"What would battle royale be like if you're rubbish at what you're trying to do?"
It's a question that, sadly, I don't have to think too hard about for an answer (it looks like my character meeting the blades of a chopper in Warzone after a miserable attempt at sniping the pilot, in case you're wondering). But Joe Walsh's question isn't really pointed at me. Instead, the Lead Designer at Mediatonic is describing the idea that runs at the heart of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout; a battle royale game with a very different approach to the genre's patented last-person-standing deathmatches.
"You see so many multiplayer games where it's all about fantasy fulfilment, where you're playing these big powerful characters, and we wondered what it would be like to draw inspiration from game shows instead. So Takeshi's Castle, Total Wipeout... those kind of staple, wholesome Saturday morning TV shows that are just so entertaining to watch."
"No game has ever made you feel like you're participating in those game shows. That was really the genesis of Fall Guys, and then quite quickly, we realised that the format of taking all these people and whittling them down, round through round, is actually very similar to like a battle royale. So it coalesced into this Mario Party-esque Gang Beasts plus Battle Royale mishmash."
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Falling with style
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As Walsh just demonstrated, it's easy to reference a bunch of touchstones when describing Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, which pits 60 players against each other as they race to the finish line across a number of obstacle courses, but Mediatonic's follow up to Murder By Numbers is more than the sum its muses. Take its ebullient art style, for instance, which is like no other battle royale out there, its central characters best described as anthropomorphous jelly beans with limbs.
"It was really important to us that the environment that you were in felt physical," explains Walsh, "so when you play you can see all the creases and folds in the crash mats that you're running across, and all the mallets are made out of like giant foam or soft plastic. So the game show needs to look like a game show, but it also needs to give us a blank cheque to let us build the most insanely complex and magnificent courses we could think of. The rest of the aesthetic really came from us just looking at that reference material."
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout launches today, with 25 stages included for those who purchase the game on PC or PS4, but senior level designer Megan Ralph says that Mediatonic has ambitious plans to flesh that out with more seasonal content in the weeks and months to follow. Even so, the diversity of content available is already impressive, since not every stage is competitive in nature.
"We've got everything from your big obstacle courses through to survival rounds where you have to be one of the last people remaining, and team games, which are a little bit more like traditional sports. There's football, for instance, where you've got two teams and two balls and two goals, alongside more interesting variants such as Perfect Match, which is a logic-based memory game. So that initial 25 offers a good spread of different types of rounds."
I should clarify that throughout all of these gauntlets, your titular Fall Guy is only capable of three actions; running, jumping, and interacting with various objects in the play space. This makes it one of the few battle royale games where you're not able to kill another player, though there's certainly the possibility to, uh… "instigate" their demise with, say, a gentle nudge towards an incoming mallet.
The sight of 60 bipedal blobs (fully customisable to your tastes via Fall Guys' array of outfits and skins) jauntingly jog-trotting their way across a giant digital jungle gym is the epitome of video game chaos. Indeed, Mediantonic originally envisioned the game to support up to 100 players per match (the standard battle royale threshold), but playtesting feedback revealed that this simply caused too much chaos, as Ralph explains.
"Designing a level for 100 players and designing a level for 60 players are two very different things, but the player experience between 60 and 100 really doesn't change that much," she tells me. " We were looking at other battle royales starting with 100 players and realise that you never really fought in the same area with those hundred players at once. So even though you're in the game with that many people, you don't really have that experience being around them. But everyone does start off in the same area in Fall Guys, which makes it pretty unique, and so I think capping that number at 60 doesn't lose anything in terms of the genre's association with scale."
The science of chaos
It's no secret that Fall Guys is playing to the streamer crowd with its high concept, physics-based take on battle royale, but Mediatonic hopes the game will become a quick favourite for smaller sessions between friends online, not to mention a go-to party game at social gatherings (you know, once we can all have parties again). The game supports buddying up with up to two other friends online, while Walsh confirms that the team is already considering "highly requested features like squads, mode and cross-play, which we're hearing people loud and clear on".
"Every now and again, the game is gonna get injected with like, a bunch of free content. And the idea is that hopefully, like six months or a year after launch, it'll be a completely different experience. The joy of Fall Guys comes from not knowing what you're gonna be doing next, after all."
That sense of unpredictability, underscoring both Fall Guy's gameplay and its post-launch roadmap, is something that Mediatonic prides itself on. While most of us are turning to interactive entertainment for a sense of familiarity in times of great disruption, perhaps Mediatonic's unique brand of controlled carnage can remind us a little pandemonium can be pleasurable in the right context.
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