Throughout 2000 years of human history, ever since mankind understood how to package and sell a work of art, a single struggle has resisted, immortal, rearing its ugly head time and time again: the artist against the system. It’s a timeless tale, used in books and screenplays: the desperate toil of a striving artist to make his work known, while the world’s business owners and managers are bent on castrating it only to profit off the poor soul’s internal struggles.
It happened to Michelangelo, it happened to Pollock and it happened with Simulmondo.
Simulmondo was the first Italian software house that managed to develop and self publish its own games, anticipating several contemporary marketing ideas; among them, episodic games. But, chances are, dear reader, you are not familiar at all with that name. Why were those amazing ideas not enough to keep the company afloat? To find out what happened, I’ve reached out to several people involved with Simulmondo and found out that, even though 20 years have passed, some cuts do not ever really heal and the scars are never forgotten.
Gathering up information about Simulmondo, especially in 2021, proved one of the biggest challenges of my career. Throughout the dozens of interviews that can be easily found on the internet, the people involved with the software house have ended up saying a lot of different things, from numbers and figures to talking about sweet memories of their time in the software house which, when it was my turn to interview them, were recounted differently.
I have tried my best, with the help of the several people I talked to and with the sources at my disposal, to put together what transpired and hope to have put together what should be the most objective and complete reconstruction of Simulmondo’s history to date.
The sky above the port was the color of Simulmondo
Simulmondo’s history begins – and ends – with Francesco Carlà.
Son of an entrepreneur, he graduated with a thesis on videogames – “The history of videogames from 1971 to 1987” published in 1990 – while also working as a journalist and editor for several Italian magazines. Carlà was obsessed with the medium, in 1984 he was already seeing the future and realized it was time to take video games seriously, instead of treating them like toys. He was the first to go on national television to talk about his favorite medium, being featured on several programs from the mid-eighties up until the nineties.
Most of all, though, the man had a dream: an image in his head that haunted him every night. He recalls the idea came to him while in a London hotel room: a mental projection of a virtual world entirely made out of videogames characters that would directly respond to the player’s actions and commands. William Gibson in Neuromancer called it “virtual reality”, Carlà called it “Simulmondo”: literally translated, a world of simulation. He decided that he would devote his life to creating this futuristic land, but he didn’t know how to even begin making that vision come to life.
He had no experience in managing a company nor any technical background; indeed, it all seemed impossible, until the day he met Ivan Venturi.
A talented game designer even from a very young age, Ivan ended up meeting Francesco Carlà through one of his friends and his brother. The journalist took a shining to the kid, since there was not a huge age difference between the two, and was happy to peruse all his Commodore 64 adventure games. Then Carlà, not impressed with Venturi’s bedroom creations, loaded Palace Software’s Cauldron 2 and told the bright-eyed kid: “this is how games are supposed to be designed or you’re going nowhere”.
Ivan went home and rose the next morning a sadder and wiser man, bent on getting better so he could compete in the big leagues.
Soon enough, he had some significant progress to show and that’s when Carlà decided it was time to take the first steps in creating a company. Not really experienced in management, Carlà asked for help and economical support from Riccardo Arioti, Mario Arioti’s (of infamous Armati cassettes and manager of publishing company Italvideo) son, who had already taken an interest in his dad’s company and knew the in’s and out’s of releasing videogames in Italy.
The two would become partners in the company that was, naturally, called after Francesco Carlà’s dream world (“mondo” in Italian) of simulation: Simulmondo.
Bocce, Tombola and Golf: Simulmondo Begins
In its very first iteration, the company’s address and phone number were those of the journalist’s home. Carlà wrote in his “Playworld” column in issue n.68 of MC Microcomputer magazine that, since the sport of bocce was represented in the first brothers Lumiere’ movie, it made sense that it should also be used to “christen”, in a way, the birth of Simulmondo. Consequently, the first title he proposed to Ivan is an actual bocce simulation, while Venturi would have preferred his first “official” release to actually be the prototype he had been working on, “Columbus Race”: a mix of Elite and arcade game, based on Cristopher Columbus’ voyage.
But Carlà insisted – Ivan recalls – that he should give up and, instead, devote his full attention to Bocce, studying how to correctly replicate actual real-life physics on the limited Commodore 64 hardware.
