There is something absurdly relatable about Smile Inc.
If it isn’t the ceaseless coffee overconsumption, the avoidance of humdrum office parties, or the subliminal “be happy” messages decorating the virtual workplace, it is the overarching narrative of the game—to climb the corporate ladder or die a horrific death.
Sounds about right.
The indie gaming company Super Lame Games’ Smile Inc. exceeded 3 million downloads during their launch in late October, astonishingly surpassing a release by gaming colossus, EA Games, clinching the spot for the number one app worldwide.
Even though Smile Inc. is enjoyed from Toledo to Tokyo, it was developed in an unassuming office space in the Short North, right next to Condado Tacos.
The gameplay is fairly simple—your character runs through a booby-trapped office, floor by floor, evading obstacles like gigantic scissors, pencil barricades, and robotic sharks, all to the beat of a tacky elevator ditty. There are countless achievements and un-lockable accessories, a rewarding leveling system, and randomly generated floors, keeping the game satisfyingly fresh for an app that costs nothing.
But what gives the game its edge—at least from a marketing standpoint—is that the protagonist is none other than Columbus’s own YouTube prankster, Roman Atwood—and, if you get far enough, his girlfriend and two sons.
Super Lame Games began as partnership between Carl Zealer of Canal Winchester-based toy company Nowstalgic Toys, and Rainer Ziehm of Super77, a design boutique on North High Street. Ziehm and his team have been hard at work in Columbus for the past decade—from creating motion graphic animations for Honda and Nike to working on music videos for Red Hot Chili Peppers and RJD2, and a lot of things in between.
Eventually, Ziehm decided to create an offshoot of his company, dubbed Super88, to strictly create apps that serve as companion products with Zealer’s toys.
“When we started Super88 and Super Lame Games, it was always the toy first and app second, meaning that the app supported the toy,” Ziehm said. “Well, now we flipped it. Smile Inc. is our first venture into pure self-standing app that has toys to support it.”
The office of Super77 is wacky and exactly what you might expect out of hip design boutique—first pressing vinyl from 1977 decorate the walls alongside vintage game boxes and controllers; a Skee-Ball game sits in the break room alongside a foosball table, and a retro console collection prominently sits in the front lounge, complete with a leather couch and a large stone chair shaped as a hand.
Ziehm wanted to create a product that he and his team could call their own—a tangible product that isn’t sold away to branding executives and rock bands. That is when he decided to team up with Zealer and start developing games for mobile devices.
“The genesis of Smile Inc. started a few years back as a fun project where one of the Super77 designers, Andrew Mark, used dynamics and physics to manipulate characters in 3D, called ragdoll physics,” said Nate Reese, creative director. “He created a series of hilarious GIFS of people just being brutalized, ran over by cars, things of that nature. You can imagine there were specific clients that were bombarded with lots of things.”
Flash forward a few years, and the team got the green light to make a game—so they decided to use the physics engine created by Mark. “It was so funny to watch these stupid dummies beat up by these different objects,” Reese laughed. “Well, we thought, ‘what if we could take a traditional endless runner, and dial it up to an 11?’”
Well, much to their delight, their recent partnership with Zealer gave them access to Atwood, whose stomping grounds were adjacent to Zealer’s Canal Winchester toy factory. Atwood grew up admiring Zealer’s “fetishized car collection,” including a throwback DeLorean and a fully functioning Batmobile, making them fast friends.
“It has been refreshing to see how much Roman understood video games, and even mobile games, but also how in to contributing ideas he was. And they weren’t shitty ideas either,” Reese laughed.
In total transparency, I can’t stop playing the game. Sure, I can justify this time spent as research, but in actuality, this game is just addicting as hell. With every try, I get further and further, dodging saw blades and mousetraps, accumulating points and self-satisfaction along the way with every floor I complete.
Mobile games don’t have to be shitty. Yeah, they don’t have the depth of, say, the Baldur’s Gate trilogy, but they hold inherent value in their own way, serving as an accessible, on-the-go distraction from the monotony of everyday life, like a boring day of work.
Just like a real day at the office—except in their case there is a lot more pixelated blood.