Compared to some of its neighbours, Frankfurt could be considered a small city. Its population of 708,543 is dwarfed by that of Berlin and Hamburg. But the city is home to a bustling and growing games development hub that can rival local and international development hotspots.
One of Germany’s most famous games companies, Crytek, moved its main office to the region in 2006, a decision company co-founder and MD Avni Yerli says it hasn’t regretted since. It’s also home to companies like Keen Games, Deck 13 and now Doom developer id Software and Foundry42, the latter working on the mammoth crowdfunding project Star Citizen.
But why open up a business in Frankfurt? Yerli says that it’s an international city with a good infrastructure already in place, crucial for a globally operating company like Crytek.
Centre of Europe
“The airport is one of the biggest in Europe and the internet bandwidth in the area is perfect for our needs,” says Yerli. “About 40 per cent of the people living in Frankfurt have a foreign passport and that makes for a very multicultural city with more than 180 nationalities.”
Deck 13 co-owner and creative director Jan Klose says its position in the centre of Europe means it can reach almost any capital in the world without a stopover – crucial for hiring foreign talent and for relationships with international partners like publishers and outsourcers.
“We can take a plane to Paris in the morning for a publisher meeting and be back in Frankfurt in the evening,” he says. “Or we can go to China to do a workshop with a new outsourcer setting up a new graphics pipeline.
“Also, Frankfurt is a city with a very high living standard. The city is very green, traffic is not close to collapsing, and there’s great offerings for food and entertainment. These are good working conditions for any company, but it’s also great to attract talent from the games industry.”
Foundry42 Frankfurt’s development director Brian Chambers, meanwhile, says the decision to set up in Frankfurt was an organic process after the company began receiving resumés from qualified candidates who live in and around the area.
“After looking through the CVs and speaking with them we realised that a majority of them preferred to stay in the Frankfurt area and not relocate,” he explains. “We initially rented a small space for people to work, which was a good temporary solution, and the resumés kept coming in from local talent.
“At a certain point we realised that we truly had enough interest in Frankfurt to have a full team out here as an extension of our Foundry42 studio in Manchester, and the game would benefit from their collective expertise.”
Being a small city has helped spur on a culture of a tight-knit community where knowledge and even resources are shared between studios. Of course, this is often said about dev hubs, but Deck 13’s Klose admits it was not always like this in the past.
“Having some renowned development companies around, there was a strong sense of competition in the past – until we realised how big the global developer market outside of Frankfurt really is, and at that point we started to work together on different levels,” he explains.
“We do have initiatives like Gamearea Frankfurt where the companies are organised, but also we’re calling each other on the phone when there’s an issue with resources or business opportunities.”
One of Deck 13’s key upcoming initiatives to spread the idea of collaboration is a new developer YouTube channel called DevPlay. Here, it hopes to have different studios do PR and videos together in a bid to increase exposure.
A key challenge facing any would-be games development hub is the state of local education and the talent coming through it. Local institutions in Frankfurt include The Games Academy, the SAE Institute and the University in Darmstadt. But it’s also key to note its creative and IT industries employ more than 54,000 people between them in the city of Frankfurt alone, providing a base for more experienced talent as well.
“Compared to other cities in Germany, Frankfurt is very good at fostering new talent in the industry,” says Yerli.
“The Games Academy, the SAE Institute and the University in Darmstadt have excellent education programmes, which give us the opportunity to pick specialists from a pool of young and well-trained graduates.
“Of course, there is always room for improvement, but on a national level Frankfurt’s education system for game developers is one of the best.”
Foundry42’s Chambers adds that although there are educational institutions on its doorstep, there are a number of courses run across Germany that also benefit Frankfurt. And it’s something the studio is keen to take advantage of.
“We have worked with local universities in Germany well before we set up our office here – for example, the Cologne Game Lab worked with us on our The Next Great Starship programme, where our community competed to create starships to include in Star Citizen,” he states.
“There are a number of specialist university courses established for games development across Germany and the level of education in art and coding is also very high. Graduate recruiting is something we will do more in future as we grow as we have seen it succeed – in fact, most of our current team started out as interns at their first games job.”
There is always room for improvement, but on a national level Frankfurt’s education system for game developers is one of the best.
