It was a summer day in 2015 when the self-described least-powerful CEO in video games opened his email and learned, along with everyone else in his company, that a game he loved was going to die in beta.

Ilkka Paananen had been left out of the loop. The future of this game lay solely with a small development team inside Supercell, the Finnish video game giant. Its developers had taken a soul-searching Friday sauna together and determined that their game Smash Land wasn’t quite good enough to warrant a worldwide release. “We have decided,” the team’s email to the company announced, “to kill Smash Land.”

People inside the company loved the game. Ilkka loved the game — he played it with his kids. The numbers showed Smash Land would’ve been a top-25 release on the mobile platforms that see 20,000 new games per month — a potential top 0.1 percent release. 

But Supercell — which earns nearly $2 billion annually on a total of just five game releases ever — doesn’t deal in top-25s. It deals in top-5s. It deals in Number 1s. And the team had spoken.

The CEO typed out his company-wide reply, striking a somber tone while emphasizing that he embraced the team’s decision. “I feel incredibly proud,” Ilkka wrote. “Smash Land must be by far the best game killed in Beta, EVER. I do not think there is ANY other team in the world who would have killed it.”

Then again, there might not be any CEO in the world who places more confidence in his team than Ilkka.

Trust, don’t control

Finland’s implacable winters have fed a lush love affair with video games, and as a child in the 1980s, growing up outside Helsinki, Ilkka was no exception. Once, he says, he had to visit the doctor after staring so long at his four-color monitor that his eyes “started to flicker.” His favorite genres, fittingly, were real-time strategy games and world-building simulations.

But to really understand Supercell, look past Civilization or SimCity to another beloved game. You hear comparisons to hockey even as a fellow co-founder like Skype’s Niklas Zennström explains Ilkka’s style. “He has very little ego,” Niklas says of his friend. “He is the kind of player who will pass the puck to you to take the shot, rather than taking it himself.”

As a general rule any Finn who isn’t in the sauna is on the ice. Ilkka has played hockey since childhood, and still laces up the skates twice a week. And in organizing his 480-person games company, he borrows unsubtly from the sport.

Hockey teams deploy six players at a time: a goalie, plus five players who attack and defend in bursts, and who sub in and out continuously in groups, called lines. At Supercell, the tight-knit teams operate similarly. Each is a team-within-a-team, blended to be the most effective version of itself, operating almost like an anarchical startup inside the wider company.

Ilkka hands the cells a minimum of corporate directives — just create the world’s most popular games, no pressure. “We’ve replaced the control,” he says, “with trust.”

There is no process

Ilkka obsesses over the composition of his teams, these cells. Supercell insulates them to a radical degree — the CEO’s way of giving them every chance to succeed. He likes to say that in hockey, it’s the best lines, not the best individual players, that win games. And at Supercell, it’s cells that guide games from the cradle to their ultimate fate.

The cells circulate their game prototypes and early playable versions for peers in the company to test. Feedback is ruthlessly, blunt. Supercell releases just a select few to mid-sized English-language markets (your Canadas, Australias, assorted Zealands) and gathers data. The teams track the metrics, asking: Will this become a top game on the planet? Or not quite?

The elite games that graduated to full releases all became worldwide top-10 iOS and Android apps: Hay Day (2012), Clash of Clans (2012), Boom Beach (2014), Clash Royale (2016), and Brawl Stars (2018).

Maybe Supercell was the real smash land all along. Four of those five games have grossed more than $1 billion, from some 250 million monthly players. And Clash of Clans, the flagship action-strategy multiplayer game, alone has generated north of $10 billion in revenue — roughly equal to the combined worldwide box office of all 12 Star Wars films.

The company simply doesn’t hold room for anything but elite releases. One of the finest days Ilkka had as CEO was when a developer told him Supercell was the first company where he had no excuse not to do his best possible work. “That was really music to my ears,” Ilkka says. “You can’t really blame processes and you can’t really blame management for the simple reason that there is no management, and there is no process. Really, it’s all about you.”

Quality is worth killing for

Far more games die in beta than survive. Supercell has killed more than 30 games while releasing just those five mobile titles. To put it back into hockey terms: That’s roughly the ratio of shots the world’s top scorers sneak past the goalie. A high failure rate, for a few precious goals.

Ultimately the very team that created the game decides to plow ahead or not. When a team axes a game, the company pops champagne to mark the occasion, and to remind everyone cheerfully that failure brings hard-won lessons. Those are worth celebrating. “The best days at Supercell, for me, are when I hear about something way later than it has been decided,” Ilkka says. “That proves the model is working.”