Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout was one of the biggest success stories of 2020 -- a fact that, five months on, the team is still having difficulty processing.
The battle royale-style game -- which whittles 60 players down to just one via an assortment of bizarre assault courses and whimsical team-based minigames -- has racked up over 11 million Steam sales since its launch in August. And while there are no sales figures for the PS4 version, it stands as the most downloaded PlayStation Plus game ever.
To say the game surpassed developer Mediatonic's expectations is something of an understatement.
"We thought it was going to do well 'for us,' by our standards," says CEO and co-founder Dave Bailey. "There were no forecasts that came anywhere near what actually happened."
Lead game designer Joe Walsh, who came up with the original pitch, adds: "It always feels like the big battle in games is to make your development budget back -- if you do that, you're a success. I'd steeled myself, thinking it might take six months or a year to break even. Fall Guys did it in about four hours."
There were several factors behind the game's success: the increased number of people playing video games during the coronavirus pandemic; the launch timed to coincide with the summer holidays when younger gamers would have more leisure time; and the accessible concept that's instantly understandable to anyone that has watched an episode of Takeshi's Castle (or its numerous progeny like Most Extreme Elimination Challenge or Wipeout).
But one of the key pillars to Fall Guys' rapid rise was its inclusion as a free game for PlayStation Plus subscribers. Like Rocket League before it, the game benefitted from being instantly available to tens of millions of subscribers around the world. Bailey asserts that there were myriad reasons for Fall Guys to take off, but does note he is "definitely glad we took the decision to go to PlayStation Plus."
While the CEO spent most of the first week in shock, double checking the stats he was relaying to people over phone calls "because I couldn't quite believe them," it soon became clear that the studio had something special on its hands. The challenge then became how best to build on this, to harness this sudden popularity to avoid losing momentum.
"I thought it might take six months or a year to break even. Fall Guys did it in about four hours"
Joe Walsh, Mediatonic
Fall Guys was always planned as a live service game, with post-launch updates and additions already in the works, but the rate at which Mediatonic's new audience demanded more gauntlets and costumes for their beans was something that caught the team a little off guard.
"It's unbelievable how insatiable people's appetite for content is," says Bailey, with another team member adding that many players had managed to play through all 40 of Season 2's new levels within just a couple of days -- despite them all being on a random rotation.
The Fall Guys team adjusted its content schedule and Mediatonic quickly began hiring, aiming to double the team size. But the UK studio has been careful not to rush these processes in the months since launch.
"You can't grow the team overnight," Walsh explains. "Just because the game is huge doesn't mean we can suddenly increase the amount of content we can make, and we had to be very careful to not overcommit to things we can't do because there's a lag between hiring new people and growing the content.
"And we can't just pull everyone from all the other teams, as some fans seem to think -- that's just not how it works. We have other projects that we have obligations to and are passionate about continuing to support. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't just put everyone on Fall Guys tomorrow so people will have to bear with us on that."
The studio is currently working on a mid-season update for Season 3, and reports the current event is the biggest yet. More players returned for the current season and are playing for longer than anything seen during Season 2, with Walsh pointing to the current season as "the type we always envisioned being able to deliver to players at a regular cadence."
"Season 2 was mostly pre-planned as our first update before the game had even launched -- you needed those lead times for the amount of content and team size we were working with back then," adds creative director Jeff Tanton.
"There were no forecasts that came anywhere near what actually happened"
Dave Bailey, Mediatonic
"At that point, even though we planned it to scale and thought it'd be a hit it was hard to envision just how many players would play consistently, or exactly how those players were going to react to the game. So even though there was some excellent content in that update, it wasn't as clear a response to the player that Season 3 was."
Responding to players has become a big priority for Mediatonic, as it draws on its experience with the various live service games it has launched and continues to operate on mobile. The difference in this case is the sheer range of experiences different players enjoy.
Walsh says he and his colleagues already knew things like team rounds -- where you can be eliminated due to the poor play of your teammates -- "were likely to be controversial," but they couldn't have predicted other quirks of the community.
Examples range from the "schism between 'grabbers' and 'non-grabbers'," and the players obsessed with the Slime Climb and Hex-A-Gone rounds who just want to play those two games on repeat, to the ones who have become so competitive that they have created their own win percentage tracking spreadsheets.
With such enthusiasm for the game, it can be tempting to listen to the more hardcore elements of the community demanding stats pages, leaderboards and competitive ranked modes. But Fall Guys was never aimed solely at these players, and maintaining its accessibility has been a key focus or Mediatonic.
"It's important to make sure those core people feel listened to, but also making sure new players have a nice experience because those first few rounds you play are really going to dictate whether you hang around and feel welcomed into the game," says Walsh.
