Amid the bustle of London's EGX gaming convention, it's easy to get lost in the maze of gaming stands, and the crowds lining up to try their hand at games both big and small, indie and AAA. Even the stands themselves run the risk of fading into the background – but that's not something that is an issue for Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout.
Fall Guys' EGX presence is.. intimidating, to say the least. Partnered with Virgin Media, developer Mediatonic has put on a massive, Travelator-esque challenge where participants have to run up a steep incline that is moving in the opposite direction to claim a golden paper crown. It's almost like participating in a Fall Guys in-game competition, just without the giant Big Yeetus hammers careening you into the stratosphere.
It's an utterly bizarre experience to behold but one which is entirely suitable for Mediatonic's clumsy jellybean gauntlet. So how did a chaotic platform battle royale become a centerpiece at one of Europe's largest gaming conventions? We spoke to Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout's lead game designer, Joe Walsh, about the game's success and what is in store for the future.
Suffering from success
When Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout launched in August 2020, it's fair to say it momentarily (and very suddenly) took the gaming world by storm. Fall Guys managed to achieve a peak concurrent player count of just over 172,000 on Steam around the time of launch. Over on PS4, servers struggled to cope with the number of PlayStation players trying to jump in when the game was released as a free PS Plus offering.
“To watch it blow up in the way it did was was insane, and every single day we kind of one-up the one before,” Walsh says of Fall Guys' launch period. “Having the player numbers was amazing because we'd generally been terrified. As a studio, anytime you release a new IP you don't really know what the reception is going to be like and we were worried that we wouldn't be able to get 60 people in a lobby to play a game, let alone 16 million or whatever it ended up being.”
The rapid onset of players was certainly a shock for the team at Mediatonic, but it was nothing compared to the publicity wave which followed, as big-name streamers and influencers began getting in on the chaotic action.
“To see on top of that the kind of pop culture stuff start to happen, like having TimTheTatMan's breaking records on Twitch to get his first win and Sergio Aguero scoring diving headers on Fall Ball, each day kind of one-upped the one before so it was a surreal experience to be doing from home for sure,” Walsh tells us.
But it wasn't just blind luck that saw Fall Guys become such a huge success. Mediatonic found itself launching a game in the perfect storm, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of gamers across the globe to stay at home, with many looking to find solace in wholesome titles that allowed them to escape the turbulent world outside – a phenomenon we saw with Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
“I think we were in a weird position where we launched right in the middle of lockdown and I think lots of people were playing games and looking for things to do during that time,” Walsh explains. “Fall Guys was especially perfect for that moment because it is so uplifting and silly and colorful that I think it was the perfect kind of antidote to all of the miserable things that were happening in the world last summer. And we just had so many people reach out to us saying that this was the game that was keeping them going and the thing that was bringing them joy at the end of the day.
“So I think that is above everything else what makes Fall Guys the success that it is. It is and continues to be a breath of fresh air in a multiplayer gaming space that's full of guns and shooting.”
It's not too often that such a unique multiplayer experience manages to hold its own for such a lengthy period of time – after all, over a year later, Fall Guys continues to boast a healthy player base. However, Fall Guys had a novel inspiration for its creation that clearly resonates with crowds beyond the gaming space.
“The difference with Fall Guys is that we were inspired by television,” Walsh tells us. “And it ended up being quite perfect timing with the growth of Twitch while we were working on the game. But really the inspiration for it is Takeshi's Castle (MXC in the US) and Total Wipeout. It's A Knockout for people who are maybe a bit older.
“And those game shows are so amazing. I spent my childhood watching them and loving them, and I've always wondered what it would be like to compete on those shows. And that was really the genesis of Fall Guys. I think that's what makes it so unique is that it's the only game to draw inspiration from that area. I think it's been a big reason as to why it's been such a hit.”
Those roots in popular televised game shows are something that was always a part of Fall Guys from its inception, too. While many games can change shape into something else entirely during development, Fall Guys was always meant to be that large-scale game show we play today.
“Initially, we were worried that it wouldn't work. It's not something that we'd played before,” Walsh tells us. I think in the first-ever playtest we played Door Dash into Tail Tag into Fall Mountain, and whittled it down to a winner from about 40 people who were in the studio in London. I distinctly remember being sat down with my creative director and being like, 'yep, this is gonna work'. It was unlike anything else we'd played before. So really, that through-line of gameshow-ness of knocking people out and whittling them down has always been a part of Fall Guys since we started working on it.”
Alongside its gameshow inspirations, Fall Guys' uniqueness has arguably been cemented in the sheer number of licensed crossovers with other games and movies.
