Games

What It's Like to Launch a Game So Popular That Nobody Can Play It

The origin story of the latest (and super popular) battle royale game.
August 13, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the video game Fall Guys.
Screen shot courtesy of Devolver Digital.

Perhaps no game in 2020 has come out of nowhere faster than Fall Guys, the game show-inspired chaos simulator where dozens of players are dropped into a series of mini-games and forced to try and survive. It’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, except with fluffy candy-looking characters and an emphasis on players trying to pick up and throw eggs.

It plays as goofy as it looks, but Fall Guys is smart well beyond its charming aesthetic. The moment you drop into the game, you’re presented with a Fortnite-like interface that includes a leveling up meter, discussion of “seasons,” and a way to easily access a customization storefront. Fall Guys has all the polish of a video game that unexpectedly became popular and had to figure out how to sustain itself built into its foundation on day one. It’s impressive.

It’s also one of those games that, once you play it, it’s hard to fathom it took this long for it to happen. We’re gonna see Fall Guys clones in the months ahead—there’s already a full-fledged clone that’s popped up on the App Store—but the advantage Fall Guys have is that it was first, and if they’re as smart in the future as they’ve been so far, it’ll stick around.

The “obvious” nature of Fall Guys is what I couldn’t get out of my head, though, because good ideas only seem obvious in retrospect. To learn more, I sent a few questions to Fall Guys lead game designer Joe Walsh about the game’s origins and what it felt like to watch his game light on fire when millions were trying to play it and, well, nobody actually could.


VICE Games: Can you take me back to the original prototype? What did it look like? What could you do? And when did it go from "well, here's the billionth idea we'll discard because it sounded better in our heads" to "oh, we've got something here"?
Joe Walsh: For a while we prototyped the game as a shared-screen co-op game while our networking team got the netcode up and running. This allowed us to quickly prototype levels that had some player interaction in without having to slow down to fix any online teething issues, which was a great shout. Tail Tag, Door Dash and See Saw all got prototyped within these first few weeks! 

Other than that we really focused on the comedy of the character. We’d prototype something, see if it made us laugh more or less than the previous version, and continue on from then. It’s an approach that’s steered us well throughout development.

In terms of the “eureka” moment, two things made it stand out—the first was a general sense of “holy shit, surely we’re not the first people to think of this?” amongst the team, but other was that everything just seemed to slot into place very easily when we started talking in detail about the design. Very quickly we knew how we wanted the character to feel, what the format of a Show (or series of Rounds) would be, etc. and this is always a great sign—if pieces are struggling to come together at the start of a project it’s likely only going to get harder once you reach development.

Is it weird to launch a game, have it be completely successful, but no one can play it? I feel like that creates a weird environment in the studio. "Hooray, we're so good we fucked ourselves!"
Yeah, it’s a very scary moment when those servers are overloaded because there’s this sense that the hype will never come back. Especially when a lot of players are playing Fall Guys for free with PS Plus, you can really vividly picture them switching off the console or choosing to play something else. There are so many great games releasing all the time that it’s terrifying to think that you might have missed your shot, but luckily players have been really understanding and have stuck around as our server-team have rapidly moved to scale up our infrastructure. 

It’s been a huge relief to have weathered that initial storm but things only seem to be getting bigger right now. I expect we’ll have a few more of those moments over the next few weeks, but our team’s standing by! 

I was playing and there was a row of people standing at the finish line just trying to grab people and hold them at bay. How are you handling the kind of...emergent play that's going to come out of having this in the wild and people start doing things you didn't expect? And more importantly, do you think I, someone who's bad at this game, should just adopt this to feel better?  We’re all watching a lot of Twitch and keeping an eye on things, but it’s really important that we don’t rush in a few changes based on the first few days of the game being out. Firstly we want to see what sort of interesting counter-strategies emerge, but we’ve also always wanted there to be a certain amount of shenanigans in Fall Guys

When you watch a show like Total Wipeout there’s always that one competitor who insists on screwing over the others and we felt like they needed to be included in the stories our game is able to tell. I think I go out on Roll Out every time because I insist on trying to throw others into the slime and stop paying attention to the upcoming obstacles. A lot of the time you end up being your own worst enemy in Fall Guys and I really like the way that plays out—the game has a tendency to deliver some timely karma which keeps things nicely balanced!

Artwork from the video game Fall Guys.

Winning at Fall Guys is a combination of skill and luck.

You've already been cloned on the App Store. I know money is important, but isn't being cloned really the mark of success these days? (Also, you can tell me: Did you download the clone?)
I think it sort of ranks up there with fan art and 3D printed model in terms of fan service these days, it’s flattering! I haven’t downloaded it but I’ve been really enjoying the Dreams remakes that have popping up. 

I was really taken aback by the game having things like season passes and a customization storefront in there on day one, because it feels like the kind of thing a developer adds once it's a big success and they're scrambling to retain people. It also feels a lot like I'm scrolling through the Fortnite UI! At what point did these elements actually fall into place for the game?
When we started work on Fall Guys, Fortnite and PUBG had already really taken off, so we had the benefit of being able to look at those games and see what sort of features they added after the fact, and prioritise these from the start. For Fall Guys we knew that we wanted to make this a game that players could stay invested in, and so finding a way to deliver new content regularly from day 1 was really high up our list of priorities. Plus “seasons” just makes total sense for a game inspired by television shows; it fits the theme really well. 

We’ve had so many families reach out to us and say that Fall Guys is the first thing they’ve been able to play as a family, and that’s maybe the thing I’m most proud of so far. We wanted to bring a totally new audience to the often toxic world of multiplayer gaming, and apart from a few grabby pigeons I think we’ve nailed it.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).