“Are Supercell’s best days behind us or ahead of us?” We asked ourselves this simple question at the beginning of last year which led to a very deep discussion where we realized that we had not evolved quickly enough to keep up with the demands of players around the world. In this post, I’ll explain what we’re doing about it and tell you about the big mistake I made.
by Ilkka Paananen
It may surprise some, it certainly surprised us, but developing and operating hit games does not become any easier even when you’ve been able to release a few. At Supercell, we’ve been very fortunate in that in the past 11 years, we’ve released 5 hit games: Hay Day, Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, Clash Royale, and Brawl Stars. They’ve had more than 5 billion downloads, and to this day, 250 million players play them every month, and each of these five games has grossed more than a billion dollars in their lifetime, and Clash of Clans and Clash Royale have grossed over $10 billion lifetime revenue so far. We could not even have dreamed about anything like this when we founded the company in 2010.
I am not exactly sure if it was because of the past success, but as of a year ago, the fact was that our games had not really grown that much in the past few years, and also, we had not launched a new game since Brawl Stars (which launched globally in December 2018).
This fundamental question started a pretty deep discussion at Supercell and, more importantly, led to us changing our thinking and approach on several things. I wanted to share some of our thought process and its actions. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea of where Supercell is going and, most importantly, what our plan is to do even better for players of our games.
In examining how we could improve as a company, the obvious place for us to start from was our mission statement, or our dream as we call it: to create games that as many people as possible play for years and that are remembered forever. We started to challenge many assumptions through the lens of this dream of ours.
In hindsight it of course sounds completely obvious, but we concluded that in order to keep chasing our dream, we simply need to do better for players. We noticed that we had been so stuck in some of our old beliefs, that in some cases we had not been able to fully deliver for our players.
That of course makes no sense, because without players, Supercell wouldn’t exist. We are here to create experiences into which players invest their valuable leisure time. We should start almost every discussion by putting the player and their experience first.
DOING MORE VS SMALL TEAMS – AND MY BIG MISTAKE
As we talked about doing more and better for players, it created a few interesting conflicts that I wanted to share openly.
The first conflict is related to team size, and specifically team size of the live game teams. As many of you know, historically, a big part of Supercell’s identity and reputation has been about small teams. We all believe that in addition to the amazing people and luck that we’ve had, the small team sizes have been a factor that has enabled us to create 5 hit games. Small teams innovate, take bigger risks, and move faster as there are less cooks in the kitchen and less process. All of this is fantastic when you’re trying to develop something new and amazing from scratch.
Be bold and take risks. We’ve realized that with success, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what has worked in the past. To truly be innovative we need to be humble, open-minded and take bold risks with unknown outcomes. Sure if we do that, we will probably fail more often than we succeed, but the learnings will make us stronger and eventually we will find a big success. I truly believe that companies do not fail because they take risks, but because they stop taking risks. We also reminded ourselves that we should reinstate our habit of celebrating failures with champagne.
However, the situation changes once a game team starts heading towards Beta and becomes a live game team. All of the sudden, the priority shifts from innovating to serving an audience of millions of players, and doing so in a healthy and sustainable way, without overworking the people in the team.
We realized we had made the mistake of applying the exact same thinking to both new game teams and live game teams. In extreme cases, we stuck to our mantra of “small teams” because that was our culture, and had not realized that our culture should really be at the service of players.
Ultimately, this of course was my mistake. As the CEO, I should have challenged our existing ways of thinking and culture, because as I had written in our culture document a few years back, “what got us here will not necessarily get us there.” I realized that I was actually the one who had the fixed mindset, stuck in the thinking from our past. Definitely one of the biggest mistakes of the many that I’ve made in my career, and one that I will remember forever. And a great learning which in our culture of celebrating learnings that come from failures meant I deserved a big bottle of champagne :)
Today, when we consider what is the right size for a team, we do not simply say “small” anymore. Today, the answer depends on what type of game the team is working on and what phase it is in. We are still learning and trying to find the right balance between “small” and “doing more”. So far, the answer has been to move to slightly larger teams for our live games, developing better and smarter tools & technology, creating stronger outsourcing pipelines, and thinking outside the box as with the Supercell MAKE platform. And yes, I am fully aware that “20-35 people” is still a relatively small team compared to the teams of several hundred people that exist in our industry. But for us, they feel big :-) (As I said, we are still learning and trying to find the right balance.)
There is one thing that I want to make clear here, which is that none of this impacts how we think about the most important pillar of our culture, which is the idea of fully independent game teams (or cells as we sometimes call them). The independence of our teams continues to be sacred in Supercell’s culture - that's the number one reason we founded the company in the first place! At Supercell, the role of leadership is to put together the best teams, but then fully trust them and not to tell them what to do. The way to think about our teams is that they are fully independent companies inside the larger company.
