Mobile in Malmo: Why it's no biggie when Sweden's big boys struggle
Simogo and Illusion Labs on the indie scene
This is the third part in a week long look at mobile development in the cities of Malmö and Copenhagen.
Having already taken the pulse of some of Malmö's major players, it's important to note that the Swedish city also plays host to a thriving indie scene – one that's delivered two of the most critically acclaimed mobile studios in recent years.
Simogo made major waves in 2013, having been behind the likes of Year Walk and, more recently, DEVICE 6 – a game that, not only was a runner up for Apple's iPhone game of the year, but also recently picked up four IGF nominations.
Simogo is in good company, too. City neighbour Illusion Labs was one of the earliest of iOS adopters, releasing titles such as Labyrinth and Touch Grind Skate before many of its rivals had even begun work on their first releases.
For both outfits, Malmö is described as a "natural" home, but it's not only each studio's Swedish roots that motivates them to base themselves in the Öresund Region. The city's status as a hive for startups also has a major bearing.
"Even though it is quite a small city there are a lot of start ups," Andreas Alptun, CTO and co-founder of Illusion Labs, tells us.
"There's a great feel to the area. People always get tired of working for big companies so they quit and start their own business. There are good universities and creative people.
"I'm from Malmö but most of my friends aren't. They were drawn here because of the entrepreneurial climate."
It stands to reason that many of Malmö's most recent startups have been inspired by the success of the studios that came before.
Illusion Labs' early releases were the product of great timing and clever forward thinking – to have been one of the studios bedding down on the App Store during its golden early years was, with hindsight, a stroke of genius.
"A lot of small companies have been able to start up purely because of the iPhone," says Alptun.
"We were out very early with Labyrinth and we're still doing very well economically. In the beginning we doing extremely well and all of the newspapers wanted to write about us. I think a lot of people were excited and wanted to do that themselves.
"You could see it as a possibility for anyone because we didn't come from money. All you need is a computer, your phone and a couple of friends to get rolling."
The excitement and risk of being an independent company in the mobile space has led Alptun to feel less than favourable towards the big studios that neighbour Illusion Labs.
Some of the larger companies in Malmö and across the Øresund Bridge in Copenhagen - like Hitman developer IO Interactive - have fallen on harder times of late, but Alptun actually believes that this can be a positive thing for the wider Scandinavian gaming community.
"It's sad for the area that some big companies are struggling but it could be good too," he argues.
"I'm not fond of the big companies. People that are working in those companies get stuck after a couple of years and it's so easy to keep working there. When the company starts to struggle they are given the chance to live their dreams.
"If they receive severance pay when they leave the company they can use it to start up on their own."
Given Alptun's preference for indies, it's perhaps surprising the studio isn't doing more to support the local independent community at events, meetups and conferences. Alptun, however, argues that he is simply too busy to take part.
"There are a couple [of events] but we're not involved very much. Probably because we're doing really well and we don't really have to be at all of these conferences," Alptun claims.
"That's the way we are. I'm not really a people person. I prefer to sit at my computer rather than try to sell things and talk to people.
"I should do more. We get asked a lot to talk at events. Not just here but all over the world. Sometimes we agree but most of the time we're too involved in our projects and we don't have time."
Bridge over troubled water?
Being weighed down by work is also one of the reasons why Illusion labs hasn't explored the possibility of working with its peers in nearby Copenhagen.
Most of the studios we've spoken to in Malmö this week have expressed shock at that lack of relationships between games communities in these two cities, but each has provided a completely different reason why they think this is the case.
Alptun blames the subtle differences between the Danish and Svenska languages.
"We haven't had much experience of collaborating across the bridge," Alptun tells us.
"One of the reasons is the that the languages are so similar but still so far apart. Sometimes we've had meetings with companies there but it can be hard to understand each other. It's a silly reason!
"Copenhagen is a big city but Malmö is small. People would like to have their HQ there instead of here, but it's much cheaper here and people are just as skilled."
Touchgrind Skate 2
Indeed, it appears whether you're talking about the prospect of moving to the bigger city or the rise of free-to-play, Illusion isn't a studio that gets swept away by the trend of the day.
"We always want our next game to be better than the last," he says on the topic of the rise of F2P.
"Some companies are more about tricking the player into spending money. We haven't done any freemium but we are looking into it because of the market's direction. I still prefer the premium model where you just pay for the game but we have to follow the market."
Illusion Labs also has ambitions outside of mobile with Alptun talking of long-term plans to experiment with its existing IP and games on console. Very few mobile developers have made this transition successfully, but Alptun is up for the challenge.
"People are turned off mobile now because of the competition," claims Alptun.
"It's really hard to come up with something new but you don't always need a new control scheme or a new graphical style. You can take existing gameplay and make it beautiful and responsive. A couple of years ago I would have said you need a new idea that people have not seen before, but everything almost exists now.
"In the long term we would like to do console as well. I would like to investigate to see if we can port some of our games to consoles and try it out to see if there is a market for the games we make. We would look at Vita or 3DS initially, but that's in the long run."
Simon Flesser – co-founder of Simogo – already has experience working on consoles, having previously woked with his business partner, Magnus "Gordon" Gardebäck, at the now defunct XBLA outfit Southend Interactive.
"There's quite a healthy amount of developers here," says Flesser of setting up Simogo in Malmö.
"Among the more known you have Massive and Southend where we come from, which sadly no longer exists. Regarding changes, I think what has happened is what is happening everywhere, a lot of creators are making things individually, as well as in very small teams."
Magnus Gardeback (sat down) and Simon Flesser
The success of Simogo means that the city's fresh startups are turning to both Flesser and Gardebäck for advice. However, Flesser argues that Simogo has no responsibility to help new studios and prefers to socialise with them, rather than give formal talks at events.
"We do get contacted by others for advice, and we try to offer what little advice we can give. But no, I don't feel it's our responsibility, really," Flesser argues.
"Honestly, I don't feel that knowledge sharing is as important as the social aspect. Meeting and talking to people in the same field as yourself is inspiring in itself."
The culture question
Indeed, unlike many of his peers, Flesser seems to have a glass half empty attitude to the Swedish games industry. In particular, Flesser has several concerns about cultural problems and other issues in his home country that, he believes, could hold back the growth of games.
Chief among these is the government's attitude to games as a medium.
"We tend to want to have as little to do with the government as possible," Flesser tells us.
"When games are talked about in Sweden it's very rarely as a form of culture. It's always talked about within a financial or technical perspective. Sweden is a land with a lot of engineers, so I guess that is why games are often looked upon and talked about as part of IT rather than entertainment."
The cultural issues surrounding Sweden's games industry extend to the talent pool as well.
The country is working hard to develop more experts for the industry through dedicated games schools, but the short term looks less healthy as the limited number of trained developers currently living in Sweden could run out, significantly slowing down potential growth.
"From what I hear, there's not enough programmers and engineers to support the industry in the country as whole," claims Flesser.
"I think a larger cultural problem is that how we work in Sweden is extremely collective-based, everyone has a say. In some respects that can be very positive, and it definitely fosters great quality and craftsmanship, but it hinders great personal visions."
Tomorrow we we travel across the Øresund Bridge in Copenhagen to speak with Playdead, the studio behind Limbo, and the Copenhagen Game Collective, to find out whether the Danes have different views about the Nordic games industry.
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