Sent on October 28th, 2022.

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This week’s podcast episode was a unique one. I interviewed Touko Tahkokallio, who was at Supercell and built games like Brawl Stars, Boom Beach, and Hay Day, as the designer of these games. After ten years at Supercell, Touko is now starting his own game studio.

Before Supercell, Touko was a professional board game designer and shipped games like the award-winning sci-fi board game Eclipse.

Supercell has perfected so many ways of making great games, and I wanted to ask Touko what he’s realized from working in gaming for over a decade.

Here are my highlights from the episode.

1. How do you make a great game

Question: How would someone go about making a great game? (6:29)

Touko: Let’s say you’re doing something more experimental or new. I think it’s valuable to have a small core team devoted to making the game work and making it the best possible game.

[The team] can be just a few people. 1, 2, 3, or 4. Just a few people who work well together and own the vision for the game. If it’s a big team and they all try to own it in the same way, it’s often impossible.

I think that it’s super important to be flexible on the journey. Be open-minded, humble about it, and trust. Try to see if it works, and if it doesn’t, then go back and change something.

2. Hiring for a game team

Question: How would you hire into this “few people” team? (8:10)

Touko: There need to be people who think holistically about the game, the design, and the monetization, all at the same time. And then you need people who are excellent and fast at executing and have this mindset of going back and forth to iterate it but also having the guts to stick with it when there are some unknowns in front of you. Like, really push forward and try.

3. Innovation in gaming

Question: What are your thoughts on making new games, working iteratively on something already out in the market, versus starting from zero, with something innovative? (9:25)

Touko: [On the] explorative development side, I think you need some guts to feel like “in my head, the game plays out nicely.” You prototype it in your head, and you feel like this could work, and then you need some boldness to push forward, test it out, and be brutal about it. I think it is important to have a few vision holders sharing the product’s vision and willing to push it forward and see if the idea that’s only in your head or on paper would work out.

I have this reference to being in a jungle. You’re adventuring, have a vague idea of where to go, and have a vision of what you want to do there. But in practice, once you start the journey, you usually notice that certain things you were thinking about didn’t work out as you wanted, and then you need to take that input and revisit the whole path to your goal.

But keeping at the same time an open mind in terms of is this working what I am thinking, but also being brave on the fact that it is something new and we need to push a bit farther because there’s no apparent reference out there that we can compare to and iterate. So it’s a combination of open-mindedness and then this “pushing forward” mentality that it’ll work cut in the end. Let’s make it work.

4. System design

Question: Is there innovation in system design still happening? (19:53)

Touko: An example where I was involved was in Brawl Stars. In the beginning, we had an issue. We knew that Clash Royale has the challenge of players quickly ending up just playing with the same cards, upgrading the same stuff, and not being interested in any new content.

We wanted to fix that somehow and develop a system where you would care about all the new content. You would be interested in playing with the different Brawlers. The way that the trophy system is done… It’s like a system design innovation, where each prowler has their own trophies. When you start with a new Brawler, you always start from zero, and it’s easy to progress on trophies, have fun games, and explore the new characters.

This system side supports the idea that new content is cool, interesting, and fun; people care about that.

We had a question in our minds, “what type of system we should build to support players to be interested in all the content.” Players being interested, experimenting and upgrading, and playing and caring about all the Brawlers that we wanted to release.

I think if we hadn’t been able to solve that early on, we probably wouldn’t have pushed the product further. So I think it was one of those almost like existential questions; we need to solve it to make this work.

5. Board games

Question: How do you think a video game designer should approach learning from board gaming and apply things from board gaming to making video game design? (34:56)

Touko: [Board games are a great place to use the] power of prototyping in your head. Prototyping is something you learn by doing, and I think board games are a perfect playground to improve your skills in prototyping.

The iteration cycle is fast. In the morning, you have an idea. In the afternoon, you can create a prototype, then in the evening, you can test it out, and perhaps during the night, you can kill it and the next day start over.

I’m a big believer in simple rules that create a lot of depth and mastery for the players. In board games, the players need to enforce all the rules. They need to learn the rules and use the UI in cards, tokens, or whatnot. There are no shortcuts or assistance from a computer to guide you. You’d need to trust the player to take care of all of that. That forces you to think about how I can do this in the simplest way possible and with the cleanest design possible.

I think it puts you into the mindset that you try to remove all the extras and make the game as simple and elegant as possible. And that type of mindset leads to great games on any platform. I think many modern games suffer from over-complex and non-transparent mechanics that players don’t understand.

6. What is Touko excited about

Question: What are you most excited about in these kinds of free-to-play live service games right now? (43:03)

Touko: I see these games as hobbies, which is very exciting. The game can be a big part of someone’s life and free time. That’s fascinating to me and very exciting. So it’s not like you do something, experience it once, and then forget about it. Forget about it. You are building something that’s a big part of the player’s daily experience.

Final words

Touko and his team have announced their company, Stellar Core, this week. You should definitely bookmark this team. I’m counting on them delivering something amazing soon.

In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast episode with Touko or watch this GDC talk that Touko did in 2018.