If you told me that someone was making a cute battle royale, I would have laughed out loud in derision. When I saw what Mediantonic did with Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a very cute battle royale, I did laugh out loud. Because it’s so fun.
Fall Guys is one of my favorites from E3 2019, and last weekend it held its biggest beta test in advance of its August 4 launch. Inspired by games like Takeshi’s Castle, Exceed, and Wipeout on television, Fall Guys pits 60 players against each other in running hilarious obstacle courses, using only characters who bounce around like rag dolls. The game has 25 versions of its battle royale competitions, including Egg Scramble, which pits three teams against each other. They have to race to a huge pile of eggs and put them in their team’s basket.
I spoke with lead game designer Joe Walsh and creative director Jeff Tanton at developer Mediatonic about the development of Fall Guys. Devolver Digital is publishing the game on the PlayStation 4 and Steam.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
The evolving game
GamesBeat: I saw Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout at E3 last year, and I wondered how it’s developed since then. How has it evolved?
Joe Walsh: It’s been a hell of a ride the past year, especially with everything going on in the world. Making any type of game is hard, but especially with Fall Guys, it’s been this mad dash to get two main parts of the game feeling right. The first bit has been the character, nailing that floppy ragdoll feel that we’ve talked about. That’s been a real challenge, scaling that up to 60 players. Everything you simulate with the character multiplies by 60. It’s been hard to find the balance between pulling back enough that the game runs, but maintaining the spirit of the game and making people laugh. As soon as you lose the ragdoll-ness of the character, you lose the comedy.
Jeff Tanton: Falling over is basically [the characters’] superpower. It’s what they do best. We had to make sure falling over was always slapstick funny. We were looking at stuff like Takeshi’s Castle and Exceed and Wipeout. You’re there for the falls. Making sure that ragdolling was working, could work at scale, was a big challenge.
Walsh: The other part of it has been making levels. We know the game needs all manner of crazy levels to fulfill the mantra of Takeshi’s Castle. We’ve been hell-for-leather trying to create 25 unique, exciting levels. We found that making each one of those levels is almost like making a separate game, because we’re asking players to do such crazy things. It’s not just making new maps and putting in new geometry. There are new mechanics that come in, new physics things. It’s been a real challenge bringing those together.
GamesBeat: How did you fix on the 60-player cap as a good number?
Walsh: We had the game running with 100 players. We found that 100 was too many. And often when we were running playtests at lower player counts, players thought there were 100 people in the game anyway. It felt super-chaotic, even with 30 people. It’s totally manic. We considered that, and then we also thought about — if we go with 60 rather than 100, we can push the graphics and the physics. Ultimately we decided these things would make the game better. We think it plays much better at 60 than it did at 100.
GamesBeat: What did you find out as far as what works and what doesn’t work in level design?
Walsh: A big thing we settled on early on was a set of level pillars that guided us through development. A big one was that levels had to be explained — we had the three-word rule internally. If you can’t explain the level in three words, it’s too complex. We wanted to embody that spirit of playground games and game shows. That’s been a big thing.
And finding the balance between skill and chaos is the other thing. We know we want players to be able to improve at this game and get better, but we don’t want players who speedrun games to win every single time. Finding that sweet spot between chaos and skill has been a big challenge. We ended up settling on about 80 percent skill and a 20 percent sprinkling of chaos. We found that to be the perfect number when it came to what makes a classic Fall Guys level.
GamesBeat: Traditional shooter battle royale would have just one or two maps to start, and not that many different modes. You’ve gone for a much greater variety here. Why is that so different?
Tanton: It’s essentially just drying to re-create that game show atmosphere. When you think about a single map in something like Fortnite or PUBG, the player exists in that space for about 20 minutes, half an hour, if they do well at the game. The map is a huge expanse. It becomes a much better playground for immersion. The players can have different experiences on that same map.
For us we wanted to create these tight, focused experiences. As Joe says, we wanted very clear goals for players to understand. Most games last around 15 minutes if you make it through to the end. The range of experiences delivered — players don’t know which of these rounds will be served up. It’s very much that game show format. We needed to go wide in order to ensure that every time you play, you get a different mix of these games. Not only is there emergence, physics, and chaos — every time you run through a stage will be different from the last time you ran through. But also, you don’t know which of these stages are going to be served up in a particular game.
GamesBeat: It sounded like you got a good reaction last year. Have you had a lot of months of publicity?
Tanton: I’d say we did. You always get — especially when you go to E3, it’s great to get the boost. But I think most developers would agree that then you go home and after that, you think, “Oh, shit, now we have to meet these expectations. We have to make all this stuff work.” You have to make sure you make the best possible game you can. It was great to get that reaction. It spurs you on. But it puts pressure on the team as well, once you realize that people understand what you’re making and they’re really excited about it. Suddenly you just want to make the best possible game you can.
Walsh: A big thing we’ve been doing recently is running closed beta playtests. That’s given us honest, open feedback from our community. They were incredibly passionate about the idea initially. A big part has been watching their reaction and making sure that we follow through on that. It seems to have been positive so far. We’re running playtests a couple of times a week.
Tanton: They’re an incredible community. They’re so supportive. They tell us when things aren’t working and give us opportunities to fix and tweak all through the process. It’s been great.
GamesBeat: How big is the team that’s been working on this?
Tanton: We peaked at around 30. It started with early prototyping with the classic five people sitting in a room, working out how the thing moves, but it’s obviously grown since then.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s by itself in terms of competition. I don’t see that many funny battle royale games out there.
