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Mobile Masterworks: Subway Surfers

More than ten years and billions of downloads after its initial release, Sybo’s Subway Surfers remains an enduring classic of the mobile genre. So what’s the story behind it?
Mobile Masterworks: Subway Surfers

In our regular Mobile Masterworks feature we take an in-depth look at the story behind the biggest mobile franchises and apps around. What led to their creation? What made them such a success? And how might these enduring hits inspire today's creators to make their own mobile megagames?

Last time we went in deep with Rovio's Angry Birds, a multimedia franchise with movies, toys and multiple titles to its name. Now we give Mobile Masterworks treatment to a game that has stood the test of time in its original form and accrued billions of downloads over an incredible ten-year run. It's a game that boosted its parent company into the limelight, making them one of the most relevant entities in mobile gaming practically overnight. And it's still riding high today. Here's the Subway Surfers story.

The Developers

Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, SYBO was founded in 2010 by Creative Director Sylvester Rishøj Jensen and CEO Bodie Jahn-Mulliner. As with Rovio, the two founders had initially met through their mutual studies at The Animation Workshop, a prestigious school for animation.

Unlike Rovio, SYBO has remained relatively the same throughout their history, up until they were acquired by Miniclip in 2022. This marked the end of their self-ownership, but also brought them into the fold of one of mobile gaming’s newest and largest conglomerates.

Development & Release

SYBO’s idea for Subway Surfers did not come from happenstance, and in a way their story is more the ideal rather than the underdog story of Rovio. As the studio only had two other titles under their belt, before taking an existing concept and working it into the hugely successful game we now know today. Their previous efforts included Cosmic Cab and Powerflow, both of which were received in a fairly low-key manner.

The idea for Subway Surfers came from the two co-founders' earliest work in animation. The two had taken first-prize in the Hamburg Animation Award 2009, in a team with fellow competitors Rasmus Hansen and Rasmus Ustrup. The film they won first prize with was called ‘Trainbombing’ and is still available to watch today.

Already you can see the seeds for what would become Subway Surfers being planted. With Trainbombing covering the basic story that would introduce the characters of Subway Surfers. With a young man ‘tagging’ a train before being pursued by a security guard. You only need to compare the animation itself to the first trailer for Subway Surfers to see that, unlike Angry Birds, the concept was clearly in mind even before SYBO was founded.

SYBO did not work alone on Subway Surfers of course, as the game was initially co-developed with fellow studio Kiloo. From whom we also get the basic info about the timeline of Subway Surfers development, as according to an interview from the time with Kiloo’s chief creative office Simon Mølle, “We started designing the game on 20 December 2011, had a working prototype in January 2012 and released 24 May.”

Instant success

Subway Surfers would be an almost instant hit, joining games such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and Candy Crush in hitting the moment of transition where smartphones became the de facto method of communication, internet access and entertainment for millions of people. This meant they were perfectly placed to appeal to all manner of players from young to old. The game would see massive success over the years, including being the first app to break one billion downloads on the Google Play Store.

Subway Surfers also took home the prestigious achievement of being the top downloaded mobile game of the decade. From 2012 to 2019 it accrued more downloads than any other game on any app store. In many ways then, you could argue it was also the game of the decade, given the massive nature of the mobile market itself.

Even today, Subway Surfers is a continuously developed and added-to game. With the title once more topping the download charts for games in the latter part of 2022. All of which speaks to persistent success that is enough to compete even with newer titles from emerging genres. It shows that while earlier mobile games were simple, they were hardly primitive.

So why was it successful?

Although Subway Surfers has had multiple spin-offs, the first game has remained the most enduring and successful. Which is testament to the simplicity and appeal of the core concept. It also means that we only need to look at the gameplay of a single title rather than the changes incorporated across a wider series.

Subway Surfers is an ‘endless runner’ game, and perhaps one of the titles that popularised the genre. The player’s character is constantly moving, with the only options being to jump and dodge, with occasional boosts to make it easier or automatic. Think Jetpack Joyride or Temple Run, two games which also sought to emulate Surfer’s success.

The appeal is obvious as it relies only on a limited field of view and quick, engaging action as the player is forced to manage their attention wisely enough that they can continue to avoid obstacles as they come. As far as easily exciting game concepts go, Subway Surfer has it down pat.

The cartoony graphics, naturally, also provide a great attraction for the initial youth audience while simultaneously offering nostalgia for older audiences still engaged with the simple mechanics. That simple graphical appeal helps to elevate a good game to a great and enduring one. More realistic graphics often tend to age poorly, whereas stylised ones can remain appealing forever.

Like many mobile masterworks we’ll be covering, their collective enduring presence is due to a combination of accessibility and long-standing appeal. As time goes on, any barrier to entry is outright dissolved, while the gameplay is, as the saying goes “Simple to learn, difficult to master.”

Key Dates

  • 2009: Co-founders … are part of winning entry for Hamburg Animation Prize
  • 2010: SYBO founded.
  • 2018: Subway Surfers sets record for 1bn Google Play downloads
  • 2020: Subway Surfers hits its tenth anniversary.
  • 2022: Subway Surfers remains the most-downloaded mobile game in the yearly charts.