Interview: Tom Lenting (Games History of the Netherlands)

A picture of the cover of Tom Lenting's book Gamegeschiedenis van Nederland 1978-2018 (Games History of the Netherlands).
I interview Gamegeschiedenis van Nederland 1978-2018 (Games History of the Netherlands) author Tom Lenting about his book and the history of the Dutch games industry. 

This is the first in a new series of interviews I'm running alongside the main show — every month I'll talk to a different person who's exploring games history, in one way or another, to further our understanding of how this wonderful medium (and the industry that's built around it) has come to be the way it is now.

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Interview Transcript


Richard Moss: I guess the first thing to ask would be what got you started writing a book about the history of the Dutch games industry?

Tom Lenting: Well, I actually read a book by a colleague of yours, I think, from New Zealand. It's called history of A Digital Art by Andrew Williams.  

I believe it's a scholar from New Zealand. So I read the book and I really liked it. I thought it was a really good overview of the worldwide games industry, but of course I missed our little country of the Netherlands in there. There was nothing about games from the Netherlands. So I thought, well it would be a nice addition if someone would write something about the games from the Netherlands. Just about _our_ games industry. 

Richard Moss: And there are actually quite a few Dutch games and game developers that are internationally renowned, right? Like you mentioned in our email exchange the Jazz Jackrabbit games, and then there are others like Guerrilla Games and Two Tribes and stuff.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. Guerrilla. The guy who made Jack Jackrabbit later worked for Guerrilla Games. So you can see a sort of continuation — you started with sort of Jazz Jackrabbit, and he later worked for Guerrilla Games and built Killzone. That's right. It's the biggest game company of the Netherlands, Guerrilla Games. Yes. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. So let's back pedal that slightly. Can you tell me a bit about how important Jazz Jackrabbit games are to the development of the Dutch games industry?

Tom Lenting: Yes. I think it's incredibly important because it was the first game from the Netherlands that was also internationally famous. Before we had some national game developers, especially on the Commodore 64. But Jazz Jackrabbit was the first game that became famous abroad, especially through the shareware model and it had a big publisher with Epic Games. So it's helped to broaden the game industry in the Netherlands to other countries. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. And another thing that from what I can tell is covered extensively in your book is the various ties that Philips has had to games over the years. So the CD-i console, but then also the older Magnavox Odyssey console. The VideoPac. There was a pong machine, I think they had some early home computers. They worked with Nintendo on the CD ROM thing that got canceled.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. So we've got the CD-i games, with Zelda and... 

Richard Moss: Yeah. So they did all this stuff. And I'd love to hear a bit more about Philips and their significance.

Tom Lenting: Well, I always think that hardware developers are very important to drive the games industry. Like, of course, Japan and America have Microsoft and Nintendo, so they have a lot of hardware developers. But here we only have Philips. So it was — not anymore, because nowadays they only do health and healthcare. But in the past they made as you said a lot of hardware. So that's also — how can you say that? The developers chose for those platforms and Philips marketed the platforms also in Netherlands.  

That was important as a step up for many Dutch developers. Especially the CD-i. But it was also really important, I think, that Philips never actually — of course it's not like Nintendo. Philips is not a game company, so none of their hardware was marketed only as a games console, especially the CD-i. They always said, well, this is an entertainment console for the whole family. You have to learn something about it. 

So I think it was important for, the Dutch game markets that we really grow in the segment of serious games and educational games. So because Philips never only was a game company, it never chose to only develop game hardware. They always marketed as learning equipment. We now have an industry that's very focused on education and serious games, in my opinion. 

Richard Moss: So that all emerged out of the initiatives that Philips was doing with its hardware. That's interesting.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. Yeah. And also because the CD-i flopped worldwide; it also flopped here, eventually, but that doesn't mean it wasn't important for the Dutch games industry. Many small developers started there. And they now still have mobile companies that still exist. It was a very important learning curve, also, how _not_ to do things. 

Richard Moss: (laughs) Were there any developers — individuals or companies — that started out doing software or games for CD-i that later made it big?

