Supercell CEO IIkka Paananen on 'Clash of Clans' secret sauce


Mobile games tend to be ephemeral, with short half-lives that expire as soon as the next big game shows up. But Clash of Clans has been a leader in the space for more than a decade now, with no signs of slowing down.

Clash, released a little more than two years after developer Supercell opened its doors, has been instrumental in helping the company grow to a multibillion-dollar organization with more than 300 employees spread across its Helsinki headquarters and offices in Shanghai, San Francisco, and Seoul.

The success of Clash, as well Hay Day Boom Beach Clash Royale, and Brawl Stars, led to China’s Tencent acquiring a majority stake in Supercell in 2016. At the time, the deal valued Supercell at $10.2 billion.

As Clash of Clans reaches its 10th anniversary and surpasses 3 billion downloads, Fast Company spoke with Supercell CEO and cofounder Ilkka Paananen about what’s behind the game’s staying power, gaming industry trends, ongoing consolidation, and why the company has been so slow to roll out new game franchises.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fast Company: Clash of Clans got started when mobile gaming was largely in its infancy. What do you think has been the key to its longevity and relevancy?

Ilkka Paananen: We like to think of games as services. One of our goals when we started was to create something that would be so meaningful to the players that it would become a part of their everyday life, and I guess you could say Clash of Clans has succeeded. There really wasn’t anything like that available at the time for mobile devices.

When I talk to players, many have played for five, six, seven, eight years. My favorite question to ask is, “Why do you keep playing the game? And what makes you come back to the game?” And oftentimes, they’ll talk about how they love the game and the humor and the characters and the gameplay, but as often—if not more often—they also refer to the other players. It really is the clan.

[Image: Supercell]

It’s fun to play the game with other people, because you’ve gotten to know them. Games make the planet a bit smaller; they bring people together from all kinds of different backgrounds, different cultures, and different parts of the world.

For the 10th anniversary, you partnered with other brands on a Clash-themed cereal and clothing collection. From an IP perspective, do you have ambitions of pushing that further and exploring other entertainment spaces? There’s the graphic novel coming soon. Anything beyond that?

You always try to think about things like this from a player perspective. How can the Clash experience be more interesting and exciting for the player? We’re always looking for different ways to give players the opportunity to go deeper into the Clash universe and get to know the characters better. And we’re always on the lookout for those kinds of opportunities. I can’t say much more, but there’s definitely more coming on that side.

Clash is obviously the crown jewel at Supercell, but what about new games? Is that something that’s on your radar these days?

In the past 12 years, we’ve only released five games. A big part of our culture is that the quality bar is extremely high. Small game teams, which we call cells, build and prototype new games all the time. However, most of those games the outside world never gets to see, unfortunately.

We test them internally, and the teams decide to kill them. A small number get soft launched. We test them in markets like Canada and New Zealand and get real player feedback. But even in that phase, more often than not we kill those games.

It’s really the game teams that run the show here, not me. I’m here only to support the game teams. You need to take a lot of risks, and at some point you wind up killing [that idea], but every once in a while, a game does make it out.

There’s a lot of chatter these days in the industry about NFTs. Do those factor into Supercell’s future plans?

As with everything, we view those through the lens of the player. The question we ask ourselves is how would it make [the experience] better for our players? We have a few hundred million people playing our games every single month. We serve a very wide demographic and a broad mass of players. So how [many] of those players would be into NFTs in the first place? And how would it make the experience better for those players?

To be honest, we haven’t yet figured out a way. We haven’t seen an opportunity for NFTs to truly, truly make the experience better. Maybe that day will come someday, but so far we haven’t seen it.

What are your thoughts on all the mergers and consolidation we’ve seen in the past year? Is that something that’s healthy for the broader video game industry?

Of course, it’s very interesting for us to see all these big deals being made, but I wouldn’t say it has changed anything about how we approach game making.

There’s going to be consolidation and bigger companies are going to be formed, but there’s going to be some creative people who will then move on from those bigger companies and found smaller companies. That’s how this industry always revolves. So, I personally don’t worry about it.

I’m hopeful, actually. I think the small teams are so crucial to our industry. Oftentimes, that’s where the innovation comes from.