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Finnish studios continue to level up gaming

Backed by investments and developing digital technologies, cloud-native gaming has been experiencing rapid growth.

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A metaverse for games and a game that facilitates the detection of neurobehavioural disorders are but two recent examples of the propensity for innovation in the game industry of Finland.

Espoo-headquartered Yahaha Studios announced last month it has raised nearly 45 million euros in three funding rounds organised over a six-month span ahead of the upcoming launch of its user-generated content social platform in Europe and North America.

Described as a metaverse for games, the no-code platform promises to democratise content creation by providing an open and modular set of online game development services, as well as enable developers of all levels to distribute their creations across platforms and players to connect with each other online.

“Through YAHAHA, we are empowering creators at all levels, from established developers to those making their first game – everyone can be a creator in our virtual world,” summarised Chris Zhu, co-founder and chief executive of Yahaha Studios.

“We’re really looking forward to fully launching this year, growing our team and bringing the first stage of our vision for the future of content creation to life.”

The startup was founded by a trio of seasoned game industry executives in 2020. Zhu, for example, has previously held senior positions at EA, Microsoft and Unity. Although headquartered in Espoo, the startup carries out its research and development operations in China and business development operations in South Korea.

Yahaha Studios was last year named as one of the 50 most promising technology startups by The Information. Another indication of the expectations vested in it is that the funding rounds vastly exceeded the initial target.

Yahaha’s inbuilt studio feature hands over the keys to game development to users regardless of their level of expertise. Image: Yahaha Studios

“We were aiming for only a few million in seed funding,” Pengfei Zhang, COO of Yahaha Studios, revealed to Helsingin Sanomat in January. “Then the word spread and many investors contacted us. Some US investors offered such a high valuation in the funding terms that many investors dropped out because they didn’t have the money to participate.”

One of the reasons for the high valuation, he gauged, is the hype surrounding the metaverse.

“Investors saw that the visions could be realised after 2021. We were early in the sector, and they wanted to give us enough capital so that we can get off to a good start. They saw that the sector would be competitive, so we had to be well funded,” said Zhang.

The metaverse has indeed been the focus of a huge amount of attention lately.

Microsoft in January cited it as a reason for its decision to cough up almost 69 billion US dollars for Activision Blizzard. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spoke of it as the future of the internet in announcing the re-branding of his social media platform to Meta in October. Nike, meanwhile, is reportedly set to foray into the non-fungible token (NFT) space by minting trainers for avatars in the metaverse.

Coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, the metaverse refers to a single, fully realised interoperable virtual world that exists parallel to the physical world and serves as a platform for social and commercial activity, be it hanging out, throwing a birthday party or attending a concert.

Rudimentary examples of such environments include Fortnite, the massively popular battle royale game developed by Epic Games.

The evolution of the metaverse is expected to continue shaping the gaming experience. Players may in future be able to, for example, augment the in-game environment with their own content, invite friends from the real world to create new kinds of multiplayer experiences and use the environment beyond the limitations of the often linear rules and storylines to sell in-game assets and import them to other environments making up the metaverse.

Funding for other disruptors

Investors have recently affirmed their confidence also in other possibly disruptive undertakings by industry veterans in Finland.

Return Entertainment in February reported that it has secured 5.3 million euros in funding from a consortium led by BITKRAFT Ventures and supported by Sisu Game Ventures, Vgames, 1Up Fund and SMOK Ventures.

The Helsinki-based game studio is currently working on two games that are designed to take advantage of the cloud in a way that makes them cross-playable between browsers on mobile, tablet or desktop and eliminates the hardware-related entry barrier to gaming.

“Cloud-native gaming is basically gaming on steroids: you have the same devices that gamers already play on, but suddenly the experiences are more accessible, shareable and rich in visuals and simulations,” characterisedAntti Sartanen, CEO of Return Entertainment.

“With the right combination of technology and game design, we can come up with incredibly new types of games that were not previously possible, including games with more detailed worlds and physics, meaningful games that can be joined in an instant and games that offer real-time interaction between players, streamers and viewers.”

Sartanen has previously worked at Supercell, Brimstone Interactive and HipFire Games.

Return Entertainment promises to deliver console-quality gaming without prohibitive hardware or platform requirements. Image: Return Entertainment

Kim Soares and Mikko Kähärä, a Finnish duo with heaps of game industry experience, announced earlier this year they have raised more than two million euros in pre-seed funding for their new enterprise, Social First.

