Smooth operators: The making of Surgeon Simulator

Smooth operators: The making of Surgeon Simulator
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

July 8th 2013 at 10:30AM

Develop finds out how the Bossa team turned a playful idea into an online phenomenon

[This feature was published in the July 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

When a team from London studio Bossa spent a weekend at the local installment of this year’s Global Game Jam, they weren’t expecting to create an industry sensation.

Like the thousands of other entrants spread across 68 countries, they hoped to flex some creative muscle, have plenty of fun, and just maybe create a game that would be remembered by those that were there.

But the Bossa team was different from the rest. They built Surgeon Simulator at the game jam; a creation that quickly found millions of online fans, beguiled the Steam community and propelled Bossa – already a thriving start-up – several rungs up the industry status ladder.

Surgeon Simulator

The story of artist Jack Good, designer Luke Williams, developer Tom Jackson and lead artist James Broadly is a tale of near-literal overnight success. On Saturday morning they began the game jam. Two days later they were sharing their creation with colleagues and noticing it gaining unexpected traction online, and by the Wednesday the four staff were pulled away from their existing projects to set about building Surgeon Simulator as a full commercial release.

Shortly after numerous fan-created Youtube videos of the game were getting millions of views, and then some of the most highly acclaimed developers in the world were came knocking at Bossa’s door. More on that later.

BEAT IT

The fascinating story of Surgeon Simulator really began the moment the Global Game Jam organisers revealed their theme for 2013; the typically nebulous line ‘Sound of a Heartbeat’. As other teams pondered ideas around rhythm and love, the quartet from Bossa quickly turned their minds to heart transplant surgery, besotted by the idea that such a complicated process could be presented in a game jam production.

“We had a few ideas, but that one seemed to be the one that we kept coming back to each time, and I think it was our first idea of the day. It was the one that we took seriously,” says Jackson.

Jackson’s use of the word ‘seriously’ is immediately greeted by giggling from his colleagues, and for good reason. Surgeon Simulator is a hilarious game to play, and perhaps just as comical to watch. In contrast to what its title suggests, it is a release that both celebrates chaos and gives realism the middle finger.

Tear away the layers of code and at the game’s beating heart lays a very good joke. It’s not built from set-ups and punch lines, but from the intentionally ridiculous idea that with a QWOP-style interface you could hope to perform a heart transplant.

All that considered, the notion of taking their game earnestly seems less than fitting.

“At the time we felt there were two ways of approaching the theme,” reveals Williams. “We knew teams could take it seriously, and go down this artistic route, maybe around the rhythm of the heartbeat or something like that. And then there was us, coming along with our stupid, literal approach. I did wonder if we were being a little too obvious in our daft way. But at the same time, we made the decision to ignore any ideals we might have about what you should do in a game jam. We had our idea, we found it funny, and we wanted to spend 48 hours laughing.”

THE HOLE STORY

Listen to the team’s own account of the next two days, and it almost sounds farcical. They designed the hole in a torso in which most of Surgeon Simulator’s action is focused before even checking how internal organs are arranged and the shape they take together. The name itself – a cheeky nod to Excalibur Publishing’s utterly sincere simulator games – was conceived with moments left to go, picked as it would make for easy UI design in a scramble for the finish line.

“It’s not that we immediately knew what this would be,” explains Broadley.

“It was really the humour that was the thing. We all found it really funny, and we were quickly laughing about all the things that would come from it, even before we had implemented anything. The whole process was really funny.”

Surgeon Simulator

But any suggestion that the team’s work at the game jam was as maladroit as the medical procedures seen in the gameplay would be misleading. By anybody’s standards their work over 48 hours was impressive, and in those two short days they laid all the foundations for what was to come.

But it remains that Surgeon Simulator was made in a spirit of silliness, and though the sleep deprived team almost lost faith in in how funny their creation was just hours from the game jam’s deadline, clearly the humour struck a chord beyond their clique.

The Bossa four admit they felt their colleagues back at the studio might get the joke, but they never even speculated that it would have a universal appeal.

