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Ilkka's — May 14, 2020

10 Learning from 10 Years

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, here are 10+1 lessons we've learnt from our first decade

by Ilkka Paananen

Today is Supercell’s 10th birthday, and honestly I can’t believe it. I want to thank all of the Supercellians, partners and, most importantly, players of our games who have gotten us to this point!

When we started the company, we were inspired by companies like Blizzard, Nintendo and Pixar. All of these companies have been able to create successful entertainment products that are loved by millions all over the world. And most importantly, they have been able to do so consistently over decades, in Nintendo’s case, for more than a hundred years!

As this is only our first decade, we still have a long way to go, but that inspiration has remained constant as has our dream: To create games that are played for years and remembered forever.

As we have approached our 10th birthday, we have been reflecting on our past, and all the memorable moments, successes, failures and learnings. To celebrate this milestone, we thought it would be fun to share what we have learned with everyone who is into creating and playing games. We also try as often as possible to give back to the community that has supported us so much throughout the years, and we hope that some of these learnings would be helpful not just for colleagues in our industry but for building teams and companies in other areas, too.

I thought it would be way cooler, though, if these learnings came from all of us, and not just me. So I asked Supercellians to share their learnings over the years. Supercellians from many different teams and offices shared their learnings, and I also added a few myself. :)

Before we get into it, I want to add an important disclaimer. These learnings and the culture that we have built together have worked for us, but that does not necessarily mean they would work for others. A big part of our success has also been luck. So if you’re building your own games company and its culture, don’t build a Supercell culture. Build the culture that works for your company. Having said that, I hope some of our learnings offer perspective and can serve as thought starters as you consider what culture is right for you.

Anyway, let’s get into the learnings!

1. Always play the infinite game (no pun intended :) ).

As I mentioned, our dream is to create games that as many people as possible play for years and that are remembered forever. We want to play what Simon Sinek would call the “infinite game”. We’ve built the entire company around this idea.

And it shows in how our teams, which we often call cells, think about everything they do. They don’t launch games that they do not believe have a realistic shot at reaching our dream. The most important factor that our teams look at when they test our games in beta phase is how long players keep playing the game. That’s ultimately all our teams care about, as evidenced by this one comment I got from a Supercellian:

“Retention, retention, retention. Not just early retention (you need to have that too), but always focus on the long term when developing new features for your game.”

This means that we don’t only kill games in beta, we kill good games. Great examples would be Smash Land and more recently Rush Wars - both very polished fun games that received positive feedback and excitement early on. But they weren’t games that people would play for years, so their development teams decided to kill them. They decided that instead of developing their games further, their time is best spent developing a new and better game.

But it does not stop there. Our teams always think about what the right long term call would be for the players and the community. This shows in how they treat game updates, and content creation and community events. The teams try their best not to think about the next quarter or the next year, but about the next decade.

One great example of this is how the Clash of Clans team has thought about their game. The team felt it necessary to pay back the design and technical debt that had accumulated over time, and they did so by prioritizing solutions to some fundamental issues rather than seeking short term impact. It took more than two years for the work to finally bear fruit. That would have never been possible in a culture that is driven by short term (quarterly) goals. Here’s how Clash of Clans’ lead Eino talks about it in this great GDC talk.

2. Great teams make great games. Great individuals do not necessarily make a great team.

In 2010, we founded Supercell on the belief that creating great games is all about having the best people and providing them with the best possible environment to focus on developing the best games. To describe this, we came up with the sentence “best people make the best games”. This was even our very first slide when we raised our first big round of funding.

However, years later, we realized that it is not about having the best individuals/people, but having the best TEAMS. So we decided to change the sentence to reflect that. A small but very important change.

For me personally, the biggest surprise over the last ten years has been how incredibly difficult it is to put together a great team that can release a new hit game. Everything really needs to fall in place:

  • The game needs to match player interest at the exact time it is released.

  • You need to have super talented individuals with very different capabilities and ways of thinking.

  • Most importantly, the individuals need to work very well together in a psychologically safe environment.

This learning has served as the foundation for our culture since the early days. And we are still learning ways to create great teams. Unfortunately, we have not found a silver bullet to building them. At least for us, a lot of it is still trial and error, and then trying to be cautious when making changes to teams that work well.