Tom Lenting: Well, most famous is I think a company called Lost Boys Games, they made their first game on CD-i. It was called The Lost Ride. And then that company merged with the developer of Jazz Jackrabbit. And those two companies became what's now Guerrilla Games. So that little company is one of the predecessors of Guerrilla Games nowadays. That first game on the CD-i. So I don't know; I always think that's nice. 

Richard Moss: Yeah, that's really cool. And are there any other big games companies or individual big games that maybe people don't realise have roots in the Netherlands?

Tom Lenting: Yeah, of course. I've really heard so many games. We already mentioned Toki Tori, I think. Do you think that's a big game? 

Richard Moss: Yeah. It's a pretty popular game. It's internationally known.

Tom Lenting: Yeah, that's from Two Tribes, a Dutch developer that's now kind of defunct. They only sell games, not really make them anymore. 

But because that's the chicken that became symbol of the Dutch game industry because it became so popular, especially because it had so many ports afterwards. And it also started, it's fun to know, on the MSX. Do I pronounce it right? [RM: Yeah, that's fine. MSX.] They started — many games started there, and also a predecessor was company called Fony, with an F, they made a little again called Eggbert in the Eggciting Adventures, and that was a predecessor to Toki Tori, and it started on the MSX. So that was also from a Dutch games company. A predecessor of Two Tribes. So that's, I think that's fun to know. 

Richard Moss: Speaking of the MSX, what gaming systems were popular in the Netherlands?

Tom Lenting: Well first we had the main focus on home computers. Unfortunately not the Macintosh, but many people had the MSX and Commodore machines, and later on of course, just almost everybody had DOS or Windows. And I think they were also the main machines to play games on. But later on we had the regular suspects — Nintendo, and especially Nintendo, and here in the Netherlands, also in Europe, as in Brazil, the Sega Master System was a little more popular than the NES. 

So yeah, just Sega and Nintendo were very much around for it, and also Atari, the 2600. So I think it's like in most other countries. 

Well you asked about some other famous games from the Netherlands. So some others are the Age of Wonders series, from Triumph Studios, and they also made Overlord. So Age of Wonders is a popular strategy game on the PC and Overlord is a kind of strategy game on the Xbox. And more famous more recently is of course Ridiculous Fishing on the iPhone. They also got a prize from apple in 2013 I think for best iPhone game. We have a company called Vlambeer. 

Richard Moss: Yeah, I was going to ask you about Vlambeer and their impact I guess like on the indie scene, particularly, since they got famous.

Tom Lenting: Well Yeah they're like a role model of course. Because others would like to accomplish the same success, you know, with formulating a company that only makes digital games and got that fame and actually got on an iPhone game of the year. That's pretty impressive. Also, the games have a unique look, I think, the big pixel kind of look, it's really special. 

Richard Moss: Are there other Dutch indie developers that you think are coming up through the ranks and maybe might have a big hit as well one day?

Tom Lenting: Well, there's a company called Weird Beard that created some Tetris clones like Tricky Towers and the [99 Bricks] Wizard Academy. So those are special. There's also a company that had a little hit. The company's called Lucky Cat and they made a game Grumpy Cat's Worst Game Ever collection — a Wario Ware clone. They're on the rise. There's also a small company called Abbey Games Utrecht. They made an action game, Reus, and are developing another title now. Now I think they're making very impressive games.

Richard Moss: I'm glad you mentioned Tricky Towers. I really like that game. My fiancee and I play it together.

Tom Lenting: So you know it was from the Netherlands? 

Richard Moss: I didn't actually. I might have when I bought the game noticed. But if I knew at some point I've forgotten.

Tom Lenting: It's from Weird Beard from Amsterdam. It's actually funny because many of Vlambeer and Weird Beard, many of those companies started not as game developers but as developers from little flash games for Internet and advertorial games. And later on they started from games. 

Richard Moss: Was Flash very important to the Dutch indie scene or the Dutch games scene more broadly?

