Supercell's Ilkka Paananen
The CEO discusses the new browser games company and the "healthy pressure" of long-term investors
Finish studio Supercell is a relatively new company in the videogame business, comprising of staff from casual games maker Digital Chocolate, traditional developer Remedy and social network company Sulake. Formed last year, Supercell has started 2011 by securing new funding from, among others, London Venture Partners and kicked off its beta for its browser-based action title Gunshine.
Here, in an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO Ilkka Paananen discusses the direction the business is taking in the browser games market, how it hopes to create titles with the help of user, the healthy pressure applied by investors - and being in it for the long run.
Q: Can you give us the background on Supercell - you were with Digital Chocolate before setting up the new company?
Ilkka Paananen: Mikko Kodisoja and I were both founders of a company called Sumea which we created in 2000 as a mobile games developer, and which we sold to Digital Chocolate in 2004. And then I spent almost six years at Digital Chocolate and I left in June last year. Firstly I was managing the European operations and then I was promoted to president of studio development. And Mikko was the global creative director.
Mikko left Digital Chocolate early last year and is the founder of the company - he set it up and put an incredible team together. He was looking for funding and I helped him get that. I realised that this was something that I wanted to get into full time.
We of course got these fantastic people together with London Venture Partners, with Phil Harrison and David Gardner and the others. We've put together some really great guys from Digital Chocolate, and then some from a console development background with guys from Remedy Entertainment, and some other guys from Sulake, the creators of Habbo Hotel.
What we're trying to do is build a bridge between the traditional gamer market and the social games market. We actually believe the web browser is going to be the place where these two worlds will unite.
Q: So you're working on Gunshine.net - what's the plan behind that? You're in closed beta - when would you like to see that game out and in the wider market?
Ilkka Paananen: Well it's difficult, you never really like to put a certain date on it. The whole point with the beta was to put the game out as early as possible to get the first users in. We say that we want to build a game together with our users and that has been fantastic.
We already have a fantastic following of hundreds and hundreds of people that have been contributing to forums and are really passionate about the game and are co-developing it with us. We're probably going to be in closed beta for the next month at least, or even a bit longer - and when we feel it's the right time to open it up to everybody we'll do that.
Q: What's the ratio of Supercell staff working on the game to beta users?
Ilkka Paananen: It's hard to tell. We have the whole core development team which is internal, and we have a team of a little bit less than 20 people working on the game. But then there's the user feedback which we integrate into the game. It's a fair amount of work but it's also very rewarding. It does require a significant investment but we believe it's going to pay off.
Q: You see the browser as the point at which console, social and web gaming can come together - what makes you think that?
Ilkka Paananen: It's the biggest games platform ever in terms of reach. Everyone has a browser, it's extremely easy to access the games, it's very easy to tell your friends about the games - you can send a link by email and with one click you're there. And finally we're at the point where it's actually possible to create a great game experience on the browser - and I'm talking about a great game experience from a gamer's point of view.
Technological advancements are important and it's finally possible but then on top of that there are the social networks that allows everyone to access the game really easily. It's easy to play something together with your friends and we have Gunshine.net as its own destination, but we've added integration with Twitter and Facebook.
We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to play it with their friends. And that's not to say we're going to spam your friends. We don't think like that at all, we have a no spam guarantee. As opposed to other companies we actually never post anything to our users without asking them first.
We honestly believe that our goal from day one is that it's actually, truly better to play with friends. It's going to be more fun to play our games in co-op mode. We want people to use all kinds of means to invite their friends to play online. We're using Facebook to really enhance that experience.
Q: So is this going to be a free-to-play game with micro transactions? What attracted you to that model?
Ilkka Paananen: Everything we're trying to develop will use that model. We'll have in-game currency that you earn from playing the game and then other currency that you can buy with real money.
Q: Where do you see the browser market going in the next 12-24 months and where does Supercell fit into that?
Iikka Paananen: We believe there's a whole lot of people who are looking for a little bit of a deeper game experience and a richer social experience as well. So far, a lot of games have been pretty shallow in terms of social interaction, it's not really like playing together.
I'm not saying it's going to move to the other end of the scale but we think that's there's room for richer experiences. As a company we're not going to release ten games this year. We believe that we're going to release a lot fewer games that people will want to play, not for months but for years. Our role model is more a company like Blizzard than the sort of companies you see on Facebook.
Q: You obviously took quite a lot of investment from LVP and others - was the investment community aware of what's going on in the browser games market, and was it easy to convince them of growth in the sector?
Iikka Paananen: It was varied per investor. Obviously some had a lot of insight and knowledge in where it's going and we really wanted to get guys on board who shared the vision. Talking to Phil Harrison and David Gardner it was very obvious very early on that they really shared the common vision. When visions are aligned I guess they took a look at the team and realised what we had - so from that point of view it wasn't all that hard.
Q: Does the amount of investment in the company put pressure on the team to deliver? Obviously it's a commercial business...
Iikka Paananen: Firstly, the investors are in it for the long term, they're not in it for short-term win. That's a good starting point. I would say it creates some good, healthy pressure and there's people you are responsible for. But definitely, everybody is in this for the long term and that's really important for us.
Q: The excitement, investment and acquisitions in the online games space - is that a bubble that's going to deflate anytime soon?
Iikka Paananen: The market is certainly extremely hot but I think as long as people can prove that they are actually making money and prove that we as an industry are making constant progress and it's growing, if that continues I wouldn't be worried about a bubble.
From our perspective we actually don't pay a lot of attention to it because we're in it for the long-term. We're not thinking about this year or the year after, we're looking at the next five to ten years. We're focused on creating a really, really great game experience for our users - if we're able to do that, that people are willing to spend a lot of time on, and some of their money on, that's where we're aiming.
Q: How have you approached ease of use for the consumer - as soon as you introduce any kind of plug-in you lose a significant proportion of the audience, for example...
Iikka Paananen: Exactly. First of all the whole client side is done in Flash because it has the widest range. Technically speaking Flash is a plug-in - although we say "no plug-ins required" we've been getting a lot feedback from users - but in practice the majority of users have it.
We selected Flash because it gives us the widest reach and gives a great user experience. We have to make the games super-accessible. And we're going to be using Facebook and Twitter as log-ins for users. We're trying to make it as easy as possible for the player.
Q: How will you approach marketing the games? There's a lot of content out there on the web and it's a battle to draw the consumer in when they are faced with so many options and established games and portals.
Iikka Paananen: I think it all starts with the fact that we believe we have a product that is worth talking about and it's different. We've only been live for two weeks and there are a lot of people who are really passionate about what we're doing. We think we already have the beginnings of a very loyal and fanatical following. And we just need to get more people like that.
We've been getting a fair amount of press and publicity across the web, we think that will help us get to a certain stage. And then we'll buy into advertising, and on top of that the product is extremely viral. We're not making it enforced viral, but more that users will need to take down a mean boss by calling in their friends, which should make it more natural, if you will. Our plan is to get to a critical mass and just trust that the product is viral.
Iikka Paananen is CEO of Supercell. Interview by Matt Martin.