CEO and co-founder Tomas Sakalauskas says No Brakes Games didn't develop Human Fall Flat into the smash indie hit we know today as much as its community did.
It's a candid peek into the development of a game that started out as a modest single-player title and has now gone on to sell an astonishing 25 million copies worldwide.
Speaking at GI Live Online, Sakalauskas admits that while he knew Human Fall Flat was "no longer just a single-player puzzle game" even as he was adding more puzzles and working on co-op solutions for the game, "with [the] community, the vision changed even more towards a goofy type of sandbox where you don't just solve puzzles."
Take Human Fall Flat's lobbies, for instance. Lobbies are waiting room spaces where "you can just do stuff and mess about while you're waiting for friends to turn up," whereas the game's levels are "discrete pieces of contact" -- or "an escape room with wobbly physics," as publisher Curve Digital's Gary Rowe adds with a laugh.
But unlike other UI-type video game lobbies, Sakalauskas explains that they're a small, "world-like level" all of their own, and just another example of how Human Fall Flat strives to make every facet of the game as interactive as possible.
There's no failed state in Human Fall Flat, either. As Rowe explains it, you don't die, and progress comes about from a myriad of different solutions that may or may not involve the objects in the dream world you inhabit. With every successful progression, you'll experience more of the dream."That's really part of the joy," he adds.
"The philosophy of Human Fall Flat is that you are never interrupted," Sakalauskas says. "So as soon as the character drops on the loading screen, it's interactive. Even when you're going through menus and UI, you can rotate, look around. When you drop into the lobby, you continue with the same character who is alive. There are no loading screens and things like that. So the whole philosophy is to never take away the agency from [the] player. That's why we needed a lobby to arrange multiplayer somehow."
The idea of community-designed levels also comes from Human Fall Flat players, Sakalauskas explains, as was the eventual addition of the Workshop, where players can create and share their work.
"The philosophy of Human Fall Flat is that you are never interrupted, to never take away the agency from [the] player"Tomas Sakalauskas, No Brake Games
"As most of the features that came post-launch, it's [the] community asking for things and me unable to resist things they are asking," he laughs. "I had an initial Workshop prototype built quite early with the game but [...] then I wanted to build more skins and more content and this and that, so it was almost abandoned somewhat halfway while I was focusing more on multiplayer and supporting that.
"But then, once we got the rest of the systems in place with the help of Curve [Digital], we continued implementing the vision players have been asking for Workshop. So yeah, the idea came quite early on, but implementation [took] some time to actually be in the game."
So how does the relationship between developer and publisher work in practice?
"When I first met Tomas in 2018, I think it's fair to say that he was tired," explains Rowe. "You know, he'd been working so hard on the game and had had huge success and just really wanted a creative and emotional break from the game, I think. So we took over production.
"I think initially, Curve might have wanted to do it differently," he admits, reflecting on the partnership with Sakalauskas. "But the success came so quickly that we're super happy. And we've actually deployed that down to other games as well as seeing the benefit of it.
"It's an amazing game. I mean, for me, it's broken the rulebook and rewritten the rulebook in so many different ways from the commercial playbook that Tomas handed to us and we ran with."
That said, Rowe admits they likely couldn't have done it alone. Behind the scenes "is a whole network of companies" that helped No Brakes and Curve hit that 25 million milestone. They continue to collaborate in order to push out content and updates across the world.
"We started working with UK-based developers, Sumo. We've worked with D3T. We're back with Sumo's Lab42 now since last March. So we've got professional UK developers helping us build out the game and make it structurally stronger and more up to the challenge of having 25 million installs.
"I think initially, Curve might have wanted to do it differently. But the success came so quickly that we're super happy"Gary Rowe, Curve Digital
"When Tomas first released a game it had nine levels, which Tomas created, and now they are what we consider to be the core levels of the game. When Forest [releases] -- which is the new level going out at the end of May -- that's going to be our seventeenth level."
For Rowe, however, it's important Sakalauskas remains at the forefront of the strategic direction of all things Human Fall Flat, even when it might initially feel a tad counter-intuitive.
"Where Tomas really helps us is drive the strategy behind the game," Rowe explains. "Because it's been so successful, we're very, very happy to take a lead from Tomas on all things strategic around the game. To give you an example: you know, most publishers, if they've got a game that's this successful, will be thinking let's put out paid DLC for it. It's an obvious one -- that's what's in every publisher's playbook.
