A short while before Friday the 13th: The Game was about to hold its beta in December 2016, the developers over at Illfonic faced an unusual predicament. The opening cutscene to every match, in which Jason introduces himself to a group of counselors in characteristically bloody fashion, was all coming along nicely... apart from one glaring issue. When the camera cut to a close up shot of counselor Chad’s face to capture his surprise, the poor fellow looked like an Aardman figurine that had been left out in the sun for too long.
“Our animator hated it so much, he wanted to fix it but we didn't have time in the schedule”, explains Illfonic CEO Chuck Brungardt in an interview with GamesRadar+. “We were all a little embarrassed every time we saw it, but the beta was coming up and we decided not to worry about it.”
Unbeknownst to them, leaving that visual quirk in the game was one of the best decisions they could have ever made. “Chad Face”, as its now known, quickly became one of the community’s favourite in-jokes, repeatedly sending players into fits of giggles whenever the unintentionally hilarious scene played out.
Given the schlocky, darkly humorous tone of the source material, Chad Face almost felt like an unintentional homage of sorts, but it's just one example of how Friday the 13th: The Game’s array of “endearing bugs”, as Executive Producer Randy Greenback likes to call them, worked in its favour last year.
“They made the game more streamable and surprising, and created a really cool juxtaposition between comedy and horror”, continues Greenback. “You’re watching someone on Twitch and they're running and hiding and scared, then they get in the car and it jumps up, flips over, and flies off into the moon... and everyone’s laughing all of a sudden! Those moments are weirdly magical when they're peppered throughout.”
Not all of Friday the 13th’s growing pains have been a blessing in disguise, though. When the game finally launched in May 2017, its servers buckled under the weight of an unexpected flood of players, and it took Illfonic a fair few weeks before the game was able to sustain its impressively large user base.
“We really didn't expect that many players at launch”, says Brungardt. “We thought it would do well, but we hadn’t prepared for it to explode in popularity like that. We’re a small, independent team and maybe a major publisher would’ve known better, but it definitely caught us off guard.”
As far as crises go, though, it was the good kind; one which proved that people were hungry for Friday the 13th's flavour of unique, multiplayer experiences that bigger publishers often consider too risky to develop.
“Actually seeing it click with people as they played it was just amazing”, says Greenback, “and to watch the game climb up the Twitch charts... it was a humbling experience and we took it to heart because this game was relatively experimental. We didn’t know if it would work, but thankfully almost every one of our hopes came true.”
Surviving the market
The team’s doubts about Friday the 13th’s potential for success weren’t borne out of nowhere. Asymmetric multiplayer has never represented the easiest path to profitability, either relegated to gimmicky modes like those found in Dying Light and Overwatch, or doomed to peter out with little fanfare, unable to find an audience despite their critical acclaim (RIP Evolve).
Friday the 13th’s whopping popularity (it was 2017’s third most downloaded PS4 game, outselling both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, among others) has proven that there’s still life in this niche genre yet.
Greenback tells me about the challenges of trying to sell people on the game’s potential back in the early days of its development: “We felt like we had a strong idea, but what was kind of a pain in the butt was, after Evolve, people were telling us this is never going to work - that we were beating a dead horse.”
“So we heard a lot of that when we were taking the game around to publishers, and hearing feedback that definitely makes you reconsider and worry a little bit. But we've been wanting to do asymmetrical multiplayer games for quite some time, and Friday the 13th seemed the perfect fit for using horror as a lens for the genre.”
Brungardt agrees, pointing to a specific moment that made him realise the studio was onto something special. “We knew early on that it was going to work because we’ve never had a game here where we’ve started playtesting internally and everyone is screaming and having so much fun together, so that was what confirmed it in our guts that this could work.”
As for how much time the team thought it would take before the community figured out how to kill Jason? That remained up for debate.
“We had bets going on internally”, admits Greenback. “I knew it would be quick; I was in the four to five day range, and some had pegged it at two weeks. But it took someone less than a day!”
Brungardt's prediction was also around the two weeks mark, but he was happy to see players solving the riddle either way. “I think it’s cool because people worked together online to figure it out, they all eventually started helping each other and that’s when we realised it wouldn’t take them very long. It’s funny, because the fans know so much of the lore they just used that as their guide!”
Since launch, Illfonic has worked to iron out some of the game’s more irritating bugs, while adding new maps, counselors, and Jason costumes to the mix along the way. More recently, its even begun to expand on the promised single-player and offline portions of the game, with counselor bots and a “virtual cabin” experience representing the latest proof of that commitment.
“The offline bots was one thing that I thought was really important to include,” says Greenback. “Without them, there was no real tutorial for playing as Jason; his powers can be seen as cumbersome and playing as him makes you the driving force of the match, so it put people on the spot and some didn’t like to play him because they weren’t confident with how he worked.”
Now players get to practice without the pressure of human onlookers, and both Brungardt and Greenback promise that more is on the way, both in the long term and coming soon in the next big patch, which will include Part 5 Jason and the much asked for Pinehurst map.
On top of that, balancing changes are being made to both Jason and the counselors, but not in the way you might think. Greenback sheds some light on the details.
“A lot of people think that we’ve nerfed Jason, but players have been getting so damn good as counselors that it just feels like Jason must have been nerfed when they play. People have got so proficient at knocking him down, beating him up, and getting out that we've had to go back and even the tables again. Well, not even the tables, Jason’s never supposed to be anything but OP!”
Beyond the patch, Brungardt states that Illfonic and Gun Media will keep supporting Friday the 13th so long as there’s an audience to sustain it.
“There’s some cool stuff on the horizon, and if there’s people still logging in then we want to keep making it better and roll out new things when we can. Obviously, when you work on a game for this long, there’s going to be people who want to start something new and fresh, but lots of us want to keep working on Friday the 13th simply because we love it just as much as the fans do.”
Sorry, counselors, but it sounds like Jason isn’t going away anytime soon.