Sent on April 9th 2021.
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The a16z folks recently interviewed Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen in their Clubhouse room. Below is a link to the recording of that conversation.
I wanted to share my highlights from that conversation, where Ilkka shares more about the Supercell culture than ever before.
You have this famous expression of the Least Powerful CEO, can you expand on that? (at 8:15)
What I mean by the Least Powerful CEO: the more decisions the game teams make, the better it is for everybody. And the reason is twofold. First: these teams are closest to the game, and also closest to the players. They should know what’s the best thing to do for their game.
And the other reason is that these decisions are made by the game teams. And there are no approvals required, meaning that decisions get made really quickly. And the execution is much quicker, and also better, in my opinion. So in an ideal world, the game teams would make all the decisions, in which case, I would make no decisions, which I guess would make me the least powerful CEO.
It sounds like you guys actually went into the culture of a “cultural organization” first? (at 11:43)
It is exactly the right understanding. The first meetings that we had the Supercell co-founders were actually quite focused on culture. We went through the Netflix culture deck, slide by slide, and everybody would chime in and say, okay, here are the things that I agree on this slide. And here are the things that I disagree with. We talked so much about like, not just about the type of game we want to build, but probably, even more so, we talked about what type of company we want to build, and what type of culture we want to build.”
It feels like a large part of why your culture works is because you were just phenomenal at recruiting the right people that would thrive in this environment and culture? (at 16:27)
[In the start], we simply asked ourselves who are the best people we’ve ever worked with. And from that group of people, we put together the first six co-founders. And since we all had worked in different companies that had a pretty wide network of people. Then the six of us jointly recruited the next 25 people or so. In most cases, we had worked or we knew somebody who’d worked with those people before and so we knew exactly what we were getting and we knew that these people will be aligned with our values and culture.
Would love to do a deeper dive into what you thought made [a game] work and that decision-making process around that. (at 28:54)
The last three releases have each encountered a lot of skepticism internally. With Boom Beach, I remember one meeting with all the leaders of our game teams. People were really worried about the game and even questioning whether we should release it in the first place. And then the discussion started to get quite heated and I suggested that, Hey let’s do a vote here. Like, how many votes do we get for killing this game? And out of ten leaders of the game teams, nine voted that let’s kill the game. And the only person who said that we shouldn’t kill the game was the leader of the Boom Beach team.
Even if it would be the right business decision [to kill the game] it definitely would be the wrong decision from a cultural point of view. If we now decide to kill Boom Beach, after that we can’t say that Supercell is all about independent teams. It actually doesn’t matter to us if it’s a right or wrong decision, from a business point of view, because it’s going be the right decision from a cultural point of view. No matter what happens. And then of course the Boom Beach team continued their work and released this really successful game.
What was the process by which you’ve been able to [find success in games]? Not once, but multiple times? (at 35:52)
It’s really important to understand that Supercell as a company, we don’t greenlight game ideas. We green light teams. That’s really is the only decision point that we have. Can this team exist within Supercell? If the answer is yes, then, as I said, that team is completely free to build whatever game they want.
The only instance that can decide to kill a game, it’s the team itself. That decision has never come and it won’t ever come come from me. Because I trust our teams.
What are target metrics that you typically look for? The D1, D7, D30 retention metrics? Curious if there’s an internal set of benchmarks you aim for? (at 40:59)
Ideally what you’d like to see is Day-30 being around 20%. That would usually tell us that okay now we’re actually are on to something. Something that can actually last for a long time.
Who are the best one or two people that you’ve hired? And how could you tell that they were awesome? (at 48:19)
One of our rules that we use in hiring is that every new person that we hire must raise this imaginary kind of average quality of people we have.
What makes somebody successful at Supercell is that they must have this entrepreneurial mindset. You have to be proactive. We have a saying that if you need a boss to tell you what to do, then Supercell probably isn’t your place.
If you had to build a new company from scratch, knowing all of the lessons that you’ve learned from your time at Supercell, how would you go about it differently? (at 57:54)
If I had to do it again… the thing that I wouldn’t change is that it’s all about the people on the team, I would just relentlessly focus on that.
Today, like the market is so crowded, they have all kinds of amazing products and games, but you just have to build something that feels very, very different. I feel that lots of people are sort of looking at the top-grossing charts and the trends. If something is already on the top 10 grossing charts then if you’re just trying to build a better version of what already exists… I haven’t really seen that work. I think it’s always the people who will try something new, and bring something that is very different, that has a chance of becoming a hit.
Listen to the full conversation by going here.
🎙 Tower of Want
I recently invited Ethan Levy from N3twork back on the show, to talk about his concept called the “Tower of Want”. The concept of “Tower of Want” is something that Ethan created some six years ago, to help free-to-play game designers to create long-term goals, through understanding the short-term and long-term loops and player motivations that would drive a successful free-to-play game.
How to apply the Tower of Want
Here’s a snippet from the episode.
Joakim: As an investor, I observe game developers making design decisions and working on concepts, with often having lots of focus on the gameplay that the player will face in the first week of the game. I often see the core loop becoming old quite quickly. I remember that the concept of Tower of Want really emphasized the way that players “graduate” from one loop to the next, as they play a game for weeks, months, and years.
Ethan: Yeah, exactly. I was looking at one of those core loops in a deck years ago that I came up with the idea for the Tower of Want. I was talking to a dev, they were explaining their core loop to me and it was telling me nothing that mattered. Sort of like I felt in that deck we looked at. It didn’t capture the long-term motivation for the player, or explain how the game was going to create desire, and therefore how it was going to retain players for years and monetize them.
Players want to get to a certain place to get to do the next thing. I’ve talked about this, that players want to something to beat harder content. Then they graduate to the next level.
This is an example from Ethan’s presentation from 2015.
I want to:
- survive as long as possible, so that I can
- enchant my heroes’ gear, so that I can
- complete the raid on normal daily, so that I can
- enchant my heroes gear, so that I can
- earn even more coins in Hard mode, so that I can
- enchant my heroes gear, so that I can
- complete Hard mode daily, so that I can
- enchant my heroes’ gear, so that I can etc. etc.
I’m giving an example from my favorite mobile game of all time, Marvel: Contest of Champions.
I want to:
- collect a 2-star team of champions, so that I can
- collect my first 3-star champions from Arena mode, so that I can
- beat the monthly event, so that I can
- collect more 3-star champions, so that I can
- create a strong group of 3-star champions, so that I can
- participate in Alliance events, so that I can
- complete the story mode Act 3, so that I can etc. etc.
If you’re working on a game, try to think about what your games’ tower of want would look like and how could you create more levels of interesting content for players to experience in the elder game.
📃 Articles worth reading
+ 7 Tips For Successful Video Game Prototyping — “Prototyping serves as a point at which early ideas and concepts can be crystallized, pivoting the process of game design into the production pipeline phase. And while many design changes will likely be implemented after prototyping concludes, it can be powerful in defining your final product.”
+ Two Worlds of Venture — “The notion that some founders raise money more easily than others is not a new phenomenon in and of itself. Fundamentally, if you are not able to close an investor (whether they’re an institutional fund or an individual angel investor) there is only one reason: they don’t trust you yet, and they don’t believe that you will build a venture-scale company. This is the objection that you have to overcome.”
+ Billionaires Build — “A big company can to some extent force unsuitable products on unwilling customers, but a startup doesn’t have the power to do that. A startup must sing for its supper, by making things that genuinely delight its customers. Otherwise it will never get off the ground.”
💬 Quote I’ve Been Thinking About
“Listen, then make up your own mind.” — Gay Talese
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That’s all for this week! I hope to see you next week! 🙂