Home / Business / Regional spotlight – From free-to-play to the ‘epicenter of gaming’: How Hamburg ships games around the world

Regional spotlight – From free-to-play to the ‘epicenter of gaming’: How Hamburg ships games around the world

Hamburg isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the German games industry. And yet. Maybe it should.

The northern Germany city is home to over 200 games businesses and a breeding ground for creativity and growth in the industry.

Some of the biggest German games companies have chosen Hamburg as their base of operations including Bigpoint, Daedalic, Fishlabs, InnoGames, and many many more, with free-to-play and browser games historically being the city’s forte.

Michael Zillmer, COO at InnoGames

Michael Zillmer, chief operating officer at InnoGames, tells us a bit more about what led the now development giant to Hamburg.

“What first attracted us were the opportunities and resources available for a growing company,” he says. “What is now InnoGames began as a hobby in 2003 in the suburbs of Hamburg, in a place called Stade.

“With the success of the first game, Tribal Wars, we decided to work full time on the development of the title and in 2007 InnoGames was founded. As the company grew and became more successful, we needed to move to a larger location that would help us attract international talent. In 2008, we moved to Hamburg and then into our current office in 2016. Hamburg has a strong reputation in the games industry and offers an extensive network with many other companies in the games and digital industries located here.”

Leading games publication 4Players, launched in 2000 and which also owns player engagement platform Scill and server provider 4Netplayers, ended up in Hamburg a bit coincidentally but has not looked back since.

CEO Phillip Schuster says: “The decision to move from Munich to Hamburg was made around 13 years ago. Originally, we were brought in to be closer to our former parent company, but since then we found love for the Hamburg way of life and being part of an active video games industry.”

4Players’ CEO Phillip Schuster

There are indeed many things to love about Hamburg, as highlighted by Christoph Hillermann, director of human resources and operations at Deep Silver Fishlabs, founded in 2004 and acquired by Koch Media/Deep Silver in 2013, saving it from bankruptcy.

“Although Hamburg is pretty big with its 1.8m inhabitants, it still feels familiar and everything is close by,” he tells MCV. “The maritime Hamburg is unique with the Alster directly in the center, offering water sport opportunities or just cool locations to relax – and the Baltic Sea is only one hour away. And being close to the German capital also doesn’t hurt. It reflects manifold ways to live. The public transportation system is very good and due to the harbor and the airport, you can go wherever you want pretty fast. So it is easy for us to sell Hamburg as a potential new home for future employees.”

Schuster also points out that “a good work-life-balance is important to [4Players] and Hamburg has a lot to offer.”

But the main benefit is simply that it’s the heart of the German games industry, giving access to an unrivalled network of talent and business opportunities – or, as InnoGames’ Zillmer puts it: “Hamburg is the epicenter of gaming in Germany.”

He continues: “It offers a high quality of life. This helps us attract talent, both nationally and globally. Another benefit is the community in Hamburg. There are a number of game studios, as well as media, tech and creative companies with a focus on gaming in the area and our location allows us to connect and collaborate with others.”

Christoph Hillermann, director of HR and operations at Deep Silver Fishlabs

In order to facilitate the connection between these companies, Gamecity:Hamburg was launched in 2003 to support games businesses in the city and their growth (read more from them in the box at the bottom of the page). Gamecity:Hamburg has helped grow the number of games jobs in Hamburg from 800 to over 4,000 since its inception. An evolution that our interviewees have very much noticed.

“Hamburg continues to grow in size and quality, the northern way: slow and steady,” 4Players’ Schuster says. “And with some of the biggest Germany-based game development and service companies, Hamburg is as strong as ever.”

InnoGames’ Zillmer points out that there’s a virtuous circle taking place in Hamburg, made possible by the games industry’s solid foundations, and profiting the entire tech industry.

“The region has developed in all regards and much of the development is interconnected,” he starts explaining. “The community continues to grow and global giants like Google, Facebook and Dropbox are choosing Hamburg for their German headquarters. Accordingly, the number of people working in the games industry has increased. The decision to locate a business in Hamburg can be attributed in part to the infrastructure as it provides a solid foundation to grow upon. In return, this growth has also allowed for the quality of business to develop. Gaming has advanced over the years and is now not only competing with others in the games sphere, but also in the digital and tech industries.”