There was an early clue, though, that the team had crafted something special. During the presentation at the end of the game jam on Sunday, Surgeon Simulator’s time on stage was accompanied by a chorus of audience laughter so loud the game’s creators couldn’t make themselves heard. They could never of guessed what was to come, but they did see first hand the impact just seeing Surgeon Simulator being played could have.

BACK TO WORK

The next morning, they were back at work, with a version of the game to share with their colleagues before the Global Game Jam website had made Surgeon Simulator widely available to the masses.

Bossa’s Kate Bryant, who was soon to step on board as producer on the commercial release of Surgeon Simulator, noticed something special was going on that same day.

“They brought it back to the office, and it wasn’t just that people were playing it at their own machines,” Bryant remembers.

“People were crowded around each other’s desks, yelling and shouting and trying to join in. In fact, the game almost became more fun as more people gathered around a computer.

“So we realised quite early that it was something pretty special within the office. Then we saw how well Surgeon Simulator was doing on YouTube.”

And there Bryant has touched on something important. It was the phenomenally influential video sharing website that would quickly play a major part in Surgeon Simulator’s snowballing success.

Elsewhere in the studio that day some of the staff were taking to social media, sharing Surgeon Simulator with a few hand picked journalists and key opinion formers.

Surgeon Simulator

A matter of hours had passed since the game entered the office, and already a scattering of Surgeon Simulator videos appeared online. By the next morning Youtube had films of the game pouring in. Many were consumer commentaries, where a player had recorded their reaction as they took in the game for the first time, squealing with delight as they knocked scalpels and bone saws to the floor.

Just as the Bossa team had discovered, watching people enjoy the game proved hugely entertaining. The videos’ play counters spiraled; particularly in the case of those uploaded by Felix Kjellberg, better know as ‘Youtuber’ PewDiePie.

Kjellberg can boast of over eight million subscribers to his Youtube channel, and lots of them liked Surgeon Simulator.

As the days ticked away millions saw a game that was not so long ago that playful idea in a game jam.

UNDER THE KNIFE

But Bossa didn’t have a chance to see the viewer numbers come in before they acted. For them to take advantage of the hype, they needed to be ready before it arrived.

“It was obvious straight away we needed to do something with this,” says Bossa’s senior marketing manager David Miller, later adding: “Of course, at the beginning we only had the start of that YouTube sensation, so it still took a bit of a leap on our behalf.”

And so it was that the senior management team decided they needed to devote at least a fortnight to see where Surgeon Simulator could go next.

“By Wednesday, we asked the guys to stop working on the games they’d been working on up until the Friday before the game jam, and got them focused on Surgeon Simulator for the time being,” explains Miller.

It was then decided Surgeon Simulator deserved more time, and the game made in 48 hours was given 48 days more. It would need fleshing out and rebuilding, all while keeping the manic spirit of the original alive. In other words, it was Surgeon Simulator’s turn to go under the knife.

What is especially remarkable, though, is that Bossa had the gumption to put projects on hold and bet hundreds of worker hours on their new game.

“The type of studio we are allowed us to move so quickly,” offers Roberta Lucca, co-founder and CMO at Bossa.

“We’re very focused on prototypes anyway, and we’ve created them very frequently. Up until Surgeon Simulator we were creating them every two weeks, and we kind of created this culture of collectively building on each other’s creativity and ideas.

Surgeon Simulator

“We are small enough to do that, and that is how we believe it should be. So we really already had the right culture to take Surgeon Simulator further when it first arrived here.”

And so is was the original four, bolstered with Bryant’s support, worked with fervor to add new features and polish. And they had plenty of inspiration. Youtube video makers, their commenters and the three million players of the original version on Kongregate had already built a whole new layer of in-jokes and memes on the game jam foundation. And through emergent gameplay that same group were in their own small way hinting at possible new elements for Bossa to introduce.

Look closely, and you’ll see that the new game is jammed with gentle references to the fanbase’s influence, as well details in the world that elaborate on YouTuber’s jokes.

