The Austrian games industry and the free-market economy 1991-2006. A political history of ideas.

The following text is based on my keynote at the 2020 FROG conference and is expected to be published this summer in the anthology “Denk N., Pfeiffer A., Serada A., Wernbacher T. (eds.) 2021, A LUDIC SOCIETY, DOI 10.48341/b17g-3c33”. With the kind permission of the editors, I am publishing it here as a blog post. At this point I would like to thank Tobias Winnerling and Felix Zimmermann for their corrections, help and advice!

1.    Introduction

In much-cited books like Steven Kent’s “Ultimate History of Videogames” (2001), the history of digital games is most often presented in an almost teleological way as a continuous line of progress from Tennis for Two (William Higinbotham 1958) over Spacewar! (Steve Russell 1962) and Pac-Man (Namco 1980) to Call of Duty (infinity Ward 2003). Such chronicles accordingly focus mainly on the console platforms that were successful in the US and Japan. At the same time, they ignore the highly dynamic developer scene that was flourishing in nearly all European countries during the 1980s and the 1990s. The history of video games is not a simple line from A to B but a dynamic network of countless transnational transfer processes and the simultaneous emergence of extremely dynamic video game cultures occurring in many different places. For example, there is not the one first chess program to which all later ones can be traced back, but many different projects, which partly influenced each other and partly went their own ways. In the early 1970s, for example, a chess program was developed at the Technical University of Graz: Frantz (Fritz Königshofer & Gerhard Wolf 1974) [1], which like so many other game programs has never made it into the official canon of game history. Computer platforms such as the IBM-PC, the C64, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Schneider CPC dominated Europe in the 1990s but were often neglected by researchers in favour of the history of the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, later by Sony and Microsoft in the US. This omission has only recently been remedied, for instance by the work of Graeme Kirkpatrick on British gaming culture (2015), Alexis Blanchet and Guillaume Montagnon on the French history of games (2020) and most recently the extremely well-researched book by Jaroslav Švelch on game development in the CSSR in the 1980s (2018) and Tom Lenting on the Netherlands (2019). In addition, Austria, Germany and Switzerland could also hardly be described as gaming deserts at the time (Pfister & Rochat 2021). Rather, some of today’s most popular game genres originated in Austria and Germany: building games and business simulations. In Austria, three studios dominated the scene until the 2000s: Max Design, Neo Software and JoWooD. [2] But hardly anyone apart from journalists and game developers now remembers the names of these developers, despite the fact that JoWooD’s building game Der Industriegigant (1997) sold over 750,000 copies at the time (APA0231-5-WI-0234-WB/CI) [3] and Anno 1602 (Max Design 1998) over two million copies worldwide (OTS0015-5-WA-0271-EUN0001-CA). JoWooD was a public company listed in the ATX for more than ten years. Why and when did the history of a successful Austrian games industry fall into obscurity? Could the reason be that even at this time, Austrian game developers attracted little attention in the Austrian press?

The answer is no. The Austrian games industry was extensively reported upon in the 1990s, and, in particular, in the 2000s in the Austrian press. The success of the young game developers did not go unnoticed by politicians either. Around the turn of the millennium, both the press and politicians were happy to associate themselves with these successful Austrian products. In fact, I would argue that some game developers were even promoted to being figureheads of the so-called Austrian “New Economy”. With the end of the Cold War – but actually even before that – there was a slow but profound change in economic policy in Austria from welfare state to a free market economy. Instead of welfare and stability, efficiency and competitiveness became desirable values. During this period, politicians and the media were looking for young successful entrepreneurs to serve as role models for the whole of society.

