Supercell’s Success Story

In the increasingly competitive mobile gaming market, just getting noticed is an impressive feat. The iOS app store alone has over 150,000 games, with over 70 new games being added each day. In this highly saturated market, it would behoove developers to heed any company able to make a hit.

Enter the Finnish little-engine-that-could, Supercell; they made two.

Supercell launched their social farming game Hay Day in June 2012, followed by the tower defense game Clash of Clans in August, with teams of only half a dozen developers working on each game.

In the first quarter of 2013, these two titles earned the company $179 million in revenues. By April, the company was making $2.4 million daily in revenues from their 8.5 million daily active players, each of whom plays an average of ten times per day. And all this playtime despite the constraint that the games are only offered on iOS devices.

To put it in perspective, Supercell’s revenues from just two games make it more than twice the size of Electronic Arts’ mobile games division, which has 900-plus iOS apps.

Competitors and admirers alike are trying to figure out the winning formula for Supercell’s success. But, as chief executive Illka Paananen told The Guardian (with a wink, I’d imagine), “You can’t design fun on a spreadsheet.”

Player happiness? Employee satisfaction? Fun? It is hard to believe that these are the guiding mantras of one of mobile gaming’s greatest success stories.

Based in Helsinki, Finland, the birthplace of Angry Birds’ maker Rovio (and the anticipated Supernauts by Grand Cru—what is in the water in Helsinki?) the company has now expanded to include an office in San Francisco, and their staff has grown to over 100. The question on everyone’s mind is: how are they doing it? In addition to luck, there are a few factors that differentiate Supercell from other mobile game developers.

Casual and Serious


A loading screen that invokes the spirit of battle

I’ve never wanted to pinch a salivating, bellicose barbarian before, but that rosy nose is tempting. Enticing artwork is understandably one of the most vital factors in getting noticed among the sea of other games in the iOS app store, and Supercell makes theirs polished and uniform. The charming graphics are also appealing to casual gamers, who want instantaneous, often visual gratification.

Bright colors and sassy animals catch the eye

But Supercell goes further than other casual games in their commitment to sophisticated gameplay, to retain the more serious gamers.

In Clash of Clans, players settle and build a village by accumulating resources through collection units, or by attacking other players’ villages. Players must also bolster their village with defenses, for when they stop playing their resources become vulnerable to attack by other players.

Some healthy competition and camaraderie is introduced by joining a clan—and being in the title of the game, players are encouraged to do so. Being in a clan means you can send troops to other clan members for reinforcements, as well as share tips and tricks via a central message board.

There are currently over 500,000 clans worldwide, each comprised of no more than 50 members. The more active, dare I say “professional” clans usually have a contribution quota in order to keep the privilege of being a member. In addition, Wikis and strategy sites are popping up left and right on which serious gamers can share strategies.

Supercell has successfully attracted both ends of the market.

Supercell’s Super Attitude

At a time when market researchers are knee deep in spreadsheets trying to demystify the lifeblood of the mobile gaming market, Supercell maintains the simplistic belief that success will follow if a company’s workers are happy. They discourage bureaucracy. They celebrate each failure, or “learning experience,” with champagne. They even collaborate with a top rival, the Japanese mobile-gaming giant GungHo Online, maker of the hit game Puzzles & Dragons. The two companies staged a cross-promotional event where Clash of Clans characters appeared in P&D, with a reciprocal arrangement said to be in the works. Granted, both companies are sitting pretty in the mobile-gaming industry and can afford to share a few customers.

Supercell is a pack of happy campers.

“Freemium” Model

All of Supercell’s revenues come from the “freemium” gaming model, where players can play for free but can choose to pay for additional premium features which equate to in-game rewards. There are many arguments against this model of monetization. Some players find this system unbalanced, when someone can simply buy features others must work to earn. Others find it to be an unhealthy model, creating a predicament similar to a gambling addition where a purchase never leads to a final victory, and thus the next potential purchase looms. While these arguments have their validity, Supercell asserts that the way they facilitate the freemium model does not upset player happiness.

“When you prioritise engagement and retention – making a great game that people play often and want to play for a long time – they are happy to pay,” Paananen said in his Guardian interview. Still, this model is under much scrutiny as it’s slowly, and perhaps unintentionally, becoming the predominant way mobile game developers are making money. Gamers will decide if it shall last.

Supercell knows what players are willing to spend money on.

In a shifting and confusing time for mobile gaming (and when hasn’t there been such a time?), each success story sets a new precedent. Illka Paananen told the Guardian he desires longevity for his games, and that he wishes to emulate the success of touchstone games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends. It may come as a shock to long-time players of these games that something played on a tablet, and rudimentary by comparison, can reach their success. But numbers don’t lie, and with Supercell possibly reaching $1 billion in revenues this year, Paananen may be able to afford the longevity he desires.