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5 things we learned about Supercell from Ilkka Paananen's BAFTA Games lecture

The world's least powerful CEO in the spotlight
5 things we learned about Supercell from Ilkka Paananen's BAFTA Games lecture

Nominally, BAFTA is the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

But with the organisation increasingly expanding its remit to include interactive media, you might as well add 'Games' in there somewhere.

If it didn't ruin such a tidy acronym, that is.

In good company

The annual BAFTA Games Lecture has become a yearly staple, inviting the likes of Hideo Kojima, Jade Raymond, and David Cage to address a crowded theatre in BAFTA's plush Piccadilly headquarters since 2007.

2016 marks the first year that a mobile developer has been put in the spotlight, as Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen took the stage to discuss the unique company culture that creates some of the world's most successful games. was in attendance, and keen to absorb as much insight as possible from the self-proclaimed "world's least powerful CEO."

Here are the most significant (or just plain interesting) things we learned about Supercell from the lecture.

#1: Happy accident

Happy accident

Ilkka Paananen, CEO of arguably the world's most successful games studio right now, cannot make games.

An Industrial Engineering graduate, he has no background in game design, programming, or art whatsoever.

Indeed, he revealed that his games career was largely "an accident."

Landing on his feet

Answering a call to do "everything else" but development at an ambitious young Finnish studio - an unpaid position for which he was the only applicant - Paananen was made CEO of what became Sumea.

Ilkka Paananen takes the stage
Ilkka Paananen takes the stage

The studio was acquired by Digital Chocolate in 2004, and Paananen had been promoted to President of the Californian firm by 2010.

Six months after this, he left to attempt a new venture. And the rest, as they say, is history.

#2: Stifled by process

Stifled by process

Paananen's approach to leadership has changed a lot over the years.

A far cry from his current management style, his talk revealed an obsession with logic and organisation that grew to stifle the company in its early days.

"Everything had to be logical," said Paananen. "That had a big impact on how I wanted to organise and run the company."

This meant that there were a number of process layers in place that "looked good on paper," but actually "introduced bureaucracy, introduced slowness, and some of the more creative people started to leave."

Too much, too fast

This was only exacerbated by rapid growth, which Paananen reflected upon as "a mistake" that increased the complexity of internal processes and threatened to shift the company culture.

An example is the so-called 'Green Light Document', which stipulated than any project would have to be approved by all company departments before going ahead.

In hindsight, Paananen considers this dangerously close to "design by committee."

"[It] doesn't lead to the creation of a good game, doesn't encourage any kind of risk taking," he said.

"Games as a business should not be run by processes," he summed up. "No matter how well-intentioned."

But it was as a direct response to this revelation that the Supercell company culture we know today began to emerge, with the team concluding that it should "manage the complexity [of process] by hiring better people, and then trusting those people."

Which brings us to the next point...

#3: Players first, management second

Players first, management second

Paananen believes that companies can learn something from sports teams.

"The real stars are the players, not the management or the coaches," he told the assembled crowd.

It's with this belief that Supercell shook up its entire company structure - now bottom-up - to give power to the development teams that make it all happen.

The role of Paananen and other higher-ups, then, is simply to "create the best environment for these guys and just get out of their way."

Allow creators to create

"People confuse the concept of a leader and leadership," he went on. "At Supercell we have 200 leaders, 200 entrepreneurs."

"It might seem a little idealistic, or even naive, but that's currently the goal."

However, not everyone is cut out - or even willing - to be a leader. This is reflected in the fact that Supercell hired a total of only six developers in 2015 - a very low average of one every two months.

The Supercell model laid bare
The Supercell model laid bare

And indeed, one of the comapny's explicit aims is to remain as small as possible.

"200 is way, way, way smaller than any of our competitors on a user metric sense," Paananen said.

But this does mean that there is a strong need for generalists at the studio, as its size and structure do not afford the luxury of specialism.

Some cells - the small, internal game teams that operate independently and come together to form Supercell - "might not even have a game designer."

Not for everyone

Paananen admitted that this, for some people, "can be stressful."

But for the right candidate, Supercell's approach is empowering to an extent that's unparalleled within the games industry.

Members of Supercell's Helsinki team in some downtime
Members of Supercell's Helsinki team in some downtime

"Nobody tells the games teams what to do, no matter what," he said.

For some who apply to Supercell, it can come as a shock that this is a policy that's actually enacted on a daily basis, rather than merely a PR-friendly line.

But Paananen was adamant that this company culture is not just skin deep.

"You have to take some time actually in the environment so that you truly appreciate how different it is," he added. 

#4: Ruthless ambition means killing games you love

Ruthless ambition means killing games you love

Killing games in soft launch has become a staple of the Supercell method.

In fact, it's killed so many - Spooky Pop and Smash Land being notable examples - that an internal joke about celebrating canned games with champagne has become a studio-wide tradition.

However, Paananen feels that this has given some the false impression that canning games is an experience that Supercell takes lightly - or perhaps even relishes.

"We are not trying to pretend that failing is fun, because it sucks," he said. "It absolutely sucks."

Champagne all round

"Some say we celebrate failure, but we don't. We celebrate the learnings from the failure, which are so valuable that they're worth celebrating."

For context, Paananen revealed that in the time it took to develop and launch Clash Royale, Supercell canned nine other projects.

The Supercell graveyard
The Supercell graveyard

"These aren't early prototypes," he added. "Some were developed to a very advanced stage."

An example of how tough it can be to kill off games is the aforementioned Smash Land, which was a popular game internally.

A personal favourite of Paananen's, he explained how he and other team members would play the game after hours with their friends and families. 

Close is not enough

"It was close to our hearts," he said.

The reason given at the time for the game's closure was that it was failing to meet internal company goals. What was not clear, however, was just how close it was.

"I'm pretty sure it would have been a top 25 grossing game, had it been released," he revealed.

"It was so close to meeting our metric goals, but it didn't."


Perhaps most revealing, though, is that Paananen was travelling when he got word of Smash Land's cancellation.

"They didn't even bother to consult me, which is brilliant," he beamed. It's a perfect example of the bottom-up culture Supercell is pioneering.

In essence, Paananen's philosophy is not to fear failure, but rather a lack of failure.

"One of my worst nightmares is if I realise I can't name any failures in the past year," he explained. "That would be a disaster."

This is because a company that never fails, also never innovates. And that's diametrically opposed to the Supercell approach.

#5: A Clash Royale prototype pre-existed Clash of Clans

A Clash Royale prototype pre-existed Clash of Clans

An interesting snippet is that Clash Royale was inspired by an internal prototype called The Summoners.

This prototype, which pre-dates Clash of Clans, was unearthed by one of the teams at Supercell, and was eventually iterated upon to create the synchronous PvP hit.

But when the original prototype emerged, the time wasn't right.

"Somebody, probably me, said 'this real-time PvP will never work, so let's just leave it,'" revealed Paananen.