Over the past year, we've seen Fall Guys collaborate with indie hits like My Friend Pedro and Among Us to more unexpected crossovers like Nier: Automata and even Disney's The Jungle Book. With such big companies involved, there's surely no shortage of red tape to wade through.
“It's something that really depends on the brand that we're working with,” Walsh says. “That's why we really like doing the indie collaborations, because it speaks to our history as an indie developer, initially. With those ones you literally just pick up the phone or email someone who made the game, and ask them if they want to be in Fall Guys. And those conversations are very quick.
“When you're working with much bigger stuff, like for example, now we're working with Disney on things like Tron and The Jungle Book, that process is slower, because there are more people involved. And Disney is a huge, huge company. But I think that's what is so cool about Fall Guys is that the character can be Spelunky guy, it can be Shovel Knight, but it can also be Baloo from The Jungle Book, or Flynn or Quorra.”
It looks like Fall Guys isn't going anywhere anytime soon, as it remains one of the most popular online multiplayer games on Steam, and an Xbox Series X/S version is on the way to join its console brethren.
But its not only crossovers that look to shake up Fall Guys in the future, according to Walsh, Mediatonic may start to roll out a more involving narrative when it comes to the 'story' of everyone's favorite multiplayer gameshow.
“I think one of the things that I'm really excited to start doing is building the world of Fall Guys in a more narrative driven way, in a sense,” Walsh explains. “Like before, when we've gone to the winter theme, the Fall Guys are just there, and then suddenly they're in the future and it's all been quite arbitrary because we've never had the time or the resources to sit down and figure out why they are where they're going.
“If you've ever seen The Truman Show, there are people in the sky in charge of it, and I think that the story of what's happening behind the game show is something that I'm really excited to start tinkering with a little bit.”
Keeping things fresh
It sounds like the team is already planning out some fairly ambitious stuff for future seasons, but shaking up the Fall Guys formula isn't a straightforward task.
“I think it's definitely a challenge,” Walsh tells us. “I think one of the things that is tricky with Fall Guys is because each round is separate, it can be harder to make more sweeping wholesale changes to the game. We can't flip the island or transform the island in the way Fortnite maybe can or Warzone maybe can.
“So we're kind of looking at ways to make bigger, more ambitious changes to Fall Guys as we go. And that's been the exciting thing about growing the team is that we really have the firepower now to go in and start planning that stuff.
“I think there are so many round ideas that we can start experimenting with. I think people are always clamoring for more stuff like Hex-A-Gone or more levels where they've got a bit more agency within the space, and there's more emergent gameplay. It's going to be fun to explore that stuff more, because I think there are probably only so many obstacle courses we can make. But I think there's so much more that we can do with a Fall Guy that we haven't really had a chance to touch on yet.”
Coming up with new ideas and concepts isn't either easy. Walsh reveals that for every Fall Guys level that makes the grade, there's probably at least a few more that hit the cutting room floor.
“Oh, yeah, there's definitely a lot,” Walsh says, referring to the amount of level ideas that get scrapped. “One of the ones that's come up recently, again, is Squid Game, [which] is now the biggest TV show in the world. And it opens with Red Light Green Light, which is something that we dabbled with. And we never actually got to prototyping it, because we couldn't quite see how it works.
“Within a video game there's something about movement, which is in real life it's very hard to stay still. But in a video game, you just put your controller down. And so at the time, I think we were like 'we'll never do Red Light Green Light, it doesn't make sense.' But now seeing how popular Squid Game is I'd love for us to have another crack at something like that and see if we could do it in Fall Guys.”
Jellybeans of the future
So what does Mediatonic, as a studio, have planned for the future? According to Walsh, while the indie studio is committed to growing Fall Guys and making it the best game it can possibly be, the team doesn't intend to rest on its laurels.
“We're fully committed to growing Fall Guys and fulfilling the brief that we set out: making the World's Greatest Game Show,” Walsh explains. “I think there's so much more stuff we can do that we have another year, at least, worth of content that we already know that we want to do. When you look at the lifetime that something like Fortnite or Rocket League has had, I would love Fall Guys to live alongside those games as real staple games that have a long history.
“We're incredibly proud to have been out for a year. I think that puts us in a very unique spot. But in terms of the vision for Mediatonic, we don't want to become a one game studio, we are interested in figuring out what the next Fall Guys might be. We're always working on new ideas for games and seeing what gets [us] excited.
“But now we have a much bigger team to go ahead and we also now have the experience of making something like Fall Guys. When we started working on it we'd never released a real time multiplayer game, let alone one that was physics based platforming with 60 people, so we've learned a lot over the past couple of years that I think we can put into our future plans, for sure.”