My name is Seppo Helava. I developed and designed one of the longest-lasting, most successful games on iOS/Android, and did it by building a company that innovated faster than our competition. Ask me anything!

Seppo Helava
Jun 19, 2018

I co-founded Self Aware Games, the developers behind what is now "Big Fish Casino". We beat Zynga at the height of their power & popularity with a team 1/10th their size, with 1/100th or less of their budget. We did it by creating a company that could move fast, innovate boldly, and not being afraid of failure - which is a trick that's much harder than it first appears. I gave a talk on it a few years ago: 

I'd love to help you learn how to build a be a better leader and build a phenomenal team culture.


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How do you evaluate human resource factor as an inseparable part of your company success?
Jun 26, 9:26PM EDT0
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them as a leader?
Jun 26, 4:01PM EDT0
What was your path to develop a stable company culture and friendly working athmosphere?
Jun 26, 8:30AM EDT0

Years of working in terrible environments.

My first job was for a tyrant. He literally arranged the office so that he was on a mezzanine that overlooked the rest of us, and all of our seats faced away from him so that he could look at our monitors while we worked. He yelled and screamed at his employees over nothing.

My third job, we crunched for months straight without any days off. We were told we had to be in on the weekends, even if we had nothing to do "because the boss wants to see butts in seats".

My sixth job, I worked for an egomaniac, who micromanaged everyone. He'd hired some of the smartest, most capable employees I've ever seen and then didn't let them actually make any decisions about any thing.

When I had a chance to run the show, I did everything to avoid falling into those traps. A lot of the best managers I've ever seen, and ever worked for, developed their "style" because they were pushing back against traumatic work environments they'd been in in the past.

Not coincidentally, a lot of the worst managers I've ever worked for, or with, never worked for terrible people, so they never had the experience of being yelled at, being told to do idiotic/insane things, and never had their autonomy crushed under tyrannical rule.

So. The path was, professionally-speaking, torture. But being aware enough that it was torture, and that it didn't need to be that way, and then trying to find a better way forward when given the chance.

Jun 26, 12:56PM EDT0
What strategies have worked with you when hunting talents and building effective working teams?
Jun 26, 6:07AM EDT0

The biggest thing, which I think can be a little bit counterintuitive, is to spend a lot of time and effort on hiring, and not getting exhausted by the process.

Hiring is the most important thing you do. Everything else is a result of your hiring process. Your team's culture, your product - everything about how your company operates comes back to the people, and getting good people is the difference.

For me, that comes down to a few things:

  1. Invest a tremendous amount of time in the process, because it will be worth it.
  2. No assholes. One bad apple does, in fact (there's plenty of research to back this up) spoil the bunch. I'll always take a "good" engineer who works well with the team over a "great" engineer who's full of him/herself. I'm not looking for "rockstars". Have you ever worked with a rockstar? I'm not looking for "ninjas". Do you know what ninjas actually *do*? Team players. A great team is a multiplier on talent.

I think that's it, actually. It's really easy to get fatigued, and then just hire someone "Because they can do the job". For me, we don't hire someone "because they can do the job". We hire them because they're smart & curious and biased to be helpful & work well with others AND they also can do the job, even if it's not perfectly on day 1.

Jun 26, 1:01PM EDT0
Have you found different ways to mine your data that produce a better understanding of gaming trends than a brick-and-mortar retailer would be able to generate?
Jun 25, 4:36PM EDT0
Can you talk about a game or two that you feel to an exceptional job at capturing accessibility that players should check out?
Jun 25, 11:58AM EDT0

How long did it take before you started seeing significant user acquisition?

Jun 22, 3:24PM EDT1
How is your company changing the game within your industry sector?
Jun 22, 7:43AM EDT0
How has innovation become rooted in your organization's culture?
Jun 21, 6:15AM EDT0
To what do you most attribute your success? What are in your opinion the key elements for starting and running a successful business like yours?
Jun 21, 2:35AM EDT0
How have you leveraged your leadership skills as an emergent leader into a more formal leadership role?
Jun 21, 12:26AM EDT0
What technologies and trends will drive the biggest changes in gaming over the next years?
Jun 20, 8:52AM EDT0

Ha. Always a difficult question to answer, because you never really see the revolution coming until it's just about here.

I think AR will be a massive game-changer. It'll go from a tiny niche market until someone like Apple introduces a "socially-acceptable" AR solution. As soon as that happens, BOOM - AR will be everywhere, and the kinds of games people play will change radically, because AR will enable such different kinds of gameplay.

The other atom bomb change could be someone figuring out how to do "discovery" well. One of the biggest challenges is finding your game an audience. Right now, there's a gazillion extraordinary games, but no one can find them. If someone figures out how to do a great, personalized-but-not-driven-by-ads discovery engine that actually exposes a lot of hard-to-find-but-great games, it can radically alter the entire landscape of game development instantly.

