BE­YOND AN­GRY BIRDS

Ten of Fin­land’s in­dus­try lead­ers on changes since their be­gin­nings, keep­ing things lean, and the road ahead

EDGE - - REGION SPECIFIC DISCUSSION -

“Nowa­days, even if we’re not look­ing for in­vest­ment, there’s al­ways some­body knock­ing on our door, say­ing: ‘Please take our money!’”

As the ships ease slowly in and out of the har­bour out­side, dis­cus­sion within Neogames’ HQ is fo­cused on a more en­er­get­i­cally spir­ited in­dus­try, and not only Fin­land’s place within it but how it is driv­ing it for­ward. Join­ing us to­day are PlayRaven CEO Lasse Sep­pä­nen, direc­tor of Neogames Fin­land KooPee Hil­tunen, Shark Punch COO Harri Man­ni­nen, Finger­soft VP of pub­lish­ing Jaakko Kylmäoja, Neogames Fin­land co­or­di­na­tor Suvi Latva, Next Games head of stu­dio Jay Ranki, Small Gi­ant Games CEO Timo Soini­nen, Mind­field Games CEO Ville Kivistö, Trap­light Games CEO Riku Rakkola, and Touko Tahkokallio, Boom Beach designer at Su­per­cell.

Fin­land has been pro­duc­ing hit games, such as Star­dust, since the mid-’90s, but does it feel like the in­dus­try here has such a long his­tory?

Lasse Sep­pä­nen I got my first games job 16 years ago, and at that time I felt like I was the new guy on the block, but now I feel an­cient [laughs]. There are so many new peo­ple with such great tal­ent here now, and the age pyra­mid is very in­ter­est­ing. You have a small amount of peo­ple who started in the ’90s, then a lot more who started in the 2000s, and then the mass that has been added in the past four or five years. I think it’s a good thing that we’ve been ex­pand­ing in re­cent years – it at­tracts for­eign tal­ent much more than was the case in the past. I mean, a while ago, if you moved here from the US, for ex­am­ple, you may have been wor­ried about what might hap­pen if you lost the job you were hired for, but now the games in­dus­try in Fin­land is so big that there is no such worry. There are so many op­tions.

KooPee Hil­tunen The num­ber of em­ploy­ees [in the Finnish videogame in­dus­try] has more than dou­bled in five years. For the first 15 years, the game in­dus­try here was kind of a small-scale busi­ness, but from 2010 on­wards, the busi­ness has been grow­ing dramatically. One of the start­ing points for that was ob­vi­ously An­gry Birds.

Harri Man­ni­nen Ac­cess to fund­ing and hav­ing cap­i­tal is the thing that’s changed so much. When we were found­ing Rocket Pack in 2010, we didn’t take any an­gel in­vest­ment, but we might’ve been able to get some­thing like ten or 20 thou­sand Euro as a seed round. Money wasn’t re­ally avail­able in many cases, and that has com­pletely changed in the past five years.

Jaakko Kylmäoja When An­gry Birds be­came a hit, a lot of peo­ple took no­tice. They re­alised that you can ac­tu­ally make great rev­enues in the game in­dus­try. When I was found­ing my own game com­pany, in 2009, it was re­ally dif­fi­cult to get any kind of fund­ing – we had to think up new kinds of strat­egy. Nowa­days, though, even if we’re not look­ing for in­vest­ment, there’s al­ways some­body knock­ing on our door, say­ing: “Please take our money!” [Laugh­ter.]

Suvi Latva I think that dur­ing the past cou­ple of years we’ve reached a po­si­tion where Fin­land has be­come one of the hottest places to de­velop games. We’ve built a kind of brand. Peo­ple are tak­ing a lot more no­tice nowa­days.

Jay Ranki Just the other night at an IGDA event I met a guy who has a dream of cre­at­ing a pub with a videogame theme, and be­cause he sees Helsinki as such a hot­bed of videogam­ing, he wants to set it up here. He feels that this is the place where he could have suc­cess with that sort of con­cept. That tells you a lot. Some­one to­tally out­side of the in­dus­try, just an avid gamer, who wants to start a game-themed pub, and he de­cided that the place to do it is in Helsinki.

