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Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Grand Cru in Helsinki

July 9, 2014 — by Vlad Micu

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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.

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Grand Cru settled for what many may consider a hidden gem right next to the Sörnäinen metro station.

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.”

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The Grand Cru Team

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’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.”

“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.

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Nevertheless, the team agreed that the soul of Supernauts would remain in the multiplayer and community.

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.”

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Grand Cru’s main challenge has been maintaining the intricate balance of getting many things just right.

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

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With Supernauts, Grand Cru set the challenge to combine two of the most unlikely matchable concepts: user-generated content and free-to-play mechanics.

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.

“Finding the right kind of personality is more important than ninja skills.”

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

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Company of Tanks: Bringing an Arcade Multiplayer Tank Experience to Mobile

February 26, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Based in Kajaani, Northern Finland, Critical Force Entertainment is the town’s first independent game company. Tim Spaninks was brought in as producer and lead designer to direct a young team in the development of a cross-platform game: Company of Tanks. In this article, Tim shares his experience of working with a fairly inexperienced team resulting in a very successful outcome.

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Initial goal: a high-quality tank game for the mobile platform

When I was brought into this project, World of Tanks (which is a massive online game developed by Wargaming.net) had fairly recently become insanely popular and managed to open up a completely new market segment for a new sub-genre called tank games.

Anything put on the Google Play Store featuring the word ‘tanks’ seemed to gather up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of downloads, seemingly regardless of the quality of the game. Therefore, the initial goal of Company of Tanks was to “create something like World of Tanks for mobile devices” with a quality that would outmatch the existing competition.

From left to right: Ville, Lassi, Sampsa, Mikko
From left to right: Ville, Lassi, Sampsa, Mikko

Sampsa, Mikko, and Lassi came to Critical Force Entertainment as interns, and managed to get a simple prototype up and running very quickly.
Right after I joined the team, we brought in our artists Ville and Thanabodi a.k.a. Viola from Thailand, and I knew we needed a change of direction.

Every Game Should Have its Own Identity

Right from the start, I didn’t agree with the mentality or the spirit of the project. Firstly, I believe that every game should have its own identity and bring a new experience to the player. It wouldn’t feel right to try to duplicate a game’s experience, even if it’s on another platform. Secondly, we were mainly developing for the mobile platform, which has a completely different target group and lends itself to different gaming experiences than PC and consoles.

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At first we were going for a more slow-paced, realistic style game

At first, we were going for a more slow-paced, realistic style game, but then decided to adapt the gameplay to the platform: the game would become faster and way more arcade-like to have shorter game sessions with more action. We also decided to change the visual style accordingly. The game was to become stylized to set the right expectations: it’s not a tank simulator and sure as hell isn’t a World of Tanks clone. This way, we would still appeal to a very large market segment aching to play 3D tank games, but at the same time differentiate ourselves from the competition in terms of style and gameplay.

It was now time to prototype, test, reflect, prototype, test, reflect, and so on to find the right way to make the game as fun as possible!

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The game was to become stylized to set the right expectations: it’s not a tank simulator and sure as hell isn’t a World of Tanks clone.

Saying No

Often in a game’s development, it’s the designer who says “Yes!” and the producer is who says “No!” to gameplay and feature suggestions. One of my toughest personal challenges in this project was to have to take both of these roles at the same time. Many awesome-sounding or even almost crucial features such as an in-game chat, friend lists, clan support, ranking lists, player stats, or simply the ability to completely customize your tank by drawing on it, placing emblems, etc. had to be put on hold or scrapped completely in favor of finishing the game on time. I was only going to be in Finland until mid-December, and the entire team would end up only working part-time on the game shortly after: we had to release a playable Android version before that time.

Prioritizing was essential, and through continuous debate and feedback, we were able to pinpoint what needed to be done to get everything ready on time. This often meant going for the absolute minimum viable options. No fancy customization and putting together your tank of parts collected throughout the game, but simply a very basic upgrade system.

Sometimes, it’s demotivating not to be able to make the game as awesome as you dreamt, but knowing that we could keep adding features and content after release and strive to make the game as perfect as possible is something that made it bearable.

Remember Who the Game is For

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Showcasing our game at the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani and DigiExpo in Helsinki was an extremely enriching experience

When we had our first playable version ready, we got some great opportunities to receive crucial feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game we needed to work on. Showcasing our game at the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani and DigiExpo in Helsinki turned out an extremely enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot participating in the Northern Game Summit conference’s pitching competition. And winning the €5000 prize for the development of our game allowed us to speed up, acquire some needed licenses, additional testing devices, and invest in a custom-made soundtrack and sound effects.

The most beautiful moment of the entire project for me was at the DigiExpo 2013 event in Helsinki. A young kid picked up our tablet and immediately understood how to play, and got completely immersed in the game. At some point, he glanced over at his friend next to him with a grin and said “hyvää peli!” (meaning “good game!” in Finnish). This nearly broke me. This kid stayed at our booth playing the game for nearly an hour! When getting lost in the development process and reaching your deadlines, it’s easy to forget what you’re actually doing it all for. This was the moment when it became tangible for me that after all of our hard work, we were actually making this for someone. And that someone really loved our game! This is why I love my work, and those tiny moments make it all worthwhile.

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This is why I love my work, and those tiny moments make it all worthwhile.

The rest of DigiExpo was sort of a blur of wonderful moments with many people (mainly kids) playing the game. Besides providing us with a lot of feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game needed work, it was a massive motivational boost for the rest of the project.

Player Base in the Beginning: No One to Play With

There was one thing throughout development that I was dreading the most: how are we going to get players? It’s known that it can be hard for smaller online indie games to gather enough people because nobody wants to play a game that doesn’t already have an established player base – which complicates things even more.

Before our Android build was ready, we decided to Beta test and soft launch our game on the web platform using Kongregate and Facebook. This would allow us to build interest and gather some players without any marketing budget and get some valuable feedback at the same time.

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There was one thing throughout development that I was dreading the most: how are we going to get players?

Testing the game on Kongregate revealed one massive problem: when a player wants to start an online match, he is thrown into a lobby to wait for enough players to start the game. Because we started out with a non-existent player base, as soon as someone tried to start a game, they found that nobody (or not enough players) was in the lobby, and simply disconnected. This led to a situation where there were continuously one or two players online who didn’t have enough people to play with.

Arguably, the biggest mistake made in the development process was the way we dealt with this. We figured that if we decrease the minimum player requirement to two and interest in the game would pick up later, the problem would vanish. Surely, when the Android downloads would start streaming in, the problem would fix itself? Well, it didn’t.

Shortly after the Android launch, we noticed the problem still existed, and released a patch changing it to a drop-in, drop-out kind of system that would throw the player immediately into an already running game. Thankfully, this worked and we now have an active player base!

Additional Tweaks

We’ve just reached over 240.000 downloads and with around 7000 downloads every day, the project has been a tremendous success for such a young team so far. Based on the numbers and received feedback, it’s safe to say that many people are playing and enjoying our game, which is a fantastic feeling!

In our eyes, the game is far from finished though. It’s lacking end-game content and goals to strive for. There are many features and content to be added and many in-game tweaks to be made. We’re working hard to implement metric systems to collect tons of data using various analytics plug-ins to determine where our focus needs to be. So far, we’ve basically been working in the dark, and shedding some light on the impact of changes we make will allow us to work more efficiently and improve the game where it counts.

In the meantime, we’ve applied for Microsoft & Nokia’s AppCampus program to be funded with €50.000 to create a Windows Phone version of the game with custom content for the platform. We plan to use those funds to further tweak the game and get ready for a later iOS release!

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