What Supercell’s Hay Day team learned from ten years of updates

 

After ten years and 660 million downloads, Hay Day is still providing a bountiful harvest for Supercell.

It launched worldwide in June 2012 and was an instant hit. And yet it sometimes feels like Hay Day’s successes go a little under the radar – especially after Clash of Clans arrived just two months later in August 2012.

Still, you get the sense the humble team making this very successful, yet relatively low-key game like it that way. Sari Latvala has been at Supercell for a total of 11 years as a game artist, with nine of those on Hay Day. Stephan Demirdjian was the game lead for nine years before moving onto another project, and Camilla Avellar was a game designer on the title for seven years before moving to a different team.

Team Hay Day, left to right: former game lead Stephan Demirdjian, former designer Camilla Avellar and artist Sari Latvala.

Originally codenamed Soil, Hay Day became Supercell’s first global mobile launch after an early pivot at Supercell. The company started out intending to make all of its games multi-platform, but after Gunshine failed to get the traction it wanted, Supercell focused purely on mobile devices. And at the time, farming games had become a phenomenon on Facebook.

“To my understanding the team sat down, looked at the App Store charts and realised there is no farming game,” says former Hay Day game lead Stephan Demirdjian. “And I think it was a relatively straightforward decision to say, hey, there’s an opportunity here. We didn’t know anything about farming games, but we could study them.”

By then, Supercell had already soft launched and killed two mobile titles due to lukewarm performance. But Hay Day was different – it made it through to launch on June 21, a notable day for Finns: Midsummer’s Eve.

“[For Midsummer] people tend to go their summer cottages or away from town,” says artist Sari Latvala. “So it wasn’t maybe the perfect day to launch a new game, because nobody was here!”

Concept artwork from when Hay Day was known as Project Soil.

For weeks after launch, says Latvala, Hay Day staffers were frantically replying to customer tickets from their holiday homes and cottages as the community discovered niggles with the game.

When Demirdjian joined to head up the title, he found a ravenous player base. “I remember that the biggest action points on day one were that we were missing content on the higher levels,” he tells us.

“No-one expected this immediate success. It took most of the team by surprise. In their minds they had planned for enough content but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Players started reaching the endpoint they’d envisioned faster than expected.”

Those first few months and years were a blur of support tickets and additional endgame content production, says Demirdjian. “I think it was like: we have all these action points, let’s try to make everything at once. So it was a little bit more chaotic, maybe, in the early years before we got into a more structured approach.”

This concept art shows Hay Day’s train when the circus comes to town.

As the team settled into a rhythm, it was putting out six to seven updates a year. “We reached more like a proper balance,” says Demirdjian. “That gave us enough time to not only analyse the results that we had with the previous updates, but also allowed us to properly take care of the team as well, their work-life balance, and also allowed enough creative energy to flow in order to prepare for the next update.”

Former Hay Day designer Camilla Avellar says this stream of content was far from standard practice in mobile at the time. “Back then on iPhone and mobile in general, there wasn’t yet this culture of updating,” she tells us. “But before mobile, we were making a game for Facebook and it had that culture already of maintaining, updating, keeping the players coming back for new things, so it flowed from that.”

And yet still players wanted more. Artist Sari Latvala recalls how the the team refined its update strategy over time: “Eventually we figured out that maybe if we narrow down the amount of updates, the end result might be better for the players – the updates are more more balanced and well structured.”

Concept art for Hay’s Day’s duck salon.

Throughout this time, around 2013-2014, the team size is fairly fluid, says Demirdjian. It floats around 13-15 people, briefly rising to 17 people for the Android launch of the game.

There were bumps along the road, too. “Naturally, we didn’t get everything right,” says Demirdjian. “Sometimes things that we envisioned on paper did not work that well.”

“Before The Derby came about, we wanted to test how minor competition could feel in the game,” he continues. “So we introduced a leaderboard, but we had not fully thought through the design aspects of it and basically players were progressing in ways that we didn’t want them to.”

“We actually panicked – and instead of taking a deep breath and discussing it properly we put the game in maintenance and changed something on the fly, which made it even worse than before. So that was one personal learning for me – don’t make any drastic changes or decisions in the moment. Take a deep breath.”

Concept art for a visitor centre feature which never made it into the final game.

The team took those learnings into 2015’s Derby feature. “That changed the game completely,” says Avellar. “It’s a big risk adding competition to a nice, casual farming game. But it really paid off.”

The Derby is a community leaderboard feature that incentivises players to work together in their neighbourhoods to complete a set of weekly tasks. And its effect was not only felt among players – it eased the pressure on the content production team, too.

“A social feature like that can work on its own without us feeling the pressure of always having to provide more and more content,” says Demirdjian. “If it’s a production machine or new crop, players reach it, it’s great, but the appetite for something new after that comes relatively quickly. But with a new social feature, it has its own loop where I think it occupies you for way longer than a simple content update.”

Squirrely concept art.

As the game continued to evolve, it almost had its own spin-off, too. Hay Day Pop layered blast puzzler levels on top of the farming and building the series is known for, and was developed by an entirely different team within Supercell, though of course the two teams would swap plenty of notes. They started work on the game in 2018, it went into soft launch in 2020 but was then closed in February 2021.

Today, just after its tenth anniversary, Latvala says the Hay Day team has “the calmness to focus on making things even better for our players,” and places the most value on polishing and refining the game’s existing systems. Live ops will be an area of development and exploration, she says, but the team will always “keep the core as it is”.

“We’ve matured together with the audience,” adds Demirdjian. “We became even more focused on the very particular things that the community wants from us, so we’ve zeroed in more on those things rather than the wild west of the early years.”