“Integration has shaped a demographic that is unusually well suited for international competition” – Sweden’s gaming powerhouse in Skåne

This feature was created in association with Invest in Skane.

Skåne’s capital Malmö has more games developers and studios per capita than almost anywhere else on earth. Sitting just across the waters of the Øresund from Copenhagen, Malmö is relatively modest in size, but packed with opportunity.

The biggest studio is Ubisoft’s well-named Massive Entertainment, creator of The Division franchise. While mobile heavyweight King has a big presence in the city, and more recently Just Cause creators Avalanche Studios, opened here too.

Looking at indie teams, Little Nightmares creator Tarsier Studio has been here since 2010. It is one of a plethora of smaller outfits, many homegrown. Alongside them are micro studios such as Simogo, creators of Sayonara Wild Hearts, and DeadToast Entertainment, the one-person team behind My Friend Pedro.

With mobile and console, triple-A and indie studios, all working side-by-side, it’s understandable why the long-running Nordic Game Conference is held in Malmö every year.

And the development community’s growth isn’t slowing. Hitman creator IO Interactive chose Malmö for its second office in early 2019, making the short hop over from Copenhagen. Sharkmob was founded by Malmö veterans in 2017 and recently came to wider prominence when it was acquired by Tencent. Plus Swedish strategy king Paradox Interactive established its third Swedish studio here in 2017.

All that activity has created an industry hub that rivals any in the world. 2018 figures show that Swedish-registered companies alone employed almost 1,200 industry professionals in the area, a figure that leapt 48 per cent since 2017, and anecdotally has continued to rise steadily since.

The region is now home to over 70 game studios, generating a substantial slice of Sweden’s €1.87bn in games industry revenue in 2018, up a hefty 33 per cent from 2017.

Malmö isn’t alone in the Skåne region. Up the coast is Helsingborg, a historic coastal town, which is home to yet more development talent, such as Pixelbite, creators of mobile strategy title Xenowerk Tactics, along with localisation specialists Localize Direct. Another key asset of the region is Lund, boasting the oldest university in Sweden – rated amongst the top 100 in the world.

Skåne is clearly a region any developer or company should seriously consider if it’s looking to relocate or expand – be they a triple-A goliath or an indie start-up. So let’s look a little deeper behind the success story of the area and whether it might be a good culture fit for you and yours.

AN OPEN PORT

Martin Hultberg, Sharkmob

While the Swedes and the Danes maintain a healthy rivalry, Skåne with its fertile rolling fields more resembles Denmark and similar parts of Northern Europe than the stereotypical dense forest and small hamlets of the northern counties of Sweden. In fact Skåne was a part of the kingdom of Denmark up until the 17th century.

That proximity to Denmark is still a major part of everyday life for those in Malmö. For example, Copenhagen’s Kastrup is the airport of choice for developers we spoke to. It’s the third-largest in Northern Europe, handling around 30m passengers a year.

“Our airport is one of the better international airports in Northern Europe,” Massive Entertainment CEO David Polfeldt tells us of Kastrup. “This gives Malmö a direct line to all of the world. There are direct flights to Shanghai, to Seattle, another one to LA and so on. And it’s literally 20 minutes away from the office.”

That short journey is thanks to the hugely impressive tunnel and bridge combination that spans the Øresund, connecting Sweden to Europe with a dual-use train and car crossing. The strait is one of the busiest waterways in the world, providing access from the North Sea into the Baltic. Malmö’s position upon the strait, as a key port shaped its history, for better and worse, and gave birth to the thriving games industry hub we find here today.

Malmö and the surrounding region is universally applauded today as a fantastic place to live. As Sharkmob’s Martin Hultberg concisely notes: “Malmö is a small town by the ocean on the doorstep of a major capital city in close proximity to some of the most lush, beautiful countryside in the world. What’s not to like?”

However, the strength of its games industry comes out of a more troubled past, both for Malmö itself, as a once industrial powerhouse, and Europe more generally. Massive’s Polfeldt takes us through that recent history, describing Malmö as a “comeback city.”

Sandra Smedegaard Mondahl, IO Interactive

“Malmö went through tough times, in the 70s, and in the 80s, when the old heavy industries just disappeared. There used to be one of the biggest shipbuilding wharfs in Europe, the car factory and traditional old industries, and those all died out and left the city in a bit of a really bad shape.”

