Copenhagen’s low skyline is pierced by a series of elaborate, austere spires. The Old Stock Exchange is crowned by four dragons, their entwined tails rising to 60 metres above the ground, while the black-and-golden corkscrew that sits atop The Church Of Our Saviour can be scaled thanks to an external staircase that winds around it. But these striking appeals to higher authority are somewhat at odds with the local development scene, one that is defined by its informality and deliberate drive to keep any hierarchies as squat as possible.
That informality is mixed with a forward-thinking mentality. We exchange hardly any business cards during our time in the city, most of the people we meet surprised when we offer ours rather than wait for the inevitable LinkedIn invite the following day. Job titles mean less in a culture where everybody’s ideas carry equal weight and the CEO sits with everyone else for a communal, company-funded lunch every day.
Perhaps this laid-back openness is inevitable in what one local employee described as the Mediterranean of Scandinavia. The city sits on the eastern coast of Zealand, one of the Danish islands, separated from Malmö and Sweden’s southern Scania region by the Øresund Strait, a stretch of water known as ‘The Sound’ in English. Copenhagen’s 17th-century architecture is peppered with public squares, waterfront walkways and those looming spires. There’s an unhurried cafe culture here, enjoyed by a friendly, multicultural population. The internationalism of the city means that almost everybody speaks English, which makes it easy for the outsider to fit in – even in the face of the high denominations of krona required for a cup of coffee.
But perhaps more striking than even those spires is the sheer number of bicycles on the road. Copenhagen is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, an achievement naturally supported by its flat terrain, and the city’s roadways have been designed with bikes in mind – cyclists will often outnumber cars at red lights, and there’s rarely any congestion, even during rush hour. There’s the metro system as well, and for longer journeys Copenhagen Airport, the largest in the Nordic region.
Even if developers here are more easygoing than most, there’s no evidence of a dip in quality when it comes to their output. But the throughline here – at least up until recently – is tech. Copenhagen’s game development industry grew out of the ’90s demo scene – the same one that so famously catalysed Finland’s vibrant industry – and demonstrates remarkable technical aptitude and independence as a result.
Io-Interactive has helped define the stealth genre with its globetrotting Hitman series, and in Kane and Lynch created two of the most intriguing videogame antiheroes in recent memory. But, crucially, it has built its powerful in-house engines – the most recent being Glacier 2, which powers Hitman: Absolution’s beautiful, decaying world – from the ground up. Reto-Moto – a reborn version of the company that created Io-Interactive in a past life – has taken on the daunting task of building a crossplatform war game in Heroes & Generals that will allow FPS and strategy players to interact in real time across PC and mobile devices. It’s built the complex back-end in-house too, naturally.
And let’s not forget Playdead, which placed so much import on getting Limbo just right that it built an engine that’s so bespoke it can only render in black and white. It might be using Unity for its next project, but it’s currently tweaking the source code to its taste too. Full Control, a self-professed creator of hardcore games, has built on Unity too, with its TX Engine, a reusable framework for turn-based games.
Which brings us to Unity’s creator, Unity Technologies, a tools company whose rapid success has begun shifting developers’ attentions away from tech – both in Copenhagen and the rest of the world – and helped it support the growth of indie developers such as BetaDwarf, a group of graduates who spent months squatting in a university classroom before finding their feet.
MovieStarPlanet, meanwhile, is dedicated to games in a very different way, producing a social network aimed at ‘tweens’ (eight- to 13-year-olds) that not only provides a portal for playing games but is also a way of teaching kids how to behave online. And Press Play, a recent addition to the Microsoft Studios family alongside the likes of 343 Industries, Rare and Lionhead, declares on its website that it creates “games for geeks, moms & extraordinary people”. The small studio behind charming physics platform puzzler Max & The Magic Marker tries to make games that appeal to childhood memories, and the Pixar-esque trailer for its latest game, Max: The Curse Of Brotherhood, captures that sentiment perfectly.
The game industry here is supported by a number of organisations dedicated to attracting talent to the region, including Copenhagen Capacity and Workindenmark, which both seek to boost the local scene by working closely with international companies and individuals. On the education front, too, the region is bolstered by The IT University Of Copenhagen’s progressive approach to game courses and close links to local studios. And despite the game industry’s relatively small size, Copenhagen’s proximity to Malmö – a short train ride or drive across the Øresund Bridge – promotes close links between the cities, with many people commuting in both directions.
Diverse, ambitious and sporting an attitude towards development that’s quite unlike any other scene, Copenhagen’s game industry is undoubtedly growing. Its expansion is limited by a lack of domestic investment expertise when it comes to larger companies – a problem discussed in more detail in our roundtable conversation – but with Square Enix and Microsoft already showing the way, it’s surely only a matter of time before more foreign investors cotton on to the opportunity.
You can read our roundtable discussion with key members of Copenhagen’s development community here.
We’ve also profiled the key contributors to the scene, listed below.