Supercell Co-Founder and CEO Ilkka Paananen is an unassuming personality. Jeans and a t-shirt are nothing new among relaxed startups in Silicon Valley, but his attitude is even more approachable.
Speaking to Geektime and a gathering of other journalists in Helsinki for Slush 2016, he showed off what he thought was the unique structure of Finland’s gaming golden company.
“I’ve never designed a game in my life. I come from a business background and all my friends are business analysts, bankers and come from more traditional industries.”
He described a traditional hierarchical model of a company he had at his previous venture, with overhead at the top and delegates at the bottom. “We had the creative vision and everyone else here was here to execute the vision that we had.”
His executive team wielded creative control, but the need for control in leadership and structural organization was something he wanted to attack (though not to the extremes of an eccentric entrepreneur).
Teams would propose new games or innovations to committees, weighing down on the creative component of those teams. Instead, they have moved toward a quick work model, allowing teams to make mistakes for learning purposes.
“What if we thought we turned this model upside-down. What if the vision holders would be the game developers themselves?”
The bottom-up structure views these different creative teams as “cells,” hence the name Supercell to describe the entire company. Creative makes moves on the games they want to make, then inform their managers who tell the executive team to run the company based on that.
That is how games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans and others were developed. They only have four games out there right now, but all have been in the Top 10 grossing mobile games in the world, two of them reaching #1: Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, and Hay Day. Clash of Clans holds the all-time record for consecutive days in the Apple Store as the #1 most downloaded game. Clash Royale went #1 out of 131 companies almost immediately after its release in March.
“Everybody under these game teams, their mission is to do whatever it takes to make these guys (the teams) successful. Sometimes I describe my own role as ‘I want to be the least powerful CEO.’ The more decisions they make, the fewer I have to make.”
Paananen says he is usually one of the last to hear about decisions these teams and their supervisors make. That is his ideal, having self-sufficient teams where the overall management can focus on other things.
Gaming as the permafrost of Helsinki’s streets
“According to the latest statistics, there are 500 games published to the App Store every single day,” Pannanen claims. “But more than 100 million people play these four games every single day,” a point of pride for Paananen that their quartet has been so dominant.
He bragged that when they realized that the only country in the world that had virtually no penetration was discovered by their marketing team, Tuvalu, they went out of their way and quickly scaled that last wall.
“One of our explicit goals is to keep the game as small as possible. The smaller we are, the easier it is to sustain the culture. We actually believe that the culture is sustained with fewer people in places of management.”
They only hired six developers in Helsinki in 2015, setting a high bar to maintain that culture. In fact, most of those were non-Finnish.
“I think the thing that has changed in our local environment when I think of the early days of Slush, a lot of people are moving here to develop games. Helsinki is actually the hotbed of games.”
This writer asked what was behind the gaming culture, if not the absurd frigidity forcing kids to stay inside and play games all day.
“Maybe that’s part of the reason,” he laughed, making this reporter feel good about his sense of humor. “Slush is actually not living up to its reputation because usually it’s gonna rain, it’s super cold and it’s dark. Computer games then are a great option with that weather.”
Finland’s gaming industry had 2.4 million EUR in revenue in 2015, as well as 290 active studios, 2,700 employees and saw 50 new games published.
“I remember when I was in school that out of all the countries in Europe, we had the biggest gaming culture. Around that gaming culture there was this demo scene that was born. People would gather up and compete making these audiovisual presentations, almost like music videos.”
Now that demo competition has grown to become Assembly (assembly.org), a massive annual event held in Helsinki’s largest sports stadium.
“It started as a classroom thing … to give you guys an idea of how it’s grown, it’s been held in the biggest stadium in Helsinki. Most of our best game developers come from that background.”
One of their most important goals going forward, Paananen told Geektime, is to make it easier and even more entertaining for people to watch gaming competitions than “so-called e-sports” contests are today.
Showing off their North American event and the over-the-top introductions they gave the top players who came out to clash, he positioned his company as supporting not just an industry, but a subculture of gaming that continues to come out of the shadows.
Thanks to the app store and global distribution model, local companies don’t have to work through the international gaming trusts that dominate the industry. That made room for Supercell and smaller startups to make their own moves.
“It’s not just about the Angry Birds and Clashes of Clans. It wasn’t born when Angry Birds was born.”
While Supercell has had big lead investors, first was Softbank, which was supplanted by Tencent who recently made their own first investment in another mobile game company, Frogmind. So will they be giving out more of their own venture capital anytime soon?
“It’s unrealistic to think we can have all the best possible teams in the world [only] be here,” he says, expressing their determination in discovering and bringing in world-class teams into their unorthodox yet apparently successful venture.