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How TABS creator Landfall got discovery right!
The creators of Totally Accurate Battle Simulator tell all...
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
Welcome back to the newsletter, delightful readers. We’re super excited that our lead story is a chat with the ‘game designer CEO’ of Totally Accurate Battle Simulator devs Landfall. We recently covered (second story) Landfall talking about TikTok success, & their unique MO demands at least some discovery analysis.
Oh, and a small programming note: following this Friday’s Plus-exclusive newsletter, we’ll be publishing on Tuesday & Thursday (free) and Friday (Plus!) next week, U.S. time, due to the Memorial Day holiday. Thanks in advance.
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How offbeat style & UGC made Landfall win out..
Since we look at successful PC/console games independent of ‘big studio’ origins, we reckon developers like Landfall (“an indie studio from Sweden that makes physics games, also other games, sometimes funny”) get a little, uhm, slept-on, despite their massive reach and many millions of sales/downloads.
You might know them from sandbox war game Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (81,000 Steam reviews, 98% Positive!), or maybe Stick Fight: The Game, or a series of April Fool’s releases including the v.silly Totally Accurate Battlegrounds.
Anyhow, we were lucky enough to get Wilhelm Nylund, the CEO/game designer of Landfall, for a rare interview via the ol’ ‘electronic mail’. And here’s what he said:
Q: We talk a lot about 'discovery' in the newsletter. What do you think the main reasons people discover - and are charmed by - TABS are? What's the game's hook?
I would say that with TABS, we've been fortunate in the fact that what's fun about the game is primarily looking at the characters interacting with each other and the world. Since a large part of the enjoyment of playing comes from seeing the battles unfold, the game has been very easy to market.
When seeing a gif or a video of the game, you instantly get a taste of what playing the game will be like. And if that is something that appeals to you, it's likely that you'll be hooked. There is also definitely the factor that physics and destruction seems inherently satisfying to see.
This is likely why the game has done so incredibly well on platforms like YouTube. The audience gets to take a big part in the experience of playing the game, compared to many other games - where a larger part of the enjoyment comes from the decisions and mechanical actions that the player takes. Like, it's very hard to see why chess is fun at a glance.
During development we released a free early alpha version of the game for anyone to download. Seeing how much creativity people put into the battles they came up with was definitely something that moved us towards focusing on user generated content.
The constant, never-ending flood of suggestions for units that people wanted us to make also had a similar effect. It became very clear that there was a big demand for people to express themselves and come up with their own things in the game.
Q: Some of your earlier games like Clustertruck were more 'game'-like, and it seems like TABS, at least, is much more sandbox-like. Do you think sandbox games are better set up for mass appeal?
I dont think that sandbox games necessarily are better for mass appeal, but I think they might be for smaller teams. I would say that games that are more ‘game’-like generally have higher expectations placed on them, when it comes to game length and polish.
I think the same [leeway] is true for many survival games. Just like sandbox games, it feels like a genre where AAA haven't quite figured out how to make them yet, and no one has really ‘perfected’ the formula in the same way as Valve and Riot have ‘perfected’ competitive tactical shooters and MOBAs. There is still a lot of room for smaller teams to experiment - and come up with new takes that can do well commercially.
Q: You seem to enjoy using April Fools as a launching point for games and ideas, and then some of the games become quite popular. How did that start, did some of the entries do better than you expected, and why did you continue it?
It started a bunch of years ago when we were about to release Clustertruck. We came up with the idea of making a SUPERHOT spoof using Clustertruck, and even got some help from the SUPERHOT devs with doing the iconic voice line. We decided to release Supertruck for free as a marketing stunt for Clustertruck.
When it did very well, we decided to try something similar the next year, but for TABS. We then made TABZ (Totally Accurate Battle Zombielator), which also did suuper well. Eventually, we kind of just adopted [April 1st] as a date where we do something for our audience. At this point, the specific date probably doesn't really matter that much. It's more about the fact that we have a specific day where our fans can expect that we will do something.
Last year, we decided to really commit to it and grouped up 4 different releases on the same day, and made a stream where we announced them all. Since we are self published and don't have any real deadlines that we need to adhere to, it's sometimes useful to have a date that we can arbitrarily use as a deadline. It definitely helps us actually finish things, rather than working on them forever.
Q: Knightfall, the latest in this ‘April 1st’ series, has a truly odd game design setup, and also an unconventional biz model - free for a limited time, and then $5.99. Why did you decide to do it that way, and what was the inspiration for the game itself?
The release setup is actually something that we've tried once before with Totally Accurate Battlegrounds, which was free for 100 hours before it became a premium game! We've found that when releasing multiplayer games that require many players to start a match, there is this big danger of the game not properly taking off because it doesn't have enough of a playerbase for people to quickly get matches around release.
This isn't a problem if you are releasing a game with a big active following. But for our surprise releases, we've opted for doing this stunt in order to make sure that the player base gets a bit of a kick start.
It seems to have worked really well for both games. TABG was downloaded ~3 million times during the first 100 hours, and Knightfall got ~1 million downloads during its free day.