However, it is not only the press coverage that offers us sources for a history of political ideas in Austria in the 1990s and 2000s but the games themselves: 1869 – Hart am Wind! (Max Design 1992), Burnout (Max Design 1993), Whale’s Voyage (Neo Software 1993), Der Clou! (Neo Software 1994), Oldtimer – Motor City (Max Design 1994), Albert Lasser’s Clearing House (Max Design 1995), Der Industriegigant (JoWood 1997), Anno 1602 (Max Design 1998), Die Völker (Neo Software 1999), Anno 1503 (Max Design 2002). All of these games can be understood as business simulations and/or building games. The fact that most of the games developed in Austria at this time were business simulations is exactly what makes them interesting to the historian: they are fascinating sources for a contemporary history of economic and political ideas in Austria. They translate dominant discursive statements not only in narratives and aesthetic but also in game mechanics. Not only do they thus reflect political and societal change, they also were in part the catalyst of these changes (Pfister 2018). For the following primary overview of the Austrian game industry in the 1990s and 2000s, I will concentrate on this small corpus of games mentioned above and the press coverage – mainly articles of the Austrian Press Agency (APA) and press releases (OTS) – on the respective game developers from 1991 to 2010. In addition to this, I can also draw on an article by Konstantin Mitgutsch and Herbert Rosenstingl (2015) – until today the only published overview – as well as three thoroughly researched newspaper articles by Daniel Koller for Der Standard, and the interviews with Austrian developers that Sebastian Esberger (2016) conducted as part of his Bachelor’s thesis at the Vienna University of Technology.  

In a preliminary evaluation, I analyse the games and the press coverage based on the principles of a historical discourse analysis. This means that I will pay attention to the dissemination of specific terminology as well as narrative and ludic constructions of meaning to identify dominant political ideas. In this way I will reveal the ideological discourses underlying the games and show what could be said and thought through these games.

2. Video games as a socialization instance

Games always function on the basis of common values and world views.  These form the framework of the game experience. They help us to quickly orient ourselves when immersed in these games. Game rules and game mechanics are best learned when they feel intuitive. This means that developers fall back on dominant (widespread) thought patterns that have largely already been learned at school, at home and through the media. By unconsciously learning the mechanics of the game on the basis of existing knowledge, they potentially reinforce or naturalise these thought patterns. Thus, we quickly learn not only the rules, but also the moral parameters of the game (Pfister 2018, p. 9-14; Pfister & Görgen 2020). Whether first person shooter, racing game, platformer or economic simulation; they communicate political ideas about the idea of fairness (Zimmermann 2020), the value of freedom and/or security, the question of what just wars are or how far one may go in the fight against organized crime and terrorism (Pfister, Winnerling & Zimmermann 2020). They also communicate economic models and if we want to win these games, we have to learn to play them better, to expand our businesses, to make more profit, to reduce costs, to expand aggressively, to eliminate competitors in time etc. For a historian who wants to better understand the (hidden) ideological discourses of a contemporary society it can therefore be very rewarding to take a closer look at its popular culture and video games. By analysing games, we can research political ideas that might have reached people who otherwise may not have been exposed to them through consumption of other news media

When game developers design a business simulation, they rely on their own knowledge in addition to researching the topic. For Austrian developers at the end of the 1990s, it was therefore obvious to tap into the widespread and common ideas of economic growth and entrepreneurship of the time. We must assume that these game developers had no political agenda in doing so. Their goal was not to advertise a new economic policy, they simply reproduced the zeitgeist. These games offer the historian an outstanding and unique source with which to analyse dominant economic policy discourses in Austria in the 1990s, because they reflect the life-world of their developers.

