Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen talks company culture, expansion plans and eSports

Digging deep after the BAFTA Games Lecture

Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen talks company culture, expansion plans and eSports

Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen's BAFTA Games Lecture provided a rare insight into one of the games industry's most unique and intriguing company cultures.

We learned a lot from the talk, including that Clash Royale was based on a prototype developed before Clash of Clans and that Paananen wants to bring Supercell's company culture to "teams in other locations."

At the same time, however, it also raised yet more questions. 

What is the exact nature of the firm's expansion ambitions? How does its games development process work? Is eSports still on the agenda?

For answers to all these and more, PocketGamer.biz caught up with Paananen after the lecture.

PocketGamer.biz: From your lecture, I was intrigued by how few people you hired in 2015. With only six eventually joining in development roles that year, roughly how many applicants did you consider?

Ilkka Paananen: I’m not sure of the exact number when it comes to developer roles, but the overall percentage of applicants who eventually join the team is around 1%.

When you do bring in new recruits, you mentioned that there's often a culture shock. What steps do you take to induct them as smoothly as possible?

It’s not so much a ‘culture shock’, it’s more that a lot of new recruits are shocked that the things we told them about our culture are actually true when they get here!

A lot of new recruits are shocked that the things we told them about our culture are actually true.
Ilkka Paananen

Although we talk a lot about independence of the teams, and many new hires tell us that appeals to them during the recruitment process, a lot of them are surprised by just how independent they are once they start work.

We really do trust our teams and people completely, and there is very little involvement from “managers” or processes that would tell them what to do.

The ‘onboarding’ process is about getting people to understand this quickly and the best way is to talk to people who have been here for a long time.

The nice thing about Supercell is that we are still relatively small. In Helsinki there are fewer than 150 people, so it’s much easier for people to get to know everyone and feel part of the team.

That makes the process of understanding the culture much easier.

It's difficult to think of another firm that functions similarly to Supercell. However, are there any companies, in gaming or otherwise, whose company culture you admire/are inspired by?

A few years before founding Supercell, I came across Netflix’s culture deck online and I was impressed by the way they described their culture, particularly the “freedom and responsibility” part of it.

Instead of managing complexity by introducing additional layers of management or process, they wanted to manage complexity by hiring better people and giving them more freedom.

They also said something along the lines of wanting to be a professional sports team instead of a family or kids recreational club. All of this was very inspirational for me at the time.

Netflix was an inspiration for what became the Supercell model.

We also admire the culture of Pixar, as it has been described in the book Creativity, Inc. There are so many great things and nuances about their culture that I won’t list them here, just go and read the book! 

We admire the culture of Pixar, as it has been described in the book Creativity, Inc.
Ilkka Paananen

In terms of another games company, we’re all really big fans of Riot; they share our approach to quality and thinking long-term, and I love the term “humbitious” (humble and ambitious) that they use to describe the core quality they look for in the people they hire.

You revealed that you're looking at “teams in other locations who would be interested in joining this type of environment". Would this entail acquisitions, or something else?

I know that this has caused quite a bit of speculation since the speech. I saw that even your Mobile Mavens commented on it!

It was very interesting to read what people like Harry Holmwood, Shintaro Kanaoya and John Ozimek thought we could do - acquisitions, new studios or something else entirely.

Thanks to them for their comments.

There are actually a couple of different ideas that we’re discussing internally at the moment. They range from investing in other like-minded developers to setting up remote studios in locations outside Helsinki.

Some of the existing Helsinki team.

One of our core values is about giving the very best talent the independence and resources they need to do what they do best.

There are a couple of different ideas, from investing in like-minded developers to setting up studios outside Helsinki.
Ilkka Paananen

So, we’ve been thinking whether there would be ways for us to enable also other teams to make a bigger impact by using this philosophy outside the existing Supercell teams.

What traits do you think a studio would have to already possess in order join this environment?

The biggest consideration would have to be their philosophy towards making games, even if the actual games are very different.

Simply put, we would like to partner with people who want to build great games that people would play for years and that would become part of the rich history of games.

Their quality bar should be as high as ours. I guess at the end of the day, it would be all about the people in the studio.

