How the fall of Rockstar Vienna led to an indie uprising
When Jogi Neufeld opened his video game history store Subotron
in the heart of Vienna's Museumsquartier back in 2004, the original plan was simply to get rid of a whole bunch of old games memorabilia that had begun clogging up his home.
All these years later, and Neufeld is one of the pioneers of the video games industry in the Austrian capital, working alongside the city of Vienna's creative industries and Chamber of Commerce to hold numerous video game lectures and workshops under the Subotron name, and generally help Vienna's indie community spirit alive.
"When I bought a Donkey Kong
Game & Watch at a fleamarket in the mid-nineties, it triggered not only my nostalgia, but also the awareness of digital games as a cultural artefact," Neufeld tells Gamasutra.
"I was not involved in any kind of gaming scene because there was none, except for some first little studios and a handful of bedroom devs," he continues. But two months after opening his store, Neufeld banded together with a group of friends and founded an association dedicated to video game developers in Vienna.
A series of lectures about game theory called "Arcademy" was born, followed by the "Pro Games" series two years later, focused around the economics of video games, with funding direct from Vienna's government.
Notes the Subotron founder, "It took some time to convince the Chamber of Commerce that games are not only art too, but also an economic factor surpassing movies, the cultural asset of the last century (the 21st being the "ludic century" as we know from Eric Zimmerman)."
It was, according to Neufeld, the closure of the city's most notable video game developer that gave rise to the indie scene in Vienna.
"There wasn't much of a scene until the overnight shutdown of Rockstar Vienna in 2006
, where almost 100 devs found themselves in the street," he explains. "Many of them started their own studios, and that was the foundation of the ever growing local industry."
One studio which saw this dispersing of video game industry talent into the area was Sproing
. Originally founded in 2001, the company has shipped over 50 console games, and numerous free-to-play games. Its most recent title, Asterix & Friends
, is an online city-builder for browsers.
"The industry has been growing in Austria for a while now," Sproing CEO Harald Riegler tells me. "It has always been small but good, but some years ago when the Rockstar Vienna Studio closed, it pollinated into many new smaller studios."
Riegler describes the Vienna game scene as "vibrant and cooperative," noting that the government has been a massive help in providing subsidaries so that innovation can grow.
"There's a games industry trade organization called IGCG, supporting the industry," he adds. "Also we have great conferences here, such as Pixel Vienna
. Being in Vienna is no hindrance at all - more to the contrary."
Another figurehead developer in Vienna is Broken Rules
, the team behind titles like And Yet It Moves, Chasing Aurora
and Secrets of Rætikon
. Martin Pichlmair from the studio agrees that there's a great community of developers brewing in Vienna, although the lack of a grand AAA company means Austria as a whole is rarely afforded a spotlight.
"Support by the state and the cities - especially Vienna - is excellent, and I still have hopes that the industry will grow in these parts," he notes. "On one hand Broken Rules is quite fortunate because we're highly regarded locally. That gives a warm and cozy feeling. On the other hand we do not have a domestic market to speak of, so most of our marketing efforts are targeted at an international audience."
Having to travel internationally to reach players, press and other indies can definitely take its toll on Viennesse devs, says Pichlmair -- although there are advantages.
"The press is very international. There's a language barrier of course, but the Austrian accent is charming enough to overcome that (think Schwarzenegger)," laughs Pichlmair. "Vienna is in an excellent geographic location and internationally well connected. Sometimes we feel a bit distant to everything. Then again, it's just a 1-2 hour flight to Copenhagen, London or Berlin."
The rise of Subotron and its focused lectures, get-togethers and workshops, meant that numerous indie devs in Vienna who were previously rather low-key came out of the woodwork, so to speak.
Josef Ortner of indie studio All Civilized Planets
is one such dev. The HueShift
designer found that the various organized events for game developers in Vienna have really helped to build a community spirit, and in turn, increase the number of people making games in the city.
