Frank Keienburg is the Game Lead for Brawl Stars at Supercell (one of our Top 50 Mobile Game Makers) and has been with the company since 2014 having moved over from Blizzard Entertainment. We had a chat with Frank on a recent visit to the company’s (incredible) HQ in Helsinki, about everything from Supercell's infamous company culture to future-proofing games.
So it’s the Clash Fest finals this weekend! Is Clash of Clans Supercell's the oldest game?
No, Hay Day is the oldest. [Clash of Clans] was 2012, so just a few months before. Both games came out in very close succession to each other.
And then it was Clash Royale?
No [laughter] So those were the first two games which went out there. The next game was Boom Beach, which was released in 2014, and is still around. Then towards the end of 2014 there was a game called Spooky Pop which we killed pretty quickly.
It was a puzzle game with action elements and an action mechanic. In 2015 we killed that, then we had another soft launch of Smash Land, which also didn’t make it. But some of the people who were on Smash Land and their team, they became part of the core team of Clash Royale, and then Clash Royale was soft-launched in early 2016 and after a very short soft launch went global in March 2016.
The next game coming out after that into soft launch was in May or June 2017, which was Brawl Stars. Brawl Stars has been public-facing since summer 2017, and the global launch was then in December 2018, so quite some time later! We are actually celebrating our four-year global anniversary on December 12th. It’s going to be an interesting birthday because we have some other things planned and going around with the game.
So talking about Brawl Stars specifically, what’s your overall takeaway from that experience?
[Laughter] The young Frank, I was so young.
Is there anything you would do differently if you could do it all over now?
Yeah, well. I’m not someone who is big on regrets, generally speaking, because everything that goes wrong, you should take learnings out of that. Right? And that’s really hard personally, but that’s my belief system. There are no mistakes to regret, just opportunities to learn stuff. But I guess it’s also mirrored in what Supercell feels and what we think in general and how we look at making mistakes. I think that’s actually one of the biggest differentiators between Supercell and other gaming companies, or other companies in general.
In most companies, success is what gets you accelerated as an individual, as a team. And when you fail, it can be almost like a mark on you and it can be a negative thing.
Yet we are different, because we are holistically looking at every failure as a learning opportunity and people are living this very publicly within the company. We also, outside the company, talk about our failures very openly. We will admit to the community when we make a mistake, and rectify those. Normally on Fridays we have a get-together in the company so everyone in the company joins something like a town hall, where teams present what they are currently working on. But during those sessions we also talk about our failures.
So – “we launched a feature last update, here are the results, and it didn’t work at all. So here’s what we learned from that. And here’s what we think went wrong. And here’s what all of you here can take away from this.” We keep doing this. So I would almost say there is sort of admiration from people in the company for everyone who steps on the stage and talks about failure, we can celebrate it inside the company culture. You know the press mis-quoted us in the early years, that we are drinking champagne when we celebrate failure. We drink champagne, but it’s to celebrate the learnings out of those failures.. So since we are living that so publicly, it then creates safety within the teams.
You go normally into a board meeting representing your product, and if things don’t go so well you would typically be a bit hesitant to emphasise the failure. But we don’t do that, we create a safe space to talk about failure and to talk about what’s not going well. There is no stigma.
Everyone here seems very fpassionate about what they do. How vital is that to success?
When it comes to sustainability, if you take a step back, really take a step back and look, and (a) we’re making games for the long run, we want to make games for 10, 20, 30, 40 years – we don’t know how long a mobile game can run. Clash of Clans and HayDay are ten years old. Nobody would have said that that’s doable. So, for us it’s just making sure that what we do is sustainable.
On the Brawl Stars team we now have 18 nationalities in a team of under 40 people. We appreciate and celebrate different cultures because at the end of the day we are making games for a global market. And if you make games for a global market, and you are mono-cultural, how can you make games for all of these people if you don’t have representation? . So having a nice mix gender-wise, between cultures and a mix of different interests, different ages on the team is so important.
