Helsinki: Picking the Right Acorns
How Finland's capital hopes to grow even more Supercells and Rovios
"Helsinki has a wonderful location," I'm told with a smile. "It's nowhere, but it's close to everything."
I'm sat in the meeting room of the Helsinki NewCo Factory, a state-sponsored start-up incubator and accelerator which serves a number of industries for the city and the country at large. I'm speaking to Mika Valtasaari, the energetic and intense ex-Nokia employee who heads up the scheme, who is trying to explain how the capital of a country with just 5.4 million inhabitants is suddenly one of the hottest crucibles of European game development.
"I haven't been in the game long enough to know if it's a boom or if it's just getting visibility," he qualifies carefully, in a style of humble optimism which proves to be endemic amongst his countrymen. "But we're seeing lots of very, very interesting things."
Valtasaari isn't alone in finding the city's burgeoning games industry interesting. As Europe's rolling recession front prepares to break on the nation's shores, the 2200 people currently employed in the sector are due to pull in an estimated €800 million in revenue this year, and that's aside from the massive cash injection which the sales of 51 per cent of Supercell has just raised. That sort of economic activity, in a time of sparsity, begins to get people's attention.
"I think it's made it a lot more acceptable," Valtasaari tells me of the Clash of Clans developer's deal with SoftBank. "It's in financial papers, not just magazines made for boys. Family mothers are talking about it. It's done a world of good, and it's done a world of good at a time when we basically only have bad news. So it's really the right time and the right place for a success.
"It's a great success to have business which isn't just trying to breed Supercell clones - it's brought about a really good environment, an ecosystem of things that are living of each other and communicating. They're not afraid to compete with each other because they know that they aren't really competing against each other. They're not afraid to go global. The big companies have made things respectable and they've also created a curriculum of education for the companies behind them."
"The big companies have made things respectable and they've also created a curriculum of education for the companies behind them"
Mika Valtasaari, NewCo Factory
NewCo operates in a similar way to any incubator, ("helping start-ups get access to what they need so they can get established, hitting as few mines as possible on the way," as Mika puts it.) but it reflects an attitude prevalent in the Finnish industry as a whole: the success of Rovio and Supercell, along with the pedigree of studios like Remedy, RedLynx and Bugbear, is bringing global attention to an industry which moves very quickly indeed. The conclusion: capitalise on that growth, attention and Zeitgeist and build a lasting legacy.
Part of Valtasaari's job is to identify the up and coming stars, outfits like Playraven or Grand Cru, and get them a foothold on the ladder - a process that the city is happy to invest in.
"Currently we help companies get a start-up grant, and our local fee is €280 a month, to hire a hotspot in the middle of town is another €120 on top. It's either fee based or you can look at it like the public model - we help you get money, take a little bit ourselves, then help you make the most of what's left.
"It's public money, city money. When we have our pitch events, that's investors, we don't want companies to be government supported, we want them to learn how to deal with money. Also when they approach a crowd-funding agency, or when someone drops €150,000 or €3 million, or €1.1 billion in front of them, they don't go to pieces."
That public investment is a common thing across the Nordic region and has been credited with firing a great deal of the area's recent success. It's visible at events like the Nordic Game Festival and in numerous young businesses across the area, and, it's proven, it pays dividends. Supercell, upon taking delivery of €1.1 billion in exchange for 51 per cent of the company, took out an advert in national newspapers proclaiming how proud the company directors were to pay tax on the windfall in a country which does so much to support the sector, and immediately paid back the cash it has received in government loans.
Such social largesse is pitifully rare elsewhere in the corporate world, and Mika believes that it's Helsinki's attitude to enabling useful failure and lesson learning which imbues that spirit amongst its successes.
"I think if you treat people right, they'll treat you right," he explains emphatically. "If they see a benefit tax from money being spent on them, they pay it back. On the other hand, I think it's a real shame that the big established companies are going to such an extent to 'tax optimise'. That they forget that they're actually getting something in return.
"Supercell have said, you know what, we're going to pay that back. We made something out of it. We're not going to play any tricks and route it through the Cayman Islands, then Lichenstein then Switzerland etc etc. None of that is there and that's really cool to see."
That attitude of social responsibility, that curiously pragmatic and very Scandinavian capitalist socialism, is a running theme throughout my visit. Even in the hallowed halls of Rovio, which occupy several floors in four towers of a commercial estate in the city of Espoo, the spirit of collaboration and community is apparent. Peter Vesterbacka, Rovio's ebullient marketing head and most visible face, is a regular attendee of local events and indie meet-ups - his name is spoken with a respectful chuckle by more than one developer.
Another veteran local studio, Flatout producer Bugbear, has taken its community invovlement a little further, offering their assistance to a government funded scheme which aims to help kids interested in joining the industry learn to code.
