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Supercell's Secret Sauce

December 7, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Whenever I'm abroad and people ask me where I'm from, I always prepare myself for the same response. "Ah, Manchester!" they say. "Manchester United!" they add. These days Manchester City also features in these responses, but in general you can forget our decades of musical influence and terrible weather -- soccer is what we're really known for around the world.

Finland's Helsinki is currently experiencing a similar connection. I was in a restaurant in the capital when an older gentleman stopped me to ask where I was from. But rather than ask me which team I support, he followed up, "and why are you here in Helsinki?"

"I'm here to see some video games," I replied. His eyes lit up, and he said excitedly, "Ahh! Angry Birds!" before turning to his group and starting a conversation about all the mobile games he had played.

He must have been well into his 60s, and his family and friends were a good spread of ages, all discussing what back in my own hometown would be considered a non-talking point to most. Later on a cab driver strikes up a conversation with me about games, and later still a flight attendant wants to know what I'm playing on my smartphone.

Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen sees a direct correlation between Manchester and Helsinki's separate booms. "It's the same thing as why do kids start playing football?" he tells me. "It's Cristiano Ronaldo, all these sorts of heroes. And now, why do people start making games? Because we want to be the next Angry Birds."

"The success of Rovio has been a huge source of inspiration for all Finnish gaming companies," he continues. "The biggest favor that those guys have done for the entirety of Finland is that they've raised the bar for everybody. They have shown where you can get to when you have the right level of ambition."

If Rovio has raised the bar, Supercell is doing a damn good job of vaulting over it. Since switching to a "tablet-first" business model earlier this year, the company said recently that it grosses over $500,000 a day from just two mobile releases -- a figure which is now "well above that," according to Paananen.

I visited Supercell with one goal in mind -- to find out the secret to how a company can go from an absolute nobody on mobile, to a huge somebody in the space of around four months. When both Hay Day and Clash of Clans launched this summer, Supercell had never released a mobile game before, and its previous title Gunshine for browser had been a bit of a false start. Now the company own two spots in the top five grossing games charts on iOS, with Clash of Clans in particular regularly parked at number one.

"Me and the other co-founders, we have a relatively long history in creating games," muses Paananen, as I question him on how Supercell began. "For me personally, it's 12 years or so. This time, we really want to do things differently."

Paananen co-founded Sumea back in 2000, which was eventually sold to social game developer Digital Chocolate. After holding his role as president of Digital Chocolate for four years, the serial entrepreneur decided that it was time to start over again.

"It's going to sound really naive and simple, but the single biggest lesson that Mikko [Kodisoja, Supercell co-founder and creative director] and I have learned is that if you really want to build the next generation of games company, it's actually all about the people," he says. "Before now, we usually always had to go with a big international publisher or someone like that, so there was always a middleman between us and the consumer. But then these democratic app stores, like Facebook and iOS, and all of a sudden it was possible to directly access the consumer."

Finland has been waiting for the App Store, it would seem. Removing those extra steps between the development studio and the consumer has helped in spades, while allowing devs truly set their creativity free.

"Now it's a lot more about the product quality and the product itself," Paananen notes. "If we want to create the best products, we need the best people. That was actually how the whole thing started, and where the name Supercell comes from. We're creating these small but ultra-dynamic teams of developers who work relatively independently. And despite the small size of the group, we have big dreams -- hence Supercell."

Supercell isn't kidding around when it comes to making sure the company is stuffed full of talented individuals. Most of its employees have around 10 years of experience in shipping commercial games, on average. "We have already been in a situation where we've needed to recruit one person for a project, and we couldn't find him or her at that point," Kodisoja later tells me. "So we suffered for a bit until we found them."

"Of course, the flipside of the coin is that we'll never be as big as many of our competitors when measured by employee count, and we can't grow as quickly," says Paananen. "But that's a core part of our philosophy and vision for the company."

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Robert Green
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That's all good and well, but when Wired wanted to do a story about whales, they chose to use Clash of Clans as their example.
Hard to imagine that a game needs a $99.99 'chest of gems' unless it's largely just the same game as all the other social games with a different coat of paint. Try to argue this with anyone invested in this business model though, and they'll likely get into a circular argument that goes something along the lines of "it must be a really good game, because a lot of people are playing it and spending a lot of money, and nobody is putting a gun to their heads, so they must be really enjoying it and spending all that money voluntarily". Which is all true on a literal level of course, but in situations like these you always have to stop yourself and ask if the same arguments aren't just as true for slot machines.

Kevin Nolan
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Clash Of Clans is a pretty good strategy game. There are winning and losing conditions both for defending your settlement and attacking other people's. There are no premium items (or at least none when I last played it) - all your real money can do is purchase ordinary items early and speed the rate your village grows, so the usual "buy your way to victory" complaint is moot, because there's always higher level players around.

