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Small Giant Games: The Importance of Efficiency

Why a ten man company is going toe to toe with Game of War

On a chilly evening way back in November 2016, I did the thing that no good games journalist does: I put on a suit.

In my defence, it was a to gain access to the Finnish Ambassador's residence in Kensington for an event. And the reason for suiting up was to give myself the chance to hear from ten game developers from the country as they pitched their business to investors.

One of those companies was Small Giant Games. Based in Helsinki and founded way back in 2013, the company was searching for Series B investment to fund their studio as it created a new game called Empires and Puzzles.

Fast forward to the present day and the business has its investment. The company received €5.4m in March 2017 from EQT Ventures to support their new game and, in particular, the business' user acquisition drive.

But what is Small Giant Games's hook? How does it differ from the rest of the Finnish industry? And is the label of "Finnish mobile game developer" a help or a hindrance to its prospects?

I sat down with Timo Soininen, CEO at Small Giant Games, and Tim Lönnqvist, Lead Game Designer at the company, to find out more about what makes them tick.

Before we dived into details, the conversation kicked off with a chat about the company's recently released mobile game Empires and Puzzles.

At heart, the game is a fusion of a few popular mobile gaming genres. It has a dash of match three battling mechanics, principally inspired by the likes of Puzzles and Dragons. It then purloins the stronghold building mechanics seen in the likes of Game of War to add a layer to the meta game. And it adds a PvP element to ensure the game maintains a tie to mobile's current obsession with multiplayer.

Unlike many in the mobile games industry, however, Lönnqvist wasn't inspired to create such a game because it looked like it could be a guaranteed money maker.

Instead, he admitted to me a rather dark secret that lay behind the creation of the game.

"I played Game of War," he said, while laughing. "I actually enjoyed Mobile Strike for half a year."

Yes, we finally found someone who enjoyed MZ's collection of base building battlers. However, joking aside, Lönnqvist's enjoyment of these types of games actually fitted closely with the direction the overall company wished to take.

As Soininen explained to me, the realisation that the people behind Small Giant Games enjoyed midcore titles helped the team veer away from an initial focus on the casual market.

"As a team we had been looking at the very grim situation of the casual games market, I mean the immense competition and the difficulty of actually breaking through, and we pretty much set ourselves a target that, 'Hey, we would like to create a game that people really stay a long time, that would also help us to actually become a sort of commercial success,' he said.

"We started looking at the different genres, and where players were spending most of their time, and also, you know, spending a little bit of their money as well, and we had a creative concept internally based on of those three things. So we made a pretty bold step for a small studio, that we basically said 'we're gonna actually step away from casual games altogether and go all in with the, sort of, mid-core RPG.'"

"As a team we had been looking at the very grim situation of the casual games market"

To those not used to the vagaries of the mobile market, this might not seem a particularly bold step. After all, a mid core RPG sounds like typical fodder for your average gamer.

However, such an approach would fail to understand how Small Giant Games's decision to release such a game has hurled it directly into competition with the mobile gaming behemoths.

By building Empires and Puzzles around the hooks of match three battling and strong hold building, Small Giant Games consciously aligned themselves against the likes of Gung Ho and MZ. Each company has built a multi-billion dollar business through midcore mobile games, using their deep pockets to blow others out the water through user acquisition spend.

Yet for all the potential problems that lay in wait, Soininen seemed bullish about the studio's prospects. Empires and Puzzles went through soft launch in Canada and Australia, with a principle aim of breaking into the highly valuable US market first. And when I asked him about how it had gone, he seemed pleased with the results.

"We're quite happy [with results]. I mean, the core engagement metrics and retention are really really healthy, and that has continued since the soft launch," he said. "So that's really promising."

Nevertheless, despite the initial positivity, Soininen also acknowledged that "growing a game like this is more like a growth marathon rather than an overnight sprint to success."

While Empires and Puzzles initially reviewed well, recent Google Play reviews suggest initial teething problems such as imbalance in PVP as of early April. This is certainly fixable, but - in the context of the cut throat space the companyhas chosen to occupy - it's something Small Giant Games will need to fix.