"It's just as important to think about people who don't know what Fall Guys is, who maybe have never played multiplayer games before, and making sure that we don't assume everyone in our community is a seasoned online player. And we can't just rely on [what] other games do, because a lot of people who play Fall Guys have probably never played those other games."
With 2021 upon us and Fall Guys' popularity very much established, Mediatonic is now focused on the game's long-term success. Part of this is "doubling down on the variety Fall Guys can offer," with more experimental playthroughs like the Hex-A-Gone Trials or Fall Ball Cup, but also improving the stability of the game itself.
As with almost any online multiplayer title, Fall Guys suffered its share of server issues at launch -- especially with the unexpected masses that poured into the game. While this was rectified as quickly as possible, it has become an ongoing endeavour, more so than any previous Mediatonic project.
"What players sometimes don't realise is that the game gets exponentially more complex as we add more to it, so even keeping the same baseline stability requires much more effort than it did at launch," says Walsh.
The team remains somewhat tight-lipped on what fans can expect from Season 4, but Walsh recognises that each new season is expected to "step things up a gear in terms of the excitement." Fortunately, the continuing expansion of the team and the growing confidence that comes from refining the content pipeline with each new round's creation means things are falling into place for Fall Guys faster than they did for previous seasons.
"We want Fall Guys to come to every major platform, and we're working hard to achieve that"
Dave Bailey, Mediatonic
"We're better able to have conversations that basically start with 'If we could do anything for Season X, what would we do?' and actually follow those ideas through to fruition," says Walsh. "At the same time, the Art team has completely knocked it out of the park with our roster of costumes for Season 4 and I absolutely can't wait to start sharing the designs.
"I think as a team we're really hitting our stride -- we're able to start production earlier, let things simmer for longer and hopefully deliver something fans could never have imagined was possible five months ago."
It's not just the Fall Guys team that has benefited from the game's success, either. Mediatonic as a whole suddenly has more resources than it did in the past, thanks to this surge of revenue from the online multiplayer sensation.
Fall Guys is by far the biggest game the studio has produced and, crucially, the biggest original IP in terms of scale. Bailey tells us the next biggest has generated between $10 million and $15 million in its lifetime; after just three months, Fall Guys was already "adding some noughts onto that."
This has enabled the studio to accelerate its plans to shift more towards original IP and publishing other developers' projects. Mediatonic has already been taking fewer work-for-hire deals in recent years, replacing each completed game with an original IP, but by the end of 2020, at least 70% of the company was working on either new properties or publishing ventures.
"We had already planned to become a mostly IP-owning and publishing company over the next three years -- and that happened in about three weeks," says Bailey. "In financial terms, Fall Guys gazzumped everything we've been doing, it was absolutely incredible. And it's really meant we can apply those resources to doing more things, as well as having this huge project around building out Fall Guys."
Bailey is particularly proud of Mediatonic's history of creating games that are "a little offbeat," pointing to comical picross crime thriller Murder By Numbers as a prime example. Now that Fall Guys has made the studio even more comfortable financially, he hopes to encourage more of that.
"We want to build other massively social games in time -- but obviously we've got our hands pretty full right now," he adds.
So what of plans beyond Steam and PlayStation 4? There was excitement and confusion recently as banter between Fall Guys' social media accounts and those of Xbox, plus an erroneous mention by the latter, led people to believe the game would soon be added to Game Pass -- a notion publisher Devolver Digital later shut down.
Yet it is perhaps inevitable that Mediatonic's already iconic beans will waddle their way to other consoles and, if the Chinese mobile version succeeds, smart devices as well.
"We haven't said much about the roadmap for this, but what we can say is we want this to reach as many people as possible," says Bailey. "We want it to come to every major platform, and we're working hard to achieve that."
He adds that crossplay is also on the horizon, saying: "We want to come to all the different platforms, and hopefully connect those platforms so people can play together. If we do that right, that can be a superpower for other ambitions around original games and that publishing business, too. It's really propelled everything forward by quite a bit."
The Mediatonic CEO maintains that this is just the beginning for Fall Guys, a project that was always intended to last for several years, if not indefinitely. While he acknowledges the game "would have gone live with a lot more content" had they known how quickly it would have taken off, the studio has done a remarkable job of keeping up with the mania that followed, scaling up both the game and the team behind it in a way that keeps fans coming back for more.
"We've just scratched the surface in terms of what we can do with the game," Bailey concludes. "Joe's original pitch was to create the greatest game show on Earth, and when you think about it in that way, there's a million different ways we can take this and I hope people will see that come through in future."