The Finnsider

The next big thing: How Supercell's former analytics ace Achrén set about firing up free-to-play

The story of Next Games

The next big thing: How Supercell's former analytics ace Achrén set about firing up free-to-play

Supercell, oh how we love talking about them here.

For Finns, the studio is an especially important success story after Nokia's fall from grace in the post iPhone era. A world beater, the little guy who could, David versus Goliath, the underdog.

This sort of image is further propelled by Finland's relatively tiny population and the relatively tiny team responsible for all the big numbers over the last couple of years.

At the centre of these big numbers, making sense of all the data like seeing through the Matrix, was Supercell's analytics supremo Joakim Achrén.

The Supercell team hard at work getting crucial data about its players

Joakim was responsible for turning 0s and 1s into gold, and gold he did spin. Then, at the peak of the wave, having absorbed the meaning of the universe through free-to-play player behaviours and micro-transactions, he left.

Next steps

Along with a bunch of other guys from the exploding mobile gaming sector they formed Next Games, looking to move boldly into uncharted territories and drive free-to-play gaming beyond its current borders.

The A-Team, Finnish style

Next Games has two titles in development, one secret and one based on the super popular zombie TV series The Walking Dead. But wait, there's already a Walking Dead game! Correct, so is this going to be something similar, an episodic gaming experience? A good way to find out would be to ask Mr Achrén myself:

Joakim Achrén: Well technically I can't say, but our background is more in free-to-play - so you can take a guess from there.

The Finnsider: The game has been described as 'narrative lead', quite different from usual free-to-play fare. What challenges are there creating this kind of title as opposed to the standard 'big hit' genres of base building and match 3 puzzle games with overarching story progression?

JA: It creates restrictions when thinking about what kind of game you can build in that universe. You have set characters which weren't created for a game.

For us as a free-to-play company, human versus zombie is something new to tackle.
Joakim Achrén

Humans versus zombies as a setting has been tackled by so many games and I don't know that many good games, but Telltale's Walking Dead and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us are examples of it done well. These games involve drama, tension, hard choices, things like that. For us as a free-to-play company this is something new to tackle.

Tweak to win

Perhaps that's an understatement. In the spectrum of gaming, high production value games from studios like Naughty Dog are on one end, whereas traditional free-to-play has tended towards the opposite side of simple, repeatable tasks, content that is more or less static.

Once a free-to-play game like Hay Day or Candy Crush Saga is up and running, tweaking and iterating is focused on balancing and gameplay mechanics rather than new content with high overheads.

And in the next level, you get to match more candy. And the next one, and the one after!

The Finnsider: Presumably this sort of challenge is exactly what was attractive to the team at Next games?

JA: It was something that we as a company wanted to do. High production values, very engaging but still taking into account the core of what works on mobile, which is shorter play sessions that can still cater to players who want to play for longer - not forcing them to quit too early.

That kind of model is something we want to keep in the future in the games we make. It's hard because I really can't go into that much detail so I can't say too much yet.

You think about the iPad experience because it's going to be the best way for people to see your game.
Joakim Achrén

In Joakim's time at Supercell, the company was ahead of the curve in terms of focusing on tablets as its main platform at a time when most others were designing primarily for phones. With a focus on a higher production value, more cinematic experience, it seems inevitable Next Games will follow the same path and design for the bigger screen afforded to iPads and other tablets.

JA: Yes, definitely. It's a really good way to go forward with these devices. As a platform you think about the iPad experience because it's going to be the best way for people to see your game. But of course we need to keep it scaleable so that people can play anywhere.

Looking at something like Hay Day, there's a game that needs you to engage with it throughout the day in order to play efficiently, on your breaks etc, that's something we also believe in. I've actually played a lot of Telltale's Walking Dead on my iPhone, it's a bit tough but you can do it. The main challenge there is that they haven't embraced these short sessions - I'm never sure when it's going to save, whether I'm going to lose fifteen minutes of progress. It hurts the experience on mobile a bit.

With Achrén's deep understanding of player behaviour and which metrics to focus on, Next Games is in a great position to capitalise on the 'next generation' of free-to-play games.

As the free-to-play market evolves, it must accommodate a growing wave of players who will not be content with low skill tap screen gaming. Next Games' direction seems bold, but it is well placed to marry more traditional gaming elements with hard data to support playing habits on mobile devices and tablets.

Many console focused companies have created good games with poorly tacked on micro-transactions to the annoyance of their audience. While a slew of free-to-play mobile titles are guilty of diluting gameplay experiences to the distaste of traditional gamers (ahem, Rollercoaster Tycoon).

Can the Next Games team find a middle ground that satisfies both? One thing's for certain, it's no underdog this time.

You can find out more about Next Games at PG Connects, running in Helsinki between 16-17 June, when CEO Temmu Huuhtanen will take to the stage. Book your ticket here.

The Finnsider is our regular look at the ever-dynamic and increasingly successful mobile development scene in Finland, hosted by former Londoner – and now a Helsinkiläinen - Steve El-Sharawy, Digital Engagement Manager at EzyInsights. 

The Finnsider

An Englishman at home in Finland, Steve has spent the last decade working with data for online gaming, TV and social media. If you don’t have a question, don’t expect to get an answer.