Stu­dio Pro­file

Meet two Swedish con­trar­i­ans who took an un­con­ven­tional route to App Store suc­cess


In­side Si­mogo, the Swedish sto­ry­teller that val­ues craft and ex­pres­sion over fi­nan­cial re­turns


When­ever Si­mogo at­tends a game con­fer­ence, Simon Flesser will give his job ti­tle as “a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing”, while Mag­nus ‘Gor­don’ Garde­bäck is re­ferred to as “Strongman”. It’s a typ­i­cally un­ortho­dox re­sponse for a two-man stu­dio that wil­fully de­fies pi­geon­hol­ing, its out­put so far tak­ing in whim­si­cal ac­tion games and text-based thrillers, rhyth­mic heists and win­try hor­rors. The abil­ity to wrong­foot an au­di­ence is clearly one of the se­crets of its suc­cess. “It’s al­ways about want­ing to make things that feel ex­cit­ing for us to make – things that will sur­prise peo­ple as well as our­selves,” Flesser says. In a risk-averse mar­ket, this de­sire to buck con­ven­tion is a rare qual­ity in­deed.

Based in Malmö, Swe­den, this odd-cou­ple pair­ing first met at now-de­funct stu­dio Southend In­ter­ac­tive, the first game-re­lated job for both. Si­mogo might have found its home on iOS, but it was an­other por­ta­ble de­vice that en­cour­aged Flesser, a for­mer an­i­ma­tor on com­mer­cial projects (“Lego, Lego and more Lego”) to move into games. The wild, ex­per­i­men­tal spirit of early DS ti­tles such as Yoshi Touch & Go, Pac-Pix and Osu! Tatakae! Ouen­dan in­spired Flesser to pur­sue his own in­ter­ac­tive con­cepts. Garde­bäck’s back­ground, mean­while, was in se­cu­rity sys­tems.

Be­fore leav­ing Southend, the two worked on XBLA puzzler Ilomilo, with Garde­bäck as a pro­gram­mer and Flesser re­spon­si­ble for the game’s art. Though the game was well liked, the process only made Flesser more determined to leave to pro­duce some­thing that he could call his own. “Part of it was see­ing that it was pos­si­ble for me to make loads of con­tent by my­self, but I think [it was] also be­ing cre­atively very tired af­ter mak­ing it for so long, and want­ing to make smaller things. And also want­ing to do things dif­fer­ently, with­out all the pol­i­tics that comes with the tra­di­tional de­vel­oper-pub­lisher model.”

The two may not have left Southend with a con­crete idea for their de­but, but the newly formed Si­mogo al­ready knew which for­mat it would be work­ing on. At the time, iOS was a bur­geon­ing plat­form for ex­per­i­men­tal new out­fits, and Ap­ple’s open-door ap­proach made self­pub­lish­ing invit­ing. “The gen­eral idea was that we thought it would be great if we could make at least two games a year,” Flesser re­calls. “When there was only the [iPhone] 3GS, it was re­ally ex­cit­ing – all those early clas­sics like Space In­vaders In­fin­ity Gene, Eliss, Drop7.” The breezy ar­cade-like plea­sures of Kosmo Spin got Si­mogo’s ca­reer off to a fine, if in­aus­pi­cious start, though Flesser notes that some of his friends still think it’s his best game. “It didn’t sell very well,” he ad­mits. “Not cat­a­stroph­i­cally, but around what you could ex­pect from a very small game from a com­pletely un­known stu­dio.” This ap­plied a cer­tain pres­sure to get the next project done quickly, and in­deed, hav­ing only fin­ished up its work on Kosmo Spin in Novem­ber 2010, Si­mogo had a con­trol pro­to­type for its fol­low-up in place by Christ­mas that year.

Bumpy Road was re­leased in May 2011, and was far more suc­cess­ful: com­ments from high-pro­file de­vel­op­ers and glow­ing pre­views gen­er­ated a buzz that earned it a cov­eted Game Of The Week spot on the App Store. Flesser puts much of that down to its au­dio­vi­sual ap­peal, cit­ing Yann Tiersen’s Amélie sound­track and Les Triplettes De Belleville as in­spi­ra­tion. “I of­ten get ac­cused of be­ing a to­tal Fran­cophile, and I think that shines through in Bumpy Road,” he says.

