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Amidst last May's Nordic Game Conference in Malmö, Sweden -- simultaneously a celebration of the local industry and gathering of developers and students -- the last-minute revelation that Avalanche Studios founder and creative director Christofer Sundberg would not deliver his scheduled talk didn't seem particularly ominous. But the news that followed would be the first of many notable negative occurrences to hit independent developers in the region in a span of just a few months.
Sundberg's appearance was canceled in anticipation of further layoffs for the Just Cause developer, which shed 20 employees in May -- a sum that followed a previous release of 77 employees in October 2008, nearly half of the studio's staff at that time.
But while Avalanche soldiered on following the layoffs, other Nordic developers weren't as lucky.
The week after the conference, Deadline Games -- best known for Watchmen: The End is Nigh -- filed for bankruptcy, while August brought about the stunning closure of GRIN, a studio that had recently developed high-profile releases for Ubisoft and Capcom, and was rumored to be working on a Final Fantasy title for Square Enix.
Economic hardship has been a reality for developers of all sizes in recent years, and studio closures certainly aren't limited to the Nordic countries. But between the grim announcements and some concerns noted by developers at last year's conference, it became clear that there was a need to investigate how independent studios in the region perceive how their location and state of the local industry impact their success.
Speaking with several Nordic developers and industry members, Gamasutra discovered disparate viewpoints on some topics, yet many concerns are shared by studios throughout the region.
Several notable developers call the Nordic region home -- a Northern European area comprised of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland. This includes publisher-owned studios like EA's DICE and Square Enix's IO Interactive, as well as independents like Remedy, Funcom, Avalanche, Starbreeze, and Redlynx.
While languages and currencies may vary between the member countries, the Nordic countries' governments are linked politically through the Nordic Council, and game developers in the region share a common trade and support group, the Nordic Game Program.
Established in 2006 by the Nordic Ministers of Culture (and supported by all five member countries), the Nordic Game Program was designed to make Nordic-designed games better available to consumers in the region, fund local development, compile and share market data, and create a larger Nordic presence at international trade shows.
Its most recognizable contribution, however, comes in the form of the aforementioned Nordic Game Conference, which takes place each spring. In 2009, it attracted more than 1,200 attendees, as well as international speakers like Grasshopper Manufacture's Goichi Suda and Media Molecule's Alex Evans.
Though the Nordic Game Program's website calls the local video game market the "sixth or seventh largest in the world," the Nordic development scene remains relatively small. According to Jacob Riis, communications director for the program, approximately 240 studios resided in the region in 2008, with about 3,300 individuals involved in game development out of a population of some 25 million people.
Riis says the industry evolved from demo groups hacking Commodore 64 and Amiga games in the 1980s, with studios like IO Interactive and the late Deadline Games emerging from that scene to become legitimate development studios. While the 1990s brought a focus from local developers on children's games and edutainment, it also marked the foundation of companies like Funcom and DICE, the latter of which is responsible for Electronic Arts' Battlefield shooter franchise.
However, Riis believes the last decade has seen a something of a schism develop between larger, established studios, and the smaller start-ups that have sprung up in recent years. "New companies have struggled to grow really large," explains Riis. "Today it seems as if there is a gap between big ones (DICE, IO, Remedy...) and the rest, with not that many medium-sized teams, but [rather] a growing number of small studios and start-ups."
Though the downloadable games market has brought success to some local studios, some in the region believe a lack of proper business understanding has kept many developers from weathering economic hardships and finding long-term success.