The Genius of Simogo: An Interview with Marcus “Gordon” Gardeback

Mobile gaming as a legitimate form of gaming has been questioned many times by the self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamers from PC and console and while its popular examples,  Angry Birds and Temple Run may explain the traditionalist gamers’ prejudice, the mobile platform is a hotspot for experimentation and innovative concepts as well.

 The Genius of Simogo: An Interview with Marcus Gordon Gardeback

iLLGaming Editor Ansh Patel with Gordon, Co-Founder of Simogo at NGDC 2013, Pune

There’s no finer example of those two attributes than the deviously-smart and creative Swedish duo of Simogo. Comprised of Magnus “Gordon” Gardeback and Simon Flesser, this duo left their earlier jobs in Southend Interactive, a mid-sized game studio back in 2009 to create smaller scope, niche games for the mobile platform. “It was a huge risk but we knew we had to do it”, says Gordon whom I got a chance to interview at the recently concluded NASSCOM Game Developers’ Conference in Pune.

The Prodigies of Touch-Gaming

Since then, Simogo have gone on to create some of the most critically acclaimed games on the platform and have done great commercially as well. What sets them apart besides that is that each of their games are conceptually unique to the point it’s often hard to tell they’re made by the same two-man team.  If Bumpy Road was an endless-runner with intuitive touch mechanics, then their breakthrough hit Beat Sneak Bandit was the classic cops-n-robbers made transformed into an intense and maniacal rhythm game. That was even before they made Year Walk in the following year, a visual horror-adventure based on a Norse legend that was devoid of any interface distractions. This was followed by my personal favourite of their games and their most recent release, Device 6, a text-adventure combining a melange of diverse influences and where the text is your map, as they put it.

Team Dynamic and Development Process

For just two people to come up with such innovative and diverse concepts in the space of two years and consistently back them up with interesting mechanics, I had to know how Simogo worked as a team when I interviewed Gordon at the recently concluded NGDC.

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“We’re completely different personality-wise and that ends up complementing us in the workspace. I’m the programmer, so I’m a bit quiet and shy, while Simon is the vocal of us two. But while different may result in the occasional conflict, it also leads to progress towards a better game. Without that, I don’t think we would have been able to make such different games if we kept agreeing on everything all the time”

One of the peculiarities about every Simogo game is that they have a very short development cycle generally lasting an average of 5-6 months and for a team of two that is an impressive feat. When asked, Gordon says they do it to avoid scope creep but still maintain an experiential approach to design while sticking true to the original vision. “We had that problem during Year Walk where I had to make the unique layers layout and that was the longest time we spent making a single game”

During the development period, both Simon and Gordon put in their full-effort although Simon, who handles the art side of the games is complete sooner than Gordon who still has to test and optimize the code and according to him the final “two month crunch period” can result in some very stressful times in the office between them. He again cites as Year Walk as their most troubled project during development but is proud of how it eventually turned out.

With such a short development cycle and their tendency to jump onto new projects almost immediately, how do they recharge their “creative batteries” at Simogo? Gordon mentioned that this was the first time they had taken a break after a project and generally it is just the excitement to work on a fresh idea and the potential it held was enough to recharge their batteries almost immediately after finishing development on a game.

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Year Walk and App Store Allegiance

Regarding Year Walk, it was adapted from a film script written by Jonas Tarestad and had to be appropriately adapted into a linear adventure game. “It was a unique experience working on adapting a script, something we never had an experience with”. Even for Device 6 which was co-written by Tarestad and Flesser, they had to proof-read it from their British friends a number of times to ensure the flow was right and it didn’t have any typos. “Why British and not American?” I posed a joke question to which Gordon somberly answered “Mostly because Device 6 was inspired by a 60s British TV show called “The Prisoners” and so we felt the authenticity of British English would be more appropriate”.

A peculiarity about Simogo’s games is that they are only available on iOS and while Gordon acknowledges that they do get mails from many Android users asking for a release, he says that “the diverse range of Android devices makes optimization a really difficult task. And since we’re a team of two we will have to devote a lot of time to that, time which we could otherwise spend on making new games”. Throughout the conversation, Gordon reiterated on the fact that Simogo is what it is because it’s between him and Simon and any temptations of expanding the team by hiring more members can potentially unsettle the creative balance these two have found between them.

beat sneak 01 The Genius of Simogo: An Interview with Marcus Gordon Gardeback

Predictable in their Unpredictability

Describing people’s shocked reaction when they discover that Beat Sneak Bandit and Year Walk are made by the same guys in the space of a year, Gordon replies, “We like to challenge ourselves. Since we’re independent we figure that we may as well make full use of that freedom and come up with creative concepts. If we had a publisher, we would probably still be making Bumpy Road 3. We keep surprising people to the point everyone expects us to make something completely different for our next game.”

