‘Angry Birds’ team promises ‘Pokémon for particles’ with new game

New wave of Finnish game developers seeks to make learning fun

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Given how notoriously reserved the Finns are, it is highly possible you may not know just how successful their gaming sector is. But even they can’t help but brag about the Finnish education system, which is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. So what happens when you bring the two together?

That’s what Peter Vesterbacka and Lauri Konttori are hoping to find out. The two, who previously helped unleashed the highly addictive Angry Birds on an unsuspecting world, are now leading a company that wants to make learning more fun.

As the former brand ambassador and “mighty eagle” at Rovio, the mobile games developer behind Angry Birds, Vesterbacka played a key role in helping to promote the franchise, which at the height of its popularity achieved at least three billion downloads. Konttori, meanwhile, was formerly Rovio’s lead game designer and creative director.

They and a number of other Rovio veterans are now heading Lightneer, a Helsinki-headquartered company that is helping kids to enjoy learning by making them forget that’s what they are doing. The start-up, which raised $5 million in seed funding in the summer to bring total funds raised to date to just over $9 million, has a noble mission: they want to start a global learning revolution by making learning accessible and engaging to everybody in the world.

Palatable physics

The company has partnered with some of the brightest brains on the planet to create its first game, Big Bang Legends. The title has been developed with experts from Harvard, Oxford, the University of Helsinki and Cern to make subjects such as physics more palatable for even the youngest children.

“Pokémon for particles” is how Vesterbacka describes Big Bang Legends, a game in which each of the 118 atoms of the periodic table are given their own personalities, which can be collected by players. The game is yet to be released in this part of the world but in the regions in which is has launched it is proving to be a big success.

Judging by the nine- to 12-year-olds I saw playing the game and a number of other titles from other Finnish edtech start-ups during a visit to the Kalasatama Comprehensive School in Helsinki recently, there’s no doubting that it is something that is entertaining and also educational with students eagerly shouting out the names of their favourite characters when asked.

“The thinking behind Big Bang Legends it that it had to be fun first and foremost but that you’d also learn all the basic elements. We’re tested it in schools all over the planet and the kids have been able to reel off the various elements without thinking too hard about it,” said Vesterbacka.

It isn’t just physics, though, that Lightneer is preparing to tackle.

“All subjects could be made into games, not as a move to replace teachers but to encourage more kids to learn, whether that be about particles, chemistry, biology, languages, geography or whatever. It is really about making education more effective,” add Vesterbacka.

Global market

He estimates that the global market for apps is worth about €6.3 trillion and he wants a slice of it.

“We decided to move on to bigger things after Angry Birds and there isn’t much that is bigger than education,” says Vesterbacka.

Of course, his company isn’t alone in targeting the education market. Indeed, he estimates that there are hundreds of gaming start-ups looking at the sector in Helsinki alone.

“We’ve already had a lot of success in Finland in games and learning. Bringing them together makes sense and between us all, I think we could easily capture at least 10 per cent of the education market,” says Vesterbacka.

Given the success that Finnish gaming studios have had to date there’s no reason to doubt that it might not work.

Angry Birds certainly wasn’t just a one-off. There’s also been huge global successes across different platforms with old-school titles such as the third-person shooter franchise Max Payne and more recently Clash of Clans, which has helped Supercell to become one of the biggest gaming firms in the world. Softbank last year estimated its worth at about $10.2 billion after Tencent acquired 84.3 per cent of the studio for $8.6 billion.

The first real game companies were founded in Finland in the late 1990s/early 2000s with early successes such as the social networking and online community Habbo Hotel and Max Payne helping to set an industry in motion.

Petri Jarvilehto is co-founder and chief operating officer of Seriously, the third-biggest Finnish game studio with revenues of between €41 million and €42 million expected this year. It has just released a sequel to its first big hit Best Fiends.

He estimates that there are currently more than 250 gaming companies in operation in Finland, employing slightly fewer than 3,000 people. The industry, which is responsible for generating about 0.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, reported turnover of €2.7 billion last year.

Jarvilehto, who previously worked at both Rovio and Remedy, the company behind Max Payne, is quick to credit Tekes, the Finnish version of Enterprise Ireland, for backing the sector. He also says the know-how gained by a generation of people employed at Nokia helped kick-start the industry in the first place, while the fact that the country is, like Ireland, one that looks outward to other markets was also a factor.

“As a nation we’re definitely battling above our weight and I think that stems from the fact that early success helped open the door for other games companies. Also, there is a strong spirit of us competing globally together. We all want everyone else to be successful because it will help us all,” says Jarvilento.

‘Infinite market size’

Interestingly, he believes that with the mobile gaming space being so big, gaining success needn’t be at the expense of close rivals.

“Mobile feels like we’re competing in a field of infinite market size. It is so big that one company’s success doesn’t impinge on another’s. That wasn’t always the case. With consoles, for example, it was a case of limited releases so it was more of a dogfight going on. That means we’re very much in a state of friendly competition,” says Javilento.

Moreover, he stresses that chances of success are also better given that in the mobile space it is far easier to tweak games until they work.

“It used to be with console games that people were working 24/7 to get a game out and it could take four years to finish one and you’d be hoping it was going to be well received. But now if something either isn’t ready or isn’t working you can just correct it in the next update. You don’t just get one shot to get things right any more,” Javilento adds.

While there are new start-ups engaging in AR/VR content, mobile remains the dominant platform and Javilento expects that to remain the case for some time both in Finland and globally.

“There is consolidation going on in the sector because mobile is getting to big that all companies in the entertainment space are looking to jump in if they haven’t already,” he says. “Everything is going to change and about the only thing that we can be sure of is that games are moving closer towards the player. We’ve gone from arcades to living rooms and now on to the pocket. So who knows where next?”

Whether Finnish companies can stay at the forefront by revolutionising education through their various titles remains to be seen but one thing is for sure. It’s game on.

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