CROSS-CULTURAL BONDS

Like in any games industry cluster, finding and retaining talent is key, with local universities not only crucial to recruit but also to “continue to educate existing talent,” as rightly pointed out by Zillmer. As of 2017, there were 19 universities in Hamburg – six of them public.

Zillmer adds: “Keeping in mind that it is an ongoing challenge to attract the right job candidates, there is a need to focus on education and ensuring individuals have the right skillset.”

The more specific and the more senior the role is, the more difficult it is to recruit in Hamburg – a problem that applies to the industry at large really.

“Hamburg offers great talent when it comes to marketing, PR, community and product managers,” 4Players’ Schuster says. “If you are looking for programmers of any kind, it is much harder and competition is fierce. There simply aren’t enough good talents available – here or elsewhere.”

Fishlabs’ Hillermann concurs: “Some people you can find in Hamburg, like Java or C++ developers. The more specific it becomes, the harder it gets. Our last hires, a cinematic designer and an Unreal technical artist, you probably will not find at a browser game developer. And therefore, these colleagues come from abroad.”

Deep Silver Fishlabs’ office in Hamburg

Hillermann explains how Fishlabs attracts such talent, also highlighting some key competitors: “Hamburg is a very open, multicultural and international city and has always been connected to the rest of the world historically. So usually, everybody who comes to Hamburg will like it and find quarters where they will feel at home.

“For our hiring, there are no borders. We just invite good candidates from wherever they come from. We currently have more than 20 nationalities working at our studio. Within Germany, Berlin might be the strongest competitor because there are many gaming, media or tech companies. Nordic cities like Stockholm in Sweden or Helsinki in Finland I also see as competitors. There are great studios there and those countries have a culture that I rate as being comparable to Hamburg.”

InnoGames’ Zillmer continues, saying that they’re not only “competing for talent within the games industry, but also within the larger tech industry.”

So with this need to attract talent from abroad, offering a good relocation package is crucial, he adds: “Companies need to find ways to stand out and gain the attention of potential talent. At InnoGames, we value diversity as we have over 400 colleagues from over 30 nations. We look to attract talent from all around the world and as part of an attractive benefits package, we assist with each step of the relocation process. From the logistics of moving to Germany and getting a visa, to language courses and even selecting schools and day care options; nothing is left out. Comprehensive benefits make a difference in attracting talent, especially those who might be looking in light of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit in the UK, for example.”

“Comprehensive benefits make a difference in attracting talent, especially those who might be looking in light of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit in the UK.”

 

And these people are certainly out there, as we very well know. If you are one of them, you’ll be reassured that you don’t necessarily need to speak German to join a games business in Hamburg – though, should you move to Germany, we obviously strongly advise to learn the language because that is just the right thing to do.

“Here at Deep Silver Fishlabs, English is the company’s language,” Hillerman confirms. “Most of our recent hires come from abroad and do not speak German. And that is absolutely fine. Having said that, we are offering German classes for our foreign colleagues – but not because they would need it at our studio, only to make general integration in Germany easier for them. We see diversity – especially from a cultural perspective – as a benefit for building successful and flexible teams and hence for developing games that will be loved all over the world.”

English is also the official language at InnoGames, Zillmer says: “Our workforce is multilingual. In 2012, just five years after our founding, we made English our official language. While our internal communication is conducted in English, we recognise the importance understanding the local language plays in integrating and forming cross-cultural bonds.”

DON’T RAIN ON MY PARADE

So are there any drawbacks to Hamburg? “Other than frequent rain and hardly any direct flights to the US, not really!” 4Players’ Schuster tells us.

In the UK, we’re pretty used to the rain obviously. On the other hand, InnoGames’ Zillmer highlights a bigger issue: “Compared to other locations, there is a lack of local funding programs available for game studios and businesses in Hamburg. Programs such as these not only help smaller companies within the industry, but also safeguard Hamburg’s future as the gaming hub in Germany. We need to re-establish dedicated funding programs. From our perspective, it is a paradox that such programs were in place when the market was less competitive than it is today.”

Not in the downside list but still ambiguous and divisive is Hamburg’s reputation as the capital of free-to-play and browser games.

