Having been called the latest sensation coming out of Finland since Rovio and Supercell numerous times, expectations around Helsinki-based game company Grand Cru and their debut title Supernauts have become pretty high over the past couple of years.
But what’s it like inside of Grand Cru? Who are these people? Creative director & co-founder Harri Grandholm took the time to tell us more about the company, their team and their magnificent Mad Men-esque office in the notoriously hip and bohemian Kallio neighbourhood of downtown Helsinki.
The Boss Level
Finding the perfect office space in Helsinki is not an easy feat, especially for an promising game start-up like Grand Cru. Grandholm and his fellow founders took a pragmatic approach when hunting for the office. With a founding team existing of a big group of Finnish game industry veterans aside from the younger hungry talent filling up the ranks, many Grand Cru members already find themselves juggling family and start-up life between the suburbs of Greater Helsinki and the bustling downtown area where game companies have their offices spread over almost every street.
Grand Cru settled for what many may consider a hidden gem right next to the Sörnäinen metro station, with a bus station right on their door step that features the famous 615 bus line that takes travelers straight from Helsinki’s train station up to the Helsinki Vantaa International Airport.
“We were lucky to find this diamond in the rough that nobody knew about,” Grandholm says. “Maybe because we were not put off by the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood.”
Grandholm continues sharing the history of their treasure. “The building was built in the sixties for a legendary insurance company, so we had to honor that history when redecorating the office. The top floor, which we have slowly taken over during the last three years, obviously was the old CEO’s domain where he entertained VIP guests in the private sauna. So we are literally on the Boss Level.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to note that after rumors spread about the building, a few other gaming companies also recently moved into the building. “It’s quite the game dev party now, but there’s still plenty of space in case we need to expand into other floors,” he adds.
A Well-Seasoned Team to Boot
One of the beautiful things about the Finnish game industry lies in its rich history of mobile game development. Grand Cru’s founding team has also played a big part in it, having initially worked together at mobile game studio Mr. Goodliving in a place and time when mobile games were not as big as they are today. “All of us spent several years there, two of us even a decade,” Grandholm says. “We had entertained the idea of starting our own company before, but Mr.Goodliving was such a great and laid-back place that nobody was in a hurry to leave.”
With RealNetworks unfortunately shutting down the whole company back in 2011, things started moving fast for Grandholm and his comrades. “There were other options at first, but I guess the founding team formed organically from the couple of senior game makers who felt like a good mix and wanted to take the risk of going for it alone,” says Grandholm.
The only non-Mr.Goodliving founder the team managed to persuade was from well-known Finnish game company Sulake, because the team knew they would need more large scale multiplayer server experience in the team. “Our founding team of six is also unusually big, but that’s what makes the Cru Grand,” he adds.
“We learned a lot from our time at Mr.Goodliving working with RealNetworks and also from other Finnish gaming companies,” he continues. “This is strongly reflected in our company culture and management style. We’ve tried to keep the good things and get rid of the bad. You have to be versatile and fluid and trust the individuals. It’s all about the team! ”
“We’ve also made enough games to know that it’s always a journey into the unknown. You set sail for India, but may arrive in America. Or be eaten by the Kraken. “
A Supernaut is Born
It wouldn’t surprise anyone if racking up a total of 11 million US dollars in investment funds came from how Grand Cru’s founders have been making games together for many years before.
“We know exactly what everybody’s preferences and strengths are,” Grandholm explains. “Supernauts was basically defined by the team, meaning that our first game had to be something everybody would love to do. The creative building element was a core feature that we all could agree on almost immediately. Obviously, we’re fans of Minecraft, but Little Big Planet was also a big influence. “We wanted to have a similar kind of accessibility and fun, and especially the community element of sharing your creations, he says. “In fact, we experimented with player-created missions at one point, but then decided to take a slightly different route.”
The original concept the team had set out for Supernauts was to create something closer to that of an MMO. But the team then scaled down their ambitions and took the wise decision to concentrate on building a fully functional single-player experience first.
