A Gamedev's Life in Helsinki
Chris Sungmin Hong, former Tech Lead at Metacore , has been living in Finland for 5 years. In this interview, Games Factory Talents on behalf of Helsinki Partners joins Chris to find out what life in Helsinki has been like for him as a game developer.
What is Chris's story? What is your background, and how did you join the games industry?

I got into the game industry by quite an accident. In 1994, while I was in university, I came across a Text MUD game that a friend of mine was playing. One day, the company that was making it was looking for someone to help with some scripting, so I applied. It was a simple scripting job at first, and I wrote my own program to automate it, and my programming skills were recognised. After that, I was hired to work on the game. A year later, I started my own company with my friends and ran it for almost 10 years. It was a fascinating season for me as my team and games got many awards, and one of my games already reached over 1 million players in 2000.

I was a computer kid when I was young. I loved to play computer games with my friends and enjoyed cracking games. I also made some small games, shared them on BBS (Bulletin Board System), and enjoyed them with my online friends.

You have had an extensive career in the South Korean gamedev scene. What brought you to Europe?

Especially Finland, I came here when I got a job from Ubisoft RedLynx.
I was living in Singapore before coming to Finland and was looking for a place to raise my kids. When I talked with the recruiter during the interview process, she explained Finland and the Finnish environment. It sounds nice and not difficult to decide to come here.

The thing I heard that had the biggest impact on my family was that my children could receive public education in English in Finland and that knowing only English would not hinder their lives.
Have you lived elsewhere in Europe? And how does Finland compare to it in terms of meeting your work life needs?

Yes, I lived in the UK. I also stayed in Germany and Belgium for a short while. Not only in Europe, I lived in the US and Singapore, too.

I think Finland is one of the best places for work-life in my experience. And it's also the best place for my family.

What brought you to Finland, and what were your first impressions of our country and city?

As mentioned, I came to Finland through my contract with Ubisoft RedLynx. But a big part of the process was the fact that my children could be educated in English in Finland. My children could only speak and write English, so having a public education in English was a big plus.

The first few weeks of our arrival were challenging - there's always a sense of unfamiliarity and language barriers when you're in a new place, but the cold and short daylight hours in December were challenging to adjust to. If you're considering coming to Finland for the first time, I'd recommend coming in late summer or fall.

The deserted cityscape was also a very different feeling, partly because it was winter and partly because of the weather, but also because there were fewer people on the streets than in any other city I've ever lived in.

It was also refreshing to see that there weren't a lot of signs on buildings downtown, and while there were definitely shops, they had very simple signs and no big flashing lights.

Overall, I really liked how calm, clean, and organised the city was, and I'm starting to think that this is the way it should be.

How does Helsinki contribute to your daily life experience?

I live in Vantaa, but I commute to my office in Helsinki and spend my working hours in Helsinki, so the environment in Helsinki is very important to me.

To be honest, I don't feel that Helsinki has much of an impact on my life, but that's because of how naturally it permeates my daily life.

We all know about Finland and Helsinki's safe environment and the beautiful nature that blends well with the city. Well-organised public transport and a system where all payments can be made by contactless payment are the basis of a credit society that is always honest and reliable.
The best thing, I'd say it's the city itself, with its laid-back, relaxed atmosphere where you can live and spend time with your family. Being the capital of a country and still being able to feel the life of the countryside is something that I think is unique to Helsinki.
Chris Sungmin Hong
Former Tech Lead, Metacore
What are your favorite aspects of Helsinki and why?

It's hard to pick just one thing I love about Helsinki because there are so many good things: clean, well-groomed streets, a sense of security that is second to none, buildings that are simple and stylish without being flashy, public transport that connects Helsinki to the rest of the country and to neighbouring cities, numerous parks and playgrounds that are natural and beautiful, schools and libraries that are well-equipped and well-resourced, and public facilities such as swimming pools and sports grounds that are easy and comfortable to use for adults and children alike.

But if I had to pick the best thing about it, I'd say it's the city itself, with its laid-back, relaxed atmosphere where you can live and spend time with your family. Being the capital of a country and still being able to feel the life of the countryside is something that I think is unique to Helsinki.