For Knightfall itself, it's basically two ideas mixed together. The first one was about making a battle royale where a race towards a common destination is what brings people together, rather than the danger-circle used in most BRs.
The second big part of the game was born one day when I was browsing twitter and came across this artwork that someone had made:
The contradiction of two humans clad in armor being affectionate towards each other felt like such a powerful and odd mood. These two ideas somehow got merged together - and we ended up with a game where two knights ride together, fighting others in order to claim the rose for their beloved partner.
Q: Absurdist behavior seems to be a core part of Landfall's charm. Can you talk about why it has a place in games and at your company?
It's hard to say where that all comes from. We have a big focus on always wanting to make something brand new, usually in a very unrestricted way. We also usually start with a core mechanic that we build the game around, not really thinking too much about how we frame that mechanic in a way that makes sense.
In Clustertruck, we figured out that trying to stay on top of moving physics objects was fun. Some time during the first week of development we settled on trucks, and then that was basically it.
Q: What do you think the game industry is doing right nowadays, and what do you think it's doing a poor job of?
I can only speak for the slice of the industry that I've seen myself, but I feel like the industry has in general started realizing that cynically releasing the same game time after time isn't really the way to go anymore.
With some huge and stale productions flopping, and the charts for the best rated games on Steam being flooded by games made by small studios, or even solo developers, I feel like it's becoming clearer and clearer that the industry is moving towards more experimental and innovative games.
On a less positive note, the industry still has a huge problem with exploiting young and passionate developers by overworking and underpaying them. I am happy to see that the first unions are taking hold, and hope that they are able to bring meaningful positive change where working conditions aren't what they should be.
The game discovery news round-up..
Well, after that very useful chat, we have a bunch of fresh links for you about the state of game platforms and discovery. Let’s dissect them like we’re at a Wednesday afternoon autopsy, shall we? Here comes the scalpel:
Very interesting to see video game/tech companies in Axios/Harris’ ‘reputation of the 100 most visible brands in America’ survey. Specifically, based on a public survey, Sony is up 24 spots to #10, with excellent results for its products/service (above), and Microsoft is up 21 spots to #15. Right down near the bottom? Facebook (#97) and Twitter (#98). Being the ‘town hall’ kinda sucks?
Despite share price being down 70% YTD, Netflix is still pressing on with mobile game subscription plans. It released “three new games Tuesday and plans to release Exploding Kittens, its most high-profile original game, on May 31st.” Some of the titles - like idle game Dragon Up from East Side Games - look pretty complex and mobile native, too - not just PC/console ports.
More grumbles about the PlayStation Plus sub relaunch: first-party PlayStation Plus PS1 classics may launch at a slower 50 Hz standard, and there’s some kind of complicated issue around pro-rated upgrades for people stacking PS+/Now subs. Maybe edge cases, but here’s a big FAQ from Sony on how it all works.
Web 3-adjacent microlinks (sorry!): the European Game Developer Federation did a fairly staid, but honest/interesting paper on the pros & cons of Play To Earn; this look into Yuga Labs (Bored Ape Yacht Club)’s game/NFT plans is worth poking at, even if you’re not as excited about the space as Naavik is.
It’s interesting to note that the latest Epic Games Store ‘Mega Sale’ switched up discounting - from ‘$10 off any game(s) that total $14.99 or more’ in previous Mega Sales to to ‘25% off any game(s) that total $14.99 or more’. Overall, it’s a better deal for $60 games (you get $15 off!), but it may depress units sold of $15-$20 games. Appears to make sense strategy-wise for Epic, though…
Still seems like the AR game space could have more non-Pokemon Go hits, and Niantic Labs are building out a location-based AR ecosystem: “At the [Lightship] Summit, we opened the Lightship Visual Positioning System (VPS) to developers everywhere, with more than 30,000 VPS-activated public locations… and a new app for developers to quickly add their own locations to our dynamic AR map of the world.” Centimeter-level precision, apparently?
It goes far beyond games, but Deloitte’s 2022 digital media consumptions survey/analysis is nuanced and worth a read: “More than three-quarters of US gamers surveyed… say that gaming helps them relax, while nearly 60% report that gaming helped them through a difficult time. And these games are supporting identity: 61% of US gamers say that personalizing their game character or avatar helps them express themselves.” (Via SJ.)
Microlinks: Kingdom Hearts’ cloud versions on Nintendo Switch updated with a ‘server congestion’ indicator, which seems… v.awkward; very recommend you read this deconstruction of mobile 2D shooter Mr. Autofire’s impressive success; Ampere’s Piers Harding-Rolls had his GDC 2022 talk on ‘the Netflix of games’ & game subs posted on GDC’s YouTube channel.
Finally, we decided to check back on Axie Infinity, the Play To Earn mobile game which had some serious juice last year ($3.5 billion worth of transactions!) And while a contentious addition of (not yet playable) ‘virtual land’ is still in progress, it appears the bottom has really fallen out of the current game’s P2E market:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]