To celebrate the launch of Brawl Stars, Supercell paid for flight and lodging to bring GamesIndustry.biz to its headquarters in Helsinki, Finland for two days of interviews and discussions about the studio, its games, and its culture. This interview is the first in a multi-part series covering those discussions. You can also check out part two on Supercell's killed games and part three on its relationship with its game communities.
When Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen spoke at GDC last year, he told the crowd gathered that he referred to himself as "the industry's least-powerful CEO." And it was with a similar speech that Paananen greeted nearly one hundred content creators at Supercell's Helsinki headquarters last month on the eve of the launch of the studio's fifth game, Brawl Stars.
Paananen went on to tell both crowds what this meant for the power structure of one of the world's most successful development studios. Decision-making, he said, lay with the individual development teams as units and not at all with him. Paananen doesn't even give approval for decisions made by these teams, minor or major.
"What if we formed this new type of company where actually it would be the creative people running the show, and everybody else was there just to help?"
"It's a very simple idea: what would happen if we turned this organization upside down?" he asked. "We wanted the creative people, the game developers, to have all the power. What if they would form this new type of company where actually it would be the creative people running the show, and everybody else was there just to help?"
Paananen's speech and "least-powerful CEO" title may sound idealistic and even unbelievable to those outside of Supercell. But over the course of two days of interviews with developers, game leads, community managers, and community members, I heard these same lines echoed again and again: the developers have all the power. They make the decisions. Those "in charge" at Supercell are simply there to remove obstacles.
Take Frank Keienburg, game lead on Supercell's recent release Brawl Stars. As someone in charge of one of Supercell's game teams, he both reiterated Paananen's stance on what a "leader" at Supercell should be, but also acknowledged his place on a game team making decisions as a unit.
"As leads, we are not necessarily the people who say, 'We do this now,'" Keienburg said. "We are people who enable other people, and that can take very different forms. As a game lead, I enable the team to do their job. That can be, 'We don't have enough artists, I need to find more artists.' That can be, 'This guy's computer is too slow.' And it sounds funny, but in many companies around the world, people are sitting at a slow computer for half a year before something happens. I remove all the obstacles on the way and allow them to do their job.
"I'm also kind of the link to the outside world, so to speak. For our marketing efforts, for our partners, for everyone around it, so that the team can focus on what they love doing, which is the game. Game teams focus on the actual next thing we are doing, the next update, while I have the liberty to look further down the road. I look at the next 12 months so there is a vision of a direction we could take. After an update, we get together to discuss what we have lined up. And at a high level, if the team can't agree on doing something, then I would be the tie-breaker."
Keienburg isn't alone. Clash of Clans game lead Eino Joas expressed a similar understanding of his role.
"I'm not someone who decides things," he said. "I have opinions of where I think the problems are and what could be developed and made better, but I'm not the guy who makes calls. That's the team. I'm a facilitator of sorts in getting the team discussing things and forming team opinions. I've had some ideas that have been completely shut down."
Joas was also one of many Supercell employees who had ended up in a lead position on a game somewhat by surprise, thanks to the company's relatively fluid structure for who works on what game. Multiple people told me that while no one at Supercell would simply jump ship from a pivotal role on a game team to do something elsewhere in the company, the studio allows tremendous freedom of movement to those who feel their interests and talents lay elsewhere. Often members of one team with some downtime will assist on other games where help is needed, and those temporary helping hands may find themselves eventually moving over entirely to the team they helped.
"I have opinions of where I think the problems are and what could be developed and made better, but I'm not the guy who makes calls"
"I was previously doing game design on Boom Beach, then the previous lead got asked if he could help out a new game team going on at the time and he felt it was really important to do that," Joas said. "We had been talking about it, but the timeline was way in the future, and then suddenly it just happened. There was a need, and people were like, 'Yeah, you'll do fine, just go for it.' And I was like, 'Well, I've only been on the team for a few months.' I didn't know the team well."
