Finnish gaming: beyond Angry Birds

From Angry Birds to Max Payne and Clash of Clans, Finland has a knack of producing blockbuster video games. With the industry set to be worth NOK11bn in the next decade, we ask how a small country became such a major player

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2013)

For a while last year, a small Finnish company called Supercell became the most successful mobile game developer on the planet. Having only formed in 2010, in November 2012 it generated more revenue from its mobile games than American company Electronic Arts (EA). Not bad given that EA currently produces 958 iOS mobile games, while Supercell produces just the two – empire-builder Clash of Clansand farm sim Hay Day, both only for tablets.

While regular market leader EA narrowly bumped Supercell into second place in the most recent figures, Clash of Clans was still the world’s top game by monthly revenue. And though the Finnish company refuse to give us exact figures, we understand that it has been making up to US$1 million a day for its two mega-hits.

“We remember last year when our games were one and two in the charts,” says Supercell spokesperson Heini Visander. “We were in awe – we’re just a small game developer from Finland.”

There are echoes of Finland’s other great video games success – Rovio’s Angry Birds, which was launched by a company of ten people in 2009 and has now been downloaded more than a billion times, making it the most successful mobile game ever. Rovio now employs 540 people, while Supercell is still a wilfully small 85 people. “Angry Birds encouraged us that Finns can aim higher,” says Visander. “And other companies are getting the same message.”

Indeed, Supercell and Rovio are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that boasts 150 video game companies and where the industry produces more wealth per head of population than any other country bar Iceland, which only has 320,000 people.

“It’s boom time for video games here,” says KooPee Hiltunen, the director of Neogames, a non-profit organisation that supports the industry in Finland. “Finland has always had a lot of good game developers. What’s changing now is that the outside world has started taking notice of Finnish games.”

Hiltunen joined Neogames in 2003 and is, according to everyone I speak to, the leading authority on Finland’s games industry. We meet for coffee in central Helsinki along with Neogames coordinator Suvi Latva. Together the pair could almost be something dreamed up by Stieg Larsson – him all leather jacket and straight-talk; her, more bubbly, with a close-cropped short back and sides.

The pair tell me that while the Finnish games industry currently turns over €250m (NOK1.8bn) a year, it’s expected to leap to €1.49bn (NOK11bn) a year by 2020. “A lot of optimists we talk to say we might hit a €1.5 billion turnover sooner than that,” says Hiltunen. “I’d be amazed if we don’t see more big success stories like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans over the next few years.”

International investors and companies seem to be thinking that, too. Not only has US$73m (NOK403m) been invested in the industry in the past two years, but major players have come to Helsinki: Electronic Arts opened a studio here last year, as did game technology company Unity. Ubisoft, the third-largest game publisher in the world, bought Finnish company RedLynx in 2011, the same year that Disney bought Rocket Pack, a local company that makes online games for PCs.

The big question is why here, in a country of barely five million? “It’s hard to say why exactly, but what is true is that since the 1980s there’s been a really big demoscene in Finland,” says Hiltunen. Demoscene, he explains, is basically a computer-art subculture of recreational developers who gather to show off their skills, often at events and conferences. Finland’s Assembly demoscene parties, which have been going since 1992 and last summer drew 5,500 people, are renowned the world over as a hotbed of video game talent. “A lot of the early pioneers of the industry started at these events,” says Hiltunen.

One of Finland’s first major successes was Max Payne, a third-person shooter that has sold more than 7.5 million copies since the series started in 2001. Its makers, Remedy Entertainment, who also make the Alan Wake series, are very much a demoscene company. Four of Remedy’s founders were part of Future Crew, one of Finland’s most prominent demo crews in the early 1990s.

Rovio started in a similar way in 2003, when three students at the Helsinki University of Technology met at an Assembly game-development competition sponsored by Nokia and HP. The success of Niklas Hed, Jarno Väkeväinen and Kim Dikert’s winning creation, a real-time multiplayer game called King of the Cabbage World, encouraged them to set up their own company.

Rovio’s beginnings hint at another reason Finland is getting ahead, especially when it comes to mobile games.

Though traditional console companies such as Remedy are still doing well, around 80 per cent of Finland’s game companies see mobile – phones and tablets – as their primary platform, compared to around 50 per cent elsewhere in the world. “There are a few for that,” says Hiltunen. “Finnish company Nokia has been important, of course, because a lot of people here became interested in mobile technology and that culture became ingrained.”

More important, he says, is the fact that mobile games play into the hands of Finland’s many small start-ups. “Mobile games are different to console games because you can produce them in a few months, whereas big console titles often take years and lots of money to develop. The App Store has made things democratic – it means Finnish companies can compete against the world, and if the game’s good enough it will be a success. Finnish companies are often small and agile, and they can react quickly.”

The success of the likes of the Supercell titles has also helped inspire others to join the industry. While five years ago there was nowhere official to learn video-game development, 10 Finnish universities now offer game-development courses. “Traditional industries like forestry have faded out in Finland,” says Ville Heijari, Rovio’s senior vice president of marketing, ” so education facilities have started to think, ‘What are people going to do now?'”

Heijari welcomes the fresh competition. “There is a batch of companies coming up and any one of them can be significant. It’s good news and will fuel the industry.” He’s wary, though, about predicting the next Angry Birds. “We’re a bad example in a way, because Angry Birds is a bit of an outlier. Most developers are ecstatic to get two million people playing their games.”

Both Heijari and Hiltunen agree that diversity in the industry is good news. “We don’t want one giant company,” says Hiltunen.

“We want a thriving ecosystem. Of course, some of them will fail, but often the biggest success stories here are run by people who are on their second or third company. In Finnish, we call it the teachings of Siberia: a clever guy who fails once won’t do it twice.”

What’s clear when spending even a little time with game developers in Helsinki is that everyone seems to know everyone. The Finnish chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is one of the biggest in the world, and organises regular friendly meetups. Everyone seems genuine when they say there’s support rather than competition between the various companies. Hiltunen says: “Finland is a small place. It’s great for sharing information and inspiring each other, but the challenge is finding enough new people – the industry’s growing so fast that we need 200-400 new employees a year.”

At least you can see why young people might find a career in video games appealing. Supercell’s Visander describes her company as “the company of our dreams”, talking not just about the flat management structure and lack of bureacracy, but the adult-sized ball pit next to her desk. “We’re pretty nerdy,” she admits, though all of Finland’s game companies seem like good fun. RedLynx, a major game developer we visited, has a Fight Club meeting room with a soft mat and Mexican wrestling masks. And how bad can any career be with job titles like video-games tester?

Hiltunen, like everyone I speak to, seems convinced that the video-game industry in Finland is only set to grow – having met a few different companies, it’s hard to disagree. In this corner of the world at least, the geeks appear to be inheriting the earth.

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