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Supercell's Secret Sauce

December 7, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

Also echoing Valve's methods, Supercell is a very flat organization. No one has an office, and everyone sits together, reveling in zero bureaucracy. Teams operate independently, such that the majority of the power is in the hands of the individuals.

"We like to think of our guys as craftsmen -- we want to hand-craft these games for our users," says the Supercell CEO. "Giving orders like a top-down management just doesn't work at all. I think the information just flows so much better. There's the feeling that we're all in this together. It makes sense in our relatively fast-moving and dynamic environment too. It's just good to have everyone as close by as possible."

"Of course we have some processes," he adds, "but basically everybody hates processes here -- for there to be a process of any kind, there has to be a really good reason."

The next spice thrown into Supercell's sauce is transparency. Every single morning an automatic email is sent out to every single employee -- no matter if they are full-time, part-time, or trainee. Said email displays how many users each product has, how much revenue was generated, and various other key performance indicators like retention rates.

"We don't have any secrets here," explains Paananen. "Even if I wanted to keep something secret I can't, because I force myself to send all the data every single morning, and there's nothing I can do about it! It actually helps the management of the company, because it makes our culture very results-driven, and there's no politics."

This level of openness with its employees even extends to those moments when things go horribly wrong -- in fact, as strange as it may sound, Supercell actually revels in flops and misadventures.

"We have this culture of celebrating failure," explains Paananen. "When a game does well, of course we have a party. But when we really screw up, for example when we need to kill a product -- and that happens often by the way, this year we've launched two products globally, and killed three -- when we really screw up, we celebrate with champagne. We organize events that are sort of postmortems, and we can discuss it very openly with the team, asking what went wrong, what went right. What did we learn, most importantly, and what are we going to do differently next time?"

Paananen goes even further -- he believes that teams learn more from failures than from successes, and that the best companies are built on top of these failures. "That's why we encourage failure," he adds. "When you fail you learn, and that's worth celebrating. This will also encourage risk-taking. If you punish failure, that doesn't encourage you to take risks. You'll end up just doing sequels and playing safe."

The Supercell man acknowledges that certain parts of his business strategy may well clash with how others in the industry approach development and management, and so when it comes to hiring time, applicants are made fully aware of how the company operates.

"We pay very close attention when we hire people that they are okay with this working environment," Paananen says. "It's definitely not for everybody, absolutely not, because you have to be really proactive, very passionate about this stuff, and passionate about games, first and foremost. But it's definitely a very fun environment to work with."

The final addition to Supercell's secret sauce is quite simply Finland itself. In 2011, the Finnish games industry grew by 57 percent, to a value of 165 million euros, according to the International Game Developers Association. Why is Finland booming?

"People ask me 'What's in the water in Finland? Where did all these great mobile games companies come from?'" laughs Paananen. "In Finland, we have this unique combination of creativity and technology talent. We're known for a lot of great engineering talent, but the other side that people constantly miss because we're shy and silent and not very outspoken, is that we actually have this long tradition in storytelling."

And the Supercell CEO has his own theories as to where this tradition came from. "200 years back, it was a very poor country, and people were living in very small houses. During the Fall and Winter time it was cold, it was miserable. There was nothing you could do outside, so what people would do is, they would gather in their houses and tell stories. There were storytellers who were almost like rock stars."

"So there's this really long tradition of storytelling," he continues. "But the other part is that people would just then invent games, kind of like board games, just on their own. And this kind of creativity has been in our culture for a very long time. It's a combination of that, plus the engineering talent, which I think makes the games industry so great here."

It's not like the Finnish games industry has suddenly come out of nowhere, either. Finland has boasted a healthy games industry for two decades now, with names like Max Payne, Alan Wake and Supreme Snowboarding associated with the country. But, as mentioned previously, it is the falling of the publisher barriers that has really helped Finland's games industry to evolve at an alarming rate.

"I think it's interesting that, after the collapse of Nokia, Finland sort of needs to reinvent itself," remarks Paananen. "We truly believe that tablets and mobile are the future of games, and I'd argue that if we can keep our position, we're going to be one of these centers of gravity for the future of gaming."

"It definitely doesn't just apply to Rovio and Supercell either," he adds. "I guarantee you that in the next three or four years, there's going to be a lot of other companies that break through. I can see what's going on here in the game scene, and it's unbelievable how many great small companies are being started almost every month."

It helps that the Finnish government is rather excited about games at the moment, once again thanks to Rovio and Angry Birds. The country's National Technology Agency hands out subsidies to new video game business that look promising, and according to Paananen, it's pretty easy to get a games business started as a result, at this moment in time.


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Comments


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.
http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/11/meet-the-whales/all/
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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@Kevin
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.


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