Tom Lenting: No, I don't think very important. Just some studios started there. It's all sort of the same as really worldwide. In the early days of Internet, many started flash development and some developed into game developers. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. It was kinda just another nice pathway into the industry. An easier way to make games. And I think some — I'll be honest, I don't know much about the Dutch games industry, but I think some parts of it emerged out of the demo scene in the 1980s and the nineties. Is that right?

Tom Lenting: Yeah. There are a lot of collaborations among Dutch developers, but also with the developers from Sweden and Belgium and Germany. So there was a Europe focus. And you're right. Many of those, they started mostly on the Commodore and MSX. They made many demos and hacks — first they started with hacking games and making intros, and then eventually they got game developers. So that's right. 

There was a little company that started on the MSX, Parallax, and there's a guy, Cas Cremers. They made not so famous games for the MSX. But he's now a professor of security at Oxford University. So I find it fun to see the careers of those guys, where they go. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. It's funny when that happens there every so often when you do games history, you find someone, they made some little thing early on when they were young. Like the guy who went to be one of the senior executives at Apple made a tiny little freeware Mac game before he was big — Avi Tevanian.

Tom Lenting: I always find that story with Steve Wozniak and how the Apple II was actually a Breakout port. I always find that a good story also. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. And he basically built that computer so that it could play Breakout, like he designed the whole thing just because he wanted a computer that could play breakout.

Tom Lenting: What's also a nice anecdote, if I can find him, in the early eighties or early 90s, the Dutch educational system for preschool, they were the first education system worldwide to adopt a Microsoft Windows 3.0. Because before they all use DOS computers, but they wanted more something intuitive. So they searched and they chose Windows. And then actually Bill Gates came to the Netherlands to close the deal. So it was the first educational system for preschool and primary school that adopted Windows. So I think that's a fun story, but it's also important because, you know, if the educational world adopts that same system, also software will go there. You know, so they kind of — developers kind of let go of Commodore and MSX and all chose Windows. And of course in the primary school, of course, even more educational software arose. 

But the serious games scene is one of the most important markets for the Netherlands. We're, for serious games, we have the largest market share in Europe, especially for healthcare. So that's special because we of course are a lot smaller than like Germany, France, or the UK. But I think that's because of our history, because of Philips, and we have a small country and it is hard, you know, was very hard for developers to make money alone with games. So most of them chose also to release educational games or even accountancy software, so they could spread to the rest of their software. So because of the two reasons: the Netherlands is a small markets, it was hard to make money with games alone, so most studios also released educational software. And also because of Philips and the CD-i and they always choose for the entertainment. 

The market for educational and serious software is still very important. But of course then there's always — serious games, it's always; It's called gaming, but I'm not quite sure if you can call it — yeah, it's not really, it's sort of a segment of the gaming market. Cause if we talk about games, you think of the games you mentioned like Killzone and Guerilla Games [incomprehensible] they came from Netherlands. That's famous, also from Guerrilla Games. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. I guess you could kind of think of it being a venn diagram of games and software, and serious games, where the two overlap — like serious software and games, they meet in serious games.

Tom Lenting: Just want to mention that there are some very — I don't know if that's the case in Australia, too, because I don't know any Australian game companies, to be honest. We have some national — some companies here that have really been nationally very successful. There's a company called Davilex Games and they made games like London Racer — that's called here A3 Racer. There was a very famous, A3 Racer — oh, sorry, A2 Racer. A2 is a famous highway. So they focus on national games and they made really cheap cheap games, and they made many.  

So I always call Davilex Games one of the inventors of shovelware because they made many cheap games focused on the Dutch market. And they were very successful here in the Netherlands. I talked to some Dutch game journalists and they say they went in the day that guy went to E3 and games conferences. And those kind of events, games events, and they were really hated there. 

So they were successful in the Netherlands, but at game events they said, 'Ah! That's the company that just releases all kinds of crap and they kill the game markets!' So I find it is a matter of perspective, you know, and for many Dutch gamers it's 'I remember that. I played that' and for International developers it's 'Whoa. This is a company that made really crappy games.' 

