Attracting an Audience with an App: Interview with Supercell Data Scientist – SCS Interview #1
By: Majken Christensen, astrophysicist
Smart-phones and tablets are some of the technical inventions that changed not only how we communicate with each other but also how we spend time by ourselves.
This type of electronics is a product of complicated physics theories and engineering competencies, which led to a technical revolution in the 21st century. Our understanding and application of solid-state physics, electrodynamics, optics and special relativity theory are just some of the fields in physics that allow us to use smart phones.
It was clever brains that developed this technology – but the engineering behind the hardware is not the reason why you use your phone.
Phones are used for socializing, news reading, emails, information search, gaming and much more. They attract your attention – for some people they even attract too much attention. It is the simple design and intuitive use of apps that grabs your attention. It is not the complex algorithm in the dense programming that lies beneath that catches your eye, even though these are the real reasons for you to use the app.
Seeing the complexity in the algorithms would make most people discard any program, but when wrapped in beautiful graphics and intuitive usage, people rush to download one app after another.
The Art Of Attracting An Audience With An App
My point here is how apps and especially popular game apps are the perfect combination of simplicity for the user and complexity from the creator. It is what I would call ideal outreach.
It shows us that the right presentation to the right audience will have major impact and exposure. Millions of people use game apps every day – some even more than they probably should. This is certainly not the case with quantum mechanics books (yet – I still have my hopes up!), so I am curious on what goes on behind the scenes at app developers and how the process from initial idea and coding to launch and success is.
I decided to do the first interview for my blog here on The Science Basement, Science Communication Space, with a data scientist and physicist from a large game development company. The result is this interview – I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Supercell: One Of The Worlds Fastest Growing Game Development Companies
Supercell is a game development company from Finland with offices all over the world. They create games for smart-phones and tablets, where the most famous games are Hay Day, Clash of Clans, Boom Beach and Clash Royale.
Two game developers established the company in 2010 because they wanted to make long-lasting games. Today Supercell is a business with more than a billion euro revenue. The corporate model is to hire the best people and not stand in their way of creating and developing games. The name Supercell actually arises from this philosophy: The company is build up by a lot of small teams (cells) with few employees in each, making it possible for each team member to go full speed at what they work on, while limiting the administrative hurdle that necessarily follows from large teams.
One of Supercell’s data scientists who work in one of the above-mentioned small teams is Ville Suur-Uski, who is a Finnish physicist. In 2012 he got his PhD degree after spending 4 years doing research in theoretical physics at the University of Helsinki.
Ville has worked at Supercell’s office in Helsinki for the past six years and today he works on the game Clash of Clans. He agreed to give us an insight into game development.
Tell us about your job and what you love about it?
“I work in the game team developing one of our games, namely Clash of Clans. My role is to study data about our players. How are they playing the game? Is the game balanced? Is there anything that could help the development team to improve the game?
I think I enjoy freedom and responsibility the most. In a way, it is close to being a researcher: you have a set of well-defined questions which often are very difficult to answer or it is tricky to say how should they be answered in the first place. For example, it is pretty easy to ask if a game is balanced or not. But it is very difficult to answer that question: first you need to define what it means to be balanced and then find out how that actually links back to the players and how much they enjoy the game. Also, some people might have very varied opinions on what the balance in a battle is. For example: is it your skill? Or the power of the troops used?”
If The Game Can't Be Explained To A Beginner, It Is Too Complicated
I assume the road from idea to launch is very versatile. The underlying algorithms and programming must be complex in order to have an intuitive and entertaining experience for the user.
Can you explain to us how the game development process is? And does it ever happen that a great idea for a game or algorithm is discarded, because the end user experience is not intuitive/simple enough?
“I think simplicity is a very key concept for mobile games. And we kill a lot of projects based on our feeling of simplicity and how much fun is it to play a prototype. There are two very different parts of game development: 1) the phase where you prototype and then 2) once the game is actually published.
The first part is when you are trying to come up with a great idea and even greater execution of the idea. It is difficult to get the idea from your head to the phone and make all the pieces work. The second part is when your game is actually played by (hopefully) many players and they will start forming their own ways of playing the game. At this point we need to understand the ways they are playing the game and keep on improving the game.
It is a fine balance between understanding the needs of the players and also trying to come up with yet more new ideas for the game. I think one very big problem here is that it is easy to add things to a game but that usually means it gets more complicated. So how do you add things without complicating it? Sometimes this feels like an impossible task but we value it very much. I can't help remembering Feynman saying something like 'If you can't explain something in physics to a first year student, you don't understand the concept well enough' and thinking that this could be adapted to something like 'If the feature in the game can't be explained to a beginner, it's too complicated'.”
Focus Groups Help To Improve The Game
In my work with science communication I often meet researchers who tend to forget their audience. It is easy to get caught up on your own reasons for communicating your work and forget the receiver. One way to change this behavior is to investigate your audience using focus groups and learn how they react to your work. I am therefore curious to hear if and how Ville and his team approach their audience.
Do you define target audience?
“This might sound overly simple, but in many cases we have actually gone with the idea first and having the team behind the idea developing the great game first and then thinking about the audience. Of course, this is not quite true in the sense that we want our games to be played by millions so it does bring some limits to for example the way you design the game: it has to be easy to understand in its core game play. Also, as the development progresses, the target audience gets clearer, but we are more interested in them as player types, for example: some like to play peaceful simulations and others like to compete.”
Do you use focus groups before launching games? If so, how do you select the people in it?
“We do. Most often we would be interested in seeing people who have not played that much games and how they perceive the game. It is really eye opening to see players playing your game for the first time. I would say that by the time we get focus groups in, the target audience is quite defined, but we would try to get a broader look on players.”
You have offices all over the world. Do you see your audience behaving differently across continents? What does this mean for your game development?
“Oh yes, for example we are seeing very different behavior for example in the very beginning of a game. In some countries players like to have the introduction to the game really short, think of 1- 3 minutes, otherwise they will lose interest. On the other hand, in some other markets the players are used to perhaps even 45-minute tutorials! That is a very tricky thing to understand sometimes and to accommodate both even more so. Then there are some peculiarities, like for example our farming game, Hay Day is super popular in Denmark compared to our other games in the same country and in the Nordics in general!”
How important is user experience feedback compared to a good technical program development?
“It is very important and we listen and actively try to understand our players. Then again, at the same time, it is just as important to keep your head cool and try to think what is best for the game in the long term (like, it is much more fun to play a game with a steady progression rather than something where everything gets unlocked from the beginning and it just gets too complex right away). It is always about balancing between developing new features and fixing old ones. We try our best at both but we are a small team and sometimes some things won't make it.”
Keep Improving Communication
What will you work on going forward?
“I will help the team develop the game further. I think one key focus for me is always about how to communicate my findings better and through that help the whole team to understand our players better.”
Thanks to Ville Suur-Uski for inviting us in to the world of game development. I love how simplicity and intuition towards the audience are so highly prioritized in his field. My hopes are that some day this will also be the norm in academia, especially in fields like physics.