From its humble beginnings in Francesco Carlà’s private home, seen in Part I, Simulmondo managed to merge talent and business into a successful company which grew almost bigger than the size of a developer like Electronic Arts at the time.
From 1992 on, because of the CEO’ stubborness in continuing to pursue the selling on consignment market, the company seemed to pigeonhole itself by focusing all of its resources on the newspaper kiosk serials business.
In this final part, the distant early warning of people being unhappy and wanting to leave the company will transform into a slow death for Simulmondo.
1993: the serials take over
In the span of two years, between 1993 and 1994, the software house managed to ship out a whopping 13 episodes of Tex Willer, 12 of Diabolik and 17 of Dylan Dog. Since each title was compatible for both PC and Amiga, this, naturally, meant double work for the programmers and testers.
In order to fit the schedule as tightly as possible, the creativity and will to experiment that made Simulmondo so loved and appreciated, both vanished into thin air. Director of production Ivan Venturi refers to it as “switching from designing games to working in an assembly line”. Programmer Ciro Bertinelli especially remembers when a very serious bug in Dylan Dog episode 5 made it impossible for players to complete it and they were told to lie to the customers who phoned in.
They had to tell the customers “the game can’t be completed because it is too difficult, we’ll send you the easier version”.
By “easier” they naturally meant the patched version with the bug fixed: never had Simulmondo stooped so low in their customer relationship.
Diabolik intro and gameplay
There is little on which all the people I interviewed that worked in Simulmondo managed to agree on: some of them are still pretty angry about what transpired, others said “it’s been 30 years, who cares anymore”. There is a couple of points, though, everyone seems to agree on, the first being: switching to the “serials” was the beginning of the end for Simulmondo.
Everyone has their own different point of view, graphic artist and programmer Riccardo Cangini says that closing down the “sports” division was a fatal mistake, while Venturi wonders why Simulmondo never really tried to release their games outside Italy (even though in an AD on MC Microcomputer it was stated that Simulmondo was publishing “all over the world, including Japan”).
By 1993, for all of the time Simulmondo employees devoted to the serials, it seemed all of the company’s previous successes has been wiped off the face of the earth. The entire team was fully committed on desperately trying to finish the monthly issues of the serials on time, while the quality of the games slowly went down the drain.
Ciro Bertinelli recalls that while he used to talk to his friends and show off the games he worked on, by 1993 he began to hide his involvement because the public had become fed up with how similar everything played.
Cangini also recalls the relationships in the office becoming strained, with the ones in charge of production having to rake people over the coals again and again.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
In March of 93, the Simulman serials had also joined the other games: a made-up character – inspired by Venturi’s (and Jim Morrison!) likeness – whose series of adventures took place in 2021, of all years, and featured inspired characters like “the negative operative system SS-DOS”. Beyond that, even more serials were being planned.
Bertinelli continues that, by that time, the company wasn’t investing in research and development anymore. All of its economical and human resources were focused on the serials, a choice which will end up gloriously backfiring.
On another point, most of the former Simulmondo developers seem to agree: CEO Francesco Carlà was a great businessman with forward thinking ideas, but he never was that good at managing people.
Gianluca Gaiba recalls that, by 1993, everyone did a little bit of everything. He was a musician, but he was also working on testing and scripts, even though by then the team had swelled up to something like 20 people, there was no way otherwise to meet the deadlines. After a gruesome few months, he also went to speak with Carlà about wanting to leave the firm, only to be met with disdain. “To me it felt like I could leave at any time, since there were already three people ready to take my place.” he recalls.
Gianluca continues: “I feel that by 1993 we needed to work on new technology, on 3D, we weren’t supposed to be stuck doing Diabolik and Dylan Dog again and again.” Ciro chimes in: “while the world was discovering Doom, we were desperately trying to make ends meet”.
PR specialist and tester Federico Croci, though, mentions that little of these problems actually trickled down to the administration offices below, where life, basically, went on undisturbed. He left the company later but, he tells me, while still on friendly terms with the management: he just received a better work offer in the world of arcade games.
April of 1993: 48 hours remain
The serials business was, apparently, so successful that the company had no real alternatives to sticking to it.
