Why Subway Surfers maker Sybo believes in gaming for good

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Sybo has more than 150 million monthly active users and four billion downloads for its 11-year-old Subway Surfers game. And that audience has been receptive to the company’s continuous focus on supporting environmental projects.

And the company keeps finding ways to support more causes. Today, Sybo has teamed up with Milkywire, an impact platform for supporting environmental projects. Sybo has made a fixed donation of $25,000 to support high-quality conservation projects worldwide. Moreover, the company has introduced limited edition in-game activations to encourage players to contribute to Milkywire’s impact funds. The contribution is aimed at preserving the Amazon Rainforest.

In addition to supporting Milkywire, SYBO has also pledged donations to Mission Blue, an organization led by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Mission Blue is dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems, and SYBO’s contribution will aid their important work.

The inspiration comes from the top: Mathias Gredal Nørvig, CEO of SYBO, who is co-writing a book, Gaming for Good, with Jude Ower, founder and CEO of PlayMob. I spoke with Nørvig and Ower about their passion for the cause at the recent Games for Change conference in New York.

To encourage environmental action within the Subway Surfers community, SYBO has introduced an optional in-game purchase of a limited edition Toad Outfit for the fan-favorite character, Yutani. The studio has committed to donating 100% of the profits from these purchases to environmental efforts.

Founded in 2010, Sybo is based in Copenhagen and it was acquired by Miniclip in 2022. Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Nørvig and Ower.

Sybo CEO Mathias Gredal Nørvig and Playmob CEO Jude Ower.

GamesBeat: What were some of the inspirations for the book?

Mathias Nørvig: Jude had an idea for a book. I’ll let her talk a bit about how she first thought of it, but her idea was basically, she invited us to these Play Nice dinners to bring together individuals, quite senior individuals from other organizations that had talked about the desire to do something. That’s been part of my entire career, my entire drive. I want to do something that drives the world to a better place. During those dinners we started getting to know each other. We also connected with Sam and all the other big players.

With that as the starting point, she thought we should materialize this into something concrete. She asked me for an interview for the book. She’d also interviewed Ilkka and a couple of others. From there I said that we could also talk to these other people that I had contacts with. I had some ideas for structuring. The collaboration came from our friendship, our industry friendship, and then the conversations grew from there. I joined the book a couple of months after she started the project.

Ower: I’d been doing some research. Some of the initial research was around Playing for the Planet, before the alliance started. Then COVID hit, and I was able to interview people while everyone was at home. I interviewed Mathias and he wanted to get involved.

GamesBeat: Is it almost like an industry-wide survey of efforts underway around games for good? Or is it focused a bit more specifically?

Nørvig: The premise is to try to both allow the industry players to be inspired by what’s happening, what’s possible, but also keep it grounded so that for people outside the industry, we can demystify some of the perceptions of gaming and what gaming can be. Gaming can be for good. Gaming can drive this agenda. We kept it purposefully at a level where we can invite people into the conversation, both in the industry and outside, so that people can see that the industry is capable of generating real change.

It’s not as survey-based as that. It’s more qualitative interviews about what people are doing and some of the case studies. We’ve tried to structure it around the framework of, “Then what could you do?” It starts by describing what’s at play in the industry, how games can be for good, and then the final chapters are about what you could do more of if you wanted to engage in this conversation.

GamesBeat: Is there something like a lightbulb moment that people have when they realize how powerful gaming can be?

Nørvig: I think there are several. One thing is that people don’t know how many gamers there are. They don’t consider themselves gamers. When you talk to adults, a lot of people say that they don’t play games. But then if you ask them if they play sudoku or Word Feud or all these other games, they say, “Well, sure, I play those, but I’m not a gamer.” That’s the first moment. The second is realizing how many fellow players you have around the world.

The final one is a tricky one. They realize that with this reach and this engagement, imagine what games can do. At the same time they have the contradicting pull of people saying that it’s just entertainment. There’s no value in games. It’s just fun. What we’ve tried to do in the book is bridge that and say that no, all the people who engage in gaming and love to play, their agenda is real. If we can mesh that with purpose in a game, you can amplify the experience. You can enjoy games as a break, but you can also raise awareness for causes or allow people to see certain things as they have that experience.