Richard Moss: Yeah. And you mentioned Australia, and the curious thing about Australia — and I guess there are some parallels here with Dutch developers. Australia being a small market has always been very internationally focused. Nearly all the companies here make games for people in America or Europe. They don't necessarily make games for Australians. And so that means that they style their games in the same way that an American company might.

Tom Lenting: But your advantage is of course that your native language is English. 

Richard Moss: So nowadays a lot of the bigger indies are actually Australian companies. So like Armello — you might've heard of Armello, a strategy game that's by a company called League of Geeks. There was Halfbrick Studios. They did a whole bunch of really popular mobile games and five to 10 years ago they were one of the biggest mobile games companies in the world. They had the Fruit Ninja game, you might have heard of that. We got Crossy Road, one of the most popular games in the world a couple of years ago. It's made here in Melbourne,

Tom Lenting: You know what I always wonder about the Australian game industry or more market — like here in the Netherlands, games regulations. I mean there's things like blood and anything. Games violence. We're not very strict. I mean, almost everything is possible here and nobody really cares. And when you go to our neighbours in Germany, blood is made green and of course, they are more sensitive about symbols in games like Wolfenstein, but that's their history. But I often read about Australia and that you have very strict regulations for games. Is that right? 

Richard Moss: Yes, we do.

Tom Lenting: How come? I always wondered why is that? 

Richard Moss: Yeah, there's been a lot of talk about it, like constant talk about it over the past 10, 15 years. And it's, it's kind of coming from a place of misunderstanding from the regulators and the ratings boards, where they think almost like games are affecting you more deeply than a violent movie might.

Tom Lenting: Because movies, they're not so strict? 

Richard Moss: Well movies, they're more strict than some countries, but they're not as strict as with video games. There's a double standard. And that's why there's been so much talk about it.

Sometimes the people who are coming up with the ratings, they don't really understand games, unfortunately. So there are some inconsistencies about the way things are done and there's a sort of a big brother vibe in we think we know best about what's right for our kids.

Tom Lenting: (laughs) All right. Yeah. But yeah, here, as I said, it's not so strict. In 2002 there was a game called Hooligans Storm Over Europe and it was a game about soccer hooligans — a strategy game. And now it wasn't really special, but then someone cared because soccer hooliganism was a problem here and because somewhere cared. And there were I think questions in politics, it became a hit. You know, it always works like that. If you can gain some controversy with your game, you're guaranteed to get a hit. 

Richard Moss: Controversy sells everywhere in the world, I think.

Tom Lenting: Yes. 

Richard Moss: I was just going to say, I'm sure that the hot coffee controversy with Grand Theft Auto probably helped its sales more than hurt it.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. And Mortal Kombat. That sort of games. Yeah.  

Shall we talk a little about your book? Because I remember I really enjoyed it because was such a Mac gamer when I was a kid and I played all those games that you mentioned. I really — just thanks for writing. I really really liked it. Did you have a childhood with Macintosh or how did you come — 

Richard Moss: Yes, very much. So I was basically born into a Mac household. My dad bought a Mac Plus a short time before I was born, I believe, or otherwise while I was a very young baby. And so Mac would have been the first computer that I used. Some of my earliest memories are messing around on that Mac Plus. And then all through my childhood I was primarily using a Macintosh for things. Then we went to a few different models. Of course over the years, upgraded a couple of times. But I —

Tom Lenting: How was availability of software in Australia? What was it? 

Richard Moss: It was not great. There were some computer stores. So a general computer store generally wouldn't have Mac specific software. At least by the time I was old enough to notice. But they might have Mac and PC stuff, and there were some Mac-specific computer stores.

Tom Lenting: Oh!? I think here many came with the postal order. We didn't really have any Mac stores. And so when I wrote you, I think I have some Mac games but I don't think I ever bought any in a store. I mostly got them by mail order. Or, as you also wrote in your book, the problem of copying software. [RM: Yeah, piracy.] There were always game — my dad had a game guy. And I always hoped it came along so he could bring a few new games with him. So that's mostly how I got my games. 

