Smart Casual?

Meet Spil, the Dutch publisher with an audience larger than Nintendo's.  

His games have been played by in excess of 200 million people, but he is neither famous nor revered. Such are the new economies of scale in the casual gaming boom that a Dutch designer in his early twenties can entertain an audience twice the size of that enjoyed by the best-selling video game of all time, and remain almost entirely anonymous.

He won't be invited to speak at gaming conferences next year. He doesn't have his own office. When introduced to him, I fail to catch his name. I'm ushered away before I have the chance to ask again.

'Core' gamers often roll their eyes at Nintendo's effort to broaden the reach of video games to people and places where they have not ventured before. But the Nintendo Wii and DS have been abject failures when set against the successes of companies like Spil Games, owner of three causal gaming websites, one aimed at girls, one aimed at mothers and one aimed at teenage boys. Since 2007, Spil's games have been played by millions of players, but few core gamers would be able to name one of its titles. And yet, for girls under the age of ten, Professor Purse is as recognisable a title as Modern Warfare is to boys over the age of 18.

30 minutes from central Amsterdam, Spil Games' office complex is less like that of a video game developer than that of a social media network. Spacious, open-plan, with bowls of fruit on low-slung designer tables, it smells of young ambition and new money. Giant widescreen televisions pinned to the walls announce the company's latest triumphs to workers (85 million sign-ups to such-and-such game) as well as listing 'arrivals' (those games that are going live across the network this week) before revealing the special that will be served at the company's pristine in-house canteen that lunchtime.

"Judged by sheer number of players, Spil Games has been the largest game network in the world since 2008."

"When Spil first started, we just took up that corner of the office over there," explains Scott Johnston, a San Franciscan who joined Spil as head of external communications two years ago from TomTom, as he motions to an area of about 30 square feet. "Every few months we have to expand, knock down a few more walls, take over a bit more of the building." Today, Spil's offices are vast and spacious. At the centre of the office layout there's even a bar with a pool table, darts board and beer on tap, a place for employees to unwind after a day's hard work, with framed press clippings charting Spil's rise and rise on the walls around.

But tying down what exactly the company is isn't simple. CEO Peter Driessen, a smart, well-spoken advocate for so-called 'casual' web games, sees the company as a sort of Facebook for web games. But that's too tidy a description for what is a more complex beast.

Spil is a collection of web portals, each aimed at a different type of player. But it's also a publisher, working with small developers around Europe and the Far East to buy in content for those portals. Additionally, the company has its own in-house development team, founded when Driessen realised that there was nobody making the kind of games his new audiences were hungry for. It's this development team that houses some of casual gaming's star game designers, many of whom came to the company from more traditional console development jobs.

Spil Games' CEO Peter Driessen.Up.

Sander Kalberg is just one such designer. Prior to joining Spil two years ago, he worked exclusively on Nintendo DS games. When the developer he was working for went under he joined Spil, as the chance to work on quick-turnaround projects was appealing. In the past 24 months Sander has worked on no fewer than 40 web games, many of them his own concepts. "I'm given an extraordinary amount of creative freedom," he tells me. "Occasionally I'll be told that I need to design a game in a particular genre, but mostly I get to pitch anything to my boss."

There are echoes of the earliest days of the arcade industry, when Atari would prototype a game in a local bar for a fortnight and the project would live or die on the number of plays it received. Much of Kalberg's work is concerned with developing a project over an eight-week period before releasing it on one of Spil's portals and watching how it performs.

"But it's not all about the numbers," he explains. "Sometimes it's just neat to be able to try out a game mechanic we've not seen before to see if something good comes out of it. For example, I have a game in development now in which you must manoeuvre a truck that has run out of fuel through a jungle by throwing grenades at its rear wheels. It may not be the most successful game - who knows? - but in the production process we might stumble across a new, exciting game mechanic."

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About the author

Simon Parkin

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Guardian and a variety of other publications.


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