He also decided to sneak in cheeky references to his passions in the code, like the loading screen inspired by his much beloved and classic Commodore 64 adventure Sacred Armour of Antiriad.
Bocce was published and sold by Arioti’s company, Italvideo, even though it is actually the first game where the Simulmondo logo appears. Its subsequent updated version “Bowls”, released later in 1988, was, instead, published by Carlà’s company itself.
After Bocce, it was actually Mario Arioti that asked Venturi to develop another game that would represent a slice of typical everyday Italian life, with an appropriate Christmas-y theme since the 1987 holiday season was approaching: a game of “tombola”.
Tombola is, basically, the original form of Bingo, played in many households as a rigorous Christmas tradition. Venturi refers to it as quick and dirty work, a month or so of development, even though he had serious doubts that families would actually ditch the real thing and, instead, sit in front of the television.
Even though he still has no idea if Tombola sold well (or at all), he was paid enough to be happy with the results. In June of 88, Ivan finally – he mentions with a sigh of relief – graduates from high school, continuing to work for a few more months on the third game developed and designed all by himself: Simulgolf.
The Simulmondo adventure begins
Free from the shackles of high school and, finally, of legal age to start working “on the books”, the Simulmondo company moves out of Carlà’s household and, finally, in an actual office.
The software house was, at first, a minuscule firm with Francesco Carlà as CEO and Ivan Venturi as the main programmer. There was also a third person, Federico “Wiz” Croci, in charge of distribution and PR.
Federico came from a similar background to Ivan, in that he met Carlà because of his interest in videogames and started collaborating for the various magazines that the journalist was involved in, writing down walkthroughs for games like The Pawn. But, as opposed to Venturi, his relationship with Carlà – he recalls – never really transformed into an actual friendship.
Carlà came from a different background than his young collaborators, he was “an adult” and the son of a business owner. This one small, but not insignificant, difference is going to become more relevant, much later in the history of the software house.
Simulmondo’s first office was an apartment in the city of Bologna that the guys transform by using second-hand chairs and desks. The office’s hard cleaning was actually carried out by Croci and Venturi themselves, looking to make a few bucks on the side.
The relationship between Carlà and Venturi had naturally grown, during the last two years, so that while Venturi was the one who actually sat down in front of the keyboard, Carlà would come up with interesting ideas. The young journalist also made smart use of his various business and editorial connections in order to make Simulmondo appear in magazines and advertising. Both Carlà and Venturi were there from the start of the software house and were pillars in contributing to its first games and philosophy. Simulmondo was as much Carlà’s creation as it was Venturi’s.
Or, at least, so Ivan thought.
In his “Playworld” column, Carlà would, again, draw the comparison between cinema and videogames “like making movies was, at first, a mere technical achievement, Italian cinema, in the 10s and 20s, would quickly bear the fruits of our huge collective imagination. We are going to achieve the same with Simulmondo” (MC Microcomputer issue n.72). Now, letting a journalist write articles and reviews while being also the publisher of the same games he was actually reviewing, might appear today as a clear conflict of interest but at the time, and especially in Italy, nobody really bat an eyelid.
In Autumn of 1988, not soon after the company’s official launching, an important event takes place: the (first) Simulmondo party. Carlà, while taking the opportunity to celebrate, was planning to meet several potential new programmers, chosen from his and Venturi’s connections throughout the months spent developing games. Among the many people that attended, there were future Simulmondo employees like Riccardo Cangini and the Dardari brothers, who will soon start work on Italy ’90 Soccer.
Venturi recalls this was the first time in the country that a community of programmers actually got together, to talk and plan various projects. It will be an idea that he will personally take to heart, even many years later.
“From that moment on, Carlà would become even more my mentor and a role model”, recalls Venturi.
Some of these programmers didn’t actually move to Bologna, at least not right away, choosing to “work from home”. A familiar concept which, at the time, involved sending floppies via mail or physically bringing them into the office.
Federico Croci recalls that most of Carlà’s ideas at the time were little more than cool-sounding titles thrown around while the guys were sharing a pizza, while others came from demos that people sent in. While Simulmondo’s CEO was surely well-intentioned, most of these ideas never went beyond a couple of sketches on a paper napkin, even though they were talked about like almost finished games. Like Rimini, Blue Sea (shown here in issue n.73 of MC Microcomputer magazine), an interactive novel based in Rimini during the Fascist regime (a sort of clone to Deja-vu).
