Surgeon Simulator 2013 has undoubtedly been one of the surprise indie successes of this year. Described by PC Gamer as “QWOP meets Operation”, this bizarre, colourful, and mad-cap “simulation” game has become a runaway hit, and already achieved a massive cult following.
This year at Eurogamer Expo 2013, they had their own stall in the main arena (NOT the Rezzed’s Indie Arena), and had also parked a decommissioned ambulance outside the front of Earl’s Court 1 just for the hell of it.
But who are the programmers behind the blood, guts, and amazingly stupid hand of amateur surgeon Nigel Burke, and how did they manage to make one of the most insane gaming concepts of all time into an international bestseller?
We tentatively climbed inside the ambulance to meet with Bossa Studios Co-founder and Creator-in-Chief, Imre Jele, and Junior Designer and one of the game’s original designers, Luke Williams.
The game was first created as part of Global Game Jam (GGJ), where the original team of four, which included Williams, had only 48 hours to produce a game on a given theme: heartbeat. But it was an attempt to battle sleep deprivation that the provided the muse for Williams and his team more than anything else.
“People were doing rhythm games, and people were doing something to do with the body in some way. We’d thought it be just funny to do a heart transplant. Because, we’d been there for two days with no sleep and we wanted something that would make us laugh and keep us excited whilst we were doing it,” says Williams.
“We liked the idea of a stupid hand that you couldn’t quite be in control of, attempting to make this complex heart transplant. And that was really it. We didn’t intend it to go this far and be at Eurogamer sitting in an ambulance. It was just a stupid little game we wanted to make during GGJ.”
After being met with a good reception at GGJ, Williams presented it back to the rest of the staff at Bossa Studios. Realising that it was popular with the staff too, Jele and his team spent another 48 days to perfect it into the version which is now available on Steam.
“This game is ridiculous…this is a game that no publisher would ever give money to.” Imre Jele – Creator-in-Chief, Bossa Studios
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The success of the game has baffled Jele, Williams, and the rest of the Bossa Studios, although it’s certainly welcomed. But whenever they’re asked whether there’s a formula to creating a runaway sensation, both are unable to provide people with an answer.
“[People ask], ‘So how did you actually do it?’ We have no idea!” admits Williams.
“There isn’t a formula,” adds Jele. “What there is, is that amazing inspiration of the team. If you can have inspiration, and if the courage to do it, then you can make a good game.”
But one of things they both agree on is that the one of the game’s key selling point is that it’s unsellable.
“This game is ridiculous,” confesses Jele. “But the thing that excited me at the very beginning is this is a game that no publisher would ever give money to. “
“If we pitched this, [publishers would] be like, ‘No. There’s the door’, and they’d laugh us out of it,” reckons Williams. “It just doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t sell like a sellable product.”
But sell it does, and enough to get them a substantial platform at the UK’s biggest video games expo, right next-door to Batman: Arkham Origins. So if the game is unsellable, what did they do to make it sell?
One of the things Jele believes in is engaging with the gaming community, and he’s feels that it’s the community that has made the game the success it is, and is glad that he and his team take the time to interact with them.
“These guys made a good game because they engaged with the audience,” praises Jele. “Twitter, YouTube, having multiple members of the staff really reaching out to friends and friends of friends, and everyone we knew answering ever single social media question.”
But Jele does realise that social media engagement does not a good game make. But seeing as he did have a good game, the rewards were tenfold.
“It doesn’t matter how much you do [social media] if you don’t have a good game. But if you do have a game which is new and good, afterwards, if you put in that effort and you talk to your audience, it just explodes.”
Indeed, YouTube seems to be the platform that really propelled the game’s publicity, with an obscene amount of videos dedicated to the title.
“We don’t have the full official stats as it’s hard to calculate them,” explain Jele, “but the estimation is that there are over 1 million individual videos, with a combined over 120 million views.”
YouTuber PewDiePie grapples with Surgeon Simulator 2013, one of the over 1 million individual videos available. WARNING: Contains strong language and Swedish madness.
Indeed, as we spoke, YouTube gamers were in the process of breaking through the recent update’s easter egg, solving a numeric code which led to a super-secret set of new surgeries. Even though they hadn’t quite figured out the puzzles in they manner in which they should have – brute forcing a solution instead of actually solving them – it still kept players playing and also engaged a wider audience.
“They got two of the numbers, and then they had tonnes of them just guessing all the other combinations until they eventually got it and guessed it all [ignoring] the rest of the clues, which is a shame,” laments Williams.
“But the point is,” continues Jele, “that those couple of hundred people are super-engaged, who are writing on boards or messaging on forums. [You have] a couple of thousand following them, and then 100,000 who do it.”
It might not have been the way Bossa Studios would have liked players to play the game, but it still showed that there’s still a significant audience who are still playing the game, and passing it on to many others.
In Part 2, we blast off into the future with Surgeon Simulator 2013, looking at a possible iPad port, the game’s Oculus Rift version, and talk about the future of VR gaming.