Each businessman decides what to do with his business: investing in the future or, perhaps, just raking in the money each month. Did the software house just give up on trying to find a new market?
Cangini recalls that while it was true that Simulmondo was still growing in 1993, the numbers weren’t really so impressive to justify Carlà’s stubborness in that market. “Naturally, that newspaper kiosks business could never be replicated elsewhere in the world, it was typically Italian”, ponders Venturi. In the Belpaese we were definitely accustomed to buying games this way – especially because of the piracy market – but, basically, no one else in Europe was.
In April of 1993, the team finishes working on what was 38 episodes in two months: an almost impossible objective that they miraculously reached only by working 12 hour shifts for every single day of the week. Again, with no overtime being paid. Unhappiness ran rampant in the team.
The battle was won, at the cost of losing the war.
Simulman Episode 1
By May of 1993, even more people decide to leave the company. Namely: Ciro Bertinelli (head of graphical department), Stefano Balzani (head of programming) and Cristian Bazzanini (storyboard manager).
These were the people who had worked on the best titles released by Simulmondo, who had contributed much to its success, gone.
The core team of Simulmondo was angry, fed-up and, basically, lost.
The first to receive the news was Ivan Venturi himself, who – by then – had grown accustomed to the delicate role of trying to balance the team’s discontent and Carlà’s orders and wishes, while also making sure all deadlines were met. He was barely 22.
Indeed, since the early days things had changed: he was the creative against the increasing business demands of Francesco Carlà.
As soon as Ivan saw his colleagues and friends’ faces, he knew his days in Simulmondo were also over.
At first, Carlà himself takes the news pretty badly, while everyone else can scarcely believe it.
They thought Ivan would go down with the ship, as they say. He was there since day one and gave his all to keep Simulmondo in its place as the first Italian software house.
“Ever since I was 15 years old, I had been working with constant deadlines hanging over my head, I grew up with the constant stress of failure looming over my head. I knew perfectly that feeling of bitterness at the pit of my stomach: the fear of not making it. It was all over”.
It wasn’t his company anymore.
Three months later he was gone.
Michele Sanguinetti concludes: “Carlà should have paid more attention to his human resources, instead of just focusing on the sales. With a great team on his hands, he should have just invested on it.” “What angers me the most” says Venturi curling his lips “is that most of the people involved had great talents that would have well served the Italian videogame industry. Instead of using them, they were let go and most of these people never touched a game again.”
Francesco Carlà, would be convicted years later – in February of 1996 – by the Court of Bologna for breaching the employment relationship obligations and sentenced to pay a sum for the unpaid overtime to Ivan Venturi and Michele Sanguinetti.
Life after the blast
After Venturi’s and many other people’s departure, most of the development of the company’s products shifts into the hands of Riccardo Cangini.
In late 1993, he continues working on what some recognize as the very last “real” Simulmondo title, Time Runners, also an episodic series, designed as a mix between platforming and adventure.
The first episodes had been originally written and designed by Venturi, who, after announcing his will to leave the company, had been slowing down his involvement with other projects.
Thanks to a distribution agreement with important publishing company Fabbri Editore, Time Runners was translated in six different languages and also sold in newspaper kiosks in Spain (Carlà notes in issue n. 133 of MC Microcomputer), selling an astounding 200.000 copies in a single week.
At least according to the CEO, Cangini tells me it was probably less than that and, again, it is a generic number that does not include all returns and unsold merchandise. Time Runners, despite the market being saturated, managed to fully run through the planned 30 episodes; which the programmer also recalls objecting to, because they were too many.
In September of 1993, Carlà announces a drastic price cut on all Simulmondo adventures, while also trying to lighten up the gamers’ darkening mood by announcing such exciting news as “a load/save screen like the one in Alone in the Dark” and “much requested PC Speaker sound” (MC Microcomputer issue n.132).
The final episodic series, Spiderman, had a rather peculiar story: according to Federico Croci, Carlà hadn’t realized the license was only for one year. It was only during the summer of 93, that the patron of Simulmondo realized, much to his chagrin, the Marvel license would expire at the end of the year. Croci recalls the chaos that ensued when Carlà came in the offices screaming to get his team to hurriedly shove the games out of the door.
