It has one of the fastest-growing game industries in the world, but where does Finland go from here?
This country of just five million inhabitants is home to some 250 game companies with a combined headcount of around 2,500 – and it’s only going to get bigger as investment floods in from backers hoping to unearth the next Rovio or Supercell. How can this small nation support an ever-expanding industry, and how is its rapid growth to be maintained? Here, we discuss how these challenges will be met with Mikael Haveri, SVP of self publishing at Housemarque, whose plush new offices host our discussion; Sami Lahtinen, SVP of game development at Rovio; Joakim Achren and Jay Ranki, respectively co-founder and head of studio at Next Games; Lasse Seppänen, CEO and co-founder of PlayRaven; Tero Virtala, managing director of RedLynx; Jussi Laakkonen, CEO of Applifier, the company behind Everyplay; Suvi Latva, coordinator at Finnish game industry association NeoGames; and Arja Martikainen, senior consultant at recruitment specialist Barona.
What challenges do you face as the Finnish industry continues to grow?
Tero Virtala It’s a very big question. Look at the last five years. We have always had very high ambitions for the industry, but we always underestimate it. I think the current ways of attracting talent to the industry may not be enough; we need to think about how we are going to attract the next 2,500 people. Jussi Laakkonen We have a marketing problem. I think fundamentally it’s an engineering country – a few exceptions like Rovio aside, we don’t really do much branding or marketing. We prefer to be left alone to make money. That needs to change, I think. Joakim Achren It’s part of us as Finns. The humbleness. Who wants to come here? We’re distant; not that connected. But that’s changing now, and we need to do better, saying, “Hey, this is the country where the best games are made”. JL It’s hard to say those words yourself. You see Ilkka [Paananen, Supercell CEO] saying that, you see Peter [Vesterbacka, Rovio CMO] saying that, and you’re like, “Oh, well, you know…” We are, as a country, quite shy. Lasse Seppänen I totally agree that we need to attract foreign talent – it’s one of the big problems – but the other issue is education, which has come a long, long way. There are hundreds of people graduating per year for games and the game industry. That’s one way to fill a bit of the gap. And one thing we want to do, which others do, is outsource. There’s fantastic talent out there who don’t want to move to Finland but which we can access through outsourcing. JL It’s about doing more with less. I don’t know how much Supercell is turning over – maybe a billion last year? With 130 people. Look at Remedy – 100 people doing titles that are done elsewhere with multiple hundreds. Bugbear – 40, 50 people. Finnish studios have always been a little thrifty in terms of manpower.
The country as a whole may have a marketing problem, but what can the Finnish industry do specifically to raise its profile?
JA Events are really good. Think about last summer’s Free Your Play that Supercell held: so many people I met at GDC two months earlier were saying, “Hey, let’s meet up – we’re coming to Finland for this one-day thing”. It really attracted a lot of attention for the gaming scene here. Supercell – a very interesting company for everyone in the industry – hosting it was brilliant. Mikael Haveri I totally agree. We need to keep without Tekes. Our brothers in other Nordic countries are very envious of having a funding agent like Tekes, which funds R&D and innovation. It’s been absolutely key to all these companies. LS There’s also been a shift in society as a whole because you can now get cultural money for games – the Nordic Game Program, for example. It’s small compared to Tekes, but Tekes has also shifted a bit in that direction in that they don’t only support engines and technology, they also support making game content and services. AM At Barona we have a very close relationship with the Finnish labour office. We’ve created these transitional training programmes that are completely government funded. There’s a small fee for companies, they get someone who seems to fit with their culture and has adequate skills, and then it’s a trainee programme. Government is really interested in them, because games are a really sexy, hot topic at the moment. Jay Ranki We’ve had great success being part of that programme at Next Games – we’ve seen
“In Finland we’re distant; not that connected. But that’s changing, and we need to do better, saying, ‘Hey, this is the country where the best games are made’”
that in mind; maybe not copy [GDC in] San Francisco exactly, but something in that direction. Sami Lahtinen We have so many successful game companies now that it lowers the barrier to come to Finland. If you don’t feel comfortable in one company, there are other options here.
