Impressions from the German Game Developers Conference

The good news: The German development scene is thriving. Studios are growing, more and more state institutions are getting involved into funding and banks recognise the importance of the industry. The Nintendo DS was a godsend gift for German developers; easy and inexpensive to develop for, hugely popular and with development kits that are comparatively easy to access – advantaged by the fact that Nintendo's European headquarters are situated in Frankfurt. Apparently Nintendo hardly interferes with the development process and accordingly is less uptight in terms of content matter (e.g. compared to Sony). The same pretty much goes for the Wii.

Then again this situation is not unproblematic: The Nintendo bubble might not last forever. Them not interfering with the development process, respectively the content matter of games leads to the problem of shovelware, certainly a characteristic of the offerings for Nintendo platforms. I'm not saying that German developers are the ones creating these titles but their products will have a tough time sticking out of this sea of mediocrity sailed by inexperienced consumers – and they are facing the immense competition of Nintendo's first party games; again a problem that is well known and almost traditional. The last issue is the low attachment rate; while an Xbox 360 owner buys an average of 7 games, Wii owners seem pretty much content with Wii Sports as the attachment rate here is 3.7.

Another impression I took from the conference is that the German development scene is still pretty parochial; an assessment which arises from several factors. First of all Germany was never a global player in terms if games. According to the chairperson of the German developers association G.A.M.E., seven years ago hardly any German studio had any international ambitions; German games were mainly made for the PC, a platform (still) dominating the domestic market; consoles, starting to dominate the foreign markets, were neglected (as this strategy apparently worked well for the studios; moreover one has to keep in mind the cultural differences making the development of games for international markets a demanding task, amongst others the fact that a language different than English is spoken; add to this the difficulties of obtaining development kits, growing budgets and the problem of maintaining capital as well as the missing social recognition of the industry). Accordingly there are hardly any grown structures, respectively established connections to international publishers that could have enabled a system of mutual trust due to missing experience/ track records.

This in turn led to several problems: Why would an international publisher want to invest in German games (a hurdle that was complicated by comparatively high labour costs)? Furthermore the situation made it difficult to attract skilled personnel; a fact which was augmented by some developers being located in areas that aren't exactly advantageous in a globalised competition for employees – why would you, as a foreigner, want to move to the German sticks if you could potentially settle in parts of the world with a higher quality of living where people might even speak your language? Studios located in Berlin definitely have an advantage in this respect! Consequently the total of foreign personnel working in German studios amounts to an average 10% – and the question remains how these people – and the rest of the employees – are dealt with as there seems to be hardly any human resource management (yet!). (A little anecdote: I still remember the boss of a German developer complaining at the Game's Convention in Leipzig how difficult it was to attract employees from abroad – and Germany – to his studio somewhere in the southern German province. This was followed by a rant about how demanding people were when it comes to where their workplace is located. This sort of arrogance respectively the misinterpretation of the situation of the digital game job market certainly isn't helpful in this respect.)

The missing experience and low appeal for international personnel also led to the fact that there's scarcely any know-how for producing AAA titles, as there are hardly any German producers who could cope with this task. In short: The German industry lags two to three years behind the US-Industry.

This lag also becomes evident in the external presentation. One presenter at the conference vividly recalled the ambience of the Crytek headquarters, how they had reception desk with two lovely, smiling ladies who offered him drinks... Something that seemed a matter of course to me at every Australian developer I went to to do interviews. I was offered drinks, sometimes magazines, Mike Fegan, IR-Gurus CEO, even took the time to show me around the studio and explained their current projects to me, certainly a nice gesture but also good PR.

This presenter also reminded his listeners that the game industry is considered a future industry after all. Accordingly it should present itself a worthy of this title: Evidently a hint at the fact that this still seems to be an issue, just like the remark that an international orientation also entails websites in English with regular updates… Without a professional appearance, which also entails branch offices in big German cities, going global just won't work.

But again: The good news is that despite these challenges the chances for German developers to do so were never as good as they are now. They shouldn't make the mistake to ignore their audience though. Again this seems to be a bit of an issue. Instead of focusing on an "innovative", "cool" genre mix (complete with the arrogance/ overestimation of one's own capabilities to be able to pull this of despite the fact that bigger studios with way bigger budgets keep their hand off similar projects) a concentration on the booming family-, online- and party-game sector seems to be the more promising approach as the chances of higher revenues are way better (and development costs are lower). As mentioned before: there remains the danger of the Nintendo bubble bursting at one stage – and if the team is not fully behind the project ("Not just another horse game!") this approach might eventually backfire.

In terms of content violence is still a taboo though and it seems that also in this field the German industry hasn't arrived at international discourses yet, at least not the ones dominating the anglo-american parts of the world: While resistance against game legislation in the US is dominated by referring to the strong tradition of freedom of speech and support for an R-rating in the Australian gaming community is tremendous, as most players are not willing to either play censored games or to be treated like immature children, especially since the average of the Australian gamers is 28, German developers seemed to have resigned and instead wallow in self-censorship.

When it was mentioned that "Gears of War" wasn't officially available in Germany, a lady sitting behind me uttered that Hitler's "Mein Kampf" wasn't publicly available either. (!) And no, she didn't work for some wacky tabloid but for a German studio (which she joined because because she saw her values represented by it as it doesn't produce violent games of any sort). I eventually told her that I thought that I was talking to Helen Lovejoy as her attitude could be summed up in "Won't somebody think of the children!?"

Where to begin? The self-righteousness? The paternalism? The fact that with this attitude games will never have the chance to test boundaries and challenge our socially situated assumptions of the world? The state interfering with adults who want to consume adult entertainment? Expect the madness of the nanny state to continue.