Unlike many, though, Malmö came roaring back to life. “One of the things the politicians did was begin building, getting rid of the old factories and building private homes. Those attracted a lot of young people with university degrees who are looking for somewhere to live.

“It’s an important part of the mentality and philosophy of Malmö,” explains Polfeldt. “There is a very good understanding of community, helping each other and being positive towards new things. That helped the IT industry as, in the absence of traditional industries, Malmö had to reinvent itself.”

And that positivity to the new, that reinvention “is built into the city now, from politicians, from landlords, from companies, from people who grew up here when the times were worse.” 

HARBOUR OF HOPE

David Polfeldt, Massive Entertainment

But that influx of young people is only half of the story that Polfeldt has to tell: “Malmö specifically, but Sweden in general too, has embraced several waves of international residents,” he explains. From those fleeing persecution during and after World War 2, “a huge wave when Yugoslavia fell apart,” and then many “Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish and South Americans” who came to find work during Malmö’s industrial boom days, and more recently another wave from the Middle East.

“All this is normally considered a burden or a fairly complicated integration problem. But it has made Malmö extremely international to a degree that is disproportionate for being a fairly small local town in the south of Sweden,” Polfeldt points out.

“It’s not particularly Swedish,” he says. “It is very international in its thinking, in its population. And what we’ve found as a gaming company is that it helps us because we’re aiming at the global market. So having a globally aware workforce is a competitive advantage.

“Integration has shaped a demographic that is unusually well suited for international competition. And the truth is that half of our staff today were not born in Sweden. And they find it extremely easy to come to Malmö and just become a part of the city.”

David Nelson, King

King’s David Nelson concurs with the city’s multicultural advantage and how that feeds into the games it makes.

“Diversity is incredibly important for King and you can see this in the Malmo studio as well,” says King. Our Malmö team comes from all over the world and we strive for having an open environment where people feel safe sharing their thoughts and insight in our work…”

“If you have a team with the exact same background and life experience, the product will most likely look the same and it risks not being challenged by the team. This is why we set, and achieved, an ambitious target of having 40% female intake during 2019. I am proud we have a studio presence in such a diverse city, as this means we can build a community and support one another in promoting the value of this.

That competitive advantage, born out of multiculturalism, is something that others have identified, including Sandra Smedegaard Mondahl, HR manager at IO Interactive.

“We depend on diversity and different ideas to be brought to the table to make creative and inspiring games that keep challenging the status quo and be ahead of the curve,” says Mondahl. “Therefore Malmö’s diverse and multicultural aspects are great qualities when it comes to both getting inspiration for features as well as stimulating our minds in different ways both inside and outside of work.

“The multicultural aspect also makes it easier to get around not speaking English as well as making international friends when you relocate as an international which makes integrating as an expat much easier.”

That includes Mondahl, who despite coming from just over the water, is an expat herself: “With me being Danish, the ever-old war between Denmark and Sweden has always been a bit of a standing joke. Especially now, after having lived in Sweden for over three years, and joining IO Interactive, a Danish company, the irony is hard to miss. But I’ve always wanted to work with international people – Skåne, the games industry and IO Interactive definitely offers me that.”

INVEST IN SKÅNE

Olof Tedin, Invest in Skåne

This feature was supported by Invest in Skåne, the official investment promotion agency for Skåne, works to promote this southernmost region of Sweden. Skåne is home to one of the most interesting and dynamic game development ecosystems in Europe – if not the world.

At Invest in Skåne, we are proud to be part of this ecosystem. We can help you visit, meet, explore and, most importantly, get settled in the region.

As a special promotion, during 2021, we will be sponsoring a guest office at Game Habitat to give international developers a chance to try the region out. So no matter if you are a one man indie or a multinational developer or publisher, we are here for you.

We are a non-profit governmental organisation and our services are free of charge. Do you want to know more about us, the region or how we can help you? Let us know by contacting Olof Tedin, Business Advisor, at olof.tedin@skane.com

QUALITY ASSURED

Andreas Johnsson of Tarsier

Malmö is a welcoming town then for those coming from outside of Sweden – even from old rivals. And Scandinavia generally is considered around the world as having a great quality of life, but what’s it really like to live in Malmö and Skåne?

