Quality is worth killing for: Supercell's ruthless approach to production
With major free-to-play hits like Hay Day, Clash of Clans, and Clash Royale under its belt, Supercell seems like a bona fide hit machine.
But according to Supercell game lead and artist Jonathan Dower, that success came in part because the company wasn’t afraid to kill games that were not up to snuff and move on.
Dower described Supercell as a long-time “serial killer” of games. Of the last 10 games, seven were killed in prototype, two were killed at soft launch, and one – Clash Royale -- actually launched globally.
“Financial goals are secondary to quality,” Dower said. “It’s absolutely true.” For Supercell, quality means making fun games that people play for years that are “truly global” products (and by global, Dower means all markets around the world).
To get the desired level of quality, Supercell makes sure to hire good people, and keep teams small. Supercell is made of 180 people worldwide, including 70 developers, and teams are made up of 3-15 people.
“Generally more games mean more people,” said Dower. That means there’s more overhead, more bureaucracy, less ownership, less focus and ultimately less quality.
But he said that Supercell isn’t all “bunnies and fairy dust.” He said sometimes the best people actually don’t end up making the best games, that being small doesn’t mean teams are always focused, that being independent has its own pressure, and team goals come before personal goals.
Dower talked about the murder of the game Smash Land. At Supercell, “4.6 people” made Smash Land in 10 months. The game’s beta didn’t meet targets, and while the team was hopeful for a rebound, the game basically tanked.
“It just wasn’t a game you’d play for years and years, beta targets were not met, there was a lack of content…updates started to feel cluttered, it just didn’t feel right,” Dower said.
At Supercell, the management trusts the game teams to make the call on killing a game, according to Dower. For Smash Land, the team got some beers, hung out in a sauna, and they decided to kill it. Then they told the CEO, held a company-wide postmortem, and learned from the experience. They moved on to work on other projects in Supercell, on games including the company’s latest hit, Clash Royale.
“We get emotionally connected [these games], but at some point you have to think [whether or not] you can fix it.” For Dower and Supercell, often it’s best to cut your losses, learn some lessons and move on.