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Long, dark winters contribute to Finland’s advantage in video game development

Finland and Southern California are worlds apart at first glance, but both are leaders in video game development. We find out why.

When you think Finnish tech, two words are likely to spring to mind - Nokia and gaming. And the link between the two are substantial, as epitomised by Finland’s mobile-driven gametech scene.

From being one of the world’s leading handset manufacturers, Nokia went on to fund studios in mobile game development in the years following to generate content for their own platform. This coincided with a culturally driven gaming revolution in Helsinki as studios strived to make the city the “Hollywood of gaming”.

“Why is this relevant?” asked Erik Pöntiskoski, CEO of mobile game developer, Dodreams. “In 2018, mobile games alone generated more revenue than music and the box office combined. Gaming is the fastest growing form of entertainment.”

Dodreams has witnessed and leveraged the impact of mobile first-hand, taking the decision in 2013 to focus on this area of gaming, which led to the launch of Drive Ahead!, its multiplayer “gladiatorial arena racing game” which has been downloaded more than 100 million times.

The company has been a leading driver of the country’s gaming journey, alongside equally prominent multinational success stories such as Next Games – the first gaming company to list publicly in Finland in 2017.

“Finland traditionally has a strong engineering culture and, fuelled by Nokia, saw many mobile developers emerging in the 2000s as subcontractors for them,” Next Games’ chief marketing officer, Saara Bergström, added.

“These companies formed the basis for the success of mobile gaming, stemming from Finland at a time when many European or American companies were still focusing solely on console or PC.”

“Our success, in true Finnish fashion, derives from our culture [of being] very direct, and where sharing feedback and experiences among companies is common. We have the world’s most active International Game Developer’s Association chapter in Helsinki, with hundreds of developers participating in the monthly get-togethers.”

Next Games is already famous for the gamification of The Walking Dead series, and is on course to replicate this success with game interpretations of the Blade Runner and Stranger Things franchises.

For the same reason that Nokia’s mobile influence kickstarted this revolution, the idea of “connection” – connection to other people and to popular culture – is still Finland’s gamechanger today.

Advantages over SoCal

But how does the country stack up against the might of the US? One company with a foot in both camps is Kast, the online hangout gaming platform borne out of both San Diego and Helsinki.

Co-founder and CEO, Mark Ollila, noted that renowned gametech hub Southern California (SoCal) has tapped into the same trends as Finland throughout its own gaming journey. However, the culture isn’t always as conducive to sustainable, individual success.

“Even though there are amazing companies in SoCal, they are quite distant from each other in joint activities,” he said. “Each company is competing against the other and that often translates into employees not necessarily engaging with one another.

“The work culture is also something that varies from company to company in the games industry in SoCal. The term you often hear is ‘crunch time’, where developers are at the office seven days a week for more than 12 hours each day. This happens regularly, can go on for months, and is often followed by companies letting people go as well.”

This recycling of talent, competition and ecosystem unease is in stark contrast to the Nordic ethos displayed in Helsinki, which Kast has looked to adopt regardless of location.

We are all about the greater good rather than keeping things to ourselves. It works better that way
Saara Bergström, Next Games

“There are subsequently international game developers who have chosen to continue their career in Finland because of these advantages.”

Bergström agreed: “We may not have as much access to some of the incredible talent that comes from the colleges or games companies in the US, but we have our own talent pool (old and new) that breathes life into the gametech ecosystem here in Helsinki.

“The advantages of having such a tight-knit community mitigates what we lack, and being located so close to each other means that everyone is likely to benefit from an idea or a solution to a problem. We are all about the greater good rather than keeping things to ourselves. It works better that way.”

Creativity and ingenuity

The above traits make Helsinki the ultimate location for a company to initiate pilots, to scale into Europe, and to thrive among a competitive, yet collaborative and learning-based, scene.

“Given the small size of Helsinki, you have instant access to superstar companies like Supercell, Rovio, Next Games and Remedy, for instance, in contrast to SoCal where you need to plan in advance to gain access to equivalent companies,” said Ollila at Kast.

Kast’s founder does acknowledge California’s benefits of course – the access to engineering talent, and a general positivity that comes from living in sunny, beach-blessed cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles. Even this latter, more natural, asset can be countered by Helsinki, however.

We have long, dark, cold winters here...but this is why the country has always needed games to cheer it up
Erik Pöntiskoski, Dodreams

“Similarly, our great Nordic welfare state can lead to apathy among people at work, as opposed to America’s culture of competition. But, again, this is why companies and startups in particular promote creativity and ingenuity to keep things interesting instead.”

Fniland’s performance parameters easily align with concepts of fun and interactivity, so gaming seems a natural choice.

“I strongly believe that Finland has built (and maintained) a world-class reputation as a destination where great games and successful games companies are created,” Next Games’ Bergström said.

“We are incredibly proud of our games legacy, but to maintain our status as the mobile games capital of the world, we can’t solely rely on a handful of powerhouses to be our inspiration or aspiration.

“There is a lot of effort across the whole community, from universities and vocational schools to investors and entrepreneurs, to build multiple new success stories coming from Finland.”

Pöntiskoski concludes that in doing so, Finland can build on a reputation of not just building great games, but great companies.

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