A Winter’s Tale: How Finland conquered the games industry

“What’s in the water?” As a Finn, I have heard this a lot regarding the multitude of Finnish-made games topping the charts of the app stores of the world.

But what many people don’t realise is that the Finnish game industry existed long before the mobile boom. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady stream of ambitious computer and console games coming from veteran Finnish companies like Housemarque and Remedy Entertainment.

Sadly, nobody really noticed the Finnish factor back then. Only after the relatively recent success of mobile game studios such as Rovio (Angry Birds) and Supercell (Clash of Clans, Hay Day)  was international interest sparked. Besides these giants, games like Hill Climb Racing and Badlands, by Fingersoft and Frogmind Games respectively, have quietly attracted huge audiences on mobile. Typically these games are simple yet elegant, with a distinct art or play style, and crafted by small teams.

Badland Launch Trailer

The fact that the mobile success has not been limited to a single overnight hit has helped to create a positive circle: more young talent sets working in games companies as their career target, and investors pour more money into the local studios in the hope of replicating the success stories. But how did the circle come to be?

All darkness and demos

Usually, the successes of Finnish game companies have been attributed to technical excellence, explained by high penetration rates of personal computers since the early 1980s and high-quality schools and universities in the areas of computer science and technology.

According to this tale, the long dark winters nurtured a generation of bedroom coders, who first found their creative outlet in the so-called demo scene of the late 1980s and 1990s. Demos are easiest to think about as music videos entirely made out of computer graphics animations, but the big difference is that demos run real-time code, making them showcases of programming wizardry. The wizardry that emerged from the demo scene subculture has provided the backbone of talent for the local game industry.

‘Second Reality’ demo by Finnish group Future Crew

Mad for gaming magazines

The above historical account is all correct, but notwithstanding the winters, it is not really that different from the early computer game scene that emerged in other places, such as in the northern parts of England from the mid–1980s onwards. One-man companies releasing games for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 grew into larger studios and publishers in largely similar circumstances. Having spent the last year near Manchester, I have had a chance to chat with game industry veterans, and there are definitely similarities in how these game hubs in opposite ends of Europe came to be. Before the internet, it was the computer gaming magazines that gelled the subculture together, only to be substituted with newsgroups, bulletin boards, and today’s various online communities. And yeah, the weather is not so great here either.

An important recent development in the Finnish tale is how the abundance of tech-savvy talent has coincided with a groundswell of startup culture. The success of Supercell, for instance, results from cooking up a mix of creators who have the necessary love for games but also razor-sharp business acumen. When hungry business school graduates hook up with skilful nerds, magic can happen. With Supercell, this is particularly true in the context of the free-to-play business model, with which many game developer veterans have struggled. These hot Finnish companies have a couple of other advantages going for them: their executives have entered the game industry mobile first, and have put their experiences, both highs and lows, from the early days of mobile into good use.

Hay Day: a marriage of business acumen and seasoned game development

This latter, ‘mobile native’ business ingredient is something that has been largely lacking in the north of England, for example – it is still game studios with largely the same DNA as before, high in tech, art and design but short in game-savvy fresh business thinking, and they are finding it harder to succeed in the current marketplace.

A fantastic Finnish family

In Finland, the game developer community is also quite close-knit. In a hub of Greater Manchester area’s size, only recently was there a local community initiative launch event for game developers. The aim is to share knowledge and to get to know each other – something that has been going on in Finland, especially Helsinki, for years. The monthly meetings are always packed with tens and tens of game professionals, both junior and senior.

It is a scene where, once a month, introverted Finns turn extroverted over a beer, before turning back to their strong suit: introvert dealings with computers. However, as we have seen, the creative output has been magical enough to top the gaming charts around the rest of the world. A frosty winter’s tale, possibly, but first and foremost it is a tale of heart—warming passion and dedication through hard work.

Aki JarvinenAki Järvinen is a Finnish game industry veteran currently based in the UK. He is helping game studios to tackle the future at Game Futures while leading Creative Media at Sheffield Hallam University.  Be sure to check him out on Twitter for more information.

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