It's been less than two months since its release, but Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout has taken the gaming world by storm. Mediatonic's cute and frantic battle royale has been a surprise smash hit of 2020, selling over 7 million copies on Steam and becoming the most downloaded PS Plus game of all time. When the waddling jelly beans were first revealed during E3 2019, no one could have predicted the game's runaway success, including Mediatonic.
Although Fall Guys' success might seem like a bolt from the blue, the bonkers battle royale is the most recent project in Mediatonic's 15-year portfolio of games. The London-based company has around 130 releases in its backlog (many that are not listed on Wikipedia), including flash games, mobile games, Facebook games, and console and PC releases. What started as a two-person team now has over 200 employees in four different studios.
It's quite the success story. To find out more about the long, obstacle-filled road to Fall Guys, I spoke to Mediatonic founder Paul Croft about the studio's previous viral work, how experience has influenced Fall Guys, and how multiple gifs of Takeshi's Castle were vital in visualising the candy-coloured battle royale.
Surprisingly, Fall Guys is one game in a string of many break-out Mediatonic successes, going as far back as the team's early years when they were making games in Adobe Flash Player in 2005. Croft and fellow Mediatonic founder Dave Bailey were carving a space as a work-for-hire studio creating web games. With the backing of Adult Swim, they released their first original game in 2008.
"The first big break out for us was a game called Amateur Surgeon," Croft says. "That was a sort of huge moment for us. It exploded online with 100 million players and that was a sort of turning point for us in terms of moving towards creating our own games as opposed to creating or porting games for brands."
The odd-ball surgery simulation game about a pizza boy wanting to be a professional surgeon became pretty popular, and this pushed Mediatonic to pursue more original games and expand the company. Mediatonic's clients included the likes of Sega, Nickelodeon, Disney, Namco Bandai Games, and the team worked closely with Square Enix when it's spooky platformer Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess launched on PlayStation Vita.
"At that point, the social games industry boomed online," Croft says."So we went from making flash games to making games on Myspace, then to making Facebook games, and then slowly expanded from there to console platforms and iPhones."
Croft explains that because Flash was relatively new, not a lot of companies knew how to use it, and that's where Mediatonic would step in. With the games industry developing and changing at such a rapid yearly pace, Mediatonic was able to keep up through pivotal moments. Croft puts this down to working on games with a short development cycle, letting the studio easily change direction as the industry shifted and evolved.
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"We were nimble," Croft explains. "It was easier to pivot and change direction because we weren't locked into a three or four-year development cycle and we could keep pace with things. But generally speaking, it's been quite deliberate in terms of the way that we've built the company. One of the things that we've really, always tried to bear in mind is building the company around sustainability and longevity."
With Mediatonic's experience creating Flash and social media games—specifically designed with mass appeal and replayability in mind—Fall Guys' success perhaps shouldn't have been a surprise. Mediatonic's secret sauce for creating a viral game has been well established years before.
"That was our job really, to give something people could connect to," Croft says. "Immediate humour is something we've always fallen back on, and it needs to be fast. Getting into a game and straight into the action is key. It also needs to be immediate in terms of being able to understand what to do without reading any instructions. A lot of these early ideas carried through to Fall Guys, and when we're trying to design games for a very broad audience a lot of those principles still apply."
A not-so-battle royale
It was 2018's Games Developers Conference when the concept of Fall Guys was first pitched internally at Mediatonic. The yearly event is a time where the company gets to meet its partners and contributors, which makes it the perfect place to share new game ideas.
"It was something that we worked on in the run-up to the conference," Croft says. "Jeff Tanton, who's our creative director and responsible for pitches in the studio, put a call out to the design team, and as part of that and I'm pretty sure part of his brief was no battle royales."
Although a black mark on battle royales had been placed, senior games designer Joe Walsh approached Tanton with the idea of a battle royale game that would follow the formula of TV game shows. Players would have to battle it out in a series of bonkers mini-games, many of them being eliminated in the process, with one winner at the end.
"He pitched that to Jeff and Jeff showed it to me and then we basically started work on it the same day," Croft says. "For us, it was an immediate click and within a week or two we'd worked out the concept, which included a lot of gifs from Takeshi's Castle."
The zany Japanese game show Takeshi's Castle, as well as other obstacle course gameshows such as Ninja Warrior, Total Wipeout, and It's A Knockout provided prime source material for the shenanigans of Fall Guys. Although Tanton had said no to battle royales, the multiplayer knock-out structure fit perfectly.
"It was a structure and format that you could fit Fall Guys well," Croft says. "Merging those two things together just fairly instantly made sense." Other inspirations for the bean battler were slap-stick physics games along the lines of Gang Beasts and Humans: Fall Flat, as well as fun party games where players interact with each other like Mario Party.
Even though there's been a huge spike in battle royales in recent years—you can thank Fortnite for that—part of Fall Guys' success has been in its accessibility and readability. The titular bean has two arms for grabbing, two legs for running and jumping, and that's it. Coupled with elements of luck for newbies to get a fighting chance and it's a perfect medley. Croft says this design draws upon Mediatonic's previous works.
"I think it actually touches on many things that make a viral game," Croft says. "And I think a lot of those things apply. It's very accessible and very easy to understand. Almost everyone has seen a game TV show of that nature, and that means you can sort of immediately join the dots and connect what's happening."
Full of beans
Having a perfect formula for your game is a great head start, but no one can really anticipate success, and Croft says that watching the reception to Fall Guys has been very surreal—something that he still has to wrap his head around.
"As a team, it's sort of amazing to see so many people playing the game, from really young kids through to professional esports players," Croft says. "As a company, we've been launching games and running them live for a long time and so we did have a content plan for the game, new features, and a roadmap, and what it's meant is we've been able to accelerate those plans and make them more ambitious."
Accelerate is definitely one word for it. Mediatonic has already announced its plans for Fall Guys Season 2, complete with plenty of new costumes and new levels sporting a medieval theme. A new season might possibly bring new changes to the Fall Guys formula, but Croft says that it's definitely a case of if it's not broke, don't fix it.
"We don't really want to mess too much with the core formula," Croft says. "I think the main thing is just adding more to the game and we want to add a lot more content. We've obviously got more content coming in season two, both in terms of costumes, lots more minigames, just giving people new ways to play or new ways to play with their friends. We're also responding to a lot of the feedback we've been getting and expanding the game."
As with many online games, there are always going to be cheaters, and Mediatonic has had its own challenges dealing with the ones in Fall Guys. The company recently revealed its anti-cheat effort called 'Cheater Island'—unfortunately, it had to be closed down—but the company is still taking player's feedback with cheaters seriously.
"Cheating has been a big focus recently for us, just in terms of rolling out different systems," Croft says. "We've done a bunch of stuff around there, and we're rolling out a big update around that, so that's been a core focus for us recently."
Between handing cheaters, releasing updates, and planning for Season 2, it's been a busy two months for Mediatonic, who, due to coronavirus, haven't even been able to celebrate its success in person.
"We haven't been able to get together and celebrate as a team with a giant party. It's been all online, which is what we have to do for now, but I'm looking forward to the day where we can all get together properly and celebrate the game."