Interview: Tjodolf Sommestad on 20 years of King

Interview: Tjodolf Sommestad on 20 years of King

As you've probably noticed from the site today, King has turned 20 years old. In that time, the company has created some of the most popular casual puzzlers ever, most of which continue to thrive, even today. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this success with President Tjodolf Sommestad. Together, we spoke about King's history, how long the team thought Candy Crush would last initially and the difficulty of deciding to shut down a less popular game.

Can you introduce yourself and your role at King to our readers, please?

Yes! I'm Tjodolf Sommestad, the President here at King.

King is 20 years old. What kind of things are you doing in-game and internally to celebrate?

In-game we're probably not going to do that much with players. But it's a very important milestone for us internally, so we're going to celebrate with our employees. I can't say too much. It's a secret for our employees. But it's a year of celebration, so we're looking more at longer years and also, talking about how we have impacted the world.

We're here to make the world playful. That's our mission. And we have made the world playful with all the success we've had with our games – the 200 million players that are engaged with them every month. But also our plans going forward. The way I think about it is that we're getting started 20 years in.

What are some of your personal highlights from working at King? What are you most proud of?

Oh, in 12 years. That's a very long time.

I guess there are probably quite a few.

Yes, well, first of all, I've had the privilege to see this journey. It's really interesting to see a company go from 150 people when I joined to the 2000 people we have right now – all the talent that we've brought on board and all the amazing games we have delivered and the improvements in those games.

If I take it a bit more personally there were some moments when we launched Candy Crush Saga, which was the sister title to Candy Crush. And we knew that it was a really good game because we tested it with players and had a good response. But we didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into. Like, was this going to become the start of a franchise? Or was this going to be seen more as a sequel? And it was the start of the franchise. So we've been building a really strong games franchise on the back of that.

Another thing that I am proud of is the journey that we're on right now. We're really taking a stab at delivering to players in the hit games that we have launched. So our focus is on making our big games like Candy, Soda and Farm bigger and even more fun 10 years later. It's something I've been part of driving in my role as President and also before that. I think the teams are doing a really amazing job in delivering to players.

Why do you think King has managed to stay at the top of mobile gaming over the last decade?

A lot of talent. We've had great talent from the beginning, and we've been attracting more talent – talent attracts talent. So a lot of really smart people coming together to do great things for our players.

And I would like to think it is also curiosity. Our interest is in learning from others inside the company but also from our players. Every day, we listen to players to see how they interact with our games to figure out how we can make them even better. We're also responsive. When there are changes in the industry, we can pick that up and respond to that in a good and creative way.

Have you learned anything during your time at King that surprised you?

There are so many things that have surprised me. Firstly, there was this principle that you launch sequels in games. That was the world I'd grown up in. That's how I thought about games. And at King, we've really broken that mould. We started introducing the concept of sister titles. We have a family of games in the same IP that have different flavours and different innovations in them. That wasn't something that was obvious to me.

And then the staying power of mobile. I had a mobile phone like 12 years ago, but I didn't realise how much so many people across the world would use them. How fast it would grow. But it's amazing for us as a mobile games company. It's a great platform for us to reach so many players across the world. That has been a surprise. I didn't see that it would be a platform that would grow for so long.

Did you expect Candy Crush to endure for as long as it has? Or did you expect it to last for X amount of years?

We didn't have a specific time, but our plan at the time was quite short. We launched a game with 65 levels and were adding 15 levels every second week or so. We called it a Saga because the idea was it would go on endlessly by adding new chapters and episodes into the game for a very long time. So we weren't specific about it, but at the same time, we expected the game to last for maybe one, two or three years. Our plan on the horizon was quite short. But what we did was we kept listening to players – adding more innovation and more content and making the game better.

And it turned out that month became a few more months, and that year became more than a year. So, we extended our planning horizon. Now, we are actually talking about the next decade in the Candy franchise. It's also part of us learning as we go. Our curiosity. And we're seeing that we have a lot of ideas and we're managing to engage players with our hit games longer than we had anticipated.

From on our last interview, I understand you have a roadmap at King, but it's not strictly adhered to. Did last year's AI boom do anything to change your plans?

No, it hasn't changed that much in the short term. We're in a learning mode right now. So we had a plan. There were several ways were using or planning to use AI on our roadmap, and we continued to deliver on that. What happened is that the acceleration of tooling around AI opens up more opportunities. We're deep into exploring what they are, and we're quite optimistic about the future.

If we can find ways to take away some of our mundane tasks and how we work, we can spend more time being creative, which will help us deliver more fun and innovation to players. Exactly how we're going to do that hasn't trickled down into all of our roadmaps yet. But it's on the horizon.

Do you see the King games as competitors to one another?

I think they have attracted different audiences essentially from the start. There is a difference in their look and feel even though the gameplay is relatively similar. But if you go into it, there are some differences in how you play the game. Farm Heroes, I would call a bit more strategic, a bit more complex in some ways, which some really like whereas Candy is more relaxing on the scale.

So there are some differences plus I think the style just attracts different players. But in the broad scheme of casual puzzle games, yes, they are competitors. Now, they happen to be within the same company, so we're more leveraging that as a learning opportunity because we see what players are doing in games that are similar to each other. So it's been a great advantage for us to have. We don't pit the teams against each other. But as a consumer, I don't know if they realise it's from the same company or not.

King decided to close Crash Bandicoot On The Run. I was interested to know how you make these decisions as I imagine it can't be easy.

It's part of us being focused on the games that have the most players, and the way Crash On The Run was trending, we didn't have many players playing that game. And for us, it made sense to, in a really responsible way, with the players that had committed to playing that game over a long period of time, to communicate to them that we were planning to discontinue the service after a while because we want to focus on either other new games invest our efforts into innovation in our existing games. So it's really driven by how we deliver the most playfulness to the world.

Is there anything exciting coming up that you can share? Or is everything top secret at the moment?

Looking forward, next year we're going to talk a bit about Farm turning 10, and that's exciting. It's a UK-born franchise with a billion-dollar revenue lifetime. So that's something we will find a cool way to celebrate. We're launching our 15,000th level in Candy, which I think is a great achievement that we keep adding great content. But there's nothing else specific that's coming on the horizon.

Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen brings both a love of games and a very formal-sounding journalism qualification to the Pocket Gamer team.