3.    From Welfare State to Neoliberalism

It is noteworthy that this first peak phase of Austrian game production not only coincided with a phase of political transition in Austria, but in a broader sense, also with a cultural one, something which has not been researched fully so far:  After the end of the Cold War, Austria joined the European Union. The so called “acquis Communautaire” was accompanied by far-reaching political changes, which then became even tougher in the context of the common monetary union (Ederer, Stockhammer & Cetkovic 2015, 54). In addition to the paradigm shift in foreign policy, there were also far-reaching changes on the social and economic policy side. Under the social-democrat chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970-1983), Austria relied on public debt and state spending to achieve full employment and with the “Austrian Industrial Holding” was able to rely on a huge network of nationalized companies, an economic policy that was later called Austrokeynesianism (Rathkolb 2005, p. 580). From 1977 on, Kreisky slowly turned away from deficit spending (Ederer, Stockhammer & Cetkovic 2015, 34).  This reorientation was reinforced especially under the Social Democrat Chancellor Franz Vranitzky (1986-1997), when “the SPÖ [Sozialistische Partei Österreich, Socialist Party Austria] [4] followed a course of ‘capitalist modernization’ with the efficiency of the market taking precedence over the social democratic model” (Gehler 2012, p. 166). The nationalized industry was criticized in public and not only by the Conservatives of the ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei / Austrian People’s Party) as outdated, cumbersome, inefficient and, above all, as a loss-making business (Korom 2012, p. 361). From 1987 and until 2006, public industries were partially or completely privatised one after the other: the Austrian oil and gas company OMV, the Austrian machine and engine factor SGP (Simmering Graz Pauker), the Austrian steel production, a production company for hospitals VAMED, the Austrian salt production, the Telekom Austria, the Austrian tobacco production, the Bank Austria, the Postal Service etc. (Jandratsits 2015). The privatization of the nationalized industries was accompanied by some drastic austerity measures – amounting to the near final rejection of state Keynesianism (Hemerijck, Unger & Visser 2000, 204).

The Austrian federal governments of the 1990s and early 2000s – first a coalition of the Social Democrat Party SPÖ and the Conservative Party ÖVP (1986-2000), later a coalition of the ÖVP and the far-right FPÖ (2000-2007) – adopted several austerity packages. The role of the state was redefined. The intention behind privatisation and deregulation policies were to reduce the state’s responsibility to provide a regulatory framework for the economy (Ederer, Stockhammer & Cetkovic 2015, p.37).  “With a new law, they transformed the state holding agency tasked with managing state participation in industrial sectors (Österreichischen Industrieholding Aktiengesellschaft) into a privatization agency” (Röth & Spies 2018).

The simultaneous transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy (Angelo/Marterbauer 2015, p. 61) offered many young Austrians new opportunities, the so-called new economy.[5] This era saw the first success of the Austrian games industry. In this way, a group of computer hobbyists was able to grow into successful entrepreneurs within a short period of time. A stock corporation was created and expanded at a breath-taking pace far beyond the borders of Austria.

4.    Max Design (1991-2004)

Max Design was founded in Schladming, a small former mining town in Styria by Wilfried Reiter and brothers Albert and Martin Lasser in 1991. In an APA-news item from 1992 they declare that they have made a job out of their hobby (APA0002, 09.09.1992). In an interview conducted by Daniel Koller, we hear from Reiter about how the three developers came from a hobbyist-culture. According to Reiter, their passion was sparked by the C64 in 1985. Directly after unpacking their home computer they started to program their first animations: “Due to a lack of available documentation it was endless trial and error in the beginning, but we got better and better and we spurred each other on to better and better programming skills and better and better looking pixel graphics” [6] (Koller 07.08.2018). Their first commercial game was the appropriately titled Cash, a shipowner business simulation game for the Commodore Amiga 1991 (Nettelbeck 1991).

 Notwithstanding the mixed reviews of the first game (Nettelbeck 1991) the company achieved recognition in Austria and Germany for its challenging business simulations. (APA0013, 06.05.1998) In 1992 the historical trading simulation 1869 – Hart am Wind followed, in which the players took on the role of a shipowner at the end of the 19th century. The 120 pages thick manual testifies that the developers had invested a lot of time in the research for the game. The acknowledgements show that colleagues from the University of Salzburg, among others, had helped with the research (manual, title page). This led to an almost forty-page historical overview, written by one Johann Schil[ch]er with the help of “John Wood” [7] describing the topics of imperialism (manual p. 16-19), colonialism (manual p. 20-33) and migration (manual p. 34-41). The (German) manual was explicitly praised in a separate APA news item (APA0001, 09.09.1992). The game itself is a lovingly designed trading simulation (ibidem).  Players have to buy goods cheaply and sell them expensively and at the same time keep an eye on the running costs of their team and possibly also the coal consumption. At the same time, it is important to keep track of the political developments in the ‘world’, because unrest and wars mean additional threats to profit. The game principle is similar to Sid Meier’s Pirates (MicroProse 1987) and Ports of Call (Ageis Interactive Software 1987) – or for that matter Cash. Aesthetically, I suspect that the television series The Onedin Line (Cyril Abraham, BBC 1971-1980), which was shown on Austrian television in the 1980s, inspired the shipowner narrative. The game was extremely well received in the German gaming press. The German editors were particularly taken with the economic mechanics (Nettelbeck 1992). In ASM, the developers at Max Design are referred to as “business experts” (Hink 1992).

