Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame: Jani Karlsson and pioneering the earliest days of the mobile games industry

One of the earliest mobile games pioneers celebrated by peers and friends alike

Hall of Fame: Jani Karlsson and pioneering the earliest days of the mobile games industry

The mobile games industry is celebrated – and perhaps indulgently guilty – for its pursuit of the new. In reaching the widest audience on the world's most ubiquitous electronic device, we can be guilty of forgetting the earliest days of what our industry looked like, and the pioneers – a word frequently used but so rarely does it have the gravity we mean right now – that forged the paths that led us where we are today.

It has been over three years since we last inducted someone into the PocketGamer.biz Hall of Fame, and breaking this 45-month hiatus with Jani Karlsson is enormously exciting, daunting, and bittersweet, as he enters his final days with us.

Image credit: Tommy Palm

Karlsson's illustrious career connects him with some of the biggest entities in the games industry, including AMD and Qualcomm. But he is perhaps best known as Nokia chief of N-Gage, breaking ground with a tantalising promise: a mobile device explicitly designed for gaming. In this mission, Karlsson brought onboard notable industry partnerships including Sega, Codemasters, and SNK Playmore. Some of these partnerships are today among the most successful mobile companies, such as Gameloft and Activision, shining a light on Karlsson's forethought and collaborative spirit.

Robert Henrysson, chairman of Avalanche Studios Group, stated: "We met when he was at Nokia, in the early days of the S40 and S60 gaming push. He was confident about where the world was heading already then, and had such a friendly, direct approach to cooperation – it was a partnership from day one. Never laying blame, always trying to look at challengers from all perspectives.

"I very much liked him as a friend from day one. Which is very rare for me, I can tell you."

Not only did he have a principal hand in new devices, but was instrumental in bringing about new technology, including headlining AMD's drive into mobile 3D graphics, escalating the variety of games and experiences developers could aspire to create.

Xavier Carrillo-Costa, CEO and co-founder of Digital Legends, said: "Jani has always been a visionary and a pioneer. As early as the N-Gage days, he had the vision that mobile would be the biggest platform for gaming and that 3D graphics and technology would be key to unleash his potential."

He was confident about where the world was heading already then, and had such a friendly, direct approach to cooperation
Robert Henrysson

Karlsson was also responsible for amplifying the voice of the mobile games industry, fighting for our seat at the table at a time before the sector's value was truly appreciated. This includes his presence on the GDC mobile advisory panel, spearheading mobile content and recognition at the influential conference during the mobile industry’s nascent era. And as a GameFounder mentor, Karlsson provided considerable support – both financial and expertise – for new creators looking to explore the untapped mobile frontier.

Steel Media CEO Chris James said: "Like many Finns, Jani had a stern edge when you first met him – I always recall marketing messages about genuinely world-beating mobile technology delivered in the most dead pan manner, Steve Jobs this was not! But once you got beyond that, usually at the bar, he had a wicked sense of humour and was happy to chat."

As Karlsson's condition fluctuated, he committed his thoughts into a self-published book, in which he described himself as "a former business-nomad and innovator in digital industry, that turned into knife-sharpener in digital industry". But PocketGamer.biz thinks this brief bio does himself a disservice, and we want to share the thoughts of some of Karlsson's closest and most treasured compatriots to give us a glimpse into one of mobile gaming's truest pioneers.

Maarten Noyons Founder IMGA

As well as creating Playground Publishing in June 2012 with Japanese mobile content company MTI, Maarten is the founder and chairman of the IMGA.

Jani played an important role in the early days of mobile gaming commissioning a lot of young talented studios to deliver games to Nokia supporting initiatives such as the IMGA and launching the memorable Nokia Games Summits: the best events for games I have ever attended.

Jani is a smart, selfless, generous, hardworking, and unique personality who achieved a tremendous amount for many studios and individuals in the game industry.

Xavier Carrillo-Costa CEO & Founder Digital Legends Entertainment

He was the man behind the scenes that made things happens, and brought people along with him. He has always believed in people, quality, and technology. He anticipated that mobile gaming would be huge and only achieved with a transversal collaboration from all different categories of the ecosystem. That no one could survive trying to dominate and close the ecosystem, but that doors and minds needed to be opened.

This achievement is a perfect example. Despite not appearing in the press release, Jani was the person that made this possible by meeting and sharing his vision with key stakeholders of the ecosystem.

He was also very pragmatic and knew that it is an everchanging industry: that technology, hardware, models, and ecosystem constantly change and that you have to adapt and anticipate. And than rather to complain on existing issues, he would made them a necessary step to find a solution to build a bigger future.