One very concrete thing that we have learned about forming new teams is to first put a very tight and well functioning core team of, say, 2-4 people together. This makes the problem somewhat easier; it is easier to think about just a handful of people compared to ten. In fact, we often talk about how it all starts from finding just TWO people who work extremely well together. There is complete trust, they can complete each other’s sentences, and at the same time they bring different perspectives and make each other better. Sometimes we call them "magical pairs"! Once you have a solid core team, it is way easier to add people and grow the team. But if you don’t have a solid core, do not add new people to the team!

3. Hire slowly and always raise the bar.

We are lucky to be in a business where the amount of people you have does not necessarily directly correlate to achieving better results. In fact, it can be the contrary.

One of the most valuable lessons that I learned from our first Chairman, Petteri Koponen, was his advice about hiring: when thinking about whether you should hire someone or not, try to imagine the average quality level of the people at your company. Then ask yourself whether the new hire would increase that average or not. Only hire if the average will increase.

Here’s how Supercellians expressed this:

“Working with great people makes everything better. If the team is passionate about their game and knows what they're doing, it will make everything so much easier.”

“For me, the biggest learning might be how crucial it is to hire quality-oriented people and how important it is to have a quality-oriented company culture. When I joined Supercell, one of the things that surprised me the most, in a very positive way, is how every single person in a game team (and I definitely think this happens in non-game teams as well) owns what they're working on. This is key because when people care about this, they of course also care about the general quality of the game, to a degree in which we all care about every single small detail, trying to craft the game and make it something not only cool, but really special for our players.

So what I'd say to other developers is: try to hire quality-oriented people, and most importantly, set the quality bar as high as you can on a company level. When people see day in and out that their colleagues truly care about what they're working on...that's contagious. And it's only going to create a really positive dynamic where people get inspired from others and get the best out of themselves.“

4. Stay as small as possible.

There are also surprising benefits of having small teams that we’ve learned over the years. Often, at least in our case, small teams can actually do better work and higher quality than bigger teams. Or, as one of the Supercellians put it:

“Having less people in a team forces it to focus on what really matters and what brings the biggest impact to the whole company. On the contrary, having larger teams often leads to ‘inventing’ work that only looks useful.”

This focus especially helps us early on in new game development:

“It's obviously clear that with small teams focus is key to making great things. But more specifically, two simple words often help to realign the focus properly, especially in new game development: Gameplay First.

Especially with new games, when in the early stage everything is possible, this guidance has many times helped us prioritize what to do next. Concrete example: there's no need to focus on fancy tools or tech if there's no killer gameplay, because it's a waste of time if gameplay doesn't feel solid (you'll notice rewriting / killing things and the dream about having the best possible focus isn't fulfilled).”

Ten years in, all Supercellians still fit neatly into one frame!

We have also learned that growing teams prematurely increases complexity and makes changing direction much harder. We have a few cases where we had to make the team smaller to get back on track, and in many cases that has worked out.

5. Culture is the sum of everyone’s actions, not a slide deck or something written on a wall.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my favorite book of last year was “What You Do Is Who You Are” by Ben Horowitz. As you would guess from the title, he talks about how culture is defined by actions, not by what you say. I couldn't agree more! I would add that in my experience, culture is defined by the hardest decisions.

In our case some of these decisions include:

  • Killing games that do not live up to our dream of being played for years

  • Saying “no” to interesting ideas because we need to focus, or

  • Making changes to team compositions because things aren’t working out as well as they should.

What makes Supercell special and what I am most proud of is that the vast majority of decisions like these happen in the teams, without anyone outside the team (including me) getting involved.

Here’s how one Supercellian talked about the importance of making changes to team composition if things aren’t working out:

“Game development is a group effort with everyone filling a very important role. If only a single person either isn't pulling their weight or acts in a way that deteriorates the team spirit, this person can bring down the productivity and wellbeing of the whole team...Fixing the dynamics of a team previously handicapped by an individual who wasn't a team player can often release its untapped potential.”

The most important thing written on our walls has been messages from players

Another interesting example of our culture in action: team leads have many times given up their position to someone who they think is better suited for it. This happened in Clash Royale during its early days, in Marketing and, most recently, in Brawl Stars. No one told them to do so. They just did it of their own accord because they thought it was the right thing to do for Supercell. We also have many examples of individuals or entire game teams killing their own projects to move to another game team to help with a game launch.

These are all great examples of Supercellians taking responsibility for our culture. These moments have been a million times more important for our culture than any slide deck or memo could ever be.

