The gaming industry is growing in Denmark and there are more reasons than ever to be optimistic. The potential is there, but will the industry ever become more than simply a good entrepreneurial story? Can it gain an international position of strength?

A team of brooding, fearless, and beer-drinking dwarves with bushy beards are working for the cynical mining corporation Deep Rock Galactic. A job that consists of visiting planets to find gold and exotic resources like alien eggs, bismor, and magnite. Of course, to emerge from the mines alive, they have to shoot down throngs of aliens with advanced weapons.

Mining in space is big business. And the Deep Rock Galactic, where it all takes place, has also become big business for the studio behind it, Ghost Ship Games.

“Playing as a hardcore dwarf, who will never give up, has a certain appeal to it. So we ended up writing a short pitch, which sounded something like this: ‘wouldn’t it be cool to play as four dwarves who mine for gold in space?’,” explains Søren Lundgaard, CEO and co-founder of Ghost Ship Games.

Søren Lundgaard, CEO and co-founder of Ghost Ship Games.

Just four years ago, Lundgaard and five other veterans from the Danish gaming industry got together and to develop Deep Rock Galactic. Today, the game comes in at number 50 on the list of the best-reviewed games on Steam amongst 50.000 titles. It is nominated for the prestigious Bafta Award in the Multiplayer category and so far has sold more than two million copies.

In other words, the six veterans have shown how far a truly great game can come, even though the developers are from a small studio.

“This is why developing games today is so amazing. When we entered the industry, we had to develop the game engine as well. This equates to filmmakers having to build their own cameras and lights. However, today we can download Unity or Unreal, there are a ton of tools to build with, and the game can easily be distributed to players all over the world,” Lundgaard says.

Deep Rock Galactic has been described as a mix of Minecraft and Left 4 Dead. You play a gold-digging space dwarf with big guns, and in collaboration with up to three players, you explore mines on distant planets. As in Minecraft the landscape - the mines - is manipulated by the dwarves’ pickaxes, weapons, and power tools. And like Left 4 Dead the next swarm of enemies is never far off.
Deep Rock Galactic has been described as a mix of Minecraft and Left 4 Dead. You play a gold-digging space dwarf with big guns, and in collaboration with up to three players, you explore mines on distant planets. As in Minecraft the landscape is manipulated by the dwarves’ pickaxes, weapons, and power tools. And like Left 4 Dead the next swarm of enemies is never far off.

The Danish gaming industry is booming

Ghost Shop Games is a new beacon of hope in a new generation of Danish game developers. And they are not the only new success story. Recently, the Danish Producers’ Association published a report taking stock of the entertainment industry in 2019. The report is clear:

“2019 has been the best year for the gaming industry ever and we have indications that 2020 has been even better. It is an industry in progress, and the leap is even greater when it comes to exports,” says Jesper Krogh Kristensen from Vision Denmark, a cluster organisation for the digital, visual industry in Denmark.

With a turnover of 1,3 billion DKK, the game developers are closing in on movies and tv, which in 2019 had a turnover of 1,7 billion DKK and 1,8 billion respectively. Looking at exports, movies and TV contributed 716 million DKK to the balance of payments, while the gaming industry alone exported 924 million DKK.

Globally, the gaming industry is expecting a growth of 20 per cent in 2020 – which has been helped along by the pandemic and several lockdowns. Kristensen expects similar numbers in the Danish gaming industry when the numbers for 2020 are in.

“Anecdotally there are a number of successes: We know that Ghost Ship Games sold two million copies of their latest game in 2020, Tactile Games doubled their turnover from 200 to 400 million DKK in 2019, and the veterans from IO Interactive are also doing really well. They earned back the costs of developing their newest Hitman game within the first week it went on sale,” Kristensen says.

Note: The numbers are from content producing companies alone (the game studios). If supporting industries like development tools and others were also included, the numbers would be quite different. Danish-founded company Unity was listed on the stock exchange in 2020 at a market value of 172 billion DKK , corresponding to 28 billion USD. In comparison, Danske Bank has a market value of 100 billion DKK.

The Nordic neighbours are still ahead

With global hits such as Hitman and IO Interactive, the mobile game Subway Surfers from Kiloo and Sybo, and artistically-driven Limbo and Inside from Playdead, Danish game developers have already made their mark on the international gaming scene. Now, a new generation of Danish game developers is about to make their entry onstage.

Looking at Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbours, there is still plenty of room to grow further within the Danish borders. In 2019, the Swedish gaming industry had a turnover of 17 billion DKK , while Finland had a turnover of 15,6 billion DKK in 2018.

But in Aarhus Filmby, the home of the Ideas Lab incubator targeted towards young game developers, a new generation are emerging, ready to take the industry further – even if the competition is international and tough.

“We have a strong belief, that we have a future here and that we have time yet to jump on that train. There is already a huge demand for employees in the industry, and my inbox tells me that there is an interest in finding the next Danish golden goose. The international investors are also showing an interest,” says Christian Nyhus Andreasen, head of incubation at Aarhus Filmby.

An international position of strength — but not by chance

There are many indications that the Danish gaming industry soon will surpass film and television in size – if it has not already happened. With regards to exports, gaming is already far ahead. And with a new litter of gaming talents emerging, the potential for a truly international position of strength is set. There are, however, a few rough edges that the industry would like to see perfected.

One thing is the lack of talent. A large quantity of the talent is already brought in from abroad. This is not necessarily to hire the best in their fields, but because the talent cannot be found locally.

Investments are another challenge. Only a few public growth- and support initiatives are aimed at the gaming industry, and investments from private investors, especially at the seed and pre-seed stage, have always been a delicate matter for game studios. But investments are paramount if other studios are to be as successful as Ghost Ship Games.

“We had several opportunities to receive investments due to our experience. But it is also a rarity that six experienced people have an ambitious game that they have the ability to make and just lack money. Fortunately, we had secured a runway for development for the first six months. Without it, it would probably have fallen apart,” Lundgaard says.

If the conditions for the gaming industry are to be improved, it requires political recognition of, and support for, the industry. The politicians praise the game studios publicly, but that does not translate into financial support. Instead, the gaming industry falls between the cracks, lying between business and culture, becoming a subgenre of film and television production without its own dedicated strategy.

At the moment, this is not the most important consideration at Ghost Ship Games. The studio grows relentlessly, is nominated for prizes, and has so far sold for 300 million DKK . With a major update to the game planned this fall, the game studio is still growing.

“The first three months of 2021 have been the best months ever for us. So we’ll just keep going,” Lundgaard says.

This article is part of the theme “Games as a Business 2021”. You find the next part of the series right here:

The Danish Chamber of Commerce: The Gaming Industry is Experiencing a Growth Spurt That Needs Supporting