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Success and sustainability at Supercell

DLC: The Finnish studio's developers discuss how they keep games thriving for years, and CEO Ilkka Paananen shares his philosophy on crunch

From time to time, there are interesting bits from our interviews that don't really fit well into the rest of the story, but are still worth reporting. Rather than relegate them to the trash bin of unpublished work, we'd like to repackage them into columns intended to provide additional insight on a variety of topics. These columns will be published under the banner of 'DLC'.

All of the content from this particular DLC column comes from our visit to Supercell's Helsinki studios to celebrate the launch of Brawl Stars, for which Supercell paid the flight and lodging. In addition to these tidbits, you can also read parts one, two, and three of our series on the studio.

Saving the forest for future updates

Though I was at Supercell's studio for the launch of Brawl Stars, part of looking at where the new game might one day be headed involved speaking to the teams working on big hits such as Clash Royale. Now three years old, the game is still very popular and has managed to sustain an audience with far greater success than most mobile titles both due to its initial surge of popularity and a steady flow of updates.

"I feel like when you're chasing short-term goals, you can end up stepping on your own toes"

Seth Allison

Developer Seth Allison told me that the team is now at a stage where it can start looking at how to tackle Clash Royale's next big update. And true to what I heard at other points during the week about Supercell's community focus, the process for determining what that will be involves looking at how the players were responding to what is already there.

"We try to approach it as a problem-solving mission," Allison said. "What problems exist in the game? What challenges are players facing and how can we alleviate those problems or solve those challenges? A lot of times we talk about what the problem is, what's causing the problem, and if we want to fix the causes of the problem or create this other system that gives the players tools to combat that challenge. When we agree on a solution, we all work toward it together."

It can be challenging to maintain a game's popularity over time, even with regular updates. Allison acknowledged that Clash Royale's numbers have dropped off somewhat over time, but that is natural for a game that's already a few years old. Allison said that it is less important to the team now to try to target business metrics such as revenue or player retention, and more important to focus on making a good game in the long-term.

"Having a long-term view for everything helps so much," he said. "I feel like when you're chasing short-term goals, you can end up stepping on your own toes. But by always thinking, 'These games are going to be around for ten-plus years, so we're going to do this now, we're going to do this next year, we're going to do that the year after that,' that helps keep you from rushing too fast and burning yourself out."

"It's easy to say, 'We need a lot of fuel, so let's just cut down half the forest.' But then you find yourself going, 'Oh, man, we're out of trees'"

Seth Allison

For Allison and his team that means, when it comes to decisions like those involved in the next update, sometimes the biggest and most exciting ideas don't end up being the best.

"Design space is like the environment. You have to manage: How many trees in the forest can you cut down? It's easy to be like, 'We need a lot of fuel right now, so let's just cut down half the forest.' But then you find yourself a year from then going, 'Oh, man, we're out of trees.'

The thing that's nice about knowing you're going to be around for the better part of a decade or more -- Supercell's never closed a global game so theoretically these games are going to be around for 20 to 30 years -- is that you can be deliberate and intelligent about each step forward you want to make. You don't feel that pressure to, 'Oh my God, we have to rush out the next big thing.' That long-term view helps sustainability."

Who hasn't heard of Clash of Clans?

I struck up a similar conversation with Clash of Clans team lead Eino Joas. Like the Clash Royale team, the Clash of Clans developers are challenged with keeping an older game sustainable in the long-term through regular updates. But Clash of Clans has been around for even longer, since 2012, and that makes it even more difficult to continue surprising players.

"We have millions and millions of players who love this game and would like to continue to play," Joas said. "The challenge for us is to find ways to get them fired up and inspired about it year after year. I don't think we'll stop doing that. That's exactly the goal we want to achieve. It's going to be hard because we have to constantly reinvent, but also not reinvent because people want more of the same in a way, but you also have to offer them surprises."

At the event, the Clash Royale developers asked the audience of community members and content creators how to solve the game's current most pressing issues

At the event, the Clash Royale developers asked the audience of community members and content creators how to solve the game's current most pressing issues

Another challenge Clash of Clans faces as an older game trying to remain relevant is that it's beginning to come up against its own popularity. Because of how big Clash of Clans was at its launch and ever since, it's becoming more and more difficult to attract totally new users.