Tarsier Studios CEO Andreas Johnsson sums it up for us. “Malmö is an amazing city to live in, diverse, amazing food, great pubs… All the options I would have in a big metropolis, but within bike distance are the ocean, rapeseed fields, forests…”

IO Interactive’s Mondahl agrees: “Skåne and Sweden in general provides a healthy work-life balance, where I can run into nature, eat amazing food – there’s more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Sweden! But at the same time, the small, convenient city offers the ability to get anywhere on a bike.”

And while Malmö is a big hit with everyone it seems, you don’t have to live in the city itself, says Johnsson: “The nice thing with Skåne is that it is quite easy to commute. So people do live outside of Malmö, living the countryside dream, while having the benefits of Malmö during work hours.

Johnsson’s colleague, senior narrative designer Dave Mervik is originally from the UK, and notes that commuting in does have its downside “I live out in the countryside, which of course has its perks, but you also have to put up with a more parochial mentality that isn’t quite as common in Malmö. I really miss that side of life in the city.”

It’s a city packed with things to do, Polfeldt tells us: “Everything is really close, you can use a bike or walk by foot to almost anywhere. But because it’s still Sweden’s third largest city, we do have the biggest football team, the biggest ice hockey team, the biggest female football team, the Opera House and the theatre.”

Paradox’s Lars Håhus adds his own favourites: “An amazing number of great restaurants, being able to go for a swim in the ocean on your lunch break, or enjoying the Malmö festival right outside our studio during the summer.” 

TALKING IT UP

David Mervik of Tarsier

Most people looking to move to Skåne won’t have to tackle the language barrier, with developers telling us that English is the community’s lingua franca and widely spoken beyond it too.

“Swedes are generally great at English,” Swede Lars Håhus tells us, in perfect English of course. “No matter if you are getting falafel or setting up a bank account, communicating is usually effortless,” he continues, effortlessly.   

“Yes, you can definitely get by with only English, I do not speak Swedish myself!” Eliana Oikawa, COO of industry group Game Habitat tells us. “English is the official language in all major studios and Swedes are generally very comfortable with English and it’s no different here.”

While Nelson notes that King itself offers English language courses: “Malmö is really international. We have a few international schools with curriculums in English and almost everyone speaks great English. However, we support our employees with Swedish language classes which is appreciated.”

English-born Mervik feels that some effort can still be made: “Sure, you can get by and a lot of people do. But for me I think it’s important to treat that with respect and not just expect people to be happy or comfortable speaking in English.

“Our working language at Tarsier is English,” he continues, “because we have employees from all over the world and don’t want language to be a barrier. However, it’s heartening to see the number of our colleagues actively working to learn Swedish. I think it’s a great way to feel even more at home and connected to the place you’re living.”

He does add, though, that not all Swedish is the same. “The Skånsk dialect is an absolute nightmare to both understand and replicate, which is a shame because I absolutely love how it sounds!

“I’m from Liverpool and have heard enough bad impressions of the Scouse accent to last a lifetime, but that’s a piece of cake compared to Skånska. So far I’ve managed to say the words ‘four’, ‘school’ and ‘back’ in Skåne-ish without people laughing. It’s got even worse with where I’m living now, and I’m fast running out of vague, non-committal replies. They’re gonna find me out any day now!”

Sounding like a local isn’t essential of course, but a little local knowledge will still go a long way.

If you’re thinking of relocating to the city then you have a number of options in terms of location. Massive and Tarsier for instance are in the middle of town, just south of Malmö Castle and the historic centre. With Massive recently converting an old factory into a massive new purpose-built studio. A great option for those with the means.

Malmö largely eschews high-rise buildings, but the shiniest and newest offices are to be found in Västra Hamnen (West Harbour), which sticks out into the sea to the north-west of the centre. Previously a wholly industrial area, and then a derelict slum, its rebirth is a huge local success story, with both IBM and the state broadcaster moving into the area recently.

While the next up and coming area is Frihamnen (Free Harbour) and Hamnen, to the north of Malmö’s train station. Here it’s looking to repeat the gentrification, and diversification, that Västra Hamnen has seen such success with.

ONE STEP BEYOND

Christoffer Nilsson of LocalizeDirect

But enough about Malmö, let’s look beyond the reborn port to the rest of the Skåne region. Starting up the coast at Helsingborg. Another coastal town just across the strait from Denmark, but far smaller than nearby Malmö at just over 100,000 people.

