Games First Helsinki 2023: exclusive highlights and insights


Supercell’s invite-only event Games First returned last week, for the first time since 2018. If you weren’t there, here’s what you missed:

First up, Supercell big boss Ilkka Paananen welcomed attendees back to the event, and stressed the importance of community within Finnish game development.

He also paid tribute to the early success of the fellow Finns at Angry Birds maker Rovio, who he said made the path easier for Supercell to raise capital when it was starting out.

“The Finnish gaming industry became very, very competitive on a global scale through collaboration,” he said, and urged Finns to continue to work together and ‘pay it forward’.

Charmie Kim: Beatstar’s lessons in hybridcasual

Space Ape’s Charmie Kim was next with a talk about how her Beatstar team came to release what is now “by far Space Ape’s biggest game”.

Launched in September 2021, Beatstar now has over 50m installs and has earned $120m in revenue, said Kim, who has worked on the game for five years, and through multiple iterations.

She describes hybridcasual as the “I want my cake and I want to eat it too” approach to game-making; the developer acquires players cheaply and at great volume, but the game also has long-term monetisation through IAP.

“Content is retention”, said Kim, who stressed the importance picking a core game mechanic that can easily be remixed and reworked to generate a treadmill of content for the hungriest players: “Ask not what your content can do for your systems, but ask what your systems can do for your content”.

Beatstar has not quite achieved the ‘have your cake and eat it’ ideal of hybridcasual, however. Kim said that while yes, in-game ads have doubled the game’s revenue, Beatstar did not achieve the goal of notably cheaper UA.

The players Beatstar attracts tend to be younger and less inclined to pay through IAP, said Kim. So the team placed incentivised ads in the game’s shop to enable these players to watch as many ads as they want to get rewards.

Kim also said that the Beatstar team had segmented the playerbase as much as it could, keeping the different IAP and in-game ad economies as separate as possible.

Referencing Apple’s privacy policies and the economic downturn, Kim concluded that tougher market conditions in free-to-play make the current climate ripe for new ideas: “I think there is more pessimism in mobile free-to-play than ever, but I think it’s also a cause for invention,” said Kim.

“The hybridcasual space is just rife with invention right now, and perhaps this could help guide us into a more stable future.”

Stuart McGaw and Eino Joas: How to be creative with a decade-old game

Two Clash of Clans veterans were next up to discuss how to keep development on the seminal builder feeling fresh and interesting.

“I think we work in quite a special way in the Clash team,” said Clash of Clans game lead Stuart McGaw. “The whole team – everyone that works in development, operations, marketing – we take ideas from everybody because we’ve had some of our best ideas from people that have traditionally non-development backgrounds.”

Ideas that work their way into the game are often just things the game team thinks are fun and unexpected. McGaw said that the dubstep-soundtracked Party Wizard character came from a team gathering to watch Eurovision, for example.

A new re-engagement experience, which was functional but “incredibly boring”, eventually turned into an entirely new storyline for returning players, too: “I have no idea if it works better than the dry version but it was a hell of a lot more fun,” said McGaw.

He also discussed how he is growing his team. “We don’t want to only hire people who like Clash – it might actually be slightly better if we don’t,” said McGaw. “I think it’s a very dangerous thing for a live game to only hire fans…you just alienate more casual kinds of players and then you go into this death spiral where your game’s getting more and more hardcore and the game’s getting more and more hardcore…that’s a dangerous habit.”

McGaw rounded out the session by urging game-makers to “Embrace messiness in games” to keep the work exciting and dynamic.

See also: our interview with McGaw from March, in which we discuss Clash of Clans’ expanding team.

“Clash is incredibly messy as a game,” he said. “There are all these bits that are inelegant and that I look at as a game developer and I’m like…uurgh. But players don’t give a shit…players are having fun and some of those dangling loose ends eventually spark new things – you’ve got to just roll with them.”

“The most important thing is to make something that lasts, not to create a beautiful system that makes for a great slide…focusing on this perfect, grand vision from the start is just a route to a dead end.”