Since they had already done miracles earlier in 1993, it wasn’t going to be repeated: the Spiderman series would only last three episodes. In the September 93 issue of MC Microcomputer Carlà wrote that Simulmondo was also developing series on the X-men and Wolverine but those, apparently, never materialized. Even worse fate met the Martin Mystere – previously announced as a “closed agreement” (issue n.130 of MC Microcomputer) – that, recalls Cangini, wasn’t considered a viable business by the publishers.
By the end of 1993, Simulmondo had lost all of its clout: the market had changed, PC games were becoming more complicated and the company couldn’t keep up with the technology. Simulmondo had been strangled by the saturation of the very same niche market it helped create.
Despite Carlà’s continued involvement with the magazine, mentions of his company in MC Microcomputer become much more sporadic after 1993. The last hurrah seems to have been in the December 1994 issue of the magazine, where he announces “Simulmondo Soccer will be out in a couple of months, we’ve been working on it for 18 months”. It is probably a reference to Soccer Champ, which will be released almost four years later.
Spiderman Episode 1
1995: Simulmondo in limbo
Right after 1993, Carlà decides to change the social denomination of Simulmondo to Multi Srl, for reasons probably related to most of the employees leaving. Massimiliano Calamai, graphic designer, who left in 1994, comments on the state of things back then: “what struck me the most, especially when I later created my own software house, is how well organized Simulmondo was. It was a huge company that could count on so many people, that it could have easily become the biggest software house in the world! It was even bigger than Electronic arts in 1993! It saddened me to see everything lost and scattered to the four winds, really, what a shame”.
Between 1994 and 1995, with Sony and Nintendo consoles slowly eating up what was previously the Amiga and PC market share, the company seems stuck in limbo. Carlà doesn’t seem to have really caught on the potential for this new market segment, even though, recalls Cangini, he never opposed the idea of developing titles for Sony and Nintendo. Croci remembers when the patron of Simulmondo was offered to receive the expensive development kit for PlayStation from publisher C.T.O., he realized that development for new console was a bet that he couldn’t afford to take, so he ended up declining the offer. Still, in a recent 2015 interview, Carlà said he didn’t want to make games for consoles because “I don’t like the idea to work under other people’s approval”.
By then, it seemed that Simulmondo agreed to work on whatever projects it had at least sliver of chance to complete: like a platform game tie-in with the FruitJoy – also known as Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles – sweets. Mister Fruit-Joy is a project that – for some reason – Carlà still mentions nowadays, on Facebook, referring to it as “the first tie-in videogame made for a product”, which is a perplexing statement in the light of 7-up’s Cool Spot (1992) or even older games like Ford Simulator (1987).
Simulmondo also developed games for a TV Kids show program for the Italian national public broadcasting company.
In 1995, the CEO decided to develop an adventure games based on the Bible and the story of Moses. Talking about the project, twenty years later, the journalist stated “I had this idea to make a game based on the bible, since no one had done an interactive adventure based on it before”. Again, a perplexing statement since in 1992 Interlight Productions had released several Christian-themed titles, featuring point’n’click gameplay, for the Philips CD-I.
Mosè Il Profeta della Libertà (Moses: the prophet of freedom), released in 1996, was designed as a mix of edutainment and point’n’click adventure game, apparently sprawling almost 70 hours of gameplay (again, according to the CEO), with full italian dubbing and a classical orchestrated soundtrack. Reading the journalist’s bright eyed recollection of that project, it almost sounds like an interactive version of a kolossal movie: an idea definitely appropriate for his original juxtaposition of Simulmondo with early Italian cinema.
Riccardo Cangini quickly brings us back down to Earth:
“Coding was done by Alberto Palladini, I was one of the few people on the project and I did what I could with the design in order to make it work. Sure, the game had potential, but it was developed on a tight budget and with the Toolbook software, which I couldn’t stand. Moses really couldn’t really hold a candle to serious point’n’click products. Rendering the scene of the parting of the red sea took me twelve hours alone!”.
Basically, this was run-of-the-mill edutainment software, with 3D rendered graphics, but still a product made for young kids that paled next to a game developed for an important license like Millemiglia. It exemplified Simulmondo’s strategy in the mid 90s: slowly distancing itself from videogames, towards a kind of small budget “multimedia product” that had little to do with what the company had been releasing up to a year before.