Richard Moss: Yeah, I think I've told this story somewhere before — when I was a kid, if we didn't buy a game from a store, the way I would come across games is they would just appear in my house. My brother might've got it or something from a friend or through some other pirate means, and the game would just appear on a disk or on the computer itself. And I'd be 'what's this?' And I'd start playing it. It's like games magically appeared.

Tom Lenting: (laughs) Yeah. So that's something similar. 

Richard Moss: And so if you guys didn't really have Mac computer stores, how were you getting the hardware? Were Macs hard to get at regular computer stores?

Tom Lenting: Well, I can't really say, you know, my dad was a Mac dealer and I was a kid, so I really didn't think about how he got the system. So I really cannot answer that question. He sold them and I didn't know how that really worked, actually, because I was too small to really care, or to think about it the process behind. 

Richard Moss: And did you know other people or did you have like friends who were also Mac users or were you the only one?

Tom Lenting: No, I think I was the only one. I was like one of those — when I was a kid, one of those early Mac users, you know, that kind of think the Mac, Apple is holy. I really liked in your book the anecdote about how Bungie, when they released Marathon 2 they got all those angry emails because it was also released for Windows. I think I was kind of in that state also in those years. You know, 'the Mac is the best!' 

Richard Moss: Yeah. It was a really quirky thing, that phenomenon. It's been called a Cult of Mac elsewhere. This way that people would be so zealous in their love of the Macintosh that they would suddenly hate you if you even considered the idea that the Macintosh wasn't enough for everyone to use.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. But in practice, of course, it could be a problem if school and most of your friends had Windows PCs. You know, just to use, before you had Word everywhere because, you know, you couldn't convert Word files on your Mac. So it could be a little annoying if you're honest about it. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. You had to get special software that would do some translations. Mac Link Plus or something. I forget the name. There was this like program you could get that would convert between file types for you if you didn't have a program that could read a PC file.

Tom Lenting: I read your book. You know, the first iMac with the blue and the red ones. That's not really a business machine because — I found that interesting as you wrote in your book first it was really aimed at business. They even didn't even want those — that Alice game on it. So I didn't know that. 

Richard Moss: The one that was aimed at business was the very first Macintosh, the original Macintosh in 1984. The iMac from, ah, what was it, 1998, that was aimed at consumers. That was a lifestyle magazine.

it was only in the early days, I think, that Apple had this idea that they wanted to take down IBM. They wanted to be the new business giants. This is right after the Apple III had failed. And that was a machine that they made specifically for the Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 market. Like for the big companies. They wanted those big companies to buy an Apple III and use it for their business, and it didn't work so well. And so then with the Macintosh they thought, well, here we have a machine that makes work so easy. It makes work so much fun. Wouldn't you want it in your office? Wouldn't you want it to be your productivity computer?

And then the other thing is that they needed to distance themselves from games because the business people were saying this thing looks like a toy. And then Apple, their marketing people got kind of scared and they're like, well, if they think it's a toy _already_, then what are they gonna think once they see that we've got games on it, they're just going to write us off completely. And so then they reacted kind of badly and they started saying, oh no, no, the Macintosh is not a toy. It's a serious machine for serious business.

Tom Lenting: No, the first iMac, let's go back to that. Because of course the main focus was you could have easy access to the internet. It was one of the main selling points. It's actually, if I take another step back, from say the Philips CD-i, it was one of the first, maybe even the first consoles that had access to internet. So it was released in 1991 and it was actually possible to have the Internet on it, you know. So I think that's pretty special, for a game console to be among the first to have that. But that's a side note.  

Richard Moss: Were there any — actually you've mentioned some. What would you say the most notable Dutch made games to make their way to the Mac over the years?

Tom Lenting: Well, I don't know many, but as you said I mentioned Jazz Jackrabbit 2 — it was not the first, but the second part, I think that's the most famous actually, because I can't really think of many new one right now. I think that's the most famous. Bout just a port, but a nice game. 

