In our regular Mobile Masterworks feature we take an in-depth look at the story behind the biggest mobile franchises and apps around. What led to their creation? What made them such a success? And how might these enduring hits inspire today’s creators to make their own mobile megagames?
Last month we looked at the two-dimensional endless runner Jetpack Joyride and how it boosted Halfbrick Studios to mobile superstardom. But this time we’re tackling another mega-hit, and one which still dominates mobile gaming to this day, with a studio that has just as much longevity as anyone else. That’s right, it’s clash time, specifically Clash of Clans time – so what made the cartoonish clans so popular to mobile gaming audiences?
To anyone who keeps up with the mobile games business, Supercell may need no introduction. But for anyone else it’s necessary to give an idea of how the studio became such a cornerstone of the mobile game industry. Surprisingly, the studio may owe part of its founding to Rovio, or the after-effects of Angry Birds’ release.
Supercell was co-founded by Illka Paananen alongside Mikko Kodisoja in 2010, both had recently moved on from mobile studio Sumea and featured in our 2011 coverage of the growing number of mobile startups in Finland spurred by Rovio’s success. At this point, Facebook Gaming was still a major consideration for studios, and Supercell’s first title Hay Day was no exception as it was Facebook-first and only then made the jump to mobile.
Finland was not yet, as we now often call it, the home of mobile gaming – but it was certainly getting there thanks to the massive success of Rovio and Angry Birds. The rising number of startups and acquisitions encouraged a number of new titles. Much like how Halfbrick Studios exemplified the vibrant state of the Australian development scene at the time, Supercell shows how Finland was a fertile ground for new mobile gaming studios.
After the success of Clash of Clans and their subsequent releases, in 2019 Chinese gaming giant Tencent would acquire a majority share in Supercell. This was, at the time, the largest games industry acquisition to date.
Development & Release
Coming hot off the heels of Hay Day, Supercell chose another avenue for Clash of Clans with a tablet-first development plan. This would mean that the title was developed first and foremost for the-then much more powerful tablet device, but would also be available on regular smartphones as well.
In our interview with then general manager for North America at Supercell, Greg Harper, he spoke about how the studio viewed smartphones at the time. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with smartphones. In fact, I own one myself, love it and play lots of games on it, but the smaller screen can be a bit limiting at times.
“The larger canvas of a tablet simply opens up more possibilities. Our games will support smartphones as well, but our primary focus will be to create the optimal experience on a tablet.”
While it’s easy to look back and scoff, hindsight is 20/20 and at the time it was most likely considered that games such as strategy which had traditionally been mainstays of the PC platform would benefit from a screen and device that was as similar as possible to them.
It’s also worth noting that, even though the cartoonish characters were the same, looking back at the early promotional images from the game we can see a much darker tone comparatively speaking. With scowls all around and not a smile in sight, nowadays Supercell has firmly embraced the all-ages identity of the game, but it’s still an interesting insight into the past.
When Clash of Clans was released in August of 2012 it saw near immediate success. With the title quickly climbing not just the iPad charts, but also the iPhone charts. At the time given the larger array of games on offer for iPhone and the accessibility of the device compared to tablets, it was still a huge achievement to reach the #6 position. And as we observed, given that higher user base it’s likely that even in its earliest days Clash of Clans on mobile was already eclipsing its intended platform of tablets.
Within a year, Supercell was also considered to be on track to be “The next Rovio”, no small achievement given that the Angry Birds creator was pretty much the spark which lit the fuse that sent the Finnish mobile game market soaring. This came courtesy of App Annie, whom you may know now as Data.ai, which itself was in its earliest days at the time.
Nowadays, Clash of Clans stands as not only one of the most popular but also one of the most profitable mobile games worldwide. Even making it into our list of the top 10 highest-grossing games with over $1bn of revenue for not only Clash of Clans but other games in their catalogue such as Brawl Stars.
Within a few years, Supercell was on its fourth game, after publishing another strategy game – this time fellow strategy title Boom Beach. Clash Royale was a major success in and of itself, and marked their return to the Clashverse, as well as seeing a huge amount of debate about a potential esports focus. Again, hindsight is 20/20, and we now see Clash Royale regularly featured in mobile esports tournaments worldwide. But these mobile esports tournaments would arguably not be possible, were it not for Supercell.
So why was it successful?
As with most of the Masterworks we’ve covered so far, a big point in Clash of Clans’ favour was its simple and appealing graphical style. Whereas more powerful consoles at the time were pursuing realism and advanced lighting,, stylised graphics were much more common on mobile due to the platform’s technical limitations. Nowadays with the power available on smartphones this has begun to change, with graphics matching many console or PC titles in some cases, but judging by Clash of Clans’ continued success the simple and colourful cartoon characters of the Clashverse still have their place.
More so than that however, Clash of Clans was not a premium-priced game, and was thus easily accessible from the get-go. Its focus on the social aspect, with the titular Clans that were perhaps inspired by the social groups of the same name on many PC games, forming a major part of a vibrant game community.
Nowadays, Supercell is a much greater entity than it was. Long gone are the days of concentrating on Facebook games and tablets, as many of their titles are played across the world every day. Recently, CEO and co-founder Illka Paananen commented on the “Defining challenge” for mobile gaming, two of them in-fact.
- “We always have to figure out how to create ANOTHER great new game. (And IF we do, then make it better!)”
- “We have to keep making that first live game better every day, week, month, and year…forever.”
Supercell hasn’t launched a game globally since 2018, and their constant sunsetting of titles that don’t meet expectations has many wondering if their studio culture isn’t too harsh, especially given other companies like Metacore have made it their business to pick up Supercell’s scrap to turn into their own successes.
For a company that’s made some of the biggest hits in mobile gaming, maybe that ambition and desire to always be the next big thing is what will bring us our next Clash of Clans in the near-future?