In our regular Mobile Masterworks feature, we take an in-depth look at the history behind the biggest franchises and mobile apps. What led to its creation? What made them so successful? And how might these enduring hits inspire today’s creators to create their own mobile megagames?
Last time we delved into Rovio’s Angry Birds, a multimedia franchise with movies, toys, and multiple titles to its name. Now we’re giving the Mobile Masterworks treatment to a game that has stood the test of time in its original form, amassing billions of downloads over an incredible ten-year run. It’s a game that propelled its parent company into the spotlight, making it one of the most relevant entities in mobile gaming virtually overnight. And it’s still at the top today. This is the story of Subway Surfers.
Headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, SYBO was founded in 2010 by Creative Director Sylvester Rishøj Jensen and CEO Bodie Jahn-Mulliner. As with Rovio, the two founders initially met through their studies of each other at The Animation Workshop, a prestigious animation school.
Unlike Rovio, SYBO has remained relatively the same throughout its history, until Miniclip acquired them in 2022. This marked the end of their self-ownership, but also brought them into the fold of one of the newer mobile gaming conglomerates. and bigger.
development and release
SYBO’s idea for Subway Surfers didn’t come by chance, and in some ways its story is more ideal than Rovio’s underdog story. As the studio only had two other titles to its credit, before taking an existing concept and turning it into the blockbuster game we now know. His previous efforts included Cosmic Cab and Powerflow, both of which were received in a rather low-key manner.
The idea for Subway Surfers came from the two co-founders’ first animation work. The two had won first prize at the 2009 Hamburg Animation Award, in a team with fellow competitors Rasmus Hansen and Rasmus Ustrup. The movie they won first prize with was called ‘Trainbombing’ and it is still available to watch today.
You can already see the seeds being planted for what would become Subway Surfers. With Trainbombing covering the basic story that would introduce the Subway Surfers characters. Featuring a young man ‘tagging’ a train before being chased by a security guard. You only need to compare the animation itself to the first trailer for Subway Surfers to see that, unlike Angry Birds, the concept was clearly in mind before SYBO was even founded.
Of course, SYBO did not work alone on Subway Surfers, as the game was initially developed in conjunction with the Kiloo studio. From whom we also get the basic information about the Subway Surfers development timeline, according to an interview at the time with Kiloo’s creative director, Simon Mølle, “We started designing the game on December 20, 2011, we had a prototype functional in January 2012. and released on May 24.”
Subway Surfers would be an almost instant success, joining games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Candy Crush in reaching the transitional moment where smartphones became the de facto method of communication, Internet access, and entertainment for millions. of people. This meant that they were perfectly placed to attract all types of players, from young to old. The game would go on to have massive success over the years, including being the first app to surpass 1 billion downloads on the Google Play Store.
Subway Surfers also took home the prestigious achievement of being the most downloaded mobile game of the decade. From 2012 to 2019 it racked up more downloads than any other game on any app store. So in many ways, one could argue that it was also the game of the decade, given the massive nature of the mobile market itself.
Even today, Subway Surfers is a continually developed and added game. With the title once again topping the game download charts in the latter part of 2022. All of which speaks to enduring success that is enough to compete with even newer titles in emerging genres. It shows that while previous mobile games were simple, they weren’t primitive.
So why was it successful?
Although Subway Surfers has had multiple spin-offs, the first game remains its longest-running and most successful. Which is testament to the simplicity and appeal of the core concept. It also means that we only need to look at the gameplay of a single title rather than the changes incorporated into a larger series.
Subway Surfers is an ‘endless runner’ game, and perhaps one of the titles that popularized the genre. The player character is constantly moving, with the only options being jumping and dodging, with occasional boosts to make it easier or automatic. Think Jetpack Joyride or Temple Run, two games that also sought to emulate the success of Surfer.
The appeal is obvious, as it relies only on a limited field of view and fast engaging action, as the player is forced to manage their attention smartly enough to be able to keep avoiding obstacles as they progress. present. When it comes to easily exciting gameplay concepts, Subway Surfer has it straight.
The cartoony graphics, naturally, also provide great appeal for the initial youthful audience while also offering nostalgia for older audiences still committed to the simple mechanics. That simple graphical appeal helps elevate a good game into a great and long-lasting one. The most realistic graphics often tend to age poorly, while the stylized ones can remain attractive forever.
Like many mobile masterpieces we’ll cover, their enduring collective presence stems from a combination of accessibility and enduring appeal. As time passes, any barriers to entry dissolve completely, while the game is, as the saying goes, “Simple to learn, hard to master.”
- 2009: The co-founders… are part of the winning entry for the Hamburg Animation Award
- 2010: Foundation of SYBO.
- 2018: Subway Surfers sets a record of 1 billion Google Play downloads
- 2020: Subway Surfers reaches its tenth anniversary.
- 2022: Subway Surfers remains the most downloaded mobile game on the annual charts.