Supercell’s Ilkka Paananen and King’s Sebastian Knutsson on breakthroughs, mistakes and more

 

It’s fair to say things have gone pretty well for King cofounder Sebastian Knutsson and Supercell cofounder Ilkka Paananen over the years. 

And yet there are still things both execs would have done differently in the ten years since Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans launched. 

In an informal chat as part of Index Ventures’ recent gaming summit, they talked through the origins of their respective companies, how King and Supercell changed as they grew, and the mistakes made along the way. 

You can watch the video in full below, or read on for some selected highlights.

King were “pissed off” at Apple when Candy Crush Saga launched, says Knutsson:

“We tried to get Apple excited about it. Everybody said you had to rely on Apple promoting your game, it was the only way to grow in the market. And Apple didn’t give us much love when we launched the game. We were hoping that we’d get a big promotion but we got nothing, we were sort of pissed off.”

Paananen recalls that staying iOS exclusive to improve Hay Day and Clash of Clans, rather than focusing on launching on Android, was “one of the toughest choices we made as a company” in the early years:

“We believed so much in this value of focus, and we felt that if now we bring these games to Android that will slow down the development of the games. It took a lot of patience and lots of discussions to really stay laser-focused on iOS and to perfect the game as fast as we could on that platform.”

“Then it got even tougher because of course all these copycats started to emerge on the Android platform, and here we were just working on the iOS game. And lots of people probably thought: ‘Oh these Supercell guys are letting other people eat their lunch’. But then finally when we did bring Clash and then later on the other games to Android and I think it was worth the wait.”

Paananen on when Supercell updates a game and upsets fans:

“Every once in a while you do an update that isn’t that successful and that players don’t like. And you definitely will hear from the players. But that passion is fundamental and is a fantastic thing.”

“Of course you would always hope that the feedback is positive but even when it’s super harsh and negative at least there is feedback – it shows that the players really care. Our nightmare is that you put an update out and then there’s no reaction, no positive and no negative. That would show, okay, the players don’t care any more.”

Knutsson says King had the “wrong focus” around the time it went public: 

“When we went to the public markets I think our plan was about launching eight new games per year on top of what we had, which was totally the wrong focus. I think we distracted ourselves with the next project instead of investing enough in the amazing titles we had live. It took a long time to reset that balance.”

Image source: supercell.com.

Paananen reveals how Supercell’s company culture was inspired by Netflix:

“We were super inspired by Netflix culture. We spent hours going through the Netflix culture and what kind of company we wanted to build.”

“It took me almost two years to write down what our values really were and formalise them. So maybe the learnings for other founders are that it’s never too early to start thinking about culture.”

“It sounds a bit corporate or maybe a big company thing to do but I would encourage people to write down and define the values in a pretty detailed way. And involve other people in the process, obviously culture shouldn’t come down from the CEO, it should be something everyone is responsible for. And also revisit that culture, maybe not every month but every year or every two years.”

Knutsson says company culture is about “allowing people to operate independently,” and admits to making mistakes as the company grew:

“If you’re bringing in really senior people you need to let them operate and run and have accountability and control. We’ve gone back and forth as we grew trying to top-manage stuff, and it doesn’t help. You lose some good people that way. Let them do what they do best and don’t interfere too much. If you have the right culture, you can operate very efficiently that way.”

“We did shift our structure because we had to go public. And I think we knew that we were adding more processes and structure that hampered the culture and our way of operating. I think we probably didn’t appreciate the impact that would have longer term and act on it to alleviate that pain.”

“When you know what’s working you have to work pretty hard to protect it as well, because it can slowly deteriorate.”

Image source: king.com/culture

Knutsson on tougher moments and getting through them:

“Some board members didn’t believe in us and told myself and Riccardo [Zacconi, King cofounder] we were too old and we should hire a 20 year-old from the west coast to replace us because we didn’t ‘get’ Facebook. I think we managed to prove them wrong later.”

“As things do go well you start to grow quickly, you might have raised a lot of capital, you sometimes do a lot of things in parallel. And when it’s tougher you need to dare to cut off things that are distracting, whether that’s a project you don’t need currently or getting everybody to rally around the same problems.”

On keeping staff motivated, Paananen says you must hire people who work “in service of the players” for existing, live titles. And for new games, given so few make it to market?

“They need to get job satisfaction from working with great people, and working on a really fun title. It almost needs to be less important what the ultimate outcome is. It’s a cliché but it’s really about enjoying the journey and not so much the result. Easier said than done, of course.”

On bringing Supercell games to new platforms like VR, Paananen says: 

“Never say never. Every once in a while there’s a big platform shift so you’ve got to be humble and stay open-minded. But as we evaluate these other platforms the install base isn’t there.”

Finally, Paananen dodges having to predict what might happen the future – but Knutsson says he thinks there will be “massive play-to-earn games coming in the future that won’t necessarily be built on web3.”