But, since his career in journalism was still in full bloom, Carlà had enough charisma to get the magazines to even print mock-up screens for a game featuring dubious achievements like “the longest kiss in the history of videogames”.
Riccardo Cangini’s first Simulmondo title was actually Mussolini Age, apparently, Carlà was bent on making a game based during the Fascist regime.
Again, the journalist was surely well-intentioned and we’ll chalk that up to a love of history.
“He gave me little more than the title, then I went on and designed it as a plane simulation game“, recalls Cangini, but the design never went really far.
After work on Mussolini Age came to a halt, the second title Cangini worked on is Francy Frigo (nickname given to Carlà by his girlfriend), thought up to be an updated version of Little Computer People, starring the titular character who was drawn to resemble Carlà. Design on that went a little further but nothing really came out of it.
Still, beyond all these experimental projects, the first “true” Simulmondo product under its official denomination ended up being, what else, a football game.
Italy ’90 Soccer for Amiga, developed by the Dardari Brothers and published by Carlà’s company in the Summer of 88, was also distributed by Italvideo, which meant that sales had to be shared with Arioti’s company. Carlà talked about it being the first Italian game that actually managed to hit the market without being pirated first (yes, things were that bad), and in the pages of MC Microcomputer (December of 88) threatened: “pirates who counterfeited the Simulmondo logo are already being hunted down”. One just did not mess with the Simulmondo police.
By September of 1988, the company desperately needed another title to be released as soon as possible to make money and survive those first months of establishing an office and buying needed equipment. Venturi starts working on the C64 conversion of that very same football simulation, he recalls days and nights spent working tirelessly on the C64 version of Italy ’90 soccer, in order to release it as close to the Christmas season as possible.
“Six months of development ended up being *crunched* into one month and a half”, says the developer, even though he was forced to become a recluse, he didn’t mind: behind the keyboard, he always felt at home. Several magazines reviewed the game, with The Games Machine giving it an 8% rating, calling it “yawn-inducing” because of its very slow scrolling. But that hardly mattered, with the C64 version going on to sell many copies, while Ivan says he never saw a dime from the development.
A consensual hallucination experienced daily
The following year, Ivan starts working on what he recalls as one of his favorite creations: the Commodore 64 version of Formula 1 Manager, originally on Amiga and based on a concept by Nicola Paggin. Venturi managed to somehow squeeze a pretty complex F1 manager on a limited 8 bit home computer, back when the rest of the world was moving on to 16bit. Definitely one of the proudest moments of his career as developer on the Commodore 64.
Carlà recalls the game was actually presented at the Monza GP with all the F1 pilots and even actress Edwige Fenech being present… all of that for free because of his business connections! Still, the article published in issue n. 89 of Microcomputer seems to recount – as it happens – a slightly less glamorous story: Carlà brought an Amiga computer at Monza and several pilots took their turns playing F1 Manager. Also, according to all the other former Simulmondo employees I interviewed, F1 Manager (or any other games, for that matter) never received an official presentation at a Formula 1 race.
Shortly after finishing F1 Manager, Ivan was called away to serve his conscription term.
In the meantime, while Venturi was away, Riccardo Cangini had stopped working from home and moved to Bologna to work in the office, along with Mario Bruscella. He recalls his apartment was his “fringe benefit”, in that several people from Simulmondo would also later use it as a place to crash when they were too tired to go home.
Riccardo Arioti had left the company, in his place, there was Francesco Carlà’s father, which had experience in management and was working hard to keep the company afloat. Arioti had created a new company, Genias, which will be one of several Simulmondo competitors, going on to release several titles developed by the Dardari Bros.
In 1990 Cangini, with Bruscella as lead programmer, starts working on what will become the first title in the successful “I Play” series: I Play 3D Soccer.
Carlà had an idea for a different kind of football simulation, where the player controls one single footballer on the field and has to follow the action through his eyes.