Timo Soini­nen We’ve seen a lot of young, very tal­ented peo­ple who see Helsinki as a step­ping stone in their ca­reer. They want to come here and work with some of the in­dus­try’s best com­pa­nies, some of the best peo­ple. It’s at­tract­ing a lot of up-and-com­ing tal­ent, which is good for us.

JR Get­ting into the game in­dus­try is very dif­fer­ent nowa­days. Even ten years ago, you had to be re­ally stub­born – and naïve, I guess – to even try to break into the in­dus­try, or you could start your own com­pany for no pay, and work in your garage un­til you maybe made some­thing out of it. But now it’s le­git­i­mately an op­tion for a lot of young­sters com­ing from schools to get a real pay­ing job and a chance to work with more ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sion­als who they can learn from. A lot of us didn’t have that op­tion. I was very lucky to have a good men­tor early in my ca­reer, but many didn’t. They had to ba­si­cally in­vent the wheel them­selves: “OK, what does it mean to be a pro­ducer? What does it mean to be a pro­gram­mer? You know how to code, but how do we make games? I’ve never even talked to a per­son who makes games.”

The fact that the com­mu­nity has grown big­ger and we’ve still man­aged to keep it very close-knit and open, to keep the dis­cus­sion flow­ing and a real feel­ing of com­mu­nity, makes it much eas­ier to break into it and start learn­ing.

TS Ob­vi­ously the big change came when Ap­ple opened the App Store, and then Google fol­lowed suit. Cre­at­ing mo­bile games prior to that, we had to build some­thing like 180 dif­fer­ent pay­ment sys­tems around the globe. There were no pay­ment sys­tems we could use. We spent ba­si­cally all of our money like that – we wasted it all. But then [con­sumer pay­ment sys­tems for mo­bile] be­came some­thing you didn’t even have to think about any more. An­other change is that back in the day it was al­most im­pos­si­ble as a games com­pany to go with pub­lish­ers – they would squeeze you to death – but now it seems that, with a few ex­cep­tions, it’s im­por­tant to work with pub­lish­ers be­cause mar­ket­ing [for mo­bile games] is one of the big­gest ob­sta­cles. It’s very dif­fi­cult to break through un­less you get lucky and be­come well known vi­rally. The in­dus­try seems to go in cir­cles, and it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how long the big be­he­moths can re­ally sus­tain the sit­u­a­tion. What’s the next wave? How do you break that fortress?

JK Yeah, un­for­tu­nately it hap­pens in ev­ery in­dus­try. The mo­bile game in­dus­try is quite young, but, as we’ve seen in movies and lit­er­a­ture, the big play­ers eat the small ones, and un­for­tu­nately I think it’s also go­ing to hap­pen in the game in­dus­try. The pub­lish­ers are al­ways go­ing to get big­ger, and it’s go­ing to be harder for small play­ers to [make a mark] in the mo­bile game charts be­cause user ac­qui­si­tion is get­ting more and more ex­pen­sive.

As we’ve been vis­it­ing stu­dios here, one of the top­ics that keeps com­ing up is the de­sire to keep devel­op­ment teams small, even within the larger game com­pa­nies. Why do you think this is such a com­mon theme? JK It’s a more ef­fi­cient way of work­ing, ob­vi­ously. KH As a na­tion, Fin­land is pretty fru­gal in gen­eral. There’s no over-spend­ing on any­thing.

LS It’s a sparsely pop­u­lated coun­try as well. We’re used to try­ing to get by with the least pos­si­ble re­sources of any in­dus­try, I think. But also, de­vel­op­ers don’t want to carry ex­tra bag­gage on their teams. They want to have a tight enough team so that they can have mean­ing­ful de­sign

dis­cus­sions with the whole group, if pos­si­ble. Our teams range in size from four to seven peo­ple, and ev­ery­one is in­volved in the de­sign.

Ville Kivistö It’s changed a lot. Back in the day, you needed to have at least 50 peo­ple to make a PC or con­sole game, but now you have mo­bile games, and smaller PC games, which can be self­pub­lished, You can cre­ate them with small teams.

