Building studio culture by empowering GamesBeat teams


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Some game CEOs take their corporate culture very seriously.

Rob Pardo, the founder of Bonfire Studios, has been in the business enough to know about the creation of cultures at different game studios. Having held top positions at Blizzard, he’s also no stranger to the GamesBeat Summit, having participated in a panel on a similar topic 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 should be independent, work in small cells, and operate unchecked in order to do their best creative work. Supercell focuses on the creative process, unleashing the maximum potential of its employees and the teams they form.

The company flipped the traditional organizational pyramid and tried to implement a truly bottom-up creative paradigm. It embedded accountability at the team level and made it the true unit of performance, rather than the more traditional profit/loss center orientation. Many companies talk about this discourse; it’s easy to say, hard to do.

The studio was formed for this very purpose. Its founders created an employee-centric workplace. Paananen believes that the best people make the best games.

And so, in building the studio culture, the objective was to create teams of autonomous collaborators. To provide maximum freedom, but in a way that would not prevent teams of strong personalities from stopping in the face of disagreements.

Supercell’s philosophy is that teams should have a common goal and a clear vision.

By freeing the teams to be autonomous, how do you resolve conflicts during the construction of the studio?

Supercell has a lean team.

Friction and debate are healthy for teams; what we often call healthy tension. But to build a cohesive studio culture, the environment cannot be combative. The best teams are the most passionate. So, leadership facilitates and coaches teams to articulate their clarity of vision and then allows them to find themselves moving through those stress points with guardrails so it doesn’t overflow.

This strategy would seem to limit the maximum team size. Paananen says, “I don’t think there is an upper limit. I think every situation is different, every team game is different and every game is different. But fundamentally I think what we’ve changed in our culture, the way we talk about things, we’ve made it clear to always think ‘how can we be better for our players’. We use this term ‘improvement mindset’”

The company’s teams are the right size. It is the clarity of vision of the team that determines its size. Teams are self-contained organizational structures. This incentivizes them to keep reach within the bounds of team size and only expand when necessary.

This is coupled with the improvement mindset. To never be satisfied. That any team’s play, no matter how good, can be questioned. Be humble and willing to accept feedback.

Paananen admitted to making his own mistakes, such as keeping teams too small after kicking off successful games. Small teams were great for launching games, but after they became successful, the burden of delivering continuous live operations became like running on a treadmill. After realizing the mistake, Paananen said Supercell started building bigger teams after launch.

Autonomous Studio Teams Are More Resilient – ​​Building Resilience into Studio Culture

The company had to make adjustments while building its culture. This has allowed them to go through various crises. One of them was the pandemic. “The pandemic came and forced us to do and try something different,” Paananen said, “Since then they [the teams] became a lot more open-minded because actually… we were able to prove that really good work can happen… We really trusted the teams to find the way… We trusted the teams to decide what is the best way to work for them.”

He goes on to note that “we choose teams that we trust, and if we trust those teams, we won’t tell those teams what to do. We don’t even try to exercise control. Neither to our internal teams, nor to our external teams… the studios in which we invest”

Supercell continues to grow and the new challenges keep multiplying. It’s the culture that makes them resilient, as teams are able to adapt and adapt to changes in both the creative realm and the industry. This is a powerful discussion between two great creative minds in the industry who have empowered teams in many ways to avoid the negative environments we’ve heard many reports of over the past year. Some of these large organizations would do well to listen to this discourse.

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