, and just this year South Park: The Stick of Truth was delayed in Germany and Austria because Ubisoft had to create an edited version.

The organization in charge of approving games in Germany, USK, abides by government restrictions and uses a panel of judges to determine a game's rating. As USK representatives noted at GDC Europe in 2010, the system isn't perfect. A game is banned if the panel decides it contains gross depictions of violence against human-like enemies, violence for the sake of violence, a lack of non-violent gameplay elements, or serious injuries to bystanders or children.

"On a federal scale, we still suffer from conservative politics that consider games to be something that should just be aimed at children," Kreutz says. "There are the publicly supported German Computer Game Awards, but the jury was never really free to award games aimed at adults. Whenever they suggested action titles such as Crysis, they were either ruled over by odd veto privileges or received massive criticism by the responsible culture secretary who even demanded the award to be shut down. Interestingly, it was the same person who spoke of the also-subsidized movie Inglourious Basterds as an important cultural asset, which depicted violence in a much more graphic way. So, we are still facing a double standard when it comes to government affairs. After the last federal elections, the responsibility for the award was moved from the Culture Ministry to the Ministry of Transport, so it's hard to tell when the medium will receive the same cultural appreciation (and funding) as movies."

Regional funding is the way to go for most developers. North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, offers the "Film- und Medienstiftung NRW," a program that is publicly owned, in part. Its main focus is supporting film projects, but it also funds the beginning stages of game development – for Kreutz and Frame6, the program provides 50 percent of the money required to create a prototype.

"You still have to bring along some cash, but it certainly helps creating something that is much more convincing than just a concept paper – especially when you just started and have no reference projects," Kreutz says.

Hamburg was one of the first states in Germany to support game development with gamecity:Hamburg, an organization that seeks to improve conditions for developers and sets up networking events. Game developers in Bayern can take advatage of the "FilmFernsehFonds Bayern" program, which offers funding of up to 450,000 Euros annually for non-violent, high-quality games. In Baden-Württemberg, a new program called Digital Content Funding recently contributed 205,000 Euros on three casual games and an interactive web platform.

Another funding program in NRW, the "Medien Gründer Zentrum NRW," offers funding for entrepreneurial ventures from young professionals.

"However, this program – and you can quote me – is a joke," says Alexander Ziska, founder of Hot 'n Spicy Games. He applied for one of the two game-specific funding rounds offered in 2014 and found it to be out of touch with the reality of game development. "Those scholarships are a lousy 10,000 Euros which are paid quarterly – so 2,500 Euros every three months. And this money is only for business purchases, not for project costs. However, in order to get the funding, you have to come out on top of a non-transparent selection process by a jury, competing with other founders."

Ziska ended up competing alone against two other studios, both two-man teams. He prepared the piles of necessary paperwork and made his case.

"During the pitch, it turned out that the jury didn't bother to read any of the required paperwork I prepared, not even my business plan, as they were asking so many questions that all were extensively covered in the plan," Ziska says. "Even worse, many of them were TV- and film- related people. Only one had a games background."

Ziska didn't get the funding, but the other two teams did. The panel offered feedback on his pitch, so he called the head of the jury and talked it out.

"They had the impression that I was more of a freelancer instead of an entrepreneur who would create employment," Ziska says. "Funny, since I explicitly stated this in my business plan, and that it is my goal to start small and grow into a company that creates jobs."

Ziska's experience may be a symptom of a larger, cultural perception of game development – especially independent development – as a non-lucrative, silly pastime.

"It's tough being a game developer in Germany," Wolf Lang, co-CEO of Beatbuddy developer Threaks, says. "Our job has a very bad reputation. Sometimes I'd rather tell people I work in the porn biz so people don't think I'm a freak. Because of that public stigma, but also the isolation from the rest of the global industry, we're around five years behind when it comes to creating games on international standards."

Germany is on the edge of revolution, Lang says. As developers in the country gain more experience and fame, the games will get better and more AAA developers will transition into the indie space, just as veterans from studios worldwide are making the jump.

"We have a special situation in Germany, since the indie scene started without any veterans," Lang says. "Most of us came straight from the university and just didn't feel comfortable working in the existing game companies in Germany. We've been inspired by the super creative and successful indie games from the US and want to be part of that movement, creating unique game experiences that prove how much more video games can actually be. That video games are a medium of art just like photography, music and movies. Therefore a lot of German indie games come from a strong artistic standpoint, but are lacking good execution. I'm confident though that our indie dev scene will be competitive in the next three to five years and deliver a hit."

Lang's optimism echoes that of many German developers. Claas Wolter, PR Director for developer and publisher Daedalic Entertainment, says that finding German companies that will not only fund a game, but fund it enough, is extremely difficult – leading to an influx of smaller, less ambitious games in the country. This is why developers are creating opportunities for themselves, such as Gamescom's Indie Arena, a booth showing off local, independent games. The Indie Arena returns to Gamescom this week for the second year in a row.

In this sense, the German development scene is thriving, Wolter says.

"Daedalic surely is one of the larger indie studios, and we're supporting our indie partners in many, many ways, and are having great partnerships: From time to time, for example, we lend staff to studios who are in need of a certain skill for a set time period. We helped creating the German Humble Bundle, we offer publishing, marketing and PR consulting and services, and we're supporting other studios also on other levels, e.g. within the German All Stars gathering. The indie scene over here is a very vital one, and a very communicative one, and we're very happy to be part of it and to work with all these great guys."

Florian Masuth, accounting and marketing director of Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers studio, Black Pants, says it succinctly: "Although the situation in Germany is not ideal, we have to give it our best to make great games. After all, we chose this industry and too much complaining will not produce results. Shout outs to all our German indie friends and those who are working hard to make things happen."
[Images: Koelnmesse, Deep Silver, Hot 'n Spicy, Indie Arena]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.