JK We have so many peo­ple here who were kids in the ’80s, who made games by them­selves or were part of the demo scene, and we know that it only takes one per­son to make a game if you re­ally want to, if you keep sim­ple enough. So I think that’s also one of the rea­sons why we know what it takes to make game, from the be­gin­ning to the end, and it doesn’t al­ways re­quire 50 peo­ple to make it hap­pen.

Riku Rakkola I also think it’s true that in Fin­land, most game com­pa­nies start small. They have the coder and the graphic artist there, but they have to wear many hats, and I think that gives the ba­sis for the con­cept of small teams. It’s like that in our com­pany, at least, be­cause we started with a cou­ple of coders and one artist – we didn’t have time for a nor­mal man­age­ment sys­tem. When you start like that, it can be re­ally con­sum­ing if, for ex­am­ple, you re­cruit five more peo­ple – it takes up all of your time. So ba­si­cally you have to keep it small to be able to man­age it. Ob­vi­ously I can’t speak for all Finnish peo­ple, but I take pride in the fact that I can wear many hats, and that peo­ple in my com­pany don’t know just one thing, they can do many dif­fer­ent things.

Touko Tahkokallio I think that in keep­ing things small, it’s about be­ing ag­ile, so if some­thing changes I think we’re ready for it and we can adapt. Also, many of the own­ers of the com­pa­nies here are do­ers in their hearts. It means that if they want to cre­ate a cer­tain game, and they keep their com­pa­nies small and flex­i­ble, they just go and do it.

JR Ef­fi­ciency is ob­vi­ously one of the big­gest benefits, but there’s also the own­er­ship ev­ery per­son can have in the team. And then there is the his­tory, as Riku says. The team sizes in Fin­land have al­ways been smaller com­pared to other coun­tries, and if you worked in a small team be­fore, you may well want to do that in the fu­ture, so you set up a com­pany that has that sort of cul­ture. The fact that, back in the day, we couldn’t af­ford big teams, and there weren’t big pub­lish­ers to be cre­at­ing big teams, meant no­body ever got used to that way of work­ing. Some of us have had the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence big­ger teams, and to see the pros and cons of those set­ups, and cho­sen to go back to smaller teams be­cause it’s a more en­joy­able and ef­fec­tive way of work­ing.

A lot of the growth here has been as a re­sult of the rise in free-to-play as a rev­enue model, which means that most star­tups are pur­su­ing that route, but not ev­ery com­pany is do­ing so. What is the think­ing be­hind that?

VK For us, we saw that the mo­bile space is re­ally crowded, and the mar­ket has ex­isted for a while now, and we wanted to find some­thing new. That’s one of the rea­sons why we chose VR games, be­cause that par­tic­u­lar mar­ket is still in its very early stages, and it gives us the op­por­tu­nity to be one of the first play­ers in the mar­ket.

JR How quickly do you think that mar­ket will emerge? What will it take?

VK Well, what­ever it takes, we will be there when it hits.

HM For us, at Shark Punch, af­ter we spent three years at Dis­ney In­ter­ac­tive the key thing was just get­ting back to the grass roots of cre­at­ing games again, and see­ing what the chal­lenges are that smaller de­vel­op­ers face to­day. We wanted to walk that path, and we felt that since we hadn’t had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence of build­ing pre­mium games for Steam, for ex­am­ple, we wanted to treat it as a kind of learn­ing process as well. With [Shark Punch’s de­but game] The Mas­ter­plan, once we’re fully re­leased, we’re def­i­nitely bring­ing it to other plat­forms as well, and the par­tic­u­lar dy­nam­ics of the plat­form will also in­flu­ence the busi­ness model, but it’s most likely to stay pre­mium. But the whole con­cept of pre­mium is in­ter­est­ing now. On Steam, for ex­am­ple, it seems like there’s a sale hap­pen­ing ev­ery two months, and we’re see­ing triple-A PC games dis­counted by 50 per cent af­ter be­ing on the mar­ket for only one or two months. So I think there’s a sort of race to the bot­tom in that mar­ket as well. Indie de­vel­op­ers are open to shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences, and some of them have said that once you take part in a sale, and you slash the price, you can sell 100 times as many units as be­fore, so it’s a prof­itable way of work­ing. But there are so many games be­ing re­leased onto the mar­ket, too. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see where it all ends up, but with PC games it def­i­nitely feels like most of the rev­enues ar­rive at launch and then with sales. RR That seems just like a mo­bile app store.

