Fat little jelly beans playing a neon-coloured version of the cult classic gameshow Takeshi’s Castle might not sound like the British answer to the craze that is Fortnite, but tens of millions of people have downloaded the London-made hit Fall Guys in less than a month since its release.
“When you’re designing games you want to give people an experience they’ve never felt before,” says its lead designer, Joe Walsh. “And for us, it was a middle-aged slightly unwieldy Japanese businessman, on the sideline of a giant obstacle course that he has absolutely no right attempting.”
The resulting game is a joy. Like its predecessor, it sees a huge number of players competing in ever-smaller numbers to be the last one standing; similar too is its explosion in popularity, becoming the most downloaded game on Sony’s PlayStation Plus (PS+) online service ever, beating Fortnite on Twitch, and gathering celebrity fans too: Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero scoring a goal in one of Fall Guys’ minigames provided an early boost, as did F1 driver Lando Norris.
But where most popular “Battle Royale” games are fundamentally a vicious, weapons-laden contest to kill or be killed, Fall Guys has carved its own niche. Players are thrown into a series of mini games straight out of the team’s gameshow inspiration – or, for older readers, the inflatable-filled obstacle courses of It’s a Knockout.
Each round, the worst players are eliminated, perhaps for falling off the rotating cylinder, failing to run a gauntlet of see-saws fast enough, or being a member of the team which has gathered the fewest eggs in a life-size version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Crucially, whether you win or lose, the experience is hilarious. Much of the credit goes to the eponymous Fall Guys themselves – though better known by the community as “Jelly Beans”. Squat little ovoids, their design was planned from the ground up for physical comedy, Walsh says. “Having little legs is funnier, because they fall over; having big arms is funnier because they throw them in the air as they get hit by something and go flying. They need to be padded so that they bounce, because bouncing stuff is funnier.”
Created by just 48 people, largely from developer Mediatonic’s London studios, the game was nearly thrown off course by the Covid lockdown, which forced staff home just as the two-year development was reaching its crucial final stages. But they persevered, and when the game launched in early August, had high hopes.
The game had been selected by Sony for free distribution on PS+, a GBP50-a-year subscription service, which would hopefully push it over a crucial barrier for any multiplayer experience: ensuring enough players are actually online for people to find a match. Beyond that, though, was a mystery. “We were hopeful that if we could get, I think, maybe 100,000 sales that would be considered a great success,” Walsh says. “And now we’re into multiple millions.”
With that success has come problems, some difficult for a small team to handle. “We knew that probably our first weekend after launch was going to be the critical weekend,” Walsh says, “and we had plans for how many people we thought we were going to have.” But by the Monday before that, they were already seeing triple the players they had hoped for, sparking a mad rush to try and ensure their servers could keep up with the inflated demand. In the end, they managed to ensure that the game was working more than 90% of the time in that crucial first week.
The massive success also brought unexpected demands. The team had long planned for players to be able to buy outfits to dress their beans up in – a standard monetisation technique for multiplayer games – but the success on social media prompted a deluge of requests from brands for sponsorship. Instead of going the profitable route, the team opened up one costume slot for auction for charity; the contest, which ends on Monday, has so far raised more than $420,000 for the accessibility charity Special Effect.
Getting to the top is one thing, staying there is another, and Mediatonic has a long road ahead to provide enough regular new content to stay current in the minds of fickle gamers. But for now, Walsh is happy with his team’s achievements: “Good, wholesome British comedy, on a scale that has brought a lot of joy, a lot of colour and a lot of distraction to people’s lives.”