Mac and PC ports fol­lowed, but be­fore those came the launch of Beat Sneak Ban­dit on iOS, its com­bi­na­tion of stealth puzzles and rhythm-ac­tion earn­ing Si­mogo Best Mo­bile Game at the 2012 In­de­pen­dent Games Fes­ti­val. Then came the pair’s first real set­back: a con­cept pro­duced for a high-pro­file pub­lisher on an­other for­mat earned a favourable re­sponse at first, but with de­sign doc­u­ments and a pro­to­type in place, the project was un­ex­pect­edly can­celled. In its stead, a short story from au­thor Jonas Tarestad – a child­hood friend of Flesser – was steadily re­moulded into an un­set­tling firstper­son psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror story. Re­leased a full year af­ter Beat Sneak Ban­dit,

Year Walk marked the be­gin­ning of a new chap­ter in Si­mogo’s ca­reer, with a clear shift to­wards more nar­ra­tive-led ex­pe­ri­ences. It was also the first Si­mogo game to re­quire ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance. “The seed of it was from Jonas with his script, so work­ing to­gether with out­side peo­ple felt nat­u­ral,” Flesser ex­plains.

The stu­dio was con­tin­u­ing to con­found ex­pec­ta­tions with ev­ery re­lease, but Flesser in­sists that it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily a con­scious de­ci­sion. “To be hon­est with you, we don’t re­ally have a great plan, so it’s never, ‘OK let’s do some­thing dif­fer­ent this time.’ It’s mostly about want­ing to make what feels ex­cit­ing to us, and that hap­pens to [in­volve] mak­ing some­thing that is dif­fer­ent each time. Do we have a house style? Well, yes and no. I think you have to have some kind of con­ti­nu­ity, but when you are such a small stu­dio that tends to come nat­u­rally, re­ally.”

Yet Si­mogo’s next game was a di­rect re­ac­tion to Year Walk, though this wasn’t sim­ply about a de­sire to ex­plore con­cep­tu­ally and the­mat­i­cally new ter­ri­tory. Af­ter all, Flesser and Garde­bäck had left a larger de­vel­oper so they could make shorter games, yet had just spent over ten months on a sin­gle project. Af­ter the game had launched, they went over Year Walk’s devel­op­ment process to see how they could make their next project less of a strug­gle.

“One of the ear­li­est things we did for De­vice 6 was de­cid­ing to divide it up into con­fined chap­ters in­stead of it tak­ing part in one large world,” Flesser says. “We’d treat ev­ery chap­ter as a sep­a­rate project, and be com­pletely done with one chap­ter be­fore mov­ing on to the next.

That was a very en­joy­able way of mak­ing a game, be­cause we were be­ing con­stantly grat­i­fied with the re­sults.” With each chap­ter tak­ing just three or four weeks to make, it was a re­ward­ing process for Si­mogo – “like mak­ing six lit­tle projects in one,” Flesser tells us – with the story’s in­ter­sti­tial tests act­ing as re­fresh­ing palate cleansers for both player and game-maker.

That sense of fun comes across in the fin­ished game: De­vice 6 tells a dark story, but it’s light on its feet, as mis­chievous as it is metic­u­lous. Three BAFTA nom­i­na­tions, a clutch of game of the year awards, and an­other gong from the IGF for Ex­cel­lence In Au­dio fol­lowed, the lat­ter in no small part thanks to the sound­track cre­ated by an­other for­mer Southend In­ter­ac­tive player, Daniel Ol­sén, who Flesser had first called upon for Year Walk. By this time, oth­ers had been wel­comed into the ex­tended Si­mogo fam­ily – in­deed, that term was coined by singer-song­writer Jonathan Eng, whose con­tri­bu­tion to De­vice 6 was an up­beat ear­worm few could for­get.

If there’s any con­nec­tive tis­sue be­tween the two – and the stu­dio’s sixth game, The Sailor’s Dream – it’s Si­mogo’s de­sire to ex­per­i­ment with un­usual struc­tures, in­put meth­ods and nar­ra­tive de­liv­ery sys­tems. “Like how form and story be­comes one?” Flesser asks. “Yes! I love ex­plor­ing that. It’s in­ter­est­ing that more peo­ple don’t try that. I’m kind of ob­sessed with it. If we have an idea for an in­ter­ac­tion or what­ever, I’m al­ways ask­ing, ‘OK, but what is this sup­posed to mean within the game? Is it a sym­bol? Why do we do this?’ Like in The Sailor’s Dream, when you ap­proach is­lands, you get th­ese lit­tle pages, which are pages of the girl’s sketch­book. So that kind of think­ing makes stuff [har­monise] re­ally nicely. I mean, lik­ing some­thing, or ‘be­cause it’s fun’ are good rea­sons for any­thing, but if that is the only rea­son for all of your com­po­nents, I feel you’re likely to get a lot of nice things that aren’t re­ally strung to­gether by any logic.”