Backed by a syndicate of private investors and Play Ventures, the studio has set out to create highly social multiplayer games that offer lasting and meaningful experiences for decades.

“Social gaming is growing rapidly and our team is very experienced in creating social cross-platform games with strong communities that enable people all over the world to form friendships that can last a lifetime,” told Soares, CEO of Social First. “Combining that into games that are designed to be played for a decade or more and taking into account other new and emerging technological possibilities, we saw an opportunity to ride a perfect storm and really make a huge impact in the games industry.”

A game to capture and measure attention

Aalto University in January said its researchers have developed a virtual reality-based game that enables the detection of symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The game promises to tackle many of the challenges associated with existing symptom detection methods, such as the ambiguity of interviews and questionnaires and the artificial nature of what is regarded as the most reliable objective method available, the continuous performance task (CPT) test. The test measures sustained and selective attention by asking participants to focus on a sequence of letters appearing on screen and pressing a key whenever the letter is not ‘X’.

Implemented by Helsinki-based Peili Vision, the game utilises a head-mounted display and hand controller to give participants a variety of everyday tasks in a virtual flat, thereby enabling the measurement of attentional performance in normal circumstances.

It was trialled on a group of 112 children between the age of 9 and 12, 47 of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD. The trial found that children with the disorder made noticeably more mistakes and irrelevant actions than children in the control group, a finding that correlated with the challenges reported in parent-rated questionnaires.

EPELI, a game developed by researchers at Aalto University and implemented by Peili Vision, tasks players with various everyday challenges to enable the measurement of their attention and executive functions. Image: Peili Vision

“The participants needed to plan ahead, think how to navigate, remember the instructed tasks and avoid getting distracted by irrelevant events,” toldJuha Salmitaival, research fellow at Aalto University.

“The accuracy of the game to detect attention and executive function deficits is already comparable to that of CPT, even though it’s still in early development,” he highlighted.

Salmitaival pointed out that modern-day gadgets and services can cause problems such as inattention and restlessness in people of all ages, making it difficult for parents to determine whether such treats are abnormal.

“When children’s performance is tested in a game environment resembling real life, attention and executive function deficits can be determined more objectively.”

The researchers are planning on developing the game to also enable the monitoring and treatment of ADHD. It additionally has the potential to detect other similar disorders, as attention and executive function difficulties are associated also with conditions such as autism, brain injuries, mental health disorders and age-related brain diseases.

ADHD affects roughly six per cent of children worldwide.

Dodreams invests in bringing game streamers and spectators closer

Helsinki-based Dodreams as built up a loyal following for its flagship title, Drive Ahead! About 55,000 players, it says, have come back to the game daily for over three months and 15,000 for as long as a year. Image: Dodreams

Dodreams reported earlier this year that it has invested 1.2 million euros in developing technology for merging games and online videos in a bid to tap into streaming, a phenomenon it believes at least partly explains the popularity of its flagship title, Drive Ahead!

The idea, it explained, is to broaden the audience of consumers using the two-player retro racing game to create video content and consequently of the game itself.

“Our mission is to craft shared moments of thrill,” declaredErik Pöntiskoski, CEO of Dodreams. “The next leap in performance will be achieved by enabling battling against friends or a common adversary, as well as spectating and sharing gameplay clips.”

The studio indicated it expects to finalise the technology needed to offer a “unified entertainment experience” in the next year.

Finnish game developers are thus continuing to re-imagine an industry they have shaped especially throughout the smartphone era with hits like Rovio’s Angry Birds and Supercell’s Clash of Clans. Supercell in February stated that its sales increased by over 45 per cent and operating margin by up to 80 per cent between 2020 and 2021. Remedy Entertainment, the creator of story-driven games such as Control, similarly had a strong year, reporting an almost 40-per cent bump in revenue and an operating margin of almost 57 per cent.

Consolidation has been the name of the game for the past couple of years also in Finland: Futureplay was acquired by Israel’s Plarium and Housemarque by PlayStation Studios in 2021.

“Oulu’s Fingersoft is pretty much the only one of the large game studios that’s still in traditional, fully Finnish ownership,” KooPee Hiltunen, CEO of Neogames, said to Helsingin Sanomat in August 2021.

“The situation is such that looking forward we’ll have to think where the next bunch of growing companies will come from,” he added.

Originally published in February 2022.

By: Aleksi Teivainen