Tanton: We shied away from the battle royale label initially. When we were pitching the game, certainly, we were seeing battle royales everywhere. It seemed like we were going to go out and everyone would be turning them down. Surely we were going to be bored of it by now. I think Fall Guys remains true to what we always envisioned, which is that it would be a kind of battle royale for anyone who loves the idea of playing with a huge amount of people and loves the concept, but can’t fire a gun for shit, who’s just very bad at playing Fortnite or PUBG.
I love this idea of bringing everyone in. I think everyone can tap into that. You start with an amount of people and you’re whittling down to one. There’s something kind of romantic and awesome about that, being one of the last people out of a mass. I think we just tap into that. Fall Guys has always been designed to be an approachable and accessible game. Our plan is to take that kind of wonderful concept of battle royale and open it out to a much wider audience. It seems that’s what people reacted to. We see a lot of that feedback on Twitter and other social media. “Finally a battle royale I can play.” That’s exactly what we wanted.
Trying to be funny
GamesBeat: What do you find funny about some of the level designs? What are some of the concepts you’re proud of just in terms of the humor?
Walsh: One of the earliest ones we did is a level called Seesaw, which is essentially just a row of giant seesaws aligned. They’re all slightly aligned skew-whiff to each other as players run across them. These things are absolutely huge. They’re probably 100 meters across. When we played it, that was the first time we felt like we’d nailed this idea of–it’s a competitive game and you’re playing against each other, but you also have to work together to balance these seesaws and get across. There are people falling over and tripping up. I remember playing it for the first time and thinking, “I’ve never played a game that makes me do this, and I’m having a lot of fun.”
It’s a bit divisive. For some people it’s infuriating. But that’s totally my favorite. It’s a classic level that embodies exactly what we were trying to do.
Tanton: Mine is this one called Gatecrash that’s really simple. It’s almost just a straight run to the finished, dodging through all these opening and closing doors. But the final stretch is this goo-strewn slope with a jump at the end. It’s not like anything you haven’t seen in so many platformers, but there are three doors at the end, and at various points they’ll be open or closed. You have to jump onto this stream of goo, slide down, and jump through. You’re either going to make it through because the door opens at the right time, or you’re going to faceplant at the end. I still haven’t gotten tired of watching people faceplant on those doors, and I’ve seen it happen a thousand times.
Walsh: There are so many. We’re launching with 25, but we’ve gotten to the point now where you almost get nostalgic. One turns up that you’ve not seen in a while and you think, “I totally forgot that we had that!” We have one called Egg Scramble, which has been a real classic. It’s three teams, a huge pile of eggs in the middle, and you just have to collect eggs and put them in your team’s basket. It’s a bit like Hungry Hippos.
Every single time, though, there are different shenanigans. People fighting over eggs. You can go steal them from other teams. It introduced shenanigans in the game in a way we hadn’t before. Egg Scramble is definitely on my list of–every time it comes up I think, “Right, let’s go, I have my strategy.” Everyone plays it slightly differently.
Tanton: Hoarders is another wonderful one. There are three zones, three colors, and seven giant soccer balls, essentially. After a minute and a half, whatever team has the most soccer balls in their zone goes through. Or the team with the least soccer balls goes out. It’s so simple, but you have a whole bunch of–suddenly everyone is rolling these giant boulders everywhere and stealing from each other and getting in the way and getting hit by these things as they’re punted.
It’s an incredibly intense experience, but a really simple one for everyone to understand. Run into the ball, put the ball in the zone. The amount of variance you get every time you play it, and how seriously people take it–it’s effectively an entirely made-up sport that exists for a minute and a half while you’re playing this thing. It’s wonderful.
GamesBeat: How do you figure out whether something that’s funny for you is going to be funny for everyone?
Tanton: If we just made a game that Joe and I were going to find absolutely hilarious–I don’t know, Joe. How do you do it?
Walsh: We definitely go through — first we go through a very strict process with the design team, identifying risks and talking in a lot of detail. Okay, it’s funny, but is it going to have depth? Is it going to be replayable? Is it going to work? We do our best to filter out the awful ideas. Luckily we have a big studio now. Mediatonic has grown to more than 200 people. It’s been a case of building something as quickly as we can, getting something working, and then playing with the studio.
What’s great about a multiplayer game of this size is you get enough people playing it to get a rating and an aggregated response from your studio. We trust the studio’s judgment to weed out the awful ones. If we play it with the studio and it gets three out of 10 from everyone, it goes in the bin instantly. There are a couple where I’ve been adamant. “No, this is a 10 idea! You just don’t understand it!” But eventually the studio wins the round. It can be amazing how little tweaks transform rounds from being hated to loved or vice versa. It’s just a matter of playtesting.
Tanton: A lot of it is sometimes just having that sense–if you put something out too early and you get a bunch of rage from people playing it, sometimes you know as a designer that the thing they’re angry at is not the thing they think they’re angry at. You just need to change one thing. But sometimes that can be quite a decision to make when everyone is saying, “This is terrible.” As Joe says, it can be the smallest of tweaks and suddenly everyone likes it. You have to go with your gut sometimes.
GamesBeat: It does seem like there aren’t enough funny games out there, games that meet the bar of being funny enough for everyone. Humor isn’t always an easy thing to tackle.
Walsh: Especially in a battle royale. But I think that’s why you have to go for–you’re right. Humor is such a personal thing. Storytelling is that way. If this was a game about a narrative that was trying to be funny, it would hit with some people and absolutely fail with others. But I think there’s something universal about good slapstick. Delivered right it can make anyone laugh. That’s where, we hope, Fall Guys is going to land.
GamesBeat: I always liked going into Call of Duty: Warzone and chopping people up with the helicopter, but some people would find that horrifying.
Tanton: That’s not easy to do!
Walsh: We have a level called Whirligig which is basically giant helicopter blades that you have to run through. That level might be right up your street. Although the Fall Guys always stay in one piece.