I think it’s fair to say that Fall Guys has done pretty well for Mediatonic. It’s strange to think, last I spoke to the studio, around the launch of the Tonic Games Group, that their then-upcoming title was mentioned just in passing.
The team was clearly excited about Fall Guys, but we had no idea that the game would soon come to dominate my Twitter feed for months to come – a dramatic improvement over the filth you people
usually fill it with, frankly.
Looking back it’s hard not to kick myself for not having a sense of what the game would become – think of how much of a smug ‘I told you so’ article this could have been! The game’s already iconic art style and character design, mixed with its anarchic pick-up-and-play gameplay, makes it look destined for success – in hindsight, at least.
In fact, it’s this perceived simplicity, its ability to appeal to inexperienced players with little explanation, that has led some to imply that this was an easy win for Mediatonic – a simple game, released at the right time to tap into the right market.
“It’s interesting when people are like ‘oh, Mediatonic has had this huge hit and they’re making it look easy,’” notes Jeff Tanton, creative director at Mediatonic. “This was not easy. You know, we actually went through a time in the studio where we had a few projects fall through and didn’t work out the way we expected, and we’d take on other projects – because we’re a resilient studio. One of our designers used to say that we’re ever prepared for misfortune, we’ve got a survivor’s instinct around that.”
It’s this survivor’s instinct, and being able to move on from misfortune that led to Fall Guys’ creation. As Tanton explains, in the months before GDC 2018, the team looked back at some of their previous projects – ones where they had studied the industry, believing they’d found a niche, but the projects hadn’t quite worked out.
“So I asked the team specifically, ‘just this once, throw business out the window and pitch me something you want to play.’ And out of that, Joe Walsh [game designer at Mediatonic] came to me with this one pager, which he called Fool’s Gauntlet.
“And it was great, because it was clearly something he wanted to play, and inadvertently he had found something that had an incredible business case behind it as well. The only thing working against it was that it was a Battle Royale, and I was like, ‘Fortnite and PUBG are everywhere. There’s literally no way we’re going to find we’re going to be able to sell ourselves in the battle royale space.’”
Still, Fall Guys found a way to stand out against the crowd, and Mediatonic took the game to publisher Devolver Digital.
“I think we had a strong feeling we’re going to take this to Devolver” says Tanton, “we’ve always wanted to work with them again, we were just glad that they liked it. I think we could have taken elsewhere quite easily, but when Devolver got on board we just knew it was just a match for us.
“The game didn’t land fully formed, but Joe’s pitch was strong. Generally we have a series of rounds of meetings – I think Pixar calls them ‘brain trusts,’ which is a very wanky term – but it’s basically we’d get people in the room to give honest feedback and knock the idea into shape, and that happened very, very quickly for Fall Guys.”
If only the rest of the process was as painless. While Fall Guys may be simple to play, it certainly wasn’t a simple process putting it together.
“The thing with Fall Guys is, this is fully networked physics, with 60 players all at once, where everyone is having broadly exactly the same experiences as everyone else at the same time. There’s all of these messages about where your limbs are, how you’re falling, how the physics is taking effect… that was a huge overhead for the team and just a constant thing they had to tackle.
“That was the bravery of the team. The only way to do that work is to have to get it working with five players, then ten and then you optimise and you build up. They basically entered this thing not knowing if it was possible, but just kind of hoping they could make it work. So, huge respect for the engineering team for pushing through that and having all of these physics characters knocking about and doing all the right things. That was tough.”
Beyond just getting the game to function at all, the team had the additional challenge of not being able to play it for much of development.
“We always thought the game would be fun, but we struggled with the early levels, because it’s really tough to test at scale – we had to find 60 people.
“And that was another thing when it comes to the physics. They were making these levels before we’d really understood how the character moves. And then sometimes the way the character moves would have to be changed, because of the problems that were being solved with the 60 player network. It’s like, look, you can’t have the character bend in all these different ways, we’re sending too many messages. You know, when you times that by 60, and then you times that by all of the things moving and suddenly the internet’s falling over, we can’t do this.
“So it wasn’t until midway through development, that we were even starting to understand how the game played, and how these things intersected and how these problems will be solved.
“So the team did a really great job, on all counts. There were a lot of problems and none of them were separate, they were all interconnected. And the biggest thing for design was they didn’t get a chance to really play the game and understand what the game was until far later in development than I think you’d have with a lot of titles.”
DESIGNING THE BEAN
Despite the challenges (and some initial server troubles immediately following the game’s launch), Fall Guys has gone on to spectacular success. There’s any number of reasons for this, but one thing that definitely helped Mediatonic’s title stand out from the crowd was its art style, and the design of the eponymous Fall Guys in particular.
“We knew intrinsically, having watched things like Takeshi’s Castle and Total Wipeout, that we wanted these things to fall over, and we wanted them to fall over good. This all goes back to It’s a Knockout, which was this very British show from the 70s.