HM It feels like it. It’ll also be in­ter­est­ing to see a de­vel­oper or pub­lisher that’s made its name in pre­mium try­ing one of its prod­ucts with the free-toplay model, to see how it works. It’s hap­pened be­fore – EA did it years ago with Bat­tle­field – but it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to see how free-to-play evolves out­side of the mo­bile space in the fu­ture.

LS Ev­ery­one sees that so much money is in freeto-play and that there’s com­par­a­tively lit­tle in pre­mium – even though it’s a work­able busi­ness strat­egy for cer­tain com­pa­nies – but videogames are a cre­ative in­dus­try. At PlayRaven, we see [free-to-play] as a cre­ative op­por­tu­nity. That’s what drives the tal­ent to our com­pany. We don’t advertise our­selves by say­ing, “Hey, come and work here and make a mil­lion bucks.” We re­ally, gen­uinely think it’s a cre­ative op­por­tu­nity. At this sort of scale, free-to-play games are very young – a cou­ple of years old, maybe a cou­ple of years more on Face­book, and that’s it. Free-to-play games are a very young thing for de­sign­ers, and they re­quire a com­pletely dif­fer­ent mind­set.

“Some of us have ex­pe­ri­enced big­ger teams and then cho­sen to go back to smaller teams be­cause it’s a more en­joy­able and ef­fec­tive way of work­ing”

In mak­ing the migration to free-to-play, at first you stum­ble – you copy other peo­ple’s games, try­ing to pick up any­thing that will sort of help you get through your first projects. But I be­lieve that when you’ve made enough projects, you’re go­ing to come up with some­thing new, some­thing cre­atively chal­leng­ing. It’s a par­al­lel to what hap­pened with tele­vi­sion. In the be­gin­ning, I’m sure the con­tent on TV wasn’t very ex­cit­ing. It was the free of­fer­ing com­pared to the pre­mium of­fer­ing of movies at the cinema. As it evolved, though, very high-qual­ity TV se­ries and for­mats ap­peared.

TT There’s huge po­ten­tial to find new ways to make games, and game de­sign­ers need to see it as a pos­i­tive chal­lenge. There are lots of in­ter­est­ing an­gles to ex­plore, and I think we should be re­ally fo­cused on that.

LS I think there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate new clas­sics. I look up to games like Civ­i­liza­tion, and I’m sure there are many other brands that we all look up to, and there’s an op­por­tu­nity now to re­de­fine the clas­sics.

JR So many peo­ple have opin­ions for and against free-to-play, and how it’s ru­in­ing games or how it’s mak­ing them bet­ter, or what­ever. Yes, it’s a fun­da­men­tal change in the de­sign, but it’s ba­si­cally a dif­fer­ent busi­ness model, and the game de­sign and ev­ery­thing around it needs to adapt to that busi­ness model. But it’s not the first time that we’ve done it. When games started to move from ar­cades to home ma­chines, the econ­omy changed. In the ar­cade, you had to have some­thing that play­ers would put coins into ev­ery X min­utes, oth­er­wise it was go­ing to get booted out, and a game that mon­e­tises bet­ter was go­ing to take its place – and that think­ing dom­i­nated game de­sign. Then, when those same de­sign­ers start­ing mak­ing games for home sys­tems, they de­signed the same kind of games for a long while, un­til they started learn­ing that this new me­dia and busi­ness model com­bi­na­tion gave op­por­tu­ni­ties for dif­fer­ent kinds of games. Then it started evolv­ing. And it’s the same thing here. We’re still very much in the in­fancy. We’ve sort of cracked a few ways to mon­e­tise in free-to-play, and we’ve cracked a few gen­res that work, but I be­lieve that for lots of us it’s just the tip of the ice­berg. There are so many dif­fer­ent kinds of games you can ex­plore. Free-to-play will look very dif­fer­ent in five years’ time. But ob­vi­ously it’s a very lu­cra­tive busi­ness model for de­vel­op­ers, and it’s a very at­trac­tive busi­ness model for con­sumers, too, be­cause they don’t buy an un­known box, they start play­ing some­thing and only when they’re ac­tu­ally in­vested emo­tion­ally into it, then they start spend­ing money. It’s a low-risk en­try propo­si­tion for the player.