How has government’s attitude to games changed in light of the industry’s success?
Arja Martikainen The authorities have woken up. I was asked to join the education and employment group of the Helsinki Chamber Of Commerce. I’m there as a representative of the gaming scene, and they’re super-interested and want to lower all sorts of barriers to integrate a foreign workforce in Finland. They are really taking this seriously and understanding the whole thing – some are, at least. Suvi Lata We’re still waiting for action. We’re waiting for money, waiting for real actions to support the industry. TV I think the direction is good. Political decisions always take time. But the groundwork is starting to be done. JL I would maybe disagree a little bit with Suvi because none of us would be around this table some really great talent. It’s refreshing for me personally after so many years in the console industry, where you need such a specific skillset. Now with the sorts of games most of us are doing you can get much less experienced people as long as they have the talent. JL The industry has to lift itself by its bootstraps. We can talk about governments and all those things, but for those of us round the table, we don’t have time to wait for the government to act. We’ll go and make things happen, and the government will follow. We have to be successful; we cannot count on anybody else. MH I think when the government’s ahead of the curve, that’s when we’re in trouble. [Laughter.]
How much of the marketing problem stems from the fact that you all have such a global outlook?
JL How many times will a successful game even be defined as a Finnish game? In the UK, people are much more accessible for interviews. We’re not. We should do a better job of saying, “This is a Finnish game! And here are the guys, they’re available, they speak fluent English – let’s talk”. Supercell’s doing that, Rovio’s doing that, but does anyone know where Quantum Break is made,
where Trials is made, or Resogun? To some extent, maybe, but the problem when you [make games for] consoles is that the publisher takes the credit. The success of self-publishers lets us control the agenda: say where we are, why we’re proud of it, and why we make good games. MH Should that be a communal effort, though? Should we just do it by ourselves? JL I think we should bring it up, we should be going to the press and talking. When I worked at Bugbear we were told never to say anything to the press that the publisher hadn’t vetted in advance because you’d get shut down by a jealous PR rep on the publisher side. You just can’t do that. But self-publishing? Of course I’m going to say whatever I please to the man from Edge. Who’s going to fire me? JR The fact that we’ve always thought global is a positive thing. We never had the luxury of not thinking global, so it wasn’t something scary. TV It was a much bigger challenge ten years ago, but when digital distribution started, all those channels started to open up for smaller companies. It was a huge thing. The challenge turned all of a sudden into a huge strength.
You’re all working in slightly different fields and you’ve all experienced change. What’s next?
SaL More change. [Laughter.] LS There are lots of tablet and smartphone companies coming up. I think the next opportunity’s probably not on consoles. There are good opportunities there, but if you are talking about the next big hope… JL Using smartphones and mobile hardware with TV-connected play. Amazon, Apple and Google are all launching [in that area]. What is that? How do you play? It’s a very interesting area – I think innovations there are going to be fundamental in a few years’ time. For everyone around this table, that is an area that is going to have a massive impact. Some of the console traditions are applicable. MH Right now there’s a split in the industry between mobile and console. That’s going to converge: I assume that RedLynx will be making more console-type games for mobile platforms, and then of course mobile people will have bigger screens. TV One huge strength is going to be crossplatform gaming. Cloud-based games are coming; they’re going to be accessible via just about any platform. But if an individual company tries to outline the strategic vision for where the world is heading, it’s a huge bet. It’s hard to say, but I think passion, developing the kind of games that you love to play, already takes you a long way. If you had to guess which one of these companies is going to be the next big success, no one can say, but I can bet that those successes will come from Finland. JL Never in the history of mankind have so many people played games. It’s the biggest market ever and it’s growing incredibly fast. What is the next Angry Birds? The next Clash Of Clans, or Quantum Break? I don’t know, but