This interview was for an Edge Online piece, which was forgotten about many moons ago, in November 2013. It’s an interview with Bossa Studio’s founder Henrique Olifiers.
Can you quickly run me through the history of the game?
Surgeon Simulator came out of the Global Game Jam in early January 2013, where the given theme was ‘heartbeat’. The team decided to take it literally and, by embracing the blunt approach to the motif, humour became the focus of the game.
You went from a 48 hour game jam to one of the fastest ever greenlight campaigns to huge commercial success. Why did an incapability simulator take off so well?
It’s difficult to pin down a single factor to justify its success, we’ve spent quite some time looking back at Surgeon’s story trying to learn from it as much as we can. In the end, like everything that goes incredibly well (or horribly wrong), is usually a ‘perfect storm’ scenario where several factors work together amplifying each other.
One of the strongest aspects of the game is that it’s as fun to watch as it’s to play, failing in Surgeon (and you fail a lot in it) is as funny as it gets. This was crucial for the success it achieved on YouTube and Twitch, making the Let’s Play videos cool to watch no matter if you were into the game to begin with.
Surgeon Simulator also never took itself seriously. We have this saying ‘where one cannot make a fun game if he’s not having fun while making it’, and it turns out that Surgeon is the perfect example of this motto: the team had a blast making it, both during the jam and full production, this filtered down to the players, no questions asked!
And yours was amongst the first games we can say was mainly successful down to Youtube and Twitch, which is one posited future of all media. What do you think?
Absolutely spot on, Surgeon wouldn’t be anywhere without the YouTube community. First and foremost, it’s incredibly humbling and amazing to see how much love is out there for the game through YouTube, and to witness it becoming the theme for so many different videos, parodies, cartoons, songs and jokes. As a developer, one cannot ask for a bigger reward, it’s simply mind-blowing and the reason why we keep on doing what we do every day.
Then it went full circle with the team watching what was going on and feeding it back into the game. When we saw a video of someone doing a slam dunk with the brain in the transplant surgery, we updated the game with that as an achievement. When some fan-art of Surgeon and the ‘Meet the Medic’ video was made (an original inspiration for the game), we spoke to Valve to get the rights to TF2 and add that as a free DLC. We created an ARG with a whole new section of the game hidden behind a ludicrously difficult puzzle because people were looking for that sort of conspiracy theory to guess all sorts of things, from the launch of Half-Life 3 to Steam’s Summer Sale date. We learned how to be inspired by the players.
We became connected to the community like never before, and found out how brilliant it is to work this way. I really think this is the only way forward for the games industry, developers who don’t know how to engage with their players will find it increasingly difficult to make games that resonate, that become relevant. It’s no longer about playing alone in a dark room; games are now part of our culture, so it’s integral to have aspects build over the impetus of sharing your experiences with the wider world.
We’re already seeing copycats – Viscera Cleanup Detail being the notable one. Given the success of the game, is it something you hope to return to more?
Tricky question… We never bothered too much with copycats, as it’s not an easy task to copy a joke. I’m not even sure it’s possible. But while this somewhat insulates Surgeon from copies, it’s also its Achilles’s Heel: We’re wary of telling the same joke again or ruining it by going too far. You know, like the guy who repeats the end of the joke a couple of times thinking it makes it funnier? That.
We’ve set ourselves the challenge to try to make Surgeon work on tablets some time ago, and failed miserably a few times. Thirteen, to be exact, until we finally got the controls right. Now that we have the game running well on an iPad, we want to add new content and change the surgeries so they make the best use of the new control scheme we created and the portable nature of the platform. It’s also a matter of respect for the players, as we hope many of them will already own the game on Win, Mac or Linux – so the touch version of Surgeon Simulator should be something unique, worth on its own, to neatly sit side by side with the PC rather than a simple straight port.
Will there ever be a Surgeon Simulator 2014? Probably not… But I guess this is not the last time we’ll see Nigel Burke and his clumsy arm in action, as long as we can come up with something new, original and fun for him to star in.
How many platforms is the game on now?
