A Family Business
Piia and Jyri Kilpeläinen on life as a couple in development
There are a surprising number of married couples working in the industry, and I'm always impressed by their confidence in pitting their commitment to each other against the slings and arrows of professional pressures. It might help to love your co-workers, but I can't imagine many better signs of a healthy relationship than being able to manage the tricky tandem of being a team of two at home and in the office.
Usually, though, they're part of bigger teams, like Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry, the Romeros, Adam and Rebekah Saltsman, or Alice and Ryan Guy of Paper Seven, but Piia and Jyri Kilpeläinen are in hardcore mode: a married couple who are the only members of Finnish developer Kiemura.
The pair had made some games together in their spare time before founding Kiemura in 2015, but the success of mobile puzzler Tiltagon meant they were able to give up their day jobs and go full time into development, working from home together and looking after their family of two children and two dogs.
Imagining how long it might take for my fiancee and I to kill each other in a similar situation, I want to know how they manage it. Surely it must put a huge strain on a marriage?
"Surprisingly not," laughs Jyri, who as the more confident English speaker, answers all of my questions. "Of course, there are days when things are tough, but we really get along with each other. We also have two kids, one in pre-school and the other is a four-year-old who is at home, so everything is at home: work, kids.... It's all working surprisingly well, although there is the occasional cabin fever. We're confined in a small space, especially in the Finnish Winter!"
Maybe the secret is really making sure the relationship works before embarking on a career path together. Jyri and Piaa have been married for 16 years, and neither's career was originally rooted in game development at all.
"Personally I have a background as a web developer, in backend development," Piia's husband explains. "I spent ten years doing that, although I've always had an interest in games. At one company we started making a summer game project, and that kicked things off. Piia actually has a background as a construction engineer, she's not an industry person! But I guess that's actually her strength: 3D modelling, design, art. We complement each other really well.
"In November 2014 we went to Helsinki and entered a pitching competition with Tiltagon. We didn't win, but we were able gather some contacts and to do some more pitches afterwards. Touch Arcade and PocketGamer both wrote about the game and then Noodlecake (Tiltagon's publisher) contacted us afterwards, so that was a game changing experience, in every way. We'd never partnered with a publisher before, so we thought we'd try and see how it went.
"The game was on the best new games [section] in the App Store and Google Play and that really helped. I mean, it was a tilt-based game released in 2015. Tilt-based games aren't that hot - maybe when the iPhone launched, but it was great to see people liking the game."
"Of course, it's a little pressured. We haven't had a big financial hit, so we rely on project work as well as making our own games"
Like any small studio, the Kilpeläinens supplement their main projects with work for hire, helping out on game projects for other local developers like Tiny Troopers studio Kukouri, as well as website work and other projects. Still, Jyri says they have to make sure they're not over reaching, and keep their goals of full time game development firmly front and centre.
"Of course, it's a little pressured. We haven't had a big financial hit, so we rely on project work as well as making our own games. Obviously we'd love to have that success so we can just focus on making games, but for now we do other stuff to keep the finances stable. If we're not making money, that's not a great situation.
"Obviously we're just two people, so we're limited in what we can do; we can't do everything, we have to be picky. We're still focusing on small games, as a small team. We are more into challenging arcade games, but we did release a real-time Agar.io clone in the summer, which has done surprisingly well - it's still getting 20-30,000 players every day. People have really been surprised to hear that a two-person team is running a real-time online multiplayer game. Big YouTubers are making videos of the game too, there are over 4 million views altogether. So it's been interesting. That's something that maybe we'd like to work on more now [that] we have the experience.
"At the moment we're struggling with finances a bit still, so we have to push our new game, Hovercrash, out and see how it goes [and] then do some project stuff to give us some room to focus. It's a real challenge. I don't know how we're going to manage it in the future. We just take it day by day, get things out, see how it performs, focus on the next thing."
Of course, if Kiemura does have a big success and the Kilpeläinens want to grow the team, it's going to make for a slightly awkward first hire. How do you bring in talent without making them feel like a third wheel?
"Of course, we'd love to get a programmer and an artist so we can focus on design and leadership," says Jyri, "so the next hires would be people who actually built games. We want to grow, we'd love to hire people, to be able to offer jobs and help people grow a career. That's always on our minds, but of course we have to be realistic about the situation, we need to look after ourselves first to be able to make a stable business.
"If we want to visit an investor, for example, we're probably too small a team for anyone to be interested in investing in - we don't have that Rovio background or Supercell or anything like that. It's going to be really difficult to find someone interested in this sort of investment. So we're taking it slowly and building and building. It's a marathon."
Speaking of Rovio and Supercell, I wonder aloud whether that sort of local success is a blessing or a curse to a small team just starting out. I'm interviewing the couple at Slush, the home of start ups and the springboard for new Finnish companies, but even here much of the oxygen is taken up by the big names and established players. Jyri says it's an odd phenomenon to observe at close quarters.
"Working with huge teams for months and months and then offering the games for free, you have to make money somehow. But when the game is full of free to play timers and whatnot, is it still fun in the end?"
"I guess in some senses it's hard. In a way it's surprising to see that those companies who are getting millions in investments are still operating at a loss. It's weird to see those figures, people taking €50m in investment and losing €25m a year. Where's that all going? Of course, there's user acquisition costs and advertising, but for us that's a really surreal situation.
"But that's their way of doing stuff... we have a different process, different goals. There's a lot of pressure on them. I think that shows in the games, too, since they're heavily monetised. I'm not against that at all - they're working with huge teams for months and months and then offering the games for free - you have to make money somehow. But when the game is full of free-to-play timers and whatnot, is it still fun in the end?
"I don't really like all that discussion of whales etc; it's kind of disgusting in a way. I guess I'm more of a gamer than a businessman. I prefer for the gameplay and mechanics and stuff to come first, then the monetisation afterwards.
"It's very hard for us, operating on mobile. You just have to look at the market. People aren't willing to pay for games very often now. They expect them for free and, as an indie that's a really challenging situation - you have to pay rent. There are some hits which succeed on premium models, but it's tough. It's just something you have to accept, I think. We just have to make free-to-play games and make the monetisation model less aggressive. I would love to just make premium games, but it's such a huge risk. If you don't get featured by Apple, your game just disappears."
Hovercrash is out now on iOS.