Jun 26, 1:04PM EDT0
What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this culture and why did you institute it?
Jun 20, 5:06AM EDT0

It's always a little tricky to answer a question like this, because I don't feel like I have the authority to answer it - you'd have to ask someone who works on the team.

That said, here's what I strive for.

  1. A highly collaborative workplace. We don't hire "hands" to do a job. We hire "complete people" to contribute to a project. I expect everyone to have their eye on the goals of the project at a high level, and I spend most of my time trying to convey high-level goals, because I want the people who have the expertise to make the decisions. My job is then just a matter of course-correction when there are things that aren't clear, or communicated badly.
    1. L. David Marquet's book, "Turn This Ship Around!" was super influential for me on this.
  2. A place where people are free to speak up. I manage "down" very differently than I manage "up". I can be kind of hot headed when managing "up" and I wear my emotions on my sleeve. When managing "down", I'm much more cautious. I never yell at anyone. I do my best to always be receptive and helpful and constructive. I try to create an environment where if something goes wrong, everyone knows they can come talk to me, and we'll solve the problems together constructively and efficiently.
  3. Game development is an overwhelmingly white, male industry. Because of that, it can be very difficult to hire a representative team, with an equitable gender balance and diverse racial/cultural makeup. I'm not the best at it, but we do consciously try to  make sure we get candidates from a broad range of sources, and we are fairly aggressive about recruiting women in all roles - not just artists or HR folks. It's a difficult thing to balance - to be fair & open, but also to make sure that people who would normally not consider game development because it's historically been so hostile to women, for instance, still apply. Part of that, though, is creating an office environment where everyone is safe, where harassment is dealt with swiftly, and where it's clear to everyone what's appropriate and what's not.
  4. No silos. This can be kind of frustrating at times, because communication can often go through odd channels, but everyone can talk to everyone else. An artist doesn't have to go up through the Art Director then to the Lead Designer, then back down the silo to a Game Designer to have a conversation. They just talk to each other. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I've worked in many heavily-siloed environments where communication was forced into these channels, and at least in a <50 person team, everyone should be able to talk to everyone else, and weigh their input accordingly, which I think is the difficult bit.
Jun 26, 1:20PM EDT0
What is one question that you wish people would ask, instead of when is the game coming out?
Jun 20, 12:16AM EDT0

Ha! I have no idea. Almost nothing I've ever worked on has been anticipated prior to its release, so I don't know if I have a good answer for that.

What I think would be a really useful question for people to ask developers, though, is "Why does this game exist?" What is it that the developer felt they needed to make this game to accomplish? How is it different than everything else on the market, and why should I invest my time and money in it?

I feel like a game should be able to justify its existence. That it should give a player something they've never seen before.

Jun 20, 12:22AM EDT0


Jun 19, 11:31PM EDT0
What’s the biggest gaming limitation with the iPhone/iPod Touch?
Jun 19, 7:36PM EDT0

I figure the common answer for this is "button controls" or "physical feedback", but I'd say the biggest limitation for me is screen size.

I play games on consoles/TV because the bigger screen is more immersive. I find narrative or long-form games less engaging on the iPhone because the screen is small, and the sound (barring headphones) is bad.

Great iPhone games have controls that are designed from the ground up to be great on the system, and there are plenty of those. The Room series, Monument Valley, etc. the list is quite long. So bad controls aren't a limitation of the system, they're a limitation of designers' imagination.

But screen size? We've gotta do something about that. I'm not suggesting I want to carry around a 65" iPhone. But I do think that some sort of AR display - glasses, something that draws directly into your eyeball, or some optic nerve hijacking thing - no idea what that'd actually be, of course - but something that makes you think you're looking at a much bigger display, and create that sense of immersion - that'd be a game-changer.

Jun 19, 11:24PM EDT0
What simple concepts can help you to become a better leader?
Jun 19, 10:11AM EDT0
  1. Lead by example. Hold yourself to a very high standard. People will model their behavior on yours, whether it's conscious or not.
  2. Be kind to everyone on your team, and treat them well. You're all doing this together.
  3. Don't expect people to adhere to your example. If you're a founder, or an exec, you're being compensated and/or have more on the line than most of your employees. If you lead by example and work 80 hour weeks, and expect someone with 1/1000th the equity in the company you have to behave the same way, you're not being fair or reasonable.
  4. Fair isn't equal. Equal often isn't fair. People are different. They need different things, and will give you different things in return. Blanket policies and ultimatums are failures of leadership and culture. Some people will be massively productive in short bursts and need distractions. Some people will grind all day and need no distractions. Don't treat people equally, treat them fairly. Treat them ALL well.
Jun 19, 11:21PM EDT0
How do you measure analytics for your game app? Which metrics do you focus upon?
Jun 19, 10:11AM EDT0

We built custom tools to measure our app's metrics - this was in 2008, so the days before there were a lot of pre-packaged solutions for metrics. We eventually ended up using Kontagent/Upsight along with our custom tools.

