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“Our games have grown quarter over quarter for the past 12 months and last month | Pocket Gamer.biz

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Supercell’s Head of Live Games, Sara Bach talks company changes, world-beating live ops, and how to get back on top

Last month, Supercell CEO IIkka Paananen outlined the company’s financials and discussed the studio’s performance over the past few years. Despite having smash hits under their belt with the likes of Clash of Clans, Paananen shared that overall, they had fallen behind while others were able to grow their live games even further. With this in mind, Supercell has set out to make changes to put them back on top.

We spoke with Supercell’s Head of Live Games, Sara Bach, who shares a behind the scenes look at how the Supercell structure is changing and how those changes enable teams to work more efficiently, with positive results already becoming apparent in games such as Brawl Stars.

But what else does the new head of live games at Supercell have on her plate, and how do Supercell intend to tackle future ambitions?


PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us a little about your role as head of live games at Supercell and why you joined the company?

Sara Bach: In the spring of 2023, I began engaging with Ilkka and the Supercell team, who were at the time exploring ways to grow their famously small teams and get better at operating live games. Our interactions started as an exchange of ideas, as I shared some of my experiences from EA, King & Mojang of growing teams and organisations in gaming. I’ve always believed in the power of empowered product teams, where each member feels a deep sense of ownership and plays an important role in the games’ and business’ success. However, achieving this in larger organisations, with numerous stakeholders and specialised departments, can be challenging.

Meeting the Supercell team was truly inspiring. I was struck by their dedication to preserving the core of the company’s culture and values while being ready to challenge the status quo and undertake the hard work needed for change. When the opportunity to join Supercell and be part of this journey presented itself, it was simply too compelling to pass up. And here I am.

Now, as head of live games, I oversee the operation and development of Supercell’s live games, such as Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Brawl Stars, Hay Day, and Boom Beach. Ilkka made it clear from the start that the overarching responsibility for the portfolio’s performance rests with me. The mission was clear – grow our live games! I was ready to take on this challenge as I believed strongly in the company’s vision and saw the amazing talent and potential everywhere I looked.

What does the role of head of live games look like on a daily basis? What’s your day to day like?

Ilkka made it clear from the start that the overarching responsibility for the portfolio’s performance rests with me. The mission was clear – grow our live games!

Sara Bach

My role is to ensure that each game not only excels as an individual business unit but also contributes to our collective success. In my opinion, our diverse portfolio is one of our key strengths, and it sets us apart from the competition. From Brawl Stars with its younger audience, through the Clash games with a bit older and more male-skewed players to Hay Day, which I play every day with my mom, who is 71 and my daughter, aged 11, there truly is a Supercell game for everyone. While each game provides a unique experience, our achievements are interconnected, mirroring an Olympic team’s collective triumph. During my first few months, I have focused on building a supportive group of leads and fostering a culture of shared success. Each game competes in its own “sport,” but we aim for greater heights by pooling our strengths. To me, this is a huge differentiator in an industry where mobile game companies seem to double down on one big title or drive a portfolio strategy of many small games with few significant breakthroughs.

My responsibilities are diverse, from ensuring operational excellence and growth in our live games to contributing to Supercell’s overarching vision as part of the leadership team. In total, our live games organisation consists of almost 200 people at this point and my time is split between organisational matters, people matters, product learning and strategy, and business performance during any given day. While I am accountable for the overall portfolio performance, I see my job as that of the Olympic team leader. I ensure we have the right contestants in each sport and create the absolute best circumstances around them so they can perform at their best.

You mentioned being impressed by the Supercell team earlier. What does Supercell do differently?

Supercell stands out in the gaming industry not just for the genre-defining, high-quality games and repeated success but also for the unique cell structure and culture of empowerment and autonomy. From my experience, both outside and now inside the company, this environment is clearly different from other companies I’ve been part of. At Supercell, game teams wield significant agency and ownership over their products. While there are moments when top-down decisions are made, such as setting targets or headcount budgets, the overarching philosophy is trust and empowerment, with a “Supercell first” mindset deeply ingrained in our culture. Team members are trusted to make decisions that align with the company’s long-term interests – a testament to Supercell’s faith in Supercellians.