The last days in the city of Bologna
During the remainder of the 90s, Simulmondo kept shrinking and transforming into an even more distant reminder of what it once was.
Riccardo Cangini ended up leaving, in 1996, to create his own company, Artematica. By then, he says, there was little point in staying since the company wasn’t working on games anymore, also with his son being born he was looking to leave Bologna and go back to his home in Liguria. Still, he concludes, there never were any big quarrels with Carlà, even in the end, he left on amiable terms.
Soccer Champ was the last game the company manages to release, in 1998, after months of grueling work and discussions. Marketed like a “rpg-action-strategy-soccer game”, it was a throwback to the idea behind I Play 3D Soccer that saw little success. It scored a 71% on The Games Machine, which – at the time – wasn’t really a good sign at all, then basically vanished into thin air. I haven’t been able to find even one single screenshot for the article.
In 2000 Simulmondo ceases to exist altogether, with Carlà leaving and the firm imploding. Stefano Realdini, one of the few people left from the old days, soberingly recalls the last years of the company:
So many people, so much passion, a piece of history in the world of Italian videogames, died in total silence.
Reading through the lines of the history of Simulmondo, several things become apparent.
First of all, it is fair to say, agreeing with all the people I interviewed, that Simulmondo was a once in a lifetime chance: a software house full of young talents, well-organised, with important publishing deals. It was easy to foresee Simulmondo’s future as one of the most important companies in Italy in the world of videogame development.
Unfortunately, this never came to pass.
Management mistakes, everyone’s relative young age and a market that was changing rapidly were all important factors to take into account when remembering the history of the software house.
Despite Carlà’s good intentions and brilliant ideas, he seemed to fall in love with an idea that, while making sense from a business viewpoint, wasn’t sustainable in the long run. That very same idea that ended up alienating many talents from the company.
Instead of listening to people that had proved trustworthy like Venturi and Cangini, he decided to stick to his guns, slowly bringing down the company around him. The same company that, basically alone, kickstarted the Italian videogame industry, ended up giving it a mortal blow, one that it took years for the industry to recover from. A narrative that isn’t altogether removed from what happened in Olivetti.
Simulmondo was Carlà and Venturi’s greatest dream: it should have become “The Word” synonymous with videogames in the country, the new face of Italian entertainment. Instead, it ended up as little more than a footnote in the global tapestry of the history of videogames.
There is a silver lining though.
Many of the company’s former employees managed to find a bigger degree of success in other ventures, from Artematica to Venturi’s own IV Productions, along with Lightshock software and Trecision. Despite a slow and sad ending, Simulmondo proved that making videogames and profiting was possible.
Even in Italy.
The sons of Simulmondo
Ivan Venturi still works in videogames with his own company IV Productions and in Italian Games Factory. His autobiographical book, Life of Videogames: 8-bit memories, has been recently translated into English and makes a perfect companion piece for this article.
Riccardo Cangini found success with his own software house, Artematica. He currently resides in Malta, where he works on videogames, AR/VR, body tracking and interactive experiences.
Federico Croci is the director of Spazio Tilt, Bologna’s pinball machines museum.
Ciro Bertinelli, Gianluca Gaiba and Michele Sanguinetti have never worked on a videogame again.
Francesco Carlà has also left the gaming world but, never one to rest on his laurels, he declared his intentions to bring the same ideals behind Simulmondo in the world of finance which he calls “videogame for adults”. In 2021, he is still apparently trying to merge the good old times with his modern business ideas, on the Simulmondo Facebook page.
Sources & References
MC Microcomputer issues 122, 126, 127, 128, 130, 132, 133, 135, 146
Francesco Cirica “Simulmondo: La nascita dell’industria videoludica italiana e la sua evoluzione”, 2015
Various posts on the Simulmondo Facebook page by Federico Carlà
Thanks to Ivan Venturi, Riccardo Cangini, Federico Croci, Ciro Bertinelli, Michele Sanguinetti, Gianluca Gaiba and Massimiliano Calamai for the time devoted to my article. Also special thanks to Ivan Venturi, Federico Croci and Roberto De Gregorio for the materials and pictures provided.