We also need to make an effort as a company because we are so focussed on small teams. To have small teams without hierarchy, you need senior personnel. You need senior people who don’t need someone to necessarily coach or mentor them. They need to come in, and be able to do the job. Now that is the old Supercell, I would say. That’s how we thought about it for the longest of times - “hire the best people with experience who can do things independently”. But of course that is somewhat flawed, because then how do you get the new thinking in, the new energy. Nothing quite replaces the passion, and drive and energy for change, the appetite for change, of someone who is 20 years old.
And it has nothing to do with age. There can be 50 year olds who really have that thinking. It’s good to have a mix. The oldest guy on my team is in his late 50s. The youngest person was born in 1998. [Laughter] So having this broad range – I think there’s something really cool about that.
As a leader, or as a manager, for me personally it’s enriching to have all these very different people on my team. Some are introverts, some extroverts… I have this group of five people who speak Portuguese. Some Brazilian, some Portuguese. And it’s like, it’s really, really enriching and makes things so much more fun. I’m German, I haven’t lived in Germany for 18 years, but I cannot see myself working in a company just with Germans. It’s just mind-blowing how different it is, because you have all these interesting bits and pieces from every culture, which is just super-cool.
You said something then about future-proofing games This is something you seem to have done at Supercell very well - what’s the secret?
I think if you know something about the processing - today there’s only three people on the process team who were there before we made the decision to go global. Most of these other people are still in the company, like 90%-plus, they just work on other games now. In the games industry unfortunately it is a big thing that once you ship a game, you let go of teams and the people in those teams. That’s, at least in AA games, quite common. Or if a game fails. We don’t have that at all. When a game gets killed, we basically take a snapshot of the other game teams we have in production games, the life games, and look at what the open gaps are right now. Then we look at the people and basically try to create a match.
In Supercell, we don’t have promotions. We don’t have new titles. You are not starting as an associate designer to become a designer, to become a senior designer or lead designer. We have almost all the same people in the same field have the same title. There’s no promotion, there’s no big offices. The moment you remove that from the equation, people actually focus on what they like doing and they don’t worry so much about getting that different title. Instead they focus on doing the best job. Things like bigger salaries, they have them here, it’s just disconnected from normal promotion cycles or anything like this. And the combination of these things is a really interesting situation where if they feel like “I’ve worked on this game now for four years, I feel I gave it my all, but I feel I need a new challenge or I need a new game” then we enable that.
If you have a team of 30 people, having one or two people leave the team, or even five people leave a team over the course of a year, it’s not a problem. You can assimilate people enough to feel part of a team, and then they can go contribute elsewhere. That way, you have this nice flow of ideas. Someone might have learned something at Brawl Stars, and when they’re working on a new game that influences their thinking, and maybe they are working with someone who worked on Clash of Clans five years ago. So things don’t become stale.
During your time in the industry, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
I think the transition to mobile – and now today it feels like it’s old news talking about mobile. But when I started in the industry there were no mobile games. It’s really opened up who can play games. I think it’s very easy if you’re a hardcore PC gamer - and I’ve been a hardcore PC gamer, don’t get me wrong - to look down on all other platforms, thinking “I’ve paid my one-time fifty, sixty bucks, I have my game forever and there’s no changes”. But we’ve moved beyond that in most players’ expectations, because players expect today the games to keep being developed.
And if you don’t [keep developing your game], you will quickly get the wrath of the community. There are some recent PC game examples, like Halo, where the team couldn’t follow up with meaningful updates, which hurt them and their reputation in the long term.
So, the community today almost expects that games are life-service games, especially multi-player games, of course. I think the beauty of free-to-play is that it just opens up games to so many more people - I think that’s amazing, actually, because we have so many more gamers on the planet today than we had in the past! Whatever your circumstances are, you can play games now.
It did seem to flip at some point – why did that happen?
