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Subway Surfers hit the astounding number of four billion downloads since its launch as an endless runner mobile game in 2012. The title from Sybo was the most downloaded mobile game of 2022.
Copenhagen, Denmark-based Sybo has been generating new updates and content for the game the whole time to keep its global community going, said Mathias Gredal Nørvig, CEO of Sybo, in an interview with me during the Game Developers Conference.
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Nørvig said that Subway Surfers has become a kind of platform for street culture, and it has a wide reach to the young people of the world. And the company believes it should use that reach to evangelize good causes such as fighting climate change and promoting sustainability, Nørvig said.
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He said Sybo, which was acquired in 2022 by Miniclip for an undisclosed amount, is working on ways to expand the Subway Surfers intellectual property.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Did you keep track of how long it took to get to the next billion, 3 billion to 4 billion?
Mathias Nørvig: I’d have to look back at our announcements. After COVID my sense of time was stolen. I can get back to you on that. We’ve kept the traction we gained during COVID in terms of downloads, though.
GamesBeat: Does it feel like it’s been accelerating, or in some ways decelerating because it’s getting older?
Nørvig: I remember back when we had between a half million and a million daily installs. Then we got to a million daily installs. The last two years we’ve been seeing 1 to 1.5 million daily installs. It’s accelerated. But I think we’re stabilizing now. That’s the trend we see now, between 1 and 1.5 million.
Personally, I’m super proud of the achievements of the team. Having an almost 11 year old title and still having that traction speaks to the quality of the product. People love playing it. It’s still easy for newcomers to pick up and play. Also, we’ve been able to keep it alive and fresh. We have a title that–through the world tour, we’re visiting a new city every few weeks. The new features have kept it fresh enough for people to keep playing it, even though there are better-looking games out there. We still have a solid game. I’m confident in saying that we’re close to becoming one of the true mobile evergreens. We’re manifesting that level of consistency.
GamesBeat: What do you notice about the impact of the game? It feels like few things in the world can get that big. Bigger than movies, bigger than console games. How do you look at the way it’s become a part of mass culture?
Nørvig: We’ve seen street culture – hip-hop, graffiti – becoming more pop culture. People in our world are closer to each other than ever. Those who listen to certain types of music, say, and want to express themselves creatively are closer to others who share the same creative desire. We’ve been riding in the wake of street culture, that subculture, becoming more mainstream. I think we’ve also amplified it. We’ve created a wave where more people relate to street art and that kind of creative expression. We have very vivid, bright gameplay. It doesn’t look like a dark world where you don’t know if you’re invited. This is a really bright and fun world where you want to explore.
GamesBeat: Are you glad you didn’t choose farming culture?
Nørvig: We have a pretty rebellious game on the app stores. You’re obviously doing street art, and there’s someone chasing you away from doing it. But I think we do it in a way that’s a tribute to creativity. People acknowledge that it’s a bit of a fantasy at the start. From there on out it’s about dodging obstacles in a near-futuristic world.
GamesBeat: What do you think it enables you to do that you want to do more of? I assume this is a very profitable foundation. What do you choose to do with the resources it gives you?
Nørvig: One thing we’ve done recently that I love is we’ve put in a new game mode. That’s taken us way too long, to be honest, but now that we have mystery riddles in the game, that’s something that even I enjoy, as a player of Subway Surfers myself. If you get a very high score, you have to play a long time to beat that score. Having another mode where you can challenge yourself is something I missed in the game, and that we’ve finally put in. During the seasons you can see it turned on and off. That’s one way we’re giving players something we haven’t given them before.
The strength of the game is that it also gives us the chance to invest in other titles. With Match live, the match-three game, and with another game in soft launch–we have bigger titles in the making at the studio as well. We’ve been able to be a bit more free and a bit more patient in making something that is worthy of the Sybo name. We would love to get things out, but we also want to make sure they stand the test of time.
GamesBeat: On the acquisition and investment front, has there been much happening that you’ve done?
Nørvig: Where we invested? Since we were acquired by Miniclip in July, we haven’t done any investments. But the founders still have some financial upside from our performance for the years to come, and they’ve kept their positions.
GamesBeat: What sort of timetable are you on for those launches? Is anything coming up?
Nørvig: We’re close to being able to press the button on the next title. Again, we want to see the final things fall into place. We’re talking months, though, not years.
GamesBeat: Is it a Subway Surfers game, or something else?
Nørvig: It’s a Subway Surfers game, yes. And then we have other things planned for next year as well, big productions coming out.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have now?
Nørvig: We’re 180 people now, spanning 45 different nationalities. A third are Danes. Even though we’re mostly in Copenhagen, we’re truly international. We call it international bouillabaisse. You can taste all the ingredients. It’s not like a melting pot, where everything ends up the same.
GamesBeat: Do you have larger concentrations in any other regions?
Nørvig: 160 or so people are in Denmark. We have a handful in the U.K. and in Barcelona. We have one in Finland, one in India, and one in Dublin. Then we have a dozen or so in Argentina helping with analytics.