Max Design’s subsequent game Burntime, released in 1993 was basically another trade simulation game, but this time was in the guise of a roleplaying game and set in the aftermath of a devastating ecological disaster. There was again a manual, which reported in detail about the accident at Chernobyl (Burntime manual p. 24-27) but also about global warming and the greenhouse effect (Burntime manual 32-57) across almost 30 pages. Besides the trade mechanics, the game also contains attempts at political simulation. The players have to find followers to become the emperor of the Wasteland, here reminiscent of the game Kaiser (1984). In 1994 and 1995 Oldtimer (in English Motor City) and Albert Lasser’s Clearing House followed. The first was a simulation of the automobile industry and the second a stock trading simulation. While the former was still praised for the authentic historical replication of the automobile industry in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century (Duy 1994, p. 10-11), the latter received only mixed reviews (Borovskis 1995, p. 76).  According to the developers themselves, the mid-1990s saw a low point in the gaming studio. In an interview with Koller for Der Standard, Wilfried Reiter explains that the wrong partner was brought on board and it was difficult to secure the rights to one’s own games and thus they barely scraped past insolvency (Koller 07.08.2018).  “But we pulled ourselves together, tightened our belts and kept going. And we succeeded incredibly well. The first game after this low phase was to become the most successful game in German gaming history at that time and for many years afterwards,” Reiter explains. He was talking about Anno 1602, the strategy game and origin of a game series that is still successful today (now without Austrian input). In several respects, this game marks the high point in the company’s history. It was described as being “cutting edge software” in a news item from the APA (APA0013, 06.05.1998), and was lauded for its intricate economic simulation n the German video game press (Duy 1998, p.128-130). The game mechanics focus on trade and profit margins, but are supplemented by rudimentary aspects of diplomacy and most importantly the construction of settlements, here comparable to the Sim City (Maxis 1989) or Die Siedler (Blue Byte 1993) series. The manual was again – despite a tutorial – comprehensive, but this time a historical contextualization was omitted. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read. The following sentence is marked bold: “Keeping your citizenry satisfied should always be your main goal.“ (Anno 1602 manual, p.3). The majority of the buildings can be technologically upgraded throughout the game to please the colony’s citizens, which produces more cash for the colony, with which the player can in turn continue upgrading his colony and expand to other islands. This also means that the actual goal of the game, despite the aforementioned sentence in the manual, is not to satisfy the settlers’ needs but rather to maximise expansion. Anno 1602 (1998) and its successor Anno 1503 (2002) were developed together with the German game developer Sunflowers. Anno 1602 sold more than 2.5 million copies and became the best-selling game ever developed in the German-speaking world (OTS0015, 06.09.2002). It won the Austrian Staastpreis for Multimedia in 1999 in the category “Unterhaltung, Spiele, Freizeit” (OTS0183, 24.06.1999). Anno 1503 was also a success and sold more than 200,000 copies in Germany in less than two weeks (OTS0015, 06.09.2002) – both games sold more than 4.4 million copies worldwide (Mitgutsch & Rosenstingl 2015, 72). After the success of Anno 1503, the team decided to dissolve the studio. Talking to Daniel Koller, Reiter explains in the interview that in order to be able to continue to exist on the world market, a lot of money and time would have had to be invested. Also, it would be necessary to leave their home town of Schladming, something they were unwilling to do (Deppe 2019). In 2004 Reiter and the Lasser brothers decided to dissolve Max Design (Koller 2018). 