"They were worried about the games industry in Finland not having enough skilled and enthusiastic workers in the future and they wanted to do something that would engage young people"
That scheme is run by Hannes Pasanen, a man who seems born to teach. He combines a quiet authority with geniality and an obvious passion for education and talks with open enthusiasm about his charges. As the key supervisor at Helsinki's Pelitalo Happi Game Room, a city-funded coding club which meets every Monday, Hannes oversees groups of around 30 13-25 year olds who are all learning the basics.
"We got some funding from the ministry of education - our main aim was to find ways to use computers and games to help kids. We founded this place, then we had the contact from Bugbear - they wanted to do something. They were worried about the games industry in Finland not having enough skilled and enthusiastic workers in the future and they wanted to do something that would engage young people.
"We're now trying to get more funding to try and develop this program, we're aiming to approach the ministry of labour. We're also trying to get it linked to some areas of the curriculum - we're in the process of trying to integrate a second grade professional study into the open study options which Finnish students can choose."
Every week, two professional developers from Helsinki's community come along to the club and pass on their knowledge to the youngsters there, also volunteering to help supervise the open gaming nights which the club hosts on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as the special sessions the centre holds for socially restricted young men.
"Basically the idea is for them to find the tools and friends to develop games, with the help of games industry professionals. We bring professionals from different aspects of game development to teach the young people the whole process from script writing to graphics and sound and production. We try to focus on things like setting up your own company - the business side as well.
"The original idea came from Bugbear entertainment. There were some Finnish games sites which were going out of business because nobody was active enough to keep them going, so they tried to save it. The idea was to save it and create a new site that brings new developers together and they could provide the right tools and forums for people to get together and start projects. Then we decided to try this sort of laboratory environment instead, to bring them here and have professionals come to help.
"As well as this, we have a project which aims to create a set of game develop web pages for young people in other areas of Finland. That way we can start to introduce tools and techniques to children living remotely. It also has other social and educational aspects, as well as ways to communicate with other developers and follow up job opportunities."
These support networks and high levels of government engagement have certainly played a part in the growth of the local scene, but Rovio and Supercell, as excellent local examples of just how successful good game development can be, have been a huge influence too. They're pushing a growing and highly visible mobile agenda in the city, but there's a wide range of business models and platform preferences amongst the city's many studios. Read on for a brief summary of the city's major players and upcoming stars.
Veterans of the console scene with their Flatout series and contract work on titles like SEGA Rally, Bugbear is an active member of the local community, too. Looking to secure its next project, the studio has just opened a Kickstarter for Next Car Game - the unambiguously titled siritual successor the the Flatout titles.
A much-lauded start-up which received generous funding for as yet unreleased debut game Supernauts, Grand Cru has staffed itself with a selection of staff from leading mobile developers across Europe. Very much one to watch and referred to as "the next Supercell" more than once.
One of a very select club of developers to have a game available for the PS4 at launch in the shape of Resogun, Housemarque's broad portfolio and special agreement with Sony makes it an up and coming member of the local scene. The company's newly refurbished office also holds the most comfortable playtesting room ever constructed.
Local investment companies are a rarity in Finland, with most money coming from outside partners. Lifeline is one of the exceptions to that rule, specialising largely in games and biotech investment. Early seed funders for Grand Cru and Supercell, founding partner Timo Ahopelto has also put money towards Grey Area, Uplause and Applifier, as well as having a few more projects in the pipeline.
A start-up full of experience already being spoken about with great reverence, Playraven is formed of vetrans from companies as diverse as Remedy, Wooga and Digital Chocolate. The developer's first game, Spymaster, is in beta now in preparation for an iOS launch soon. Aiming for a core strategy audience with extended play sessions, Spymaster is already seeing great engagement from players, with a particular interest from female gamers.
As a part of Ubisoft, RedLynx is Helsinki's local representative of big publishers. Having created a tremendously loyal following with years of catering to core markets, the studio is currently working on two new titles in its flagship Trials series, one for console and another for mobile. For a more insight into their current plans, read our recent interview.
Another developer with a grand pedigree, the Max Payne and Alan Wake developer has been in business for nearly 20 years. It's not staying still, however, the studio is currently working on ambitious transmedia adventure Quantum Break for the Xbox One, a project which will bookend sections of gameplay with episodes of a 'TV' show, the plot of which will depend upon in-game actions.
The original blueprint for mobile gaming super-stardom, Rovio's Angry Birds is a textbook study on how to proliferate and diversify an IP. From incredibly high-profile band mash-ups with partners like Pixar and Star Wars to a rapidly growing merchandising business which produces everything from coffee to hats, Rovio is the master of brand iteration and Finland's largest games employer.
Current heroes of the local industry, Supercell have turned Clash of Clans into a global phenomenon whilst ploughing cash and experience back into the city's eco-system. Now looking at a choice between trying to turn that game into a wider brand or risk launching a new IP, Supercell is poised to prove itself much more than a one-hit wonder. Definitely the current local heroes.
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