Sybo has more than 150 million monthly active users.
Sybo has more than 150 million monthly active users for Subway Surfers.

GamesBeat: How many people did you approach with interviews across the industry?

Ower: Mathias’ interview turned into several others. We had Ilkka, Phil Spencer at Xbox, Robert Antokol at Playtika. He was a link to a few people. Rob Small from Miniclip. Tamzin Taylor at Google. Matt Fischer, the head of the App Store.

Nørvig: The idea was to interview those who have raised their voices, but also to invite a few who have just a massive reach and get their point of view. What are they seeing? What are they doing? What inspires them and drives their initiatives?

Ower: Also, if I included them in the book, if I help them think about the impact they’re making, we can use their names in that way.

GamesBeat: Were you surprised to find a lot of people who were so serious about this?

Ower: Yes and no. I knew some of them were doing things in the space already through Playing for the Planet. Mathias had been active because of Playing for the Planet. It felt like the time was right. There was enough momentum to get a big chunk of executives to speak up. So I wasn’t surprised. But I was delighted.

GamesBeat: As far as them stepping back and looking at how much enthusiasm there is, what is getting done, how do you feel about the level of change that’s starting to happen?

Nørvig: As we also talked about on stage, what’s nice to see is that you have entrepreneurs and small studies, indie studios, that are funding on the basis of wanting to make games that make the world a better place. We’re starting to see the bigger corporates assigning responsibilities and budgets and doing initiatives, doing research, doing a lot of things that move the needle for them. Then you start seeing the U.N. and bigger organizations around it mobilize.

As we talked about before, gamers are everywhere. The reach and engagement, that force can be used for good. It seems like this is the perfect moment in time to start having a shared vocabulary and a direction. We should inspire each other. We should make it very concrete, what we do, so that others can copy it to drive that agenda intentionally in the right direction.

Ower: There’s enough momentum to build on, enough to de-risk it for people who think it might be a bit too risky. Because we have the momentum from the likes of the U.N. and other organizations, everyone’s facing in the right direction. We just need to do something and get started.

Gaming for Good book is coming out in the fall.

Nørvig: There’s also a moment of truth. We see people raising their hands and saying they want to do something. Hopefully this book helps everyone who is on the fringe of stepping forward and tells them that they should step forward, that they should do more, because it allows them to have that conversation in the organization. They can convince their CEO or their board that they should be joining this. This is not only right. The IPCC should have convinced you that the planet needs your attention, but even if you don’t really understand, it’s also a popular thing to join the movement and help it happen.

Ower: It also helps to see how it’s not either-or. It’s not a matter of, “I do my job, and then I do this other thing for good.” You combine it together and build a case for them to do that. For your marketing guys you can say, “Here are some tools for you to create impact in the way you do your job.” Same for finance, communication, production. In the book we talk about different goals and how you can lead with that impact piece. It’s a framework that specifically addresses the game industry, but it covers more around how different goals can make an impact. It looks at the whole organization. More and more people might be able to do this as part of their day-to-day job.

GamesBeat: I had an interview with Michael Bell a long time ago, and I asked him if maybe the thing to do to help the planet is to shut everything down and close up shop. Does that cross people’s minds when you talk to them? Maybe we should get rid of all these data centers? I think nobody really takes that question seriously, but does it come up?

Nørvig: We also have these discussions internally at Sybo, because obviously we still attend some conferences. We still have a game that requires downloads for service. I’ve had those conversations very openly and honestly with the staff, especially those that are most activist in their own daily lives, in their private lives. We have a chance as a company with such a big reach – we reach between 120 million and 150 million people every month – to raise awareness for things that wouldn’t receive it otherwise. Games as an agent for change, as a platform for telling that story–games are able to do more than if they just stopped.