The other conflict that appeared when started to talk about doing more for players was related to the health of the teams. We had already noticed that the combination of the fully independent teams, very high ambition and small team size, fueled by remote working caused by COVID, led to situations where sometimes these small teams pushed themselves too hard to deliver on their plans. In a few cases, extra content for the players came at the expense of peoples’ health and even led to symptoms of burn out.
This really kills me for three reasons:
- It is just wrong for these people and their families, and it is all too common in our industry, and it is definitely not a legacy that I or anyone else would be proud of.
- It is in direct violation of our mission to create a company and games that would last for decades – obviously we cannot do that if people burn out.
- We founded Supercell to be the best place for the best people and teams to make the best games – again if people burn out while creating games that obviously is very far from being the best place for them.
So again, we had a discussion about this and concluded that whatever the team does, doing more for players cannot come at the expense of the team’s health. Overworking teammates cannot be the solution. No one should sacrifice their health & wellbeing for their team or Supercell goals. That means we need to do a better job building teams that are healthy and sustainable for the long term.
Today we believe that growing teams responsibly will not only allow us to do more, but it will ensure that individuals on teams are able to work reasonable hours and take enough time off to fully recharge. We are seeking to reduce the stigma around talking about mental health at work and encouraging discussions within teams to explore healthier ways to work together and deliver the best for the players of our games.
All in all, we are playing the long game here. I am confident that the discussion and actions we’ve taken will get us closer to having the healthiest people and teams in gaming, while also delivering much more for our players.
As we talked about how we could do better for our players, we also started to talk about this concept of “growth mindset.” For us, it means that we need to:
- Become better every day. No matter how great you, your team or your game is, it can always be better.
- Be bold and take risks. We’ve realized that with success, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what has worked in the past. To truly be innovative we need to be humble, open-minded and boldly explore. Doing so will inevitably lead to many missteps and failures, but the learnings will make us stronger and eventually we will find a big success. We also reminded ourselves that we should reinstate our habit of celebrating failures with champagne!
When we spoke about growth mindset, we soon noticed that it became synonymous with user or revenue growth. This was exactly what we did not mean by growth mindset. For us, growth mindset is about the two things I mentioned above, it is about the intent. And sometimes, with some luck, it can result in outcomes such as hit games, user and revenue growth. Because of this risk of confusion we ended up calling it “improvement mindset” which seemed to fit our culture better.
IMPROVEMENT MINDSET IN 2021
As said, for us, an improvement mindset is all about trying to do better, and also being bold in trying new things. And again, it is not about the outcome, but about the intent. Last year, there were several examples of this in action, and I wanted to mention some of them below.
Hay Day Farm Pass We released Farm Pass in 2020, but this is the first full year of farm pass and the team has worked incredibly hard and improved it significantly for players.
Clash of Clans Town Hall 14 The team introduced Town Hall 14 into Clash of Clans in April which remarkably improved the player experience for long-time players of the game.
Clash Royale: Card Level 14 and Champions There was a lot of discussion among the team and these big changes felt very risky. Some of the team were opposed to the ideas, but they disagreed and committed to taking a big risk that ended up improving the player experience seriously for Clash Royale players.
Brawl Stars Deeper Progression & Club Updates The team took a big risk by adding deeper progression and improving the social club experience for players of Brawl Stars. This has created a foundation for the team to build on for the future.
The most live Beta games in ten years We now have three live beta games, which is the most that we’ve had since 2012, the year that we launched Clash of Clans and Hay Day! What I really love about this lineup is that these three games are completely different from our other games.
Everdale, a peaceful and relaxing building game with never-ending adventures, was launched into beta back in August and the player reception has been incredible. The team continues to improve the game and listen to player feedback.
We also announced three Clash games at once and openly spoke about our roadmap including two games that were not yet in Beta, and could even be killed before they get to that point. Well, since the announcement two of these three have gone into Beta! We’ve never announced titles this early in their development phase, but we felt like this was a great opportunity to be more transparent with players.
Backing like-minded Game Studios We’ve been investing in like-minded developers for a number of years now (a total of 14 game studios!). This is one of the ways we can do more for players – bring them more great games also outside of the Supercell internal studios. I am particularly excited to see the momentum behind Merge Mansion from Metacore, Love & Pies from Trailmix, and Beatstar from Space Ape.
- Beatstar, a rhythm game by Space Ape Games, launched 31 August and has reached #1 in downloads in 24 countries and is the top grossing music game globally. With over 1 billion song plays it is emerging as an important platform for music discovery. By the way, Space Ape has also soft launched Boom Beach Frontlines, a team shooter set in the Boom Beach universe!