However, stepping into a leadership role within such a framework has its own set of challenges. Balancing autonomy with alignment requires a different approach here. My role leans heavily on supporting and challenging the general managers and their teams, fostering a relationship based on respect for their autonomy while ensuring we’re all aligned with Supercell’s broader goals and accountable towards the game-specific goals.

While each game unit has the freedom to structure their teams and ways of working as they see fit, there are certain key positions and rituals we believe are crucial for our common success. Unlike many game companies where functions like marketing, analytics, and community management are clearly centralised and separated from product development, we embed these roles directly within each game unit at Supercell. This approach treats each game team as a standalone entity equipped with everything needed to succeed and pushes all of us to think differently about leadership and collaboration.

You touched on how Supercell operates with a cell structure, with the company adding new layers of management. How does this work?

As Supercell continues to evolve and expand, so does the cell structure, adapting to accommodate the growth of our live game teams.

Sara Bach

As Supercell continues to evolve and expand, so does the cell structure, adapting to accommodate the growth of our live game teams. In this evolution, each game unit transforms into a Supercell of its own, comprising several smaller, often more focused cells. This new structure allows us to maintain the autonomy and agility that have been key to our success, even as we introduce more layers of management to support our growth.

Despite the increased complexity, the essence of our approach remains unchanged: fostering independence while ensuring alignment with our overarching goals. Each game unit, or “Supercell within a Supercell,” has a clear mission and the autonomy to pursue that mission with speed and ownership.

The introduction of more defined leadership roles within this structure is not meant to diminish the independence of our teams; rather, it should enhance their ability to achieve their missions. Leads serve as the kernel of each Supercell, nurturing the ecosystem and guiding the cells. They focus on aligning the teams around specific missions and sub-goals, fostering an environment where accountability and support go hand in hand. We are genuinely trying to evolve Supercell’s cell structure to reflect our commitment to maintaining the agility and entrepreneurial spirit of smaller teams while scaling our operations. By empowering leads to nurture and guide these cells, we ensure that our teams remain dynamic and focused, capable of moving quickly and owning their paths to success within the larger Supercell mission.

This might all sound very idealistic, and I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not doing it perfectly. It’s a journey we have embarked on, and we are continuously evolving and learning how to do better as we go.

Supercell CEO IIkka Paananen recently spoke about the last few years at Supercell and how live games had fallen behind, with no new game released since Brawl Stars and dropping from #1 ranked global publisher of mobile games in 2016 to outside of the top ten in 2023. How do you see Supercell begin to change things back around and get back into one of those top spots?

I think Ilkka outlined it quite well in his blog post last year. We need to get better at creating fun and ambitious new games – at a faster rate – and developing and operating our already beloved live games so that more players want to play them for longer and find value in our offerings. I’ll focus on the second part.

There was already a very solid foundation built on the exceptional talent and dedication of our teams, who possess a deep sense of responsibility towards our players and the business. However, it was apparent that our teams had been operating at the edge of their capacity, focusing on a very limited number of projects due to size constraints, which in turn has made every decision critically important due to the opportunity cost involved and in the end led to all players not being served as well as they should. We simply owed it to our players to do better!

Our teams had been operating at the edge of their capacity, focusing on a very limited number of projects due to size constraints. We simply owed it to our players to do better!

Sara Bach

These were not just challenges but significant opportunities for growth – in becoming more data-informed, expanding our capacity to fully realize our games’ visions, and enhancing our overall capabilities for live operations and continuous improvement. Without this, it would have been very hard to ensure that our games continued to be played by as many people as possible for years to come and be remembered forever!

Our games have grown quarter over quarter for the past 12 months, and last month, Supercell was back in the top ten mobile games publisher list. With the risk of sounding overly confident – you could take this as a sign of the direction we are heading in!

As part of that growth Brawl Stars has seen a surge in revenue recently. What sparked this and how have the structural changes at Supercell helped enable this?

Brawl Stars was actually one of the first game teams at Supercell that realised that they needed to scale to meet the demands of the players, given the content and gameplay-heavy nature of the game. The team has a very community and player-centric approach. After a couple of less successful updates in 2022 and early 2023, things started to turn around last summer with the introduction of Starr Drops, which brought renewed excitement to the game. The team’s focus on enhancing player retention through engaging events, new modes, a daily calendar, and generous giveaways has significantly improved the game experience from the player’s perspective. The team has done an incredible job of systematically improving the game and adding the right elements at the exact right time. I am very impressed with each and every individual involved.

