Lords of the Underground

Subway Surfers by Sybo and Kiloo

Published: September 19. 2012


SYBO Games and Kiloo Games collaborate on iOS endless runner, Subway Surfers

One this year’s runaway iOS hits, Subway Surfers has taken off since its release earlier this summer. At its core an endless runner that plays like Temple Run, Subway Surfers adds some crucial twists that help it stand apart from TR and its multitude of clones. Interestingly, the game was initially conceived well before Temple Run. “Back in the days, [studio co-founder Bodie Jahn-Mulliner] and I made a short animated film about a young graffiti rascal escaping a guard and his dog,” recalls Sylvester Rishøj, creative director and co-founder at SYBO Games. When they opened their studio’s doors, they hung onto the idea of the graffiti theme and started prototyping a platformer based on the short film they’d made. Sometime later, when talking to friends at fellow Danish studio Kiloo Games, they got some feedback: “Simon Møller from Kiloo [said to us]: ‘Your short film kicks ass! Go make that game!’”


The graffiti game had been on hold while SYBO pushed ahead on other titles, but the decision was made to pursue the idea—with Kiloo. “We were looking for a potential partnership, and asked them if they’d want to do it together,” says Rishøj. “In fact, Kiloo had been planning on doing publishing deals and co-productions in its near future, so the timing was perfect.

“We had been investigating swipe controls for awhile and had come across Temple Run, which was still fairly unknown at the time,” says Rishøj. “The size and mechanics of the game were a perfect base for what we were aiming at doing, and with plenty of room for playing around with improvements.” Still, they hadn’t nailed the theme of the game. “Then one day Simon calls us and says, ‘Guys! Let’s make a graffiti runner!’” And with that, Subway Surfers was born.

After this initial gestation period, the game itself began to take shape rather quickly. “As soon as we had the concept nailed, everything sort of just fell in place,” says Rishøj. SYBO had a small but solid team, and with its partners at Kiloo taking care of the social framework, metagames and GUI experience, it was able to focus its energies 100% on gameplay.

“We started prototyping the game while we were still negotiating contracts, because we were simply too eager to sit back and wait,” Rishøj continues. “Unity has been our main development environment since day one. Back when we were a small startup, we could afford to hire programmers only because Unity made the whole programming part that much easier.”

Essentially, you run along a set of subway tracks for as long as possible, collecting coins and power-ups while avoiding obstacles like light posts, barricades, and of course oncoming subway trains. Swipe your finger right or left switch between the three vertical tracks and, you know—don’t die.


Mixing up the formula is the game’s host of power-ups. The Jetpack and Coin Magnet help boost your coin score (the former allows you to hover above the train tracks entirely to snag loads of coins), while buffs like Sneakers—which temporary boosts your running speed to a scary degree—are a bit more dangerous to employ. The app itself is free, so while any of these power-ups can be upgraded with the coins you collect while playing, they can also be purchased with real cash if you’re feeling lazy. SYBO Games has a total of five full-time employees, with a handful of others it pulls in when “the engine starts boiling”. Its partner on the project Kiloo Games is a slightly bigger studio, with a dedicated a team of eight developers that worked on everything from designing the menus to implementing the in-game store and social features. The whole process was helped by the teams’ choice of middleware.

“[Unity] has also been a great tool in terms of pipeline, since the interface resembles the interface of common 3D software packages,” says Rishøj. “[It’s] to the point [that] artists can fairly easily implement their own artwork in the game. Everyone at the office, from sound guy to artists and coders, knows how to operate in Unity, and it’s easy to create custom tools for each other to use when doing level design or sound implementation.”


As with any project, Subway Surfers’ development timeline was dotted with various “moments of enlightenment” that helped determine its eventual course. “During the first week of prototyping the game, we created a vertex shader that would bend the world, to make the tracks twist and turn as you run along,” says Rishøj. The team had this feature activated at all times during production of the game; then, after its release, they suddenly noticed that the track bending had somehow gotten stuck, making the tracks always bend slightly to the left. So they went with it: “’No big deal! We decided to bring back the twisting and turning in the first update we sent out, thinking that people would be excited and enjoy the way we always had,” recalls Rishøj. This was far from the case, however.

> In the end, it really comes down to listening to the fans

“Tweaking fundamentals like this is no simple thing when you have 10+ million people playing your game,” he says. “Our fans were mad! We were seeing low ratings on the App Store and comments [full of] rage and frustration on both the Kiloo and SYBO’s Facebook pages.” It turned out that players were getting dizzy while playing the game, in fact, so Kiloo quickly sent out an update disabling the distortion shader again. “It’s quite funny how things you are used to will seem the most natural thing in the world to you, but once people are used to playing the game in another way, perspective changes,” says Rishøj. “In the end, it really comes down to listening to the fans—after all, they are the people playing the game. They are the reason we make games.”

Playing Favorites

“The Unity Asset Store is really great,” says Sylvester Rishøj, creative director and co-founder at SYBO Games, which used NGUI to create its in-game menus. “We actually ended up making a few tools during the production [of Subway Surfers] that we’re considering putting on the Asset Store ourselves.” The team is looking forward to playing around with Mecanim in Unity 4. “Animation is one of our high priorities, since we aim to make stunning, cartoony graphics,” says Rishøj. “Anything useful for this is worth a try.”


Under the Influence

In terms of influences, Subway Surfer’s are far and wide. “The graffiti theme is mainly based on the documentary ‘Style Wars,’ from 1983,” says says Sylvester Rishøj, creative director and co-founder at SYBO Games. The visual look and feel is very much inspired by Disney movies, with it’s soft, cartoony style, and gameplay comes from familiar places: “In terms of gameplay, we were of course inspired by Temple Run, which was the only other 3D runner at the time, and the classic runners like Jetpack Joyride and Canabalt.” The team looked at many other genres as well—the “Daily Challenge” letters you pick up along the tracks, for instance, are in fact inspired by the letter pickups in the timeless masterpiece Bubble Bobble.

Read more about Subway Surfers and Sybo and Kiloo

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