"It's really just been a question of constantly trying to bring content that's different, that's engaging, that's fresh and free," Rowe adds. "And that's really important, because it means that people who are coming to the game for the first time -- they can all play with any other player they see on the web. They're not restricted by what content sets they've owned or bought into. And that really is the philosophy Thomas holds entirely dear.
"We've never charged a penny for any of the additional levels at all. It's the same price now that it was back in 2016 when it was a single-player nine-level indie game. And it's way more than that now. Since then we've built in console SKUs, we've got multiplayer, we've got Workshop on PC."
Sakalauskas similarly pressed to develop new levels alongside the game's own community, encouraging enthusiasts to design fresh challenges to be in with a chance of winning a $10,000 prize -- and it was the players themselves who voted for their favourites.
"The later levels all come from creators on Steam," Rowe explains. "So we run competitions, where the winner can win $10,000. We let the community judge it through a rating system that we built.
"This is all Tomas's strategic idea -- we implement it. And it's working really well for us. The creativity of the levels... they feel different to Tomas' levels.
"The emergent creativity we get from putting Workshop in is phenomenal. Our levels are just wonderful. The one that we've just released -- City -- was just absolutely superb, [and] very, very different from anything Tomas would have created. But again, very happy to publish that on every single SKU... and there are 29 and counting SKUs that we maintain right now. It's big."
"I would lie if I would say that I knew the recipe to success is just trying to make something that you like and that you think people will like," Sakalauskas adds with a laugh, "but the biggest part, of course, is luck. For me, it was really exciting to see how the game resonated with China or with Japan, because culturally we are so different."
Tapping into Asian markets has indeed been a significant part of Human Fall Flat's journey, with Rowe adding that China has been both a "big" and "interesting" territory for the mobile hit.
"If you look at the social numbers in China, we've got the stature of the real big games like Roblox and Minecraft, and Human Fall Flat is very much up there in terms of how they love it," Rowe says. "They see it as their real first indie game -- it's described as the father of indie games.
"What we've done is to make sure we partner with the right people, and that's been absolutely brilliant. That's really worked really well. [Human Falls Flat] launched in on mobile in December, and has already sold three million units. So yeah, it's a significantly successful game in China."
So, why has Human Fall Flat fared so well in international markets when other games struggle? Rowe opines that as a relaxed, collaborative experience, Human Fall Flat "complements people's gameplay tastes" and offers a safe place for players to take a break from the stress and pressure of multiplayer games like PUBG to "socialise with the same group of friends" in a non-competitive environment.
"If you look at the social numbers in China, we've got the stature of the real big games like Roblox and Minecraft"Gary Rowe, Curve Digital
"In China, it's all about the social interactivity," Rowe suggests. "And they absolutely adore the fact that there aren't any win conditions, and we now also know that a lot of our gamers use Human Fall Flat as something of a spa [or] recreational place, [a] safe space away from fractious experiences.
"PUBG, for example, has a massive overlap with Human Fall Flat. And if you think about it, it's a similar time core loop, so 20 minutes for a game. You can play typically in groups of eight that will band together. And you know, if you think about the emotional experience of playing PUBG, and the fact that you've got the anticipation, the excitement, the adrenaline, and then the failure -- that's kind of the loop.
"To go and talk about PUBG -- which is probably the main game -- they love to come and socialise in Human Fall Flat. They hang out, they have a laugh, they really enjoy it. So it's been a really important part of understanding deep down why people keep coming back and why we keep getting so many new players. It provides something that's really quite unique in the marketplace, through its sensitivity, through the humour, through the collaboration, through the friendship, and the fun. Lots of games will offer you multiplayer, but not many of them will offer you a place where you just go to have a laugh."
And while it doesn't show any sign of slowing down just yet, Rowe's keen to maintain this indie hit's momentum.
" was a good year for us and the game in terms of getting new players, but it's kind of on a very steep accelerating curve. Last year was brilliant, but this year, so far, it's looking like it's gonna be a repeat performance of continued success.
"As big as we are, you know, we're still a long, long, long way away from getting towards some of the games [that] are way bigger than us. So we still think there's room to grow yet. Definitely."
You can watch the full interview below, or download the podcast version here.