No PUSHING! Don’t grab my TAIL, you dirty horde of beans!
Chances are you’re playing Fall Guys if you find yourself screaming some combination of these words. Dozens of colorful beans bumping into each other and grabbing each others’ butts has unexpectedly taken the gaming world by storm.
Fall Guys has sold over 2 million copies since it was released on Aug. 4. While battle royale games are already well known, and many believed the formula has been perfected by Fortnite, suddenly a bunch of beans stumbling over each other seems to have found a new direction for the genre that is both unexpected and delightful.
But why does Fall Guys work so well, and what about its design is able to find the sweet spot between skill and chaos that feels frustrating in the best way possible? As a game designer, I want to walk you through what is happening here, and how I think the team achieved it.
What is Fall Guys?
The concept is simple: 60 colorful little beans with arms and legs, stuffed into costumes, are dropped into a series of levels designed to eliminate a swath of players each round until a single player grabs the crown and wins.
For simplicity’s sake, when we talk about the game’s design, a round is one full play session, from the beginning until a winner is determined, while each individual elimination section inside that round is a level.
The game’s core charm comes from the chaos introduced by the goofy physics — a concept that has been at the core of many other surprise successes from the indie space, such as Gang Beasts, What the Golf, or Totally Reliable Delivery Service. In a way, the goal in all of these games is to witness the bizarre, random nature of your character flailing around, getting flung through the air, bonked on their head, or missing a jump and falling flat on their face. So much of the fun comes from the unexpected ways the game’s systems interact, causing surprising results.
Fall Guys, however manages to masterfully tie the chaos together with a Takeshi’s Castle -esque charm and competitive nature that makes the frustration of messing up bearable, if not even desirable. Losing is just as entertaining as actually making first place when you’re a bean dressed in a hot dog costume being launched across the map by a rotating stick.
OK, now that I’ve fawned over this game and its brilliance, let’s try and break down why the formula actually works so well.
The importance of simplicity
Fall Guys manages to get this point right, better than almost every other game with a similar level of success: Simplicity is key. It means that the game has an extremely intuitive learning curve, even for beginners. I can start up a game, take a look at the level ahead of me, and know pretty much exactly what I need to do, even if I’ve never played that level before.
Sure, there are some small nifty tricks to each level for more experienced players, but they likely won’t make or break your success if you don’t know them yet, thanks to the game’s randomness.
Fall Guys makes the legibility of its mechanics and levels a priority. Obstacles are readable from afar, and easy to react to reflexively. Being surrounded by a horde of beans all trying to traverse the same environment makes it easy to learn what to do. The game all but teaches you how to play it, almost entirely visually.
This seems obvious, but it’s worth specifically talking about anyway. The ability to fail quickly may be at the core of the game’s success, and has been utilized by many other successful games in the same way.
Failing fast means that rounds, even if played to completion, usually don’t last longer than 10 minutes. Compared to other battle royale games, there is no long period of time where players are gathering equipment, sneaking around, or waiting until they encounter the last two or three players left alive. Losing at any stage of the game is less painful when jumping into the next round literally only takes seconds, with few distractions or need to dwell.
The following is a theory on my end, but I believe the game has a pretty clever algorithm at work to ensure rounds are kept short by choosing certain levels to siphon out a specific amount of players at any given time.
Level categories seem to be Team, Race, Survival, Logic, and Last One Standing. Each level seems to have a specific intent as to how many players are likely to be booted out of the pool. Team levels, for example, only seem to appear when there are less than 20 players left. Races appear at the start of each round, when the game needs to eliminate about one third of the players.
This system allows for short rounds and diversity in levels at the same time, keeping everything moving along without boring players.
Happy Little Accidents
I believe the true secret sauce of Fall Guys lies in its use of goofy physics as a means of introducing an aspect of chaos and comedy that makes it the lighthearted battle royale.
Happy little accidents make the wonky physics feel good when you win, since you have not only outsmarted other players, but also the game and chaos itself.
Missing a jump is rarely your own fault, since there are too many randomizing factors. Precise jumping seems to be as much of a valid strategy as just YOLO jumping your way into the crowd, and hoping to bounce off some other bean buns and be launched ahead of the pack.
Losing within this framework makes you feel like it was not your fault, and maybe the hectic aspect of the game was just too overwhelming and, instead of lacking in your own skill, being flung around at random was at fault.
Losing is also silly, comedic, and entertaining — especially while streaming. Silly-looking situations quickly pull you out of the frustration of the moment and allow for the YOLO approach to often be just as valid as the strategic one.
Winning still feels good, but losing doesn’t feel bad, and that’s a very welcoming approach that can help a game grow very quickly.
The Curse of the Team Level
I believe the evidence for the above theory is apparent in the only aspect of the game that seems to frustrate players: team games.
Here, the formula falls apart for many players, as blame is more easily attributed to teammates and the effectiveness of the goofy physics isn’t as apparent or effective when moving other objects, such as balls that need to be knocked into goals, as it is when your character is flung around as you get hit by a pole to the face.
All of a sudden, players are asked to work together without any real way of communicating, and I think the advantages of chaos fall short here, despite the levels and tasks being fairly self-explanatory. It diverges from the formula in a way that breaks with the associated feelings of randomness being the obvious culprit when things go wrong and leaves open the possibility of teammates not performing well (or even working against your team’s success).
Longevity and Competitive Play
I’m curious to see how the longevity and competitiveness of Fall Guys holds up over the long term, however. My personal assessment is that longevity will work out well as long as the development team adds more levels, level types, and ways to exploit the goofy physics.
I’m unsure how a potential esports league could work for a game that derives a lot of its fun from randomness that can be mitigated with skill, but will never be fully eliminated. Maybe that means that Fall Guys, in its current form, is not a viable option for competitive esports and that instead the game needs an alternative game mode to accommodate it.
But maybe that isn’t where this game needs to be at all, and sometimes a lighthearted game is just a lighthearted game, and not everything needs an esport. Regardless, I’m quite curious to see people try and come up with creative solutions to experiment with what a competitive Fall Guys tournament could look like.
Maybe just embracing the random nature of it could be an interesting added flavor to the esports market?
A Perfect Storm
Now, with all these wonderful things combined, pepper in some bright colors, keep players anonymous, and throw a goofy dress-up game into the mix, and you have a wonderful, lighthearted, and accessible battle royale game.
The mass value Fall Guys creates for an audience going through a global pandemic, deprived of connection and lighthearted fun, is hard to overstate. So all that’s left is to throw yourself into a horde of dirty little beans, grab some bean-butts and hope for the best.
Bless you, Fall Guys. You made it all look easy when we needed you the most.