Tommy Palm Co-founder Resolution Games

With over two decades of experience as a game designer and entrepreneur, Tommy Palm has earned the title ‘Games Guru’ at leading casual social games company, King. He works at the forefront of the company’s prevalent cross-platform games initiatives taking games from social to mobile.

Tommy started programming games for the Commodore 64 back in 1986 as a hobby until 1999, when he founded Jadestone.

My favourite anecdote of Jani is from one of my earliest interactions with him. As a somewhat young entrepreneur, my company was hard hit by the dot com crash, leading to several months working without a salary.

I felt like I was at the very end when I got an email from Jani about a research project with Nokia that would keep us floating for several more years. I remember sitting outside a bar on Gotland and, just as we got the news, the cloud dispersed and the sun came out. It was at the beginning of June 2002, exactly 20 years ago today.

Robert Henrysson Chairman Avalanche Studios

One key story about our Jadestone past is when we were awarded our first Nokia game development contract. We had an ambitious solution for a multiplayer game, and were worried that they wouldn’t go for it as we had quoted a fee that was beyond much of what anything paid for mobile games at the time.

Tommy Palm and I were walking about in medieval Visby, Gotland on a gaming expo, feeling incredibly nervous, when Jani called us and said that the contract was ours. Of course we were happy and danced about. Later, it emerged that there had been a lot of debate where Jani’s colleagues in Nokia Publishing had been pushing for cheaper solutions. Jani had advocated for Jadestone and our solutions and famously said, ”If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!”

He was brave, he stuck out his head, and he moved the industry forward.

Chris James CEO Steel Media

Co-founder and CEO of Steel Media, Chris James is a publishing entrepreneur with a strong background in both editorial and commercial activities in print, online and mobile. The vast majority of his experience has been focused on the games, football and consumer technology spheres in a career spanning over 25 years.

There are so many memories from the N-Gage and Nokia gaming days. Above all, I will always remember and remind people that so much of the mobile games ecosystem that exists today was nurtured, supported, and generally enabled by the pioneering work of Jani and others at Nokia who had the vision for both mobile phone technology and also the content that could spring up around it.

I do also vividly remember the N-Gage promotional events and the time we almost lost half the industry on a rooftop in Italy - but that's another story!

Kay Greunwoldt Founder Walking Squid

Jani Karlsson was my boss at Nokia N-Gage, a leading figure in the games unit. Right from the start, I was impressed by his knowledge and his humility, his intense curiosity, and his personal capacity of being real – rarely found in large corporate structures.

He brought his in-depth knowledge of technology and mobile into our work, but also had a deep respect for the people that were hired in from this crazy games industry. Back then, we were considered oddities in headquarters, because we did not wear suits (a rare sight in the beginning). Jani always listened to what we had to say, and understood the passion that was required to do great in our business of games.

He also understood very early on that games was the content that would unlock the true potential of the digital platform that Nokia wanted to build, and was an avid ambassador for the N-Gage games unit at the corporate level. He fought hard to overcome the unique challenges at Nokia during those days, like the neverending amount of siloed operating variants, and the implications that had on providing a development platform for games studios and publishers. His work was one of the corner stones that enabled Finnish entrepreneurs to build one of the powerhouses of mobile games in the world.

Jani was not just a manager, but one of the greatest mentors I had in my career. When it came to me relocating during a time of great personal struggles he made the impossible possible for me, and I will always be grateful for his deeply human approach to manage and lead.

When Jani fell gravely ill many years ago he showed his true superhuman strengths by defying all odds. He is such a shining example of a man that reinvented himself many times over through the utmost challenging hurdles that life throws at him. I have the deepest respect for him for truly exemplifying what it means to live a live worth living.

Lincoln Wallen Chief technology officer Improbable

From the very start, Jani had a clear and prescient view on how gaming would become the decisive factor in how the mobile industry would evolve. He championed the ability of the developer to reach their audience on devices that supported creativity and quality. He recognised the role companies like Nokia could play and was tireless – against the odds – in pressuring both Nokia and operators to see that what was right for game developers, would be right for the consumer, and thus right for the industry as a whole.

And how true he has been! His support for getting the right silicon, correct software, and acute tooling was immense. He has always been our champion; Jani is a true pioneer, of the highest integrity, with the passion to change the world, and the insight and force of personality to change his industry.


Former editor of PocketGamer.biz, Khai can also be found on Vice, Star Trek, and in numerous scientific journals and publications.