Interview: Inside Rovio London

Interview: Inside Rovio London

By Will Freeman

April 10th 2017 at 4:00PM

A gaming giant has come to roost in the UK capital and it is establishing a place where games developers may find themselves working alongside magicians, as Will Freeman finds out

Angry Birds creator Rovio opening a new studio in London marks a significant move for the developer, publisher and icon of mobile gaming.

It is Rovio’s only team based outside of the Nordics. The core team is still being assembled, under the guidance of Mark Sorrell, head of London Studio and he is currently full of enthusiasm about the thrill of tackling what he calls an ‘exciting problem’.

That ‘problem’ is the challenge of building a thriving mobile MMO. But Rovio’s move from the Nordics isn’t only about tackling a new genre. It is equally about talent. For Rovio, London not only provides a rich pool of local talent, but also a globally appealing destination for skilled games makers from across the world.

“The core reason for opening outside the Nordics at all – rather than specifically London – is because Rovio employs 10 per cent of everybody who works in the games industry in Finland,” Sorrell offers. “So while we absolutely have no desire to grow here really very quickly, it’s just a case of wanting to have extraordinarily good people, and extraordinarily good teams. And there’s ultimately a limit of what is possible, whether you’re in Helsinki or indeed Stockholm.”

I’d love to hire a magician. I think it would be fantastic to hire anybody who has done any kind of magic

Mark Sorrell 

LEAVING THE NEST

Rovio’s various studios continue working on a wide spread of gaming forms. And it is London, Sorrell believes, that will tackle projects that are least typical of Rovio’s output.

“Our three Espoo studios are covering genres that we at Rovio are very comfortable with,” Sorrel confirms. “Those are genres I think we understand – we understand the market and the product there, and they are something of a bedrock of the company at the moment.”

Rovio’s Espoo Battle Studio is working on original IP mid-core PvP releases, such as the on-going Battle Bay. It’s an example, Sorrell says, of Rovio tackling a genre that is not absolutely characteristic of the wider company’s background. And by contrast, what is underway in London will be even less typical.

“Perhaps the very furthest away from the bedrock of what Rovio games are is us,” he suggests. “Here in London we’re working on MMOs, which is something we at Rovio obviously haven’t done before. And it’s non- Angry Birds, specifically. So we’re stepping away from the core there too. That’s not to say that what we make won’t be very identifiably Rovio when it comes out. That’s absolutely one of our aims.”

THE CHEWY PROBLEM

Rovio London hopes to have a playable game available in 2019 and, beyond that detail, the London team is currently intently avoiding a commitment to exactly what form the game will take; something of a distinct creative decision.

“We felt it was important, if we were opening a studio, to make sure that it had really exciting, chewy problems to explore,” says Sorrell. “And the mobile MMO sounded like a great problem for us.” 

It’s a challenge that’s going to need a good investment of time, but it is the scale of the challenge of delivering a truly popular mobile MMO that fills Sorrell with excitement.

“Exactly what that game will be is not my job to work out, to be frank,” he states. “I say that at the moment I’m hiring the team that will hire the team that will make the game. So that’s what’s happening now. It’s my job to provide direction, and it’s certainly my job to say what we’re not making. But it’s definitely not my job
to say what we are making. It’s no good hiring really good people and then saying ‘do exactly this’. We want to say to those people ‘we have this problem, and here’s the context.”

With all this talk of hiring, it’s worth asking an important question. Why should a developer look at a position at Rovio London?

“It’s a chance to solve a hard problem,” Sorrel responds. “It’s a chance to do something difficult. We are keeping it small, for now. We’re planning eight people year one, including me, and then 20 in year two. We’re might grow a little more, but until we have a game out I can’t imagine us getting much bigger.”

The studio is equally focused on employing in the spirit of diversity. Importantly, the definition of diversity at Rovio London is – well – diverse.

“I’m extremely, extremely conscious of having a diverse group of people, with different backgrounds and different experiences, both in terms of life experiences and professional experiences,” confirms Sorrel.

He is keen to foster diversity in the traditional sense, certainly, but the studio head is equally keen to employ from a broad range of professions and skill sets.

“Diversity is that across your team, you want to have a wide variety of people,” Sorrel says. “It’s not about individuals being diverse themselves. Across the team, I think I’d be crazy if I didn’t want to have at least 50 per cent – for instance – of them being experienced in making games. 

“But we’d be equally mad if we didn’t want people who have ever done it before. Those people can suggest to us those completely crazy things nobody has done before. How many of those ideas and how much of that thinking makes it into a game is not really the point. It’s about having people that are open eyed, have never done this before, and is equally as valuable to making an amazing project.

“I’d love to have an architect. I’d love to hire a magician too. A magician’s top of my list,” he reveals, pointing to the skill of misdirection as particularly relevant to crafting games. “I think it would be fantastic to hire anybody who has done any kind of magic. I think we’d get a lot from a stand-up comedian too. I think there’s a lot that they could teach about weird things. I’m thinking about how somebody in fashion marketing or a supermarket designer could help us too. There’s loads of roles I’d like to bring here.”

Sorrell’s commitment to opening up the skill set of games making is invigorating and likely to be hugely enticing, both to developers and those from unrelated fields.

LIBERATING NICHES

That diverse team will work on shaping Rovio’s MMO; a process Sorrell says will be guided by considering how to take niche genres to mass audiences. Blizzard sets an example, Sorrell believes, that Rovio London can build on.

“It’s definitely true of this studio that we’re interested in ‘de-nicheing’,” Sorrel offers. “It’s the idea of taking something fantastic and familiar to a small group of people, and bringing it to a much, much larger audience. I think we look up to Blizzard, because they’ve done this successfully.

“We have to ask what the core experience of a genre is, and what it really means. We want to give that to a wider audience.”

For Sorrell, the appeal of joining Rovio London was this de-nicheing process, and the challenge of exploring what a new game should be – and what it shouldn’t be.

It may be some time before we see even a glimpse of what the studio’s game will be, but one thing is certain. It is likely to be inspired by a very distinct team make-up. As a starting point, that’s an encouraging sign.