Or as one of the Supercellians put it:

“The culture and its fostering need to run thru every fiber of the company from hiring a new person to making day to day decisions, how you talk to your co-workers, how you react to mistakes, how you micromanage (or don’t) and how you allow even seemingly bad decisions to be made.

Even small actions against the culture start to eat it up. It is extremely rare, for example, to hear someone at Supercell belittle someone else’s idea no matter how stupid it might be. I think this in part ensures that people have a very low threshold to bring up improvement suggestions and ideas proactively because you feel that you’re always heard.”

What you do is who you are.

6. Replace control with trust.

Decisions should be made by the people best equipped to make them. We believe that the more decisions the teams make, the better it is for us. This is for two reasons:

Teams are closest to what they do and therefore they should be in the best position to decide what the best course of action is.

If teams can come to a decision on their own without seeking approval from others, they will execute faster and be happier.

For me, the best moments at Supercell have been the ones where something amazing has happened and I have had nothing to do with it and have been the last to hear about it. This is exactly how I would like Supercell to operate: in an ideal world, the teams would make all the decisions which means that I would make none. This is what I mean when I say that my goal is to be the world’s least influential CEO. People think that I am joking when I say that, but I am not.

This is how different Supercellians talked about the value of trust and what it means to them:

“People are more capable than most companies/cultures allow them to be. Most companies are built with hierarchies, processes, and cultures that may teach people, but don’t let them contribute to their max capacity… Supercell has demonstrated that when you remove approvals, processes, hierarchies, and bureaucracies, our people can deliver incredible achievements. That’s fundamentally why we have 5 hit games that have been played by more than a billion unique players, creating experiences that will be remembered for a long time.”

“To me, the most amazing thing is the levels of trust between people in the company. The nature of my work is around anti-fraud, catching cheaters. I would imagine in any company, not only in gaming companies, this is a sensitive topic, but I have been given all the trust that I need to operate.”

“I've been to multiple companies which state that they hire great people and trust them but still have very rigid approval processes and steering groups in place. Supercell for me is the first company where I've noticed what complete trust for people and teams really mean.”

A few Supercellians also pointed out that you should trust others not just inside the company, but also outside: and it effectively means that you give some of that “control” away:

“I feel like the concept of "ownership" is super important, in that the team and members inside the team feel that they are the ones owning the work they do and that they get to decide big things. And I've learned that this is true not just within the team, but to achieve the best possible results you need to give some of that ownership away to your trusted partners (especially in art outsourcing) … if they feel that they are a vital part of something bigger, they will thrive! You also learn to trust others so much more than without giving the ownership away.”

“Build strong partnerships with your vendors and make them feel part of your organisation. Great value in outsourcing comes from trusting the partners, letting them try things out and feel involved in the positive changes in the product.”

Trusting others does not mean that you cannot give constructive criticism. On the contrary, it is everyone’s responsibility both to proactively ask for feedback on their work and also to give feedback on the work of others. Feedback makes ideas better. I also believe that the fact that it is the team that decides what to do with the feedback makes receiving even very critical feedback somewhat easier.

Saying that the team decides is easy when things are going well or everyone agrees on what should be done. It is much harder when that is not the case.

We’ve had numerous examples of these situations. For instance, after 5 months of development and a company playable of Boom Beach, many Supercell founders and game leads did not believe in the game and wanted to kill it. In fact, 9/10 people in a key game lead meeting believed it should be killed. We wondered what we should do. It felt like we were at a crossroads. On one hand, it seemed likely that the right business decision would be to kill the game. On the other hand, if we made that call and overruled what the team wanted to do, that would be the end of our culture of independent teams.

We figured that because culture is more important than short term business outcomes, we should trust the team and let them do what they believe. So that’s what we did. Luckily, the team was right and everyone else was wrong. But, the most important thing here to understand is that I believe we as a company would have made the right call even if the team had been wrong.

Team independence in action during the launch of Boom Beach

Interestingly enough, we’ve been in very similar situations where Supercellians outside the team doubted both Clash Royale and Brawl Stars. I am extremely proud that our company culture has enabled these teams to release these games regardless.