I agree talent, passion, talent base, and experience all help. Everyone around this table’s been around the block a few times and we’re still making these things. Experience brings more success. SaL: The pace of learning is [important]. We know the industry is changing: the pace that you can follow, and learn, and learn again and change direction is key here. I think Finnish companies are very successful in that – not only by themselves, but also learning from each other. TV That’s a really good point. When you consider how project management principles have changed in ten years to these flexible models where you have to estimate and change direction. It used to be about finding the focus and only doing that. Now the world is changing so fast, you keep all the doors open. JL The world is more flat. From Unity levelling the playing field for creators to distribution places like Steam who are democratising it, it’s a lot easier now than 15 years ago. LS I also see a huge opportunity in the further segregation of the app market. There are now more tablets and smartphones than TV sets in the world. TV audiences are very segmented: HBO fans, reality TV fans, The Bold And The Beautiful and so on. Right now we’re seeing a very homogeneous selection of games on this platform. There must be many segments, of millions and millions of people, who could be reached if only the discovery mechanism were better. JL We’re working on it! [Laughter.] LS We know that Apple is aware of the problem – they want to fix it, to evolve the App Store further, but it’s not easy. There are a million different music styles in the world, but right now we only have the pop list [of games]. There’s no way to find jazz.
“I’d like to see Helsinki become a big hub. I think we’ll create our own thing – it’s not going to be San Francisco or Montreal, but it’s going to be beautiful”
No one’s mentioned virtual reality. Does that interest you at a time when games are becoming more social and more connected than ever, while VR does the exact opposite?
MH Games are more social, more mobile, more interactive, and by default Oculus Rift is taking you away from that, but I think it’s showing the next extension of what gaming can be: the ultimate interactive medium. When we were kids, all we wanted was to have the next level [of gaming]. I think VR could be it. It should have been the next level years ago, but now we have the technology. JR It’s not going to be for everybody, and it’s going to be expensive. I’m not sure if the current hardware is there yet, if it’s convenient enough for users. It’s going to come, but I think it’s probably going to need a big player involved. If Sony brings one out with PlayStation then Microsoft has pressure to bring one out as well. Then they both face pressure to make sure they get content for it that people actually care about. And then we’re on to something. JL I think it’s going to be good enough in two, three years. For real this time.
MH It probably won’t be a disruptive force, though. JL I agree. Someone needs to get it in the hands of consumers – that’s the hard part. MH You can see there’s a lot of mobile people who are not commenting here because it’s clearly not part of their strategy at this point. I think where the money is right now is expanding on that mobile experience, and most of those people won’t jump on the VR train. JA It’s a convenience question. Is it a convenient entertainment format compared to a console? Or is it even worse? JL I think it’s more convenient because you’re not hogging the family TV. The wife can be watching The Bold And The Beautiful and you can be… JA But you’re even more out of the zone then. JL If you’re watching The Bold And The Beautiful, I want to be out of the zone anyway. [Laughter.]
What about new routes to market such as Early Access and Kickstarter? Bugbear aside, Finland isn’t really using them.
JL There are some legal issues with crowdfunding in Finland, and Kickstarter’s not available. Steam Early Access, I think, is going to be much more applicable because we can get a game pretty far along here with a relatively small team. I think that would fit the Finnish model better, where you let the thing do its own marketing, while Kickstarter is all fluff. It’s storytelling. Good storytelling sells on Kickstarter, not the actual ability to deliver. TV We’ll definitely see growth in Finnish companies using them. We have 250 companies, most of them small, starting out. Of course they need funding. JR And it never hurts to have more funding options. I’m sure there’s going to be a Finnishbased [crowdfunding] thing in the future as well because people in Finland are thinking, well, games are making money – how can I be a part of that?
If you had to identify the best thing about Finland’s game industry, what would you pick?
