Wireframe

Inside Finland's thriving game dev scene

By Jack Yarwood. Posted

In the late eighties and early nineties, Finland became home to an exciting, new subculture, as teenagers across the country huddled in bedrooms and basements to create flashy demos on their personal computers. The demoscene, as the movement was eventually called, was a place where technology and art could meet. But for Finnish creatives, it also became the bedrock on which the entire Finnish games industry was formed.

Prior to the demoscene, there were only a handful of developers creating games for computers like the Commodore 64. That all changed when demo-group members, including the founders of Remedy, Bloodhouse, and Terramarque, left the scene to form Finland’s first commercial game studios. Now the country has over 200 game firms, including veterans like Remedy and Housemarque (the latter the result of a merger between Bloodhouse and Terramarque), mobile studios like Rovio and Supercell, and independent artists like Hempuli, Platonic Partnership, and Red Stage Entertainment.

Over the last few months, we interviewed various developers to find out more about Finland’s game industry, how it has grown since its foundation, and its many different communities. The first person we spoke to was Samuli Syvähuoko, a former member of the Future Crew and one of Remedy’s co-founders.

The Demoscene

When Syvähuoko first joined Future Crew in 1991, the group had already been together for four years, making demos for the C64 and PC, but was largely inactive at the time. As a result, one of his first jobs was to kick out inactive members and try to get Future Crew up and running again. The group removed most of its members, recruited some new ones, and, over the following years, released several ground-breaking demos on PC, including Unreal (1992), Panic (1992), and Second Reality (1993). The latter became a landmark demo for the group, with readers of the news website Slashdot voting it one of the “10 best hacks of all time” in 1999. “It’s still rated in the top five in most demo rating boards,” Syvähuoko says. “I haven’t looked in a few years, but last I heard it’s still up there. And even nowadays, demoscene actives know about it, so it’s probably left a pretty permanent mark in history.”

Everything was going well, but soon the members of Future Crew found themselves at a crossroads. Most of the members were finishing school and it was time to start thinking about what they wanted to do next: making demos didn’t necessarily pay, or at least not enough to make a living between them. “We were growing up,” Syvähuoko explains. “And if you can turn your hobby into your career that actually pays the bill, that’s the best thing that can ever happen. So, what was the closest thing to making demos back then? Well, game development, obviously. And our technical skills at the time were so high we were constantly being contacted by game publishers around the world asking us to start making games.”

Initially reluctant to form a studio due to his own shareware mentality, Syvähuoko eventually got together with Markus Mäki, Sami Nopanen, John Kavaleff, and Sami Vanhatalo to form Remedy Entertainment (following in the footsteps of the other demosceners Bloodsuckers and CNCD who’d formed Bloodhouse and Terramarque). These studios represented a huge step forward for the Finnish games industry, as prior to this there’d only been a few indie developers making games on their own, like Jukka Tapanimäki, Stavros Fasoulas, and Pasi Hytönen.

Of these new companies, Bloodhouse was the first to make a name for itself, with games like Stardust (1993) and Super Stardust (1994) for the Amiga. These arcade shooters were essentially clones of Asteroids, but featured colourful visuals, additional tunnel sections, power-ups, shields, and a thumping electronic soundtrack, modernising the formula for a brand-new audience. Reviews were positive, with CU Amiga magazine calling Super Stardust a “masterpiece” while Amiga Format described it as “untouchable” as far as Asteroid clones go.

Terramarque was the next to follow, in 1994, releasing fantasy-based 2D fighter, Elfmania, for the Amiga. The game let players pick from a roster of three fighters, with a further three unlocked by accruing enough coins from battles. Elfmania received a fairly mixed response compared to Stardust and Super Stardust; some outlets rated the game highly for its graphics, while others criticised its gameplay and lack of combos. Nevertheless, this did little to dissuade its developers – in 1995, Bloodhouse and Terramarque joined forces, creating the Helsinki-based company, Housemarque.