In other words, Simogo are now predictable in unpredictability.

Favourite Indie Developers and The Magic of Sweden 

When queried on the local Swedish development scene, Gordon speaks approvingly pointing out how most of them are really good friends and they share a lot of their experiences and participate in events and gatherings in their native town of Malmo as well as the neighbouring Danish capital of Copenhagen. Asked whether Gordon has any particular favourites among indie developers, he mentions Capybara and their Sword & Sworcery as a game whose uniqueness, responsiveness and eccentricity he really admires.

For a team that comes up with unique and ambitious concepts, when asked if they came up with a really ambitious and big concept, would they consider crowdfunding from sites like Kickstarter. He says they have discussed a possibility but he reiterates that he doesn’t see Simogo being what it is with a team of 10-20 members, so keeping the scope small is part of their creative process as well.

Someone like me whose favourites in film-making(Ingmar Bergman) and music(The Knife) come from Sweden, I can’t help but ask Gordon that what is so special about the air in Sweden which makes its residents so creative? He does point that Swedish people are very open-minded and thus have lesser inhibitions about creativity. He also jokingly points out that since it’s so cold and dark outside, everyone just sits at home and ends up making something”

The Intriguing Case of Device 6 Influences

Among all their games, Device 6 has the most intriguing mixtures of influences and when I ask him if they were at any point inspired by the Twine-led interactive fiction revolution, he does acknowledge that. He also goes on to mention that “For Device 6, we had this idea of making a story based on big corporations and their shady dealing but wrapping all that in a form of a meta-story”. He also mentions that Simon reads a lot of novels and “House of Leaves” was one of the biggest influences for Device 6.

Design Philosophy

One of the most cohesive characteristics about Simogo’s games are its intuitive, responsive and clean design reminiscent of the modernist art-style that Europe is generally known for. In fact, for Year Walk and Device 6, there was no interface. When asked what are the central objectives which define their design philosophy, Gordon replies quite naturally “We tend to favour responsiveness and the general intuitive feel in our games and we believe that it shouldn’t take more than a single touch for the player to get where he wants to on the interface”

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A screenshot from Bumpy Ride, Simogo’s first game

He also looks back at Bumpy Road and laments the fact that they integrated “Game Center” and describes the distracting pop-ups and the overall experience as disruptive. So, Simogo acted smartly in their following games and chose to forego Game Center, a crucial decision considering Year Walk and Device 6 are heavily reliant on atmosphere and its consequent immersion. That is why, as Gordon puts it, they avoid doing service integrations and they want every game to be its own entity. In this sense, Simogo stands completely different from the rest of the mobile developers.

Unity3D and Asset Store

Moving onto a more technical field where Gordon, as a fellow Unity3D developer, I posed the question of whether they had any plans of putting out some of the Editor extensions, batching system that Gordon himself had coded out on the Asset Store especially since it is a viable source of income for many Unity developers. He said they had considered it but putting out a product on Asset Store is again a big responsibility and patching and updating it would take away much of his own time that he would wish to put into making a new game.

Musical Communication, Anna and Future Projects

Referring to an issue many indie developers have when they have to communicate the feel of the soundtrack to the musicians, I asked Gordon, how do they communicate their ideas to the musicians? He said that Simon has a good understanding of music (he also composed the soundtrack for Beat Sneak Bandit) and is thus able to act as an efficient bridge of communicating ideas between the developers and musicians, in Simogo’s case Daniel Olsen and the “One Single Guy” (who recently released the beautiful Device 6 single “Anna”) Jonathan Eng.  They had known Daniel since their Southend days and thus that familiarity makes it easier for them to convey their ideas for the soundtrack.

So, what’s in store in near-future for Simogo. “Right now, we’re taking the biggest break we have taken after a new project but we are currently working on a new project which we hopefully reveal to all of you sometime early next year“, says Gordon with a familiar smile. Knowing Simogo’s tendency to do the unexpected, I think we all can expect something thoroughly unique but exciting as a follow-up for Device 6. As developers who are pushing the envelope for mobile as a creative platform, they are among the rare breed of developers and ones that we are truly lucky to have in an era of numerous “me-too” clones that populate such platforms.

 

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