It's why the company has attempted to add something else to the development mix: a particular focus on efficiency.

While mobile game development companies are used to rapid production cycles to support a games as a service approach, Small Giant seem incredibly conscious of creating efficient mechanics, processes and even art design to support growth.

The focus on efficiency in the art style of Empires and Puzzles really stood out for me. In particular, Lönnqvist made a claim that stuck out after the interview was over - that an overly involved art style might be a barrier to success on mobile.

"I actually have an art background, so I was a game artist in the UK way back then, so I do appreciate really pretty games with all the fancy things, but actually in this game I argued really strongly against many of these things because I just can't make the connection with pretty art and a game that really performs well," he said.

This point struck me as controversial. Games with distinctive styles have routinely succeeded across platforms, from the cel-shading of The Wind Waker, the spiritual cleanliness of Monument Valley or even the grimness of The Binding of Isaac.

Yet Lönnqvist clarified in a follow up question that it wasn't a question of an art style being a block to success in gaming; it was simply questionable to invest too much into one too early on mobile.

"I just can't make the connection with pretty art and a game that really performs well"

"We never sacrificed anything from a good baseline of 'a fun game', but just made it very clear that we must get enough muscle, so to speak, to making the entire game a 'killer app' instead of focusing polishing certain parts beyond what's needed in early phases of game development."

The trade off for mobile game developers still entering this market seems fairly brutally simple then: create small game ideas, get them into shape for a test in the market and then decide rapidly on their future based on relevant in game metrics. It might seem a bit crushing to those of us who enjoy seeing our games as art, but in the context of games as entertainment such a model makes sense.

However, efficiency in game mechanics only goes so far in mobile games. If a game does hold up to scrutiny, it then needs the support of capital investment to help it bridge what Eric Seufert called "the cashflow gap" to back extensive user acquisition campaigns.

That's why Small Giant sought funding. According to Soininen, the capital they've received is "really predominately for scaling up the user acquisition side of things" to enable Empires and Puzzles - and potential follow up games from the studio - to survive in the market.

But while the company obviously had to go and seek out venture capital, it seemed as if their ability to pitch using 'Brand Finland' helped them catch the attention of investors. Was this advantageous to Small Giant Games?

"For us as a business, it's definitely an advantage [to be seen as Finnish]," replied Soininen.

Partially, this was down to the broader perception of what is going on in the mobile gaming market. Supercell and Rovio remain front of mind for most investors on a global scene, while Helsinki's local scene supports studios from EA Mobile and Wargaming.

But the crucial element for Soininen remains the ability to access and tap into a tight knit community that helps businesses along the way. "There's been a lot of talk about how welcoming the community is, how helpful the community is to each other. That's actually really true," he explains.

"the core engagement metrics and retention are really really healthy, and that has continued since the soft launch"

"I mean, we've had so many people helping us, and, sort of, supporting us along the way, obviously not sharing all of the goodies and all of the strategies but, you know, generally speaking that's been super helpful."

Furthermore, the depth of the Finnish mobile scene means that founding and constructing a high quality team is possible. Small Giant Games itself listed the team as previous employees of Habbo, Digital Chocolate and Remedy in the document handed out at the Finnish embassy event; something Soininen said was "definitely helpful" when seeking investor support.

Crucially, the above factors have not dampened the enthusiasm of investors to plough money into the Finnish scene. Rather than fearing over saturation, Soininen claims there is a "virtuous cycle" at play.

The deep knowledge of the Finnish industry is tapped into by a company to get to market; it then receives funding off the back of the reputation of the team and the region as a whole; the company then succeeds to grow the sector further, or disperses but reinvests knowledge into the community. It fosters an ecosystem that, to some extent, perpetuates itself.

As it stands, Small Giant Games is just a smaller part of that ecosystem. For now, the company is focusing on growing on Empires and Puzzles to deliver a return to their latest investor as well as the initial investors who backed the company in 2014.

But in the longer term, the company will surely help to contribute to the wider industry. The question is to what extent, and in what way, Small Giant Games's future growth will allow them to do so.

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