Studio Profile: Supercell

Founded 2010 | Location Helsinki | Employees 85 | URL www.supercell.net | Current projects Hay Day, Clash Of Clans

Fittingly, Supercell occupies an old Nokia building. A vast glass atrium is surrounded by walls of more glass on every side, fronting floor after floor of empty office space. At the very top of this structure, a modest segment is occupied by Finland’s latest mobile heroes. Its two current apps, Hay Day and Clash Of Clans, have been hugely successful, the former hitting the top 10 grossing apps in 79 countries and the latter having made number one in 121 countries. Not bad for a team of fewer than 90 people that’s just two years old. We sat down and ate breakfast with its infectiously enthusiastic CEO, Ilkka Paananen, to chat about Supercell’s rapid rise to fame.

You’ve achieved considerable success on iOS. What’s the studio’s secret?
We call our strategy ‘small’; for us, we really want to build a different kind of game company. What traditionally happens to many games companies is a small group of individuals put together something great, they ship a hit product and money starts to come in. And they get the idea that the next product is going to be so much bigger. So now instead of five people, it’s going to be 25 people or 100 people, and instead of spending six or nine months to develop it, it’s going to take three years. But usually that results in dinosaurs and giants that move slowly, and bureaucracy takes over. For us, it’s all about sticking to small teams where everybody can contribute to the game.

The teams handling Hay Day and Clash Of Clans are small but have a great deal of creative control. They’re also extremely proud of their charges

So the company could theoretically continue to expand, but the number of teams, not their size, would go up?
Yeah, that’s the ethos. We hope that the passion and personality of the teams shows in the games. In triple-A console games, that type of model hires specialists where people are only doing a certain part of the game, and it’s so much harder to feel like you have any influence over it. Maybe this model wouldn’t work in the traditional space, but we believe it’s by far the best model for this new platform.

Teams have a lot of freedom, then?
Yes, and we actually try to encourage failure! We try to get protoypes to a milestone that we call ‘company playable’ as fast as possible. It’s a really rough version that we’ve perhaps invested two months in, then we release it to the whole company. So we have 85 people playing the game, and they give feedback and rate it from one to five stars. Many of those projects end at that point, but then we organise a company-wide postmortem of what went right and what went wrong. At the end of those meetings, we hand out a bottle of champagne to every member of the team that has ‘failed’. We really try to celebrate it! If you want to have innovation, you really need to be OK with failing more often than you succeed.

Free-to-play is based on failure, too, since you monetise only a small percentage of players. Do you think your culture could exist without it?
I think that really is the beauty of not only the free-to-play model but also this platform, because it enables a lot more focus on gameplay. I actually think the golden age of PC gaming is coming back, because you can create these smaller products that are all about gameplay and not about cinematics. The assets you need to create for a triple-A console title these days get so much attention and money that quite often the gameplay is a secondary priority. On tablets, it’s the other way around.