Supercell's Secret Sauce
December 7, 2012 Page 1 of 4
Whenever I'm abroad and people ask me where I'm from, I always prepare myself for the same response. "Ah, Manchester!" they say. "Manchester United!" they add. These days Manchester City also features in these responses, but in general you can forget our decades of musical influence and terrible weather -- soccer is what we're really known for around the world.
Finland's Helsinki is currently experiencing a similar connection. I was in a restaurant in the capital when an older gentleman stopped me to ask where I was from. But rather than ask me which team I support, he followed up, "and why are you here in Helsinki?"
"I'm here to see some video games," I replied. His eyes lit up, and he said excitedly, "Ahh! Angry Birds!" before turning to his group and starting a conversation about all the mobile games he had played.
He must have been well into his 60s, and his family and friends were a good spread of ages, all discussing what back in my own hometown would be considered a non-talking point to most. Later on a cab driver strikes up a conversation with me about games, and later still a flight attendant wants to know what I'm playing on my smartphone.
Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen sees a direct correlation between Manchester and Helsinki's separate booms. "It's the same thing as why do kids start playing football?" he tells me. "It's Cristiano Ronaldo, all these sorts of heroes. And now, why do people start making games? Because we want to be the next Angry Birds."
"The success of Rovio has been a huge source of inspiration for all Finnish gaming companies," he continues. "The biggest favor that those guys have done for the entirety of Finland is that they've raised the bar for everybody. They have shown where you can get to when you have the right level of ambition."
If Rovio has raised the bar, Supercell is doing a damn good job of vaulting over it. Since switching to a "tablet-first" business model earlier this year, the company said recently that it grosses over $500,000 a day from just two mobile releases -- a figure which is now "well above that," according to Paananen.
I visited Supercell with one goal in mind -- to find out the secret to how a company can go from an absolute nobody on mobile, to a huge somebody in the space of around four months. When both Hay Day and Clash of Clans launched this summer, Supercell had never released a mobile game before, and its previous title Gunshine for browser had been a bit of a false start. Now the company own two spots in the top five grossing games charts on iOS, with Clash of Clans in particular regularly parked at number one.
"Me and the other co-founders, we have a relatively long history in creating games," muses Paananen, as I question him on how Supercell began. "For me personally, it's 12 years or so. This time, we really want to do things differently."
Paananen co-founded Sumea back in 2000, which was eventually sold to social game developer Digital Chocolate. After holding his role as president of Digital Chocolate for four years, the serial entrepreneur decided that it was time to start over again.
"It's going to sound really naive and simple, but the single biggest lesson that Mikko [Kodisoja, Supercell co-founder and creative director] and I have learned is that if you really want to build the next generation of games company, it's actually all about the people," he says. "Before now, we usually always had to go with a big international publisher or someone like that, so there was always a middleman between us and the consumer. But then these democratic app stores, like Facebook and iOS, and all of a sudden it was possible to directly access the consumer."
Finland has been waiting for the App Store, it would seem. Removing those extra steps between the development studio and the consumer has helped in spades, while allowing devs truly set their creativity free.
"Now it's a lot more about the product quality and the product itself," Paananen notes. "If we want to create the best products, we need the best people. That was actually how the whole thing started, and where the name Supercell comes from. We're creating these small but ultra-dynamic teams of developers who work relatively independently. And despite the small size of the group, we have big dreams -- hence Supercell."
Supercell isn't kidding around when it comes to making sure the company is stuffed full of talented individuals. Most of its employees have around 10 years of experience in shipping commercial games, on average. "We have already been in a situation where we've needed to recruit one person for a project, and we couldn't find him or her at that point," Kodisoja later tells me. "So we suffered for a bit until we found them."
"Of course, the flipside of the coin is that we'll never be as big as many of our competitors when measured by employee count, and we can't grow as quickly," says Paananen. "But that's a core part of our philosophy and vision for the company."
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