The twins Semyon and Efim Voinov were Russian gradeschoolers when they got their first computer, a ZX Spectrum.
The 8-bit device had a chip embedded into a keyboard that you plugged into a television, and the twins had to pore over a book to begin to make sense of how to program it. Still, they took to it rapidly. Little Semyon made a space simulator and a game inspired by the movie Predator, while his brother made a global war game akin to Civilization. The twins were around 8 years old, and they had no idea they’d just begun a journey that would make them among the most successful mobile game developers in the world.
A few decades later, Efim began toying with a newfangled contraption called an iPhone. He made a little game called Parachute Ninja, and called his little company ZeptoLab. Semyon, impressed, decided to join Efim, and the two began developing a physics-based puzzle game that they wound up calling Cut the Rope, which launched in late 2010. Cut the Rope and related titles have been downloaded, today, more than 300 million times, says Semyon. Fully a quarter of all smartphones in existence have, or have had, Cut the Rope installed on them at some point. The latest installment in the franchise, Cut the Rope: Time Travel, was released this week for iOS and Android.
The new game features a twist on the classic version, in which players deliver a candy to an adorable monster through a carefully timed series of swipes at ropes that control the candy’s movements. In the new version, Om Nom, as the monster is named, travels back in time to meet his ancestors (a Viking in one level, a knight in the next); both Om Noms must be fed, and the dual and time-shifting nature of the premise allows new forms of gameplay. “You can push one candy with the other,” Semyon tells Fast Company. “There’s a time-freezing mechanic. It’s pretty cool.”
Semyon says that while working with one’s twin can be full of frustrations, the partnership has been extremely helpful. “We can communicate with each other without barriers,” he says. “You don’t have to be diplomatic if something is crap. We can fight, but the next day we’re friends again because, well, we’re brothers.”
The twins turn 31 in May; Semyon focuses on the art, while Efim is more of the programmer. They’re non-identical, in many senses. “When we work together, I think we really complement each other,” says Semyon. “Sometimes it feels like there was one very complex personality that got split in half.” Efim does martial arts and swimming, while Semyon eschews sports. “I’m probably a bit more calm person,” says Semyon. “He can be quite emotional. We’re quite different, but we share many things, like what we think a good game is.”
Cut the Rope is, in the opinion of this reporter, a good game—one of mobile computing’s finest, in fact. Give me Om Nom and his Rube Golberg-style feeding conundrums any day over the mindless ornithological catapulting of Cut the Rope’s main competitor, Angry Birds. I try to get a rise out of Semyon by mentioning his rival, but he’s too diplomatic to take the bait. “We’re really doing one thing together,” he says of Rovio and the enterprise of mobile games. “When Rovio’s successful, it’s also good for us." He also says he has a personal relationship with the Rovio crew, having worked himself in Finland for a time. He’s reluctant to bird-bomb those bridges.
At any rate, ZeptoLab is clearly doing well for itself; it has some 60 employees, most of them Moscow-based developers, and while the company won’t release numbers on revenue, it must be making piles of cash on the ancillary opportunities that have come along: tie-in comic books, board games, T-shirts, and a popular plush doll version of Om Nom. “It’s quite a significant part of our business,” says Semyon.
And to think that Om Nom himself almost didn’t make the cut. An early prototype of the game simply focused on the almost geometric problem of delivering a rope-attached object from point A to point B. As the brothers began to think beyond the wireframe version, Efim preferred “something abstract,” says Semyon, like delivering a crystal to a magic portal, or a coin into a pocket. “I, as an artist, saw a much bigger opportunity in making characters that would appeal to an audience, by being cute.” And indeed, players of all ages can’t help but feel a kind of paternal affection towards the helpless Om Nom, who goes without his candy supper if a rope is cut too soon, or too late, or not at all.
“I think that makes our game different, creating this kind of emotional link between players and the character.” Certainly, a line of plush toys couldn’t have been spun out from a game about delivering a coin to a pocket. Is this one case where Semyon has occasion to lord a decision over his twin? Semyon quickly points out blind spots of his own that Efim was able to cover. Still, says Semyon: “I don’t think he regrets it.”