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 third and final in a multi-part series covering those discussions, with part one covering the studio's team-led culture and part two discussing Supercell's killed games.
As I've mentioned in the first two parts of this series, GamesIndustry.biz wasn't alone in visiting Supercell's headquarters in Helsinki for the launch of its new game, Brawl Stars. The company also welcomed nearly 100 content creators from around the world to celebrate the milestone with them, even inviting some to push the game's launch button for their respective regions.
Opening the doors to the community at this scale isn't a common gesture in the industry, but according to the developers and employees I spoke to, such a collaboration with creators wasn't unusual in the slightest for Supercell.
"Today's world is so much better... People who are super passionate about the games can work directly together with the game team"
"The way we see our partnership and working together with you guys is that it's a two-way street," CEO Ilkka Paananen said to the community as he addressed them in a welcome speech. "At its best, it benefits us, but we understand that it also has to benefit you. It really has to be a true partnership.
"I've been in the games industry for 18 or 19 years now, and earlier on in my career, how you did publicity for games is you had to pitch it to game magazines, and it was almost always professional, PR marketing people [who you spoke to]. As you can imagine especially for our teams, that's not our cup of tea. Today's world is so much better. Because what's happening is people who are super passionate about the games, you guys, can work directly together with the game teams, and I just feel that it's a much, much better place to be."
Every team I spoke to at Supercell, from Boom Beach to Clash of Clans to Brawl Stars, mentioned the importance of taking community feedback across channels such as official forums (for the games that had them), Reddit, and social media platforms. For the Clash Royale team, such feedback significantly impacted the game's push for esports.
"We built [esports content] because the players wanted it from the very beginning," Clash Royale's Stefan Engblom told me. "When we soft launched during that beta period, players were already doing their own tournaments. And we had seen in our internal mini-tournament that was meant as just a game test that there was a lot of excitement around this kind of competitive play. So that was something we talked about early on, but we still see it as something that's about engagement and giving back to the players."
Fellow team member Seth Allison agreed, and went on to tell me that the needs and wants of the community often fit seamlessly with what the developers already enjoy or want to promote in their games.
"In our discussions on the game team, revenue and profitability is never a part of the discussion"
"In our discussions on the game team, revenue and profitability is never a part of the discussion," Allison said. "We talk about the big tournaments that are happening in the industry, we talk about different games...[Clash Royale] is a competitive game and we all like esports, so why wouldn't we want our game to have esports?"
After the success of Clash Royale esports, Brawl Stars is preparing to take the same tactic. At the launch event, Supercell announced a partnership with Red Bull and ESL to hold a special Brawl Stars tournament at the Red Bull Mobile Esports Open Finals in Germany next month. But beyond that, game lead Frank Keienburg said he was happy to let the community decide if the game proceeds further.
"It's pretty safe to say we want to have a league," Keienburg said. "I always feel weird when I see games coming out before their release that say, 'This is going to be an esports title.' It's just a weird thing to say, if you don't actually know how the community will react. It's having things the wrong way around. Internally, we play the game competitively, and we think it's a lot of fun to watch and it's actually quite easy to read the game. Do we think it has potential for esports? Absolutely yes.
"So we give people the tools [for competitive play], then let people make what they want to out of them. We've already kicked off an initiative together with ESL and Red Bull and we're going to see what comes out of that, but there hasn't been a company plan. If the community wants this, we see how they want it, and then we'll support that notion. And if that's a professional league like in Clash Royale, so be it."
Esports isn't the only way the Brawl Stars team plans to tune into the requests of its community. Keienburg also highlighted the importance of Supercell's unusual team-centered structure in allowing them to make adjustments to the game in a direct fashion based on feedback they receive.
"I always feel weird when I see games coming out before their release that say, 'This is going to be an esports title'"
"When you go through other organizations, you end up with three or four layers of approvals to do anything," Keienburg said. "But here, we see a cool idea on Reddit, and we implement it. There's no approval chain - we just do it. That is empowering, but at the same time it comes with a great responsibility. Because sometimes, sometimes, the community ideas are not the best. So we try to balance this."
It's one thing to set aside ideas that are "not the best," but another entirely to interact with members of the community that react poorly to changes they dislike. Brawl Stars community manager Ryan Lighton acknowledged the difficulty of balancing how much information to communicate even as he strives for honesty and openness with the player community.
"One thing I am always careful about is making promises," he said. "Especially with how we work. We have a road map, but we don't have a concrete road map for the next year. We have a guide that we're going to try to follow but we don't know what features we're going to have and when. If I make promises early and don't deliver, then it feels really bad. On the other hand, there's the opposite of that. If we tell them nothing, they'll say, 'Heck guys, give us some info.'