“Malmö has grown to become a great hub for game development, says Christoffer Nilsson, LocalizeDirect’s co-founder, “But here in Helsingborg, we have LocalizeDirect, Pixelbite, and Frictional Games.” The latter being the horror specialists behind Soma and the Amnesia series.

LocalizeDirect does localisation work for many major studios around the world, as well as more local ones, Nilsson tells us. “Pixelbite were among our first LocDirect users, and now they will be among the first to try our new headless CMS for games – Gridly.”

Tarsier’s Andreas Johnsson notes the potential of the wider region: “I do think there is a possibility for both Landskrona [another coastal town] and Helsingborg to grow in terms of game development hubs. Accessible cities, close enough to get some value from the things in Malmö.”

The distance is practically reduced further still, says Nilsson: “The whole region is well connected by public transport: it is easy and quick to travel around here. It takes 40 minutes to commute from Helsingborg to Malmö, and an hour and twenty from Helsingborg to Copenhagen, which means that we do not limit ourselves just to one city.”

It’s cheaper than you might expect too, he explains, “The cost of living is less compared to Stockholm – according to some estimates, there is a 15-20% difference. And there’s less competition for talent as well away from the big city.”

The region also generates talent at a prodigious rate, says Nilsson. “When it comes to the video game business in Skåne, there are a few striking characteristics to it. Like the rest of Sweden, Skåne has a great pool of talent but is still close to Europe.

“A lot of development talent comes from Lund University. Also The Game Assembly, a vocational school, works purely in preparing specialists for the games industry, many of which are getting employed by the companies in Skåne.”

A dedicated school, turning out game developers, that sounds like an industry dream come true – read our full piece on Game Assembly for more details. Although, it’s not the only educator in the region, as Sharkmob’s Hultberg points out: “We also work closely with both Malmö and Lund Universities. The proximity of these two institutions is a great advantage for our region.”

A PERFECT HABITAT

Eliana Oikawa from Game Habitat.

Many of the freshly-trained developers who come out the doors of The Game Assembly go straight to work behind the doors of another local industry institution: Game Habitat’s DevHub.

A good example is Frogsong Studios, as COO Olle Lundahl explains: ”All the founders of Frogsong Studios met when studying at The Game Assembly and formed the company after doing an internship together.” It started at a local tech incubator Minc, but soon moved into DevHub. “Frogsong actually moved in one day before DevHub officially opened up,” he tells us.

DevHub is described as “a community-focused coworking building” for game developers. One that now boasts upwards of 25 different companies – taking spaces from as small as a single hotdesk, right up to entire floors of the building, seating forty people. Alongside indie studios you get the likes of IO Interactive, whose Malmö outpost is based here.

Lundahl says the benefits are huge. “Being located at DevHub has helped us a lot, not only by providing a roof over our heads but also to provide a social space where you can pop into a discussion about topics like programming with entity component systems or go waist deep in shader talk when you’re fetching a cup of coffee.”

And that local community is more than just informal support, Lundahl says: “We have worked together with Tarsier Studios on more than one title and helped Apoapsis Studios as well.”

The Devhub is the physical manifestation of Game Habitat, a non-profit organisation that supports the local development community – with over 30 studios and businesses as active members. And with a whole building to call its own, it’s a more substantial outfit than many national trade organisations we could name. So how did it start?

“Game Habitat was formed in 2013 by the industry in southern Sweden as a means to build upon and accelerate the bubbling community in the region. It was very much a joint effort by the game studios here,” says COO Eliana Oikawa.

Game Habitat helps co-ordinate the community in the region: “It’s all about having close relations with the game studios in the area as they are our family, friends, our members and they are essential to our operations by contributing both financially and by providing time and support to our cause.”

IO Interactive works with Game Habitat, as Mondahl explains: “We’re proud to be working closely with both the other big triple-A studios and the indie community. We work on topics such as relocation of international employees, share ideas for how to make the industry better in terms of diversity and inclusion and other topics that are important for us as an industry and community.”

Tarsier’s Johnsson notes that Game Habitat forms an essential link between the community and local government (such as Invest in Skåne, see below):

“Game Habitat is definitely proof that the local government sees and understands what is happening. Just the last five years has resulted in an explosion of new developers, studios expanding into Malmö, and developers relocating to Malmö. For a relatively small city, this is a big & real thing that they need to nurture and support.”