GamesBeat: Does that kind of geographic expansion make sense? Are we in a remote world where it doesn’t really matter where you set up an office?
Nørvig: COVID changed the way people approach their work, where they want to work and where they want to move. I also think that we’ve attracted a ton of great talent to Denmark, though. We still have to recognize that some people have family or situations where they can’t move. As a relatively small studio we’ve had to make decisions about whether we opt out of those hires or whether we can make it work. For the remote people we have, we’ve made it work. My preference is still to have people as concentrated as possible, but those we have working remotely are contributing to our growth.
GamesBeat: Were you ever interested in blockchain projects?
Nørvig: It’s interesting, but it’s not for us, at least for now. I need to see a use case where it can’t be solved by normal microtransactions and in-app purchases. I haven’t seen interoperability at a level where we think we need it. When the use cases start happening, we’ll consider it, but we won’t be the first, the front-runners.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the mobile market in general? Do you have any observations about whether it’s going to keep growing or whether it’s mature and slowing down?
Nørvig: My expectation is that it will remain flat for a year or two. I hope that we are able to grow our own pie, because we still have so much potential, both in our capabilities with runners but also with the IP. We can explore beyond what we have. I think there will be growth coming in the future. I’m bullish on mobile as a platform.
The main challenge for the industry, for the mobile part of the industry, is discoverability. The reason why in Denmark, for example, we’re seeing more and more indies going over to Steam is because they have a chance of being spotted. It’s a bit of a pity, because they could also be making awesome mobile games, but they know that the window for discoverability on mobile is so small. We have our own strength because we have virality working for us. Other studios have big UA budgets. But for a small studio coming up, whatever the platforms can do and whatever else can happen that helps solve discoverability will be a game-changer.
GamesBeat: Do you think that’s happened because of the IDFA policies, or other reasons?
Nørvig: It’s just a maturation of the platforms. People who have mobile phones generally already have games they like playing now. It benefits us because we were an early player on the platform. It’s tough to enter now. When was the last time people outside the industry talked about new games? It’s mostly about what they’ve enjoyed for many years.
GamesBeat: Do you have any challenge getting something brand new to the market because of that?
Nørvig: We have an advantage in being a well-known brand. People recognize Subway Surfers. We’re relatively high-ranking on the stores for search words. The K factor is high for a known brand. We can also cross-promote. We can do things that a non-incumbent couldn’t. We don’t have the biggest challenges, but it’s definitely a challenge I see for newcomers.
GamesBeat: Supercell has put up five $1 billion-plus games now, which has made it hard for them to launch anything new. Nobody wants a $50 million Supercell game. It’s not worth it for them. I don’t know if there’s a syndrome there.
Nørvig: They’re doing really well. I still play Clash Royale a lot. I’m not the main contributor to what they’ve made on that game, but I’ve done my fair share. It’s interesting how the bigger players now can start innovating. How can they use their financial strength to allow innovation to occur? Several years ago people started talking about Pokemon Go because new players could actually be activated. Then you had Fortnite coming out doing something cross-platform. You had battle passes coming as a consequence of that. Subscriptions–some is happening there, but not a lot. It’s been a couple of years since we saw something that really transformed how games on mobile are served.
I’m not a big believer in AR and VR as far as the potential to be that lift or that change. What’s interesting is who cracks the nut. I’m hoping it will be one of the big ones, that they’ll be willing to invest rather than waiting for someone small to come around and disrupt.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the trends around generative AI and user-generated content?
Nørvig: UGC is helping us. The fans love being able to co-create a character. They love our interactions with them on Discord, how they can feel that their voice is being heard. Generative AI and how you can link that to modding or some sense of participation in game design is really interesting as well. It’s not currently on our road map to explore that. Again, I think we’ll follow once someone has figured out how to roll it out. We don’t have a big unit trying to explore.
GamesBeat: What else is on the radar that interests you?
Nørvig: We’re trying to figure out how we can explore the IP further. The short version is that we want to explore more of the depth and breadth and the IP. We have a lot of stories that we want to get out there through the games.
GamesBeat: Playing for the Planet was interesting. Is that still something that’s ongoing on your side?
Nørvig: We were insanely proud of helping found the alliance. I’ve been active in recruiting other studios to join. We have the dinner tonight. I’m currently also co-authoring a book with Jude Ower from PlayMob. We believe that games can drive change to save the planet. As a studio, the responsibility we take on ourselves, that we can use our platform for good, reaching so many players, reaching between 100 million and 150 million unique monthly users–it comes with a lot of weight if we want to drive the world in a better direction.
GamesBeat: Games for Change and Playing for the Planet–I see a lot of interesting things happening at the event in July. There’s going to be something happening at the United Nations. I think there are something like four different U.N. agencies involved with gaming? We haven’t seen that kind of activity before.
Nørvig: It’s great to see that the political system is acknowledging that change has to come from a platform. Reaching so many people with games–it’s one of the only mediums that can do that. One of my mantras is that when you’re given a choice, choose right. If you can nudge things in the right direction–it’s not only when it comes to sustainability and diversity, but it’s everything we do at the studio. If you have two equally good candidates, pick the one you have fewer of. If you have two equally good game ideas, choose the one that you believe could be more just, more social.
