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Some gaming CEOs take their company cultures very seriously.
Rob Pardo, the founder of Bonfire Studios, has been around the business enough to know about building cultures at different game studios. Having filled prominent roles at Blizzard, he is also no stranger to the GamesBeat Summit, having participated in a panel on a similar topic back in 2019.
This time, he interviewed Ilkka Paananen, one of the founders of Supercell, creators of hit mobile games like Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Hay Day, Brawl Stars, and Boom Beach.
It starts with the name. Supercell’s philosophy is that teams must be independent, work in small cells, and operate free from control in order to do their best creative work. Supercell focuses on the creative process, unleashing the maximum potential of their people and the teams they make up.
The company flipped the traditional organizational pyramid upside down and tried to enable a truly bottoms-up creative paradigm. It embedded the responsibility at the team level and made them the true performance unit, rather than the more traditional profit/loss center orientation. Lots of companies talk this talk; it is easy to say, hard to do.
The studio was formed for this very purpose. Its founders created a workspace that is employee-driven. Paananen believes that the best people make the best games.
And so, in building studio culture, the objective was to create teams of self-actuating collaborators. To provide maximum freedom, but in ways that would not have teams of strong personalities grind to a halt over disagreements.
Supercell has a philosophy that teams must have a common goal and clarity of vision.
In freeing teams to be self-driven, how do you resolve conflict while building the studio?
Friction and debates are healthy for teams; what we often refer to as healthy tension. But to build cohesive studio culture, the environment cannot be combative. The best teams are the most passionate. So leadership facilitates and coaches teams to formulate their clarity of vision and then allows them to find themselves by moving through those tension points with guardrails so it does not boil over.
This strategy would seem to put a cap on maximum team size. Paananen says “I don’t think there is an upper bound. I think every situation is different, every team game is different, and every game is different. But basically, I think what we have changed in our culture, how we kind of talk about things, we’ve made it clear to always think ‘how do we better for our players’. We use this term ‘improvement mindset’”
Teams at the company are the right size. It is the team’s clarity of vision that determines its size. Teams are self-actuating organizational structures. This incentivizes them to keep scope within the bounds of team size and to expand only as necessary.
This is coupled with the improvement mindset. To never be satisfied. That any team’s game, as great as it is, can be questioned. To be humble and willing to accept feedback.
Paananen acknowledged making his own mistakes, like keeping teams too small after they launched hit games. The small teams were ideal for launching games, but after they became hits, the burden of coming up with continuous live operations became like running on a treadmill. After realizing the mistake, Paananen said Supercell began building larger post-launch teams.
Empowered studios teams are more resilient – Embedding Resiliency in Studio Culture
The company has had to make adjustments while building its culture. That has allowed them to weather various crises. One of those was the pandemic. “The pandemic came and it forced us to do and try something different,” Paananen said, “Since then they [the teams] have become a lot more open-minded because it actually…we were able to prove that some really really great work can happen…We really trusted the teams to figure out the way…We trusted the teams to decide what’s the best way of working for them.”
He goes on to note that “We pick teams that we just trust, and then if we trust those teams, we won’t be telling those teams what to do. We don’t even try to apply control. Not to our internal teams, and not to our external teams…the studios we invest in”
Supercell continues to expand and so new challenges constantly abound. It is the culture that makes them resilient, as teams are able to flex and orient around the changes in both the creative field and the industry. This is a powerful discussion between two great creative minds in the industry who have empowered teams in many ways that prevent the negative environments that we have heard numerous reports of over the past year. Some of those larger organizations would do well to listen to this talk.