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Supercell has generated billions of dollars in revenues over the years. It remains one of the biggest successes of the mobile gaming free-to-play boom. Tencent bought majority control of the Helsinki-based company at a $10.2 billion valuation in 2016 and it still generates a huge amount of cash.
Supercell has changed mobile gaming with titles like Brawl Stars, Clash Royale, Boom Beach, and more. And it has big titles debuting in the Clash of Clans universe and a title called Everdale as well.
None of that would have been possible were it not for Hay Day and Clash of Clans, two mobile games that launched within a month of each other a decade ago and balanced free-to-play monetization and fun in just the right ways. Hay Day was Supercell’s first real hit, and the game is celebrating its 10th anniversary today. To date, gamers have downloaded it more than 660 million times.
I talked to Supercell’s Stephan Demirdjian, Hay Day game lead for the past nine years, and Camilla Avellar, game designer on Hay Day for seven years, about this success. They talked about how the game evolved over time and how it continues to get people to come back.
The Hay Day team has lined up a month-long series of events to celebrate the anniversary, and it will give back to real-life farmers through a donation to the Rodale Institute to teach farmers regenerative farming practices.
Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Demirdjian and Avellar.
Stephan Demirdjian: I’m originally from Austria, Vienna. I came to Supercell in 2012. More or less I’ve been the game lead on Hay Day for more than nine years. It’s been a long time. That’s me in a nutshell.
Camilla Avellar: I’m originally from Brazil. I’ve been a game dev on Hay Day for seven-ish years.
GamesBeat: I remember everything starting out in the farming genre, with Facebook games in particular. One funny thing I remember was listening to Mark Pincus talk on a panel about FarmVille starting to take off. People were asking him, “Why did you copy Farm Town”? I interviewed a lot of the FarmVille creators as the game was taking off, and they were telling me they’d build a game with nine people in 10 weeks. That was pretty amazing at the time. And then it shot up to 100 millions or something like that. It was a fun piece of history to live through.
But I never quite caught the description of how Hay Day took off. That’s one reason I was very curious about this call. When you look back at the outset there, what was–I’m not sure how much of that you both were there for. But I’m curious what that was like from the Supercell perspective.
Demirdjian: I wasn’t part of the original team that actually created the game, but I was there shortly after. We handled it afterward. I can only tell the stories that I’ve heard. But from what I remember–it was about six months of development, starting in late 2011 with the idea, in November. The conception phase–the company was fresh off the Facebook game Gunshine, and the team decided that they wanted to shift gears. They wanted to look at the mobile and tablet economy, the business there, the new platforms. The original lead at the time for the project, he looked at the charts and noticed that there was no farming game on mobile yet. Maybe we could be the first successful farming game on mobile. That was the starting pitch to the team.
The team got excited, but when it really took off in development, when the team really started to believe, was when they added the touch mechanics for things like sowing your crops, weeding the fields, and harvesting later on. It was a simple mechanic, but it felt so good that it really transformed the team. At that point they realized they had something, or that was the story I heard.
GamesBeat: I remember that was the opportunity, too. FarmVille had succeeded on Facebook, on Canvas, on the PC. I know that Zynga tried to move over to mobile, but it was a slow transition for them. They couldn’t quite figure out how to do the same games on mobile in the right way that really resonated with players. The early attempts they had to do different kinds of games on mobile weren’t successful. In some ways that was the surprise, that someone had figured out how to do games that worked on the iPhone.
Demirdjian: Of course I can’t speak to what happened at Zynga, but I do see some–I would assume there are maybe some parallels with how the original team approached it and how we approached development further on, later on. I don’t really remember, in those 10 years of development later on, that we ever needed to study what the competition was doing. We were able to build such an amazing team. Despite some rotation, we had a lot of stability in the team. That helped to ground the ideas that were there and preserve what the look and feel of the game should be, that continuous feel, while listening to the community and looking back to the original game team.
I believe they also–of course they looked at what was available on the market at the time, but the original team didn’t have any technological debt or design debt. They could just start from a blank slate. Even though there are some references around. They didn’t have to abide by any rules that were anchored in their heads. The same applied to us when we developed the game further, or at least that’s my opinion.
Avellar: Without having the weight of a pre-existing IP on another platform, they were very free to experiment. What does it mean to be a mobile game? In a time so long ago, mobile games existed, and they’d existed way before smartphones, but it was very much a growth period, a maturation period for mobile games back then.
GamesBeat: What were some features of Hay Day that seem to be the ones that were really important? Things that resonated with people, that maybe helped it stand out and kept players coming back.
Demirdjian: I think the strongest memories that I have were when we introduced a deeper social mechanic to the game, called Derby. That also brought competition to farming. What I vividly remember was that this was not an easy decision. Even within the team it was quite controversial. When you think about a farming game, it’s relatively calm and stress-free, depending on how you play. Competition is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. The idea to bring not only deeper social mechanics, to have players interact even further – which was the main goal – with that also came some form of competition.