One final learning that is related to trust that I wanted to cover is what I would call our fight against becoming a “reporting culture”. In a “reporting culture”, people do one of these two things: i) they write reports on what they’re doing for others to read, or ii) they read reports from others on what they’re doing. And there is no time left for actual work. This obviously makes no sense. Oftentimes if teams and people just trusted each other this would not need to happen. We have had to remind ourselves of this several times in our history, especially when teams are distant to each other and work in different offices. So in cases where different teams work on things that aren’t related to each other, we prefer them to work independently. Communication is good when we share information that is for the greater benefit of the company, but we’ve learned that it can also be a double edged sword. More is not necessarily always better.

7. Don’t let fear of failure guide what you do. Be bold and try new things!

None of our biggest successes have been obvious at the beginning. In fact, very far from it! We had no idea how big our biggest games could become when we released them. I still remember someone from the original Clash of Clans team telling me a few days before the release that he thinks the game will never be as big as Hay Day (which was already out at that time).

Also, each of our three most recent releases (Boom Beach, Clash Royale and Brawl Stars) have faced considerable scepticism internally in their early days. In the case of Brawl Stars, the game spent a very long time in development and in beta before the team decided to release it. Many Supercellians had mixed feelings about the art style and controls, and even whether Brawl was “a Supercell game” to begin with. But, the team kept working hard to improve the game, making massive changes to the game in beta and launched it after seeing the positive feedback from the community.

In short, I guess we’ve learned over the years that we really do not know much! ;-) Much of what we do is really making educated guesses and ultimately trying things out. One Supercellian put it well:

“No one knows anything! Players are changing, the company is changing, we are changing. Life is like a constant moving target.

When I first arrived at Supercell, I thought the successes were because we had super talented people that knew some secret of how to make hit games. But I have come to realize that instead we just have super talented people that care A LOT about what they do … coupled with the freedom and independence of the company (which is key), this gives those people the best chance to make great things.”

As a related point, the same person continued to talk about how important intuition is and how really the only way to build it is to succeed and also fail (and fail BIG!). And if you are not humble enough, you will not be able to grow your intuition.

“At the end of the day, all we have is our intuition. A good intuition is built from great successes and great failures from our past. It doesn't necessarily give us the answers for the future, but it gives us our best bets! Obviously we have data and graphs to help guide us, but I feel they are there to guide our intuition.

I think it's all about building your intuition and it's a long game. You have to succeed and fail, and the bigger the better.

There is a certain amount of faith and belief you need to have with your intuition. That’s why you have to surround yourself with people that inspire you, encourage you to take those risks and do the crazy things.

You have to be humble and know that you don't know anything, otherwise your intuition becomes stale.”

Building new things and innovating is hard and requires taking risks. By definition, taking big risks means that you will fail more often than you will succeed. If people were afraid to fail, they would not take these risks, and thus there would be no innovation and no hit games. To encourage our people to take risks and fail, we’ve tried to create a culture where failures are not only acceptable, but expected. In fact, we try our best not to think of them as failures, but as learnings.

One of the practical things we do to enforce this is by celebrating the learnings that come from our failures. One of my favorite days at Supercell was the all hands Friday update a few years ago where one of the game leads talked about the learnings from killing a game AND our marketing team shared a retrospective on a failed campaign where we lost a huge amount of money which led to the first negative month in a very long time at Supercell. I was so proud of these people who were brutally honest in front of everyone about what had gone wrong. That ensured that the entire company learned a lot from their experiences. It is these moments that make our culture stronger.

8. Resist the temptation to create processes and rules...even when you have made a mistake!

Humans have a tendency to try to control situations. Most of us feel safer when we feel we are in control. In companies, to make us feel this way, we like to establish rules or processes. This happens particularly after we’ve made a mistake. “Let’s make sure we don't make that mistake again! So here’s a new rule…”

We have found this approach to be problematic on several accounts. First, rules which made sense back in the day usually don’t make sense today, because something has changed since the rule was originally created. Second, sometimes people may have a tendency to do what the process says, not necessarily what makes sense.

As an example, many years ago, we instituted a rule that all new games had three months to get to playable, because we wanted our new games to get to a proof of concept more quickly. Developers then started to game the system by starting earlier without telling anyone to make sure they could get to playable within that time frame. This created an unhealthy environment where developers were trying to get around the “rules” vs focusing on making the best game possible. Also, applying one rule to all games didn’t make sense because some games needed six weeks to get to a playable and others needed six months.

It took us some time to remove this rule and get back to our foundation: trusting that every team will do their best to make the right decision for their game and for Supercell.

