Mobile in Malmo: The city where the big rub shoulders with the small

King and Tarsier on taking on Stockholm

Mobile in Malmo: The city where the big rub shoulders with the small

This is the second part in a week long look at mobile development in the cities of Malmö and Copenhagen.

As locals will tell you, the Swedish city of Malmö has made playing host to games studios of all shapes and sizes its signature in recent years - from 300 person monoliths to two person indie outfits.

Case in point: Two of the city's most recent success stories couldn't be much more different. King's Malmö office runs like an independent studio, working on the company's number two mobile puzzle game, Pet Rescue Saga.

Tarsier, on the other hand, is a small team creating exclusive titles for Sony hardware, including the likes of Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic and most recently the PS Vita version of LittleBigPlanet.

But does the relative size and ambitions of the studios across the city radically change their respective takes on the games industry that operates within it?

"The main reason we setup in Malmö is because of all the talented people we found," details King Malmö's head of studio Kim Nordstrom - a Malmö native whose career has taken him all over the world, but who returned to Sweden to be part of the industry's shift towards mobile platforms.

"We set up pretty quickly with 10 people at a very senior level. Most of them were tired of triple-A, consoles with long release schedules, crunch and not knowing what was going to happen afterwards.

"Most of them wanted better stability and something new. That's exactly what King brought into the games industry."

Arseholes need not apply

Before joining King, Nordstrom was a key player at Sony Computer Entertainment America in California. He worked on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 hardware as well as Sony's mobile games store on Android, PlayStation Mobile.

Moving to King represented something of a major change.

"One of the many things that really got me was the company culture. The people are very humble, open and friendly. I still haven't met an arsehole in the company!" Nordstrom tells us.

"Everyone and smart. It's very simple to get things done. When you need help you get help. It's far away from being corporate. We're trying to keep it that way by staying away from politics and backstabbing.

"King seems to have cracked the nut and figured out a business model for the games industry that actually works. I needed to be a part of that. Truly for me it is a next-gen game studio in every sense."

Kim Nordstrom

After his time at Sony, "next-gen" is something that Nordstrom knows all about. Despite enjoying his time with PlayStation, he admits that he had some issues with the company towards the end which made the fresh opportunities at King difficult to turn down.

"I was proud to be part of the PlayStation family," says Nordstrom, "but Sony is a big corporate political company and I was tired of it. I needed to move on to something new and fresh. I wasn't happy with Sony's approach to its mobile stuff. It felt old in the same way as King feels fresh and new."

Global game

With King, Nordstrom and his small team of developers is at the forefront of the games industry's rapid expansion in Malmö, which some locals claim is growing more quickly than in Stockholm, Sweden's capital.

According to Nordstrom, Malmö has embraced new business models like no other city.

"I definitely believe that we are seeing the beginning of new business models, channels and new ways of reaching out to players and the market. Virality is actually something that you can measure and understand its impact, which you couldn't before," Nordstrom claims.

"The market is truly global and you actually go into Asia and focus on markets in a different way. Its all new territories. You can be a two man show in Malmö and reach all of these things if you are good enough."

King's Malmö offices

Life in Malmö isn't all plain sailing, however. Sweden's corporate legislation is something of a minefield, especially for young studios who are just getting used to the idea of running a business.

This opens Swedish games studios up to competition from other parts of the world, where issues like tax are less of a barrier to getting started in game development.

"Financially in Sweden it's very complicated," Nordstrom says.

"It's very tax heavy and employment laws are complicated which doesn't encourage in the same way as setting up in Montreal for example, with five year tax breaks. But we do have massive talent and we have all the possibilities to be successful, more than many other countries."

In spite of a few economic and legal limitations, Malmö's video games community is thriving and has become one of the most varied in the world.

Massive Entertainment, a 300 person Ubisoft studio, is right across the street from King. Nordstrom believes that all of the city's studios, big and small, will have to work together to maintain and grow Malmö's global reputation for games.

"For such a small town we have a lot going on," Nordstrom tells us.

"It's the mixture that makes it interesting. None of us will go away. We'll end up spending a lot of time helping each other to build the region. We're constantly talking about how we can help the region, help young studios, talent and conferences,"

'Survival instinct'

But, with Nordstrom's experience working across both console and mobile platforms, which one he would recommend to new games startups in Malmö and beyond?

"The big console makers are feeling the power of the mobile industry, you can see the increase in hardware installs on tablets and phones. It would be foolish to not open up their closed platforms or they will lose," claims Nordstrom.

"PlayStation did excellent moves in inviting the indie community, but that was survival instinct more than anything. Most developers grow up wanting to make games for these platforms because they spent their childhood playing those games.

"When you get that opportunity and it's not so expensive and painful to submit something any more, more people will do it."