For me that was the most transformative feature we did for the game. It changed how players played the game, and also what they wanted to see going forward. In the earlier years it was just pure content, more production machines, more crops and so on. Anything to make the farm more lively. But when we added the deeper social mechanic, and through that also competition, the requests became more varied. They wanted to have more different things, or at least that’s what I remember.
Avellar: Yes, very much so. The Derby came to the game in about 2015, three years after global launch. Up until then, from release until the Derby, it was very much, okay, we have a solid core of farming. We needed to add more content there, because players are always advancing faster than you expect. After those three years, though, we decided that the core was very good. We added a lot of features, but always expanding on that core. Harvest crops, make things, sell them to people.
With the Derby, we brought–we were trying to deepen the social and make people come back on a weekly basis and know what they had to do in the game. There were small tasks for them to do every week. Trying to add some structure to the gameplay. It really impacted how players played the game. The game almost started to revolve around the implications of the Derby, and players appreciated that structure.
GamesBeat: We take it for granted now, but live operations weren’t as advanced a science back then. It was more speculation and exploration. You had to figure out how to get people to come back. Getting people to come back to a three-year-old game at the time was a challenging task, I’m sure.
Demirdjian: From my point of view there was a lot of trial and error. The main challenge was that the mindset of live ops wasn’t yet present in most of our minds. At least that was true of myself at the time. It was a new concept. We didn’t have tools to operate that way. It took us at least a year to develop the tools within the company and spread them across the game teams. Little by little, we gained the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work. It was a great learning experience for us to get there when the concept first arose.
GamesBeat: Did you have to add a bunch of people to the team? I know relatively speaking Supercell teams are small, but how many people made Hay Day? And in this time afterward, was the team a lot bigger?
Demirdjian: The team was always very fluid. Despite the stability I mentioned before, we did have people coming and going occasionally. But the biggest the team ever was, I think was 17 people, around the time of the Android launch, where we needed more people to support the launch and the ongoing fixes we required afterward. But after that the team was much smaller again. The Android version launched in November of 2013.
GamesBeat: On social, I wonder how some of that got perfected on mobile. It was different from the way it worked on Facebook. For a while that seemed like a problem for many game developers. They didn’t know how to make a game go viral on mobile in the same way they could on Facebook. Was there something special there?
Demirdjian: At least the concept of virality was always a challenge. I remember, of course, that we experimented with push notifications on phones. It always came from a good place, because we felt like this was important to the player. They wanted to know when they had options so they could get back to the game. But we eventually realized that as the game grew over the years, we needed to offer players the choice of what they wanted to have. In the settings we added the option to select which of the push notifications you even wanted to receive. That came later. But that was a learning experience for us as well, an aspect that I can remember.
Avellar: Regarding social specifically, at least in the beginning, it was very much, “Connect your account to Facebook.” There were all these posts to your feed, sending invites to your friends. But I feel like it was less of a widespread social spread to your friends, and more like joining your neighborhood – what we called our alliances in Hay Day – and getting to know strangers. There are so many stories of players becoming friends, having strong relationships with people across the world that they never met. We have at least one story of players who got married after they met through the game. It was that kind of social, because it wasn’t tethered to the Facebook wall in the way Facebook gamers were before. Those were very much about posting to your friends. This was more about meeting strangers and getting to know them.
GamesBeat: Do you think you had developed anything special, or do you think it was a lot like many other games on mobile?
Avellar: At least early on, I wouldn’t say we innovated in the social aspects. We had the neighborhood where you could chat with people. But where it really came together, it was the type of game that became a habit in people’s lives. They came back to it. They could see the same people again and again. It was that whole package that helped build and strengthen those relationships.
GamesBeat: What would you say were some of the attractions of the gameplay? What made that special?
Demirdjian: The Derby needs to be highlighted, because Camilla mentioned the word “habit,” and that’s something that needs to be brought forward. It really created a habit for players. It changed the perception of what a farming game could be. It could be so much more, based on the interactions between players. But of course the core remains a farming game.
GamesBeat: A related question might be, how did you get from the three-year mark to the 10-year mark? How do you keep coming up with things that seem new to players and keep them coming back? And at this point, how would you describe the audience compared to what it was much earlier?
Avellar: I feel like a strong part of how we keep going, how we keep making things that hit the mark, is the fact that as a team–first, we have a good group of people working on the game. Hay Day, over the years, has had the most nationalities in a game team at Supercell. We have a lot of people with different playing habits, but everyone is invested in the game. Maybe not superfans, but passionate about the game and playing the game at different levels of hardcore. We have people who are very hardcore and people who are very casual inside the game team. We have this broad view of how many different kinds of players play the game, and what kinds of things we as players want to see.
We’re also always informed by what the players are saying. We’ve always been very close to the community, whether through the forums – although that’s since shut down – and now through Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. Getting these ideas and opinions. I feel like both inside and outside the team, we’ve always had very good ideas. We’re open to listening to a lot of new things.
