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Finnish game industry

{mosimage}Video games are not children’s games any more. They belong to one of the major entertainment industries in the world. With almost a hundred companies developing games, Finland is becoming an important player in this sector and it delivers one of the country’s specialties: mobile phone games.






It is a Tuesday night in a pub in the center of Helsinki. The place is crowded with young people playing… video games. It is the monthly gathering of the Finnish chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA Finland). This time there are free drinks sponsored by an international computer processor manufacturer and the attendees show their skills in a competition playing the racing video game Project Gotham Racing 4 and the popular Guitar Hero 3.

It is a young crowd, most of them are in their mid or late twenties, and it represents the fast growing game industry. In Finland there are around 80 companies developing video games in any format, from mobile phones to the latest generation consoles and PC. The oldest game firm was established in 1994, so the Finnish game industry is still relatively young. Nevertheless last year, the turnover of the industry was around 75 million euro and the number of employees was more than double than in 2004. Nowadays around 1,000 people work in game development, in offices in Finland and outside Finland.

KooPee Hiltunen represents Neogames, the member organization of the industry. According to him, there are very easy reasons that explain the success of this sector in Finland: “There is a good gaming culture, and good technology and infrastructure that secures the product delivery and a good price-quality ratio”, Hiltunen explains. “Also we enjoy good subsidies from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation”.

During 2007 Tekes supported the industry with 6 million euro. This means that Finland invests in the game industry more any other country in Europe. Public investment in the games industry relative to the population is now 1.1 euros per head, compared with about 4 cents in the EU region.

The quality of Finnish games is well represented in the production of international hits. Espoo-based game studio Remedy Entertainment is responsible of the successful Max Payne saga. The first part of this third-person shooter video game was published in 2001 and it became a best seller world wide that even reached Hollywood. The production of the Max Payne film is about to begin with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. Meanwhile in Espoo, Remedy is well into the production of a long awaited new title which might be released this year. Developed exclusively for Xbox 360 and Windows Vista, Alan Wake is described as “psychological action thriller”.

Another success in the brief story of the Finnish game industry is the online game Habbo Hotel, developed by Sulake. It started as a free-time project in 1999, but nowadays Habbo is recognize as international brand, localized in 31 countries with six million users visiting the Habbo communities and playing the game. The company employs around 300 people in 14 different offices around the globe.

With these successes in mind, the industry is growing fast and Neogames predicts that the game industry will become a major export sector in the next few years. “Most of the Finnish game companies are growing faster than the market”, Hiltunen explains.

{mosimage}Pocket gaming

One of the characteristics of the industry in Finland is that game developers have chosen mobile phones as the platform of choice. Due to Nokia’s strong presence, Finland has been a pioneer in mobile games, a market that is expected to grow over the next few years.

Many Finnish companies like Digital Chocolate / Sumea, Rovio, Universomo or Mr Goodliving are among the top developers of mobile games and they served their games to operators across the world. These companies produced several titles a year and they must  port them to the hundreds of difference mobile phones models.

Markku Hakala is the managing director and one of the founders of Universomo. For him, developing mobile games was the logical path to follow. “At the beginning, we did not have any prior experiences in the game industry, so PC and console game was too far ahead us”, he says.

Mobile gaming opens the doors of game development for a young generation of gamers. Hakala mentions the demoscene culture and Nokia as the main reasons that lead programmers and developers to the mobile games. Demoscene is a computer art that specializes in producing non playable demos of games to showcase programming and artistic skills. Finland hosts Assembly, one of the largest international demoparties that gathers around 5,000 participants every summer. Since 2007, the event has also a winter edition which this year will be held in Tampere from 22nd to 24th of March.

Established in 2002, Universomo is the only major game developer outside the Helsinki area. The main office is in Tampere, although recently the firm opened a new one in Helsinki. “When we started, we didn’t think we would grow so much, so Tampere was fine”, admits Markku. Indeed Universomo has doubled its personnel every year and developed games for well known brands like Star Wars and the film 300. In 2007 the company was acquired by THQ Wireless, one of the major mobile phone publishers.

Sumea is another mobile games developer that has attracted foreign investors. Sumea was founded in 1999 and in 2004 it was acquired by Digital Chocolate, a California based company founded by Trip Hawkins, one of the pioneers of computer games and founder of Electronic Arts back in the early eighties.

Digital Chocolate is one of the top 5 mobile phone publishers and its main office and game studio remains in Helsinki and it employs more than 100 people coming from many different countries. Soon the company will also start operations in India. This rises the question if game development might move to more affordable countries. KooPee Hiltunen sees no threat: “India is at the moment very good place to make large volume,"bulk" games, but only European game developers can make European (Western) games. This is a little bit like film industry. Making Hollywood films in Bollywood would make economical sense, but still that doesn’t happen”.

The game industry in Finland is flourishing and growing at a fast pace. “We are a visible industry already and we get the attention we deserve.However, we are still a small business and we would like to get more investors that truly understand the peculiarities of this industry”, concludes Markku Hakala.

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