To what extent does Supercell have autonomy to pursue things like partnerships and acquisitions under Tencent?

On general partnerships that don’t include investment, we have full autonomy.

Ilkka Paananen with Tencent President Martin Lau.

In acquisitions, we operate independently when it comes to evaluating the potential partners and structuring the potential deals, but the deal would have to be approved by our board, which includes Tencent representatives.

In terms of your development process, how many individual cells are there, and how many games under development at any one time?

The number of different cells and projects underway varies regularly; as people move from team to team quite a bit.

Also, the size of a cell that is developing a new game can vary from as small as two people to as big as five or even seven.

Given the bottom-up structure, at what point do you personally become involved - or even aware - of each project?

My involvement is mostly related to putting together the team. I personally pick the leads of each team, and sometimes help the lead to put together a team.

I personally pick the leads of each team, and sometimes help the lead to put together a team.
Ilkka Paananen

Sometimes leads seek my opinion on game-related topics too, but mostly we talk about topics related to the team itself.

In addition to this, I hear about the games at the same time as everyone else in our weekly all-company meeting every Friday afternoon.

In that meeting, teams with projects in development give updates on how they’re progressing, so everyone is usually aware of new projects pretty early on in the process.

Then, later on, if the game makes it to the Beta phase, I work with the team lead to set the metric targets that the game needs to achieve in order to be launched globally.

If you had to estimate, what would you say is the overall ratio of canned to released games since the studio's inception?

It is almost impossible to say, as a lot of ideas probably get canned before I or most people outside the team even hear about them. We kill a lot of ideas and prototypes at various stages of the development.

What I can say is that in the last two years or so, we’ve killed nine games which were all relatively advanced stage or even at Beta, and launched one (Clash Royale).

Paananen's BAFTA Games Lecture exposed Supercell's ruthless commitment to quality.

Some people may see that as a bad thing, but, as I said in the talk at BAFTA, to me it means that we’re continuing to take risks and trying to innovate. That’s really important.

You spoke about the Boom Beach case as an example of the development team having the final say on the fate of a project. But what would happen in the case of a difference of opinion within the team itself?

There are a couple of points to make about this.

It is pretty pointless to work on a game you don’t believe in.
Ilkka Paananen

First, each project team has a lead and ultimately, it’s up to that person to decide how to resolve situations like that.

Second, if there are people who simply don’t agree or believe in the direction the game is headed, we try our best to find those people another team and game they can work on.

Needless to say, it is pretty pointless to work on a game you don’t believe in.

In your talk, you also revealed that Clash Royale was based on a prototype built before the release of Clash of Clans. If you would have pursued this idea then, do you think it would have been a hit?

I always say that it’s impossible to predict what will be a hit in this industry and Clash Royale is no exception.

Players were definitely eager to play this kind of game when we released it and maybe they weren’t a few years ago - or maybe they were!

Was Clash Royale perfectly timed?

Really, the only way to find out is to release the game to Beta for real players to play and see what they think.

In this context, can you think of any other occasions in Supercell's history when timing or holding a project back has proven vital to its success?

I think we’ve been very lucky when it comes to timing all through our history.

With hindsight, I think it’s clear that players were really ready for games like Clash of Clans and Hay Day at the time we released them.

We’re still very excited about the potential of our games as eSports.
Ilkka Paananen

There hadn’t been games like that before on mobile; games designed for touch UI from ground up, and games with that kind of depth and social mechanics.

Does the decision to improve your games for everyone, rather than holding ClashCon 2016 for a comparatively small number, speak to the inherent conflict of building an eSport? Does it suggest a declining interest in that area on your part?

No. We’re still very excited about the potential of our games as eSports, particularly Clash Royale, which has already established a presence in that area.

I guess we are still trying to figure out our way to do events and also enable competitive play.

We do not just want to replicate the models that have been using with PC games, we want to do something different, which is built for our types of games and mobile as a platform from the ground up.

We don't know what that really means in practise yet, so we're going to try a bunch of different things in an effort to find out - and at the moment we're actually looking for the right person to join us and help on that.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.