“They just delighted in dressing people up in things that were completely antithetical to climbing over obstacles and anything that requires some kind of skill. We knew very, very early on that we didn’t want them to be good at what they were doing, when you watch these shows, you’re waiting for moments where they fall, because the falling is the joy.
“So we knew we wanted them to be tall and top heavy, and we knew we wanted them to have some restriction around the legs, so we didn’t give them knees – you know, knees are far too useful.
“[The final design] was a combined effort between Dan Hoang [principal concept artist] and Amy Pearson [artist]. They kind of came together when we began and were like, ‘we can do better with these characters. They’re doing the right thing physically, but we don’t love them.’
“Basically, Amy’s proud about giving them butts, and Dan then pulled that whole thing together. And he did a really incredible job working in the needs of design as well, like we knew customisation was important – and I’ll be honest, I thought the beans were good when we were making them, but seeing them in the game, seeing all the costumes and seeing how easily they mod to pretty much anything you want to put them in… It’s just an incredible piece of work from Dan and Amy, and the whole art team that joined afterwards, they really knocked it out the park.”
The ability of the Fall Guys to be placed in any variety of wacky costume, while still being recognisable as a Fall Guy at their core, is testament to the genius of their design – and one that encouraged companies to launch a bidding war for charity to get their branding into the game. While Mediatonic certainly couldn’t have predicted that, they knew the costumes would be important from the start.
“We knew we wanted a base that was iconic, but never at the expense of being able to dress them in things. So in all of the early pitch stuff, you’d have your Fall Guy and then Dan would draw a whole bunch of ridiculous things like sharks and whales over them. We were never looking at just the Fall Guy, it was always the Fall Guy in costume.
“So I think going through that process, and always understanding that the costume is going to be a huge part of it really helped us. It’s weird, I think the Fall Guys are iconic, but at the same time entirely neutral. You can add anything to them, and it doesn’t take away from the core.”
The design isn’t the only genius move, mind you. From the day of launch, Fall Guys was available as one of that month’s free games for PS Plus subscribers. Given the game’s success, enjoying the highest-earning PC launch since Overwatch, it’s hard to tell if the game owes a lot of its success to PS Plus, or if Mediatonic potentially missed out on a lot of sales.
“I think it’s one of the best decisions we could have made,” says Tanton. We looked at what happened in Rocket League, and we dreamed of emulating something close to that. Even with half of what they have, we would have been super, super happy.
“And, well. Fall Guys has done very, very well. We’ve had a lot of downloads on PS Plus. I know some people have said, ‘are you not frustrated? Those could have been sales!’ And… no. There’s literally no way we could have made the impact that we did without PS Plus. The support from Sony has been incredible.
“And we’ve not done badly out of this situation. To be in this situation and then say, ‘oh, but look at what we could have had,’ that’s looking at it the wrong way.
“Our fear was ‘are there going to be enough people playing, that 60 people can get into a game?’ And if all the PS Plus did – and there’s obviously a lot more – but if all it ever did was take away that fear at launch that there wouldn’t be anyone buying the game, and therefore even the people who bought the game can’t play the game properly… If all it did was that, I’d still say it was worth it. But obviously it’s done a hell of a lot more than that.”
BIGGER THAN YEETUS
It seems reasonable to assume that Fall Guys has surpassed all expectations. Mediatonic were confident they had something special, but it takes a special kind of confidence to know you’re going to become the biggest game in the world.
“So with expectations, the way I feel safest talking about it is not the money made, but the plans made. We had three plans worked out with Devolver. It’s something we do with any other project, you have to be like okay, we can’t afford this 40-50 person team anymore, the game isn’t making enough money to make this worthwhile.
“As a studio, Mediatonic really doesn’t hire and fire, so you start thinking ‘where do I put people? What projects can they move onto?’
“So I’m making these three plans. One of them was – this has fallen off a cliff. Therefore we need to move quite quickly. The second was – this is kind of where we expect to land. This is a good success, and let’s look no further than then six months into the future and we’ll work out what’s happening there. And then there was this moonshot, ridiculous plan. Like, this is where we start ramping up, this has been something of a success. And that was our moon shot.
“We blew past the moonshot plan within a few hours of the game being launched. So we need to make some new plans.”
It’s an almost unbelievable level of success – Mediatonic’s biggest title by a quite considerable margin. Still, in my last conversation with Mediatonic, the team was passionate about maintaining a diverse portfolio of titles. How do you maintain that philosophy when you suddenly have the hottest game of the year? How do you avoid being absorbed into the Fall Guy’s clumsy embrace?
“I think there’s a lot of ways around that,” notes Tanton. “The studio has always survived due to its diversity, being able to pivot and work on different things. So yes, Fall Guys is dominating the studio right now – as it should. But I don’t think there’s any doubt in our mind that we still want to move on to and create things that surprise us in the studio. I think if we weren’t doing that, we wouldn’t be Mediatonic.
“If we hadn’t done that two years ago, we wouldn’t have Fall Guys. So we want to build out the studio and build on the technology and all the lessons we’ve learned from Fall Guys. There’s absolutely no way we’re just gonna throw everything out that got us to where we are today.”