If we’re able, through the alliance, to inspire more game companies to think like that–even if you look at EA, when they removed the foul tackling from football, that was a good thing. Before that people could have fun destroying the goalkeeper or destroying the referee. But also, even in a game like The Hunter, when you shoot things, shouldn’t you be picking up your shells? Normal hunters do that. The game should reflect that. It should normalize that this is how you should act if you want to make the world a cleaner place.
GamesBeat: Do you think about ways to inspire other companies to do more of this good work?
Nørvig: We do some in our game jam. That’s the biggest achievement of the alliance. We’ve done an annual game jam where all the participating companies try to think of features that could go into big titles. That’s facilitated by the alliance. The studios that sign up are inspired by different talks on the topics. It’s been reforestation. It’s been wildlife. It’s been open three times now.
What’s interesting is that as soon as you start pouring all that knowledge into game designers, they immediately think, “Oh, we could put this into our games. What could we do with this?” For Subway Surfers we’ve done a green version of Bali where you saw solar panels and recycling bins. Every nine seconds you have a visual cue for a better world. If you have 125 million MAU, generating a visual cue every nine seconds, we showed billions of cues through those three weeks. We’ve also tried a mode that would make the world a game mode, where the world becomes more green as you progress. The tokens in the game are plastic bottles. Just normalizing that you should pick up that kind of thing, that you shouldn’t throw it out.
GamesBeat: Do you find that players are as excited about this as you are?
Nørvig: I think that the world is ready for it. We can see the engagement on our social media. It’s higher with posts that have purpose. Purpose drives the employees, but also the fans. Playing is a break in your everyday life. If it comes with something that’s fun, but has a bit of a message, that’s okay. It can’t be too preachy. If you do that people just turn off the game. If it keeps reminding you to turn off the water or shut off the lights, it’s not as effective. It’s just your father talking to you again. I think we’ve done it in a way where we’re respectful of people’s desire to have a break, but we’re still trying to educate and normalize these types of conversations.
GamesBeat: You have to find that balance.
Nørvig: It’s exactly about that. Trying to hit a balance of making you curious, making you think about how this should be normal. We do it with diversity as well. The fact that you can find yourself in the game, with so many characters–it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the world or what traits you have. There’s probably a character in Subway Surfers that’s like you are, or like who you would like to be. In June, we also rolled out the pride category. We believe you should not only be who you are, but you should also be able to love who you are.
GamesBeat: How did you come to personally care about these things?
Nørvig: I was raised by conscientious parents. I’ve always been an advocate for a better world, for a fair world. Coming from the Nordics, obviously we have a very generous welfare system that tries to take care of those who have less than others. That’s a privilege of knowing that you have your own place. I’ve always been raised to believe that means you should look up and try to help those around you.
GamesBeat: What do you look for when you want to be inspired? Who inspires you?
Nørvig: I take inspiration from the weirdest places. I’m not sure that there’s a perfect answer for this. It’s a mix. I was really inspired by the work that–was it José María Figueres? The former president of the World Economic Forum. He worked for Richard Branson on climate initiatives. He did work on oceans. When people who have made it big in the political or business scene start educating, when they shift their platforms–he’s been a big inspiration for me. I love the fact that even if you’re set, if you have your things covered, you’re pushing the world to a kinder place.
I actually take a lot of inspiration from my colleagues at the studio. We have a very passionate group of people. Because they know I care about this, they keep sending me articles or snippets from things where they say, “We could also be doing something like this. Isn’t this cool? Did you see what this game company is doing?” Sometimes we can, and other times we can at least push it out to the alliance and say, “We should also be pushing this on the agenda.”
GamesBeat: I’m interested in things like the metaverse. They seem to represent a much bigger play space. It’s interesting to me that gaming culture could take us there. It could lead us into that future. If gaming culture starts small and grows up really big, I’d rather see the best parts of gaming culture take us there than the worst parts. There are plenty of worse parts. I wonder how we make some of that happen.
Nørvig: It’s an interesting perspective. I share your belief that the metaverse – or Web3 or whatever we call it – is the natural next step. Again, the use case is not so clear for me, or how it will manifest itself. But I hope, in the absence of–I don’t know what it translates to, but the laws that govern how publishers are responsible for what happens on their platforms. In Denmark, a newspaper is responsible for what’s being printed. You don’t have the same in the case of social media platforms. In the absence of those laws, I hope that the bigger publishers are rewarded if they take responsibility when they push out the next big platforms. However the metaverse manifests itself, I hope that players and fans will reward those who speak in favor of kindness, social justice, diversity, and green initiatives. It’s not just those that are toxic, the nasty traits of gaming that win.
GamesBeat: It’s easier for more toxic folks to draw attention.
Nørvig: And to get virality, because they shout the loudest. I would love it if the bigger platforms creating this would think about cohesion, togetherness, playfulness. Make those the core values of the product, so the objective of the metaverse is to bring us closer together, not to divide us.
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