King’s Nelson adds that the studio both supports and feels supported: “The fact that there are plenty of game developers based in the city, along with the fact that gaming is the most successful Swedish cultural export product next to music, makes it important for local decision makers to engage in our work. Malmö’s mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh has visited our studio and we make sure to host visits for the local community to learn more about our industry – it’s a two way street.”

COME STRAIT ON OVER

Peter Lübeck from Game Habitat.

Skåne studios vary in size from a single developer to one of the biggest in Europe. Whatever their size, everyone told us that Skåne was a great place to set up a studio or other games business. With Game Assembly, Game Habitat and Nordic Game Conference (see our accompanying piece about the conference), all contributing to make a great place to set up shop.

Game Habitat’s Oikawa summed up recent successes: “In the past few years we’ve seen major studios like Avalanche and IO Interactive choose Malmö as their next office location. We’ve also seen experienced teams starting new studios, like Sharkmob. In record time they’ve been able to set up triple-A teams, which I believe speaks for itself.”

IO Interactive’s Mondahl spoke positively of the support on offer: “The Swedish government is highly supportive, when we needed to open the office in Malmö we quickly got help from Invest in Skåne who’s a great partner for someone who doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of the Swedish practices. They’ve been helpful when starting up, but also ongoingly.

“There’s a big effort in making Sweden the place to be for game development companies from the government’s side, and there’s plenty of support to get if you know where to ask – it’s not handed to you on a silver platter… A challenge can be that most information is only available in Swedish, so there’s a bit of translation costs associated with that.”

Oikawa continues on the benefits of the region: “Any major studio looking to move, or set up a new location in Sweden, would definitely benefit greatly from the availability of existing talent, and the community and quality of life makes it easier to attract and retain new talent. As for investing, we have one of the greatest and most varied selection of studios here you can imagine, making award-winning and critically acclaimed games for all platforms and all genres.”

Access to talent is always an issue for new studios, after all great developers don’t just sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for someone to show up. That said, having a big pool in a relatively small city makes things far more fluid.

“There is a clear need of more talent, as all the studios are expanding,” Tarsier’s Johnsson tells us. “Some people move between the studios, but most of the recruits are people moving to the Malmö region. Malmö is an attractive city, and for the people that want to live in a house, there’s plenty of options with good commutes. I do think however, with COVID-19, that there might be a slowdown in people moving to Malmö and more people wanting to work remotely, which might slow down the physical growth of studio staff here.”

King’s Nelson notes that it’s not just industry talent in the region: “There are so many developers, artists, designers and more who haven’t considered games as a career and all it takes is a company to invest in their talent for them to bring their passion to life… You can draw talent to a company or an area by being authentic and showing them what the talent you already have are doing. Innovating on your product and your way of thinking inspires others, the environment is constantly changing and it’s about how you as a business adapt to that.”

A possible issue, but one that affects everyone, and Skåne’s good public transport system makes living out in the countryside and coming into town occasionally an attractive option.

Paradox’s Lars Håhus agrees: “In general people are attracted to the humble size of the city combined with closeness to metropolitan Copenhagen and cozy Lund. The possibility to live in the countryside but still be able to come to the city for work with little commuting is also appreciated by many.”

UNIVERSAL ACCLAIM

Lars Håhus, Paradox Interactive

We asked a lot of people a lot of questions about Skåne and Malmö. And almost without exception they were not only enthusiastic about the region and the city, but they also pointed out some great solutions to many of the typical problems that relocating and growing studios can face.

Game Habitat’s DevHub provides a fantastic place for smaller studios to startup with huge opportunities to network from day one. Game Assembly helps relieve some of the constant competition all developers have for talent, by introducing new talent, trained to industry needs, on an annual basis. While Nordic Game Conference puts Skåne on the map, seriously reducing the friction for anyone thinking about relocating here.

Beyond that, it’s a beautiful part of the world without being a boring one. Placed in a fantastic location as the gateway to Sweden, and within easy reach of both Copenhagen and the rest of the world. With the option of either the post-industrial boom town of Malmö itself, or somewhere more picturesque nearby. It really does look to have it all.

Our only regret in writing this piece in 2020 was that we couldn’t visit ourselves. But there’s always next year, and at the speed Skåne is growing in industry esteem, by then there’s certainly bound to be something new to talk about.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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