Swedish gaming

Swedish games have over a billion worldwide users. And growth in the industry is substantial – 26 per cent revenue increase 2015–2017, and 44 per cent more employees. How can the Swedish gaming wonder be explained?

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DreamHack. Video: Jann Lipka

Swedish gaming

Swedish games have over a billion worldwide users. And growth in the industry is substantial – 26 per cent revenue increase 2015–2017, and 44 per cent more employees. How can the Swedish gaming wonder be explained?

Competence and creativity

Video games Minecraft, Candy Crush Saga and Battlefield have all been developed in Sweden, but the booming games industry is bigger than the big names. One vital factor behind the success is a competent and creative workforce.

Martin Lindell, a games industry pro currently working at Raw Fury, says: ‘In Sweden we make technically competent and well-designed products. In games, aesthetics and technology meet, and we’ve got strong competences in both engineering and design.’

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of women in the booming Swedish games industry has grown by 255 per cent and the number of men by 157 per cent.

Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

From demo scene to DICE

In the very early days of video games, successful international companies mainly came from Japan, the US and the UK, with the rare Swedish developers focused on a limited domestic market. In Sweden and a handful other countries, a subculture emerged in the early 1980s called the Demo scene. People used early home computers such as the Commodore 64 and Amiga to show off their programming skills through audio and video shows.

‘Several of today’s major companies in Sweden were started by people active in the Commodore and Amiga Demo Scene,’ Lindell says, citing Digital Illusions (now DICE) as one example. It was started by four friends from the Demo scene in 1992, when they released cult hit Pinball Dreams followed by the hugely successful Battlefield franchise.

‘DICE represents the foundation of Sweden’s success in games’, Lindell says. ‘Markus Persson, founder of Mojang and creator of Minecraft, has come to symbolise the resulting exponential growth of Swedish game industry.’

Markus ‘Notch’ Persson is the creator of Minecraft, a video game that started as a hobby project and was released in an early version in 2009. It became an immediate hit in the gaming community, and the rapid success led to the foundation of Mojang. Then, in 2014, Persson sold his enormously successful gaming company to Microsoft for USD 2.5 billion, thus far the biggest success in Swedish gaming history.

Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

A culture of gaming

Looking more closely at what made Sweden step up and become a major player, Per Strömbäck, spokesperson for trade organisation Swedish Games Industry (Dataspelsbranschen), says part of the explanation lies in Sweden’s affinity for the culture that surrounds games.

‘Game development doesn’t take place in a vacuum’, he says. ‘It is part of a broader context consisting of gamers, e-sport competitors, DreamHack-type festivals, YouTubers, and so on. And Swedes are at the top across that spectrum.’

Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie has more than 95 million subscribers, DreamHack is the world’s largest digital festival and within e-sports – or competitive video gaming – Sweden has several players in the world elite and the country is the second largest e-sport market.

Star Stable is one of the more unusual Swedish gaming success stories. It’s about horses and aimed at girls and younger women.

Star Stable is one of the more unusual Swedish gaming success stories. It’s about horses and aimed at girls and younger women.

Other success factors

Computer literacy also plays a great part. Computer use was widespread, in relative terms, already in the 1980s when Commodores arrived. In 1998, home computer access received a further push through a government and union initiative that used subsidies and tax incentives to allow employees to affordably lease personal computers with an option to buy. This helped increase computer literacy among the public. It also got more people into computer games.

Sweden’s long-standing focus on education along with government initiatives aiming to make the internet accessible to everyone are other factors behind the gaming boom.

Strömbäck offers one more explanation for the gaming phenomena: ‘Add lousy weather into the equation. When it’s grey outside, you might as well work. There’s nothing better to do.’

In minimalistic Bad North the player must lead a group of island people who have to flee the Vikings. The aim? To eventually live a peaceful life again.

Image: Bad North

Good test market

Operating in a small domestic market such as Sweden has its advantages. One is that developers start to focus on the entire western market much earlier than developers from more populated countries. Another benefit is that it makes it much easier to ‘soft launch’ a product.

Per Strömbäck explains: ‘A Swedish company can release a game in Sweden, collect feedback and check out bugs, before committing to a global launch.’

From a startup perspective, Sweden’s public safety net, the welfare system, makes it less risky to take the leap.

Martin Lindell says: ‘Sweden is rife with indie developers – some at the start of their careers, and others are people with experience, who have quit their jobs to start their own business. When taking an entrepreneurial or artistic risk in Sweden, failing doesn’t mean a financial personal disaster.’

More developers wanted

A recent example is Bad North, a game developed from a home office and released in 2018, in an economy with a hefty employee shortage. Over the last ten years, the number of employees has quadrupled, and every year fewer developers graduate than are employed.

The success of early risk takers also inspires the next generation. DICE, Mojang, King and other billion-dollar companies – so-called unicorns – serve as an incentive. And Swedish companies have a running start in a global market that is growing by 13 per cent annually.

In the world of Solgard, players must save the world from the icy doom of Ragnarok. Developed by Snowprint Studios, launched by King.

Image: King

Team work

There’s a way to tell game developers are also gamers: they’re in it to win. But game development is a team sport. And Swedes are legends at collaboration.

Production has evolved to more iterative methods. Instead of following a pre-decided blueprint, a detail of the game is developed, checked with the community, discussed, added to, and so on. It is based on feedback and collaboration and won’t work in a hierarchical environment.

‘The collective ideals are very firmly established in Swedish society,’ Strömbäck says, ‘and you can’t get away from the collective in game development. Just look at an awards ceremony in game development. There’s never just one person on stage.’

Last updated: 14 June 2019

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg is a writer living in the middle of Sweden.

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