A strange thing has happened in the Steam charts since the start of the New Year. A minor indie release from summer 2016, the rather lovely Human: Fall Flat, appeared in the top ten grossing games of the week. And then stayed there. It's been top ten for four weeks in a row now, twice peaking at #3. And I couldn't work out why. So I tracked down the game's one-man development team, Tomas Sakalauskas of No Brakes Games, to solve the mystery.
The answer, it seems, is multifarious, but contains lessons that might help other developers who want to see their games live on. Though, as Sakalauskas says, there are no magic bullets.
Human: Fall Flat is a sweet physics puzzle game that, well, was fine when it came out. A cute, entertaining little thing, but not something that was going to covet awards or expect breakthrough success. However, since a reasonably successful launch, Tomas Sakalauskas has been persistently smart. He's built on the original idea, developing it in response to feedback, but with a strong degree of discernment. This led to the addition of a co-op mode, which boosted its popularity, and eventually a multiplayer mode that Sakalauskas never thought would work. It did. But that was last October, so what's going on now? I spoke to Sakalauskas to find out.
RPS: When Human Fall Flat came out in 2016, I think its timing was perhaps a little unlucky. It was a lovely physics puzzler, but it came out so close to the beta of Gang Beasts [with which its characters share a common look and fondness for stumbling], and in the looming shadow of Grow Up. With the game presumably in development before Grow Home was released in 2015, did you worry about these similarities? And do you think they affected sales?
Tomas Sakalauskas: It’s an honour being compared to those great games. I was so busy with Human: Fall Flat’s development that I first saw Grow Home and Grow Up long after my game was released. I was worried about similarities to Octodad and Gang Beasts, yet I’ve stopped panicking - most FPS games look and even play very similarly, yet no one complains as long as they tell unique story. The animation technology is indeed similar to Gang Beasts and it sticks out simply because there aren’t that many games using it so far.
There could have been more similarities, though. The initial plan was to write the narrative in the style of the intro level – phrases that work either as a conclusion of the actions that player has just performed, or as a hint and encouragement for indecisive players, with some deeper meaning thrown into the mix. It had to have branching and replay-ability, and I was quite happy until I played The Stanley Parable...
Looking back to sales, I don’t think that similarities to Grow Up or Gang Beasts did much harm. I think physics-based games had quite a bad reputation at the time. Except for few outliers, they offered very limited experience and were considered more of a joke than a game. I’ve read many comments where people have hesitated purchasing Human Fall Flat for a year thinking it was just a gimmick offering 5 minutes of silliness. It took time to build a trust.
RPS: After release you were very busily adding updates: the Workshop mode, first-person views, tweaks and so on. And then there was a quiet six months or so while you were presumably working on multiplayer, before its announcement in August 2017. Was multiplayer always intended when you originally designed the game? Or did it arise from feedback?
Sakalauskas: Almost nothing that you currently see in the game was originally intended. Everything happened spontaneously, reacting to the feedback of play-testers, players, streamers, and viewers of those streamers. I didn’t plan co-op mode initially but it was added because of numerous requests. I thought I wouldn’t be able to make multiplayer due to technical issues – multiplayer games are considered difficult and distributed physics is impossible. I kept telling my fans that I will not make multiplayer because the only way to do it in a game so deeply involved in physics, would be server handling the input and playing back the animation on all clients. This would make it unplayable due to input lag.
Fortunately, JareCG of ChronicGamesDE attempted an intercontinental co-op session using NVidia's streaming tools and was very pleased with the results. This proved that replaying input on the host and streaming something back might actually work. There still are cases where some players don’t have NAT forwarding configured and their sessions are relayed through Steam servers, but overall multiplayer is performing much better than I imagined. I would really like to thank the community for their encouragement in bringing the multiplayer to HFF.
RPS: It's hard, sometimes, for outsiders to know if a game is still selling well after release. Unless the game is incessantly seen in the charts, it can seem like it's disappeared. How were things for Human Fall Flat? Did it keep selling a solid number, to keep you able to work on more content? Did you ever think the game had had its day, and it was time to move on to the next?
Sakalauskas: Steam is surprisingly good at promoting the games to potential players long after the release. I did not expect much sales after the initial launch window. Somehow, the sales continued at a reduced rate, but still more than enough to support a one-man studio. I was quite happy with the launch and I wanted to show my gratitude to players who’ve bought the game so I’ve kept adding things and reacting to the feedback. Looking back, it seems to be the right strategy. With HFF it’s the opposite challenge – I have some crazy ideas that I want to pursue, but I still can’t move to them as Human Fall Flat keeps me busy.
RPS: After multiplayer was released, what sort of response did you see?
Sakalauskas: I was really surprised to see how much fun people can have even if they don’t sit on the couch next to each other. Yet the biggest shock was that you can enjoy a game in an online match, with people you don’t know, even meet new friends. By design, multiplayer was made up exclusively of friend matches. I’ve added open online games just because I could. Occasionally there are toxic players and I had to add options to mute or kick them, but it still amazes me that complete strangers can play the game helping and supporting each other. Most importantly, they are having fun. Seeing this is really rewarding.
RPS: Right, so, the big question. For the first four weeks of 2018, HFF has been in the top ten grossing games on Steam. It's astounding, and congratulations, but what happened?! We've seen speculation of a sudden enormous popularity in China, but is there more to it than that?
Sakalauskas: China was definitely a huge factor here. There were multiple forces pushing the sales like multiplayer, Humble Bundle, seasonal sales. I’d not rule out the alignment of stars and planets too. Everything added up, reinforcing each other.
RPS: Did you ever hope for such continued success with a game nearly two years later? Is that something a developer can plan for?
Sakalauskas: Certainly not. To be honest, although I was quite happy with the initial sales (realizing there could be none), I had hoped the game would sell a little bit more during the launch month. But I could not imagine the long tail it had, not even before the recent explosion. After seeing continued sales, I saw the opportunity to turn it into a longer living project by adding Workshop and pushing updates. I was targeting to stay at the existing level for a year or two, maybe a moderate growth as the user base increases. But what has happened is certainly not something I could plan or even hope for.
RPS: What advice do you have for other developers whose games have perhaps had their moment, but they want to see them live on long after release?
Sakalauskas: It’s the same advice that I’d give to anyone who is just starting their game: listen to your players. I think this is the foundation used to build the majority of the successful and long-living games. It sounds simple but it’s not - different players want different things. If you blindly follow player suggestions, you’ll end up with some terrible results. Players were never taught game design - they simply feel there’s something good or bad but it’s not their job to come up with the solution. You are the game designer and you make decisions. I try steering the design towards player requests, building upon the positive feedback and avoiding pitfalls exposed by the negative complaints. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you they have a recipe for successful game. It’s a pure luck in the end, but you’re the one who can shift the odds just enough that you stand a chance.
RPS: Thank you for your time.