The Best Teams Make the Best Games

How Supercell structures their company culture to be highly effective at making hit games.

The best teams make the best games. Culture needs to enable them to do this.

I’m constantly thinking (and talking) about game team processes and company culture. A colleague brought up a talk (link at the bottom of this article) from Ilkka Paananen, the CEO of Supercell, and how he’s structured his company into ‘cells’ under the larger ‘supercell.’

In my first studio, I managed around 20 people to work on upwards of 10 projects at a time. For the most part, they all made their own decisions. We had our own challenges, but I’ve seen this work first hand.

Here are some of the top takeaways:

Instead of Middle Management, Empower Game Teams to Make Decisions

Ilkka talks about his early days of creating companies. He did what many companies do, layer on middle management because as CEO, he wanted to feel in control of the company’s destiny.

Because of this, many processes began to fatigue teams, causing bloat and inefficiency. I’m all too familiar with game reviews across multiple companies. I’m a firm believer that having them not only causes frustration on the game teams, but it causes unnecessary work and design by committee, leading to a product that isn’t fun, and causing team members to shift or leave the team.

Instead, Supercell’s teams make the decisions. There are no proposals and no reviews to prep for. If a team decides to make a major decision on their game, or even kill it, the CEO will get an email about it and support them. The teams are fully responsible for their decisions, how they’re measuring success, and if and when they decide that the game isn’t succeeding.

A few key quotes from Ilkka on game production and management:

“The team spent one week a month to prepare for [game reviews], only to throw out all the work immediately after.”

“You can imagine the frustration these game developers had when they had to explain game development stuff to people who weren’t game developers at all.”

“The less management had to do with a game, the better chance at success it had.”

“The two biggest factors of a great game are the team and the timing. Because timing ultimately comes down to luck, the only thing you can control is the team.”

Instituting Culture

Without middle management, it’s Ilkka’s job to make sure the company knows what the culture is, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to support that culture.

Ilkka makes it clear that teams are responsible and accountable. If there’s a problem it’s up to the teams to solve. Unfortunately I think many companies have adopted this model, but still apply a layer of middle management due to convention, making team members feel like they have less agency to solve problems. It’s often that team members will try to solve a problem, but then get shut down by management trying to solve the problem a different way, with other middle managers.

Making sure the team has a culture is a job in itself. You constantly have to work at it, and it’s leadership’s job to make sure that they are fighting to keep the culture they want. The team is there to develop. Make sure you’re fighting for culture and constantly communicating what it is if you’re in a leadership position.

Keeping Teams Small

There’s power in small teams. Scarcity of resources, meaning less people, leads to better prioritization and better focus, ultimately leading to better quality. Supercells development teams are 2–7 people as a new game gets made, and live games are 10–17 people.

Disagree and Commit

A last takeaway, but extremely important is being able to disagree with the majority of the team and commit to forward progress. It’s difficult to reach consensus on every decision. It’s better to make a decision and move forward than continuously argue and push for different agendas, or go in circles.

game designer | writing about game design & product leadership | current: Niantic, prev: Oculus | twitter: @flexmandeville