"We still get a lot of organic traffic," Joas said. "But it's more challenging for us to find players who haven't played Clash of Clans. Finding players who have never heard of and played the game but would be interested in it is getting increasingly hard. One thing we want to try out maybe next year is to inspire people who have once played the game to come back and try it again.

"Finding players who have never heard of and played Clash of Clans but would be interested in it is getting increasingly hard"

Einos Joas

"At the moment we think it's not a very easy experience to come back to and that's something we'd like to address, to make it easier and more fun to return to Clash of Clans."

One thing that works in Supercell's favor for longevity across its portfolio, Joas told me, is that the company specializes in PvP titles. That means the players are constantly creating their own content, and updates come in the form of providing more ways to do that. Joas said that the studio is open to other types of games and progression systems, but it has to tread carefully if it wants to preserve its small team sizes and developer-led philosophy.

"Traditionally, we've been doing PvP games because it's a model that suits a small company," he said. "We don't have armies of artists who could create content. If you take Fortnite, for example, it's a PvP game but progression is in skins, and every season you get the Battle Pass that offers you new and exciting stuff. Frankly, for us, that is a really difficult thing to pull off. Not to even talk about purely content-driven games where you add levels, for example, all the time.

"If we want to do those games, we have to be really smart about it. We are actively exploring those directions, but in the past it's basically been dictated by the fact that we have such small teams that we have been doing more PvP games where the content is actually other players and the competition between the players."

CEO Ilkka Paananen says that the company's team-first culture is 'everybody's responsibility,' and my conversations suggested that everyone is on board

CEO Ilkka Paananen says that the company's team-first culture is 'everybody's responsibility,' and my conversations suggested that everyone is on board

Crunch, culture, and everyone's responsibility

One of the main topics of conversation while I was at Supercell was the studio's unusual, team-focused structure. CEO Ilkka Paananan has often referred to himself as the industry's "least-powerful CEO," saying that his goal is to remove obstacles from the path of the teams at the company, and that, ideally, he would "make zero decisions."

For creative decision-making this seems to work quite well for Supercell, and the various teams I spoke to were universally on board with the idea. But outside of creative decision making, there are other important tasks that management ought take a leadership role in at any game development studio. A big one, especially coming out of the news cycle of 2018, is dealing with crunch.

"Crunch is one of the things that I don't think the games industry as a whole can be proud of"

Ilkka Paananen

"Crunch is one of the things that I don't think the games industry as a whole can be proud of," Paananen said when I asked about his thoughts on the issue. "Way too often, crunch is not an exception, it's a rule. It's almost like, you plan the game schedule with a crunch assumption. You have to get to crunch at some point, and sometimes that's very early on.

"But for us, of course the teams have goals, like when we'd like to get the game out. But ultimately they get the game out when they feel it's ready, so I like to believe we have way less crunch than most companies out there. And really, it's up to the team to decide. There is no one who can go and tell the team that they have to work much, much later hours. If you walk around this office at, say, 5:30 p.m. on a regular Wednesday, it probably would be quite empty."

Despite the optimistic philosophy, Paananen did say that the decision to work later was up to the teams involved, and that there wasn't a particular system in place to encourage workers to take time away if self-inflicted crunch ever became a problem. In the end, accepting or avoiding crunch (just like the studio's team-first culture) is the responsibility of each individual and, to an extent, their team leads.

"Gaming is a creative business, and it's not about the hours you put in," Paananen said. "Of course, sometimes you need to put in long hours, and the Brawl Stars team has been working super hard over the last two months. But that can't be the de facto way of working. Sometimes it can happen, but it can't be a rule. We're in a creative business and I just can't believe that people would come up with creative ideas if they're really, really tired or at risk of being burned out.

"Crunch is ultimately bad for the business in the long-term. We're trying to build a company that lasts for decades, and we can't do that if people get burned out. It's the wrong thing to do. It's wrong for the people's lives, their families, and everybody."

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