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Inside Supercell: All-access to the world's most famous mobile games developer

Inside Supercell: All-access to the world's most famous mobile games developer

Supercell will be represented at Pocket Gamer Connects London 2019, which takes place on January 21st to 22nd, by speaker Jaakko Harlas.

Supercell was formed in 2010, and after dabbling in cross-platform gaming with Gunshine quickly moved to working exclusively on mobile.

It then went on to launch Hay Day and Clash of Clans, soon establishing the company as one of the biggest and best mobile games developers in the world.

Its portfolio features some of the most widely-played mobile titles on the planet. They also make the company billions every year. Despite being released in 2012, Clash of Clans remains one of the top performers in the mobile market to this very day. 

Mobile powerhouse

Until December 2018, Supercell only had four live games, which also include Boom Beach and Clash Royale - the latter of which is estimated to have generated $2 billion in lifetime sales in just over two years and has also become a serious mobile esports title.

Its fifth game is Brawl Stars, launched on December 12th 2018. It appears to have gotten off to a solid start.

So how does one of the leading mobile games developers, one of the few able to release hit after hit, operate?

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days the studio was actually based in Espoo (it would later move to Helsinki).

A team of 15 employees were crammed into a 30 square foot office space.

Supercell's Espoo office

CEO and founder Ilkka Paananen, who previously worked at Digital Chocolate, even spent time working on a cardboard box.

While we didn't see his office during our time at Supercell's HQ, we're 99 per cent sure Ilkka Paananen doesn't work on a cardboard box anymore

But things have changed dramatically for the studio. Now based in Helsinki, it’s building its own office space in the city, set to be made largely out of wood.

PocketGamer.biz was invited over for launch of Brawl Stars and given an all-access pass to the studio. We’ve got interviews with Paananen and the games teams, where we found out what makes this company tick.

We’ll update this list article each weekday so be sure to check back for more. Right now you can read:

- Part One: CEO Ilkka Paananen on how Supercell hands control to the developers

- Part Two: Why Supercell is in the M&A game

More coming soon

You can click on the link below to begin.

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 CEO Ilkka Paananen on how Supercell hands control to the developers

    CEO Ilkka Paananen on how Supercell hands control to the developers logo

    Mention ‘process’ around Supercell’s Helsinki HQ and you’ll likely elicit some laughs from employees.

    Even its founder and CEO Ilkka Paananen retorts when we bring up the term again in our interview that “probably it’s not a big surprise that there isn’t a big process about it”.

    But that’s part of Supercell’s manifesto. The world’s least powerful CEO, as he puts it, wants to get out of the way of the Finnish firms' development teams and ensure there are no barriers to what they do best - making games.

    Handing over control

    As you’ll likely have heard before, the company structure is effectively upside down from what you typically see in a business. The game teams are at the top, the CEO is at the bottom.

    Supercell operates with the teams above the CEO

    Employees are in control of key decisions: what games they want to work on, the ‘process’ from which to create it, how many staff they need, and even if to launch them. Paananen is the enabler rather than the decision maker.

    Of course, there are high benchmarks that are set that teams should meet when it comes to monetisation and retention. Though even this might depend on the genre and expectations around that. But as many employees have told us - the final call on whether to release rests with them.

    The most recent call - again made by its team - was to release real-time PvP shooter Brawl Stars globally. Following 544 days of soft launch, Supercell had a big launch event at its studio, bringing over more than 70 content creators to witness it go live first-hand and push the button for release.

    It’s Supercell’s first game launch in three years, following on from Clash Royale - a multi-billion dollar success.

    Paananen is understandably elated by the launch. And if it goes on to achieve expected success, it’ll be more proof that Supercell’s structure works.

    “My most important job is to make sure that the team can focus on only creating the game and doesn't need to worry about anything else,” explains Paananen.

    “That really is it. I know I can't create games. So how I see my role is that I need to help these other people to create the best possible games.”

    Not releasing a game for nearly three years has had an impact on Supercell’s finances. In 2017 it made a still hugely impressive $2.25 billion in revenue and $901 million in profit. But those were down 14 per cent and 20.5 per cent year-on-year respectively as the company’s portfolio gets older and declines.

    But Paananen says matters like that are never a concern for Supercell. A luxurious place to be in for sure - and Paananen admits there’s an element of luck in the games industry - but the developer's patient philosophy is one it's sticking to after repeat success.

