Playing to win

Gamescom takes NRW's gaming ambitions to the next level

COLOGNE, Germany -- They came. They played. Now will they stay?

Gamescom, NRW's inaugural gaming convention in August, was an instant success, drawing more than 245,000 people to Cologne to blast aliens, smack virtual tennis balls and wrangle on the future of the gaming industry.

NRW is betting a lot on that future. With commercial television -- the state's traditional media mainstay -- in crisis, NRW is eying the more recession-resistant games business with the eager anticipation of a player chasing a high score.

The 2009 event was the largest in Europe and, judging by the reception from the international industry, it looks set to stay.

"It is very clear we now have a third major date on our calendars," says Kazuo Hirai, chairman and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, putting the Cologne event on a level with E3 in Los Angeles and Tokyo's Games Show.

For NRW, Gamescom is part of a broader strategy to make the region a hub for the European gaming business. Much of the attention is focused on Cologne's revived harbor area, the Rheinauhafen. Anchor client Electronic Arts has operations there, as does Microsoft, which is planning to build a whole campus in Cologne to draw programming talent to the region.

"This is an ideal spot," says Dirk Schulgen, EA marketing director for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. "NRW has the largest population density of anywhere in Europe. Within an hour's drive you've got like 20 million people. That's perfect for a publisher like us. And this region is the TV capital of Germany, so all the infrastructure is there -- media to promote games, studios to produce them in, talent to design them."

NRW is promoting convergence through direct subsidy, setting aside $12 million specifically to back new incentives set up on the interface between games and traditional media, and through conventions such as Gamescom and the Game Developers Conference.

The GDC moved from Paris to Cologne this year to piggyback on Gamescom. It attracted some of the industry's biggest names, including Matias Myllyrinne of Remedy Entertainment, creator of "Max Payne," and David Cage of French group Quantic Dream, who are developing the hotly anticipated "Heavy Rain" for Sony.

NRW has its share of hot development teams. Dusseldorf-based Blue Byte, which develops for publishing giant Ubisoft, has created best-sellers like "The Settlers" (more than 7 million units sold) and the "Anno" strategy series (5 million units sold). A design team in Cologne was behind EA's "FIFA Football Manager" game, a top-seller in Europe.

But GDC organizer Frank Sliwka sees untapped potential in the region.

"You have a huge number of producers, directors and talent for film and television here," he says. "At the GDC this year we brought some of them together with game developers, to try and set off some sparks."

It's still early days -- Sliwka admits the TV and games business still "doesn't speak the same language." But economic realities such as declining advertising revenue make convergence inevitable. And when games and old media meet, expect NRW to be there to capitalize on the merger.