I don’t want to take anything away from everything else that’s happening. As an industry, the main thing, as they showed at the U.N. yesterday–the main issue we have is energy consumption and manufacturing of devices. I hope that we can encourage data centers to optimize, and that there is as much reusability and circular design in those devices. Whichever part of the supply chain you’re in, just do better, whatever that means. Maybe that just means nudging it in the right direction instead of having this revolutionary move. If you say that we have to stop it all and nothing less is good enough–I don’t think that we’ll strategically get the change, we need if we demonize something that already exists.

I’m a big believer in change. I understand the catastrophe we’re facing. I realize that’s the situation we’re in. But I’m also a strong advocate for the fact that humans have never regressed intentionally. We need to act our way out of this, not just expect people to stop doing what they enjoy. Having all the right players in the industry, all the right producers, raising awareness, opening eyes, helping with alternatives–we were talking about the eco mode. If eco could be something you turned on and it saved some battery time, maybe that’s an opportunity that wasn’t available four or five years ago. We used to say that we always wanted the highest fidelity on our phone screen. But with energy in play, we have a situation where we can talk about what we like. Would you be okay with losing a bit in the background if that meant you could play for 10% longer?

Sybo CEO Mathias Gredal Norvig and Playmob CEO Jude Ower.

Ower: You can’t stop a wave. It’s about trying to amass a force for change. If you look at the sustainable development goals, one of the goals includes making sure that everyone has access to the internet. The more people that can access the internet, the more people are using data, the more people have access to devices, then the numbers are going up and up. You can’t stop that. So how do you take that and make it a force for good?

One thing we’ve been working on that’s potentially powerful is thinking about emissions as a whole around the planet. One of the quickest ways to change climate policy is to make the commitments from each country bigger. But the only way to change policy is by getting people to speak up. Games have the biggest, most engaged reach. If we can use games as a way to get people’s vote, to ask them what they care about and get to world leaders and say, “These are the things that need to change now”–We did this with something called Mission 1.5, with the UNDP and the People’s Climate Fund. We managed to get into 60 countries representing 56 percent of the population.

That’s just one example of how games can be a force for good. We can build on that as well. But imagine taking something like that and building on it and repeating it again and again, to the point where you put so much pressure on world leaders that they have to change policy. That, to me, is the head of the snake. You go right to the source and make a change.

GamesBeat: I never thought I’d be able to afford things like an electric car and a solar roof, but I was able to make it happen this year because government policies changed.

Ower: It can happen. That’s the thing. If you think about electric vehicles and charging points, if you put more pressure on governments to get rid of fossil fuels and move over to sustainable energy–there’s going to be a massive infrastructure involved by 2030. The people who are in charge of it are scratching their heads and wondering how they’re going to do this. We’re saying we need to reach people through games.

GamesBeat: Is there some wariness you have about preaching too much to gamers, whether they might become somehow resistant to it?

Nørvig: That’s a conversation everyone will have. How much can we do while still staying relevant? That’s a conversation we have at Sybo on a weekly basis. How far can we push without pushing people away? You lose your platform for change if you provoke. It’s quite interesting, both with the diversity things we’re doing and with climate. It’s a bit of a provocative way of framing it, but there’s a reason why Greenpeace doesn’t have a top 10 downloaded game. If it becomes too activist and tells you too much about what you’re doing wrong, you’re not really taking advantage of entertainment. It’s not a break. The escapism is removed. Sure, we could all do better every day with everything.

"The Power of Games for Climate Change" features Alan Gershenfeld of E-Line Media; Mathias Norvig of Sybo; Pietari Päivänen of Supercell; moderated by Sam Barratt of UN Environment.
“The Power of Games for Climate Change” features Alan Gershenfeld of E-Line Media; Mathias Norvig of Sybo; Pietari Päivänen of Supercell; moderated by Sam Barratt of UN Environment.

The participants in the Playing for the Planet Alliance, the interviewees for the book, what they’re all saying is, “How do we keep nudging?” When you’re given a choice, choose the right one. Whenever you can, just do better. If you keep doing that, then you’re still able to tell people those good messages. If all the normal gameplay disappeared tomorrow and it only became a message about how there’s one way of living right, people would just uninstall.

