Finland is gaming start-up paradise. Indie house
Tree Men Games talk about their break-through.

Hello, who are you? What is your role at Tree Men Games?
My name is Jussi Pullinen, and I’m more or less the producer of the company. Even though I do some game and level design for our games when I get the time, nowadays I’m more in charge of the “boring” tasks (paying taxes, organizing stuff, and so on). I call myself the producer because I keep things running and also concentrate on the commercial aspect of our games: monetization, distribution, marketing.

How did you guys meet?
We met while studying at the School of Art & Design (Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu) now renamed Aalto Arts. We were part of the first batch of the Master’s Degree in Game Design and Production, and worked together on many projects. At the same time two of us were also in a game design course, and the other in new media. Heikki Sillanpää has a Bachelor’s degree in Digital Arts, Toni Enström in 3D Animation and Graphic Design, and mine is in TV and Film Production.

What brought you together?
We had similar ideas regarding gaming, liked the same type of games and related stuff. There were lots of people you could team up with to work on the projects, but we found that the three of us did fine. We didn’t waste time on unnecessary stuff, we hated meetings and design processes that led nowhere. We just wanted to set up the goals and come up with a working prototype as soon as possible.

So it was a natural transition to go pro.
Yeah. We didn’t have jobs at that time, and were talking about how cool it would be to have our own company. So we applied for the event called Summer of Startups and got in. Summer of Startups is basically a workshop where you get coaching and 5.000 eu (which was not a lot for three guys). The idea is that you work on your prototype or on your company, adding fresh ideas and options. There is lots of coaching on the business side, not so much on the technical side. You learn about marketing, how to pitch your ideas to potential investors and partners, and so on. Up to that point we had been anti-startup -we used to sneer at marketing, because we thought it was meant only to attract investors- so it was a real eye-opener. We accepted that things like pitching your games regularly to the media and to monsters like Apple and Microsoft are an integral part of the process of making games.

What games have influenced the Tree Men?
Tons of games, all of them. I think for us the biggest influence has been the classic kid games. We want to make games that are easy to interact with, with simple controls and old-school game design. Those Nintendo games were great, some of the Amiga and Commodore 64 games also. I have a PS4, but often I take my Dreamcast out of the closet for some classic gaming. I also just installed Steam on my PC Mac to play Prison Architect. And of course we do a lot of mobile gaming because we need to benchmark the games. Mobile games are getting really good nowadays.

How do you guys work out what your games are about?
In general, our method is such that all ideas are welcomed and evaluated the same. “Will this work? Maybe, maybe not.” And then there are always ideas that are instantly cool and everybody loves on the spot. At school we worked together on many prototypes, some of them just for fun (we didn’t get any credits from those); and as a company we have produced three games so far, with each game’s idea coming from a different guy. Some projects are simple concepts that grow bit by bit and develop. Regarding level design, everybody has the same right to contribute and critique. One does the programming, another does the graphics and -when I get some time off from production- I also do some animation and level design. So it’s a very collaborative process.

Let’s talk about the game. Where do you play it and what is it about?
It’s called Pako (meaning ‘escape’ in English) and it’s a car chase high-score-hunt game for iOS (iPhones and iPads), Windows Phone, and it’s coming out on Android next week. The player controls a runaway car that goes on automatically (it never stops) and the controls are super-simple: left and right. Because there really is nowhere to go (the levels don’t have an exit) and other vehicles are chasing the player, the goal is to keep running and avoiding obstacles as long as possible before the inevitable crash. On each level there are different elements and things that can be done to extend the playing time.

There seems to be a trend in super-easy-controls-yet-hard-to-play games lately. I’m thinking of the enormous success of Flappy Bird and all its army of clones.
Yeah, we are aware of that. In Pako the idea was that you would not possibly survive for more than one or two minutes (at least I can’t get past the two minute mark). But as soon as we did a soft release (for test purposes) we got people going past the four minutes, up to ten. Our goal was to make something as simple and accessible as possible, because gaming has changed a lot since we played as kids. I remember I used to go through the tutorials, read all the tips and instructions. Nowadays -and especially on mobile platforms- people don’t do that. They just launch the game and expect to move forward immediately, with little patience to learn the controls or the mechanics of it, and no way they will read instructions. If they fail they just go CONTINUE, CONTINUE, and if the game challenges them to having to learn something too new they will conclude that it’s boring and remove it. This is how it goes, and Pako doesn’t even include a tutorial for this reason.