5.    Neo Software (1993-2006)

In January 1993 – two years after Max Design – Neo Software was founded by Hannes Seifert, Niki Laber and Peter Baustädter, then located in Seifert’s house in the small town Hirtenberg in Lower Austria. They too emerged out of a hobbyist culture. Seifert had at this point already sold his first game for the Commodore 64 in 1987, the text adventure Der Verlassene Planet then published by the journal Markt & Technik. [8] According to Seifert this was the moment that his father stopped complaining about his hobby, when he saw that he could make money out of it (Esberger 2016). In contrast to Max Design they decided however to relocate their studio to Vienna in 1994 after the initial success of Whale’s Voyage (1993). In this part roleplaying game, part “trade simulation” (Stiller 1993, p. 45) the player takes the role of a crew of four space travellers stranded in space after making a bad deal purchasing the spacecraft “Whale”. Left orbiting a remote planet, they must use trade and skill to upgrade the ship enough to escape. In fact, the players quickly become involved in a political revolution against a character called General Noth and the “Federation”. Pirates also feature in the game (Nettelbeck 1993, p.44).  Matt Barton later described it as being “a combination of Firebird’s epic space-trading game Elite and SSI’s Eye of the Beholder, and vaguely reminiscent of Binary System’s earlier and much more successful Starflight series (1986, 1989) and Electronic Art’s Sentinel Worlds (1989)” (Barton 2007). In 1994, Neo Software published Der Clou! (in English The Heist) first for the Amiga then for the PC, an adventure game heavily inspired by heist movies like The Sting (George Roy Hill, US 1973), Topkapi (Jules Dassin, US 1964) and Ocean’s Eleven (Lewis Milestone, US 1960). Players assume the role of Matt Stuvysant in London after World War II. As a burglar, the player is tasked with finding accomplices, scouting potential targets, and plotting burglaries, down to the finest detail. The loot from a successful heist must then be sold to one of the three available dealers in order to earn money, which in turn can be invested in better tools. In the game, it is possible to steal the remains of Karl Marx out of the cemetery. Neo Software’s biggest success, however, was the building game Die Völker (in English published as Alien Nations), which is very similar to Anno 1602 – or for that matter the German game Die Siedler (The Settlers: Blue Byte 1993), but with a Science Fiction setting. In contrast to Max Design’s games which are characterized by serious themes and extensive research, Neo Software’s games and especially Die Völker are characterized by a humorous approach. By 2001, Die Völker had sold over 1 million copies worldwide, most of them in Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany and 80,000 in Russia.[9]  Shortly after that, the German company Computec Media AG bought 51 per cent of Neo Software (APA0250 01.06.1999), and sold it in 2000 to the British Gameplay.com PLC group (OTS0190, 23.02.2000).  In 2001, Gameplay, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, had to sell Neo Software to its shareholder Take Two for £1 (Fletcher 2001).  Since then, Neo Software has taken on commissioned work, and for example developing the extremely successful Xbox ports of Max Payne (2001), GTA 3 (2003) and GTA: Vice City (2003). Neo Software was rebranded by Take Two as Rockstar Vienna (Mitgutsch & Rosenstingl 2015, 74). The games they developed have achieved a turnover of 300 million dollars – with only 110 employees according to Daniel Koller (14.10.2018). In 2006, however, the Vienna studio was closed overnight by its parent company without warning and despite good results. A situation that most Austrians only know from the movies: The locks on the doors had been changed, security men dressed in black denied them access to their desks and led them in small groups to the meeting room and each employee was invited individually to a severance interview. Hundreds of employees were dismissed without notice. The KPÖ alone publicly criticized the procedure (APA0504, 12.05.2006; OTS0278, 12.05.2006). Some of the employees then founded the company Games That Matter. The studio was bought by Koch Media and ran for a short time under the name Deep Silver Vienna (Mitgutsch & Rosenstingl 2015, 74).