JK Also, in terms of a long-term strat­egy, if you’re go­ing to pub­lish lots of games – and not just your own games, but those of other de­vel­op­ers, as we do – with free-to-play you have ac­cess to lots more play­ers, which means that you can cross-pro­mote your forth­com­ing re­leases more ef­fec­tively. There have been over 350m down­loads of the games we’ve pub­lished, and we have or­ganic growth across all of our games that way. With pre­mium games, we wouldn’t have that – we wouldn’t be in a sit­u­a­tion where we could ac­tu­ally pub­lish games from other de­vel­op­ers.

SL The changes in the soft­ware in­dus­try have been so sig­nif­i­cant lately. De­vel­op­ers have to pay so much at­ten­tion to new busi­ness mod­els and new value chains, and there’s a huge amount of ser­vice providers to con­sider – you deal with met­rics com­pa­nies, for ex­am­ple, and all sorts of dif­fer­ent spe­cial­ists. There are so many dif­fer­ent el­e­ments, and for us at Neogames, we’ve al­ways been very fo­cused on sup­port­ing com­pa­nies as busi­nesses, but we also need to place a lot of at­ten­tion on the cre­ative side. You may have a great busi­ness, with great user ac­qui­si­tion and mar­ket­ing and ev­ery­thing, but if the cre­ativ­ity in your ac­tual prod­uct is lack­ing, it’s a prob­lem. There are rules for things like user ac­qui­si­tion, but be­ing cre­ative isn’t so straight­for­ward.

HM Yeah. We are in a cre­ative in­dus­try, but I met some peo­ple from Asia at an event this sum­mer, and they had a re­ally cyn­i­cal view of free-to-play. It was al­most like an Excel ex­er­cise for th­ese guys – it didn’t re­ally mat­ter what the game was like, as long as the LTV [life­time value (of a con­sumer)] is big­ger than the CPA [cost per ac­qui­si­tion].

JR Peo­ple who think like that are im­por­tant in one re­spect, but you have to keep them far away from the peo­ple who ac­tu­ally make the games.

TT In most cases with game de­sign you just have to fol­low your own heart, and what you feel works well. You shouldn’t pay too much at­ten­tion to any­thing else.

Fin­land has seen lots of change in re­cent years, which is ob­vi­ously a re­sult of the fact that the game in­dus­try moves very quickly, with rules that change con­stantly. Do you ever find that frus­trat­ing, or is it al­ways a pos­i­tive thing?

HM It’s the best part. JR I think the con­stant change in the games in­dus­try is what makes us us. It forces you to stay dy­namic and in a way to stay young – you look at peo­ple of your age in other in­dus­tries and they seem so much older, so much more stuck in their ways, frozen in time. If you want to stay in the games busi­ness, as you grow older you have to re­new your­self, and try to stay young. And of course you work with a lot of younger peo­ple, and they help to keep you young.

KH In terms of rules in the games in­dus­try, I think some­times we fol­low them, and some­times we make the rules for oth­ers to fol­low.

KooPee Hil­tunen Direc­tor, Neogames Fin­land

Jaakko Kylmäoja VP of pub­lish­ing, Finger­soft

Riku Rakkola CEO, Trap­light Games

Suvi Latva Co­or­di­na­tor, Neogames Fin­land

Lasse Sep­pä­nen CEO, PlayRaven

Timo Soini­nen CEO, Small Gi­ant Games

Ville Kivistö CEO, Mind­field Games

Touko Tahkokallio Designer, Su­per­cell

Jay Ranki Head of stu­dio, Next Games

Harri Man­ni­nen

COO, Shark Punch

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