"So there's a delicate balance between what we tell them, when, and how much. We at least try to give them guidance on what we're working on and what we hope to achieve without saying, 'This is coming,' and waiting to say 'Definitely' until we can be sure it's working for us."
Lighton also was candid about the fact that even though he and others I spoke to at Supercell feel the studio in general has a more positive, forgiving community than one might find in other popular games, that doesn't mean it's devoid of toxic players. At first, Lighton downplayed the impact of harsh reactions from such people.
"Even when players are toxic or upset or angry, really they're just passionate," he said. "They're excited. They love the game so much that they want their vision of the game to come to life. In their heads, they have this vision of what they want to happen and when it doesn't, they're upset because they care. Even the guys who are sometimes a little toxic or a little upset on Reddit or whatever, it comes from a good place. The day I will be afraid is not when we have negative comments or criticisms, it's when we have nothing. When we post an update and nobody cares, that's the day I'll be scared."
When pressed on the potentially harmful conflation of "toxic" and "passionate," he elaborated a bit more.
"When we post an update and nobody cares, that's the day I'll be scared"
"I don't want to say that all players who are toxic are passionate," he said. "There are some bad eggs out there who are just not saying good things. But...players don't always know how to express their dissatisfaction. Maybe we drop an update and they're like, 'This game sucks.' Okay, but what is it you don't like? What changed? Why were you happy before and different now? So I have to parse through all their feedback and try to figure out what it is that made them unhappy."
Though Supercell developers talked often and enthusiastically about how important their relationship with the community was, that would mean nothing if the community itself didn't feel listened to in turn. At least according to two of its most prominent voices, Supercell's words match its actions. I spoke with Patrick Carney (known in the community as Chief Pat) and Galadon (who declined to give his real name), two well-known YouTube creators who have been playing Supercell titles and making videos about them since 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Both content creators had similar beginnings: they found Clash of Clans as a way to pass the time, loved the game, and began producing videos at a time when helpful content on how to overcome certain challenges in Clash was still scarce, which allowed them to catch Supercell's eye.
At first, Carney wasn't sure Supercell's attention was a good thing. He told me that when he began making Clash of Clans videos, he tried to keep them hidden from Supercell in fear that they would bring a copyright strike against them. But Supercell did quite the opposite. The studio commented on his videos, shared them on its Facebook page, and in early 2014 began reaching out to him and other creators to come visit the studio in Finland for opportunities to cover updates to the game.
"Everyone realized it was a win-win proposition," Carney said. "Supercell had people who were creating content around their games, creating ways for their fans to engage with Clash and other Supercell games, and they had these people who were on the frontline of that and were helping build the community. And for the creators, we were playing massively popular games and were able to create channels that were flourishing. Then Supercell started providing more support, whether that was early access to the updates when they came out or promoting our videos. I had the chance to be in a Super Bowl commercial. That's crazy! I never would have had that opportunity anywhere else."
"Good things happen to good people and Supercell tends to find good people"
Galadon and Carney told me that Supercell doesn't give just anyone access to what they referred to as the "NDA group" of creators, who have a special channel in Supercell's official Slack and get perks like visits to the studio's headquarters, early access to content and information, and direct lines to the team. Supercell does vet those it welcomes into the fold, which serves as an incentive for community members to not just put out good content, but to be positive role models to others.
"Good things happen to good people and Supercell tends to find good people," Galadon said. "I think they're successful because they found good employees, but at the same time, they have found the cream of the crop of content creators...There are some communities of certain games, I hate to name names, but like Darwin Project, League of Legends, games like that, where the community has become known for being really toxic. I've never heard that happen in Clash of Clans. Part of that is the game itself, and part of it is the way Supercell runs things. And they do. They really do listen to the community, and there are things that get adopted straight from the forums or social media where people are."
Carney and Galadon said that the kind of relationship Supercell has with its community is a rarity, and that other studios had reached out to them in the past to ask the creators how they could emulate Supercell's model. Carney emphasized the importance of having an excellent game in the first place to attract talented creators, but also said Supercell's particular flavor of support had been invaluable.
"Other people are trying to pay to get in the door with creators or for people to post content, but for Supercell and ourselves, we've always had that win-win relationship," Carney said. "Now we've seen that expand to today, where now there are so many creators. I remember when it was a core four to eight creators in the beginning. Over time, that's grown, which is awesome, and now you don't have to be a channel with over 100k subscribers to have access to Supercell. You make one or a couple cool videos and they're reaching out for you to join their Slack group and get access to Supercellians directly and make that connection.
"...If you want to build a community like this, if I'm telling a developer who says, 'We have a game, it's very new, we have a few creators,' I would say vet the people who are really passionate about your game and who can help push your game and community forward, and support them and prop them up as much as you can. Start there. And hopefully as your game builds traction and more creators come on, you can align yourself with the right people to help build out your community online."