Spotlight on Flanders / Games

VIDEO GAMES IN FLANDERS

As a relatively young medium largely rooted in American and Japanese culture, it should come as no surprise that the Flemish games industry is fairly recent. After a long, dormant period dominated by a couple of seminal companies, followed by a few years of development, the games industry in Flanders has finally found its bearings and is shifting into higher gear. Thanks to a great educational baseline and extra government support in recent years, it is now in full pursuit of international greatness.

Founded by Swen Vincke in 1996, Larian Studios is most famous for Divinity, a franchise of role-playing games that started in 2002. Facing an uphill struggle for most of its history (the company built its first game LED Wars in order to prove to a publisher it would be able to produce a video game) and often surviving by the skin of its teeth, Larian finally gained international acclaim with Divinity: Original Sin. Building on the success of its predecessor, Divinity: Original Sin II went on to become one of the most successful role-playing games of all time. The game won many awards, with a BAFTA as the ultimate recognition of Larian’s craftsmanship.

With offices in Ghent, Dublin, Saint-Petersburg and Quebec, Larian is undoubtedly the biggest Flemish game studio today, but over the years it has been joined by countless smaller studios. Unfortunately, we can’t list them all here and will only highlight those that stand out one way or another.

While he has not come close to Larian’s commercial success, Wim Wouters has been equally important in the formation of the Flemish games industry. Even more than the games his team at GriN created, he was a real advocate for game development in Flanders and one of the driving forces behind the creation of FLEGA, the interest group that proved decisive in securing more government support for the sector, in 2012. He lost the company by betting everything on Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries (2015), a passion project gone wrong. The closure could have been a fatal blow to his ambitions as a game developer, but he managed to turn his failure, and the media exposure it generated, into the beginning of something different and is now back with his new venture Poppins & Wayne.

Since digital distribution became common around 2008, dramatically lowering the threshold for video game production, Flanders has seen a steady stream of start-up companies focusing on creating original game experiences. Tale of Tales, headed up by artist couple Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, can be regarded as one of Flanders’ first indie game studios. Balancing on the line between art and interactive entertainment, they created original experiences like Bientôt l’été, The Path and the Indie Games Festival award-winning Luxuria Superbia. At the moment, they have no plans for future video games.

Another team that has been around for some time is LuGus Studios. Based in Hasselt since 2011, Kevin Haelterman's company focuses on serious games - game experiences that go beyond mere entertainment. The company made worldwide headlines with its anti-war game Battle for Donetsk and it created the number-one drone racing simulation Liftoff. Expanding on that technology, LuGus is currently working on Liftoff Academy, a training program for the professional use of drones by the police and firefighters.

In the same realm, Curious Cats is expert in educational games. Its debut game Ava & Trix introduces children to science and technology in a fun way. More than 300 primary schools in Flanders have already adopted the game. This allowed the studio to continue working on other educational projects such as Bulb, where kids learn about electrical circuits and Silver, an application to raise mental resilience among teenagers.

The adoption of mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets resulted in a new market that provided a different set of challenges for the Flemish games industry. Triangle Factory jumped on the opportunity early on and has been building experience with mobile applications and games since 2010. Recently, it has enjoyed success with the mobile game Switch, a companion app to the eponymous television quiz produced by Panenka. Always at the forefront of new technology, the company is also creating virtual and augmented realities, releasing the popular AR Sports Basketball for Apple ARKit.

Talking about alternative versions of reality: with i-Illusions Flanders is home to one of the top VR developers in the world. Its game Space Pirate Trainer is one of the most popular VR games ever. The game has won many awards and is often used by hardware manufacturers to promote new VR hardware. Founder Dirk Van Welden is an authority in the field of VR development and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences.

Teaming up with Glowfish Interactive, it is currently porting the game to PlayStation VR. Glowfish, also creating its own IP with Trifox, is one of the many indie studios to pour out of Flanders' world class educational game development programmes, such as Digital Arts and Entertainment at Howest, the university college in Kortrijk. Most of these promising ventures are working on, or have recently released, their debut games. Among them are Pajama Llama Games (Flotsam), Cybernetic Walrus (Antigraviator) and God as a Cucumber (Liquid Sunshine). With DAE Studios, Howest has built an accelerator for game technology where students are encouraged to start-up their own companies and get help to successfully bring their games to the market. 

Having created games together in their spare time while working at marketing agency Boondoggle, the founders of Happy Volcano turned to game development full time and are collaborating with Flemish author Joost Vandecasteele on the narrative adventure The Almost Gone. They aren’t the only ones blurring the line between game developer and communication agency: since  similar skills are required, agencies like Bazookas and Leap Forward are also offering game development among their services.

Crazy Monkey Studios worked together with freelance animators Claeys Brothers Arts to create Guns, Gore and Cannoli, which was hailed for its gorgeous hand-drawn art style and frantic gunplay.  Steven Verbeek's team released a sequel earlier this year that was equally well received. For its next game, Warparty, it will use a more traditional 3D look. Crazy Monkey Studios and Karel Crombecq'sSileni Studios , known for Mayan Death Robots, were the first game developers to emerge from tech innovation group Cronos. The company has always been supportive of the Flemish games industry and recently doubled down on those ambitions with Cronos Interactive, the first Belgian game publisher aiming to empower local game talent with hands-on support and investment. Its first project will be the VR storytelling game Journey for Elysium.

FACTS AND FIGURES

In 2017, the VAF/Film Fund gave over 1.2 million EUR to 22 animated projects, including co-productions, and the VAF/Media Fund channelled close to 1.85 million EUR into eight animated series.

Meanwhile the VAF/Game Fund supported four educational games for a total of 185,553 EUR and nine entertainment and serious games for 461,500 EUR.

Since 2017, resources for gaming have been substantially increased, so that the VAF/Game Fund now has a total budget of 1.73 million EUR, of which almost 1.39 million EUR is available to support pre-production, production and promotion.

VAF has also added Innovation Lab funding to its portfolio. Worth 800,000 EUR annually, this encourages non-linear content production, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, web series and cross-media extensions of TV series. Animation is eligible alongside fiction, documentary and art projects.

In addition to these VAF funds, Screen Flanders supports audiovisual productions that spend part of their budget within the region, providing an average of 1 million EUR to animation projects annually. And a further average of 14 million EUR flows every year into animation from Flanders thanks to the Tax Shelter Incentive, a powerful – and internationally very competitive – federal government scheme that encourages private investment in audiovisual productions.

This Tax Shelter investment is also open to international co-productions involving Belgian partners, with the level of funding available determined by production spending in Belgium. If the qualifying expenditure occurs in the Flanders region, co-productions can also apply for up to €400,000 from the Screen Flanders economic fund.