"The scene was very scattered a few years ago, but it started to grow together after the Subotron gaming events started," he says. "Nowadays we also have a GameDevCafe meeting every week, where people from various companies get together for coffee and food."
"To be honest, I don't get the feeling that we are a small scene here in Vienna," he continues, "mainly due to the fact that the whole indie developer scene is very active and connected online. I have friends who develop games all around the globe and everyone is inspiring in a different way."
He reiterates Pichlmair's thoughts, that industry events being far away from Vienna is the biggest issue with building a games industry in the city.
"If I want to present my games at PAX, IGF or IndieCade it costs a lot of money to actually go there," he notes. "This of course limits my chances of meeting people from the U.S. press, which makes it hard to connect to a huge market in the first place. Lately there are more events with indie focus in Europe - I hope this starts to help with getting in touch with press easier."
Philipp Seifried is another Viennesse indie who has found the games community boosted by Subotron, the weekly game developer meet-ups, the local IGDA, and the various local game jams.
"It's much easier for people to get to know one another now, which makes it easier for newcomers and small developers to build up support networks," the Ace Ferrara And The Dino Menace
says. "I wouldn't be surprised if that leads to an increased visibility of Austrian indie games, in the future."
He also names talking to the press as one of the biggest issues with working out of Vienna, although he also notes that there are more subtle problems too.
"Getting your friends to leave reviews of your game on iTunes won't do you much good, if those reviews are only visible in the Austrian App Store," he sighs. "I would also assume that marketing on Facebook is easier, if the friends that initially like your page are native English speakers."
And Richard Kogelnig of Beltfed Interactive
, another local dev in Vienna that is currently digging into the possibilities of the Oculus Rift and other intriguing video game hardware, says that the Vienna Gamedev Cafe, founded by Cardinal Quest
creator Ido "tametick" Yehieli in 2012, has proven massively useful for him.
"This informal meeting was an integral point for me to get to know local developers like Josef from All Civilized Planets, people from Broken Rules, Mipumi, Platogo and many more," he tells me. "People are very friendly and always helpful when you have questions - it really changed my perception of the scene for me."
Looking to the future
Without exception, every Viennesse developer I talked to was excited for the future of the games scene in the city, and in Austria overall.
"It would be great to have a Mojang, or at least a Rovio, in the city," Broken Rules' Pichlmair says. "We don't have that yet but I hope someone from here will make the right game for the right platform at the right time soon."
"I think we have to step up our PR/marketing game, and produce awesome and interesting games which people want to play," reasons Kogelnig. "However, this is true for every developer who has not managed to be recognised as an established developer. Over the next few years we will see if developers from Vienna will manage to have a breakthrough."
Seifried notes that as long as new devs keep joining the community, the Vienna space can only expand.
"Come to the events that are going on and get to know people," he suggests. "I think local developers have a tendency to be slightly skeptical towards newcomers at first, but as soon as they've seen you're working on something cool, they're very open and supportive."
"I think it's all about the games themselves," is the advice from Sproing's Riegler. "I don't think it's necessary to point to the city itself to get yourself spotted. Vienna has great talent, great universities in computer science, art, and has always been a melting pot for the creative and the engineers. The workforce is really good, which means that the studios have access to some great people."
The more established studios in the region are constantly helping the smaller new studios too, he notes, hence Vienna is a great place to get your foot in the door. "I think there are good times ahead for the Austrian games industry."
And the final word should go to the Subotron founder. What does he think Viennese studios coming into the industry now can do to be spotted more?
"Their market is global (with very few exceptions), so they have to find their unique selling point just like everyone else," Neufeld answers. "Tools and requirements in marketing are changing rapidly, so everyone has to catch up with the latest developments, and work on these skills."
"Personally I like games that handle local specifics, like Broken Rules do with the Alps in Secrets of Rætikon
," he adds. "It's fresh ideas and not technology that let's you stand out, just like the music on these vinyls making my flat look like a record store. Hey, I have an idea..."