Speaking of Sony, Ola Holmdahl is the CEO of Tarsier, a Malmö studio that enjoyed much success with the Japanese giant, working on all of the DLC for the home console versions of LittleBigPlanet, not to mention being handed the task of developing the PS Vita spin-off from scratch.

"[Tarsier's] original founding group of students made a demo in 2005 that was shown at E3 and generated a lot of attention and hype from publishers and journalists around the then new consoles," says Holmdahl.

"Different people approached us and said this is awesome let's make it, but they quickly found out that we were a group of students not ready to make a triple-A game."

Ola Holmdahl

Despite this, Sony saw potential in Tarsier and this small studio began its relationship with the publisher and with the UK's Media Molecule. To support this sudden influx of work, settling in Malmö was an easy choice.

"We considered the major Swedish cities and Malmö won. It has the best untapped potential. It was growing quickly, had good education and is less expensive. It's easier to find a good place to live compared to Stockholm which is more crowded," Holmdahl argues.

"I know a number of people who got jobs in Stockholm or even in America who missed living here, missed the atmosphere and the crop of game companies here and the connections between them. I think that's a beautiful thing. It's a badge of honour for Malmö."

Big meets small

Malmö's growth as a hub for the Swedish games industry means that many of its once small studios have now become medium-sized or even large game companies.

Others have fallen by the wayside or been acquired by their larger neighbours. If this trend continues, Malmö could become dominated by large game companies with fewer and fewer indies.

Holmdahl admits that Tarsier and others are starting to get concerned about the lack of brand new companies emerging in Malmö and the effect this could have on the city's ability to attract new talent.

"Tarsier is not alone in grieving for the studios that were lost," Holmdahl claims. "Southend was acquired by Massive and Junebud went down in bankruptcy."

"There is a lot of promise in having a large ecosystem with different corporate cultures and different kinds of games being made. It attracts people to the city when they know there are different options. It's also a beautiful exchange of ideas. It's worrying but we're hoping to see some new companies soon."

Happily, there is plenty of hope for the future. Malmö's business leaders and the local and national government are excited by the games industry and want to recognise its success and secure its continued growth.

So far, the industry has exploded without much help from the government or any real cultural recognition in Sweden. The thinking now is that with more support, things could expand even more quickly.

"In 2012 Tarsier won the Malmö Creative Industries Prize and we were publicly recognised by the business gala hosted by the city. Massive have won that prize too," says Holmdahl.

"Games are registering powerfully with the leaders of the city. Politicians are amazed that it has happened but they are also saying that the industry has done so well without political help or state funding, so they focus more on infrastructure and education around games now rather than supporting the companies."

While the Swedish government is beginning to get more involved in the games industry, its help is perhaps most needed to forge relationships between the Swedish games companies and the Danish ones.

Malmö is just a car ride away from the Danish capital, Copenhagen, over the Øresund Bridge, but according to Holmdahl, the communities in the two cities are only just barely communicating.


"I feel that there is a divide [between Malmö and Copenhagen]. Sometimes the Danes come over when they are formally invited, but there's no naturally occurring meeting forum that I'm aware of. That's a bit of a failing. The two spheres are clearly segregated," says Holmdahl.

The Øresund Bridge is clearly a physical divide, but also a psychological one. Holmdahl likens it to a small
company with offices split over two floors instead of one.

"The minute your office has two floors with stairs between communication becomes difficult. You don't know what floor A is doing anymore and people become suspicious," he says.

"That makes communication conscious. It doesn't happen on the spur of the moment. Most people like to get their stuff together and be prepared before they go talking to the Danes or the Swedes, rather than have them at the table for the first second of a new idea. That formalises the exchange."

Shifting focus back to Malmö, is the fact that the city now plays host to some major players becoming a problem? Is it getting more difficult for indies to find their space in a region increasingly dominated by bigger teams?

"Indies will always wrestle with visibility problems but in the mobile scene because of the scale and gatekeeping and bottlenecking on the app store, it's very tough to make a living or make a splash even with a very nice game," Holmdahl argues.

"I've seen a lot of small companies invest heavily in marketing but still release a game that barely makes a ripple. Mobile is higher risk but also higher reward. Console can be lower risk but typically lower reward as well.

"You can get very competitive production values into a small game, but its dependent on the right skills and inspiration."

Pop back tomorrow when we'll be talking to two other Malmö outifts - Illusion Labs of Touch Grind fame and the minds behind Device 6 and Year Walk at Simogo.

Joe just loves to go fast. That's both a reflection of his status as a self-proclaimed 'racing game expert', and the fact he spends his days frantically freelancing for a bevy of games sites. For PocketGamer.biz, however, Joe brings his insight from previous job as a community manager at iOS developer Kwalee. He also has a crippling addiction to Skittles, but the sugar gets him through the day.