[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
As regular readers know, I rarely cover specific games in this newsletter. (Partly because there’s quite enough to talk about on the platform side of things! But also… there’s a LOT of games out there.)
But I thought I’d make an exception for Mediatonic & Devolver’s Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, because, well, look at the current stats on SteamDB, only 20 days after release. It’s a monster:
I’m going to estimate that the ‘real’ Fall Guys owner numbers are north of 5 million on Steam alone. There’s also going to be many millions playing on PlayStation 4, since the game was one of the two ‘free’ PlayStation Plus selections in August. (The game is only on PS4 and PC so far.)
So what’s going on here, and what can we learn from it? Here’s some of my thoughts, as well as links to insights from the Fall Guys team.
The right (in this case, silly!) game concept is key
Conceptually, you can read about how the game pitch for Fall Guys came together in this Twitter thread by Mediatonic’s Jeff Tanton:
Where Mediatonic got it dead-on is simple to me - in hindsight, haha. The concept started out as ‘let’s do a battle royale where everyone has to backstab each other’, but with the phrase ‘CLUMSY DASH’ included. Suave and sophisticated was nowhere to be seen.
And with wacky Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle (known as MXC in the U.S.) prominently referenced in the pitch, you just have to look at GIFs from the TV show to understand where Fall Guys was coming from:
So, it’s a little battle royale-esque, but with a willingness to be goofy. And then concept artist Dan Hoang put this together for the pitch:
And there we have it. The second-by-second gameplay is (or will be!) visceral and understandable. And the physics-based action should elicit all of the happy screams that Takeshi’s Castle does when you watch it on TV. I’m sold!
Your game scope needs to be focused
One of the things that strikes me the most about Fall Guys is that the game is actually fairly content and feature-light. And that’s a really good and smart thing - especially for a GaaS (games as a service) title that can add content later.
Yes, a key differentiating feature is the large amount of simultaneous players and well-done physics. Yet gameplay-wise, Fall Guys doesn’t have - or intend to have - oodles of extra crafting subsystems, complex player upgrade paths, and so on.
It’s grab and go, and barely even has any options currently besides playing the game and adding some goofy cosmetics for your avatar. I’ve heard some grumbles about that, sure. (There’s going to be more Seasons, folks!) But grumbles don’t stop the sales or generalized delight! A lesson for us there, perhaps - that focus matters.
Multiplayer games are a double-edged sword, success-wise.
Just wanted to flag that I rarely suggest people should make multiplayer-first games, especially paid ones that need a LOT of simultaneous players to be a hit. Fall Guys hit it out of the park. But it has the potential to be super-risky. Perhaps way more risky than people think when they sign up to make one?
Looking at some recent examples, Final Strike Games and EA’s Rocket Arena did very poorly on launch at $30 on Steam - and since I last checked, EA reduced the price to $5 to try to juice player numbers! (Possibly too late.) These kinds of numbers are death to multiplayer games that need swift matchmaking or a vibrant-feeling community:
In general, no games are more pilloried than a multiplayer title that has a ‘failure to launch’ - for example Cliff Bleszinski and friends’ Lawbreakers (which was also $30 at launch.) Whereas single-player titles can gradually get 50,000 sales without anyone complaining about how many are playing the game right now.
So for Fall Guys to have worked at a base level, they needed tens of thousands of initial purchases, and then great retention to even get a player base that doesn’t lead to ‘this game is dead’ complaints.
Which is one of the reasons for the PlayStation Plus launch deal for Fall Guys, right? Very clever. As noted in this Digital Trends story:
“Mediatonic revealed in the Reddit AMA that 2015’s Rocket League was one of Fall Guys‘ inspirations, and confirmed that the vehicular soccer game’s success is part of the push for the PlayStation Plus launch.
“Really early on we’d talked about launching on PS+ being the dream because it would give us a ton of players at launch and really fill the servers up. Plus it just gets the game out there into the ether in a way that was really important to us as a premium game,” wrote Fall Guys lead game designer Joe Walsh.”
Streamers are the way to a players’s heart
There’s no two ways about it - Fall Guys is incredibly streamer-friendly. It’s fairly low-skill at its base (look, even I can get to the third round!), it’s very visually understandable, and it enables great emotional reactions.
This is something all streamer and YouTubers are keen on, for obvious ‘bonding with the audience’ reasons. Just look at the Twitch stats for the game - it’s hanging out in 3rd place overall, and here’s the somewhat unbelievable totals:
Yes, media and reviews are (a little bit) important. But with that much coverage from influencers, you can see how it might be the chief reason that certain type of games take off.
A bonus mention here for how generous Devolver and Mediatonic were with early/Beta keys. Not only did they give them to thousands of streamers, they gave out tens of thousands of extra keys for those streamers to give away - you can still see remnants of this from smaller streamers if you search YouTube.
The key lesson for me here? There’s no real incremental financial cost for game beta keys, and plenty of goodwill benefit. I’m always surprised more people don’t use them majorly in their game’s marketing.
Great social media can take things over the top
Finally, super good social media interactions improve things, and the Fall Guys Game Twitter account is particularly good. The social media/community lead, Oliver, has a great thread about this on Twitter:
Please read all the way through it if you can, but I wanted to note these two comments in particular:
“The game itself is super bright, colourful, wholesome, and positive. I wanted to reflect this in the social media content. I wanted the community and social to feel as W H O L E S O M E and P O S I T I V E as the game itself.”
“I hope this one is evident in the tweets. I really wanted to empower in-jokes within the community, memes, and their content. Boosting this content encourages more players to join your community, but also rewards community members for creating it by giving them a platform.”
Oliver is a particularly good practitioner of snappy, meme-y shenanigans, having formerly been a YouTuber and Twitch streamer himself. So he gets it. This, quite frankly, has only helped.
And that’s my conclusions on why Fall Guys is both a) really great and b) a smash hit. But what was the ‘special sauce’ here, really?
Well, Mediatonic is an interesting, well-run and almost unique company which has a background in both indie games (Foul Play, also with Devolver back in the day!) but also console and even mobile F2P (Heavenstrike Rivals, Gears Pop).
So I believe they were well positioned to take intelligent lessons from games as a service and bleed it into a high-concept indie(ish) console multiplayer title which solves complex technical problems to get all 60 players interacting at once. (Side note: the game is published by Devolver, but has in-game currency purchases! Who would have thunk it?)
And this was not cheap to make. Devolver had to make a decent sized bet on Fall Guys - probably at least 10x the advance of their smallest games. As discussed, high-scope multiplayer titles can be complex and expensive.
Even Fall Guys might have cost between $3 and $6 million to develop, by my wild guesstimate, considering a stated ‘top’ team size of 30, an extended ‘shared’ team of around 50+, a late 2018 development start, and a UK base of development.
But now we’re in the ‘has grossed tens of millions and we didn’t even get the Seasons, extra cosmetics, or a bunch of other platforms’ ballpark. So - again, in hindsight - the decision to fund looks like a no-brainer. But it wasn’t. It never is. Congrats to everyone involved for getting it so right.
I can't agree enough when you mention focus and simplicity. This really compensates the complex structure that a multiplayer title requires.