9. Traditional goal setting does not work in our culture of independent cells.

An interesting learning that is related to trust is about how we used to set goals for Supercell and how we do it today. Many years ago, we figured that we should set annual goals for Supercell because that is what companies do. So we involved all the Leads in the company, and spent weeks of their time trying to figure out the five most important company-wide goals for the following year. Once we finally had agreed on them, we published them in the beginning of the year.

Well, fast-forward six months to an all hands company meeting. I asked people how they thought we were doing against the goals. In the discussion that followed, it turned out that i) most people could not remember what the goals were and this was because ii) the goals were either not relevant for their particular team or just not relevant overall. And then someone just asked: “Hey, isn’t our goal to just create great games that lots of people play for a long time?” I said: "Well, yes.” And this person continued: “And don’t we believe that we will do this if we have the best teams (cells) working in the best culture?” Me: “Correct.” Him: “So what other goals could there be?” Me: “I don’t know”.

So the learning here for us was that in a very team centric culture like ours, we need to think about goal setting very differently. These days we think that we really have that one goal as a company, which is to build great games that as many people as possible play for years and that are remembered forever. That’s our long term goal. And every year, we try to get closer to this dream within the restrictions set by our short term goals / budgets. These days we simply let the teams set their own goals within this framework, and they in turn tell everyone else what they are. Last year, we presented the team goals in two separate one-hour all hands sessions. We think the biggest value here comes from the fact that it makes teams pause and think about their mid to long term goals. As an added benefit, it is inspiring for everyone around the company to hear what everyone else is planning to do.

10. Write down your values and define your culture (and revise as you learn and evolve as a company).

After all these years where many have heard me talking about how important culture is to Supercell, you will perhaps find it amusing that one of my biggest personal mistakes at Supercell is that it took me too long to actually write down and define our values and culture.

Supercell had six founders and I feel that we all had complete clarity between us six what the culture we wanted to build was all about. But, it took me almost two years and growing to a team of 40 to write the culture down. I didn’t do it sooner partly because putting together a memo or culture deck sounded like a very corporate thing to do, but mostly because I was just so busy doing other stuff (that felt more important and urgent at the time).

What triggered me finally to get on it was a meeting where someone was talking about “responsibility” (one of our values) but clearly had a completely different way to think about it than what I thought we meant by “responsibility” when we founded the company.

This was a huge wake up call for me. So what I did was that I met with every single Supercellian individually, in an effort to figure out what they thought the values were. Then I summarized and wrote them down in a few slides, making sure they were consistent with the company we wanted to build. This was a huge effort, but well worth it. I just wish I had done it when there were only six of us :)

Having learned from this, these days we try to revisit our culture and values every 1-2 years. Our small leadership team of three meets with every single team at Supercell in all of our four offices, and we talk about the culture, and ask our teams to challenge whatever is the latest version of our culture document. I have found this to be a great way to improve our culture and also make sure all recent learnings are included in it.

Another mistake I’ve made regarding documenting culture was my attempt to oversimplify it. At some point, we felt we had too many values and that no one could remember them. So we tried to simplify them to short memorable catch phrases in a slide deck that we tried to make as short as possible. But that led to problems: people interpreted these phrases in different ways and it was not clear what we meant by them. So then we took a step back and in fact wrote a very detailed, old-fashioned memo about the culture. Yes, it takes a bit to read and digest it, but what could possibly be more important than our culture!? The next version of our culture document will also include real stories from Supercell that demonstrates our culture in action. This will hopefully make it even more clear.

Bonus learning: The most important thing is that you enjoy the ride!

And for this last bonus learning, I’m just going to leave you with a quote from another Supercellian. I couldn’t have said it better myself:

“Life is short...enjoy the ride! Find people that inspire you and make you better at what you do and make you a better person. We don't know what we are doing, so it is best to focus on creating a great team and the best possible environment for that team to succeed.”

Ok, that’s it! Congrats if you managed to read this far! We don’t know what the future holds for us, but we are excited that we can now count our years in decades. One thing we do know is that we’ll stay focused on our vision to be the best place to create games. And for us that means continuing our journey on trying to build even better teams and a better culture for these teams to operate in.

Finally, I wanted to thank all of the past and present Supercellians and partners who have gotten us to where we are today on our 10th birthday. And most importantly, I want to thank the players of our games over the years. You continue to inspire us every day! Thank you for enabling us to do what we love to do.

On behalf of everyone at Supercell,