The pandemic’s hit video game plans for life after virus

Bailey (left) and co-founder Paul Croft have big plans to build on the Fall Guys’s success, including adding features such as a 'squad mode’ that allows players to team up rather than flying solo. — Mediatonic

The candy-coloured video game Fall Guys became one of a handful of standout hits of the pandemic, catapulting its British creator out of obscurity. But as the world looks to dig out of a coronavirus-induced hibernation and venture off the couch, Mediatonic Ltd is working to ensure its costumed little beans aren’t just a passing fad.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what Fall Guys could be,” said Mediatonic’s cofounder and chief executive officer Dave Bailey. He has big plans to build on the game’s success, including adding features such as a “squad mode” that allows players to team up rather than flying solo. The company has hired about 100 new people to help roll out new content and a winter-themed season three that went live this week.

Fall Guys is the first triumph on this scale for Mediatonic, and its sudden turn in the spotlight has also forced Bailey to reckon with allegations of a toxic work culture.

Since its August release, Fall Guys has sold more than 11 million copies on computers and became the most downloaded game ever on Sony Corp’s PlayStation Plus service. It was the second-most searched for video game of the year on Google, behind Among Us, according to the search engine’s data. The game’s appeal lies in its family-friendly content, its short-but-addictive sessions, and its easily accessible, multiplayer format. London-based Mediatonic’s marketing strategy of getting the game in front of thousands of streamers on Twitch and YouTube helped spread the word.

But while the pandemic has made 2020 a banner year for the US$150bil (RM599.76bil) video game industry, it’s also created more competition for people’s attention. Nintendo Co’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons was an earIy favourite as lockdowns shuttered people inside around the world. Fall Guys’s summer release was a welcome new distraction but by the fall it was already being sidelined by another sleeper hit – Among Us, which came out in 2018 but became a sensation this year, also thanks to streamers.

Mediatonic is determined not to squander its biggest success since the company was founded in 2005 as a work-for-hire studio, taking contracts to bring other companies’ games to new platforms. It eventually began making its own software but never had a hit like Fall Guys, a battle royale in which as many as 60 people compete in a series of platforming stages to be the last one standing.

The latest iteration, with reindeer and penguin costumes and a new mode of game play, was initially well-received, despite a few bugs, and the company has a large road map for future content. For decades, the traditional approach to video game development had been to release a game and then move on to the next one, but in recent years, Microsoft Corp’s Minecraft and Epic Games’s Fortnite have proven that the best way to make money on a popular game is to keep updating it for years.

In addition to adding new stages and features to Fall Guys, Mediatonic plans to eventually bring the game to other platforms, including the Nintendo Switch. Bailey wants the game on phones, too, and it will soon emulate Fortnite, which has held special events based on properties ranging from The Avengers to Halo, by getting other big franchises to lend their characters to Fall Guys.

“There’s a bunch of stuff we want to do around making it easier for people to come together,” Bailey said.

With a staff of about 300 now, vaulting Mediatonic into the ranks of the UK’s burgeoning video game giants, Bailey is also being forced to reckon with more delicate personnel issues. Multiple recent reviews on the hiring website Glassdoor have accused the company of facilitating racist and sexist behaviour. “Good luck if you are a woman because you’ll be a frequent topic of conversation at the ‘Who’s the hottest girl here’ game at work social events,” read one review that has since been deleted.

Bailey, who responds on Glassdoor to all of the company’s reviews, said Mediatonic has been going through growing pains as it has expanded over the past year. He committed to taking action in response to any staff complaints. “We have a zero-tolerance approach to anything like that,” said Bailey. “Whenever we’ve seen even the slightest hint of an issue, we have been all over it like a rash.”

Development on Fall Guys started in early 2018. Pitched as a cross between Fortnite and the Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle, it was an immediate winner among Mediatonic’s staff. They signed on with publisher Devolver Digital Inc and began planning a marketing strategy that helped get millions of eyes on the game.

“What we wanted to do was make sure the game got discovered,” said Bailey. The team took cues from Valorant, the latest title from Riot Games Inc that garnered attention this spring after building buzz with streamers. Mediatonic signed up about 3,500 streamers for Fall Guys, who collectively had a reach of 250 million people among their fans and subscribers. The company also built up a massive presence on Twitter, hiring a social media manager who brought more than a million followers to the Fall Guys account.

One final sweetener was a deal with Sony to make Fall Guys free for PlayStation Plus subscribers-the same strategy that helped Psyonix LLC’s Rocket League, a game that melds soccer with cars, become a smash hit in 2015.

Matthew Kanterman, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, said the success of Fall Guys is the result of a combination of factors: coming out at the right time, innovating on Fortnite's formula, and being the perfect game for socialising and streaming. But he doesn’t think it will have the staying power of its biggest competitors. “I don’t think the cadence is quite there for Fall Guys to keep players sticking around while other titles pop in and out of popularity and drag away users,” he said.

Even if Fall Guys fades, Bailey said the lessons the company has learned from the game’s success and the pandemic will have a lasting effect on Mediatonic. For example, he’s seen more people flocking to social games and more parents playing video games with their kids, trends that he believes will continue even once leaving the house becomes routine again.

Also, thanks to Fall Guys, Mediatonic will be less reliant on the contract jobs that kept the company financially viable over the past decade and have more opportunities to create original content. “The success has completely transformed what we’re able to do,” Bailey said. – Bloomberg

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