GamesBeat: It feels like if Hay Day hadn’t been successful at the time it was, maybe Supercell wouldn’t be here now.
Demirdjian: Hay Day was the first big success for the company, so it’s very dear to our hearts. It’s made its mark in Supercell’s history, without a doubt. But I think we were lucky enough to have had two hits at the time. Clash of Clans came only one month later. That’s still mind-blowing for me. It’s hard to make a successful game. It’s hard to make any game, as a matter of fact. It must be the beauty of Finland that accelerated the opportunities for two successful games at Supercell.
GamesBeat: Do you remember any interesting conversations with Ilkka about Hay Day? He often says he doesn’t meddle in decisions that are made by the teams. But I imagine you value any kind of counsel you get from him.
Demirdjian: What I’d highlight is the independence and responsibility at Supercell, from a team perspective, it also means that–maybe at other companies the CEO comes to the team and says, “Hey, I think this building should be pink instead of yellow.” Stuff like that never happens here. He was always interested in hearing updates about what was happening with the game, but he was very hands-off, as you said yourself. He offered any support the team needed to develop their ideas further. Support would come from a staffing point of view, or any skills we felt like it would be good to have added to the team. That was a very important aspect of his support.
But when it comes to memorable stories, it’s more about the fact that his father still plays Hay Day. We heard very strong feedback – positive, but sometimes very good feedback about things that we should take further – from Ilkka’s father, which Ilkka would translate from Finnish to English. That was a major aspect for us. “We’d better get this right, because that feedback channel is important!”
Avellar: For sure. When it comes to the CEO position at Hay Day, I feel like his father was more of a CEO than he was.
GamesBeat: Do you recall that you would change directions in any way based on that kind of fan feedback?
Avellar: I think it’s more like, whenever we took in fan feedback, we never responded in an immediate way. We learned early on with a specific feature, where we changed something in panic because the fans were breaking it, or at least we thought they were breaking it. So we panic-changed it, and we just made it worse. We learned very early that just because they say they don’t like something, or just because something seems broken, we shouldn’t do anything in a panic.
It’s very much that we take in the feedback and it stews for a while. A lot of the things that they ask for, maybe in the next year we’ll put that in. It’s not about a very quick pace of change. We mostly trust our gut. But we always use that feedback to at least help us course correct.
Demirdjian: One small story I remember was that we once introduced bees to the game, which was a very much demanded feature, because they were very cute. Part of that feature, not to go into too much detail, but you’d have to plant bushes, and then the bees would collect pollen from the flowers and make honey. Then those bushes would have a lifespan and eventually wither and die. I remember we underestimated the importance of the visual appeal of the dead bushes, because people would put them in by the hundreds sometimes. You ended up with a very challenging situation for the community managers when people were unhappy with the visuals. But we didn’t panic, necessarily. We thought about it and we came up with a simple solution. We just beautified the bushes when they were in that state, when you had to revive them, and then everyone was happy after that.
Avellar: At first we thought about whether the bushes needed to have more pollen so they wouldn’t die off as fast. Or maybe we needed to increase the availability of the items you used to revive the dead bushes or cut them out. But in the end we thought, “Well, wait a minute. Why don’t we just make the dead bushes pretty? Then people can just use them to decorate.” And everyone was happy.
GamesBeat: How many people still work on Hay Day now?
Demirdjian: Again, it’s fluid, but the current number now–I think it’s still less than 10. We do three or four updates a year, which has worked well for us, both for the team and for the community.
Avellar: Yeah, it’s less than 10. But it’s very fluid. The moment we need to produce more stuff, we’ll get more people in. And then they’ll leave or stay depending. But right now it’s less than 10.
GamesBeat: The big events that draw people back into the game, how frequently do those happen today?
Avellar: Events-wise, there’s always something going on in Hay Day. We have a full week’s schedule every week of things going on. I feel like the events that the players are really drawn to are the ones tied to the calendar holidays. Christmas, Halloween, Ramadan, Lunar New Year, all these kinds of things. They usually give a decoration for the players to place on their farm, a time-exclusive decoration that they can only get through playing the event. Those are the big ones. And now especially with the 10-year anniversary, we have a special anniversary event where players can come and get a lot of stuff, and also contribute to the give back that we have set up.
GamesBeat: What do you see in the future for Hay Day?
Demirdjian: From a business point of view, the game keeps surprising everyone internally. We’ve been able to keep up with quality updates, and the direction of the updates has maintained stability in the game. That allows us to do many other things. We’ve built a very strong pipeline for lots of content. Over the years we’ve created so many features. We feel like now is a good time to focus more on the content side and bring that content to all the features we’ve developed, in order to make those more engaging. That’s the priority going forward. We have a lot of stuff happening. The pipeline is set up for years to come. The player base can be very excited about what’s coming.
Avellar: Also, strengthening events. Like I said, we have a full week of events every week. We just want to make those even more exciting for the players, so that they can interact with the game they already know in new and fun ways. They don’t always have to learn a new feature and change the way they play. They can have fun in small different ways.
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