How Finnish mobile developers are preparing to soar in a post-Angry Birds' world

Taking advantage of the uplift

How Finnish mobile developers are preparing to soar in a post-Angry Birds' world
I've been sat in the back of a Finnish taxi for 15 minutes, wondering how to initiate a conversation with the driver.

The phrase book, which I purchased in a fit of panic at the airport on the way over, provides little help, with impossibly long and complex looking utterances beyond my linguistic ken.

Fortunately there's a cultural export which has travelled worldwide as the driver turns to me and asks (in perfect English) if I know who Peter Vesterbacka is?

Coincidentally, I'm going to have dinner with Rovio's chief marketing officer tomorrow.

Gliding like a mighty eagle

Games aren't just Finland's number one cultural export. They have - thanks to Angry Birds - become a national talking point.

And there could be no more potent an example than the news story the following day. Like something lifted from the pages of Hello magazine, Vesterbacka's wife strutted her stuff at the presidential Finnish Independence Day party wearing that now infamous Red Bird-themed dress.

But when asked during our press dinner how the dress went down, Vesterbacka casually brushed it off. The president didn't look happy, he stated whilst sipping on a cocktail like a nonchalant rockstar (he was wearing his characteristic Red Bird hoodie at the time).

Evidence of success for the Finnish mobile games industry doesn't just come in the form of tabloid headlines, however.

This summer, there were estimated to be over 70 games companies in Finland, including established console developers such as Remedy, RedLynx and Housemarque, mobile veterans like 10tons, Rovio and Digital Chocolate, plus dozens of recent start ups such as Grey Area, Grand Cru, and Supercell.

KooPee Hiltunen, director at research firm NeoGames, reckons there are an estimated 1,264 people working in the industry, not including outside contracters. In comparison, this number is about the same as in Sweden, despite its population being twice the size of Finland.

More significant, though, is the sector's growing financial power, with turnover of €165 million in 2011 up from €105 million in 2010, with Hiltunen expressing the importance of the Angry Birds' factor.

"Angry Birds has created a Finland we have never seen before," he says, before raising his arms in a non-plussed shrug and adding in typical Finnish understatement, "It was just a game".

Out of the nest

The number of startups sprouting as a result of Rovio's success means that 2012 is expected to be an even bigger year as more games are released.

Examples include single screen multiplayer outfit Tuokio, one of the exciting teams coming through the ranks at the Manse Games project at the New Factory in Tampere, alongside Ovelin, which is behind the innovative guitar teaching game WildChords.

Hiltunen outlines why mobile has become such a hotbed of activity in Finland, pointing out that even Remedy, most famous for its console hits Max Payne and Alan Wake is getting in on the act. The iOS remake of its 1996 title Death Rally recently hit 1.8 million downloads too.

Of course, the presence of Nokia, despite its current travails, means Finnish industry has long been mobile focused.

But it's the rise of iOS, in particular, that Hiltunen says presents the opportunity for everyone from the most established triple-A developers to the bedroom start up to develop cheaply and with few technical barriers.

This drive can be seen elsewhere too. Housemarque, a developer which has been around since 1995, found iOS has provided the ideal way to develop its own IP without the need for publishers. The physics-based puzzler Furmins, due out in January 2012, will be its first self published title.

Funding the Finns

But it's not all about games. Working behind the scenes are funding bodies such as public agency Tekes and private group LifeLine Ventures.

Tekes, a non-profit organisation which has been around for 10 years, is responsible for total investment of €550 million, with two thirds of that figure focused on companies' R&D and innovation projects. The rest funds universities, colleges and research institutes.

"Tekes' long-sighted perspective and systematic funding for the Finnish game industry has brought many success stories and economic wealth," says Malte Behrmann of the European Games Developer Federation.

"Its funding alone surpasses the whole EU funding for games."

But that's not to say there's no risk. Lifeline Ventures, a group of like-minded serial entrepreneurs including Ilkka Paananen, previously of Digital Chocolate and now CEO of Supercell, is prepared to take a few hits in its pursuit of the next Angry Birds success story.

"Some of the companies will fail, just not yet," says Petteri Koponen, one of the Lifeline's founding partners, who himself has set up five companies, including selling social portal Jaiku to Google.

Indeed, sitting in my taxi on the way back to the airport, I can't help thinking about the positive outlook these companies are demonstrating in what's an infamously intense and risky business.

My new taxi driver looks into his mirror.

"So," he says. "Did you see that dress?"

When Matt was 7 years old he didn't write to Santa like the other little boys and girls. He wrote to Mario. When the rotund plumber replied, Matt's dedication to a life of gaming was established. Like an otaku David Carradine, he wandered the planet until becoming a writer at Pocket Gamer.