Mediatonic had no idea “Fall Guys” would become as successful as it did. The Washington Post caught up with lead level designer Megan Ralph and associate lead artist Nicolas Pessina, who both shed light on what it’s like to manage crunch while fan demand continues to skyrocket, how levels like Slime Climb and Hex-A-Gone were made, as well as some not-too-serious insight on the lore of the “Fall Guys” universe. Yes, lore.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fall Guys is a huge hit. How surprised were you with how big it’s become?
Ralph: We’re absolutely shocked at the reception we’ve gotten. It really was not what we expected. I know a lot of people say that, but coming from quite a small studio — which is what we are compared to a lot of Triple A — it’s just been shocking. … Like the heights that we’ve hit have been the same as some of the biggest studios, like Epic. It’s even stranger experiencing that from home, because obviously we’re all doing that work from home thing. We’ve missed that communal celebration.
Pessina: When your parents tell you that they know a friend and their child played “Fall Guys,” and they tell you the story about them at dinner. … This is the first time I’ve worked on a game when that ever happened. It makes you think, “maybe this has a wider reach than I thought.”
Has there been pressure to capitalize on the game’s success?
Ralph: I think everybody’s freaked out to be honest. That’s the truth. [Prior to the launch] we were originally looking more at downscaling rather than upscaling. So really, it’s a complete 180, when you compare that to the plans that we originally had for the game. I think we’re trying to balance scaling up in a sustainable way at the moment, which, obviously, there’s some teething problems there, because we’ve got to make new hires and we’ve got bring people on from other projects in the studio.
Because you were downscaling the game before release, does that mean there were levels that didn’t make the cut?
Ralph: Our original pitch for the game was very ambitious. Through the course of development, we’ve had to cut features, and we’ve had to cut the number of levels for release. We originally wanted 30. That ended up being 25, which was a manageable number. And that’s why post launch, we were looking more at creating more of a live ops team, which is a little bit more small and focused as opposed to expanding, because that’s generally the way that live ops games work. You have a team that are working on ongoing content. But now with the amount of success that we’ve had, we really have to create as much content and put it out there as possible, which is hard to do right, and something that we’ve obviously been struggling with and trying to balance.
With the server issues at launch and the unexpected, massive audience, things must get pretty intense at the studio. How has the team handled crunch?
Ralph: It’s tough. I think, with this level of success, there’s always teething problems, especially with a small team like us who’s never experienced anything like this. It is really hard. A lot of team members haven’t really had a break. That’s kind of changing now with getting some more holidays and stuff like that. But, there’s a big chance of burnout with a project like this, because even though your team is not intending to crunch, sometimes you have to do more work than you originally anticipate, or they need someone on call if there’s anything that happens with the service or anything like that.
It’s hard to scale up a project and to give some relief to the people who have been making it. With a lot of single-player games and triple-A stuff, there’s a definite end date and then everybody can relax a little bit. But with this one, it’s just constantly rolling. And I don’t think we prepared properly for that. So that’s definitely part of the challenge. We’ve got to figure out a way to keep the content coming and to keep being productive, whilst giving everyone that time to recuperate.
How did the team come up with the design of the Fall Guys characters?
Pessina: It was a combination of the lead artist and UI artist. [One of them is] a fan of vinyl toys and likes simple shapes. They always wanted to have a character that was simple, and could be easily customizable too. It was supposed to be wobbly and bendable, but not look like it could be hurt by anything. We went through a couple of design [iterations]. It looked way more humanoid at some point, but they cut down on all of that and found that a simple shape was what worked best and looked best too.
The whole point was that the beans — that’s what fans call them, but we always called them Fall Guys [internally] from the beginning — they would be like the worst contestants in the show. They have small feet. They struggle to climb. They bump each other all the time. They have no balance.
Did you ever discuss what a Fall Guy is? Are they an alien species?
Ralph: Not really. We do joke quite often about the lore in the world and having a larger narrative context. Even though we just come up with crazy things, I don’t think a lot of thought went into that or evolved during development.
Pessina: At one point, some sound designers were asking, “What’s inside a Fall Guy?” so they could know what sound it would make.
Ralph: I remember that. There was one version where they were full of water. They did the sound effects and they had these liquid noises of sloshing around as they get hit by things. So that was pretty weird.
Is there anything inside a Fall Guy at this point? Like, cutting them open to find cake? Or are they empty? Soulless?
Pessina: That’s a mystery. Maybe one day we’ll reveal what’s inside of a Fall Guy. Honestly, we never thought about what happens when you cut open a Fall Guy. Because we’d never want to cut them up.
Is Fall Guys in an alternate universe?
Pessina: It’s their universe. They wake up every day and compete. I think we’d love to add more lore-building. It’s something we’ve always thought about. We just never had the chance.
Do Fall Guys have free will?
Ralph: That’s another really big discussion we’ve had. We don’t a specific answer for you, but I think the last time we talked about this, it was no, they just live to compete. And they’re happy, but I don’t think they are conscious.
Pessina: Maybe one day we’ll have those answers.
There are some levels where I wonder how difficult they were to build, especially Hex-A-Gone and Slime Climb. Which were the most challenging?
Ralph: When I made Hex-A-Gone, I had made Tip Toe first. I just copied the scene and then changed the script a little bit, so the tiles disappear after a second delay. And I did that within a day, and we were running around in it. It was a really, really, really quick prototype that I put together. There were a few tweaks that we did down the line. I decided to make the tiles hexagonal instead of squares because I wanted you to be able to run onto multiple tiles as opposed to having to do diagonals and some things like that. But generally, that one came together really quickly.
Slime Climb is an interesting one because we wanted to create a [racing level] that had a bit more danger. It was originally like an internal pyramid that you run up. But that one also is quite quick, because we had come up with the [racing] sections already, which was the most challenging part of it, and then putting the slime in really just set that off. I don’t think it would have the same level of difficulty if it wasn’t for the slime element. And that’s really what elevated it.
My favorite thing about watching people play that level, though, is seeing the different tactics people use to [succeed,] like the little shortcuts. They’re things we knew you could do, but we didn’t think people would do them that much.
Are there any other player behaviors that you didn’t anticipate?
Ralph: I see things on every level. Our development cycle was very, very short. And we didn’t get as much full 60-player testing in as we’d like. So we got enough to balance the levels and things like that. But when you watch people who have been playing since launch, they know the levels more intimately than us — which is a strange thing to say as a designer.
As a designer, you play levels the way a level should be played. And that’s how you tend to assume everyone’s going to do something. But the creativity that people possess after doing this for so long is really fascinating.