The positive buzz generated by returning players helped propel the game in popularity these past few months, and we have seen a considerable increase in both new and returning players. The well-timed launch of the revamped Brawl Pass, now offered monthly and exclusively through in-app purchases, was a calculated risk that resonated well with players. Honestly, we didn’t know how well this would fly, but it turns out – really well!

After recognising the need for change, the Clash of Clans team has grown to approximately 60 people at the moment.

Sara Bach

Supercell has also been growing its live teams on titles like Clash of Clans. What was the thinking behind that, and roughly how big are they now across your games? Does any of this live ops support also involve outsourcing?

It’s already been mentioned, but the team size started to evidently hold us back from properly serving our players the best we could – and should! For example, when Clash of Clans operated with a mere 15-person team, simultaneously focusing on major updates, enhancing the mid-level player experience, and introducing new gameplay elements was a significant challenge. It was nearly impossible to address technical and design debt, which is crucial for maintaining the game’s freshness and engagement, without compromising on the quality or speed of updates. We simply owed it to our games and players to do better.

After recognising the need for change, the Clash of Clans team has grown to approximately 60 people at the moment, encompassing game development, operations, analytics, community management, and integrated marketing. This larger, more diverse team structure has enabled us to concurrently work on exciting new updates and improve the gameplay experience for players in different phases of their player journey. It also allows us to refine our tools and workflows for increased efficiency and host more frequent and varied player events, ensuring the game remains vibrant and engaging in the long run.

Across our live games, while other teams remain smaller than Clash of Clans, we are actively exploring and implementing remote cell setups to increase capacity and agility. This also allows us to experiment with different operational models to find the best fit for each game unit. While we do work with some external partners, our focus remains on maintaining the core Supercell culture and quality within our teams, whether in-house or remote. By carefully integrating external support, we ensure we keep our high standards and provide the best experience for our players.

Honestly, we don’t take growth lightly. We don’t want to be like any other large company but do things in a Supercell way. We constantly talk about what growth means for our culture and try to course-correct whenever we see something going off on a bad tangent.

What’s an example of how Supercell is now doing things differently with live ops that it couldn’t do before?

Larger teams mean both more capacity and more expertise in things such as live ops, and thanks to this, we have been able to make all of our games more “eventful.” For example, we have been able to host more integrated and engaging events in Clash of Clans, with standout examples being Clashoween, Clashmas, and the Lunar New Year celebrations. These events have been particularly well-received by our community, which tells us we have improved in creating diverse, appealing content that resonates with various player types.

By growing our teams, we are able to take more risks in terms of developing both content and features and still be meticulous about putting the best possible experiences in the hands of our players.

Sara Bach

Beyond merely increasing the frequency and variety of our events, our larger, more specialised teams have started building out more sophisticated tools for player segmentation and preference analysis. This enables us to tailor our offerings more precisely, ensuring that every player finds something of value, whether in gameplay, events, or monetisation opportunities. With more people dedicated to refining our strategies around gameplay, offers, and pricing, we can create more compelling, value-driven experiences for our players.

However, while we’ve made significant strides, we’re still catching up to companies that have long invested in these areas. For example, in Brawl Stars, the general manager, Frank [Keienburg], directly manages offers and events within our LiveOps system. This will soon change for the better as we have a live ops manager joining the team, allowing Frank to concentrate more on leading his team, now around 50 people and evolving the product itself.

And how are you keeping up with player expectations? Do you think this has changed regarding the amount of events and content that players want?

Since the launch of Clash of Clans and Hay Day in 2012, player expectations for content and event frequency have increased, that’s for sure. The evolving mobile gaming landscape, with incredibly high competition, has raised the bar for the update cadence and diversity. We embrace this challenge, as we see it as an opportunity to step up and do more and better for our players! By growing our teams, we are able to take more risks in terms of developing both content and features and still be meticulous about putting the best possible experiences in the hands of our players. Our commitment to exceeding player expectations is as strong as ever, even in this more challenging landscape.

 

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