Was adjusting to a different culture easy, and did you feel you had enough support to properly integrate into Finnish society?

I've been working since the first week I moved here, and the company was very international, so I've worked with many different nationalities. So I feel like Finland is similar to other countries. There's definitely a bit of culture and a bit of nationality that's unique to Finland, but people in the games industry are similar everywhere in the world. Of course, it's true that it can feel a bit difficult or awkward among people who only speak Finnish, but I don't think that's unique to Finland.

On a side note, and this is not my experience, my wife went through a Finnish settlement programme, received language training, and is also receiving consultancy to help her find a job. I think it's the most organised programme I've ever seen in any country I've lived in, and I think it's great that it's done on a national level rather than at the level of a single school. Thankfully, my wife speaks some Finnish, and I think she has a better understanding of Finland and its people than I do. In particular, I think the information and news and history of Finland that they teach at school has helped me understand the country, and that's helped me to not only adapt to Finnish society but live my life here.

So I think that if you have a foreign experience and have lived abroad, living in Finland is actually easier and faster to adapt to than living in another country.
How do you find the work and company culture in Finland?

For many of us, the horizontal organisational culture of Finnish companies was a new experience, as we had heard before: it's not just the flat organisational structure but the idea that people are responsible for the decisions and progress of their work.
Of course, this had some negative side effects, such as too much responsibility, neglect of work, and indifference to the organisation's efficiency. But overall, respecting others and discussing tasks well in advance is a good culture that can overcome these negative aspects.

Have you been participating in the local gamedev community outside of work, and how do you like it if so?

I really love to talk with people and find out new things. I have attended several IGDA events, as well as meetups like the Unity User Group in Finland, and have also started a group called the Backend & Online Developers Group in Finland. I'm a mentor for the Living Game Intelligence Network (LGIN) and have been a mentor at several IGDA events.
I've been to many events in different countries, but I've never experienced such an open and honest exchange of opinions as in Finland, which was a bit awkward at first, but now I understand why Finland's game industry is so competitive globally.

In addition, we have been organising the Kor-Fin Esports Festival organised by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Finland since 2020 and the Korean Mobile Game Association's "Korean Game Reviews from Finnish Game Developers" event. During these events, we saw a lot of game developers and gamers alike actively participating and enjoying the events, which showed how well established the gaming culture is in Finland.

What do you feel makes this city and the Finnish games industry special?
I think the biggest thing that makes the Finnish games industry so special is the culture of openness and sharing that you can find in many places, where people feel comfortable talking to a lot of people, even people outside of the company, and sharing information and opinions with each other through different events. Even within the company, being open and sharing a lot of information in detail gives everyone a deeper sense of belonging and a stronger love for the company and the project. The healthy circularity of the Finnish game industry is also a big help, as the circulation of resources, capital and people means that the industry is not stagnant but is constantly creating new dynamics.

I also think that the boldness to try new things, the various programmes that support them, and the social system that supports them and creates opportunities for them to try again, even if they don't succeed or fail, is a great contributor to the diversity and performance of the industry as a whole.
What tips do you wish to convey to games industry professionals reading and maybe one day moving here?
If you're new to Finland, I would definitely say that you shouldn't think of Finland as being too cold - it's a country that conjures up images of large amounts of white snow and Santa Claus pulling his sleigh on frozen ice, but it's actually a country that's better prepared for the cold than any other country in Europe, with people building and maintaining warm homes. I would say that if you're coming for work, it's probably a good idea to prepare your mindset for the flat organisational structure and open communication in Finland. Be prepared to accept that they are genuinely trying their best at everything and want to work with you, even if the things they say are sometimes not easily understood or seem unnecessary.

In particular, when dealing with Finns who seem to be cold and reserved, I would like you to understand that it's not because they don't like you, it's because they are awkward and shy, and that they are nice people who are easy to get along with if you approach them with a friendly and warm greeting.

Article by Games Factory Talents in collaboration with Helsinki Partners