Yeah, it’s like the cost of entry is now gone – everyone has a phone, essentially. It doesn’t matter which country you are in, pretty much everyone has a mobile phone. And since that is the case, the cost of buying a game console, or a PC which can play games, is multitudes bigger.
How do you see the future of mobile games, do you think it’s going to keep growing? Can you predict any big trends?
It’s going to be interesting now, especially after the Covid years. Of course, during Covid all games had a big boost, and now with it waning somewhat, I think the whole industry took a little bit of a hit, and we don’t know what will happen with the recession. The games industry is the least likely to suffer hard from that. Of course there are big trends like NFTs and all of that stuff that will have some sort of impact - even though the big hype died off pretty quickly.
But today it’s like they didn’t put games first in that industry, and I think that is now hurting them hard as well. You know, it wasn’t a product-minded thing. It was like “here’s NFTs, we will build a product on top of that” They’ve got things a little bit the wrong way around. In my head, at least.
Apart from Supercell games, what’s your favourite mobile game ever? The one you’ve either played the longest, or which you’d have loved to work on?
Mobile games, specifically? Such a difficult question… There’s a lot of games I’ve played a lot. You know what - I make an action game. But actually if I want to relax, I’m playing puzzle games. I’d played quite a lot of almost every puzzle game out there. I was always intrigued by puzzle game mechanics with a great differentiator. Like Trail Mix is doing a great job of that game [Love and Pies], and they are innovating on the story-telling.
You’ve lived in Germany and France. What has your experience of Finland been?
There is something to be said about how open-minded people in Helsinki are, thinking about you as a person versus how you look, and that is so good. Perhaps part of that mindset stems from the sauna culture and the general acceptance of people of different shapes and forms – people don’t care about how you look, much. I’m not saying that individuals don’t judge or whatever, that’s too much of a generalisation, but Helsinki is a more accepting place than other places I’ve lived.
I did wonder about Scandinavian culture, whether any of Supercell’s success is down to location?
There are certainly parts of the company culture which are highly influenced by that, like the humbleness.
There’s surely a strong component of the sense of equality. We don’t have many layers of hierarchy, we are trying to keep things as flat as possible. I’m a team leader , I have a team, I report to someone - so there is some hierarchy, but we are trying to keep it super-flat. And when we are in the game team, my voice is just one of the voices - we are not necessarily consensus-driven but I would be a fool if I ignored my team if it tells me, “Frank, that’s a horrible idea.”
Of course you need someone in the team who is a tie-breaker, and that is part of my role and responsibility. But at the end of the day it’s mostly about being okay being challenged. It’s perfectly fine that I’m getting challenged by people on my team when I have an idea. In the same way, I challenge other people. And so the sense of equality is very strong here. Everyone is just mingling with everyone, you can just walk to your CEO’s desk, if you feel like it.
And there’s a strong belief in work and private life balance. We are trying to avoid crunches as much as possible. I tell my team off if they are on Slack after six. So, I think we are getting much better results as a company with those aspects.
Gaming is a weird thing, because people in the gaming industry tend to be really passionate about what they do, like, how passionate will someone who is developing a financial app ever be about this app? I don’t want to discredit people who work on those apps, but passion is the thing.
Are you ready for the ‘one screen singularity’? The idea that soon any game will be able to be played on any screen?
It’s very much a matter for the game team. As a company, we are not telling the game teams what to do. So game teams here are largely completely independent in how they want to do things. Nobody is telling any game team, “oh you have to make a multi-platform game now.” If a game team wants to make a multi-platform game, they can.
It’s not like we’ve never played with the idea of bringing, for example, Brawl Stars to another system. We’ve tried, we’ve experimented, we’ve looked around. “Would the Switch be a good platform? Would PC be a good platform?” And so far we’ve always looked at the opportunity and the effort, and we’ve just never had the appetite.
Have you got any future mobile projects coming up that you can tell us about – or any that you can’t tell us about?
We have plenty of projects in the works, but there’s nothing I can say…
No. No. At least not from my side. [Laughter]