6.    Jowood (1995-2011)

JoWooD was the last bigger Austrian developer studio to be established. It was founded in 1995 in Ebensee, a market town with 7100 inhabitants in Upper Austria by Dieter Bernauer (later Bernauer-Schilcher), Johann Reitinger, Johann Schilcher, and Andreas Tobler with its headquarters later moved to Liezen, also in Sytria. In an interview from 2018, Dieter Bernauer-Schilcher explains that the studio emerged out of a “hobby project” (Koller 30.09.2018). According to Johann Schilcher, who already had some experience having programmed a game for the Atari ST, they began working on their first game Der Industriegigant in 1994 (Nettelbeck 1998, p. 68). The game was published in 1997. It is interesting to note that the game was closely followed in the Austrian press from the very beginning. As early as June 1997, a detailed news item was published by the Austrian Press Agency (APA0023, 16.06.1997). It was not short on superlatives. At the beginning of the interview, Johann Schilcher refuted comparisons with Bill Gates put to him by the interviewer. It is worthwhile to take a discourse-analytical perspective here to see which values are highlighted in the news item as positive: Since February 1996, at least 80 hours of work have been on the timetable week after week and when it comes to family, ‘quality instead of quantity’ is the motto (Ibidem).  Der Industriegigant received the Austrian state prize “Prix MultiMediaArt ’98” in March 1998 in the category “best computer game” (APA0132, 04.03.1998). The business simulation for Windows 95 sold a total of 800,000 copies and was translated into twelve languages. It has a similar game-play to Anno 1602 and Die Völker as a building game, heavily inspired by the success of Transport Tycoon (Nettelbeck 1998, p. 64), with the difference that it clarifies from the beginning that the game focuses on industrial production and distribution of goods. Already in the tutorial, you will learn that production and sales strongly influence the growth of cities. For example, department stores are extremely conducive to growth.

In the year 2000, the GmbH (limited company) went public. “The decision to lead ‘JoWooD’ to the capital market is the logical consequence of the outstanding corporate success of the last few years and the excellent future prospects” according to Managing Director Andreas Tobler (APA0231, 31.01.2000). In the same year, the traffic simulation game, Der Verkehrsgigant, was published. Politicians, like the Viennese City Councillor for traffic Fritz Svihalek were now also happy to show their support for the game developers (APA0288, 03.03.2000). The game was followed in 2002 by Der Industriegigant 2 and in 2004 by Der Transportgigant. Both aesthetically and in terms of game mechanics, the four economic simulations were very similar. The rendered intro videos set the tone: growth and progress. The game mechanics educate the players to plan production processes as efficiently as possible. Wages should be kept low if feasible. But what should not happen under any circumstances – as you can read in the tutorial of Der Industriegigant 2 for example – is that the workers have nothing to do.

