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Seriously's four-year quest to become Finland's next breakout hit

Co-founder Petri Järvilehto has built Best Fiends into a $100 million IP, and this is only the beginning

For a country with a population of just 5.5 million people, Finland has been a high achiever in the games industry for more than 20 years.

Companies like Housemarque and Remedy Entertainment were pioneers of its development scene in the late Nineties, before Rovio found new heights of success with the explosive growth of Angry Birds. Supercell went further still, and is now clearing $2 billion in annual revenue with a team of less than 300 people.

Petri Järvilehto has been there for the entirety of Finland's rise. He worked at Remedy for 13 years, as the project lead on Max Payne, the lead game designer on Max Payne 2, and the creative director of Alan Wake. In 2011 he moved to Rovio, where he eventually became the executive vice president of its entire games unit. Järvilehto is a key figure in a local industry that has grown from a handful of like-minded people meeting each month to talk shop over beers to, 15 years later, the "world's most active IGDA chapter" - 300 regular attendees, still talking shop over beers.

"If you talk to the CEOs of [Finnish] gaming companies, you're definitely going to see a very strong spirit of a rising tide lifts all the boats," Järvilehto said when GamesIndustry.biz visited the Helsinki office of his latest company, Seriously, last year. "We're all competing globally, we're competing very strongly, but we're competing together. All of us are hoping for somebody else to be successful, because that's going to help the entire community.

"If things go well with Best Fiends, we want to build a property that can last for decades"

"Right now there are a huge amount of shots being taken, and some of those are going to break out... Obviously I'm biased, but I think we have a very good shot."

The idea behind Seriously is certainly ambitious, but in a way that should allow the company to adapt and pivot along with the one thing that Järvilehto believes is a constant in the games business: change, which will inevitably sweep across the market again, just as it has done many times in his career.

"We create IP," he added. "We create entertainment properties. We believe that, going forward, mobile is the most exciting place to be doing that, and we believe that, going forward, the biggest entertainment companies in the world are going to be created on mobile. That's where the future Star Wars, or the future Mickey Mouse, or the future Mario is going to be created.

"We have an ambitious vision behind all this... if things go well with Best Fiends, we want to build a property that can last for decades."

The first game under the Best Fiends IP launched in 2014, with a second, Best Fiends Forever, following in 2016. Seriously has amassed 75 million downloads across those two products, with two million people playing every single day. A third game, Best Fiends Rivals, is now in soft-launch, and it will almost certainly push those key metrics higher still.

However, while games are an obvious starting point for a mobile-first IP, Järvilehto and his co-founder Andrew Stalbow (another Rovio veteran) principally see them as "a window... just a small glimpse on what Best Friends is, and what we're creating." Järvilehto mentioned Mario in comparison to Seriously's first IP, but it would be just as instructive to reference the Mushroom Kingdom - a fictional world comprising many landscapes and populated by numerous characters, rather than just one iconic figure.

"IP development is something that distinguishes us from a huge amount of game studios, because we don't think of ourselves as a game studio," he said. "That means we're putting in a lot more effort than anybody else working in the same space... We spend a lot of time just developing the world. How do you build a world that can sustain a lot of stories, and a lot of narrative development later?

"IP development distinguishes us from a huge amount of game studios, because we don't think of ourselves as a game studio"

"We're starting to reach a level where, if we're looking at our fanbase, everyone has a favourite character; there's enough breadth and scope in there for people to find the characters that they can relate to."

Seriously started with a three-week update cycle, but player demand prompted the shift to a two-week schedule. Similarly, Best Fiends' in-game events happened weekly at first, then twice a week, and now occur three times a day. "We can go so much further and there's still a large part of the audience that goes, 'Oh, I could probably play a bit more'," Järvilehto said.

There are now players that have followed Best Fiends and its cast of characters for years. Fostering this sense of familiarity and personal engagement has always been part of Seriously's strategy, and it is now exploring that dynamic with new experiences across different media. The most prominent example of this is a pair of animated short-films, which are notable for the care and craft that has been poured into their production. Complementary video content is no longer a new idea in mobile development, but for Seriously these shorts are more than just an adjunct: it partnered with ReelFX, which has worked on Ice Age and The Book of Life, the voice cast features Mark Hamill, and the writing team was bolstered by J. Stewart Burns, best known for his work on The Simpsons.

"It helps us in creating a revenue stream," Järvilehto said, noting that the in-game event linked to Seriously's 'Boot Camp' animation generated $1.5 million in revenue. "The big thing for us is, if we can create high quality animated content for the audience, and actually fund that development cost by linking it into the game, then we're happy."

Seriously's two animated shorts have been viewed more than 12 million times collectively, and the company has announced that another four are scheduled for production in 2018. It has also teased "an even bigger animation project" that it will reveal more about in the coming year.

So far, the company has been backed by $28 million in VC funding, but 2017 was significant in financial terms. Seriously was profitable last year, earning more than $40 million in revenue at a 75 per cent monthly growth run-rate. Overall, Best Fiends has now made more than $100 million in revenue overall, and it has done so with a team of fewer than 70 people.

"Our next year is going to be bigger than this, and the year after that is definitely going to be bigger again"

"I think there is a strong belief [in Finland] that small teams can get incredible results, and Supercell validates that," Järvilehto said. "When we first started working on Best Fiends our entire development team was six people, and we got to soft launch in six months and shipped the game eight months after starting. If you get the right people, if you get a small team that really knows what they're doing... it's really not about team size.

"One of the typical fallacies of modern execution is, 'We need to be better, we need to grow revenue, we need to ship faster - let's add more people.' Sometimes it works, but it's certainly not guaranteed and sometimes it can slow you down."

While Järvilehto doesn't mention Rovio, its difficult to avoid thinking about his previous employer when considering Seriously's carefully managed growth. The expansive years that followed the success of Angry Birds were as much about reacting as planning, so explosive and unexpected was that game's huge popularity. Many bets were made, and several turbulent years followed when not all of those bets paid off. With its talk of Disney and IP creation and feature films, Seriously has broadly similar goals (and levels of ambition) to Rovio, but it is working towards those with an ethos of "less is more."

"We're super happy with where we are, but it's not like we've arrived anywhere yet," Järvilehto said. "I think what we're building now is something that's going to scale. Our next year is going to be bigger than this, and the year after that is definitely going to be bigger again - looking at all the things we have lined up. Financially, I think we'll get to the point where we can reach a very different scale in other forms of media, but these things will take time.

"One thing that has been super helpful is that, right when we started, pretty much the first PowerPoint we ever made for Seriously...we had a big enough vision, we had a long-term enough vision, and we're still executing that same vision from that very first PowerPoint.

"But it's still going to take some more years to build, to get to what we originally set out to do."

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