Supercell's vision wasn't always so crystal clear. When the company launched at the start of 2011, it had a very familiar idea of how to make it big in the games industry.
"Our first thought was, 'Hey, we're going to create these cross-platform games that you can access both from a web browser and from mobile devices,'" says Paananen. Was Gunshine a false start, then? "Yeah, I guess you could say that," he admits. "We thought web was a huge platform, so why don't we start with that? But when we started to dig into the tablet and smartphone versions of Gunshine, we started to confound ourselves. We realized, 'Hey, we want to make the best possible games we can for this platform. So we started to experiment with all kinds of things on this platform, and I guess we kind of found ourselves, and we tightened our focus, which I think is the best decision we've ever made."
It was around a year ago that Supercell came upon its "tablet-first" strategy -- a sharpening initiative that has no doubt played a huge part in the company's raging 2012 success.
"We think that tablet is the ultimate game platform," says the CEO. "It combines the best of all the possible worlds. It has a console-like performance; With Retina display, the screen is really as good as it gets; It's the first device that three to four year old kids can use and get started on -- that wouldn't be possible with PCs or laptops, or even gaming consoles."
What Paananen and his team realized ever so quickly was that if you don't build your games from the ground-up for a specific platform, you're not going to build the best games.
"I know from experience, because that's what we tried!" he laughs. "We started from this online web product, and how we actually discovered tablet was when we started to create a version of the game for the tablet, and we realized, 'Hey, it's not going to be a good game!' Unless we actually start from the tablet, we've never going to create the best games for this platform."
Focusing on a single platform seems to go against the grain of what works in our industry -- it especially seems absurd given that there are far more iPhones out there than iPads. Yet Paananen notes of Supercell's tablet-focused development, "I think it results in better games and, ironically, results in better games for the iPhone. When you design for a highly fidelity platform and a bigger screen and so on, you need to put even more emphasis on the quality. And honestly, we think that the tablet is the ultimate game platform. We think that in three to five years ahead, it's going to be the device that most people consume entertainment from."
In fact, the company's iPad revenue already equals its iPhone revenue -- proof, if any was needed, that Supercell's approach is definitely working.
So is this tablet-orientated development the sole ingredient in Supercell's secret sauce? It would appear not. In fact, it's far from this simple, as I slowly but surely gathered that the company's success is part experience, part focus, part culture, and a splash of happy accident.
"We think that the biggest advantage we have in this company is culture," offers the industry veteran. "We want to build a very different type of company. At the center of it is this idea of small -- if you think around the console industry, or even if you look at newer platforms like Facebook, what happens is that somebody comes in, and they have this small and very passionate team, and they make a great game, and consumers pick it up."
He continues, "That company then becomes financially very successful, and investors come onboard, and there are growth targets you need to hit. What happens is you end up growing really, really quickly with employees, and you start to build these bigger and more expensive products and so on, and at some point the company grows to hundreds of people in size, and the products become more and more expensive. And then you don't want to take risks anymore -- you can see that evidence by all the sequels that are being built. Nobody wants to take any risks anymore."
"Quite frankly, it's not fun to work in those sorts of companies. They're run by process, and top-down management," he says. Paananen is keen to avoid such a situation this time around, promising himself that no matter how success Supercell gets, the idea of keeping small will always be a core part of the company's ideology.
"I have this thing about becoming too big," he notes. "Zynga is an example of that kind of threat. The original FarmVille was built by five or six guys, and 84 million people played it on a monthly basis. Clearly people really loved the game. But since then what has happened is, Mark Pincus was quite proud that their latest product was made in 18 months by 100 people, and they are getting to this triple-A scale, blah blah blah.
"Okay, but what did the users think? Did they love the game? Well, maybe not. It really hasn't done that well. It's unbelievable that time after time after time, this industry falls into this same trap. You get bigger, you get slower, you build more expensive products, but they might not be the best products for the consumers."
Say Paananen, what really clicks with him about Supercell's "small is big" approach is the possibility of building a company he's always dreamed of -- a company built on passion rather than metrics.
"We don't hire people and say 'Okay, your job is to code this part of the game', 'you are responsible for these art assets', etcetera," he adds. "We don't have dedicated game designers as such -- it's the team that is going to build the game, and they are all responsible for the end-user experience."
It's an approach to management that has worked well for Valve, and Supercell is further evidence that it can result in huge success. "People really step up and take more responsibilities," adds Paananen. "It's a lot more motivating to do that, and a lot more passion gets thrown into the product. And the beauty of all of this is this is a model that really makes sense -- you don't need 100 people to build a game for this device, and we're not going to fall into this trap of hiring 100 people to build the best 3D experience, high-fidelity graphics, this massive storyline and loads of content. We just want to build games that are really fun to play, where the focus is on gameplay."