LS Creativity. It’s wonderful to see so many startups and be able to start one of your own and make new things instead of just recycling, remaking game X and adding five per cent to it. JR The diversity of stuff going on here. New independent teams popping up everywhere. There are more opportunities in the game industry in Finland than there have ever been in my lifetime. MH It’s a brave new world. It’s pretty much down to what we make of it. I’d like to see Helsinki become a big hub. I think we’ll create our own thing – it’s not going to be San Francisco or Montreal, but it’s going to be a beautiful thing. Finland has a really good basis that’s very unique. I think we know it’s unique, but we don’t know what we’re going to create. SuL It’s the lack of a history that gives us flexibility. There’s no map for how to do it. And there’s passion, of course, and the community. We have a really strong game development community – we’re all a big family with the IGDA. AM And we work for a common cause without any goal. It’s socialistic. It’s deep in our heads, at least sometimes. In the IGDA, and the Finnish gaming community as a whole, people share knowledge instead of hiding it. JA The nicest thing to see is engineering talent – there’s a lot of it available in Finland – transitioning into game industry talent. I have a degree in engineering, so I came to the industry from being a programmer. It’s really nice to see ex-Nokia engineers starting up game companies – they’re really passionate, making really good tech as well. It’s going to continue for many years, the Nokia engineer flow into the game industry. MH The best thing ever to happen to Finland is the collapse of Nokia. [Laughter.] JR Nokia did a lot of good while they were going well, and we should never forget that. They did a lot of good for the industry: many of us started in game companies with close ties to Nokia. But the fact Nokia collapsed so fast has really pushed the startup scene in Finland. That’s great for Finland’s future: we’re not as fragile. We can maintain this startup mentality and many companies are driving the country’s economy, not just one big company. More diversity is good for the country. We have Housemarque, one of the key players in the downloadable console game space. We have Remedy working on absolutely the highest quality technical marvels on the next generation of consoles. Then we have all of us mobile guys pushing boundaries, trying to find the next thing and not just trying to copy Rovio or Supercell.
How do you ensure that you all remain friends as the industry gets bigger?
MH If you’re a Finn, in my opinion, it’s in your blood. You enter a circle as a newbie and it’s just great to see everybody and they take care of you. I don’t see that going away unless we have some really strict ruling with NDAs and so on. As long as we have beer and IGDA, it’s going to continue. JR But let’s not fool ourselves – it means that every single one of us needs to represent that culture, and educate the ones that come from abroad or outside the Finnish game industry, [to ensure] that they understand this culture and adapt to it. SuL It’s forbidden to do any recruitment work in IGDA gatherings, so that also gives things a certain peace. AM Let’s hope they don’t kick me out next time! JR That’s one of the big problems in many of the IGDA chapters around the world. They’re very much taken over by students and academics, and the actual developers who do it for a living don’t want to go because they get harassed by so many students [looking for work]. We’re trying to maintain that balance so developers still like to come and network – and of course drink beer, being Finns – but students are also welcome. We’re not shutting them out. LS During the past year we’ve gone for maximum openness with Spymaster. We showed it to as many people as we can: there are people from other companies who play it over Testflight and give us feedback. Not for one second have I been worried that someone would copy the game. MH I do worry that we’re leaving our doors open for a Trojan horse attack. We don’t see greedy people coming in and spoiling our perfect infrastructure. JR Well, we’ve already had Ubisoft and EA here, and we used to have THQ, and they haven’t done much damage. Can we find someone more evil than that? Maybe Zynga’s coming…
Mikael Haveri SVP of self-publishing, Housemarque
Tero Virtala Managing director, RedLynx
Arja Martikainen Senior consultant, Barona
Jay Ranki Head of studio, Next Games
Sami Lahtinen SVP of game development, Rovio
Suvi Latva Coordinator, NeoGames
Lasse Seppänen CEO and co-founder, PlayRaven
Joakim Achren Co-founder and CPO, Next Games
Jussi Laakkonen CEO, Applifier