Do people request changes? “Make it more like this, take this out”?
Oh, yeah, tons of requests all the time. But will people still like it if we change stuff? Add a health bar that depletes with each crash, or let the player crash two or three times? Make brakes available? Perhaps, but then it’d be another game altogether, it wouldn’t be Pako.

There is a certain die-hard, go-down-fighting attitude to the game.
Yeah. We thought of great chase movies, like Vanishing Point, for example. Anti-heroes hopelessly trying to outrun the system. Many people also play Grand Theft Auto that way, roaming around the city being chased by the police. Incidentally, that’s how we pitch the game at events: “do you like chase scenes in movies?” The chase scene is so universal nowadays that players just project their own stories and emotions onto it. Pako cuts down to the chase, we say.

How do you keep it interesting?
The levels are different, the vehicle you drive is different, the chasers too. And we have peppered each level with a certain something. We like to include pop references here and there. The maps are referencing several movies and series, so there’s a familiar feel to them (an RV that looks very much like the one from Breaking Bad, for example, or a Simpsons-esque Kwik-E-Mart in the suburban level). Most of the cars are iconic, like in the graveyard level where the girl’s green car could very well be the one from Six Feet Under or Ghostbusters. Most of these things are there on purpose, but some happen unintentionally, and people spot them out and let us know.

Who is the soul behind Pako?
Heikki, definitely. He does most of the visuals, and the soundtrack. And Toni does the coding. It’s kinda funny because the game is a low-polygon 3D thing and Toni, who is an excellent 3D designer and animator (his videos have been presented in exhibitions around the world) has chosen to do the coding instead.

How much does the game cost?
On iOS platforms it’s 1,79 eu (like 2 dollars) for the premium (all the content) version. For Windows Phone it’s free but there are ads to watch every now and then. And in Android there are ads on the screen between sessions, unless you pay to remove them. We discarded early on the Free-to-Play model because it’s complex to design and we don’t like it much (Free-to-Play games are initially free, but they stop at certain points and don’t let you advance unless you pay, or they introduce constraints that can only be removed by purchasing items, and so on). We prefer to offer the full game upon a one-time purchase.

How much money do you get back?
The Appstore and Google Play are the digital distributors, and take their cut (thirty percent of the price). But the good thing is we don’t have to deal with each individual country’s laws, and taxation; they interface that for us, so it’s easier. And then we have to pay the local taxes here, of course.

How do you decide what to do with the mullah? “This goes to salaries, this for my new laptop, and we need a new espresso machine.” Do you ever fight?
(laughs) Sometimes we argue, of course, about what to buy and what not. At this point we are so small that we have to keep it real, we skimp and reduce costs to the maximum. We can survive for a game, until we release the next, so we need some buffer in place. A gray area is that of the costs associated with going to exhibitions. It’s good exposure for us, but does it recoup the costs? Flights, hotels, meals. We are not looking for funding or collaboration, so it’s mainly for visibility, like for example getting Microsoft and Apple to feature our game in their marketplaces. With iOS it’s a gamble to release a premium game, but we managed to get it featured by Apple in their Appstore, and the media helped us a lot in the Pocketgame event. We got noticed there, so after that it was much easier to talk to other people. Going to events also broadens your horizons, when you talk to international developers in person and hear their experiences and points of view.

Does it make sense commercially for the three of you?
Yeah, at this point is does. When we decided to release Pako we did take a risk, because we were considering applying for jobs. But then we wouldn’t have had the time to develop, and would have eventually split. And even though we never had released a premium iOS game before (it took us longer than expected) we got an extra credit card and kept pushing forward. Today we’ve had about 200.000 free downloads for Windows Phone (with ads), and almost 100.000 premium downloads on iOS, so we are able to pay the bills and our salaries, develop the game, and start working on the next one. We’re now looking forward to the Android release; even if it flops spectacularly (which we don’t think will happen) we have six months to breathe. And if it does well we have the whole year to consolidate our plans, which may include a console version of Pako, we haven’t decided that yet.