Cangini smiles when I mention the idea was Carlà’s and says “indeed he came up with the idea, but I was the one tasked with bringing a first-person football simulation to life on 64k of memory!”. While in development, Carlà tried to push it on the pages of issue n.97 of MC Micromagazine as “one of the first titles in the world to be published on CD-Rom” which, as far as I’m aware, didn’t happen. I Play 3D Soccer was released and went on to be remembered as one of the best and most successful Simulmondo titles, Cangini still mentions it as his best work in the time spent in Bologna.
Even though by 1989, the company had already transformed into a full-blown software house, with some people working from home and others on-site, it is from 1990 that most of the people involved recall the beginning of “the golden age of Simulmondo” that would last until the end of 1992. In October of 1990 a former high school friend of Venturi, Michele Sanguinetti, also joins the fray: he is still remembered by everyone as the most talented graphical designer they ever had the pleasure to work with. Michele recalls that he really felt like he had joined a group of friends, getting on greatly with Cangini, Bruscella, and, naturally, Venturi himself.
During 1989, Carlà had been steadily publishing a series of classified ads in various magazines, looking for any young programmers, graphic designers, or, really, anyone who wanted a career in videogames. At the time, Simulmondo was the best place to work in the country, along with being – naturally – one of the few software houses around.
Ivan recalls that all kinds of weirdos used to send in letters or even show up at the offices: people that had simple games or crazy ideas and expected to be met with a huge amount of praise or showers of money. “They had really misinterpreted the story of famous programmers like Jeff Minter or Will Wright. It was like here’s my demo written in 100 BASIC lines of code, where is my Ferrari?” remembers Venturi.
Among the people that will end up working in Simulmondo, there were musicians like Gianluca “Boka” Gaiba or programmers/graphic designers like Ciro Bertinelli. Bertinelli recalls seeing one of the classified ads and sending in some demo graphics, he was called right away and got a steady job for Simulmondo, his first work doing graphics for a Chess tutor designed in 3D. Gaiba also recalls an enthusiastic start in the software house, it was a bit of a dream come true to work on soundtracking videogames. He also mentions how Carlà gave him two different computers and a musical instrument to work with, it seemed like a promising start. But promising is all it was since he recalls, that would be all the investment the firm did, as long as he was involved.
All of of the people that were involved in Simulmondo, with others like Massimiliano Calamai (later of Lightshock software), Stefano Balzani and Natale Fietta, were bright-eyed young adults full of hope and talent.
Comic books and newspaper kiosks
By the end of 1990, Simulmondo was the number one indipendent software house on the Italian market and, also, the only one capable of selling so many different experiments with genres and ideas. Loved by gamers, loved by its employees, loved by critics. It seemed nothing could stop its success.
Quality titles like Millemiglia (Carlà talks about it as “having taken 20 months of work” in the October 91 issue of MC Microcomputer) and Formula 1 3D or, continuing the “I Play” series, I Play: 3D Tennis ended up selling surprisingly well, especially for the Italian market, still plagued by piracy.
On the more obscure side, there are interesting experiments like the graphical adventure Italian Night 1999, which will be released later in 1992, based on an original idea that came from the early days of Simulmondo, already floating around in the early days of Mussolini Age.
Simulmondo users could count on quality titles, that offered entertainment that rivaled that of products made in the UK or France, which was Carlà’s real objective all along. For all intents and purposes, the software house had reached its objective: it had become synonymous for “Italian interaction for the world”.
But, still, Carlà wasn’t satisfied.
The CEO is struck by an idea: Bologna is home to many famous comic book artists, it only makes sense that Simulmondo should develop tie-ins with several fictional characters. He signs a deal with Sergio Bonelli Editore (Dylan Dog, Tex Willer, Martin Mystere) and proudly announces the agreement to his team. He recalls “at the time, in 1991, everyone was reading Dylan Dog, the guys couldn’t wait to work on a tie-in product”.
The first planned game is, in fact, an action-adventure based on one of the paranormal investigator’s most successful stories, The Murderers, planned as a tribute and continuation. Venturi wrote the story, but he was also in charge of production, respecting deadlines and keeping all the different stages of production in check.
The Murderers would be released, finally, in 1992 as an action platformer with graphical adventure elements.
Francesco Carlà would go on saying in issue n. 112 of MC Microcomputer: “Dylan Dog will not be a fast food product to be consumed and thrown away; Simulmondo shall not develop a bad videogame that will sell only because of the character’s popularity”. We will see how that statement, in hindsight, will perfectly predict the future of the tie-in products.