Nevertheless, the team agreed that the soul of Supernauts would remain in the multiplayer and community. “Luckily, we are finally at the stage where we can implement many of those cool social elements that have been waiting in the backlog,” Grandholm adds.
For Supernauts, Grandholm and his team wanted to have a theme that would be unique enough to stand out of the crowd, but still be part of popular culture. The goal was to not limit the player’s creativity too much.
“For example, we were also thinking about a (fun) horror/monster theme, but that would have made it difficult for players to build, say, disco floors, “ Grandholm mentions. “The ‘comic sci-fi’ concept just felt natural, and we could also slip in a topical environmental element in there without being too serious about it, so what’s not to love ?”
Grandholm had actually written a lot more story than what eventually made it into the game, “which is probably for the best, because most of it is really bad jokes,” he adds.
Measuring the Right Things
With a highly creative concept as Supernauts, tracking the right numbers and metrics becomes super important. According to Grandholm, Grand Cru’s main challenge has been maintaining the intricate balance of getting many things just right. “And even with all the experience and best practices, there is always the unknowable,” he adds. “Of course, what we want is players playing the game frequently and for a long time, but that’s hardly unique. What I think is important is to not get too caught up in metrics so that you do more reacting than acting. It can easily narrow your view.”
One example that Grandholm considers that sets Supernauts apart from other games is that his team actively conducted surveys on their most loyal players. What they found was that the players enjoyed the creative building the most. “This was the original plan, so we’re pretty happy about that, “ he says.
Mixing and Matching
With Supernauts, Grand Cru set the challenge to combine two of the most unlikely matchable concepts: user-generated content and free-to-play mechanics. “It’s definitely not an easy match,” Grandholm concurs. ”Especially sandbox gameplay is nearly the exact opposite of what you seem to need for a successful F2P game. We knew from past experience how hard it is to control these types of unpredictable mechanics, even in a premium game, in order to make a proper game out of it, but wondered if we could actually get it to work. That would be something, right? It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you, but I think we’ve got something pretty special up and running now.”
“We just want to inspire people to build cool things. Your turfs get a ‘hotness’ rating based on several things, including popularity, and we have the Supernauts Universe top lists, where you can find the hottest turfs,” Grandholm says. “We are doing our best so that the coolest creations get visibility and therefore visitors, because that is very rewarding. You can also easily capture and share videos to the internet and link directly to your turf. Once you are invested and motivated in building something really great, then spending some money instead of time is not a big step for the players that prefer that. Or, alternatively, you can concentrate more into the production part of the game.”
The Grand Cru Culture
With the Grand Cru team being 36 members and most of them tasked on Supernauts, new concepts and prototypes are already being developed to make sure that success is also guaranteed on the long run. A massive expansion isn’t part of that plan and might well never be. “We really don’t want to grow any more than is absolutely necessary, because we want to keep that small team feel and efficiency for as long as possible,“ Grandholm argues.
Grandholm describes the working environment to be very transparent and have a “flat” way of working. “This means, among other things, that communication needs to work well so that every team member can make independent decisions. It also means that we have to be really careful about who we hire, or it can be a disaster. Finding the right kind of personality is more important than ninja skills.” Grand Cru also has a mandatory “have a life” policy. No extra long days or crunching is allowed, and use of vacation days is heavily encouraged.
But Grand Cru’s culture doesn’t stay limited to its own team. The Finnish game industry as a whole stems from having an openness towards newcomers and guests that is rarely seen in other countries.
“Finland is a small place, and I think the feeling that all game developers are in the same boat is strong,” Grandholm says. “It’s not a zero-sum game, so there’s no reason to draw lines and dig up trenches. Somebody’s always throwing a party and discussion is pretty open over a few beers. Every success story is a positive thing for all the companies: more visibility for the industry means potentially more investor interest and game developers from abroad moving to Finland, as we have already ran out of the local ones, hint hint.”
Grand Cru launched Supernauts a few weeks ago, and has already reached 1 million players in the first six days after its official launch on the Apple Appstore. Check out the game here.