The IPO of JoWooD was accompanied by an internal reorientation: “The company intends to use the proceeds […] to pursue an active acquisition policy, expand its online product range and increasingly use the Internet for online gaming, e-commerce, merchandising, promotion and community building.” (APA0403, 30.05.2000). This was followed by an almost breathtakingly rapid, if not purposeful expansion: The company changed successively from a developer to a publisher and went on a Europe-wide shopping tour of smaller developers and publishers (APA0610, 18.05. 2001; APA0099, 01.09.2000; APA0078 5, 12.12.2000; APA0127, 03.05.2001).  At first, everything went well. Sales increased by 36 per cent in 2000 (APA0202, 25.08.2000). The turnover doubled in comparison to the previous year (APA0258, 18.10.2000). International distribution partnerships and branches in Germany, Great Britain and Japan followed in 2001 (APA0580, 10.07.2000; APA0111, 01.02.2001; APA0607, 21.03.2001 and APA0092, 11.05.2001). In May 2001, Wilhelm Hamrozi, former CEO of Sunflowers, was added as Chief Operating Officer COO to the Executive Board (APA0084, 01.05.2001). The turnover continued to increase in 2001 (APA0151, 23.08.2001). There were however signs of internal problems: Johann Schilcher resigned as technical director and officially wanted to concentrate on developing games (APA0268, 05.06.2002). In September 2002, there were further changes in the supervisory board “due to differing views on the corporate strategy” (APA0565, 30.09.2002). Shortly afterwards, a sales and profit warning for the whole of 2002 was issued (APA0040, 08.10.2002). Six days later, the share price plunged by 80 per cent (APA0194, 14.10.2002). The workforce of 280 employees was to be halved (APA0169, 18.12.2002).  Shareholders – relieved by these “measures” – then gave the “green light for capital increase” (APA0531, 18.12.2002). The company’s future seemed to be secure once again. In the first quarter of 2003, a positive consolidated result was again achieved (APA0099, 14.05.2003). While supervisory board remuneration in Austria rose by an average of 2.9 per cent from 2002 to 2003, the average for the JoWooD supervisory board was 33 per cent (APA0145, 15.10.2004). In December 2004, however, the JoWooD supervisory board resigned as one: shareholder groups made realignment impossible, the APA reported (APA0488, 16.12.2004).  Andreas Rudas, former SPÖ federal managing director, became the new chairman of the supervisory board and stayed until 2006 (APA0131, 23.12.2004). In January 2005, the share price plunged again by 16 per cent after a sales warning (APA0258, 19.01.2005). As a reaction to this, among other things, JoWooD closed the original site in Ebensee (APA0124, 26.01.2005). In March, insolvency rumours made the rounds (APA0619, 04.03.2005). Four days later it became public, JoWood had made a loss of 21.3 million euros in 2004 (APA0096, 08.03.2005). A package of measures was put together. Again, there were job losses (APA0133, 03.05.2005). The share recovered once again at the beginning of 2006 (APA0160, 27.04.2006). After changes in the executive board, JoWood boss Alfred Seidl then examined claims for damages against his two predecessors, company founder Andreas Tobler and Michael Pistauer (APA0404, 27.04.2006). The company expanded again and the turnover increased again in the next years. In October 2009, JoWooD went on another shopping spree. In 2010, disillusionment followed. The annual result for 2009 was revised downwards (APA0454, 22.09.2010). In January 2011, a final APA-EILT announcement: “Listed JoWooD insolvent – reorganisation proceedings applied for” (APA0319, 07.01.2011). 

Looking back, Schilcher later explained in an interview that the early IPO (initial public offering) had been a big mistake; “An Economically healthy development was practically no longer possible.” Excessive expectations, claims to shareholders that were out of touch with reality, and a resulting increase in excessive demands led to a toxic working climate (Fröhlich 2011). Starting with an internationally successful game – Der Industriegigant – the company had – here following the zeitgeist – rapidly expanded. Since its games themselves did not generate enough profit for further expansion despite their success, the company went public and shifted the business to sales, to accumulate enough capital to rapidly expand. The company’s own game production had apparently not been enough for the growth promised to shareholders. An aggressive expansion policy kept the share price high. The press and politicians were enthusiastic. The management board was expanded. The company expanded rapidly and without a real goal – except for expansion as an end in itself. But when crisis hit, it became apparent that there was no real substance to fall back on. In the process, quality control soon fell by the wayside. A famous example of this was Gothic 3 (Piranha Bytes 2006), which was unfinished at the time of release, and received terrible reviews and flopped.

7.    Concluding remarks

These are preliminary observations of a turbulent and fascinating period of Austrian contemporary history. For a truly meaningful analysis, however, extensive research of all games and the entire news coverage would be required. I am convinced, that it is urgently necessary to finally scientifically reappraise the history of the Austrian – and for that matter German and Swiss! – games industry, also in the sense of a thorough global history of digital games (Köstlbauer, Pfister, Winnerling & Zimmermann 2018). Hopefully in the near future I will have the opportunity to deal with it in detail together with my colleagues. Nevertheless, even these first observations allow some interesting and illuminating conclusions about the history of ideas of the games themselves as well as the history of the developers. There is for one a mesmerizing resonance between the narratives and mechanics of the games and the story of their developers – expansion as a goal of its own.