I'm not sure in what way you define Clash Of Clans being the same as all other social games, but most complaints I've heard about them is that they are all never-fail, strategyless, pay-to-win cow clickers. In those areas Clash Of Clans is indeed different.

Robert Green
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See Michael's comment below. It's good that they've expanded out into something that can actually be described as strategy, but when you say "all your real money can do is purchase ordinary items early and speed the rate your village grows", know that a lot of people will think "just like farmville, right?" It's still a business model based on impatience isn't it?

Jeremie Sinic
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I like Clash of Clans for not trying to shove In-App Purchases in your face all the time. That's a definite plus. Actually I believe DragonVale worked for the same reason.
However, as I level up (currently level 27), I realize money is more and more important to continue progressing steadily.
Since I get attacked regularly, even though my defense "wins" most of the time, I still lose resources and now I feel like the only way to make significant progress is to speed up the construction of everything with Gems, which I don't want to do because it's against my principles to pay to win.
But with construction times that take sometimes 3 days or more, and resources that take forever to refill due to the constant attacks, I can feel the more and more pressing urge to cave in and open my purse.
And note that the game, unlike some others in that genre, litterally allows players to buy AND speed up EVERYTHING in the game, which means that with the necessary cash, you might go from level 1 to 99 in a single day (I don't even want to imagine the insane amount of money that would take, though).
So basically, I found the game fun for one and a half week, but now I am almost ready to give up.

Michael Neel
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Clash of Clans is a textbook example of Skinner Box design. It's successful yes, not because of game play but because it triggers the right addiction responses in players. I hope Supercell is saving up the revenue from the game because it will likely implode as fast as it grew. One only has to look as far as the game's Facebook page to see scores of angry players, and many of them are reporting successful refunds of $100's of dollars from Apple (it seems Apple is more willing to refund players these days if these posts are true).

Stephe Rosenshein
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I'm sorry, but let me clarify: you think that negative comments on the game's Facebook page indicate a pending collapse of their recent run-away success? Have you ever looked at a Facebook page for any product, game, company, etc.? When you open yourself up to customer feedback, you tend to receive some negativity. To point to a few comments about refunds (I can't find a single one) as an indicator of some kind of impending doom for a game seems more like grasping at straws of negativity and a jealous attempt to belittle either this article, the company it's about, or both. You tell me.

Bob Charone
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Negative comments or not there is something Zynga-ish about a game that has $100 in-app purchases!

Jason Bentley
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@Bob Charone

I suggest playing CoC before declaring it "Zynga-ish".

Yes, it does have $100 purchases, but that's just an example of not limiting their income by someone else's expected top end purchase.

In my opinion, CoC differers from the typical -ville game in that it provides a clearly enjoyable mechanic of attacking and defending villages. Is this a new concept? Nope; I've seen a couple games do it before, but just like Blizzard and Rovio they took something unpolished and reworked it to create an enjoyable experience.

Bob Charone
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@Jason Bentley
What in the Hell makes you think I didn't at least try a free game? I would suggest not attempting to read peoples minds before responding.

To me its a free-to-download pay-to-win/advance cow clicker along the lines of most of Zynga's games. Perhaps they would be different if they had an in-app purchase that lets you buy the game for $1/5/10 and make other purchase for decorative purposes only!

Samuel Green
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As Jeremie Sinic said above, it eventually becomes a pay-to-win game or the experience develops into something so slow that it's no longer fun. And, if you're being attacked by a friend that pays then you're going to get owned.

It's not a typical -Ville game, but it's essentially a polished and streamlined clone of Kixeye's Backyard Monsters (and all their own clones of that game), which is along the same lines as the whole Kabam Kingdom's of Camelot MMO Strategy games.

Those games aren't exactly Zynga-ish, they're their own brand of 'evil'. I work in social games, so I'm not one to really use 'Zynga-ish' as an insult... but the argument people are making here in defense of Clash of Clans is a bit nonsensical.

These games don't make more money than Zynga games because they're awesome. They make more money than Zynga games because their monetization and design (around that monetization) is more 'awesome'. It's up to you to conclude whether they're really making the F2P environment a better place or an even MORE exploitative space.

At least in a Zynga game, I can't be killed by a guy who spends loads of money...

Jason Bentley
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@Bob Charone

Bring the anger down a notch, please. From your one sentence response it sounded like you hadn't played it.

You may not see the difference between pay-to-advance-faster and pay-to-win, but I assure you that many people do. Yes; they have all the skinner-box trappings that bring people in. They also have an actual game mechanic that people enjoy playing and are never required to pay money to use. Will they ever reach the top of the game and gain fame, fortune and free gems? Nope; but they're perfectly happy with that trade off.

Jason Bentley
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@Samuel Green
"At least in a Zynga game, I can't be killed by a guy who spends loads of money..."

