Last month at our Mobile Game Awards we crowned not one but two games with the award for game of the year. One of those games was Subway Surfers Tag from Sybo, the latest hit in the popular and enduring Subway Surfers franchise.
To celebrate the win we caught up with Sybo game director Eoin O’Doherty to discuss his history with the popular IP (which celebrates its birthday this week) and find out what’s coming up and why the game continues to captivate.
PocketGamer.biz: You’re based in Dublin but do you get to Sybo HQ much?
Eoin O’Doughty: Originally, I travelled roughly every two or three weeks but then Covid hit, which reformed how that works. Now becoming more like a monthly basis. It’s working pretty well, we’re open to remote positions and in my team specifically and we have several people there that are working in different locations.
Is there anyone else near where you are in Ireland?
I’m the only one here. We decided that it would be an interesting case study for us to see what remote working could look like for Sybo as an organisation. We’ve now used that model to hire additional people but we do primarily try to locate people in Copenhagen, specifically for the bigger teams but sometimes we have positions that are remote and we try to accommodate people with family needs.
How long have you worked with Subway Surfers?
From day one. When I joined there was a project with Fun Day games that we built Subway Surfers Tag with that was coming to a close and I jumped on and took over that as the director lead to help get it finished. It was already fairly close to done and we got it out on Snapchat about two months later or so, which was a good experience for us to start with and I’ve been working with the IP ever since.
What do you think makes the Subway Surfers franchise so enduring? What is it that fans seem to love?
I think everybody finds themselves in our Subway Surfers character roster, there’s someone to represent everybody on this rite of passage.
I think there’s something relatable about the game, everybody has a coming of age story that they can relate to, I think everybody finds themselves in our Subway Surfers character roster, there’s someone to represent everybody on this rite of passage.
It’s also just a great live service game, we produce so many new locations so players get back into the game for those. These locations are always crafted with care and thought about the culture, the look and what the location represents to people. Once a month, we release something new, so that’s 12 locations a year, plus all these other activities and elements we have in the game. So it’s just constantly adding new things for players to unlock and express themselves with.
Subway Surfers Tag won at the MGA’s last week, what were you trying to achieve with Tag and what do you think made it successful?
Well, we’re honoured to win, it was amazing to be nominated, and we also actually won the Apple Arcade game of 2022. We’re extremely thankful for the support from our fans. We’ve improved the game since it went live last year so a lot of love, care and craft goes into the product.
For us, Apple Arcade became an opportunity because we could throw out the book and start from scratch. When you think about it, it’s a different platform and that allows you to really think about what the audience of that space might want. And then you get to merge that with what your user base might want.
We had a lot of ideas but felt sure it was going to be a character on the hoverboard, which would be the core of the game. Those ideas didn’t change, but the environment around that changed quite a lot. Originally, we had this much bigger open world, but as that started being built out, we realised that we weren’t able to get the execution of the core controls so we had to take the concept and factor it down.
We started quite wide and slowly reduced it until we felt we had something that was strong as a core loop. Then we got thinking, what does more content look like? How do we onboard this correctly? How does it feel like it’s a Subway Surfers game? And Apple Arcade gave us the opportunity to do that – where we think about gameplay first. That’s what Subway Surfers is all about.
Do new game ideas and updates follow different paths or use different teams? Why do some of these ideas not end up simply being an update to the original game?
Sometimes they do, sometimes things get cut in scope, and they become an update to the game. Maybe a piece of content like an enemy you didn’t get in the first time around. But sometimes, things don’t fit or have the scope and the game is already cemented. For example, we really liked when we brought the game from an open world space down to an arena space because then it felt more closed, and the players knew the limits of where they could go. However, that’s not to say that down the line, maybe there’s an open world Subway Surfers game to be made and perhaps some of the elements we’ve learned from this project will be the building blocks for that.
It feels like games can live on forever as a live ops title, do you feel there is an infinite lifespan in updates? How far can Subway Surfers go?
Subway Surfers has proven to be one of the best evergreen titles of all time in mobile specifically.
Well, I think Subway Surfers has proven to be one of the best evergreen titles of all time in mobile specifically. It’s just turning eleven years old and there’s no stopping the amount of innovative content that can be created. Many of our new game locations are more imaginative and creative than anything we’ve ever done before.
Things change all the time, ecosystems change and the market changes, but for me, I think there is no better example of a game that’s constantly updating itself and keeping itself relevant than something like Subway Surfers Surfers.
Do you envisage a Subway Surfers 2 at any point?
When you look at what we’ve been building, we’ve got so many projects, Surfers Tag, Blast, Match, even the Snapchat game, it goes to show that we are thinking about other Subway Surfers games and what that could be. Whether that’s Subway Surfers 2 or another name, we believe there’s just so much possibility for the IP and the user base to have touchpoints that resonate with them.
Speaking of new game, Subway Surfers Blast. What are the goals with that?
The goals for Blast are very similar to how we approach all our Surfers portfolio titles. It’s to create another touch point for the IP that captures it and frames it in a new light but also feels recognisable in its identity. It does the IP justice and serves a subset of our fan base with a game genre they enjoy playing but with our characters and world.
What can you tell us about the brand’s collaboration with external parties?
We work with external partners when needs arise or when it makes the most sense. We don’t claim to be an expert in all things mobile. There are amazing studios and teams out there like Fun Day and Outplay who are extremely good at doing what they do. What we bring to the table is we try to be excellent custodians of a fantastic IP, as well as bring the product lens into the picture. So we cover the gaps, ensure that the product is being handled with care, and ensure the IP has been thought through on all levels. We also build our teams internally, we have amazing internal game teams that are building exceptionally high quality products.
What was the division of labour with Outplay? Who was doing what on Blast?
It was a development partnership. As you know, Outplay has built some amazing puzzle games before, so we knew they had the expertise to execute on the quality level that we wanted for the products and handling IP, so that was what first attracted us to talking with them.
We knew where we wanted to go with the product and we had done extensive outlines of what a game like this would look like, internally we have prototypes, we have art direction and game direction set, so we brought that to the table. It was an extremely healthy collaboration and there’s a lot of learning on both sides.
What is the approach for getting monetisation into a big game like Subway Surfers and its spin-offs?
Your game has to play well and the IP needs to be represented correctly.
When you’re trying to build successful products, success has layers, right? And for us, it’s about quality, IP recognition, and IP first. Your game has to play well and the IP needs to be represented correctly.
It’s very much about getting insights from different people working on the product’s viewpoint because you might not be thinking about something and suddenly, the lead level designer comes to the table with a data set and says, “Did you know X?” And that totally shifts what you should be prioritising for the next two to three weeks. It’s an organic process with a lot of moving parts and a lot of people who are highly skilled in their individual disciplines, working together to agree on the highest priority with the highest impact and trying to make the best product for the fans.
Do you think that after 11 years, you’ve nailed the mechanics of subway Surfers or is there always fine tuning?
The core experience in the original Subway Surfers game is pretty locked in. I think of it this way; when Wolfenstein was made years ago, that was the best shooter ever made… Until Doom… Then Quake… And then Call of Duty. So just because a game has been around for a long time, you can probably still make improvements to make it feel even better. Maybe that’s a new game, or perhaps an iteration of the game you have through an update or event.
What can you tell us about what’s coming up? What’s next from you guys?
Well, we’re working on several projects internally, we have our live game that we’re going to continue developing and giving fans updates month on month. We have loads I can’t talk about but there’s exciting and really great stuff coming in in the next few years.