In terms of which metrics, we measured a ton of stuff. We settled on the sort of industry-standard-circa-2010 1/3/5/30 day retention, and various monetization metrics - conversion percentage, and daily active revenue per user (DARPU).

It's been quite a while since I've dealt with that stuff, and so I'm sure standards have changed and there are better ways of understanding how your players play your game - the one thing I'd recommend is that metrics are a tool for understanding how players are playing your game and nothing more.

No metric on its own is a key to success, and no metric means exactly the same thing from game to game. Some games will have excellent retention and monetize like crap - but at scale, that's great, if you're able to get users cheaply. Some games will monetize at astounding rates, but without good retention, die quickly. So you have to understand what you're trying to do, and you have to figure out what to measure in order to understand whether players are doing it or not.

Last thing re: metrics - when you're designing a feature, predict what you think it will do to the metrics. That is, if you add something to the tutorial, you might predict that you think it will increase the percentage of users through that part of the tutorial. Write down that prediction, and then when you're gathering data, compare vs. those predictions.

It's really easy to "handwave" an explanation for why a metric does (or doesn't do) something, and ret-con your explanation so that it seems like everything is doing what you thought it would. It's much harder when you've articulated why you've designed a feature to do something, and then compare the data to your prediction to find out things didn't go the way you imagined.

Jun 19, 11:18PM EDT0
What’s missing from the game development market? What are you expecting in a few years’ time? What will emerge?
Jun 18, 11:10PM EDT0

What's missing... Huh. There's a lot! Most of game development has been focused on 18-35 males, and while things like Farmville  & Candy Crush have expanded the market, there's still a really limited amount of games that address players that aren't considered in the "core demographic".

I think there's also a huge hole in what games are capable of doing. "Gamification" is the dumbest possible way of applying the things that are great about games to other uses - points & badges & levels are such a superficial, simple manifestation of what makes games "fun". There's so much more to the "power of games" - emotional engagement, making decisions in context, etc. - and there aren't many experiences that successfully wield what makes games interesting that aren't strictly entertainment products.

Education, for instance, can and will benefit hugely from the power of games - but "gamification" isn't cutting it. SimCity, for instance, is one fo the best educational experiences of all time. It's hugely sticky, it's interactive, a great way to explore and experiment with ideas, and I think it's taught me more about the infrastructure of cities than anything I ever learned anywhere else, and given that I played it what, 20+ years ago, the things that it taught me "stuck" in a way that simply hearing stuff in a classroom didn't. Why? It's not because SimCity had levels & badges. It was because it was an interesting, dynamic system in which you could make choices, in context, see the ramification of those choices, and learn to do better.

And in the 20+ years since SimCity, nothing else has done a better job of being an educational game.

Jun 19, 7:53PM EDT0
How do you test your game ideas to make sure they will be fun and engaging?
Jun 18, 6:28PM EDT0

Oho! That is a good question!

Most game companies test their games very late, when there's rarely anything significant they can do to change things if they're not working. There has been some movement (fortunately) towards testing earlier and earlier, which is always a good thing, because there's really almost no point in testing out a concept when it's nearly complete.

I've been a proponent of something very much like Lean Startup ever since about 2007. To that end, I build a lot of simple prototypes out of paper, cards, dice, etc. in order to see if the core elements of the games are fun, then we build simple digital prototypes to test the things you can't test in physical form.

But the goal is always to build something that answers a question. Sometimes that's "Is this art appealing?" or "Does this control system work?" or "Is this mash-up of two genres so confusing that it's impossible to understand?"

Sometimes that means we release games that, by many measures, would be considered "wildly incomplete", because the feedback you get from real players is WAY more powerful than even well-constructed user tests. The better data you get early, the faster you can iterate on the concept and make it better.

This process often makes people on the team uncomfortable at first. Game developers are used to toiling away in secrecy and only showing the world things when they work properly & are proud of them. To me, that's waiting too long to answer the question of, "Does anyone want to play this?" So we do things long before the team is comfortable releasing things. At first, developers hate this. But after a few cycles, they come to the inevitable conclusion that it's a better way to operate, and that the end results are better overall.

So! Yeah - test by getting your game in front of as many people you can as early as possible. Probably even earlier than you think. If you're happy to show your game to someone, it's probably far too late. :)

Jun 18, 6:41PM EDT0
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