Grand Cru's grand vision for mobile gaming
From the demoscene to Supernauts, CEO Markus Pasula outlines the Finnish developers ambitions
If one were to put a pin in the centre of the mobile gaming universe, it might well land somewhere around Helsinki, Finland. Between Rovio and Supercell, this country of 5 million people has a disproportionate influence on the industry's most fertile market - a titan wreathed in snow and midnight summer sun.
But it wasn't always that way. Markus Pasula remembers the mid-Nineties, when he was instrumental in seeding the country's demoscene, and working in games meant one of two options: Remedy or Housemarque. When the time came to leave the demoscene behind for something approaching a real job - around the year 2000 - neither seemed all that interesting.
"One of my friends was working on Transworld Snowboarding at Housemarque," he says when we meet at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona. "He worked for more than two years on that game, making all of the rocks and all of the trees in a team of 30 people. I liked the demoscene, working with a team of five. I really wasn't that excited about what working on a console game had become.
"When I started looking into that kind of stuff about five years before, when Remedy did Death Rally, it was still only six people. Not any more. I'm a big fan of Alan Wake, but I don't want to work on a game for seven years with a 50-person team."
"I liked working with a team of five. I really wasn't that excited about what working on a console game had become"
Thankfully, he wasn't short of options. At that time, Nokia was a rising star in the tech industry, and its meteoric success had galvanised the Finnish startup scene. If you were founding a development studio in Finland in the early part of the last decade, chances are mobile played a prominent role in its strategy. Sumea, the company Ilkka Paananen's started before Supercell, was founded in 2000. Rovio was founded in 2003.
Pasula realised that there was an opportunity to make the jump to professional work while retaining some of the freewheeling spirit of the demoscene. His first choice was not a good one. The company went bust soon after he joined.
"We were making X-Men games with SMS messages," he says, raising his eyebrows then erupting into great peals of laughter. "I hadn't arrived at my dream yet, but I had belief in mobile."
The dream is Grand Cru, the company Pasula co-founded in 2011 with a few other pioneering members of the Finnish demoscene. With lifetime funding of some $16 million, Grand Cru's 30-strong team has set itself the lofty objective of revolutionisng mobile and social games. That kind of talk isn't uncommon among mobile startups, but, as Pasula points out, Grand Cru has the sort of backing to make good on its claims.
"We need such big funding because we want to take big risks," he says. "I think it would be an even bigger risk to do something that feels safe. Trying to do something that hasn't been done before makes production really expensive.
"That's one thing, and the other thing is linked to that. We wanted to be able to fail, because no matter how great a game you make it's a hit driven business. There's always a little bit of luck involved."
Not that luck has any part to play in Grand Cru's strategy, of course. The studio's debut project, Supernauts, was released in June to the sort of positive reviews that one might expect for a game with such grand ambition. Six days after launch, it had been downloaded 1 million times. Pasula sees a lot of room for improvement in the mobile market, particularly in user interaction and content creation - two cornerstones of the Supernauts design document, and a possible recipe for the sort of longevity that precious few mobile games attain.
"Social and creativity," Pasula says. "We want to get our players to express themselves. Real-time interactions with other people, and making that a meaningful part of the game. That's what we're excited about.
"Things will probably change in the future, but we're trying to make the games that become immortal, games that players can enjoy for years to come. Right now, I can see no better way of doing that than letting the players make it exciting for each other.
"The difference is that the hits in free-to-play are making crazy amounts of money, and the premium hits in mobile aren't making crazy amounts"
Just before I met with Pasula, I saw Jade Raymond give a talk on where games might be headed next. At she outlined the premise of her session, Raymond made a particularly cutting observation about the current state of mobile game design. Despite the huge new audience that has been awakened by mobile devices, Raymond said, "there hasn't been such a huge creative boom that I can personally get excited about. What passes for innovation, I think, is the recycling of 40 year-old game designs."
Pasula doesn't necessarily agree with that assessment, but he does believe that the hardware is now sophisticated enough to move beyond the sort of games that have defined the mobile market until now. Supernauts is an example of that.
"There's a lot more depth than most free-to-play mobile games have, and most other mobile games as well," he says. "We've been putting in so much effort to try and make the game simple while keeping its complexity. It's probably true that In the first half an hour of Supernauts you feel overwhelmed by all of the stuff that's in the game. That isn't traditional on mobile platforms."
Where Supernauts does fit in to the traditions of modern mobile development is its business model. As Pasula stated at the outset of our conversation, Supernauts was no small undertaking. It is the product of two years of development, and that sort of time demands a healthy budget. Right now, if you want a healthy return on that investment, it's difficult to look beyond free-to-play
"The difference is that the hits in free-to-play are making crazy amounts of money, and the premium hits in mobile aren't making crazy amounts. They're making a fair bit of money, especially for an indie developer," Pasula says. "I do think that when you make a great premium IP, and build a good fanbase, there's a lot of long term value that is undervalued by the industry right now. You can still go both ways, but in premium games the return cannot be as big."