Stefan Engblom told a similar story of fluid movement between teams, having worked on Hayday for two and a half years himself before ending up with the Clash Royale team. He and fellow Clash Royale developer Seth Allison said that while different teams across the studio may have unique processes for task tracking or communication within them, they all operate under the same fundamental idea of team-based decision-making and personal freedom to try new ideas.
For example, Allison told me that during his first week on the Clash Royale team, he felt that something wasn't jiving with the game's progression system of giving cards to new players. But when he went to find someone to approve his idea to fix it, there was no one to give him permission.
"I kept looking for approval," he said. "I kept going, 'Well, if I tell the game lead and he says it's okay then maybe it's okay,' and he was just like, 'Ah, do whatever, it's fine.' So I said, 'Well if I talk to 50% of the people on the team and they all say it's fine,' and I kept looking. 'What is the threshold for this is okay to do?' And the answer was, 'If you think it's the right thing to do, then do it, but also own it if it ends up being wrong.'
"Within the team, everybody comes with ideas," Engblom added. "We discuss them, we think about, 'Is there something that is blatantly wrong with it?' But if it sounds cool and especially if it's something easy to test, then we usually just test it."
Engblom, Allison, and many others were happy to celebrate the advantages that Supercell's structure had afforded them, but they did acknowledge that the format of team-focused decision making and independence came with its challenges.
"If you're the sort of employee that needs someone to have someone hand you a to-do list every day, then this is not a great environment," Allison said. "You need to be very proactive. If you have downtime you need to be able to fill your own downtime with stuff that you think is very impactful and gets you moving. That can be a challenge for a lot of people, because there are definitely days when you're burnt out or tired and you're kinda like, 'Man, I wish someone would just tell me what to do today!' But long-term, you need all 20 members of the team to be very proactive in order to make it work. It doesn't work with people who are riding backseat. It creates a good confluence of opinions, everyone wants to chime in on what we're doing and that makes it a good, healthy environment."
"If you're the sort of employee that needs someone to have someone hand you a to-do list every day, then this is not a great environment"
"Since every team is very independent, one flip side is that we tend to make similar mistakes," Engblom added. "Communication is hard - we sort of focus on our own thing and we don't effectively [share] the knowledge. People might come to the same conclusions at the same time. We've become better at that, but that's kind of a thing."
For a company of over 200 people, it was surprising to encounter what seemed to be fairly universal buy-in on such a unique structural idea. Paananen believes the mutual understanding stems from a continued emphasis on the company's culture from the beginning, and strong hiring to reinforce that culture.
"The only reason I think it works is that was the idea of the company from the very beginning," he said. "There were six of us when we started, and we hired the next 15-20 people who we believe were aligned [with our values,] and they hired the next 20-30 people who were aligned, and those people hired more, and that's how it has grown. It's a big group of very, very like-minded people.
"We have this value of Supercell First, Team Second. It's not about me or any other leadership we have here. These people hold each other accountable, and we are more than 200 people now, a sort of critical mass. Culture isn't my responsibility or any single individual's responsibility. It's everyone's responsibility. And these people really care about culture and they look up to each other."
He also echoed the sentiment expressed by Allison, that although the structure works well for Supercell, it requires people who enjoy "creative freedom and risk-taking," and doesn't jive well with those who require process, structure, and oversight.
He also acknowledged another challenge, one he himself personally experienced.
"It's always fun to talk about the structure when things are going well, on days like this," he said, referring to the launch of Brawl Stars. "But it's a whole other thing to stick to the structure when things aren't going as well, or when you disagree with what some of the teams are doing. And then the question becomes, 'Do I still believe in the structure enough even if I'm not happy with how things are going? Do I still trust that the teams know what's best for Supercell?' You can disagree, but you commit. Ironically, the more successful we've become the harder that's become. That's something we talk about a lot, actually. I'm very proud that we've been able to hold onto this structure."