One of Housemarque’s first acts was to re-release Super Stardust for MS-DOS. Then, in 1999, it followed this with Supreme Snowboarding (known as Boarder Zone in the US) for PC – one of the first snowboarding games to take advantage of 3D graphics cards. The game received critical acclaim in Finland, and became the first Finnish game to sell over a million units. It wouldn’t be the last.

Max Payne

Elsewhere, in the populous city of Espoo, Remedy was also establishing itself as a game studio. In 1996, it released Death Rally for MS-DOS – a game that pitted players against other vehicles in a deadly racing competition. It was a modest hit, but Remedy’s next game would soon put the studio on the map.

In 2001, Remedy released Max Payne for Windows, a pulpy tale of a former New York police officer out to avenge his dead wife and child. The game had been in development since late 1996, when Remedy initially discussed the idea of creating a hard-boiled detective story, but this turned out to be a huge challenge for the studio – not least because of the lack of experienced project managers on the team. The team had expected development to take one and a half years; it ended up taking four and a half.

As Syvähuoko recalls, “We had some really great people with great ideas, like Sam Lake, and also really great programmers and artists. And just the business-savviness to start talking to Apogee Software early on, which of course were more known as 3D Realms. We collaborated with them, and they kept funding us even though we were constantly late with our schedules. We were complete amateurs in project management [at the time], because there was no game development education anywhere, so you had to learn everything yourself through experience, but the game came out and was a huge hit.”

Max Payne was a monumental success for Remedy, and earned the studio international acclaim. In its first month, it sold roughly 82,000 copies; following ports to PlayStation 2 and Xbox, Max Payne sold over 7.5 million copies by 2011. Perhaps foreseeing this success, publisher Take-Two acquired the brand from Remedy and Apogee Software for $10 million and roughly 970,000 shares of common stock, in May 2002. As its first act, it immediately commissioned Remedy to get to work on a sequel, with the studio releasing the follow-up, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, in 2003, on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.

Today, many developers in Finland consider both Remedy and Housemarque to be among the main ambassadors of the Finnish games industry. But there are also other sides to the Finnish games industry that it would be foolish to ignore. Finland, for instance, is currently home to some of the biggest mobile gaming companies, like Supercell and Rovio, as well as a large number of start-ups trying to emulate this success. Many developers attribute this success in the modern-day to the presence of the Finnish telecommunications company Nokia in the early 2000s.

N-Gage

In 2003, Nokia released the N-Gage, a combination of mobile phone and handheld games machine; safe to say, it didn’t go well. The media at the time, including GameSpy, poked fun at the device for its awkward taco-like design, while most consumers struggled to get on board with its high price and lack of exclusive titles.  Despite these shortcomings, some professionals in the Finnish games industry claim the investment from Nokia helped kickstart its mobile development scene. “This whole mobile expertise – it wasn’t by accident that we had Sumea and these other companies,” says Syvähuoko. “[Nokia] poured a lot of money – hundreds of millions of euros – in building the mobile game development ecosystem that was headquartered in Finland. So a lot of very early mobile games studios were built around games for the N-Gage. Even if the platform was doomed to fail, Nokia still wanted great games on it.”

Ilkka Paananen’s company Sumea was one of the studios that developed games for the N-Gage system, including Mafia Wars, Extreme Air Snowboarding, and Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. Developer Rovio, meanwhile, also contributed its own catalogue of games, including titles such as Mole War, Formula GP Racing, and the 3D platformer Bounce Boing Voyage.

Suddenly, a brand-new market was opening up for Finnish developers, with the investment to match. That investment shaped the direction the industry would take over the following decades. Finland’s development scene is today comprised primarily of studios making games for mobile platforms, like iOS and Android.

Paananen’s new company, Supercell, for instance, was behind the highly successful free-to-play strategy game Clash of Clans, while Rovio is best-known as the creator of the mobile phenomenon, Angry Birds. There are also other mobile companies too, like Nitro Games, Moido Games, and Next Games, all of which build on the nation’s previous expertise. “It’s going to take some time to get something else like Supercell to come out of this country,” says Syvähuoko, who now works at Sisu Game Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund. “In the past, there’s been Supercell and Rovio. But during the last ten years, there’s also been multiple other success stories.”