Richard Moss: You mentioned in your emails to me about magazines and how there was only, I think you said one Mac gaming magazine that was Dutch native.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. It was not a game. It was just not just gaming. MacFan was for all kinds of Mac. But here in the Netherlands, because most people speak English here. We had a lot of magazines from what I said from Britain and that's still so today, you know, Britain — magazines from Britain are very very important here for the industry because now they're more focused on Europe, so they're closer to our market than American magazines.  

I think you also read a magazine Retro Gamer, I guess, and so that's available here. And I really like it and I think it's good, but they're more focused in Europe, but sometimes it's a little British because, you know, platforms like the Amstrad and Spectrum were less popular here. We read a lot of British magazines and also for the Mac, especially MacFormat. I especially remember when I wrote you MacFormat and that Mac Action magazine that just existed for 10 episodes, but I thought it was really nice. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. I, I never knew that that one existed until I was quite late in researching my book. And then suddenly I was very sad because I would have loved to have a Mac gaming focused magazine.

Tom Lenting: For 10 episodes. (laughs) [RM: Yeah, even if only for 10 issues.] Last episode, they also wrote, we existed for 10 episodes, so we proved a Mac game only magazine is worth existing. So, but you know, I don't know if that's true with only 10 episodes. There was also a lot of entertainment reviewed in those magazines because I think there weren't enough games to review. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. There'd be some months where there were so few titles coming out for the Mac that you probably wouldn't be able to fill the whole magazine with.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. Because not a lot of shareware was reviewed. Cause you also wrote in your book that they only reviewed retail software and almost no shareware. That's remarkable. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. The only magazine that really gave shareware the time of day was MacAddict, which became MacLife later on.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. I always find that interesting cause you know, there are all of those Ambrosia games. So it's remarkable. Hmm. 

Richard Moss: Now on the subject of games magazines, were there many Dutch language games magazines?

Tom Lenting: Oh yeah. Especially, so that's interesting because in the early 90s, the game market here became more mature and s then two game magazines, Dutch native game magazines arose. First is called Hoog Spiel, which means hi game. They don't exist anymore. They were a little serious. And another very famous magazine. It's still the first released in 1993 and that's still around today. So that's, that's very good. It's a magazine called Power Unlimited, and they're focused on all kinds of — they even reviewed Mac games in the early days.  

So I think there was a guy — no, I _know_ there was a guy working there that had a Mac and quite liked Mac games. So there was a Dutch magazine that reviewed like one Macintosh game every month, along with all the other Nintendo and Sega games and PC games. So when you were a Mac gamer you are really excited to just read that one review of a Mac game in a Dutch magazine. So that was fun. 

Richard Moss: It's nice to, to at least have one there. At least they're acknowledging that you exist.

Tom Lenting: Yeah, I think that that was the feeling. Yeah. 

Richard Moss: do you have any plans to get your book translated into English at some point?

Tom Lenting: Well, maybe at some point, but now there's not enough enough interest. You know, there's really interest from Dutch players. The interest from gamers that don't speak Dutch is limited. So maybe in the future. But probably no. 

Richard Moss: Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. I was thinking about it before the call, actually, and I suspect that nearly everyone who would buy your book, if it were an English, is kind of in the industry — they're historians and archivists.

Tom Lenting: Yeah. Or just someone related to the Netherlands, you know? 

Richard Moss: Yeah. Someone who has a specific reason to be into it, not just an ordinary gamer who happens to like games history — for those people might be a little bit too esoteric.

Tom Lenting: Yeah, I agree. 

Richard Moss: Yeah. And now you've written articles at a whole bunch of places. You've got videos on YouTube, you've got this book. What are the best places for people to go if they'd like to learn more about you and your work on old video games?

Tom Lenting: Well, they just can visit my Linkedin or the book is published by Karel van Mander Academia, so they can search that Google and they can check there. 

Or they can visit my youtube channel as you said applemctom. 

Richard Moss: Awesome.

All right. Well, thank you very much for taking the time out of your morning to chat. 


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