Petri Ikonen, Creative Director at tracktwenty, joined EA in 2012 when they opened their mobile game studio in Helsinki, Finland. With responsibilities that include supervising the studio’s design team as well as doing many hands-on design tasks, he is vitally involved in developing tracktwenty’s creative culture and processes. At Casual Connect Europe 2017 in Berlin, Petri discussed the challenges of creating SimCity BuildIt.
Before joining EA, Petri worked for nine years at Digital Chocolate, mainly as Design Director involved with multiple projects and up to ten designers at a time. During that time he worked on close to one hundred game projects. This gave Petri the opportunity for something he strongly believes in, learning by doing. As he emphasizes, “You learn to design games by designing games – some theory from time to time is good, but you won’t learn game design from books.”
Creative Team Work
Petri’s work in drama and theater before being involved in the game industry has also been an advantage in his present career. He was involved in various roles, ending with screenwriting for a soap opera. Many of the things he learned there he continues to use, particularly creative teamwork; there are similarities in the creative process whether you are creating games, stage plays or TV dramas.
Petri enjoys many things about game design and the games industry, and creative teamwork is certainly one of the most important. He says, “I truly believe that including the team in the design process improves your game a lot.” He especially enjoys the never-ending challenge. Since there is no such thing as the perfect design, they can always improve their games. The current games-as-a-service offer a great opportunity to do that.
From Gamer to Developer
Since the late 1970s Petri has been an avid gamer but it never occurred to him at the time that a career in the game industry was possible in Finland. But in early 2000 he discovered there were game companies in Finland. He was also recognizing the limitations of drama and TV in Finland – it was a very small industry that was not growing. So he applied to be a scriptwriter at some game companies and was accepted at Sumea, which was acquired by Digital Chocolate. And before long he was working as a game designer.
Originally Petri thought of becoming an engineer; in the 1970s, before home computers were popular he was very interested in electronics. But then came Apple II and Comodore 64, making a huge impact on him. As a teenager his interests shifted to art, painting, writing and theater. He admits, “To be honest, I realized that those hobbies could help me to have a girlfriend someday. Staying as a computer nerd felt like a bad idea at that time.”
Even so, as a child he enjoyed creating simple mechanic games such as a pinball game which he describes as totally mechanic and horrible looking, but he was fascinated with iterating it. By the late 1970s he had seen Taito’s Gun Fight, then Asteroids, and when he had access to an Apple II computer in high school he began creating simple text adventures in Basic.
Thinking From Different Perspectives
Today his creative process varies considerably. It may start with a problem to solve or it could be about defining restrictions. Some small detail may lead to a system or he may be inspired by a broad theme. He likes to observe everything in life, then remix things and ideas from different perspectives. Working in theater taught him to think about things from other people’s perspectives and now he always wonders how a player of the game would feel in any given situation. And the game itself can lead to the inspiration for creativity. Petri says “SimCity BuildIt is a very special game – due to its subject matter – anything related to cities, architecture, urban lifestyle may inspire.”
A professional game developer is creating games every day. Petri has found that, although some days are better than others, doing creative work day after day for years builds the “creative muscles”. His recommendations for improving creativity are simple: sleep enough, exercise and eat healthy.
Creating games is unquestionably a very challenging profession. For Petri the greatest mental challenge comes when the game is almost ready but you are not sure whether players will enjoy it. But of course the greatest rewards come after the game is launched if you discover that players do love playing it.
Putting Players First
The successful launch of SimCity BuildIt was one of the most fulfilling times of his career. The game was an extremely complex project from a design point of view. Petri credits hard work, a great team culture and always putting the players first for the success of the game.
Putting players first and seeing the game from their point of view has always been a top priority for Petri. However, early in his career it was difficult to receive negative feedback from them. He has since learned to respect this feedback and listen to the audience carefully. He maintains that if there is something about the game that is not fun it is the developer’s responsibility to learn from users and improve.
Petri believes that the coming years will be great for players. Games are improving on all platforms, the F2P model and games-as-a-service will continue to evolve to serve players better. At the same time, he expects to see continuing innovation because competition has become so intense and a game must be completely different to succeed.
Advantages and Challenges of F2P
The F2P monetization model is Petri’s preference because of the advantages it has for players. He points out, “A game can’t be cheaper, and if the game is bad or just not for you, you uninstall it. If you like it and you feel it entertains you for weeks, months or years, you are free to use money as much as you like. I think it’s pretty much win-win for everyone.”
But with the F2P model great design and UX become critical because without retention the game will fail. Petri believes that designing for premium was easier simply because UX and longevity were not so important as long as the game could generate enough interest to sell well. With F2P the game must also be a service and offer entertainment for years; it is a very different design challenge.
There are several design objectives with the F2P model that Petri considers very important. These include first-time user flow and telegraphing all features and goals early to maximize retention. It is also essential to think ahead to older gameplay and design evergreen loops to offer fun for years of play.
If you are someone who would like to follow the same career path as Petri, he emphasizes the need for both patience and hard work. He recommends, “Learn to program, create art, design board games, build your portfolio. Sooner or later a company will hire you. Please keep in mind that game development is a team effort. The better you are on communication the more successful you will be. Meet industry people, network. No one can prevent you from pursuing your career on games – it’s just up to you.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.