    “We're trying to stay focused on just creating the best possible games,” states Paananen.

    “And the way we believe we can do it is by being focused on making sure Supercell is the best place for the best teams to make these games. You would be surprised how little we actually think about and talk about things like revenue.”

    Keeping it small

    Teams at Supercell appear to typically peak at around 20 staff - with Boom Beach having the least at just 11. This strategy has worked so far, but as the mobile games industry continues to evolve at apace, might those teams become too small?

    One recent trend is big triple-A-style games making their way to the platform: Fortnite, PUBG Mobile and copycats like the lucrative Rules of Survival and Knives Out.

    Many RPGs, CCGs and other midcore/hardcore genre titles also have large teams working on regular updates and lots of new characters to keep players entertained with something new.

    “Of course, we don't ever want to be stuck in the past,” Paananen admits. “One of my favourite sayings is that whatever brought you here won't get you there. So we always have to be ready to renew our thinking and you shouldn't ever be stuck in the past and how things have worked in the past.

    “But at the same time, we still love the idea of relatively small teams. I think Brawl Stars is a great example. Very small teams can have a very big game and they can do big things. And then, of course, you can be very smart how to organise around things.”

    Brawl Stars had a small team working on one of mobile's most hotly anticipated games of the year

    An example of how Supercell organises and outsources parts of a live game operation is through its team of around 30 in-house staff dedicated to player support. It also has 2,000 ‘agents’ - members of the community - outside of the company that helps foster a vibrant and active player base.

    Paananen admits however that one area of improvement for Supercell is that issue mentioned earlier - how much content it can release. The small Boom Beach team hasn’t released an update since May so it can invest its time in a major new content release, with eyes on it being introduced in early 2019.

    Solutions to such issues potentially include how games are designed in the first place, and then how teams can outsource certain aspects of the live ops.

    “It’s clear that we need to get even better at introducing more content more often to our players,” says Paananen.

    “We've been talking about this for years, but these days games are essentially services, not products, and they are these services that become part of people's everyday routines. Every single day there has to be something new for the players of the game.”

    Licence to kill

    Brawl Stars, like Clash Royale and Boom Beach before it, is a rarity at Supercell. Most games get killed before a global launch - we’ll have more on one of those titles, Smash Land, soon.

    While Supercell cracks out the champagne during such failures in recognition of the hard work and lessons learned, it’s a tough and emotional moment for the people on such projects.

    Once development has ended, what happens to these staff? As mentioned earlier, Paananen jokes that there isn’t a big process for this. And from discussions with teams, the talented, self-starting employees at Supercell just seem to find a place within the company themselves.

    “Some teams they decide that, okay, maybe the team didn't work out as well as it could,” he explains. 

    “And then they just go off and join different teams and it's up to almost every single member to decide which team to go to. Or a team really thinks that, okay, we actually did a really good job and the team worked very well together, let's start to build something new together again. It's anywhere between those two extremes.”

    One of Supercell's meeting rooms has a wall of art dedicated to Smash Land, despite its cancellation

    With games getting killed off and teams getting shaken up, that means staff are regularly experimenting with new ideas. Old projects may even be resurrected at a later date if new concepts are brought to the table or the time is right in the market.

    With such a loose structure and a high kill count, it could be understandable that staff may become frustrated and disillusioned with life at Supercell. In theory, staff could go for years working on games that are ultimately cancelled - though that's not something wholly unique to Supercell employees.

    Paananen recognises it can be tough, but says it would be more difficult to handle if the decision came from the outside. But the decision to cancel or launch always ultimately rests with the game team.

    And it’s the opportunity to focus on only the biggest mobile games that staff seem to relish, rather than resent.

    “It's not my call, it's their decision,” he says.

    “They are in complete control of their own destiny. There is no external force, it is all up to them. They decide the type of game they want to build and there's no one else telling them what to do. It's ultimately always their call, including the decision to kill their game.

    “So I think that helps with that. But having said that, of course it's always a sad moment when we need to kill a game. If you've worked on something for a year for example and the game really has become your baby, and you're deeply in love with it, it's, of course, sad to kill it.

    “But that's the only way we can keep the quality bar as high as it should be.”

    Continue on to part two: Why Supercell is in the M&A game.

