The Finnsider

Playing with Pelitalo: Getting under the hood of Finland's real 'free to play' scene

Helsinki's gaming community gets its game on

Playing with Pelitalo: Getting under the hood of Finland's real 'free to play' scene

Greetings from an uncharacteristically hot and sweaty Finland. After the particularly welcome Nordic tradition of a long summer break, your faithful Finnsider returns.

Inevitably perhaps, but while most of the country tends to fall asleep work-wise during July, game news slows to a crawl.

Next Games though, did announce a partnership with Lionsgate, revealing that its eggs are very much in the basket labelled something like ‘popular existing IP mobile experience tie-ins’. And good for Next Games - it will certainly be interesting to see what form its first title will take as it tries to combine both quality freemium and high production value philosophies.

Also, some lady in America is really angry about some birds she made.

Summer in Helsinki means slightly more hipstery drinking

This relatively slow news month gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about the Pelitalo initiative. “What is that?” I hear you think, so I’ll try to explain.

House of fun

Literally translated as ‘Game-House’, Pelitalo is a sort of cyber-cafe for young people crossed with a LAN party where you can also learn how to make games and where games industry people tend to crop up giving insider advice, all funded by the local council, and all free to attend.

Founded in 2008, Pelitalo offers Helsinki based youngsters the chance to spurn hanging out in dubious places and instead offers a spacious area not far from the city centre which is decked out with 40 PCs, a Pinball machine, and at least one of every current console - including both the PS4 and Xbox One. Here, young people between 15-25 years old are free to turn up as and when, on their own or with friends, and … play!

Keep ganking him, keep ganking him!

On the weekend the focus is on playing, which at the current point in time means League of Legends for most of the visitors. Saturday includes a tournament in which everyone takes part, even if they don’t want to play.

The game is chosen by the young people who attend Pelitalo and there is a tournament points system in place which means everyone is rewarded for contributing. The inclusion of tournament streaming via Twitch offers experience and confidence to those doing it and directly challenges the Finnish national pastime of being silent.

It goes further than just playing games too - on Mondays they host a game dev club. This runs in six week cycles, with the goal being to create a finished, working game by the end, even if it’s just a simple clone.

Although, as you might expect, Pelitalo tends to attract mostly guys, they have run a couple of girls only gaming events which have been popular. Joonas Laakso from Remedy is one regular volunteer at the Pelitalo game dev club:

Like many Finnish people, Joonas enjoys game development and only smiling for press shots

"The best thing about Pelitalo is that we can give those attending a sort of shortcut," Laakso told me. "They still have to put in the hours to make something, but we can point them in the right direction, with advice on tools, design and process. Not all of them will want to keep on making games, but they get to try it out over a couple of months, instead of years trying to figure it out on their own."

Getting together

Further still, Pelitalo offers a program that youngsters from the Helsinki area can be referred to. This service caters for those who may be from troubled backgrounds, be vulnerable, have difficult family situations or problems socialising.

The idea behind helping these kids out is that they get together once a week and just play games, something most of us spent a fair amount of time doing in our childhoods and are lucky enough retain good memories and good friends from. Every fourth week the group heads out to do something together that isn’t sitting in front of a screen.

Pelitalo is a sort of cyber-cafe for young people crossed with a LAN party where you can also learn how to make games.

Pasi Tuominen, project designer at Pelitalo, adds some further details:

"This is our main venue, but we also have PCs in our satellite sites - two in libraries and four placed within other youth centres around Greater Helsinki," he told me.

"The demand for more of these places is there, we have over 300 visitors each weekend and there’s often a wait to get onto a machine. In fact there’s a similar but smaller version up in the north of the country, in Oulu. Other cities like Tampere and Turku would like to have similar activity centres, but as of now they don’t.

" A big challenge for us is finding the right staff. We need people who like working with young people and are appropriately qualified to do so, but are also gamers themselves, or at least understand the positive aspects of gaming. There’s also external pressure from old fashioned attitudes that might look down on a youth worker who spends most of their time playing videogames.

"We are lucky to have great volunteers from within the industry like Joonas who is the most active of them all. Other people may come and give a talk about their particular area of expertise."

Pelitalo’s aim is not just to give youngsters a safe place to hang out and play, but to add in the ‘real life’ social aspect, to preserve and pass on gaming culture and knowledge, to give a look behind the industry curtain for those interested in working in games, to help encourage shy and quiet teenagers to take part in activities they might not otherwise, to build relationships with those that regularly attend and to legitimise gaming as a positive pastime.

It also allows people who can’t afford a new console to come and at least have a go - which is pretty cool considering new consoles cost about a million euros each in Finland.

If you’re ever in the area, be sure to check it out.

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.