“Every day when I walk down the Keupstrasse to Cologne Game Lab, I pass the place where the nail bomb exploded in 2004”, says Pierre Schlömp, one of three founders of TriTrie Games. Keupstrasse, the scene of the right-wing terrorist attack, is just around the corner from where they went to college in the Mülheim district of Cologne. And on 11 July 2018, the students realised just how close to it they are. It was on this day that Beate Zschäpe, right extremist and member of the National Socialist Underground terror group, was sentenced to life imprisonment. What followed, Pierre and his colleague Seren Besorak tell us, was an intensive introduction to the NSU complex. This was the basis upon which they developed ‘Jessika’, an impact game without a feel-good story or a happy ending – but with a poignant tale to tell about radicalisation.
TriTrie Games is one of many indie game studios based at Cologne Game Haus, a co-working space spread over three floors and an area of 2,000 m², directly opposite Cologne’s trade fair and exhibition centre in Deutz. As Seren points out, this is an ideal location for developing indie games given that Gamescom, the world’s biggest trade fair for computer and video games, takes place right across the road every August. Every year, hundreds of thousands of gamers make the pilgrimage to Cologne to visit the booths of the triple-A games and sneak a peek at all the new innovations – which also means hundreds of thousands of potential gamers can check out ‘Jessika’ and other indie games.
In the last few years, the surprise hits from the gaming scene came from small, independent studios, which has led to their popularity extending beyond hardcore gaming enthusiasts. In fact, ‘indie’ could even end up being the new mainstream. This was also apparent at Gamescom in Cologne: the Indie Arena booth, a consortium of many indie studios from all over the world, has attracted increasing numbers of visitors in recent years and become a meeting place for everyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the rest of the event. The vibe here is a lot cosier: it’s easier for gamers to meet the developers and you don’t have to queue for hours just to try out a future blockbuster game for a few minutes.
In 2020, Gamescom and its developer conference Devcom were forced to take place online due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, this ended up being a blessing in disguise for independent game developers: “This year’s Devcom was a goldmine for indies”, says Stephan Reichart, Managing Director of Devcom and seasoned event organiser from Cologne. While the big studios did their own digital shows, there was more space online for the indie studios. Even months before the actual event, Devcom’s Twitch channel was all abuzz with indie founder stories and masterclasses in game design.
Reichart, who had already organised a successful series of indie developer conferences (Respawn) prior to Devcom, praises Cologne as being a particularly indie-friendly location. There are good funding instruments and attractive training options in North Rhine-Westphalia, which stand to benefit young game designers especially. Stefan Schmidt, a passionate gamer and organiser of the indie developer meet-up in Cologne also talks enthusiastically about the city as a gaming hub: “We have an incredibly interesting indie scene in Cologne with a wide cross-section of studios. It’s amazing.” For years now he has been organising the meet-up every two months, which has given him a good insight into the scene. But if you ask him how many indies there are in Cologne and North Rhine-Westphalia, he’ll be hard pushed to answer: “It’s not so easy to define what an ‘indie’ is.” On the one hand, it’s a question of size, but ownership structure is also a factor. Is a studio still an indie when it’s small, but part of a big studio?
In any case, there are at least 46 indies in Cologne on his list. A few of them showcased their innovations at the first Indie Game Fest in Cologne in 2019. The aim of the small show is to shine a spotlight on the indie scene rather than just having it take a back seat at bigger events, explains Stefan. What inspired him to organise such an event was a particular area at Devcom that everyone had to pass by if they wanted to visit a talk. That’s where Stefan Schmidt met two Cologne indies who had never heard of each other, making it clear to him that the scene needed its own event. They had over 50 applications to process and 20 exhibitors ended up making their way to Meltdown Cologne, a gaming bar on Kyffhäuser Strasse. But on the day of the event, the crowds were so big that many visitors had to be turned away. Due to COVID-19, the Indie Game Fest 2020 has been put on ice, but it will hopefully be continued in 2021 – over three days and with a further developed line-up.
Another key event in Cologne is the Clash of Realities by the Cologne Game Lab (CGL) – an academic conference about computer games and their significance from a social, media and aesthetic perspective. And the CGL’s mission is clear – as Seren Besorak from TriTrie Games puts it: “We don’t train Photoshop idiots. With us you’ll learn an academic approach to games.” And the success of ‘Jessika’ proves that the studio is on the right path. After developing the game as part of their final thesis project at university, they soon found themselves a publisher. Today it is available to buy on the virtual shelf of Steam, a video game digital distribution service. Quite a coup for the young studio, which is already working on its next project – an entertaining platform game with which they are eager to recreate the feeling of playing on old-school home computers like the Amiga.
Trie Trie Games
Cologne Game Haus
Indie Arena at Gamescom
Indie Developer Meet-Up
Cologne Game Lab
(by Thomas Riedel)