Carlà, in the agreement with Bonelli, sees potential for a whole line of adventures based on comic book characters, not content with just Dylan Dog and Tex Willer. He would later also sign agreements with publisher Astorina, who owned the rights to Diabolik, and, later on, with Star Comics for Spiderman.
The last great idea of the Simulmondo days was that the games would be developed and published as “serials”, sold in newspaper kiosks alongside the paper comic book issues. The first in the series was Through the Looking Glass, starring – again – Dylan Dog and sporting a different and simplified game design than The Murderers, closer to an interactive comic book than an action adventure. An idea, that of the “serial games”, that seems to anticipate the business model of early 2000s adventure gaming, with Telltale and others following suit.
Since these titles were made to resemble a single issue of a comic book, they weren’t designed to last as long as a fully priced videogame. “Since a comic book album costs less than an average novel, our games also costed less [13 euros/dollars in today’s money] but were made to last the player something in the realm of six hours” recounted Ivan Venturi in an interview.
At the time, Carlà continues, Simulmondo could develop games for a budget of 100k in today’s euros/dollars, including both marketing and physical publishing. Mentioning this to Federico Croci, he tells me that, while this budget could be sensible, the distribution via newspaper kiosks adopted a different system than the usual retail market Simulmondo was accustomed to.
Basically Simulmondo was selling on consignment: the company would send out games for the newspaper kiosks to sell while retaining full ownership. Only when the sales were finalized, the company would know how many were actually sold and how many were returns or defects. Riccardo Cangini – who had left with Bruscella in 1991 then later rejoined Simulmondo – chimes in and recalls that selling 20k copies of a game really didn’t mean much, since the company had to wait several months for the money to come in. The idea of selling games next to the paper comic books would also help in fighting against pirated games that were still being sold in newspaper kiosks.
1992: the last golden year of Simulmondo
In 1991, Venturi recalls the situation in the company was chaotic but pleasant, at the time the team was so large that they had moved the administration offices to the floor below while the programmers were “having fun” on the first floor. By then, he had become director of production and recalls everything was slowly moving towards a more streamlined system. As soon as the first games hit the newspaper kiosks, recalls Ivan, things rapidly started to change.
The new release schedule called for timely monthly issues, along with PC and Amiga conversions of every title, everything had to be standardized as much as possible to fit the tight deadlines. The software house, recalls Venturi, by 1992 had adopted a kind of bureaucratic schedule, with shelves full of papers where everyone could keep in touch with the various stages of planning and development. Hence, there was little chance to make the adventures as rich as possible, with each episode, instead, being very similar to one another. Ciro Bertinelli also recalls that, after a promising first-year start in Simulmondo, things in 1992 soon started to take a turn for the worse.
Hundreds of kilometers away, I hear Michele Sanguinetti pause for a moment, on the other end of the telephone, when recalling 1992 and Simulmondo. They were working every day of the week, sometimes late into the night, 14 hours of continuous work where everyone soon started dabbling in everything and relationships were becoming strained.
Tired of being on a continuous crunch mode, he recalls asking to actually stop working overtime or at least get paid for the extra hours put in. With his reasonable request denied, Sanguinetti decided to quit, much to the grief of his high school friend Ivan Venturi. “It was a difficult time also for my friendship with Ivan, he stayed on in Simulmondo while I left and I remember feeling pretty angry about the whole situation, at the time”.
Sanguinetti slamming the door on his way out was the distant early warning: perhaps no one realized it at the time, but that first departure was the beginning of the end for the software house. With 1993 looming on the horizon, what was once a promising dawn will turn into an endless night.
The golden times, so fondly remembered by Venturi and Bertinelli, only a distant memory.
The story of Simulmondo continues in part II.
Sources & References
MC Microcomputer issues n° 68, 71, 72, 73, 76, 77, 79, 80, 99, 110, 111, 112, 116.
Francesco Cirica, Interview with Francesco Carlà in “Simulmondo: La Nascita dell’industria videoludica italiana e la sua evoluzione”, 2015.
Ivan Venturi, “Vita di Videogiochi: Memorie a 8 bit”, Indipendently published, 2020