In CoC you can be attacked by anyone who has the same (approx) number of 'trophies' as yourself. You can easily be attacked by someone who has gamed the system a bit to attack lower level players.

That gaming of the system is easy to do whether you pay or not. Advance far without paying and you can crush many smaller players; it's not dependent on how much you spent.

Wether that's a GOOD mechanic or not is another question entirely.

Jonathan Chan
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Really? any developer that includes a $99.99 item is considered "Zynga-ish"? ... What about VALVe and TF2? You guys keep drawing ridiculous definitions like this. You'll be in great company of each other in the unemployment line.

And your jealousy or hatred of these monetizations isn't going to make them go away. Supercell has built a clever and brilliantly planned game does scratch all the right itches, but how is that different than Call of Duty, or Halo, or Starcraft? Building games is about scratching the right itches. If you can't appreciated their games' mechanics and calling foul based on silly comparisons, you shouldn't be making games.

Brandon Van Every
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Why do we have to laud conspicuous consumption? There's more to life than gawking at the biggest gold watch on someone's wrist.

Joseph Willmon
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@Jonathon Chan

I understand where they're coming from, even if I don't agree with the sentiment. Responses like that come from a place of pain, and it's obvious that Free-to-play is great source of pain for designers right now. Most of us joined the game industry to create the sort of games we love and which inspired us, but Free-to-play, with its ability to command significant revenues, and thus the attention from the sort of people who fund the Making of Games, of forces you to get on board with it or become irrelevant. In a sense, Free-to-play is a more intense form of the "widgetification" of the game industry that's been happening for a while now, and it's hard to not see how that would bother designers. We started making games because we're passionate about them, not investment banking.

For what it's worth, to those designers I offer that designing for Free2Play can be even more fun if you don't allow your thinking to be constrained simply by the existing models that are out there. I can guarantee that the "optimal" Free-to-play design, the one that perfectly merges player happiness and agency with profit generation, hasn't yet been found. The ideal espoused to players is that Free-to-play allows you to pay what you want when you want it, and while I hate being confronted with purchasing decisions in my leisure time, I was disappointed in enough $60 AAA releases this year that that ideal is starting to sound pretty good to me.

Bob Charone
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Those are not pay to win games! As far as profit is concerned, the biggest game companies and the biggest indie hits are not pay-to-win. It wasn't that long ago when Zynga was worth as much as EA.

Robert Green
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@Joseph Willmon

Regarding your comment that "Free-to-play allows you to pay what you want when you want it", I understand that this is the industry's latest catchphrase, but when you think on it for even a short moment, you realise that it's fundamentally absurd. Our entire understanding of economics and commerce is based on a foundational principle that a person offered the same product at two different prices will always prefer the cheaper of the two.

The very idea then, that anybody "wants" to pay anything, at any time, is patently ridiculous. That's why when you read the comments and reviews about a freemium game, it is always considered a positive if the user never felt compelled to pay anything. Contrast initial reviews for CSR Racing with Punch Quest for example.

Beyond that, the idea that any freemium game allows me to pay "what I want" is also somewhat misleading. The humble indie bundle, by contrast, allows me to pay whatever I want (greater than 1c), while still giving me the same product. If a freemium game wants to sell me a chest of gems though, I can't choose what I want to pay for it, I can only choose to go without if I don't like their price.

Kevin Corti
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To take the discussion off piste a tad (away from F2P at least), there are two other factors to Supercell's success that I believe deserve respect namely:

[1] Their games are super-slick (beautiful art assets, well-crafted UI, excellent technical performance) - which is pretty rare still in iOS/Android-land
[2] They design their games to truly work on mobile devices; that's with regard to how people play games on mobile, not so much about the technology itself e.g. form factor, touch screen capabilities etc.

There are still far too many devs/publishers approaching mobile and tablet games with a PC/console mindset, eg with virtual thumb controllers/D pads that just don't work on a tablet device and just because an iPad3 has pretty good 3D capabilities doesn't mean it is the best platform for a FPS, car racer or 3rd person RPG. Games like Horn (published but not developed by Zynga) look great in screenshots but is horrible to use.

Putting down games like CofC because you have an aversion to F2P is to ignore the other factors - around game craft - that also make them successful at what they do.

Andrew Levie
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I have played clash of clans for going on 5 months now, I have spend a fair amount of money to upgrade my items, not because I had to, in order to win, but because I wanted to sped the money I did on Clash Of Clans. It would not have changed the future outcome of my village if I had not used gems, but simply sped up the future outcome, regardless of whether or not I spent money had nothing to do with the items I upgraded becoming maxed, it was inevitable. There are players who I know who spend way more than I spent and still can't reach the top 50 players list. You can not "buy" your way to the top, thats part of what makes the game so entertaining and keeps me returning every day.