“Just accept that you’re going to ship something that can sometimes be a bit shit, but you can come back to make it better and see which bits resonate. Don’t worry about the mess, learn to love and embrace the chaos.”

Inari Bornholm: Get shit done first, get shit good second

In the third talk, Next Games’ Inari Bornholm’s preached pragmatism in prototyping, and outlined three common problems in the game-making process:

– Single-loop learning: focusing on how to make better products, not better processes: “We’re not stopping enough to learn how to build better processes to go faster and better in the longer run,” she said.

– Multirole-ing: people have too much on their plate to be performing appropriately: “I’ve seen a lot of game designer jobs that ask to be fluent in C++ or C sharp or be a master programmer…this is different role. And to me that means you don’t value design as much as you should.”

– Development philosophies: the way prototypes are approached isn’t working: “I think our industry to this day is suffering from survival bias. We tend to look at the gains that succeeded despite having bad processes.”

To fix these problems Bornholm said managers must allow space for teams to fail faster and therefore learn faster. Prototypes should represent the middle of the game rather then the start, too, as the FTUE might get in the way. “You need to figure out your core gameplay before you figure out how your players will approach it,” said Bornholm.

She concluded that prototyping should be functional and aesthetics should come much later – “the uglier the better”. “If you have to spend three years building a prototype, maybe there’s a problem that is bigger than yourself that needs fixing,” she said.

John Romero: Quake: dimensional shift into true 3D

Romero’s talk was a potted history of what happened next after Doom became a global hit and the team at Id started work on Quake.

The origins of the game came from a character called Quake in Dungeons & Dragons, a rare high-level character that Romero and his colleagues coveted.

Originally titled Quake: The Fight for Justice, the game was actually teased through some text in early Id game Commander Keen. “We worked on the prototype for a couple of weeks in January of 1991, and it just was not going to turn out as well as we hoped – the tech was just not there,” said Romero.

Several years and 15 game releases later, the team returned to the project. “The original ideas behind Quake were starting to develop at the end of 1994,” said Romero. “We didn’t have a cohesive vision of the game or how it would play. We didn’t immediately assume that it would be a shooter.”

“What we did have is a knowledge that we would be creating a true 3D world for gameplay to take place in, and our game design ideas began with Quake the character: he had a huge powerful hammer and he could throw it and destroy buildings. And Quake came from a medieval time period, so we already knew the game would take place in the past.”

Working with a whopping 8MB of RAM, Romero described using Quake’s in-house 3D level editor as “incredibly difficult and insane”, and by the time the team had fully committed to the project, they were all burned out – so rather than make a different type of game within the 3D world they had in mind, the easiest thing to do next was just make a FPS.

Nonetheless, his team pushed through crunch, working seven days a week and at least 10 hours a day to finish the game. Around the same time, GT Interactive offered to buy Id Software for $100m, but Romero and team were too tired and focused on finishing the game to consider it properly, so they just rejected the offer.

Answering questions from the crowd, Romero said he has been making a new shooter for around a year and a half, with backing from “a big publisher”. He also said that he believed Half-Life 2 to be the best shooter ever made, and is currently playing Ghost Recon Breakpoint and Metal Gear Solid 5.

Game demos

The day ended with a quick-fire demo session in which developers of all shapes and sizes had two minutes to show off their game to the crowd.

Notable pitches included 100 Lives! from Gamebook Studio, a cartoony life sim with RPG battles; No Surrender Heroes, sci-fi Clash Royale on the blockchain; fun demos of Drive Ahead and Turbo Dismount 2; Ultrahorse’s run-and-gun shooter Project Squad Blast; a Fez-like indie game with a scanning mechanic called Emuurom; and Inescapable from Dreamloop Games, a visual novel about a Love Island-like reality TV show streamed on the dark web.

Arguably most impressive of all, though, were the painfully youthful and prolific students of Aalto University, who pitched several student projects including isometric adventures Timeless and Aris Arcanum, card game Mykola, procgen tower attack game TAG and tabletop role-playing game When All Else Fails I’ll Be There For You.

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