Ower: Giving players the option, too. It’s there if you want to participate, but you don’t have to. It’s not a mandatory part of the gameplay. Something that’s opt-in, something that players can enjoy and dip in and out of if they want to. You have people who already care, and then you have people who don’t care. The people in the middle are the difference. Bit by bit, it’s a matter of trying to get those indifferent people to become people who care. Maybe some people will never be able to change their minds and they’ll skip past all this stuff, but it has to be done in a very careful way so you don’t lose your wins.

Nørvig: We sometimes do more than just opt-in. Sometimes when we’re doing an update and we make it a pride update or we make it a green update, then it’s front and center on the splash screen when you open the game. It’s clearly in the environment. You can’t opt out of it. We consider if that works. We can tell stories. We’ve also heard from Ubisoft up on stage that they had one game session where, in order to achieve the goal, you had to make this research lab that would enable it. I sat there thinking, “All games should do some of this.” All of Ubisoft’s games should have that one storyline that activates your feeling of togetherness around green issues or diversity. Every other game company can work that into their game, whether on an event basis or a gameplay basis. Whatever they can do, they should do a bit more.

GamesBeat: That’s an interesting tip that you learned, perhaps, from all this research. Are there any more interesting things that you’ve learned from the companies who’ve tried something different? Do the people you’ve interviewed have stories to tell?

Nørvig: They’re doing it in very different ways. What was nice to see is that a lot of the interviewees are doing awesome stuff with what they’re capable of. I don’t want to say “for now,” in a negative way, but they’re making the change. With the book and with these conversations, we also hope to help support the understanding that those efforts are the first steps of many. This becomes a time stamp that says, “These people are all doing the right things. Help us all help them do more.”

Subway Surfers has hit four billion downloads.
Subway Surfers has hit four billion downloads.

Ower: Also, it’s not necessarily a top-down approach. It’s not just the CEO saying that you need to do this. It’s people being empowered. The executives have a voice, of course, but enabling teams to come up with ideas and suggestions based on things that they care about, and they see the audience caring about–they know how things will align the best. That’s the common thread I’ve seen throughout all the interviews.

Nørvig: Some of the in-game activations–the example with Creative Mobile, what they’ve done with the electric vehicle, it’s a good example of normalizing things in games that are not provocative or too progressive, but just showing that this is normal. You’ve had racing games for many years. You’ve had electric vehicles for many years, but they’ve never really been part of racing games. Racing games historically have been big engines and muscle cars. It’s quite interesting that you can start driving that this is also normal.

For Subway Surfers, what we’ve done in the green updates, with the windmills and solar panels in the environment–for you and I that might not be eye-opening, but for the 150 million players that are seeing it, hopefully there are territories and areas in the world that haven’t had that experience before. Maybe they start asking about the black surfaces on these roofs. Why don’t we have this in our region, in our country?

Ower: And can some of these activations also–not overcome, but try and message around some of the challenges in the industry right now? Things like user acquisition. Can users be attracted to a game because of the impact it’s making? Are there halo effects around things like this? Using celebrity or musicians or artists, something that you can shout about, and not just engaging existing players. Using it as a way to attract new audiences because they’re centered around that IP. There are interesting ways of thinking about this as a new tool in the box.

Nørvig: It ties in together perfectly with the player’s aspiration to do something more than just escapism. The creators decide to create a great game, but then they add to that. And as employers, we see it’s a retention factor for employees as much as it’s an engagement factor for players.

GamesBeat: Do you think this U.N. meeting here is going to lead to better things down the line?

Nørvig: Definitely. As they talked about, the fact that the U.N. is involved helps the bigger corporates talk more openly. They know it’s in a bigger context. The U.N. stamp of approval also helps the efforts gain more traction when people come home to their companies. They can say, “This is not just us. This is not just me and five other executives that have this agency. This is a topic that’s recognized at the highest possible levels.” There’s some symbolism in the U.N. headquarters being the stage of this agenda.

Ower: It adds that credibility. Also, because a few things have happened in the games industry now, like the Alliance and Mission 1.5, it’s less scary. People look at that and say, “We can do this.”

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