World's greatest: Supercell on being a leader, not a follower

World's greatest: Supercell on being a leader, not a follower
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

December 14th 2015 at 3:33PM

The Clash of Clans developer was crowned the world’s most successful studio in this year’s Develop 100. We speak to CEO Ilkka Paananen about Supercell’s rise to power

Earlier today, we published the tenth anniversary edition of the Develop 100, our global ranking of the world’s greatest developers.

This year, we compiled our most comprehensive list to date, encompassing mobile developers as well as the teams behind triple-A console blockbusters. And, in a result that is perhaps truly indicative of how the games market is changing, the big winner was Finnish mobile studio Supercell.

The company was propelled to the top of our list thanks to Hay Day, Boom Beach and, of course, the world-conquering Clash of Clans. So how does it feel to be ranked as the world’s most successful games developer?

“It's a huge honour,” says CEO Ilkka Paananen (pictured). “Gaming is bigger than ever and the games development industry is probably in the best shape it's ever been, with so many great studios making fantastic games all the time.

“The group of us who founded Supercell had the pretty simple idea that the best people make the best games, and that you allow them to do that by giving them complete responsibility and staying out of the way. I think that's really core to the success we've been able to achieve - You have to allow creative people to follow their own vision, even if it doesn’t work out every time.

“And, of course, there's a ton of luck involved.”

When we interviewed Paananen two years ago, fresh from significant investment from Japanese mobile gaming giant GungHo, he said his dream for the studio was for it to become a global games company. Topping our list of the world’s most successful developers is a start, but how close does he feel he is to achieving this?

“It's a goal you can never 100 per cent achieve,” he says. “There's always more players we can reach and more we can do to keep our long-term players engaged. And we're always working on new games that we hold to the same standards.

“We wanted to become a global games company because we want to make games that will be played by as many people as possible for as long possible – that's the real goal of the company. There's definitely more we want to do.”

There's always more players we can reach and more we can do to keep our long-term players engaged. And we're always working on new games that we hold to the same standards.

The central pillar to the studio’s success is unarguably Clash of Clans. The mobile strategy game has managed to not only attract but also retain an active community from all over the world in a way that many titles – including countless copycats – have failed to do.

The secret, according to Supercell’s CEO, is treating the game’s launch as the beginning rather than the end goal: “The Clash team are constantly working on ways they can improve and deepen the game – that's why it looks very different today from the game that launched three years ago.

“I think our players like that and also appreciate the fact that their feedback can have an impact on what these changes are,” he adds. “There is a great community amongst Clash players and we're always listening to them and asking what they want from the game.”

Far from being frustrated or threatened by the number of apps that lift Clash of Clans mechanics wholesale in an attempt to recreate the game’s success, Paananen actually finds the flood of clones on the market as “very flattering”, although he prefers not to dwell too much on any rival games.

“One lesson I've learned is that it can be very distracting to think about competitors and it often only leads to you be a follower instead of a leader,” he says. “If you want to have a chance to become a leader, you should stick to your own vision and what you want to do.

“So following this thinking, at Supercell we try to focus on what we want to do, which is to develop great games that people want to play for years, rather than what anyone else is doing." 

Business is Booming

Earlier this year, Supercell released its latest hit Boom Beach. Rather than targeting the combat strategy genre and trying to work the same magic on it as with Clash of Clans, the game began more as a passion project. The concept was something that “genuinely excited” the team, who insisted that Paananen let them create it.

The Supercell boss actually cites the game’s subsequent success as proof of how well the studio’s structure works: teams operating as independent cells with the freedom to pursue whatever new game projects inspire them. These cells are also responsible for building on that success and maintaining it in future years.

“You'd really have to ask the teams in charge of Clash, Hay Day and Boom Beach what they have planned for 2016 because they have total control and responsibility over their games,” Paananen explains. “My job is just to support them in doing that. 

“One thing I do know is that all our game teams are building games for the long-term and, if the way they've expanded the games over the past few years is anything to go by, there'll be a lot more to come from all of our titles in 2016.”

He teases that Supercell is constantly working on new game ideas, but won’t share anything until they know that have something really special. However, it’s a safe bet that a fresh new franchise will emerge from the studio before long.

Of course, many potential new Supercell IPs may be scrapped between now and the launch of the studio’s next big hit. The developer has previously said it is more than willing to abandon game concepts it doesn’t think as successful – even if some might view this as a waste of time and resources.

At Supercell our teams are in control of this decision and if they think it's the right thing to do then I always back them 100 per cent.

“I think the biggest waste of time and resources is to continue developing a game when everyone involved doesn't believe it can be a success,” says Paananen. |If the team think that the best thing is to kill the game and start again, then that's not a waste of anything - it's an opportunity to learn and get better.

“At Supercell our teams are in control of this decision and if they think it's the right thing to do then I always back them 100 per cent. Our only goal has always been simply to make games that people want to play for years and years. And that's going to continue being our goal in the future. 

“It's about listening to our players; I can't tell you exactly what that will look like in five or ten years' time, but I do know that we'll still be here making games.”

So what advice does Paananen have for developers who hope one day to surpass Supercell’s success, not to mention find a place in future iterations of the Develop 100?

“I think one of the most common mistakes people can make is to get too wrapped-up in what other companies are doing,” he says. “The most important thing for a games developer, or any business for that matter, is to have a vision and stick with it.

“If you start thinking about what everyone else is doing then you can easily become a follower rather than a leader and you won't be successful trying to be somebody else. You need to believe in what you're doing and keep working to make it happen.”

You can read the full Develop 100 for free in your browser here.