Interview

Global Game: Helsinki's dextrous demoscene behind its mobile mastery, says Applifier's Laakkonen

Global Game: Helsinki's dextrous demoscene behind its mobile mastery, says Applifier's Laakkonen
Having spoken to many of the leading lights involved in Helsinki's mobile development scene this week, there's one thing that shines through: a sense of community.

Developers who, on the outside, appear to be going toe-to-toe with each other on major mobile marketplaces are, in reality, sharing a beer with each other in a Helsinki bar at the end of the working week.

At least, that's what we've been told. But how has Helsinki fostered this friendly atmosphere?

In the last of our pieces looking at the Finnish capital, we caught up with Jussi Laakkonen, CEO of one of the city's other stars – cross-promotion network Applifier – for his take on how Helsinki has become one of the most prosperous hubs in the mobile development scene.

Pocket Gamer: Given that it's Helsinki week on PocketGamer.biz, what do you think it is about the city that makes it such a development hub?

Jussi Laakkonen: Helsinki looks like an overnight success, but just like every overnight success out there it has been years in the making.

It goes all the way back to early 1990s and the very active demoscene community where hobbyist coders, graphicians and musicians honed their talents on Amigas, Commodore 64s and 386 PCs all coming together to compete at Assembly, which is the 5,000 person demoparty I've been heavily involved with since 1992.

It's still running – come to Helsinki on 1 August to party with us!


Photo from Assembly Summer 2012 by Aleksi Kinnunen

Nearly every single Finnish game company from Remedy to Supercell has been founded by demoscene veterans and this is also the roots of the camaraderie in the local industry.

Great demos marry unbelievable tech talent with superb creative skills and this is exactly what games do also. We've seen the demoscene talent do well also in other Nordic Countries: founders of DICE got their start in the demoscene as did the founders of Kiloo, which is best known for Subway Surfers.

The developers we've spoken to have talked up the notion of a genuine sense of community between all the studios within the city – even direct rivals. Is this something you're aware of?

It's absolutely true. Even with the recent growth, the Helsinki and the Finnish development scene is very much interconnected with companies really rooting for each other.

The rivals aren't really within Finland – the challenge is making it big on a global basis and working together there's better chance of everyone succeeding.

I believe the Finnish culture also plays a big role in this. Folks are very honest and modest, even to a fault. The problem solving and engineering attitude is ingrained and just helps get things done.

Do you think having major names such as Rovio and Supercell in the city boosts the entire development scene, or does it risk stealing all the limelight from the other studios?

Rovio represents a whole new era for Finnish game development.

The "we can take the world" attitude and pulling it off - from announcing Angry Birds Space from the International Space Station to easily breezing past a billion downloads and having tens of Angry Birds playgrounds being constructed in China - is just mind blowing and total change of ethos.

The legacy Rovio will leave for Finnish game devs is that of thinking very big and mastering marketing.

Whereas Rovio has already scaled to over 500 people and covers everything from book publishing to internal ad teams, Supercell is very different company and represents in my mind the perfection of all the lessons Ilkka and his co-founders learned when building Sumea during the first mobile wave and Digital Chocolate after the merger.

Ilkka is building a fantastic game company infused with the best talent and I believe we'll soon talk about their culture the same way many people talk about Valve.

The great thing about both Rovio and Supercell is that they are attracting a lot of talent into the area and helping older developers refine their skills. Both Finnish talent from outside of games and international talent.

This is great for everyone as some of those folks will eventually find themselves in other companies or start their own ventures like we've recently seen with Boomlagoon.

Others have cited Nokia's role in the city as being an important one – inspiring and directly aiding the development community. Do you think there's a direct benefit to the hardware and software sides of the mobile scene coming together in this way?

Nokia's influence on the game developers in Finland was tremendous.

Rovio might have not lasted all those 50 plus games it took to get to Angry Birds without projects it did for Nokia. Red Lynx worked on the highly acclaimed Pathway to Glory series and I personally helped ship a N-Gage driving game called Glimmerati while at Bugbear Entertainment.

Nokia's fall from the top has been an extremely hard one. On the flip side that has led into a lot of ex-Nokia folks starting companies and finding new homes at great companies. For example Remedy Entertainment's mobile team is headed by a fantastic group of ex-Nokians.

You have offices in both Helsinki and San Francisco. Have you ever been tempted to move your European base?

The first thing a US based venture capital firm is going to ask an European startup looking for funding is "When are you moving to San Francisco?".

We got this question too a number of times, but we are firmly rooted in Helsinki and Applifier will remain a Finnish company.

Our San Francisco team is growing rapidly and is absolutely key to being part of the global mobile gaming business. The 10 hour time difference is brutal, but you make it work.

How's your Everyplay venture going?

Everyplay is really ramping up.

In the past 10 days we've seen several great games go live, released a huge SDK update with easy sharing and substantially higher performance and been very happy to see Nimblebit announce that it is using Everyplay in their forthcoming Nimble Quest.I'm totally addicted to that game, check out replays shared from the beta with Everyplay.


Some recent Everyplay-equipped releases

We are just readying the FaceCam for release, which is going to be a big thing as then we go from replays to players' stories.

Personally, the sign that Everyplay works for developers is that we are seeing more and more developer refer their friends to try out Everyplay. That doesn't happen if we don't do a good job.

You're also down as a sponsor for the Pocket Gamer Awards 2013. Do you think it's important to engage with developers and gamers in this way?

Everyplay is being created both for the players and for the developers, so the Pocket Gamer Awards are a great match to our goal: enabling players to share the word about the games they love.

The Awards are about celebrating the best games and achievements of the past year, and we are very happy to be part of it!
Thanks to Jussi for his time.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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