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

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