- Merge Mansion from Metacore reached over 20 million downloads and the internet fell in love with Grandma Ursula who was played by Kathy Bates in a series of films that they released. I wish I had the answer to “What’s Grandma hiding?” but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Metacore has planned for the players! :)
- Trailmix globally released Love & Pies, their debut game. The telenovela style undertakings of the gang at the Windmill Cafe quickly netted over a million installs, and the TIGA Award for best Casual game in 2021. Lots of plot twists to come in 2022!
We have been helping support the teams through a combination of backing them financially and hands on support when they’ve asked for it. In addition we have been learning so much from these amazing teams. And this is just the beginning from this amazing group of game studios, there is definitely more to come!
Expanding our talent with LEVEL UP
Historically we have tended to hire for the most part only very experienced developers, but now we’ve understood how important it is to learn from younger talent. To that end, we started the Level Up program which brings six recent graduates together to develop a playable game over six months. The program has just started and it’s incredible to see the talent that applied and joined us. Whenever possible, we have also been more open for younger talent for our other open permanent positions.
Opening a Game Studio in North America
We also recently announced that we are looking for founders to help us start a North America based game studio. Read the blog post to learn about how we intend to make games that you might not expect from us.
These highlights were not all resounding successes, but they all represented the teams putting in the effort to try bold & sometimes risky things to create new experiences or improve them for players of our games. I couldn’t be more proud of how Supercellians embraced the challenge of improvement mindset and wanted to do even more for our players!
2021 FINANCIAL RESULTS
Those who have read my posts from previous years would remember that, according to Finnish law, during this time of the year, we need to report our annual financial results. I thought I would share them here as well.
Revenue for 2021 was at €1.89 billion (or $2.24 billion), and our profits before taxes (EBITDA) amounted to €734 million (or $852 million). Our profits allowed us to contribute a total of approximately €150 million (or $177 million) in corporate taxes to Finland this year alone. Many of us who have benefited from our free education and healthcare financed by taxes feel proud that we can contribute to our society in this way, in turn helping others. We also try to maintain a positive impact on society by offsetting 200% of carbon emissions from our operations as well as 100% of those created by mobile devices while players enjoy our games!
While these results represented some growth over last year, and I am of course very happy for our teams that their hard work also is reflected in the figures, we don’t like to focus on results from any particular year. We like to think a lot more long term than just one financial year. Our inspiration comes from companies like Nintendo who built their company over 100 years. For us, the most important thing about financial results like these is that they enable us to keep investing in making even better games, taking risks and better serving the over 250 million people that play our games every month!
DOING MORE FOR PLAYERS GOING FORWARD
So what should you expect from Supercell this year? In line with the improvement mindset, we want to continue to do better for players, and hopefully also introduce both new games and features to existing games that will surprise the players of our games in a very positive way!
Hay Day and Clash of Clans will both turn ten years old this year and there will of course be big celebrations for both, alongside lots of great new content and some exciting new features which I can not yet talk about!
The Clash Royale team has big plans as well, including ensuring players of all skill levels are rewarded for their time in game and making it more exciting to explore and expand their collection! The Brawl Stars and Boom Beach teams are also hard at work and focused on delivering for players!
The teams will continue to iterate on the three games we have in Beta, trying to make them better for the players. If at some point our teams think they are ready to go global, the next would be our sixth launch in twelve years so it would be a big moment for us. However, our teams keep their bar very, very high so no promises.
We currently have seven new games at various stages in development, and I've never been more excited about new game development at Supercell! Each of these new games will bring a new level of creativity and something very unique to players, and we hope that sometime soon you get to play at least some of them! We also expect more great games from the fourteen game studios that we’ve backed!
As I mentioned earlier, to truly be innovative and keep raising the bar, we need to be humble, open-minded and take bold risks with unknown outcomes. I believe that companies do not fail because they take risks, but because they stop taking risks. If we don’t have enough failures, we aren’t trying hard enough. As such, I hope we’ll be drinking a fair amount of champagne this year. :)
THANKS TO THE PLAYERS!
I wanted to end this year’s blog post by thanking the players of our games. The community inspires us to challenge ourselves to be better every single day. We know there are many many games out there to play and we are humbled that so many have continued to play our games for so many years (this year it will be ten years and counting!). We will always strive to improve the experience and we hope the players will continue on this journey with us.
We truly value the relationship we have with the community and will continue to listen to feedback, as hard as some of it can be! :) So please keep the feedback coming! By the way, this is definitely the most interesting delivery so far this year :)
We’ll make mistakes along the way, but always try to improve and deliver more great content and features for our existing games as well as launch new games for players all around the world to enjoy!
We plan to stay focused on our dream to create games that as many people as possible play for years and that are remembered forever, and with a lot of hard work and a little luck, and with your continued support, our best days will be ahead of us!
On behalf of everyone at Supercell, THANK YOU!