Do you want to develop for consoles as well?
Among other things, yes. We are getting console devkits soon, but at the moment we are focusing on processes, not actual game development. We are also in talks with other companies about making browser games too. Mobile games are interesting, but we have more chances to succeed as indie developers in the console environment (next-gen Xbox and Playstation). We use the Unity game engine, which also offers a relatively easy porting capability between platforms. We got Pako running fine on the Nokia phone, but when we ported it to Android things were not that happy.

Does it make sense to develop for Android?
I’ve talked with many developers, and they all agree that Android is a very difficult platform to release content for. There are tons of different Android devices, and they are so different in specs. In some the game runs too slow, in others too fast, so you need to compensate for all that (if the phone is too slow the game should drop some graphics but not frame-rates, and so on). It’s good for getting a ton of downloads and exposure, but there is little money. Lots of piracy too, few people are willing to pay on Android devices. iOS, on the other hand, is a platform that discourages piracy by design (although not all) so the users understand that it’s normal to pay some money for apps and games.

Generally, any activity labeled as “work” becomes boring a some point. Do you ever get bored of making games and playing them?
So far it hasn’t happened to me, I’m still having fun. What does happen when I play games is similar to what happens when you understand how movies are made: you begin to ask yourself “how did they do that? Was that event scripted or not?” and so on. Another aspect is the amount of time it takes to play games. You can watch a two-hour movie, but a good game may take fifty hours to finish (about twenty days, if you play on evenings).

Are you going to hire some women at some point? Will you be forced to change the name of the company then?
(laughs) We certainly could use some helping hand right now, but hiring people is very expensive in Finland. We have to make do with just us for now, as we are not millionaires yet. And we also want to keep it simple, and not waste too much time managing, but creating games. I myself don’t have the time to work on the games as much as I’d like to nowadays, and I hope to go back to that at some point.

And regarding female game developers, as far as I’m aware, there are still very few in Finland. But I think that situation may be changing; when we started game design at school we had one girl and five guys. The next year there were seven guys and no girls, so it’s variable. We had at some point a very talented girl in New Media and now she’s at Remedy, not the easiest place to get into. She’s there and she’s a great designer with a solid background. Also several girls I know from the New Media course have gotten into game companies as graphic designers, but as game designers they’re still a minority, I think.

What other plans can you disclose?
After the Android release we’re thinking of a small holiday break, ’cause we’ve been working so much. And because of the work, no-one has got their Master’s degree, like we were supposed to, so that is pending for us. And we’re thinking about having an office space, because now everybody works from home and at different times. Toni, the coder, lives in Vantaa and works at night. He needs a quiet environment to solve technical problems.

How do you perceive the gaming industry’s current situation in Finland?
I agree with what it’s being said, that Finland is the best place on earth to start a game business right now. The main reason is that the community here is awesome. I was in Switzerland some days ago promoting our games and talking about this, and every single Finnish developer mentioned the open community we have, how much support there is. Last night, for example, I sent an email to the guys who made Badlands saying “hey, do you happen to remember the name of that website, etc, etc?” and got an immediately reply (they and Cornfox & Brothers gave us very valuable tips with Pako too). Even when I talk with devs from small cities, they also have their own micro-community to share information freely, and pull together. With international big companies you can’t possibly talk about stuff, but with guys from “big” Finnish companies you can. They will share stuff and give you a hand, if they can. They are not competing, they support each other. If anybody gets noticed, it helps everybody. So yeah, the community is great, and the funding opportunities are cool, so it’s really not that big a risk to launch your own gaming start-up. If you trust in your team, if you think you have managed to put together capable people, you have a good shot at it.

This is Tree Men Games’ website.
Here’s Pako for iOS devices (iPhone and iPad).
And here’s Pako for Windows Phone.