  • 2 Why Supercell is in the M&A game

    Why Supercell is in the M&A game logo

    Supercell has been acquired twice. Firstly by Japanese telecoms giant Softbank in 2013 for $1.53 billion, which took a 51 per cent share in the studio. Later it was sold to Chinese games publishing giant Tencent in 2016 for around $8.6 billion, giving the firm a roughly 84.3 per cent stake.

    Over the last two years, the Finnish developer has conducted investments and acquisitions of its own. Given how hugely profitable it’s been since it was founded in 2010, it’s certainly got cash to burn on M&A.

    Expansion plans

    As a previous article by contributing editor Jon Jordan wrote, it’s been quite an eclectic mix of deals, half of which have been with Finnish companies.

    Such M&A includes:

    - Everywear Games ($5.6m investment)

    - Frogmind (Acquired 51 per cent stake)

    - Redemption Games ($5m investment)

    - Shipyard Games ($2.9m investment)

    - Space Ape ($55.8m acquisition for 62 per cent stake)

    - Trailmix ($4.2m investment)

    Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen tells PocketGamer.biz that the company’s strategy is simply to “invest in the best possible teams”, as part of a plan to fulfil its grand ambitions of being a long-term industry heavyweight. Supercell is also spreading its influence to other studios so it can keep the headcount at its HQ to around 280.

    “We don't really want to grow the studio over here to be too big,” says Paananen, adding: “Many years ago we thought that okay, actually a way to get to the bigger impact without growing internal headcount would be to empower and enable other people. There are lots of great teams out there.”

    Paananen says studios can often be beholden by short-term targets to their financial backers - which seems reasonable outside of Supercell’s bubble. However, this isn’t good for creativity, he claims.

    Instead, the cash-flush Supercell acts as a patient shareholder. Paananen explains that, much like the Finnish developer’s internal teams, he wants to free these studios of the need to file regular reports and any bureaucracy.

    “We don’t care about reports,” he states.

    “We tell these people the reason we invested in you is because we trust you and it's not our job to come and tell you what to do. Instead, you should do what you think is right.

    “And then of course if you need help we are here to help, but it's your business, it's your games and you should do what you think is best. And especially do what's best not for the next year, but what's best for the next decade, and try to build the company and the games that you've always dreamed of.”

    Hands-off

    While Supercell has turned the traditional management structure on its head - putting teams first and giving them the key decisions on what games to make and if to launch them - Paananen says the studios it invests in and acquires don’t necessarily need to do the same.

    Prior to the deal for Space Ape, the London studio shook up its structure closer to that of Supercell following previous discussions with the Finnish company. That later helped lead to an acquisition. But that’s not a requisite for a deal.

    “They should be structured in a way that's best for their culture and their company,” says Paananen.

    “Of course there may be some things they can learn from us, but it's up to them. And by the way, one of our criteria for investments also is that we believe it's a two-way street. There are also lots of things that we can learn from these people.”

    Space Ape's Fastlane: Road to Revenge has gone from strength to strength thanks to some astute live ops

    Paananen explains that the way Supercell conducts its M&A is more like a second job interview. “We don’t really have bankers in that process.”

    The Finnish dev instead invites the core team of a studio over to discuss their company and plans, and from its side only brings developers to the table, rather than financiers.

    If both sides are happy, and Supercell feels they can work together and the team would slot in nicely with its growing family of studios, then it will invest.

    Grand ambitions

    Elaborating on how all this really fits in with Supercell’s long-term ambitions, Paananen says the studio is inspired by the success of Nintendo.

    “If I fast-forward 20 to 30 years, the goal is that people would still play our games in one form or another, and we would have been able to produce these global hit games,” he states.

    “And by global I mean games that would be big in not just the West, but in countries like China, Korea and Japan as well. Everywhere.

    “I think the big inspiration for us is somebody like Nintendo. As an example, I grew up playing many of the Nintendo games, like the Zeldas and Marios, and that was obviously a very long time ago. And still even last week I played Mario Kart, for example, with my kids.

    “The way I think about it is if in 30 years somebody is playing some form of Clash of Clans for example - we don't know what that game would look like, but hopefully those small barbarians would be running somewhere. And if that's the case, that is the dream.

    “We would love to create gaming brands that are here to stay.”

    Part three and beyond of our Inside Supercell special feature are coming soon.

Senior Editor

Craig Chapple is Senior Editor of PocketGamer.biz and InfluencerUpdate.biz. He was previously Deputy Editor at Develop and Online Editor at Nintendo of Europe.

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