Supercell, Lead programmer, for 1.5 years;
Bugbear, from Game to Lead game programmer, for 3 years;
Rovio, from Game to Lead programmer, for 4 years;
Enlightment Entertainment, part-time programmer while studying, for a year;
VTT Tietotekniikka, part-time researcher while studying, for 4 years;
Before that: Student at Aalto University.
QUICK! WHAT DO THESE BRING TO YOUR MIND?
Angry Birds – Jaakko Iisalo. Wistful feeling from my Rovio times.
Nokia – First step to take Finnish stuff to the world in a big way.
Finnish games boom – Max Payne
How do you recognise a good team – Some internal magic. But also, everyone in the team needs to have passion.
Game I play now – Most I play a game called League of Legends.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN GAMES INDUSTRY?
Since a kid, I’ve been certain that I want to work in the games industry though I wasn’t sure I would get in! My first games were for Commodore 64 so I fell in love with games when I was four or five. I started programming at eight, like creating quizzes where you were given a question, “what is the capital of Finland”, and when you answered “Helsinki” it gave you a point. I guess this was the moment when I already started to think about my future career as a grownup, when you saw the sentences on the screen. “I can do this!” Heh.
I was doing small projects at home, thinking I might be working in the industry some day. And at the university, I included games-related courses in my major. It was at VTT where I started to feel it might really happen, I might end up working with games! Us VTT part-timers were pretty free to do what we wanted, I think they had an idea to offer nice atmosphere “working for the government”, to show that cool things can be done with them. I had already worked on different mobile apps, graphics and such, when my supervisor asked, “what would you want to do?” Without hesitating a second I said, “games”! And they were like, “well why not”. Of course you had to come up with a research angle, and I started with Nokia mobiles to prototype multiplayer Bluetooth games, a real time tank game for eight concurrent players. I even wrote my diploma thesis on that.
Later I sent out applications for a few real games companies and that is how I ended up in this small business and I got in the industry for real. I joined them to create cell phone games, subcontracting for Sumea for example. Before that, I had no single connection in the whole industry. I was probably the only programmer among my friends and definitely nobody else worked in the games industry.
MOBILE, CONSOLE, TABLET! VERY DIFFERENT GAMES PLATFORMS. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN MOVING THROUGH THE COMPANIES?
Through the Sumea connections I knew a few people that founded Rovio, and I joined the company during their first mile. We were publishing hard-core games, but I guess none of them were really successful even though they got good reviews. It was really a garage feeling, a chaos, everything topsy-turvy, but a really fun atmosphere. Like when you always had to get the operators involved, that was a show, and when new devices were launched you had to get the games working with a hundred new phones. But perhaps four years after founding, the realities hit hard and there were layoffs. I guess there were like 15 people when I left. The guys who remained developed the drive, changed their strategy and their next project was Angry Birds.
The feeling for me had been for a while, it would be a good moment to move to the console world, to learn new things: make a bigger game, transfer to different projects. When the atmosphere wasn’t that good in the previous job, it was an easy decision. After three years I started to feel that it is time to move on. I saw the first big project my current employer launched – the game genre and style, that it was an MMO and you go with a gun and the camera angle was an isometric old school, that really spoke to me! I thought it was super cool so I applied. And what is different this time, for example we are currently working only with Apple devices, so there has not been that much need for porting like in previous jobs. Still, the first game was browser-based, and that platform left its mark in our systems. We have been drawing lots of experience from that Flash game, and many server solutions made then are still in use. Yet all games we’ve published this far are pretty different, most projects are scratch projects. You learn something new every time. We are able to re-use some components but there is no legacy codebase to fight with. Though the legacy gets generated surprisingly fast!
WHAT DO YOU DO TO IMPROVE AND SHARE YOUR KNOW-HOW AND INSIGHTS?
Coding is my main, but I am interested in all the different parts of games, from audio to graphics to gameplay. But I get good enough designer kicks in my home projects that are for me to learn and work on fun and stupid ideas that you might not want to show anyone else. But overall and at work, I can contribute the best as a programmer. Yet everyone in the team can be little designers if they want to. There is no one guy to make the decisions, but the team filters the outcome in a not very organised way… we just sit in the same room and people open their mouth, instead of saying “let’s have a design meeting”. If you want to concentrate, you can use headphones, though personally I never do. That way you hear what others are up to, and may join the discussion. In an international team you of course always need to balance when using Finnish that easily slips in, when you don’t think about it. It needs to be guarded really.
You need people who dare and aren’t afraid of their own vision. And to share that, there are easily lots of conversations within the team every day, but with the others in the company, you need to take care of the communication actually taking place. You may have a weekly informal discussion for example, but often there’s something you directly need from others. You yourself aim to communicate with others, help, try to get the right people to do the right work… our teams are so small and everyone is really experienced, it is not like one experienced guy and the rest are juniors to boss around. So if you know someone in the company knows about a certain topic, then you can ask and share, to learn from others. And especially to hear if someone is already working on it so you don’t try doing the same!
* Note: interviews are done in Finnish and translated directly to English, so some minor edits get done after the publishing now and then *