HOW TO FINNISH
Compact and agile, Finland’s approach to modern game development starts with thinking all about the players
When writer William Goldman pronounced that nobody knows anything, he was talking about the movie industry, but it feels increasingly applicable to the world of videogames. When Apple launched its App Store, for example, no one projected that the company would pay revenues of $10 billion to developers of iOS software in 2014. Before Palmer Luckey emerged from his workshop with a working Oculus Rift prototype, no one talked about the game industry being on the cusp of a virtual-reality revival. And who, as the concept of free-to-play was being circulated as a business model, proposed that it would so quickly become not just a viable proposition for the mobile gaming industry but the dominant one?
The oil tankers that are EA and its ilk, with their mile-wide turning circles, will always struggle to adapt to the kind of change that burns through the game industry. In such a pacy, unpredictable environment, the most nimble participants are the ones best placed to succeed. It’s one of the reasons why Finland has become such a powerful force in recent years. Rovio was one of the first companies to successfully unlock the potential of modern mobile platforms in taking gaming to a massmarket audience, famously earning billions in the process. Meanwhile, Supercell was launching
Hay Day, Clash Of Clans and Boom Beach, a succession of free-to-play strategy games that have pulled in millions of players around the world only too happy to spend to help them progress in the company’s continually evolving worlds.
The fire-and-forget model of publishing, by which games are released to live or die and forgotten about until the sellthrough numbers turn up, is clearly a dying one. The most successful strategy for game makers today is to create a revenue model that sees consumers sticking around. And when you depend on consumers sticking around, you have to give them more than an online discussion forum and a clutch of cash-grabbing DLC components at some point down the line. It means that the relationship between creator and consumer is becoming closer than at any point in videogame history, as developers take on player feedback in order to continually shape their games for the better. Companies such as Supercell are leading the way. Its Hay Day may be nearly three years old now, but the game’s community is thriving, not ailing.
Tristan Williams, a senior programmer at Supercell, has worked at various traditional game studios in the past, but his experiences at the creator of Clash Of Clans illustrate the positives that exist for both players and developers in this new era. “When I was at Splash Damage I worked on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and I was always bitterly disappointed by the fact that we couldn’t properly support our community,” he says. “I mean, it made sense, business-wise, that we got the project out there and moved on to the next one, but when I saw the community building, I wanted to keep supporting it and keep improving the game. So it was really exciting to come to Supercell, where you can put things out there, see what player feedback is like, and then respond to it. We try to attract new players, but it’s also about taking care of the players who have been playing for a long time, people who have invested so much of themselves into the game.”
In order to be this responsive – to be flexible enough to be able to evaluate feedback and, if required, implement changes quickly – requires close-knit teams built on a small scale. None of the development teams we visit during our time in Finland for this Region Specific has a head count beyond 15 – even in the case of Supercell, whose finances could support thousands. Most teams sizes are much smaller than 15. Keeping things compact is key – as is the ability to work without rigidly enforced hierarchal structures. Fortunately, these things come naturally here.
“In Finland, organisations are generally very flat. We are very democratic in a way,” says Neogames Finland’s KooPee Hiltunen. “We don’t have a king or queen, and we don’t have these kind of burdens from big organisational structures. If you want, you can actually see the ex-president of Finland having a cup of coffee in one of the cafeterias in Helsinki. I don’t know if that sort of thing exists anywhere else. The Finnish way of thinking is very pragmatic in many respects. We want to keep things very lean.”
Finland has just about everything a burgeoning game development community could ask for. Investment has been pouring into the region to allow startups such as Next Games, PlayRaven and Small Giant Games to flourish. Its reputation as a strong engineering nation continues to build, with streams of programmers emerging from its progressive education system. It is home to a diverse range of veteran studios with sterling reputations, from Remedy to smaller-scale action-game specialists such as RedLynx and Housemarque. In Neogames Finland, it has a fiercely committed industry body supporting studios big and small; in Tekes, it has a funding agency with an enviable track record. And alongside those looking to follow the success of Rovio and Supercell in the mobile game market, it has the wave-making Fingersoft alongside up-and-coming teams focused on VR and even the tricky issue of game discovery. All of the pieces are in place. What happens next?
“It really feels like it’s delivery time now,” says Timo Soininen, CEO of Small Giant Games. “With Rovio and Supercell, and with the success of individual games like Hill Climb Racing, Finland has generated lots of revenue. It would be great to have a third company to join Rovio and Supercell on that scale – maybe a fourth?”
Who will deliver, and in what form? We’ll keep Goldman’s words in mind by not making concrete predictions, but the following pages offer guidance into some of the leading candidates.
“We try to attract new players, but it’s also about taking care of the players who have been playing for a long time, people who have invested so much of themselves”
Felix Nylund’s Three Smiths Statue stands at the intersection of Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie in Helsinki