Home » “Heaven is Furnished by IKEA:” A Look Inside Indie Dev Mecca Spelkollektivet

“Heaven is Furnished by IKEA:” A Look Inside Indie Dev Mecca Spelkollektivet

by Josh Griffiths
Spelkollektivet exterior

In the Swedish countryside lies the sleepy town of Väckelsång, just a few miles from one of the country’s many lakes. Located in the middle of the woods and with a population of only about 900, life there is peaceful. Thanks to Spelkollektivet and its Scholarship Program, it’s also joyous. This initiative grants three teams of indie developers a free two-month stay at an indie game commune designed to give devs a place to relax and work on their games.

Beginning in late 2019 with open submissions that led to a selection process, it was the fans who ultimately voted for the three winners. This monumental step for Spelkollektivet marked the first time they were able to open their doors to residents for a free extended stay. However, the history of the Swedish commune stretches back further than this program.

What is Spelkollektivet?

Spelkollektivet (meaning “Game Collective”) is a co-working and co-living habitat for indie game developers. There, they can work on their games together in peace without having to worry about a high cost-of-living. Anyone wanting to stay pays around 450€ per month (about $489) or around 112€ per week (about $121). That gets devs a furnished bedroom, utilities, three meals a day, unlimited internet access, a workstation, TV rooms for chilling out, a place to do the laundry, and even a gym. Developers only have to pay for travel and bring their own equipment.

“The first ideas were written down in 2014. We moved into the first house Q1 2017 but officially we started on the 1st of September 2017,” James Newnorth, founder of the commune told us.

James Newnorth, founder of Spelkollektivet
James Newnorth teaching a class at Spelkollektivet.

Newnorth, New Ideas

In an industry full of interesting individuals, you won’t find many like James. He got their start as an indie developer at the age of 11, working on small games during their spare time. “I released an MMO back in 2002, but professionally I mainly worked with software development,” Newnorth said. The MMO, called Magnatorm, performed well for its time. But after the server went down when his computer died, there are few traces of it left on the internet.

The passion for game development never left James, though, even as he worked in software. As he grew older, he gradually made friends in the Swedish indie games scene. A lot of them were having the same problem, and they told Newnorth about it. That’s what led to Spelkollektivet.

“I had a lot of friends trying to make it as indie developers, and one by one they went insane or gave up due to financial pressure. We were all living in a big city, alone, with a bigger apartment than we actually needed. We could have saved a lot of money by joining up together in one apartment.”

Turning an Idea Into Reality

It’s a simple idea: Friends with common interests and goals work together to further their dreams and save a few bucks. Yet, it’s not an idea that’s easy to achieve. This isn’t necessarily the communist utopia or cult some may think it is. Nonetheless, in a video on Spelkollektivet’s YouTube channel, former resident and developer Simone Mändl said many indie developers she spoke to think “This is a cult!” when they first hear of it.

450€ a month isn’t a lot of money to run an apartment complex, so Newnorth needs other sources of income. “We receive a lot of help from the municipality, but no money or any other support from the upper government,” Newnorth says. “Right now a lot of the funding is based upon me doing consultancy work on the side.”

But that’s not the only source of Spelkollektivet’s income.

Spelkollektivet the Publisher

In the past, Spelkollektivet helped produce games like Croco Baby Transmission, Ord, and Gekraxel, the latter of which was the first published officially by Spelkollektivet, and co-developed by Newnorth. But lately, Spelkollektivet and Newnorth have been getting into the publishing game.

Exterior of Spelkollektivet
Spelkollektivet.

Publishing games is both another source of income for the commune and another way to help developers. Those who sign up for the publisher program get “free accommodation during the development plus extra for support after release, and hands-on help with programming, graphics, etc.” Developers also get marketing support and a 50/50 split without recoup (so from day 1 they get money from their sales, something most publishers don’t do). And if another publisher offers a better deal, Newnorth would be willing to be bought out or give up a majority of his split.

An Idea Blossoming to Life

According to Newnorth, Spelkollektivet was a success out of the gate. Convincing a bunch of game developers to come and live in a small schoolhouse in the Swedish countryside might sound like a big ask, but that hasn’t been the case. Within two days of opening their doors, they had enough bookings to last two years.

It says a lot about how far the idea has come that Newnorth could start the Spelkollektivet Scholarship Program, where three teams of indie developers get to spend two months there free while receiving the same benefits as everyone else. The winners only need to pay for travel and bring their own computer equipment.

One of those winners, is the team at Blueprint Games, a small studio working on musical 3D platformer Billie Bust Up. “I first learned of their scholarship program through a promotional tweet. I got extremely excited at the opportunity of living and spending time with other developers,” says Katie Nelson, creator of Billie Bust Up. “Spelkollektivet seemed like the solution to the repetitive grind I have been experiencing for the past 4 years after graduation.”