The team eventually built Surgeon Simulator 2013, as the full version was called, which would pass through Steam Greenlight, gaining enough votes to break Valve’s chart. By April 19th this year, Surgeon Simulator 2013 was available to buy through Steam, and players flocked to try the new build, fuelling more of those videos, and a new wave of fan art.

Now Surgeon Simulator 2013 players were performing live action versions and undertaking illustrated tributes that were making their way to Bossa’s letterbox. One day a print of Chris Buckley’s Ctrl+Alt+Del webcomic even came in, featuring frames especially devoted to Surgeon Simulator.

MEET THE MEDIC

At the time of writing it also emerged that a special Team Fortress 2 version is underway, using assets direct from Valve (see panel: Mad Doctor). The game has also gone to Mac App Store, and an Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra two-handed version is underway. Things have already gone very well indeed for Surgeon Simulator, and it has plenty left to give.

But with hindsight, do the team that built it have a better understanding of why it worked so well?

“It’s hard to say if it’s any one thing, because the success is down to a combination of things,” says Broadley.

“But one thing I’m aware of is that the videos that were made had this universal appeal. Most game videos are only interesting to people interested in games. The Surgeon Simulator videos, however, seemed to be funny to anybody. That really helped the initial surge in popularity. And it happens to be fun to play too, which helps.”

“I think it really helped that the guys made the gameplay very ambiguous and very open, in terms of how to succeed in the game,” adds Bryant.

“That enticed people. And then there are all those details; the ‘call Trisha’ thing became a huge meme, for the community, and that was just a Post-It Note in the background in the reception room. The game world has a depth of detail that is attractive, and lets players create their own stories.”

Regardless of the logic and reason, Surgeon Simulator has succeeded. Reviews for the title from European press alone have been positive, but, more importantly, the viral traction the game has gained from video sharing has been immense. But that’s not all its done so far. It’s also been hugely helpful to Bossa at an important time.

Surgeon Simulator

“Before we were making social games on Facebook, and we were almost restricted by Facebook in terms of the universe that we could tap into for social interactions,” explains Lucca.

“We only really had gifting people and little actually meaningful. Now we’re in a situation where we really connect with our community and really can share experiences with our network. For the player, sharing their experiences with the developer can be far more magical.”

Making the game has also taught the team and Bossa instrumental lessons about marketing, virality and employee freedom. It’s brought the eyes of the world to Bossa, and the opportunity to work with creative giants like Valve.

For the young team at Surgeon Simulator’s creative reigns it’s brought a rollercoaster of hard work and opportunity, and it’s clear they are still in love with what they made. Ideas for new features still spill forth as the team talk about Surgeon Simulator, and clearly the game is as infectious for its creators as it is for those fans.

Which just leaves the future.

“We imagine there’ll be more content and we imagine there’ll be more platforms,” says a tightlipped Miller. “I know there’s lots more ideas, but it remains an organic process.”

And so it is the Bossa staff must return to their work on Surgeon Simulator and the other games underway at the studio. Whatever does happen, one thing is almost certain; Bossa has not put down the scalpel for the last time.

www.bossastudios.com

THE HEART VALVES

Perhaps the biggest moment for the quartet that created Surgeon Simulator was the day Valve got in touch about the opportunity to build a Team Fortress 2-themed version of the game.

Still in development at the time of writing, Surgeon Simulator 2013’s Team Fortress 2 adaptation will be made available as a free update to those that own the game already, and included with all future downloads of the full game.

And most excitingly for Bossa’s team, it will be made using Valve’s own Team Fortress 2 assets. But what is the connection between those two games?

Quite simply, a Team Fortress 2 promotional video named Meet the Medic (pictured) proved a great influence over the game jam version of Surgeon Simulator. It remained as a desktop wallpaper on one of the team’s laptops as they built the game, and can take part of the credit for its atmosphere.

“The video gave us that feel of the organs being more like anatomical models rather than the real thing, and that made the game more appealing, and let people chuck the organs about a little more carelessly,” explains Bossa artist Jack Good. “It gave us quite an important part of the game.”