The Supercell Culture

Thomas Bidaux
Sep 6, 2016 · 5 min read

Last night, as part of the BAFTA Games Lecture, Ilkka Paananen, Supercell’s CEO, came and talked about the company culture they have built to cater for a creative environment.

I thought I would share what struck me the most from his presentation. Take a everything with a grain of salt, all my notes are actually my tweets.

Going from top-down to bottom-up

Supercell was founded by entrepreneurs in their second enterprise. A lot of what they established as initial rules come from their first experience (Digital Chocolate), and as a reaction to what they felt didn’t work when they tried to scale up a creative company.

At Digital Chocolate, they had gone for the usual top-down management structure, adding management layers and processes layers as the company grew and the number of projects increased. It also added the usual clutter and slowness coming with theses structures.

With Supercell, starting with ablank slate, they went for what they call the cell structure, and describe very much like a bottom-up structure. The principles are fairly simple:

  • Each game has a dedicated team.
  • The upper management layers are services and resources for the teams, not the other round.
  • All the decisions made about a game are made by the game team. Including whether or not a game is viable and development should continue.
  • Quality is paramount.

How to make it work

The number one thing to get right here is recruitment. The shift of balance in the decision making is not easy. It takes certain kind of individuals to accept and thrive with it.

There is an implicit transparency that is required. All decisions are explained, all numbers are shared, and there is nothing put under the rug. There is also nobody to blame.

Ilkka was both describing a dream scenario, where everyone can weigh in, common sense is the rule, vision is held by the people making the product not a general consensual committee process, but he was also very careful in highlighting the challenges coming from it.

You need teams that work well together, and with a high concentration of talent. You also the teams to be small, as bigger teams would make taking decisions harder.

To that point, the most impressive information in yesterday’s presentation was the size of Supercell. This is a picture of the whole team at the moment:

Supercell Team in 2016

They have 200 persons. Across 4 games that are each making hundred of millions of dollars. That “density” is totally the result from this structure and company culture. And that means that any given game that is being built at Supercell only ever start with 5 people as the core of the team.

One of Ilkka’s very interesting point was how he now sees game development teams: they are like sports team. And you need to build them like sports teams. You may have a few star players, but at the end, having very talented people who know how to work together is more important than any individual’s unique talent.

It also means that Supercell has unique challenges ahead of them when considering their bandwidth. They have recently cancelled this year Clash of Clans event, Clashcon, and that came from the team deciding that their time would be better used working on the game than on the event. this particular example resonated with me, and made wonder how they will want to tackle competitive gaming for their titles, especially Clash Royale which is one of the first title that I believe has potential in that space.

it echoes also in an interesting way with the way Valve operates, where most challenges are trying to be sorted through engineering and highly scalable solutions, but where eSport doesn’t seem to be manageable that way. Valve solved this mostly by limiting its own eSports event in number and by leveraging the leagues and other organisations to develop the competitive scene in parallel. Ilkka’s Q&As session was way too popular for me to be able to squeeze this one in, but I am sure the future will tell anyway.

Failure celebration

Interesting, Ilkka spent a good amount of time talking about their culture of celebrating failures. Part of it seemed to have emerged from the fact that while they inherently all knew that failure was part of the way they work, but even then, failing sucks. By developing a celebration of failures (taking the champagne out when a particularly loved idea or project hit the bin), it makes it easier to swallow. It also means that you can use the celebration to share your experience around the failure. This seemed like something that very much emerged from the culture, and became part of it. I really think company culture develop a lot around a number things built as rituals and this is a very interesting example of that.

Future of Supercell

Ilkka concluded is one hour lecture explaining that they are also exploring ways to expand their culture beyond Supercell and its Helsinki operations. It seemed like at very high level notion for the moment, but there would be an interesting development to see a “Metacell” of multiple Supercells as a development.

My conclusion

Here are my take aways from the lecture:

  • The Supercell company culture model is very much about “density” — what is the best you achieve with the least people.
  • Game Teams are better seen as sports teams, with the cooperation that is implied for a sports team to be successful.
  • There are many creative decisions that are geared by the company culture model. It is very well suited for service based games for one. I am not sure how differently it would need to be set up to make it work for a one-off game experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk. It was honest, refreshing and enlightening. I am sure this is not for everyone, but it is the kind of approach that can make you rethink ideas that entrenched in your habits for no good reasons.

Addentum

Since I wrote my summary, the BAFTA have released the audio of the talk. I recommend you to listen to it:

Thomas Bidaux

Written by

Online game consultant, crowd funding enthusiast. And not a werewolf... Promised.

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