The game is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, through Steam, GOG, Get Games, Mac AppStore and a few other platforms. It’s even being launched in Japan, with the help of ZOO, a local partner. Next stop is the iPad, early next year.
Are you still actively working on it?
Very much so, the touch version for the iPad has been keeping us busy!
Do you see SS2013 as a promotional tool for the other games you’re working on? Your games are all on different platforms, which must make it difficult.
I hope we’ll carry on the reputation from Surgeon Simulator along with every new game we make, and that on its own has a huge value. Trying to shoehorn some sort of cross-promotion on Surgeon would likely do it more harm than the good we would get on the other end.
We did a tiny cross-promotion by having a floppy disk on Surgeon that you could boot into the reception’s computer and see a scene from Deep Dungeons of Doom. But that’s as far as we could get without harming the game by having something out of context.
That said, we do indeed have a huge challenge ahead of us with our multiplatform approach. Surgeon Simulator was our last game born as a desktop-bound title; every other title we got in the works is cross-platform, meaning you can carry on playing it independently of which hardware you’ve got.
This is different from having GameA on PC and GameB on mobile, which was the case with Surgeon and Deep Dungeons of Doom. Instead, by having the same game on multiple platforms, playable across them all, should help boost awareness around it since players from all creeds will have a common talking point.
Time to Live is the perfect example: we want players to be able to multiplayer across all platforms out there, from Linux to iOS (notice the Linux here, we’re betting SteamOS will be the thing, and that it will be fast). This decision has a large impact on development, and a huge impact on how we communicate. But in the end, it may pay off big time: once you go multiplatform, you don’t go single!
I’ve seen Time To Live, Monstermind, Merlin – what can you tell us about these games? Is there anything else you’re working on?
While we’re extremely proud of Monstermind and Merlin, both being nominated for BAFTAs and the former winning best online game, they’re firmly in our past. We’ve moved away from social networks as platforms after having invested so much into them to the point of almost becoming our undoing. We saw a potential in these platforms that just wasn’t realised for many reasons, in the end they didn’t go in the direction we’ve wished they would.
Time to Live is our next game, again something that was born out of a game jam just like Surgeon, but an internal one. It’s a very unique concept in which it’s an arena game, but without weapons. You’re in a dystopian futuristic TV show bloodsport with 120 seconds to live before your head is blown off your shoulders, and have to steal time from the other contestants by luring them into traps. Only one player walks away alive from each arena, and go on to see another round in its career towards stardom.
Time to Live is the one game jam result we kept coming back to and playing over and over. It’s a fast-paced game that builds a character reputation on the long run, and it’s just great to play on both the desktop and the tablet.
Then there are a couple of other games we’re brewing, but it’s way too early to be sure they’ll become something real. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot is AI, we want to take artificial intelligence in games to a whole new level. If we succeed in doing that, the kinds of games we think would suddenly become possible to create is just mind-blowing.
Do you have a planned future for the studio or are you just trying to stay adaptable?
Adaptable is the keyword. If anyone tells you what’s going to happen with the games industry in six months time, you can be sure such person is either deluded or lying. As an industry, we’re going through a transformation period like nothing before, and it’s an incredibly exciting time for those willing to change overnight in order to make the best out of it.
As long as we can create games that are original, that do something special to the players, we’ll keep on doing it. We’ve found the hard way that planning to far along the line just set us up to failure in slow-motion.
What have you learned from the SS13 rollercoaster?
Probably a lot more than one single answer can contain, I’m afraid. But if there’s one thing to take away from Surgeon Simulator is that good ideas do come from anywhere, and how to embrace this inescapable truth as a studio ethos.
We no longer have formal brainstorming meetings to create game concepts that go on to pre-production, then production, and failed launch. No more. We game jam every single month, do snap brainstorms with the entire studio, and build a warchest of playable designs we visit when the time is right to start a new game project.
Our lawn is littered with cool ideas that played like a brick once jammed into prototypes, it’s gaming natural selection at its best. We’ve learned to let go of precious concepts and move on until we find something special, worth turning into a full game, rather than sticking to what plays great in our heads and underwhelm when made into something real.
We’ve learned to jam the hell out of it all. In a good way.