Creative Finland met with Marjo Sutinen, founder of gaming startup Critical Charm, at the Helsinki XR Center to talk about developing VR games, entrepreneurship and taking risks.
Critical Charm began with an idea to make a mobile game in the style of The Sims. “I was studying language technology and researching the mobile games market. We put together a few game concepts where interpersonal relationships were at the core of the game. It turned out to be a difficult genre – game design was challenging and it was tricky to produce a small game with interesting relationships.”
Critical Charm was founded in the summer of 2018. The team was excited about VR, and they started on a new project. “It was a big leap identity-wise: making a game about a giant, when we were meant to be making games about relationships!” The birth of the game was also influenced by boffering, or foam weapon fighting, a hobby close to Marjo’s heart, through which she had an existing network of people working in the games industry.
The game studio’s forthcoming debut is a VR game called A Giant Problem, where the player is a giant defending their village against an evil king. The game combines physical movement, strategic thinking and storytelling and it is family friendly. The game will be published later this year.
Becoming a CEO was a leap into the unknown
Marjo began at Critical Charm as a game designer, but in November 2018 she moved on to become the company’s CEO. “I realised that creative work and producing was too stressful for me – I am better suited to be a CEO. I am perhaps something of a control freak. In this role I can influence the direction our work is taking and plan ahead to ensure that we’re going to stay afloat.”
Marjo has found it easy to work with her team. ”Being a supervisor has come naturally to me, and I’ve also paid a lot of attention to what kind of working culture I’m fostering.” It is important to Marjo that Critical Charm has an atmosphere of openness and everyone feels welcome. She has not had any specific training for a supervisor position, so becoming a CEO was a leap into the unknown. “Certainly there’s been a lot to learn, but I have received a lot of good feedback on my way of guiding a team and the company, from both inside and outside our team.”
Support for the development of a VR game
According to Marjo, the financial risk she takes with Critical Charm is an ”opportunity cost” in that she could be making more money in a salaried job instead of being an entrepreneur. “The first year was very low-income on a startup grant, but it was enough to live on. On a global scale it is pretty rare to be able to receive public funding to develop a VR game.” Critical Charm has received Tempo funding for internationalization, provided by Business Finland, and Digidemo funding for another game project, provided by AVEK.
Helsinki XR Center is already the second incubator, in which Critical Charm has worked. The center organises a weekly demo event and there are many other opportunities to receive feedback and coaching in VR related questions. Helsinki XR Center is run by Metropolia University of Applied Sciences together with Finnish Virtual Reality Association FIVR. The Center is also supported by the City of Helsinki and Business Finland.
The dream of bringing the VR world to new audiences
The coming year is important to Critical Charm, as they need to get their first product out and start development on their next game. ”My dream for the future is for the VR market to grow fast enough and for our company to grow with sufficient care and patience into that market. Now we will see if that is possible.”
Marjo’s dream is to bring joy to audiences who are new to the world of VR and help the platform flourish. ”We’re going to continue in our family friendly style. We want to produce content that the whole family can play, which is very much in demand right now. It’s good to be where a lot of other companies aren’t yet.”
Bringing the right people together
”We were so out of our depth!” says Marjo. It took Critical Charm eighteen months to build a working team of developers, and during that time two out of three founders left the company. Marjo is very pleased with her current core team of six. ”I feel confident that we can go forward with this setup, but it has been a huge effort to bring the right people together with such small resources.”
Her advice to new entrepreneurs building their teams is ”to have patience, because it is not just about the right sort of résumés or that you like the people you choose. Everyone has to have the same sort of mentality – why they want to work together and on what conditions.”
When you’re just starting out, it is also important to keep in mind what are the things that really matter. “When you’re raring to go and get things done, you might take up offers that end up being a bad fit for your company.”
Physical experiences with VR games
Marjo feels that the main value of Critical Charm lies in creating content that delights, relaxes and makes you move. ”What is great about VR is that we can provide experiences that are rousing, physical, and provide joy and fun.”
For Marjo, the main attraction of VR games is the overall experience: “you have to wear a device and you’re usually on your feet moving around when playing.” In the VR world you can focus on just playing, and don’t have to do several things at once.
”It is a luxury experience to go into an entirely different world to do something fun, and then come back into your own world.”
Critical Charm: www.criticalcharm.com/
A Giant Problem: www.criticalcharm.com/a-giant-problem
Helsinki XR Center: helsinkixrcenter.com/