Avni Yerli, Crytek
Klose says that while the talent situation is good, given the high density of relevant industries and good universities in Germany, there are still challenges that remain when it comes to recruitment.
“We need a lot of specialists who are hard to find, and therefore we need to search globally for new talent,” he says. “At least it’s easy to persuade them to move to Frankfurt.”
A question of funding
Though Frankfurt’s studios are able to realise the benefits of the city’s location, an international airport and a sound education system, there are a number of challenges developers face in the region. Not least of those are the lack of funding initiatives and tax incentives compared to other countries.
“Games developers in Germany don’t get as much support from the government as developers in neighbouring countries, which makes it harder to stay ahead of the international competition,” states Yerli.
“In Great Britain or France research and production efforts are partly subsidised, whereas in Germany it is very hard to qualify for any financial support from the government. Economical development programmes for technology research that is suited for the games industry needs should also be established in Germany.”
Christian Hoppenstedt, lawyer at Hoppenstedt Rechtsanwälte, says the lack of tax breaks is a problem for Germany, and believes their introduction would be beneficial for the games industry as a whole.
“Tax breaks like the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), where a film producer can obtain a grant of up to 20 per cent of the approved costs from DFFF if they spend at least 25 per cent of the production budget in Germany, are not available for game developers,” he explains. “A programme like DFFF for games would definitely improve Germany as a location for the video games industry – not only for German developers.“
Klose says while Frankfurt has its benefits, it isn’t like Montreal in Canada, and it’s more known for its banks and internet providers than for games development and a broad creative industry.
“It’s getting stronger every year but there is still a long way to go,” he says. “It wouldn’t hurt getting some more big names over here."
Frankfurt Economic Development’s centre of creative industries wants to change this perception however, and seeks to drive sustainability and help companies find the right funding opportunities for them (See pg.36), but the lack of comparative government support to other countries is still a concern for many, particularly new and smaller studios.
“There is definitely room for improvement,” states Yerli. “More people need to understand how much potential for innovation is embedded in the games industry and how its research can benefit other industries. Other countries are ahead of us in this regard and have appropriate programmes already in place.
“In Germany on the other hand, smaller or newly-founded games studios struggle, because they have to fund almost everything themselves. This can discourage devs from exploring new tech or making innovative decisions, because they can’t take the risk of potential failure.”
Klose echoes these sentiments, and believes the government needs to do a lot more to encourage growth and provide more funding support. He wants to see the games industry take on a higher importance by those in power, which will only occur from a shift in culture.
“Funding is a crucial issue and there is not near enough happening to enable a solid basis,” he says. “From time to time there are certain specialised funding opportunities in Frankfurt and in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main area. But I think we need a major mind shift in politics and culture to make people understand the importance of games development and its cultural value. Only then will we see more government incentives supporting and building up our industry.”
But these issues haven’t stopped Foundry42 setting up shop in the city. Chambers admits that, unlike the UK, Germany as a whole lags behind in its support for the games industry, but is hopeful of a better future.
“We hope that the local state and the German Federal legislators will soon recognise the benefits of increased growth in this area and start offering local incentives,” he says.
It’s a testament to Frankfurt’s growing recognition and attraction to big name studios like Cloud Imperium that issues with funding and tax incentives have not stopped such big companies from being based in
Chambers, formerly of Crytek, is buoyant about Frankfurt’s opportunities in the present and future. He says that many of the challenges the city faces aren’t that different to those encountered be any other European city. Like many others, he again goes back to the city’s impressive talent pool.
“We’re currently getting a steady stream of experienced candidates applying, so we can assume healthy growth of our team,” he says. “Frankfurt is generally a great place to both work and live. It typically rates in the top ten cities to live in the world.”
Manuela Schiffner, director for the centre of creative industries, part of Frankfurt Economic Development, also agrees that the challenges Frankfurt faces are similar to those encountered by other technology hubs across the world.
“In our opinion the main challenges are getting the products into the market and optimising and securing the financing structure of the company,” she says.
Despite some obvious challenges, Frankfurt has key factors going for it that have made it an ideal location for games studios, both founded locally and from international firms. Its hotbed for talented developers and technology and games companies, bright education system and ideal location in Europe are gradually making Frankfurt one of Europe’s key games development hubs.
All Frankfurt image credits: ©Tourismus+Congress GmbH Frankfurt am Main