Billie Bust Up, a musical 3D Platformer
Billie Bust Up, currently under development at Spelkollektivet by Katie Nelson and Blueprint Games.

Placeholder Games – the team working on the soon-to-release Death and Taxes – is another winner. “I thought that it was an exciting opportunity and a bit ‘too good to be true,’ but at that time I was still a student and didn’t have any money so I put off the idea of moving here on the side for some time,” Leene Künnap of Placeholder Games said.

His teammate, Ott “Oak” Madis, agrees. “It was definitely a surprise that we got it, because we basically entered at the last minute. It was also a very tight race and, admittedly, we did put a lot of time into it after we entered the application.”

Life at Spelkollektivet

The beginnings of Spelkollektivet were much humbler than they are now. The first iteration of Spelkollektivet wasn’t at Väckelsång, nor was it a large, beautiful home. “It was located in Fridafors; an even smaller town located 30 minutes from the new house. It was a wooden school building built in 1910 something; and it was unfortunately too small. With only 700sqm we could only fit up to 12 people there.”

Newnorth enjoys their new location, saying “It’s amazing. The neighbours are amazing, [and there are] a lot of non-profit activities happening all the time to keep people active and happy.”

“It felt like home and we knew right away that we wanted to stay for longer and started thinking about how to manage it so that we could make our stay longer than [the three] months that we first booked,” says Madis, describing the feeling of first arriving. What’s so special about Spelkollektivet that would make a team of developers want to completely change their plan to stay longer?

“The people, the food, the nature here… amazing. Really happy about how the bedrooms look, too. Really minimalistic black and white furniture. Heaven is furnished by IKEA.”

Katie Nelson has similar thoughts. “It was a bit overwhelming at first!” she admits. When she first arrived, the commune was holding one of its many game jams, allowing extra people to stay (some for free) while they hurried to complete their work. “However, I got a strong sense of how wonderful everyone in this house truly is. I sat down in the dining room and was instantly approached by several developers eager to introduce themselves and chat. After the game jam ended, it started to calm down and I felt a lot more relaxed and instantly at home with everyone.”

A Sense of Community

A sense of community was the biggest takeaway from these interviews. Developers who resided at Spelkollektivet for any amount of time feel lucky they could go, not just for the low cost-of-living, but for the friends they made while there. “On top of the games stuff it was just very fun living there,” says Annika Maar, who lived at Spelkollektivet in 2019 while she worked on School Wars!!, a comedic RPG set in a high school where the rich kids and underdogs are at war. “Having a lot of creative like-minded people around is just amazing – and you always have enough friends around for karaoke or playing games.”

And should any guests misbehave or not do their work? “We talk to them to make sure it won’t happen again,” says Newnorth, “…and if it does we cancel the contract and they must leave.”

Spelkollektivet’s Impact on the Games

Packing up your belongings and moving to Sweden for an extended period is something only the most dedicated indie developers would do. Chances are, they’re also the most experienced, and being around those who have been around the block awhile is always a valuable thing.

“I got a lot of feedback for the art and game design from the super talented people that were staying at the time,” Marr says. “I also learned a lot about the business side of games and without this I wouldn’t be applying for funding and trying to find investors now.”

Aside from feedback, Annika Maar found even more at Spelkollektivet. During her time there in 2019, she picked up a new team member in Joni Levinkind, who she met at Spelkollektivet. “We hit it off right away and became close friends super quickly,” Maar said. “He’s insanely talented and very passionate about the project and I’m 100% confident that together we can deliver an awesome game.” Levinkind would later join the School Wars!! team as a programmer.

Nowhere Prophet is a deck-building strategy game, partially developed at Spelkollektivet.

Another attendant in 2019 was Martin Nerurkar, creative director on last year’s Nowhere Prophet. Nerurkar was in a very different and difficult place from Annika Maar when he arrived at Spelkollektivet.

“Initially I thought I’d be done with Nowhere Prophet by [the time I got to Spelkollektivet] so that this would be a calmer time where I could do some aftercare on the game. However that didn’t quite pan out that way,” Nerurkar lamented. “Nowhere Prophet was delayed into July and so instead of having a lot of time to chill out I was still working on the game.”

It was Nerurkar’s time at Spelkollektivet that allowed him to settle down and try new things. He felt the game was in a solid place, so it was the perfect time to innovate–specifically with the game’s crucial equipment system. “It was always okay, but I wanted to see if it could get better and so the idea for Powers was prototyped and implemented. That didn’t make it less stressful, but it was super valuable to have other devs close by to give it a look and to provide feedback.”

That kind of communal feedback and interaction isn’t something a lone developer or team can get on their own.

Easing the Burden

Making indie games is both easier and harder than ever. It’s easier because there are more tools to make games – tools that are themselves easier to use – and more places to release games. There are also more opportunities to market games thanks to social media and popular influencers on YouTube and Twitch. And if the self-publishing route isn’t for you, there are a bevy of indie-focused publishers out there now too like Devolver Digital or Chucklefish.