And yet for once the crit­i­cal re­sponse to a Si­mogo game was sharply di­vi­sive. Spe­cial­ist pub­li­ca­tions were gen­er­ally un­der­whelmed, while a hand­ful of main­stream, non-gam­ing sites were smit­ten. Even Ap­ple was colder on it than usual. Af­ter Flesser took to Twit­ter to be­moan iOS 8 ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues, plus the time and ex­pense of de­vel­op­ing for new screen sizes for iPhone 6, he was fur­ther up­set by the plat­form holder’s choice to high­light two other apps re­leased that week ahead of The Sailor’s Dream. Hav­ing talked of his de­light in “weird things” like De­vice 6 and Year Walk earn­ing enough money to sup­port Si­mogo, there’s the hint its lat­est app hasn’t bro­ken even. “It is a prob­lem,” Flesser tells us. “It has been hard to com­mu­ni­cate [what it is], and maybe we made a mis­take by cat­e­goris­ing it un­der games. We might change that and do a mini re­launch. But we’re still talk­ing about that.” In the mean­time, Si­mogo has re­leased The

Sen­sa­tional De­cem­ber Ma­chine, a free short story on PC. It’s a brief but typ­i­cally well-crafted para­ble about our ob­ses­sion with tech­nol­ogy and the de­mands we place upon it, as well as our de­sire to cat­e­gorise, and how that’s prob­lem­atic for cre­ators seek­ing to chal­lenge es­tab­lished ideas. A gift to fans, it also sees Flesser find­ing a form of cathar­sis af­ter The Sailor’s Dream.

Per­haps, we sug­gest to Flesser, the crit­i­cal re­sponse to The Sailor’s Dream might be use­ful in the long run, in that a de­vel­oper on a pre­vi­ously un­bro­ken hot streak might now feel a lit­tle less pres­sure to outdo it­self. Could this be the start of a new chap­ter in the Si­mogo story? “I think it’s the next chap­ter in the sense that we don’t feel we have to be so re­strained in what’s com­ing next – it doesn’t al­ways have to be the next big thing. And I think The Sen­sa­tional De­cem­ber

Ma­chine is the first step in that di­rec­tion.” Fur­ther hints for fu­ture projects are dropped: “We have one pro­to­type of a game that we re­ally like, which to me feels a bit like a mix of our old and new style.” Flesser adds that Si­mogo might even ex­plore non­in­ter­ac­tive ideas, per­haps spin­ning off from the worlds, char­ac­ters and con­cepts fea­tured in its pre­vi­ous games.

De­spite Si­mogo’s achieve­ments, Flesser is keen to re­mind us that suc­cess is rel­a­tive. “Peo­ple tend to as­sume that just be­cause they see a de­vel­oper men­tioned in a lot of places, they do huge num­bers with their games. Few peo­ple re­alise that a lot of games from small stu­dios strug­gle to sell [more than] 20,000 copies.”

But it’s clear the pair that once gave a GDC talk called Suc­cess Through Not Do­ing What Ev­ery­one Tells You To Do isn’t re­ally striv­ing for main­stream ac­cep­tance. “We’re prob­a­bly both happy about where we are, but also am­biva­lent about it. We push our­selves to cre­ate new things be­cause we know we need to strug­gle, but also it’s tir­ing to al­ways be re­motely suc­cess­ful.” For now, Flesser and Garde­bäck are happy to shun the lime­light and al­low Si­mogo’s games to speak for them­selves. Luck­ily, they have plenty to say.


Simon Flesser (left) is re­spon­si­ble for “art, sound and words” while Mag­nus Garde­bäck does “code, pa­pers and num­bers”

In a ‘launch now, patch later’ mar­ket, Si­mogo’s games are un­com­monly bug- and glitch-free. “Gor­don is a su­per-ef­fi­cient coder,” says Flesser, “but we are re­ally keen on qual­ity. The crafts­man­ship is very im­por­tant to us. Sim­ply, when I pay for some­thing, I ex­pect it to work”

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