‘Traps ‘n’ Treasures’ gameplay. YouTube

Video games Made in Switzerland

These days, you can do courses on game design right here in Switzerland. Before the turn of the millennium, however, Swiss game developers led a shadowy existence. But individual productions from our country still created a buzz.

Yannick Rochat

Yannick Rochat

Yannick Rochat is a research associate and lecturer at the College of Humanities at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He is co-founder of the GameLab UNIL-EPFL.

Too often, the public at large is unaware that Swiss-made games are available on all current consoles (PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch) and on smartphones, tablets and computers as well. Some of these games have even gained international recognition – games such as the ‘Farming Simulator’ series, which for around 10 years now has invited hobby farmers to run digital farms, or the recently released ‘Mundaun’, in which players navigate their way through a number of Swiss legends set against the backdrop of a Graubünden mountain village and the surrounding area (the game language is Romansh!). Even the Washington Post carried a report on its release.
News item on ‘Mundaun’. SRF
As is the case with so many other media, the books and documentaries that tell the story of video games all too often cover only the major production countries, such as the United States and Japan. Video games have been developed in Switzerland for almost half a century. It’s only recently that universities and museums have begun researching and telling this local history of video games.
For a long time, video game development in Switzerland was the domain of amateur enthusiasts. They developed games with no commercial intent, merely as a hobby – one example being Federal Councillor Alain Berset, who once revealed to Blick in an interview that in the early 1980s he had programmed video games and recorded them on cassettes. In the 1970s and 1980s, video games were developed at universities, in computer clubs, or at home. Little by little, individual productions attracted attention, such as Roman Werner’s ‘Traps 'n’ Treasures’ on the Amiga computer. In this game, the player takes on the role of a pirate trying to find his treasure chest and ship’s crew, which have been kidnapped by an enemy. In those days, developers took their inspiration from imported creations. Swiss developers were quite solitary, and collaborations within the country seem to have been infrequent.
‘Traps ‘n’ Treasures’ gameplay. MsStandart / YouTube
The term ‘Swiss Game Design’, which has now become part of the German language, shows that today this is no longer the case. From the 1990s onwards, the internet democratised access to creative tools like Flash. Beginning in 2008, the Apple App Store made it possible to rapidly create video game applications, and offered easy access to an international audience. Scores of video games from Switzerland entered the market, and continue to proliferate today: they can now be found on every platform (consoles, computers, mobile phones). One example is ‘Orbital’, a game of skill developed by Bitforge, in which players collect points by shooting down bubbles.
For a long time developers were self-taught, and many of them still are today. There has been a course in game design in Switzerland, at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), since 2005. Some alumni of the course have stayed in Switzerland; others, such as Daniel Lutz, ZHdK graduate and creative director of ‘Hitman GO’ and ‘Lara Croft GO’ at Square Enix, have gone abroad to pursue a career. In these two games, the worlds of well-known franchise games can be explored through a puzzle in which, like a game of chess, players have to anticipate the next move.
‘Lara Croft GO’ trailer Tomb Raider / YouTube
In addition, the Federal government’s ‘Game Culture’ programme has been funding the development of video games since 2010. Thanks to this and subsequent initiatives, developers have access to conventions and festivals around the world – a vital element in a globalised market. With the exception of certain educational and information games (prevention, politics, learning), video games developed in Switzerland are not intended solely for a Swiss audience.
Today, other cantonal universities and private schools are following the example of the ZHdK. In 2018 there were between 100 and 150 development studios in Switzerland. Some of these studios have diversified their activities, by developing commissioned games, applications, or even websites, for example. In Switzerland, as in other countries, only a small proportion of the video games on offer manage to make a profit.
The most successful Swiss video game: Farming Simulator. Farming Simulator / YouTube
Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis has damaged the industry. Although video games experienced a huge boom in 2020, the negative impacts are likely to be felt soon in Switzerland, as in the rest of the world, where scores of productions have already been put on hold. For Swiss studios, the risk of a decline in investment from both private and public sources is discouraging. It is to be hoped that these companies will survive the health crisis. This will allow them to continue reaching digital entertainment audiences scattered across the globe.

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