A typical, single bed room at Spelkollektivet
A standard, single bed room at Spelkollektivet.

But it’s also more difficult for those same reasons. The accessibility of indie game development means more developers, which in turn means more competition. More and more video games come out every year, and storefronts like Steam and Itch.io are flooded with mediocre titles. With that kind of quantity, trying to stand out can be like screaming in a crowded room.

It’s difficult to quantify the benefit of a place like Spelkollektivet for indie developers, but the anecdotal evidence speaks for itself. Those who spent any time there insist it helped, growing them as developers and improving their games. Networks are also being formed, which is an essential part of game development on any level.

The Spelkollektivet Scholarship Program

Conceived by Newnorth, the program is a way to open Spelkollektivet’s doors to more creators.

“We thought we would have a very low amount of residents in February-March, and since people is the best part about Spelkollektivet, we figured we should give out some free spots here during those months,” says Newnorth. “This would help people who otherwise might not afford to come here, and it would help us keep the house warm and nice. We did however have a lot more bookings than expected, so now we’re more or less fully booked.”

Developers at Spelkollektivet hard at work
Spelkollektivet indie developers hard at work.

Beginning in late 2019, the application process was as simple as filling out a form. Hopeful developers had to email Newnorth with what they wanted to achieve during their stay. From there, applicants went through an interview process and were asked about their goals and what they were working on. This led to a group of nine finalists, where a public vote would decide the three winners.

The vote took place in late November and early December. After tallying over 1,000 votes, the three winners were announced on December 2nd: Blueprint Games, Placeholder Games, and Twisted Ramble Games (currently working on 2D puzzle platformer Duru). They began their two-month stay in the Swedish countryside on February 1st, and their final day will be March 31st.

“I was shaking when I heard we got through,” says Nelson. Before departing, she shared her feelings of optimism and nervousness. “I had gotten quite excited after hearing we’d made the first round and naturally the more I heard about Spelkollektivet the more I wanted to go. Although I’m quite nervous about leaving my family for two months, I think it will be worth it!”

The Past and Future of Spelkollektivet

Annika Maar says her team is currently looking to secure funding for School Wars!! “It’s looking really good and I can’t believe I’m so close to living the dream of working on this full time!”

Developers at Spelkollektivet enjoying a meal together
Developers at Spelkollektivet enjoying a meal together.

As for Martin Nerurkar, who spent five years working on Nowhere Prophet, he’s ready for a change. He plans on starting a travel project called Way Lost later this year. He’ll give up his apartment and travel the world in 2020, staying with friends, making new ones along the way, and creating new games when he can. “Spelkollektivet was definitely part of the decision-making [process] for that,” Nerurkar says. “In fact, after coming back from Spelkollektivet I felt energized – so much so that I decided to spend a month in Vienna last year, working from there!”

Both plan on going back to Spelkollektivet soon, if not this year. And that’s why the future of the little commune in the middle of the woods looks a lot like its past. So many former and current residents want to go back, and when they get there, they don’t want to leave. Newnorth tells us they’ve got residents who have been there for two years now.

What’s Next for the Scholarship Winners?

Like Annika Maar and Martin Nerurkar, Blueprint and Placeholder have different reasons for attending. Death and Taxes releases February 20th, and Placeholder Games is focusing on putting on the finishing touches and laying the groundwork for their next game. Blueprint Games, meanwhile, is still early in the development of Billie Bust Up. They expect to finish pre-production and have a vertical slice ready for a Kickstarter campaign down the line.

Speaking of Death and Taxes, Newnorth is excited for the game, as it’s one he personally helped get the ball rolling for. “I was on the team for a game jam, in which we won quite a bit of funding…I’m not part of the team developing the game now, but they are staying in the house making the game.”

Exterior view of Spelkollektivet

For now, the teams at Placeholder and Blueprint (as well as Twisted Ramble) are settling in. Ahead of them, they have the arduous task of making a video game to look forward to. But the opportunity and excitement are not lost on them.

“Everything about it felt right,” says Oak Madis. “Took about a week to settle in, and after that it was smooth sailing. It’s full of like-minded people who are approachable and friendly, and anything we needed help with – it wasn’t a problem. It’s… home.”

“It was more magical than I could have ever imagined, I was expecting it to be good but not THAT good,” says Katie Nelson. “They started a bonfire and we roasted marshmallows as fellow homies jammed together on the guitar and recorder, playing multiple songs from famous games. It almost felt like I’d known these people my whole life, and I belonged.”

“It’s Not For Everyone”

James hopes to make Spelkollektivet free to every developer someday in the future. But they also have bigger plans. Their ultimate goal is “To make [Spelkollektivet] a place where people can consider living the rest of their lives, and start a family.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Newnorth closes, “but it’s great for those who want it just like this.”

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