The story of Max Design, Neo Software and JoWooD reads like a didactic play on the New Economy. One company – Max Design – became successful, realized that despite its success it could no longer keep up with the world market and stopped at the peak of its success. One company – Neo Software – became successful, looked for investors, was bought by different bigger companies and then closed down overnight without official reasons. One company finally – JoWooD – became successful, wanted to grow faster and therefore went public and shifted its business towards sales. It grew and grew until it suddenly collapsed into itself. The developers at the origin of these companies presented themselves as former hobbyists (mostly computer science students) that made a fortune out of their hobby. Most of them knew each other from their student days and, especially in the beginning, they worked together across company boundaries. Seifert, for example, made the music for 1869 and Burntime. Johann Schilcher wrote the manual for both games.

So, while the biographies of the developers clearly followed a neoliberal expansionist narrative, the situation in the games themselves is a little bit more complex. Here we can for instance find some faint remnants of a welfare state way of thinking. We could for instance argue that in Anno 1602, the aim is to keep an eye on the contentment of the population and to serve them centrally by satisfying their needs. The same is true for Die Völker and Der Industriegigant, where the satisfaction of the workers has to be regulated. This is all the more remarkable, when we take into account that the satisfaction of those workers of JoWood who were dismissed over the years, was not mentioned in the related news items. Especially in the games of Max Design, the detailed additional materials and information in the manuals showed a strong interest of the developers in the solution of overarching societal problems, such as global warming in Burntime. At the same time, we encounter in these games – whether consciously or unconsciously – central thought patterns of neoliberalism: There is – and this is perhaps the most important moment here – the crushing supremacy of economic thinking. Whether colonizing the New World, building up society after the ecological collapse, a career as a thief or a SF adventure: trade and sale of goods are always core game mechanics (Baur 1999). Regardless of the setting, we always learn to maximize our profits quickly and are encouraged by the games to continue to expand. In this sense, we can assume – with all caution – that these games also functioned as learning instances in Austria and beyond. They propagated core statements of a neoliberal economic system, which were “naturalized” through constant repetition. Above all, however, they are exciting sources of a popular cultural discourse on economic policy, which is particularly evident in the fascinating resonance between game content, or rather game mechanics, and the history of game developers.

References

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[1] “Frantz“ in Chess Programming Wiki, retrieved from URL: https://www.chessprogramming.org/Frantz (01.03.2021). Many thanks to Tobias Winnerling for the information!
[2] There is also an Austrian MUD called Holy Mission, created at the University of Linz in 1992 and still active today.
[3] The news items from the Austrian Press Agency (APA) and the press releases from the Original Text Service (OTS) were retrieved by the author via the APA-Online-Manager tool.
[4] The „Sozialistische Partei Österreich“ was renamed under Franz Vranitzky in 1991 to „Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreich“.
[5] Today, we inevitably associate the term ‘new economy’ with the dot-com bubble, and in Austria the biographies of Werner Böhm, founder of Y-Line, which filed for insolvency in 2001 and André Rhettberg, who led Libro AG into bankruptcy in 2002 and was sentenced to three years in prison for fraudulent bankruptcy. „Neue Anzeige gegen Andre Rettberg“ in: derstandard.at, 17.08.2010, URL: https://www.derstandard.at/story/1281829382457/ex-libro-chef-neue-anzeige-gegen-andre-rettberg (01.03.2021)
[6] All quotations were translated into English by the author.
[7] Johann Schilcher later founded JoWooD together with his colleagues Dieter Bernauer, Johann Reitinger and Andreas Tobler [most probably John Wood].
[8] In: C64-Wiki, URL: https://www.c64-wiki.de/wiki/Der_verlassene_Planet (01.03.2021).
[9] „JoWood in Russland“, in: gamestar.de 20.04.2001, via archive.org, URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20181202032438/https://www.gamestar.de/artikel/jowood-in-russland,1336864.html (01.03.2021)


Eugen Pfister

Eugen Pfister leitet das SNF-Ambizione-Forschungsprojekt "Horror-Game-Politics" an der Hochschule der Künste Bern - HKB. Er forscht zu digitalen Spielen als historische Quellen (spielkult.hypotheses.org).

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