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From Nokia to Merge Mansion: Helsinki’s tech expertise is sparking a new era for global gaming
Helsinki has a reputation as the go-to place for game development, and now the city’s tech community is taking gaming into new areas
The Nordics have long had an affinity with gaming, but in an era of mobile technologies and online connections, Finland has set itself apart as one of the most renowned exponents of this industry in the world.
The very nature of gaming in the present day is to create communities across long distances – something Finland is very well-versed in, as such a vast and sparsely populated country. Throw in a capital city that hosts Slush each year and whose tech startup culture is world-renowned, and it’s the perfect melting pot for the games to begin.
“With Finland laid out as it is, games give us a way to connect with each other and to be a part of a community from a distance,” says Mika Tammenkoski, CEO and co-founder of Metacore, one of the city’s most renowned and fastest-growing gaming companies over the past few years.
“This has led to so many successful games coming out of the capital, Helsinki, in particular, over the past 20 years or so, which has led to the country as a whole developing a reputation as an ultimate gaming hub,” he says. “This has then encouraged more people to join an industry that’s characterised by a community mindset, tech-savviness and a problem-solving mentality.”
Its flagship mobile game, Merge Mansion, has more than 40 million players around the world, showcasing both the passion that Finnish people have to create innovative games, and the passion that global gamers have to consume Finnish content.
“Finland and Helsinki aren’t alone in the Nordics to have this impact,” says Tammenkoski. “Sweden also has a very vibrant gaming industry, but there is a different feel in Finland, for sure.
“I believe it is rooted in Nokia’s success, where mobile games really began,” he says. “Working on those sorts of games was, and still is, a natural choice for many Finns, and it’s created an ecosystem of highly skilled and highly passionate people who want to work in this industry.”
A legendary reputation
Nokia’s prevalence on the gaming scene struck in the early 2000s, while Metacore was launched in 2020, to emphasise the long-term love affair that Finns have had with mobile innovation and fun applications.
Tammenkoski notes that, now more than ever, games are seen as a reputable industry to enter as a result, and certainly more of a viable career path than in the 1990s, pre-Nokia.
“Because of this, the industry shouldn’t only focus on attracting young, tech-minded people to work in games, which is often the misconception, but speak to a much larger talent pool,” he says. “We need talent with diverse backgrounds and skill sets so that we can build games for millions – whether it’s through strengthening the game development team, writing compelling brand narratives, managing gaming communities or helping to understand the demographics of a new market.”
And that’s precisely what Metacore is trying to do, as a sign of this more modern and holistic approach to game development. Since 2020, the team has expanded from 15 to more than 130 people, sourced from around the world as innovators, content creators and passionate gamers seek opportunities in Helsinki.
Tammenkoski says the company has multiple new games under development, and is about to launch the latest one this year. “It sets us up for our ultimate goal, which is to entertain hundreds of millions of people for decades – not just through our games, but through the ads, events, online communities and whatever other forms of entertainment that serve as natural extensions of our games,” he says.
“In doing so, I also hope that our work continues to support Finland’s reputation as the home of legendary games, and that together with the entire gaming community, we can bring the industry to the next level – possibly even making gaming one of the biggest industries in Finland.”
“Passion”, in the context of gaming in Helsinki, doesn’t just mean playing fun games. In the same way that startups across the Nordics have a passion for righting wrongs, enabling inclusivity, meeting the green agenda and aiding society, gaming can have a similar, broader, societal and commercial significance. As such, the sector has the potential to create a chain of influence on future generations, in a way that Tammenkoski was never exposed to.
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“Making games has always felt natural to me, but I never thought of building games as a career or something I would get paid for – although, funnily enough, I did write my high-school exam essay about founding a game company,” he says. “Growing up, games weren’t taken very seriously outside the industry. Of course, those who worked in gaming saw their potential and were very passionate about the industry, but this passion wasn’t shared by the wider audience.
“Even my parents were at times hesitant about my career choice,” says Tammenkoski. “Back in the ’90s, when I got my first job in games, there were only two known studios in Finland, and one was operating out of one of the founders’ parents’ basements.”
More than 25 years on, he has worked as a developer, investor and now an entrepreneur for a third time with Metacore. Over that time, he has looked to change the model and perception of gaming, to make it more inclusive and sustainable. This has involved veering away from more “violent, aggressive and competitive” titles, to focusing more on the mobile ecosystem and creation of “a scalable business built on games that can be enjoyed by millions”.
A mentality shift
Both in Finland and across the world, mobile gaming is now a saturated market, but Metacore hasn’t hidden from that. Rather, it has looked to dive right into it, trusting the scale of interest globally, and the strength of the tech and ingenuity behind its own content. The ecosystem in Helsinki has supported the company each step of the way, with Tammenkoski’s once-role models now becoming friends and vital sources of guidance.
“The fact that Helsinki had and has such a strong tech – and especially gaming – ecosystem has of course helped,” he says. “The tech and gaming community in Helsinki is quite tight-knit, and we routinely share learnings across teams and companies. I think one reason for this community-minded nature is that Finland is a very small market in terms of audience, so most gaming studios compete globally, not within our borders.
“Finland’s strong talent pool has been vital to our success, but that doesn’t just mean Finns,” says Tammenkoski. “It also points to the heritage of the sector and the appeal of the ecosystem to talent from abroad. Meanwhile, due to the sector’s continuous growth, access to funding hasn’t really been a challenge since the early 2010s.”
So, what next? Tammenkoski believes gaming in Helsinki has reached an inflection point and must strive for the next phase of its evolution. Companies like Metacore, which build products for huge swathes of people who don’t necessarily consider themselves gamers, have realised a need for completely new types of skills, from people who probably wouldn’t have worked in, or considered, careers in gaming before.
“I don’t think we’re just competing with gaming companies anymore,” he says. “We are a strong arm of tech, entertainment, content creation, art and consumer services. And we must look to each of those areas for skills and as potential competitors for those skills.
“The next challenge for game companies and the ecosystem in general is to convince people with those skills that the games industry has something even better to offer than those other areas,” says Tammenkoski. “And that’s where passion comes in.
“Gaming has been mine, and so many Finns’, passion for so many years,” he says. “However, we have now retired the phrase, ‘Having a passion for games’ and replaced it with, ‘Having a passion for your area of expertise’. Whether it’s storytelling, branding, scaling a business or digital innovation, I hope Helsinki can spark a global shift in mentality across the gaming industry.”