Last week, I attended RovioCon in Helsinki. It was super inspiring to attend a conference with no ‘paid for’ agenda and only top notch speakers.
This is an event organised by Rovio for game developers and it showed. Every talk I attended was packed with mobile game talent.The line up was top notch. Big hitters like Supercell, Rovio and King all gave presentations. Even the guy behind the 2014 viral megahit Flappy Bird was there (and boy did he charm everybody).
There was so much to take in that, to be honest, I’m definitely still processing a lot of it. But four things stuck out right away.
1. Organisational design really matters…
But making successful games needs more than those three things.
Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen’s talk focused on his first 10-12 years of his career in the mobile industry and the key learnings he had gathered around building an organizational structure for success. His background is in finance, and, while many of his peers went on to have careers in Investment Banking or Management Consulting, Ilkka joined a couple of game developers to found a company where he would ‘do everything that was not related to building games’. After a few years, they sold to Digital Chocolate. Ilkka stayed on for another five years to design the organizational structure for this company of 500+ people.
Management sat at the top of the company saying yes or no to ideas and projects. But, as the company continued to grow, it turned out that this approach wasn’t working:
- More complexity and more people meant more management and control. Management typically would not actually be game developers, so decisions would often be based on financial or marketing considerations rather than gaming ones.
- Most teams ended up spending up to 25% of their time preparing for internal pitches to win management over - i.e. only working 75% of their time on building great games.
So when Ilkka left, it was with the ambition to design a company around a fundamentally different approach. And this is what became ‘SuperCell’.
‘Cells’ are smaller teams that work independently, with complete decision making power. Only the Cells can kill the game they are working on. If you think the entire company was involved in building Clash Royale, you are wrong. It was a smaller team with ‘fewer than you would think’ resources at their disposal.
Management’s role now is simply to build the strongest possible teams and to remove any obstacles in their way.
And Supercell’s success is testament to the benefits of this approach.
2. ...except when it doesn’t.
The most peculiar and interesting presentation of the day came from Flappy Bird creator, Dong Nguyen.
A very humble Vietnamese man, clearly overwhelmed by the audience and presence of many industry veterans, guided us through how he built his gigantic success as a one man team.
The takeaway was really the following: ‘I leveraged my technical skills and built a game based on the principle that I did not want to work too much, that I could not make it look too good and that it had to work for a 1 minute session only.’ Clarity leads to great execution.
He also commented on all the speculation around him ‘gaming the charts’. It was very clear that he had no idea how people could even think this:
“So how did this game become so popular with 2bn sessions and over 100M downloads? I honestly have no idea.”
Left the entire room in tears of laughter. Perfect execution.
3. When you launch a game, you are only 10% done.
There were many talks around ‘games as a service’. This is certainly a shift in the industry where it used to be that you launch a game, market the shit out of it, update a few times and then move on to the next (as we have written about recently). Now, the leading developers are much more focused on constant tweaks, A/B testing, optimization of gameplay and monetization, and character development.Måns Wide, Rovio Product Manager, made a comparison to how many TV shows really only find their place, tone and main characters to focus on 1-2 seasons in.
“The Simpsons peaked in season 7 - and when you think about all the tools and data that we have available in mobile and that are not available to TV networks, it really should be them looking to us for inspiration and not the other way around”.
4. The other 90% comes from measuring the right things.
Måns also introduced a new metric: “time to fun”. How long do users have to wait until they are actually playing your game and having fun with it?
When he initially analyzed Angry Birds 2, he found that the game was underperforming on one metric, ‘Time to Fun’, when comparing Angry Birds 2 (+45 Seconds) to Candy Crush (24 seconds) and Clash of Clans (~36 seconds).
So ‘Time to Fun’ became one of the first things they started optimizing for and Angry Birds 2 really has not looked back as it became the single most important title for Rovio these past few quarters.
There is no one way to build a successful gaming company and it’s obviously always easier to talk about the things you have learned in retrospect.
It’s equally certain that this event helps position Rovio as a thought leader and attractive potential employer for people in the industry. But speaking to one of the organizers, I also got the impressions that this was first and foremost driven by a genuine ambition of ‘giving back’ to the community. Here, the industry as a whole stands to gain a lot from events that are purely focused on knowledge sharing as we continue to see too many gaming companies fail in the app stores - often in spite of great products/games.
The fact that there are so many successful gaming companies born out of the Finnish mobile ecosystem is no coincidence. It is the product of a generally open culture between companies and long tradition of building on top of and drawing inspiration from each other’s successes.
That said, all this works better in person, so upon completion of reading this blog post (and thank you for doing so), pick up the phone, call someone in the industry, schedule time for a coffee in the real world and start sharing.