Clash of Clans and the death of companies that fail to build products people love

Build products people love. This not-too-secret recipe for successful companies has become one of the key maxims of the tech world, and yet it continues to be as hard to grasp as it is to implement. I remember my frustration a few years ago in class when the famous investor Fred Wilson responded to a question about the success of start-ups with the maxim “build products people love.” I thought: “this is obvious and doesn’t provide any practical guidance for aspiring entrepreneurs like me.” But he was right.

As I open the game Clash of Clans for the fifth time today, I realize just how it exemplifies the magic that happens when organizations succeed in creating something people love.

Clash of Clans is published by the Finnish developer Supercell and one of the most successful mobile games ever launched. I have been playing this amazing game a few times per day over the past 2 years. I’ve already converted friends, including my girlfriend, into die-hard players. A few weeks ago I was playing the game in a restaurant in Bali, Indonesia, when a waiter paused and asked, “CoC?” It turned out the restaurant’s entire staff played it too.

We’re not alone. Clash of Clans’s metrics are astonishing: 30M+ daily active players, $1.5–2M revenue per day (yes, per day!), along with the most watched Super Bowl ad in 2015. Not only that, the game hasn’t even reached its prime yet as most metrics continue to improve from 2014 to 2015.

Clearly they are onto something.

Why do players love it so much? Here is my take:

  • Simplicity: Supercell accomplished an incredibly difficult feat of distilling the main elements of a strategy game into a simple mobile experience. I grew up playing classics like Warcraft and Age of Empires, which were fun but fairly complex, requiring a big screen, mouse, and keyboard. CoC offers the same fun gameplay within the constraints of mobile. For example, each troop moves automatically following a specific logic, which eliminates the need of moving individual troops using the mouse.
  • Game mechanics: CoC excels in using freemium mechanics to keep users engaged: scarcity via time restrictions, small loops tied to long-term goals, guided tutorials with increasing complexity, and ability to buy perks using real money. This well-designed and well-tested logic keeps users engaged (or addicted).
  • User-generated environment: No two battles are the same due to the diversity in user-generated base designs and predictable battle logic. This guarantees that the game doesn’t get boring and there are infinite new challenges.
  • Community: The game has strong social elements that increase engagement. Players are incentivized to join groups (clans) and collaborate. Users help one another with tips and troops, and team up to battle other clans in “Clan Wars.” I’ve seen clans of people with different associations: country, interest (e.g., Star Wars), co-workers, friends, etc. Supercell also fosters communities beyond the game. A quick look at its website shows a vast collection of user-generated content. Finally, there are supporting websites where people share tips, like Clash Clans Builder and Clash of Clans Wiki.

The success of a product loved by customers can transcend its original category. Supercell seems to be aware of this and has been releasing short animation commercials featuring Clash of Clans characters. One example can be seen below:

Recently, the company brought it to the next level and hired Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Waltz to star in short videos for the “True Tales of Clash Achievery” campaign. These are stories inspired by CoC battles, which show the companies’ attempt to amplify the game’s reach.

This is not be an unprecedented move in the gaming industry. Rovio, the publisher of Angry Birds, one of the most successful games of the last years, is using a similar strategy. They’ve created a theme parks in different locations and are working on a film that will feature the famous birds.

Angry Birds theme park in Tampere, Finland

Also, Warcraft, which can be considered Clash of Clans's ancestor, will soon be a movie, to be released the summer of 2016.

The success of Clash of Clans allows Supercell to expand the brand by creating animation movies and merchandising the game.

Clash of Clans started as a simple mobile game and has achieved massive traction. They built an app in which millions of customers spend a lot of time and money. The game has shown how a single product that delights customers can create value for all stakeholders and create brand that expands beyond its original category.

Why does this matter? Because we’re living in an era when companies that delight, like Supercell, will crush the ones that don’t.

Most consumer brands, sometimes entire industries, still don’t seem to understand the value of building products people love. Think about traditional industries, such as car rental, banks, airlines, telecom, insurance… Most players (if not all) are less interested in building products people love than in keeping their dominant position and profitability.

This is legacy from a time when when customer didn’t have choice, when few or no substitutes existed. As starting a company required massive sums of capital, incumbents used their quasi-monopolistic powers to dictate terms. Why provide a better experience if customers have to buy the product anyway?

The good news is that technology enables entrepreneurs to build companies that challenge the incumbents by offering better solutions for customers. The implication for other companies is clear: build something people love, or die.

In the meantime, I’ll keep playing Clash of Clans, evolving my base, and mastering my skills. I’m looking forward to upgrading my Town Hall and maybe watching a movie featuring my favorite troops!

Co-founder & CEO@Tint, HBS MBA’13, #insurtech advocate, entrepreneurship & travel fanatic

Co-founder & CEO@Tint, HBS MBA’13, #insurtech advocate, entrepreneurship & travel fanatic