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Kotka’s games industry has wings

Real-life social media influencers get their own customised character in Pixel Worlds and can even project their YouTube videos to players.Kukouri

Today, we pay a visit to the south-east of the country, to discover a vibrant hub of game play and development in a city renowned for its shipping, logistics and paper expertise.

The word kotka in Finnish means ‘eagle’. Yet for the city located some 130 kilometres east of Helsinki that shares the same name, it has been water – not wings – that has traditionally played a significant role in sharing the fruits of the local economy with the world.

Kotka is home to the biggest universal port in Finland, the Port of HaminaKotka, where timber, paper, metal and stone are transported as far as Central Asia and China.

Recent years have seen the city diversifying its offering abroad. Case in point is the games industry, with over 90 per cent of its turnover attributable to export. This is the result of a lot of hard work – and hard-headedness.

“We kept betting on the IT industry even when the IT bubble had just burst late last century,” recalls Teemu Saarelainen, the head of games at Cursor, the Kotka-Hamina regional development organisation. “A few IT companies were born, with the pioneers of the games industry eventually coming from here. In retrospect, it was a great decision – without it there’d be no local game industry.”

Today, Cursor is home to Playa – Game Industry Hub, a network of around 15 studios that share a common, lofty goal.

“Our vision is to make the Kotka-Hamina region the best place in the world to develop games,” Saarelainen states. “We have all the pieces of the puzzle: education is growing, so too the number of games studios.”

Let the games begin

However, 10 years ago this was merely a dream yet to materialise. It was then that the local games industry got its first break.

Kotka’s maritime museum commissioned an EU-funded multimedia project, which saw young developers bringing the Battle of Svensksund to life: a massive naval battle Russia and Sweden fought in Kotka’s waters in July 1790. Game developers reproduced the encounter virtually, creating 3D models of Kotka’s islands, the sea and the battling ships.

Playa – Game Industry Hub is helping to break the ice internationally for the local games community. Image: Heikki Suvanto

Sensing an opportunity, Cursor was a driving force behind the development, helping fund its operations.

The event galvanised the budding industry. Among those participating was Jussi Tähtinen, CEO of Kotka’s first games studio, Nitro Games. The studio’s debut title, East India Company, would too involve seafaring.

Released in 2009, the game would go on to sell around 300 000 copies. In an era when games were packaged in boxes and carried a 50-euro price tag, Kotka’s fledgling industry had its first bona fide success.

Things have moved quickly for Nitro Games in recent times: the studio has closed two successful funding rounds this year, which gleaned 5.3 million euros for the company in total. The studio was listed on NASDAQ First North Stockholm back in June, and is now publishing its games without the help of an intermediary across Europe and America.

“We have a lot of fun here,” Tähtinen says. “If you’re a games developer, now would be the perfect time to get in touch.”

Nitro Games’ competitive edge comes from harnessing the NG Platform to produce high-quality mobile content with 360 visuals to timescales that others would find impossible or exorbitantly expensive.

This has fuelled the creation of Raids-of-Glory and Medals of War, the latter of which caught the eye of Apple upon its release. Hollywood has also sat up and taken notice. In June 2016, the studio delivered a game for Fox’s Independence Day: Resurgence movie, on the back of this technology.

Whilst the company has also carved out a base in Helsinki as its momentum grows, its headquarters remain in the seaside town of 55 000 residents.

“I don’t think there are that many people out there on the streets of Kotka who realise this place produces games that are played by millions of people, from China to the Americas,” states Tähtinen.

Community-minded approach

A sculpture of two eagles rises above Kotka’s seafront promenade, and at first glance it looks as if they’re fighting. In fact, it’s a perfectly friendly scene: one has caught a fish, perhaps even thanks to the other’s help.

The same could be said about the two big fish in Kotka’s games scene. Seemingly in competition, Nitro Games and Kukouri are actually on excellent terms.

“The Finnish scene is small and friendly: companies aren’t competing against each other for anything except maybe skilled labour, of which there’s a perpetual shortage,” Kukouri’s CEO Kim Soares explains.

Kukouri has attracted significant attention globally, with its series Tiny Troopers downloaded over 25 million times on mobile platforms.

Soares himself is a recognised figure on the local streets, given that he’s been involved in local politics for a decade (“as if I wasn’t busy enough already”).

But this is nothing compared to the commotion when he enters Kukouri’s latest release Pixel Worlds, a mobile game where players create worlds and trade with each other.

Here, Soares is instantly recognised as a developer thanks to his character’s purple name; players start approaching him for selfies or just to shoot the breeze.

“We’ve taken the social interaction elements of gaming to the next level,” he elaborates. “Pixel Worlds crosses into the real world through social media.”

International mingling

Kukouri’s latest offering already has significant wind in its sails. Players have posted about the game or their characters tens of thousands of times on various social media channels, with many characters having their own accounts real people can follow.

“For many of our players Pixel Worlds is not just a game,” Soares observes. “It’s a community, a place to make new friends from all over the planet.”

Whilst Kotka’s games scene is reaching foreign shores in increasing numbers, there is also considerable traffic coming in the opposite direction.

Paraguayan games studio Posibillian Tech is currently working in Kotka, thanks to Cursor’s Levelup Startup Accelerator.

“They’ve received really good mentoring and have been involved with many local games companies,” Cursor’s Saarelainen states. “It’s been a very positive experience for all. There’s more diversity here and we are also making new contacts abroad.”

For newcomers, another path to Finland is through education. XAMK, the South-Eastern University of Applied Sciences, is proving to be a key source of game development talent for the region. Both the Kotka and Kouvola campuses have numerous international students and offer studies in English – the former focusing strongly on game programming and the latter on game design – thus complementing each other nicely.

“There is a good connection between the education institution and games companies,” Saarelainen comments. “We have a very bright future ahead.”

By: Heidi Aho