Fun and games
With the new Game Fund, the Flemish government is hoping to push the Flemish computer gaming industry to higher levels. It was launched in cooperation with Flanders’ first organisation for game development, the Flemish Games Association, founded last spring to support producers of both entertaining role-playing games and those geared towards education.
The Game Fund plays to the needs of the computer gaming industry in Flanders
To give the growing games sector a boost, Flemish media minister Ingrid Lieten and education minister Pascal Smet have set aside an annual budget of €750,000 for the Game Fund. Managed by the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF), it will support three types of games: entertainment, educational and non-educational but “serious”. That last category includes games that are a mix of entertainment and education, teaching users something through simulations of real-world events.
“The Game Fund will invest €200,000 annually in games for the education system,” says project manager Karen Van Hellemont of the VAF, “while €550,000 is available for both entertainment games with a cultural or artistic value and serious games meant for, among others, the care, medical and heritage sectors.”
The committee doesn’t take into consideration so-called advergames, or those with commercial goals. The entries may not contain pornographic elements, violence, violation of human rights or discrimination. The first deadline for applications for subsidies was last week.
Looking to the film industry
“Local game developers have been asking for support for years, but until now the sector never spoke with one voice,” says Wim Wouters, spokesman of the Flemish Games Association (FLEGA) and CEO of Antwerp game studio GriN.
On the initiative of minister Lieten, the games sector united early this year to negotiate measures that will further professionalise its activities. Wouters is grateful that these meetings quickly resulted in financial contributions from the government. “Now it’s up to the creativity of the companies,” he says.
He stresses the need, however, for the federal government to improve the business climate for the games industry, pointing to the recent success of the Flemish film industry. “To achieve a similar standard, we also require a Belgian tax shelter for game productions,” he states. Since 2003, companies have been able to benefit from a tax exemption for their investment in Belgian audiovisual works.
FLEGA further hopes for a reduction of employment costs, which would enable them to expand their teams. In Canada, for instance, such arrangements have created a flourishing games industry. “But we don’t just look to the government for help,” emphasises Wouters. “We have to increase our exchange of expertise and improve our image abroad through collaboration.”
Digital as the new standard
The majority of Flemish game developers are already members of FLEGA, including major players, such as Larian Studios in Ghent, famous for its role-playing games like the Divinity series, and developer Visual Impact in Aalst. Most of the Flemish enterprises, though, are younger and smaller, trying to find a niche in the sector.
Playlane, for example, has been specialising in serious games, mostly for educational purposes, for five years. The company sprung from the collaboration between two friends but now has a team of 19 in Drongen, a district of Ghent. “We realised the potential that serious games offer, especially in teaching toddlers and primary school students essential skills,” explains co-founder Jelle Van De Velde.
Their largest project to date is the Fundels application, a digital addition to picture books, which helps children aged three to seven acquire language, maths, writing and listening skills. Playlane designed several games now used in classes, such as geography. “The children complete a course that goes all over the world and encounter environments such as the tundra,” says Van De Velde. “They also learn about the climate and sustainability.”
Playlane’s co-founder is convinced that school lessons will become ever more digital, and quickly. “Digital is evolving into the new standard,” he notes. “Children who grow up with tablets and e-readers – games are a logical part of their life.”
Growing up in the incubator
In recent years, Flemish start-ups in game development have been supported through business incubators, or support programmes. In 2009, the then Flemish minister for innovation, Patricia Ceysens, invested €750,000 in three programmes: the Gaming Incubator Creative Minds in Leuven, the GameHUB at C-mine in Genk and The Studios at the University College West Flanders (Howest) in Kortrijk.
Next year the incubator at Howest will be incorporated into the ambitious 3D Competence Centre, a high-tech centre for the school’s unique Bachelor’s in Digital Arts & Entertainment. The first company to come out of The Studios at Howest was Triangle Factory. After graduating, three classmates entered the incubator in 2010. One of them was Timothy Vanherberghen, now Triangle’s managing director (pictured).
“At The Studios, our business plan was polished into a realistic project,” explains the 28-year-old. “We established a network with other companies that later evolved into partnerships. Furthermore, we could count on the financial and judicial advice of people with experience in the business world. The access to the high-tech material of the school was also an advantage.”
Vanherberghen was part of a team that reached second place at the Microsoft Imagine Cup, an international student technology competition. The prize money, worth $15,000 (€11,800), provided the start-up capital for the company now established in the centre of Ghent. Triangle Factory mostly focuses on games for mobile platforms and social networks.
One of Triangle’s success stories is MyClub, a social game on Facebook that allows players to build and manage a nightclub and organise parties on the social networks of Facebook and Hi5.
For students in secondary education, Triangle’s team of five employees developed a serious game that teaches users how to perform CPR with automated external defibrillators (AEDs). “They learn as they play, with a game that has fun graphics and trendy music, indicating the rhythm of the heart massage,” says Vanherberghen. “They can improve their scores and post them on Facebook.”
The journey for Triangle, though, has not always been “fun and games”.
“In the beginning, we did not devote enough time to attracting new clients,” says Vanherberghen. “Eventually, I worked full time on marketing and sales, searching for new projects.” Until now, Triangle primarily produced advergames for clients, to keep the business running. “Next year, we want to finish some of our own concepts,” says Vanherberghen. “The Game Fund will be a considerable support for this goal.”
“Find the fun, and the job’s a game”
With FLEGA, the games industry is following the example of the Flemish academic world. At the end of 2008, academics specialised in research on games formed a Flemish chapter of the international Digital Games Research Association. The chair is Bob De Schutter, currently voluntary research associate at the University of Leuven.
“Approximately every month, we hold a meeting at a different university or university college, where researchers present their work,” he explains. Collaboration is encouraged, but marketing speeches are not allowed. The presentations are in English in order to involve researchers from all over the world.
Sometimes researchers present a very concrete project, such as Dysl-X, a game that detects dyslexia through a test in which children have to recognise high-pitched sounds. But the group also discusses theoretical issues, such as the moral influence of games in terms of violence and sexuality, as well as technical problems like algorithms. “Because it’s so interdisciplinary, everybody is both student and teacher at our forum,” says De Schutter.
De Schutter is also a game developer himself. One of his projects is Crème de la crème, created at the GameHUB in Genk. Developed in cooperation with Unizo, the organisation that represents the self-employed, the game stimulates entrepreneurship among young people by letting them run an ice cream business. “They learn to be creative by combining different flavours, to predict the fluctuations of the market and to be friendly towards customers and employees,” he explains.
It’s not realistic, however, to teach users the details of, say, accountancy or legislation. “Games are not magical instruments that make everything easy.” Serious games have to remain fun, says De Schutter, or they don’t work. “They are only effective if students want to play them also in their free time, without obligation. To summarise our goal in Mary Poppins’ words: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and the job’s a game!”
Games aren’t only for the benefit of children and students. At the Group T e-Media Lab in Leuven, De Schutter assisted in the creation of Blast from the Past, a game that grandparents can enjoy with their grandchildren, while both players learn about each other’s culture. “By answering quiz questions, each teaches the other facts relevant to them. This proves again that, contrary to a common misunderstanding, games can have a special social value.”