Despite the dominance of prestige studios and mobile start-ups, Finland plays home to plenty of indie developers, too. These include Arvi “Hempuli” Teikari, Nolla Games, Platonic Partnership, and Red Stage Entertainment, to name just a few.

The Finnish Indie Scene

Teikari is perhaps best known for his 2019 indie hit Baba Is You – a word-puzzle game where the rules are presented as moveable blocks. Growing up in the early 2000s, Teikari remembers being surrounded by people creating games, but says there was a clear division between hobbyists and more business-minded developers that had left other studios to strike out on their own.

“The Finnish indie scene for a long time was fragmented,” says Teikari. “There were these old faces who’d set up companies and did things together and made connections between each other. But there was also a large amount of self-educated game developers who did things on their own as a hobby and maybe weren’t even interested in learning about the rest of the world, or kids who made games at school.”

According to Teikari, this all changed around 2010, as more events began to be hosted across the country, building a community around indie game development. In Helsinki, for instance, Petri Purho, the developer of Crayon Physics Deluxe – a gravity-based puzzle game about drawing lines with crayons to guide a ball – started a meetup in a beer-house, where people could chat and network. For Teikari, this was one of the first places he met with other developers face to face and it also led to future opportunities. “In the Finnish indie community, people are fairly ready to contact other developers if they know there’s someone who has the necessary skills for something that they can’t do,” says Teikari. “For example, when Petri was looking to do something with a project that would eventually become Noita, he knew I did pixel art and contacted me, saying, ‘Hey, do you want to earn a little bit of money and collaborate on this project I’m working on?’”

This idea of collaboration and openness between different studios is something we heard from various developers, and one of the main benefits developers mentioned when talking about the game scene in Finland today. Jussi Loukiainen, the CEO and co-founder of Platonic Partnership – the firm behind narrative adventure games like Lydia (2020) and Good Mourning (2021) – is another who voiced the positives of this inclusive environment. “Openness and knowledge sharing are cornerstones of the Finnish game industry,” says Loukiainen. “At Platonic Partnership, we have two one-man game companies working within our office. One of them has had a long career working with some of the biggest game studios in Finland. Another one has launched one pretty successful game on Steam and he’s currently working on his next title. They’re working on their own projects, but we treat them like one of us. And we share info about business opportunities, game design, coding, economics, and publishers. It really helps us all.”

Nevertheless, there are also still some challenges of note for indie studios in Finland, which mostly come down to funding, and the types of projects investors are willing to support.

“Challenges for new companies almost always relate to money or the lack of it,” Loukiainen adds. “You can always go and raise investments, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And if you’re not developing mobile or Web3-related games, it can also be hard to find suitable investors.”

Red Stage Entertainment is a small indie studio based in Tampere, Finland, that recently released Skábma – Snowfall (see our preview in issue 61). The game has you play as Áilu, a young Sámi deer herder who must rescue a runaway reindeer and heal the land using an enchanted drum. For game developer Marjaana Auranen, it was a personal exploration into her own heritage and history, as well as a chance to see Sámi culture reflected in a game.  But despite positive feedback from almost every investor, it was difficult to secure financial backing. “It was tough to pitch,” says Auranen. “Publishers or investors usually got interested. But when it came to funding or money or anything like that, then it was too niche, or why do they have to talk Sámi? And why do we use this culture? So it’s like, ‘OK, we’re trying to make a Sámi game, but we have to remove part of the Sámi?’ It was difficult.”

The Finnish games industry generated over $2.9 billion in 2020, according to a PlayFinland report, but statistics alone don’t show the diversity of projects being made in the country. While it’s important to celebrate the success of studios like Housemarque and Remedy, and marvel at Finland’s influence on mobile gaming, there are also many smaller projects that are worthy of both attention and time. Here’s hoping that, while Finnish investors go in search of the next billionaire hit, these smaller games also find the support they need, and continue to add to the industry’s rich cultural history.

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