AS I have said so very many times over the course of my career as a games and tech writer, games should be fun.
I love a dark, gritty RPG or an involved narrative adventure, but sometimes I just want to play something with bright colours and a silly aesthetic and not have to think too hard about it.
This is why, when the game Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout game – developed by Mediatonic and published by Devolver Digital – came on my radar I was instantly intrigued.
The premise of the game, which is being released for PC and PlayStation 4 on August 4, is delightfully straightforward: You and 59 other vaguely penguin-like creatures must waddle and stumble your way through brightly coloured obstacle courses – many reminiscent of a bouncy castle – to grab the victor’s crown and be the ultimate fall guy.
I spoke to lead game designer Joe Walsh and senior level designer Meg Ralph about the game and what it takes to put together.
“With Fall Guys the biggest thing was trying to create this atmosphere of being on the greatest gameshow ever conceived, but at the same time being totally, hilariously unprepared for what’s to come,” Joe said.
“Part of what makes game shows so funny is that this huge, elaborate contraption has been painstakingly assembled for your average run-of-the-mill punter to fail at within the first 10 seconds of starting, and with Fall Guys we wanted to push that as far as we could.
“The Rounds themselves needed to look like they’d had no expense spared in their creation, and we tried to design levels that were just mind-blowing in scale to push this with giant swinging hammers, crash-mat mountains and vast lakes of slime in our environments.
“It all needs to look like it’s still been assembled for you to run this laughably useless jelly bean through, and we wanted to push the game-showyness of the character you control too.
“Everything is exaggerated to make you laugh while you’re playing – they’ve got tiny legs, bouncy exteriors and above all, the same limitless enthusiasm all those poor mud soaked contestants from Takeshi’s Castle had back in the day!”
Joe and Meg both said the game’s inspiration came from shows like Total Wipeout, Takeshi’s Castle and It’s A Knockout, with a lot of research involved in getting the level designs and game ‘look’ just right.
“I spent the first week of the project sitting there watching YouTube videos – everything from Gang Beasts to Rocket League,” Meg said.
“It was really interesting doing the research. Playing traditional Battle Royale games wasn’t as useful as I thought it would be – the level design is so different.”
Joe said it felt like lining up on that start line with dozens of other similarly useless competitors was a really unique experience that hadn’t been seen in online gaming, and once the team started talking about it more they realised it fit this sweet spot between Battle Royale and Party game that nobody else was looking at.
“It’s a PvP game at heart, but we loved those moments in Takeshi’s Castle where contestants would help each other out or have to briefly work as a team, and that idea of forming temporary alliances on your journey through all manner of minigames just felt like a really interesting area to explore,” he said.
“One of our Rounds called ‘See Saw’ is a perfect example of that – players must move as a pack to traverse these giant, tennis court-sized balance beams, but at the end of the day you’re constantly looking out for ways to catch them out and cross the finish line first. It’s online shenanigans like you’ve never seen before!”
Meg said the game really was unknown ground which was quite unlike anything she’d ever worked on before.
“It’s a combo of game show and children’s playground; you get to do mad and strange things,” she said.
The version I played at E3 last year featured 100 players all attempting to stumble towards greatness at once, but the developers found that number to be too high from a gameplay and design perspective and lowered it to 60.
“We had the game running at 100 players but it was making level design a real nightmare for us- to fit that many players in the environments became these cavernous, behemoth landscapes to the point where you couldn’t even see the entire field at once, and you lost the sense of scale completely,” Joe said.
“Sixty became this sweet spot where gameplay was just chaotic enough but without ever getting totally out of hand.
“It freed us up to make tighter, more interesting levels as a design team, but it also helped us out in a bunch of other ways: matchmaking times will be shorter, we can push the physics engine harder, and the art team are happy because the level of detail we can apply to levels also went up too.
“We all sat in a room as a team about six months ago and it was unanimous that 60 players made for a much better game overall.”
Meg said even reducing the number to 60 still made for a challenge from a level design perspective.
“Making a game for 60 players who will be on screen at once is terrifying, but it’s been a blast,” she said.
“We talked about Battle Royales and online games when we were brainstorming, but we don’t normally have that many people (60 players) in the same place at the same time.
“In a traditional Battle Royale, everyone is all around the map and only comes together later.
“Testing with 60 players is really hard, too.”
Joe said the character control had been one of the biggest challenges in bringing Fall Guys to life – particularly trying to do character control that feels floppy and ragdolly, but without sending all of that data over the network to other players.
“Trying to update the position/rotation of every limb would wreck our server bandwidth, and so it was a constant back and forth between these two requirements of the game,” he said.
“The ragdoll feel was super important to us because what makes game shows so funny are those excruciating action-replays where you see all the contestant’s limbs falling as they go flying through the air. Without that the game stopped being funny, and we weren’t being true to our source material.
“At the same time, however, if the game doesn’t run at all then that’s even worse, so we had to come up with some really clever solutions there.
“I’m really happy with where we ended up though. The game has this great ‘comedic depth’, as we call it internally – it makes you laugh in a different way every time you play a round which is exactly what we wanted.”
Meg agreed the character design had posed a lot of fun challenges too.
“In other games you need to know things like jump distance and other precise measurements, in this we were a bit looser. It was quite liberating,” she said.
From a level design aspect, Meg said one of the challenges had been to make sure the areas where competitors were knocked out or pushed further back in the mob were (at least partially) due to player skill choices and not due to simply being at the back of the pack.
“Getting 60 people on screen and it all seeming fair is a tough one – there’s spacing obstacles, working out choke points and creating situations where you can stagger the player count,” she said.
“We can create a few sections where you can whittle people down based on skill rather than poor placing.”
For example, in one of the levels I played at E3, there were a series of doorways blocking the route, and I had to pick one to crash through. Picking correctly meant I got to knock the foam bricks out of the way and power through, while choosing poorly meant I’d bounce off the solid door – causing me to lose time while I tried another door, and lose even more time if that one was also solid.
The game has been in development for two years and Joe said watching the 25 different rounds in it come together over that time had been incredibly rewarding.
“We started off with all these insane ideas (most of them terrible), and it took a while before we really hit our stride, but when I look at our roster now the variety there is incredible- we’ve got giant soccer, slime mountains, memory games, team boulder rolling and so, so much more,” he said.
“When we started making Fall Guys we looked at Takeshi’s Castle and felt like what made it great was that you never knew what was coming up next, and I’m so proud of the team because I get that exact same feeling playing Fall Guys.
“Every level shares this slapstick, chaotic DNA but each one presents their own bonkers challenge. I can’t wait for everyone to get their hands on them when we launch!”
Meg and Joe both said Fall Guys should have a wide appeal, even to people who weren’t usually gamers.
“People are going to be surprised with the variety of round types – we’ve got everything from races and obstacle courses to last man standing and team based games,” she said.
“This is a game I can show my entire family – I’m very pleased with it.”
Joe said he would love to see players who feel like multiplayer games aren’t usually their thing pick up Fall Guys and give it a shot.
“We think it’s just such a refreshing change to the current crop of competitive multiplayer games because it tries to make failure just as fun as success, and even if you’re awful at it you’ll hopefully be laughing so much you hopefully won’t care,” he said.
Fall Guys releases on August 4 for PC and PlayStation 4