“This reputation is both a blessing and a curse,” Hillermann says when we mention it. “Deep Silver Fishlabs recently changed strategy and direction – away from mobile games and free-to-play to focus on console games. And we still feel like [we’re in] the right place in Hamburg. Overall it is still games, which means at least a similar mindset plus dedicated and talented people. That is definitely a plus. Furthermore, there is also political awareness of games as an important business factor.

“It is of course a difference whether you work on free-to-play browser games or on a double-A/triple-A console game. We are happy to contribute to the latter part of the Hamburg games industry now. And we also see smaller studios or indie developers going in both directions. So, Hamburg obviously offers a good and creative environment for all.”

InnoGames’ office in Hamburg

4Players’ Schuster says that this reputation “is true,” before adding: “We do have some of the biggest players in the industry located here. But the games industry in Hamburg continues to grow in various areas and is able to attract more and more people to join development, media, esports and other games related services.”

InnoGames is also keen to highlight the other trends of the local games industry: “Hamburg is the gaming hub of Germany. Not only are new gaming companies being founded here, but there are also many large global brands, growing companies and start-ups within the gaming and digital industries located in Hamburg. In total, we count around 200 companies in the gaming sector alone,” he emphasises again. “One of the key trends is the transition to mobile. InnoGames is one of the few companies that have successfully mastered this transition and we offer cross-platform availability for many of our games, as well as one mobile-only game.”

From its roots in free-to-play browser games, the Hamburg games scene has successfully transitioned into the place to be, regardless of the side of games you’re on.

To conclude our chat, Zillmer has a few words of advice for developers who are considering relocation to Hamburg – and reminds them that InnoGames is on the lookout for talented teams, should you be tempted: “We would encourage studios to attend industry events and network in order to establish themselves and to develop key connections within the industry. It can be difficult when first starting out, but the right connections can make a difference. InnoGames is interested in cultivating these connections, including the possibility for the acquisition of a game and game team.”

Networking event Gamecity Sommertreff 2019

Your friendly neighbourhood Gamecity:Hamburg

Whether you’re looking into relocating your company in Hamburg, just hunting for a partnership or already working there, Gamecity:Hamburg is the right partner. This network founded in 2003 supports and develops the local games scene through various measures, with a big focus on events, which wasn’t failed to be mentioned by some of our respondents.

4Players’ CEO Phillip Schuster says: “Beside events like the Online Marketing Rockstars Festival, Gamecity:Hamburg organises some great networking events. Hamburg also has a very active indie scene, which meets every two months and attracts a good mix of video game students and professional alike.”

InnoGames is a main sponsor of Gamecity:Hamburg, “aiming to support businesses in the games industry and bring them together by hosting events throughout the year,” COO Michael Zillmer says. “We collaborate with them to present the annual Sommertreff, a large industry networking event. Additionally, we host the Games Compass Hamburg event series, which consists of biannual events designed to promote and support the industry.”

Dennis Schoubye, project manager at Gamecity:Hamburg

There are obviously other meetups outside of Gamecity:Hamburg, such as those held by the Hamburger Indie Treff organisation, which consist in a series of lectures designed to promote the exchange of knowledge, strengthen relations and serve as a point of contact for new developers.

But Gamecity is an essential part of the Hamburg community life.

Dennis Schoubye, project manager at Gamecity:Hamburg highlights once again the importance of the industry in the city: “Hamburg is Germany’s biggest hub for game developers and innovative digital companies. Next to leading mobile and free-to-play developers, we have a flourishing indie scene, PC/console studios, and a strong VR/AR focus. Also Google, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch chose Hamburg for their headquarters in Germany, which further strengthens the local gaming cluster.

“Gamecity:Hamburg aims to foster the cooperation between the local companies and media industries. We also assist studios plus founders to settle in Hamburg. With a new team for Gamecity:Hamburg we will build on existing offerings and are also looking to further expand cooperation with international gaming clusters.”

If you are interested in such cooperation, you can send an email to office@gamecity-hamburg.de.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

Check Also

Double Eleven’s Jenny Wheatley: ‘You should take a chance on a studio that will give you the space to grow and learn.’

Taking a new opportunity in the industry can open a door to the job of your dreams. We catch up with a recent career mover at the start of their exciting new role through recruitment specialist Amiqus