Games, commerce, and collaboration in Haarlem at lvlfour

In the fractured landscape of the indie games scene, filled with small teams working from a basement or garage, it pays to collaborate with others and combine forces within the big, scary world of game development. Why go it alone if you can have others help you, and you help them in return?

In the Netherlands, the biggest collective of this kind is the Dutch Game Garden, a government-sponsored incubator that guides and helps small startups get their games off the ground. They’re not the only one, however.

Enter lvlfour, a small group of companies working from the fourth floor of an old office building next to the railway station of Haarlem, a mid-sized city 10 miles from the capital, Amsterdam. Started by Gamious, whose game Turmoil I reviewed earlier, it’s a commercial venture that gets by without government subsidies.

Business First

“The Dutch Game Garden is great, but we’re running this more like a business,” says Aryeh Loeb, marketing manager for the four-man company. “We started this project when we were offered this space in May, but at 6000 square feet it was way too big, and expensive, for us. We asked the landlord if they would allow us to sublet about two-thirds of it, and when they agreed lvlfour was born.”

So is the project just a money-saving venture? “We mainly want to make sure that the rent gets paid. We have a slow-burning, conservative business strategy for Gamious and keeping our overhead low is our main priority within that approach,” says Aryeh. “We want to work on building a small community here, but commercial concerns come first.”

To ensure that chasing people down for the rent check each month doesn’t become a full-time job, the Gamious team decided that tenants need to have a few years of experience at not just making games, but also generating revenue. For that reason, you won’t find people who are just starting out at lvlfour. “You need to do what you’re good at. We’re good at making games, not helping startups,” says Aryeh.

“Gamious is a small company and every time someone comes knocking, we’re losing time we need to spend on making our own games helping them. An incubator like the DGG has the resources for that kind of thing, they get subsidies; we don’t,” says Aryeh. “If we’re going to work together with other companies, they need to be able to contribute about as much as they take away.”

Filling up

That this vision appeals to many is obvious – within a few weeks of opening the doors in early June, most offices were filled. Sometime soon, Gamious also hopes to also have a freelancer-only room with several desks up and running, and already half of those are taken.

Because you need to be established before you can rent an office, not all the companies in lvlfour make games themselves, though all of them do something related. For example, one office is rented out to a professional illustrator, while another is taken up by a company doing data analytics for game companies. There is also a distributor for web-based games called Cloud Games.

This mix makes for a great collaborative vibe – the atmosphere is friendly and often you’ll find people in offices not their own, chatting away. Aryeh attributes this to the laissez-faire attitude of the Gamious team. “We want this to be an organically grown community, anything that happens needs to happen by itself. Lvlfour is an umbrella that is held up by Gamious, but beneath it we need to work together.”

Not that there is no structure whatsoever. Recently, a workshop was organized on the topic of networking and multiplayer functionality in games, partially to help Gamious figure out some of the problems plaguing their new game, Team Racing League. “That meeting showed us we made some bad choices during development and we were able to fix them before launching the alpha,” says Aryeh.

He continues, “We want to create an environment where everyone can flourish, including Gamious, and so far lvlfour has benefitted from it. There are currently more events planned, we’re hosting the Haarlem location of the Global Game Jam this January, but it’s done voluntarily by the community as a whole.”

Meeting the cast

Besides Aryeh, one of the main organizing forces behind lvlfour is Emiel Kampen, game developer and part-time college lecturer. His studio, Prrrpl (pronounced “purple”), has already released one game, Should Shoot, which won “best new feature” on the iOS app store. Currently, he is working on his next project, a colorful and fun-looking adventure called Pippi Pilots, with a friend who works off-site.

“I like being active in this community,” he says, adding that he enjoys contributing to the friendly atmosphere and already several interesting partnerships have grown out of it. It’s the commercial aspect of lvlfour that draws him, he says. “By being on the market, you become less afraid of the market. The only people who can decide if a game is any good are consumers and you need to embrace that, that’s how you learn. You need to leave your safe zone to grow.”

Growth is also very much on the mind of Vic van Hensberg, who under the name One Upped Games does work-for-hire jobs for major players on the Dutch market. “I’ve been making applied games for about seven years now and I’m pretty comfortable. Hell, I even bought a house. The price for that comfort is that I'm mainly doing jobs for others, but...” He shrugs.

When talking about the atmosphere at lvlfour, though, he does let slip that he hopes more comes out of it than just an office space. “lvlfour gives you a lot of options. Right now I’m living off the invoices I’m sending out, but I should be able to move on to other, more personal projects through the network we’re creating here.” Not only has he gotten a few new gigs through his fellow tenants, he’s also been able to give some to less experienced ones.

Vic is a proponent of the “no beginners” rule. “I like working with the few interns that are running around here, I gave them some tips on how to structure invoices and how to calculate the tax for the work they’re doing. I’m also happy that I’m not constantly bombarded by requests for help of that nature.”

That attitude is put best by Stefan Wijnker, freelance veteran of the Dutch games industry: “It’s great to help, but it’s also great to receive help,” he says. “With fewer start-ups around, I feel there’s better cross pollination.” Currently, he’s working on a project that he will only refer to as “top secret,” though he says it with a huge smile on his face.

During our chat, I could tell Stefan is obviously a very social person, and he emphasizes that he enjoys working together with people, having lunch, drinking coffee. Naturally, working with people in the same field just makes them much easier to relate to than others. “I’m a real entertainment person, so it’s great to work with others like me.”

Oscar Hogervorst of game-data analysis firm Ludens Labs also points out some more practical benefits. “When I worked from home, I couldn’t receive clients. Not only is this place nice and professional, but also close to the station.” He had his first client meeting just the other week and it seems to give him a lot of confidence that he has the option to do that now.

Oscar also enjoys sharing the space with others in his field, especially Gamious as their working relationship is a lot smoother now that they’re only a few doors away from each other. He thinks lvlfour also contributes a lot to the city, a provincial capital with a quarter-million inhabitants. “Haarlem has plenty of experts in this field, but now we’ll also get some companies settling here.”