How YouTube and Surgeon Simulator Transformed One UK Studio

By Leon Hurley on at

If you’ve ever wondered where strange ideas like Surgeon Simulator or I Am Bread come from, then you’re in good company. While the studio behind them, Bossa, isn’t making it all up as it goes along, it’s safe to say that part of the developer’s current plan is not having too much of an actual plan.

Both Bossa’s most well known recent titles came from game jams - short bursts of creative insanity that usually see something frantically crafted from thin air in 48 hours. The success of this approach, and the things it produced, has gone on to fundamentally change the way Bossa works as a studio.

“It was something the company started doing as a way of keeping us on our toes and sharp,” explains co-founder Henrique Olifiers. Before Surgeon Simulator, the studio was making far more ordinary things: multiplayer Facebook games like Monstermind, or the BBC-licensed Merlin TV tie in. It was a more traditional development environment, producing more predictable wares.

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All that changed, however, after a weekend game jam created a playable demo version of Surgeon Simulator and YouTube supestar PewDiePie came across it. Luke Williams, co-designer of Surgeon and Bread explains: “It was literally on the Monday PewDiePie got hold of it. Then that hit YouTube and there were millions of views on it by mid-week. We crashed our own servers, we crashed the Global Game Jam servers, and we were like ‘oh, we should probably make this.’”

Being a small set-up (around 35 people), Bossa has more flexibility than a larger studio, and when Surgeon Simulator exploded the company retooled on the spot. “We were all taken off our current projects at the time and told, ‘now you’re working on Surgeon,’” explains Luke. “It went from Game Jam to Steam release in three months I think. January was the Game Jam, April was our Steam release.” The rapid development switcheroo proved not to be temporary, after Surgeon’s success. “For us it changed completely the company, and the kind of games we make,” says Henrique.

The success of Surgeon, and now I Am Bread, has transformed how Bossa works. Gone are the plans and documents (“We gave up on that. It doesn’t make sense anymore,” shrugs Henrique) and instead the studio jams. “All the games we’ve got are the results of game jams,” says Luke.

The studio holds them regularly every month, each with around 5-6 games per jam and a rough estimate of one idea being taken further every three jams. “Probably every 15 concepts we turn playable, one of them survives playability tests and we’re happy enough to turn it into something,” guesses Henrique. The themes are different every time to promote improvisation. “That’s when you get the really interesting stuff,” says Luke, “when you don’t have a set idea of what you were going to make. You just wing it.”

That sense of ‘winging it’ is behind Bossa’s most recent game, I Am Bread, an idea that almost certainly wouldn’t have come about in the usual planning meeting. Instead, it developed in a 48hr blur from a simple concept. “With I Am Bread, I got attached to the idea of being a piece of bread,” deadpans Luke. “And then it’s, ‘how do I move this piece of bread?’ Because you don’t want to just go ‘control stick and A to jump’ because then you’ve made a 3D platformer where you’ve hilariously replaced the model with a piece of bread. That’s not funny and it’s not interesting. As soon as you try and imagine how a piece of bread would move? That’s a more interesting way to go about it.”

The idea worked, passed testing and became Bossa’s Surgeon Simulator follow-up (it’s in Early Access on Steam, and a new Garage level and Cheese Hunt mode will be out for I Am Bread out very soon). Other ideas that also almost made it from previous jams include a “righteous tornado” hoovering naked people out of brothels, and a game about caterpillar races where eight players controlled separate legs (“Everyone screaming at each other like ‘Row! Row! Row!’” describes Henrique enthusiastically).

Two things are key in the games that make it, says Luke. Firstly: is it fun? Rather than documents and planning, he prefers to “find the fun as soon as possible.” Another core idea is that of “player stories,” or as he puts it, “what can I do in the game that is something unique?”

That last part ties into what made Surgeon Simulator a success in the first place: Let’s Play videos. PewDiePie and other YouTubers have become bona fide famous now, and in turn they make games famous by playing them. Surgeon arguably headed up an initial assault of this kind of user generated content. It’s a game that suits Let’s Players perfectly, providing an ideal blend of gameplay and unpredictability for them to perform against, at a time before some games started to be designed with ‘looking good in videos’ as a core pillar. The recent upswing in horror game popularity, for example, has more to do with them being easy to react to on-screen, rather than an overall genre comeback. “We didn’t make [Surgeon Simulator] to be this YouTube hit,” explains Luke. “I think a lot of people are aiming for that right now.”

While Surgeon Simulator might not have been designed as YouTube fodder, it worked perfectly because of that idea of ‘player stories.’ “I think that’s what drove people to make a lot of videos of Surgeon Simulator,” says Luke, “because every video was going to have something unique to them. Something might have gone wrong differently, different tools, the way you killed him, the different ways he could be killed - that made people want to record and talk about their experience. Whereas, if you were just playing a single player narrative game you’d be like ‘oh, this happens the same time for everyone else. I haven’t done this in any meaningful way.’”

 Both Luke and Henrique think that if they worked in a more traditional studio environment, neither of them would have touched Surgeon Simulator, as a pitch, with a 10-foot bone saw. “If I was sitting on the publisher side and someone pitched me Surgeon Simulator on a piece of paper? I’m not going to make that game,” admits Henrique. “You wouldn’t go near it,” agrees Luke. “‘So how can people can play it?’ ‘Well, each key is a finger and the mouse controls the the wrist.’ ‘What the hell are you talking about? No one’s going to be able to play that.’

"‘True, but trust me: it’ll be funny.’”